Before I talk about Domestic Discipline, let me tell you a story.
I had a difficult childhood.
My parents divorced when I was young, and mom found refuge in a new man: an abusive man.
He drank. He raged. He hit, kicked, pulled hair. He threatened. He cursed. He apologized.
And the cycle of violence continued.
Until, when I was in fifth grade, my mom stood her ground. She told him to leave for good. And he assured us he was gone. Then, while I was away (thank God), he returned and took advantage of mom.
This led to the end. Mostly. He was out of my life for good. (The story, as you can imagine, is much more complex that this brief account.)
These are the scenarios we often associate with domestic violence. Situations like I grew up in, are clearly what any modern person would consider “abuse.”
What then, are we to do with situations that blur these clean-cut lines?
It has taken some time for culture to catch up to humanizing women (most cases of abuse are done towards women and children, but there are certainly cases when men are the victims).
Women now can vote. They now can work. They now can charge men with domestic violence. Believe it or not, domestic violence as a normative crime is somewhat new:
All states made “wife beating” illegal by 1920. However, only since the 1970s has the criminal justice system begun to treat domestic violence as a serious crime, not as a private family matter. Domestic violence is any physical, sexual, or psychological abuse that people use against a former or current intimate partner. It refers to a number of criminal behaviors: assault and battery; sexual assault; stalking; harassment; violation of a civil restraining order; homicide; and other offenses that occur in the course of a domestic violence incident, such as arson, robbery, malicious destruction of property, and endangering a minor (Source).
Clearly, just before I was born, increased protection under the law emerged for victims. However, it seems that there are areas that remain “gray” under the law. I can imagine that “psychological abuse” is relative, especially when cloaked in religious ideology.
Enter: domestic discipline.
I stubbled upon this idea yesterday as I was recovering from surgery and scrolling the web.
I put it out on Facebook, and many of my friends thought it was a joke. So did I. Well, I wasn’t sure.
What didn’t help is that I found a website which blurred the lines a bit. It uses all the right and convincing language of someone who believes in domestic discipline. But, it also uses outlandish images that make you think the blog isn’t serious.
Add to this that it also has comments by women who seemingly appreciate being disciplined by their husbands. So, I, along with friends who I sent to the site, sat scratching our heads: is this a real thing or setting us up?
Whether or not the original website I found was actually satire or serious, I did a google search which let to multiple websites discussing this practice. (Even Vice did a write up on Domestic Discipline.) One such site gives this definition (I’m not linking because I don’t want to promote their site. Google this topic and it will pop up):
A Domestic Discipline (DD) marriage is one in which one partner is given authority over the other, and has the means to back up that authority, usually by spanking. The application and practise of DD in each marriage is as unique as the individuals who make up that marriage… A Christian Domestic Discipline (CDD) marriage is simply a traditional, male-led, Christian marriage which utilises aspects of Domestic Discipline. It is set up according to Biblical standards.
- The husband is the head of the household, whilst the wife is submissive to her husband as if the Lord Himself was her husband. See Eph. 5:22-24.
- The husband is to love his wife as himself, and as Christ loved the church. He is to be a servant, and leads by example. He is to lay down his life for her. See Eph. 5:25-29.
- The wife is to reverence her husband. She is to obey him, so long as his instructions are not in opposition to God’s commands. See Titus 2:5, Acts 5:29.
He has the ultimate authority in his household, but this authority is tempered with the knowledge that he will answer to God for his actions and decisions. The final decision rests with him, and therefore, the final responsibility, whatever the outcome, is his to bear. A wise husband will not make a major decision without prayerfully asking God for wisdom, and without seeking his wife’s counsel. Prov. 20:5
He is to be the head of the home. She is to be the heart of the home. He is not a dictator. She is not a doormat. He is not a overbearing Lord of the Estate, seeking to trample over his family. She is not some weak-minded lass, needing to be molly-coddled, or seeking to get straightened around.
He has the responsibility for leading his family and is accountable before God for their well-being and development. He has the authority to spank his wife for disciplinary reasons, but in real CDD marriages, this authority is taken quite seriously and usually happens rarely. Most CDD marriages do use spanking, generally for serious offences, such as the “Four D’s” (Disobedience, Disrespect, Dishonesty, or Dangerous [as in dangerous choices… reckless driving, disobeying doctor’s orders, etc]). Some CDD marriages also use non-corporal disciplines, such as writing lines, or the temporary forfeiture of a favourite privilege. Again, every marriage is unique, and CDD is much more than just corporal punishment or spanking.
Ok. So this website description does one thing that is almost admirable: it makes clear that the wife isn’t a doormat. But the thing is that in such a scenario, she is the doormat, even if the CDD husband doesn’t think so.
