Love Your Enemies?

“You have heard it was said,‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:43-44

man physically abusing his girlfriend

This is a powerful verse that is often used to compel victims of abuse to remain with their abusers. The pretense is that no matter how we are treated or by whom, we are called to love and pray for those who persecute us.

But is that what Jesus is really saying? I don’t think so.

Jesus is purposefully referencing a commonly held teaching that merits clarification.  He quotes an aspect of the law found in Leviticus 19:18 which states simply, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This was interpreted in the law to reference a friend or acquaintance and more largely, a countryman; however, the Pharisees had taken the liberty of adding to it, saying, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” condoning hatred toward those whom they did not accept as “neighbors,” including tax-collectors, Gentiles, Samaritans and others deemed unrighteous or unworthy.

In calling us to love our enemies, Jesus is referring to our interactions with a potentially hostile, unbelieving world. In such cases, we are called upon to defy our natural inclinations and demonstrate love in practical ways that point to God’s good nature and our collective unworthiness.

These are community-based relationships He is addressing, not marital ones. That is a necessarily profound distinction, for the marital relationship is intended by God to be the safest of all relationships in the kingdom, a respite from our dealings with those who may despise us, a relationship where our mind, body and soul are inherently protected, not persecuted, where our marriage partner is our most devoted friend, advocate and co-laborer. While we know that we may have no assurances out in the world, it is in our homes and within the haven of marriage that we should be assured of finding acceptance, security and peace.

Specifically our Lord said, “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder (separate/tear apart).” [Matthew 19:6, Mark 10:9] Many construe this to mean that believers should never divorce, even for cause. That is not what Jesus is saying here. No, the intent is to uphold and sanctify the marriage relationship, to pursue the ideal. Jesus’ directive is that no one – whether from within or without the marriage – should do anything that would tear at the fiber of a married couple’s oneness. We are not to allow anything or anyone to destroy it. That does not mean it is not possible or that it cannot be destroyed from within, but the relationship – what God has joined – should be viewed by all in that divine and sacred light.

Yet somehow these truths have been perverted, forming a legalist doctrine that our spouse may simultaneously be our enemy – one who is out to harm or even destroy us, a teaching I find biblically impossible, where the office of marriage takes precedence over its sanctity.

God did not intend for marriage to be a one-man power display, an institution where one partner is free to treat the other with contempt and selfish domination while depriving the suffering spouse of protection or recourse. Marriage was never intended to serve as a form of God-blessed bondage.

Yet many foolish legalists teach that humble submission to a cruel, abusive spouse is somehow noble and godly and presumes that the abuser is simply ignorant or needs our sympathy; that the abuser will be compelled to humble himself and change when confronted with their loyal spouse’s patient and unconditional love.  What those same legalists either fail or refuse to recognize is that demanding a spouse to remain with an abuser only empowers him. He knows full well the way the Christian legalist system works and brazenly exploits it to accommodate his entitlement mentality and further the reach of his wickedness.

“You can’t leave me,” the abuser says with an arrogant smirk. “I can do anything I want. If you divorce me, you’ll be the one who abandoned the marriage. You’ll be the one who will be condemned and ostracized. And guess what else? You have to stand by me and love me patiently and keep no record of the wrongs I commit against you. You’re not allowed to get angry with me. And don’t forget; your body belongs to me,” such a one boasts, Bible in hand.  Those declarations are nothing but distortions and lies that are in direct opposition to God’s design.

The legalists may cross their arms and wag a finger of judgment at the abuse victim, caring not that she is confused, alone and afraid – afraid to tell her secrets or ask for help, afraid of being reprimanded or shamed into remaining with the man who promised to love, honor and cherish her but doesn’t. She is told that she must love her enemy.

With the church as his enabling accomplice, the one who vowed to protect his wife is instead a predator, serving himself and robbing her of her dignity.  It is he who has torn the marriage to pieces and she who will be accused if she leaves it.  But we are under no obligation to accommodate such treachery in our homes, where we should expect that the vows we have taken will be honored, and where we always know that we are loved, safe and protected.

So should we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? Yes. But our marriage partner should never ever fall into that category. There is no room for evil to thrive in God’s wondrous one-flesh design.

“So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church…” Ephesians 5:28-29

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9 thoughts on “Love Your Enemies?”

  1. Wonderful clarification, Cindy.

    If people are still experiencing cognitive dissonance over whether or not God sanctions domestic abuse, I wonder just how long they would allow a random church member to abuse another random church member who is not related to the abuser?

    I wonder how long the leadership would permit the abuser to physically, verbally, emotionally, mentally, and/or spiritually abuse the victim before the leadership would approach the abuser to stop the behavior.

    And I wonder if they would tell the victim to “forgive and forget,” “submit,” “pray more for the abuser,” etc., etc., which is how some churches still deal with one-on-one abuse when it is in a marriage relationship as opposed to a random relationship?

    Not long, I am thinking.

    Let’s stand up for domestic abuse victims, too.

    Thank you for doing so.

