One of my best friends during my college years was abused by her parents.
I helped them.
Lizzie* is one of the most amazing people I have ever known. She completed an incredibly difficult course load (20 credits every semester, with winter and summer classes squeezed in around the edges) and maintained a 4.0., all while also assisting in freshman chemistry courses and tutoring anyone who asked– including me, when I needed help to study for my GRE.
She is a fierce, strong, independent, and courageous woman. She’s faced challenges I can’t even bear thinking of– she is eshet chayil: a woman of valor. Of the numerous trials she endured, some of the most severe were dealt out to her by her parents. To many of the people who saw glimpses of her life, all they probably saw were helicopter parents— a bit controlling and demanding, maybe, but not abusive.
I knew better.
I watched her starve herself every day because she didn’t have time to eat– she constantly skipped meals in order to work on her assignments. I begged her to come with me to breakfast, lunch, dinner– but she couldn’t. If she got anything less than an A in all of her courses, her parents would be enraged. I knew. I saw it happen, once.
I listened to her mother scream at her on nearly a daily basis that she was ugly, revolting, unlovable, and undesirable. Her education was her only shot, her mother told her, because no man would ever want to marry her.
I sat with her when she cried because she’d just found out her parents had left another church because of her father’s lack of propriety toward teenage girls.
I kept my phone next to my bed at night during the weeks I knew her father was threatening her family with committing suicide, praying that his ‘hunger strike’ against his children’s supposed ‘misbehavior’ would end.
I massaged her shoulders, arms, and wrists when the stress and intensity of her life caused her so much pain she could barely move.
I gave her all my phone credits because her parents demanded that she call them every Sunday afternoon regardless of whether or not she had the time.
I held her when she broke down after her parents had violently and forcefully ended not one, but two relationships with amazing young men who were deemed “worthless pigs” by her parents, even though they refused to even speak with either of them.
I listened to her worry about what her younger siblings were going through, watched her desperately try to distract her parents, to show her younger siblings how to avoid her parent’s wrath and fury.
I could go on, and on, and on. These are just the tip of the iceberg– the trauma and damage she suffered at the hands of her “godly, loving, Christian” parents could fill a book. She was emotionally crippled by them– rendered almost incapable of expressing or even having emotions in any normal, healthy way. She struggled to find outlets– poetry, music, stories, but she found it impossible to let anything truly affect her. Numbness and detachment were the only ways she had of coping.
And even thought I bore witness to nearly every single thing they put her through in college, the only encouragement I was allowed to offer was no encouragement at all. The only thing I was allowed to say to her was obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right, and honor your father and mother.
I spent years in college wondering what I could do to help Lizzie. I sat with her on every Sunday afternoon, watched her take a deep breath and steel herself every time she called home, tried to help her get through what I now know are panic attacks every time a phone call ended. I knew to the very core of me that what her parents was doing was wrong. Not just wrong– vile. I wanted to tell her nearly every day that she didn’t have to deal with this– that she could walk away, that she didn’t have to listen to their threats and slurs. I wanted to tell her that her parents were liars.
But, every time I tried to say the words, honor your father and mother would stop me.
Somehow, I was aware that Ephesians 6:4 is coupled with the admonition for children to honor their parents: that fathers are explicitly instructed to “not provoke your children to anger,” but I was not able to see verses three and four as connected, and inter-dependent. Because of what we had both been taught about how to read the Bible, verses like Ephesians 6:3 are treated the same way as Ephesians 5:22. In both of these instances, the command for children to honor and women to submit are independent of the commands for fathers to not provoke and husbands to love. In this frame, it does not matter if fathers or husbands are abusive and unloving– the commands to honor, obey, and submit still stand.
This method of application results in consequences so horribly disastrous and horrifying that the only thing left to say is that this application must be grossly inaccurate.
Women cannot be required to submit to abusive husbands.
Children cannot be required to obey abusive parents.
This cannot be how the Bible works. This cannot be the proper understandings of these verses. To allow this interpretation and application is to invite destruction into our lives. It’s to blithely give abusers, rapists (marital rapists or otherwise), and potential murderers the “biblical” vindication to believe that what they are doing is right and just.
There must be a place in our understanding of Scripture that allows for nuance, complexity, and grace– in order to place what seems to be dogmatic, unalterable commands in the daily-ness of our lives must mean that we make adjustments. That we see the balance presented in these passages. We must read all of Ephesians, not just handpicked verses that seem to be calling for unequivocal application. We need to see that Paul is asking us to walk in love and wisdom, to expose with our light the abusive things done in darkness and in secret.
We should recognize the whole pattern of these two chapters, that Paul was completely upending anything anyone knew about how society should function– that the life-changing part of these passages was not children, obey or servants, obey, or wives, obey, but for fathers to not do anything to provoke their children, for husbands to sacrifice themselves for their wives, for masters to stop threatening their servants and remember that everyone is equal in Heaven.
The Pharisees saw Jesus and his disciples working on the Sabbath– farming, reaping, harvesting. This, to them, seemed to be an obvious and direct violation of the commands regarding the Sabbath. It could not be clearer to them that Jesus, the man running around claiming to be the Son of God, a mere mortal who blasphemed God and claimed the ability to forgive sins, was breaking the Commandments. Scripture was very clear, very plain. There was no debate, no opportunity to even misunderstand this Command. They even had their stories about the time in the wilderness and the gift of manna, and how they were commanded to gather a double portion before the Sabbath so that they might observe the Sabbath rest.
And what did Jesus say to them? I desire mercy. He asked them to not condemn the guiltless.
Mercy, meaning divine favor or compassion.
If we are not reading and applying our Bibles with love, grace, mercy, and compassion at the very forefront of our thoughts, we are allowing the opportunity for injustice and a language of carnage to become a part of what we think is right.