By making any woman as the inferior to a man by restricting her ability to discipline her husband as well, by nature means that she is a doormat.
In other words, if this system was actually mutually beneficial, it would have to work in both directions. Women in such relationships should also be able to use domestic discipline toward their husbands.
Don’t husbands also have character gaps and need correction?
Not according to CDD. And if they do, they can be corrected by prayer and Scripture reading (which, again, shouldn’t this work for women too?!).
Can you tell that I think this is ridiculous?
But just to really drive the point home, here’s their “how to” for spanking a wife. This sounds like abuse to me:
When administering physical discipline, take caution not to deliver the lashes anywhere but the buttocks. The first attempt at this punishment should only be delivered by hand so you can get an idea of how many lashings are needed. The best position will be for you to sit at the end of a bed or on a chair (with no arms) and have her lay across your lap. She can also bend over a bed with arms tucked under her chest and your left hand on the small of her back. If a strap (belt) is to be implemented watch that each stoke falls directly on the buttocks and not higher. EDITOR’S NOTE: When using the hand, or a small, short implement, such as a switch or small “hairbrush”-type paddle,over-the-kneepositioning can work quite well.
A fearful wife may begin crying or pleading and find it difficult to remain still. Reassure her of your intent and love (yes this will hurt, that is why it is a punishment) then instruct her to be still. Remind her that she is not in control of this discipline. You should continue the lashing through her tears and pleas for you to stop, until you are certain the message was received. This will insure her remorse and therefore stop the undesirable behavior.
A sound lashing is five to ten strokes with your hand, or three to five strokes with a strap; some wives need more. To avoid brusing do not strike the same area in repetition. Gauge your decision to proceed based on your wife’s readiness to repent.
The fact is that women should NEVER be afraid of their husbands. This is wrong. So wrong. It is abuse: mental and physical. If a wife is in one of these marriages, she should run.
The Heart of the Problem
The heart of the marriage, according the the above quotation about Christian Domestic Discipline, is the wife. That makes for nice sentiment, but also softens her ability to be more than the “emotional” partner.
Are men not also capable of “heart” and emotion?
Are women not also capable of leadership?
And that is the heart of the problem. Beyond the patriarchy inherent in this belief system, which has nothing to do with Christianity, is the belief that women aren’t capable as leaders—leaders of men and self-leaders.
And by twisting scripture into theologically irresponsible knots, proponents of this approach to marriage advocate a worldview that is more consistent with masculine Roman ideals such as virtue (which, when reappropriated in the New Testament is something reframed around Christ for both women and men alike.)
I don’t have time to defend why I believe—based on the Scriptures!—that women can be called by God to lead the house and the church (start here with my podcast series on Paul and Women).
When it comes to the church, women can be teachers, bishops, elders, pastors, and teach directly to men. When it comes to the home, women are more than capable of being spiritual leaders and being mutual partners in the marriage relationship. This is a New Testament concept.
Roman Virtue, however, didn’t have such egalitarian values in mind. Eventually, that creeps into the church, so that by the second and third centuries there are clear limits on female leadership. But this is a Roman influence, not a Jesus, Peter, or Paul influence.
Husband, Crucify your Privilege
The Christian Domestic Discipline definition that I posted above, of course, appeals to Ephesians 5. It calls for the wife to be submissive the husband. This is a total misreading of the passage.
A couple of years back I wrote an article at my Patheos blog (The Pangea Blog) about this very issue. I’m going to paraphrase what I argued there, here, because it applies to this issue so directly.
Clearly, even in modern day, men have a level of privilege that women do not have. Even in the United States which claims equality. This is mostly due to certain visions of Christianity that would be so far remote from Jesus and the early church that they’d be hard to recognize as “Christian” regarding the role and status of women.
Churches continue to condition women into believing that they are the ‘weaker’ partner in need of correction. They are taught that godliness is equated with submission to men. This is not Christian. This is Roman.
Any time we talk about a hot topic like gender, we need to make sure that we are discussing the same thing. Here’s a definition of gender to work with that comes from Joan Scott:
Gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes, and gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power…. It might be better to say, gender is a primary field within which or by means of which power is articulated. Gender is not the only field, but it seems to have been a persistent and recurrent way of enabling the signification of power in the West, in Judeo-Christian as well as Islamic traditions…. For concepts of power, though they may build on gender, are not always literally about gender itself.
Gender and power go together. In the New Testament period this was quite true. When it came to sex, for instance, Roman men had specific roles they could play and still remain “manly.” Any passive role in sexual expression, whether that of being on the receiving end of penetration or (even worse) performing oral sex on a woman (considered being ‘penetrated’ by a woman), meant that one was embracing an effeminate identity.
