Over a year ago, I considered the question of whether biblical corporal punishment—which is not intrinsically abusive or wicked—can extend to marriage in principle.
I foolishly debated this question with feminist women on Facebook while I was still testing the theological principles. My comments were immediately immortalized by the power of the screenshot, and doomed to be reposted for years to come—perhaps even after my death—in the knowledge that anyone willing to entertain the question must himself be a wife-beater.
If you have heard tell to this effect, you have been misled. Here is where I stand on this issue in black and white:
- A man who physically disciplines his wife is breaking the sixth commandment.
- A woman who is being physically disciplined by her husband has warrant from Scripture to appeal to the church and the state for justice. They are obliged to investigate the matter, to protect her, and to punish him on the evidence of two or three witnesses. (A fortiori, the same is true of any woman or man being physically hurt by their spouse in other ways.)
- Anyone who is suffering wrongfully because of subjection has warrant from Scripture to endure that suffering for the sake of the person over them, and are commended for imitating the Lord Jesus in doing so. This includes wives (1 Peter 2–3).
I do not recognize, support, advocate, or practice the legitimacy of any kind of physical discipline in marriage. I never have; I considered the question of marital corporal punishment hypothetically, and then rejected it. The primary catalyst for this rejection was not Facebook discussions with feminists, but face-to-face discussion with other men in the so-called neo-patriarchal movement, who graciously, thoughtfully, and firmly reasoned it through with me.
My considered view is the same as that of the PCA’s position paper, cited in William Smith’s helpful article Putting Asunder what God Joined: The Divorce Dilemma:
While Scripture knows of only three perpetual statuses with respect to marriage (single, married, or divorced), prudence may require temporary separation in cases of abuse (physical or otherwise) or other dangerous circumstances. Such a remedy is by nature temporary and is for the effecting of a proper resolution (the removal of the dangerous circumstance, in conjunction with reconciliation, or in some cases, biblical divorce).
It also rightly acknowledges the difficulty of the “desertion clause:”
Paul further elaborates on divorce: “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace” (1 Corinthians 7:15). Such “desertion” entails physical leaving, and such instances which make the conditions of marriage as intolerable as physical desertion itself (judgments of which are best left to the discretion of the Session).
Determining what constitutes desertion is difficult; it requires wisdom. My main concern is a cavalier approach to divorce. There are many wives and husbands who feel trapped in a difficult and truly abusive marriage; yet those difficult marriages are worth fighting for—ecclesiastically and judicially if necessary—rather than simply dissolving.
This is the end of the matter. The question of marital corporal punishment is completely tangential to my mission, and I never expected to have to spend so much time writing about it. If anyone whips out screenshots to show that I’m an apologist for wife-beating, they are bearing false witness. Ask them why.