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Orthodox Patristic Tradition and Wife Abuse

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Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT

It is estimated that 1 out of 6 women in the United States is abused by her partner, and that between 7 - 11% suffer serious injuries (Straus & Gelles, 1986). This social and family problem cuts across all sectors of our society (Toufexis, 1987), and recent information indicates that the Greek Orthodox Community is not immune to its effects (Geanacopoulos, 1999).

Wife abuse has serious noxious consequences on individual, couple, and family well-being (Holtzworth-Munroe, Beck, Beatty & Anglin, 1995; Gelles & Corte, 1991). Women who are physically abused report experiencing moderate to severe psychological distress such as depression and anxiety (Christopoulos, Cohn, Shaw, Joyce, Sullivan-Hanson, Kraft & Emery, 1987; Gelles & Harrop, 1989). Children who have witnessed domestic violence are significantly more likely to experience socioemotional developmental difficulties (Christopoulos et al., 1987; Gelles & Corte, 1991), and are more likely to grow up to be abusing parents and spouses (Gelles, 1980; Holtzworth-Munroe et al., 1995). As a result, laws have been enacted to curb the frequency of this behavior, and husbands who abuse their spouses can expect to be arrested and, at minimum, incarcerated.

This Article's Objectives

Along with the adverse effects that wife abuse inflicts on individuals, couples, families, and society, patristic tradition asserts that wife abuse also negatively impacts individual, couple, and family religious and spiritual well-being. The remainder of this article will seek to briefly discuss why wife abuse can have a negative impact on spousal, marital, and family religious and spiritual well-being. To accomplish this task, a brief overview of marriage from the holy fathers' perspective will be presented, as well as some observations from St. John Chrysostom regarding wife abuse.

Marriage From a Patristic Tradition

We live in a postmodern, secular age. As such, it is not uncommon for members of our society to view marriage as a human construction that has evolved through social consensus. It is also not unusual for members of our society to place a positive value on marriage so long as it serves to enhance their emotional, social, economic, and psychological well-being.

The holy fathers of our Church do not find these and other similar perceptions concerning marriage of significance in their own efforts to conceptualize marriage. Patristic tradition lifts marriage out of a pragmatic, mundane, secular context, and contextualizes it within a life in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The consequences of this is that marriage is not predicated on what is deemed socially, politically, legally, economically or philosophically correct, but is entirely dependent on certain divinely revealed truths that have emerged as God has manifested His truth to humankind. Moreover, among these divine truths, the following assertions and presuppositions are of central importance to the Fathers' conception of marriage:

  • An understanding of marriage is fundamentally dependent upon God's revealed truth, i.e., as manifested in our Church's Sacramental, Christological, and Trinitarian theology.
  • The meaning of marriage from an Orthodox perspective is extended to include humankind’s spiritual needs, as well as humankind’s physical, emotional, economic, and social needs.
  • Marriage is viewed as an eternal gift/bond from God, and not simply in legal, economic, philosophical, and temporal terms.
  • Marriage is understood as a divinely revealed way of existence, and not as a human construction that has evolved through social consensus.
  • Marriage assists individuals in their efforts to become more complete persons and realize their full humanness.
  • Marriage functions to draw persons into God's Kingdom, exhorts them to live Christ-like existences in a community of persons (otherwise called the Community of Marriage), and allows them to become co-eternal participants in the process of divine life and perfection.

The Adverse Effects of Wife Abuse on Religious and Spiritual Well-Being

In light of what the father’s maintained about marriage, it is not difficult to imagine that they condemned wife abuse, since this behavior serves to undermine a couple's efforts to cultivate a Christian marriage. The following quotes from St. John Chrysostom illustrate this point.

While commenting on Ephesians 5: 25 - 26, St. John offers the following insights and counsel to husbands.

"He offered himself up for [the Church] who turned her back on Him and hated Him. In the same way,… as He [Christ] accomplished this not with threats, or terror, or anything else like that, but through His untiring love; so you also should behave toward your wife. Even if you see her belittling you, or despising and mocking you, still you will be able to subject her to yourself, through affection, kindness, and your great regard for her. There is no influence more powerful than the bond of love, especially for husband and wife (Chrysostom, 1986, p. 46)."

Elsewhere St. John would also write the following regarding wife abuse.

"But one's partner for life, the mother of one's children, the source of one's every joy, should never be fettered with fear and threats, but with love and patience. What kind of marriage can there be when the wife is afraid of her husband? What sort of satisfaction could a husband himself have, if he lives with his wife as if she is a slave, and not a woman by her own free will (Chrysostom, 1986, p. 47)?"

St John makes a number of important observations in these two quotes that are typical of what the holy fathers taught about wife abuse. Among these observations, the following five points bare mentioning.

  1. St John alludes to Christ's loving, patient, self-sacrificial example and exhorts husbands to do the same. He further states that there is no excuse for violence, and that abusive, controlling behavior is not Christ-like behavior, and consequently has no place in a Christian marriage.
  2. St. John also reminds husbands that God created men and women free. Husbands are thus called to respect their wives' free will, just as God respects men and women's freedom to choose.
  3. These comments also infer that when husbands choose abusive, controlling behavior as a means to respond to their wives, this compromises the inherent God-given benefits that husbands and wives can potentially experience in a Christian marriage.
  4. While St. John does not specifically make this point, the second quote reminds husbands of their children, and is suggestive of the negative effects that wife abuse can have on (a) children's, and (b) a family's religious and spiritual well-being.
  5. St. John's counsel also exhorts abusing husbands to repentance, and reminds them to turn to God's life transforming grace in their efforts to curb this destructive form of behavior.

Conclusion

Social science literature clearly describes the adverse socioemotional, marital, and familial effects that wife abuse has on individuals, couples, families and society. This short article has sought to reinforce this point, while also pointing to the adverse effects that husband’s abusive behavior can have on individual, couple, and family religious and spiritual well-being. Wife abuse clearly contradicts patristic teaching, has no place in a Christian marriage, and compromises spouses, couples, and family's religious and spiritual well-being.

References

Christopoulos, C., Cohn, D. A., Shaw, D. S., Joyce, S., Sullivan-Hanson, J., Kraft, S. P., & Emery, R. (1987). Children of abused women: Adjustment at time of shelter residence. Journal of Marriage and Family. 49, 611-619.

Chrysostom, J. (1986). St John Chrysostom: On marriage and family life. C. P. Roth, Trans.) Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. (Original work published in 407)

Geanacopoulos, P. (1999). Domestic violence: A training manual for the Greek Orthodox Community. (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America: Greek Orthodox Ladies Philoptochos Society, Inc.) New York, NY.

Gelles, R. J., (1980). Violence in the family: A review of research in the seventies. Journal of Marriage and the Family. 42, 973-885.

Gelles, R. J., & Harrop, J. W., (1989). Violence, battering, and psychological distress among women. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 4, 400-420.

Gelles, R. J., & Corte, J. R. (1991). Domestic violence and sexual abuse of children: A review of research in the eighties. In A. Booth (Ed.), Contemporary families: Looking forward, looking back. Minneapolis, MN: National Council of Family Relations.

Holtzworth-Munroe, A., Beck Beatty, S., & Anglin, K. (1995). The Assessment and Treatment of Marital Violence: An introduction for the marital therapist. In N. S. Jacobson & A. S. Gurman (Eds.), Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy. New York: Guilford Press.

Straus, M., & Gelles, R. J. (1986). Societal change and change in family violence surveys. Journal of Marriage and the Family. 48, 465-479.

Toufexis, A. (1987, December). Home is where the hurt is: Wife beating among the well-to-do is no longer a secret. Time. P. 68.