For women, prostitutes, slaves, and young men (teens), feminine qualities were assumed. Women were derogated by modern standards. Receiving penetration of any kind was a sign of weakness/softness (in regards to status).
A concept that made an upstanding man considered manly was virtus. Virtus (virtue) in Latin comes from the word for “man,” vir. The idea is that masculine men are those possessing valor and virtue like the heroes of old. Virtus is possible for a woman to achieve at times, but only insofar that she acts like a man. Being morally weak equates to being “soft” (the Latin word mollis): implicitly “soft” like a woman.
Now add to this connection between sex/gender roles and morality the reforms of Caesar Augustus. A wife was deemed an adulteress if she was found to have had sex with any other man. However, a man only committed adultery if his sex-act was performed with another man’s wife, reminding us that women were still seen as the property of men in many ways.
That same husband could have sex with “slaves, prostitutes and other unmarried persons with impunity.” Yet, from the perspective of the Augustan program, women’s roles were being elevated because “their good behavior was partly responsible for the health of the state.”
In some ways, highlighting the importance of women to the welfare of the empire is a liberating move. However, women were usually still considered weak. Self-mastery is a goal of virtus and to fail to live up to such a “morality” is to be woman-like or slave-like.
From this perspective Cicero wrote: “Thus everything comes down to this: that you rule yourself… But we must see to the same thing especially in pain: not to do anything in a base, timid, ignoble, slavelike, or womanish way” (Cic. Tusc. 2.53, 55).
Something should be clear by now: women were second-class citizens in the Greco-Roman world, regarded as useful for utilitarian purposes and as morally soft.
Ephesians 5 in Context
First, the passage starts by saying: “…and submit to each other out of respect for Christ.” This should signal for us that the section to follow is about submitting to each other. This is two directional submission! Husbands, submission looks like… Wives, submission looks like…
Next, whereas women are called (in the text) to submit and respect their husbands, husbands are called to love their wives. Love! This word if loaded with way more intensity than submission and respect: love is sacrificial.
Love seeks the well-being and status of the other. Love dies for others. Christ modeled this sort of love. A love so intense that he gave up the full rights of the Divine to take on human flesh and bones–only to be crucified!
What does this mean? Some take it to justify male dominance. In other words, if we are loving our wives as we lead as the head of the house, then we are doing so sacrificially like Christ.
I know many people in complementation marriages (men are the core spiritual leader, but don’t discipline their wives) who are happy and find joy in life. This approach can work. However, I don’t think this is what the writer of Ephesians had in mind.
And Ephesians definitely did not have in mind “Christian” Domestic Discipline!!!!
If you are a husband, Ephesians 5 invites you to model your relational role after Christ himself: by crucifying your privilege. Yes–take your Roman virtue and nail it to the cross!
Can you see how Christian Domestic Discipline is COMPLETELY out of bounds?
To summarize Ephesians 5 in light of prevailing views of women and virtue in the roman world:
“Husbands, in this Roman culture men have all the privilege, but in submission out of reverence for Christ, you are invited to take the lead in crucifying your privilege. In doing so, you look like Jesus and can be part of a marriage of mutual image-bearing and kingdom co-leadership.”
Mutual Domestic Discipline?
In the model of marriage called “Christian Domestic Discipline,” it is impossible to live out the New Testament vision of co-leadership.
CDD imposes restrictions upon women that the New Testament, when read in context, does not do. In fact, I would say that the mentality that informs the CDD community, puts women as sub-standard and thus sub-human in regards to their own identity as image-bearers.
Thus, I argue, that it requires a sort of phycological abuse.
Of course, in theory (assuming one believes that corporal punishment is helpful at all, which in most cases I do not), Domestic Discipline of spouses could avoid that trap if women were afforded the same level of discernment and ability to discipline as the men
But of course, this will never be the case in these circles. And I wouldn’t recommend mutual CDD either.
Love is the better way. This sort of thing isn’t love.
It is Roman power.
It is the wrong kind of virtue.
It is definitely not the way of Jesus.
It is abuse.
For more about the New Testament and Women, check out The Paulcast series: Paul and Women
. Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, rev. ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 42, 44–45.
. Laurence, Roman Passions: A History of Pleasure in Imperial Rome, 76.
. Ramsby and Severy, “Gender, Sex, and the Domestication of the Empire in Art of the Augustan Age,” 44.
. Williams, Roman Homosexuality, 148.
Author: Kurt Willems
Kurt Willems is a pastor, author, and spiritual director. His first book, Echoing Hope: How the Humanity of Jesus Redeems our Pain, releases in March 2021. Kurt is also the host of the Theology Curator podcast. He has a master of divinity degree from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and a master of arts in comparative religion from the University of Washington.
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