  2. Cindy,
    Thank you for posting this. I was told and even believed that my husband fell into the category of “loving my enemy”, however as the years sped by I would cry out the man that I married, “Why have you become my enemy? What have I ever done to you?” Back then when he professed to be a Christian he would explain that he knew our problems were ‘his weaknesses’ .
    That’s the past and it is amazing what has transpired. We live in the same house; him not wanting to be my husband and that I must leave him alone and only approach him about household tasks.
    Not wanting to divorce me because it would cost him too much. Pretty slick because now that he claims to not be a Christian he also knows the local “C”hristian community will not question him because they believe it is “none of their business”, etc.
    Legal action has fallen apart and he has even stated that there is to be no reconciliation and if I don’t like the living arrangement – I can leave. Hmm, it’s always been me doing all the running around and even seeking counselors for marital help.
    Even when others hear this …. they just feel, “well, we like both of you.” … and regarding his behaviour; “Well, sometimes people change.”
    It just doesn’t seem to matter. This quiet man can do no wrong!

    1. HealingInHim,

      Those who abandon you to your abuser because “they like both of you” can continue to do so, but their surface emotions have nothing to do with the reality you face, in my opinion.

      In short, they are absolutely not qualified to give input. And I do not care if they have all the “counseling education” the institutional Church provides and years of “experience”.

      Such people simply do not know. They can’t know unless they have lived it or have listened–really listened–to the stories of your reality, and then choose to take their heads out of their presumptions and/or church dogma for a minute and pray for the Holy Spirit’s understanding and wisdom for the situation.

      Contrary to those who would esteem the institution (of marriage) over the people in the marriage (including many innocent children who suffer in abusive homes) God is still in the business of delivering us from evil.

      It is also my opinion that such “counselors” should be avoided who judge your reality with simplistic aphorisms and a complete lack of knowledge of what it is like to live with abuse, whether it’s the physical kind that causes bones to break and limbs to bleed, or the emotional/mental kind that is “death by a thousand ‘cuts’,” as it were.

      I think they might think they mean well, but they don’t realize, perhaps, the unintended consequences of their “advice” to stay and pray and submit and try to achieve perfection while the abuser continues abusing only now with the added ammunition of thinking the Church would place the blame and major responsibility to “fix” the marriage on the victim particularly if she is a woman. Or, if he believes he has free reign because he has been taught that what happens in his home is not the Church’s business.

      Well, it is still God’s business. And He will repay your “husband” even if the Church abdicates its responsibility toward you and your children, if you have children.

      As FOR the children in any abusive home, I don’t know how such “counselors” deal with the mental gymnastics required to justify insisting the youngsters must continue to experience abuse while Mommy somehow learns how to pray hard enough, submit perfectly enough, or whatever is the fantasy of the “counselor” with regard to how she is supposed to fix the marriage when it is her husband who is abusive.

      Meanwhile, the abuser amps it up…realizing God, apparently, puts blame on his wife, too, for the abuser’s temper and rages and violence and heartache.

      Healing In Him: I am sorry you receive no help from those who should be tending “orphans and widows,” even as women and children are for all intents and purposes abandoned by he who should be providing protection and safety but abdicates his role in favor of choosing to abuse.

      This should not be.

      I hope you continue to reach out and get help and REAL counseling that would relieve you of the burden of thinking it is all on you to stop your abuser’s choice to abuse.

      And his “quietness” is just as abusive as any other kind. That is passive aggression.

      The “Church” that lays responsibility on you to “love your enemy” is little more than an accessory to his crimes.

      You can love him from afar, in safety and in peace–for you and for your children, if you have children.

      Maybe your Church seriously believes you have to continue to live in the special Hell that is life with an abuser, but perhaps they can at least find a soft place in their collective hearts for children in such environments.

      As you can likely tell, I have zero tolerance for those who would abet abusers with blind dogma that flies in the face of the teachings of Jesus Christ.

      1. Hello, “P.” Your commentary is amazing, and I appreciate everything you addressed. Your passion on this subject is clear and validating.

        At the end of the day, I truly believe that the root of the church dogma and the insistence that abuse victims remain with their abusers stems from one single misinterpretation in Scripture – that God hates divorce (Malachi 2). Think about it: if that singular, linear assertion is seen in its true light, the victims-must-remain-with-their-abusers mantra falls. I may tackle that in a future blog…

        Your zero-tolerance policy is most appreciated here! Thank you, as always, for taking the time to contribute your wisdom and understanding.


  3. Hi I’m done , it happened, verbal abuse emotional abuse, and threats,, it go so bad I called the cops 3 times.. I feel like a fool,, I didn’t deserve this.. He wants to come back but I don’t want Kevin back , he is no good..

    1. Hello. I’m glad you found the website. Know that you are not alone and you should not go back, no matter how desperate he seems or what kind of promises he makes.

      I hope you will peruse the website so that you understand the abuse dynamic better. If nothing else, please check out, “Leaving An Abuser: What to Expect and How to Stay Grounded.” And if there is any way I can direct you, please let me know.


  4. What a great website! I was reading the article about War Room as well and it just really bothers me when a woman (or man) feels obligated to stay in an abusive marriage to “work it out”, or blame her/him for some silly reason. Being previously abused by an ex-husband, I rather not watch that movie… As for this article, I think that it is good to love our enemy, to forgive them, BUT, repentance is required for actual reconciliation in a relationship… I love my enemy (here, ex-husband) in that I choose not to murder him or take other hostile actions, just live and let live. I forgive my ex but I will not let anyone do that to me ever again; I keep boundaries for myself because I respect and love myself too much to let anyone mistreat me and get away with it, and/or keep abusing me. But I am also showing love by not letting them mistreat me, or they won’t experience growth in their own life if I tolerate their abuse. Anyway, those are my thoughts. Blessings to everyone here, you are all wonderful, amazing people.

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