Does “Turn the Other Cheek” Actually Empower People?

by | Apr 29, 2024 | Theology of Marriage and Sex | 20 comments

Do you think the Bible teaches people to accept bad behavior?

It can certainly seem that way! And one of the passages that is most often used to support that is the idea that we should “turn the other cheek.”

I remember being in a Bible study at IVCF in university (Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship) and the staff guy taught a different interpretation of that which was fascinating. Well, recently The Bible Project’s host Michelle Jones brought up how churches often use this passage to make abused women stay with their abuser.

I highly recommend listening to the whole thing, but I’d like to provide a bit of a summary today. (Michelle’s comments begin around the 18 minute mark).

Should we see turn the other cheek in a different light?

I’m in a few support chats with other people who write in this space, and we started talking about this episode a few weeks ago. Sarah McDugal, who is lovely and brilliant and does lots of work with abused women brought this to my attention again, and I’m grateful to her for it!

Here’s the gist of it:

In Jesus’s culture, pretty much everyone was right handed (or they were forced to be). There was no other option, because the left hand was unclean.

Imagine, then, that you are facing a right-handed person, and he slaps you on your right cheek. How does he do that if he’s right handed? He has to backhand you.

In Roman times, physical punishment was quite normal, and giving a backhanded slap to someone of lower rank (like a slave, a child, even a woman) was common and a way to assert dominance. 

So let’s look again at what Jesus actually said:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you: Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,

Matthew 5:38-39

He doesn’t just say “turn the other cheek”. He says if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

Why? Because if you turn the other cheek, they can’t backhand you anymore, the way you’d do to someone of lower rank. Now they have to slap with the palm of their hand, which is treating you like an equal. To backhand the person again would require using the wrong hand, and wouldn’t have been done. So turning the other cheek was a way of asserting your worth: “You may be treating me like someone less than, but I am really your equal, and what you are doing is unjust.”

This “turn the other cheek” verse is so often misquoted.

We often assume Jesus said, “If someone slaps you on the cheek, turn the other cheek.” But that word “right” is important, and it’s in the original text. It frames the whole thing. If someone treats you like a slave, like an inferior, then in a subtle act of defiance, show your worth and require them to treat you as such.

As Michelle points out (and Sarah summarized to me!), a slap was a great insult, but a backhanded slap was far more demeaning. In the traditional Jewish interpretation of the law, a slap incurred a fine of 200 silver coins–but a backhanded slap required a payment of 400, the same amount as for spitting on someone. It was more than violence. It was degrading. It was what you gave to an inferior or a slave.

Imagine hearing Jesus’ words as a low class slave in the ancient Roman world.

You are powerless. You are marginalized. Your life is not your own. To try to run away would be a death sentence.

Then, one day, like so many other days, your master backhands you. He expects you to cower and whimper and slink off back to your duties. Maybe he expects you to get on your knees and beg forgiveness. But instead, you look him in the eyes and turn your head to put your left cheek forward. You’ve already insulted him by failing to break down, so he has the right (in his mind) to slap you again.

But he can’t slap you with his left hand, because that is unclean for both of you. And he can’t backhand, because your right cheek is away from him. To strike again, his only option is to slap you with the palm of his hand. And this was not the way to slap a slave. This was reserved for equals. If he chooses to slap you again, he is forced to upgrade your status. He has to bump you up to a higher class citizen in order to get his revenge.

As Alison Cook summarized a few years ago,

Theologian N.T. Wright unpacks a subtle, but powerful lesson on boundaries implicit in this passage. Here is what he says:

“To be struck on the right cheek, in that world, almost certainly meant being hit with the back of the right hand. That’s not just violence, but an insult; it implies that you’re an inferior, perhaps a slave, a child, or (in that world, and sometimes even today), a woman. What’s the answer? Hitting back only keeps the evil in circulation. Offering the other cheek implies: hit me again if you like, but now as an equal, not an inferior.”

Think about that for a minute. Seen in this light, turning the other cheek is a brave countermove. It’s not being a doormat. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Turning the other cheek is a way of standing your ground, communicating “You will not belittle me. You cannot take my dignity.” It’s countering bullying from a position of strength.

Alison Cook

Should You Turn the Other Cheek?

(See also this podcast where we talk about Dr. Cook’s amazing article!)

This “victory” may seem small, but it isn’t.

We live in a world that is run by hierarchy, by power (Side note: Carolyn Custis James’ book Malestrom is great at explaining this!). And people get prestige by staying on the top of the pack and asserting their dominance over others. In Roman times, this dominance was often physical–you could backhand someone as an insult.

And Jesus was saying: resist that. Resist the whole thing. Don’t be part of the power hierarchy grab, but turn the whole thing upside down and assert your own humanity and dignity and worth.

After all, isn’t turning everything upside down something that Jesus came to show us how to do? By giving up His rights, He showed who the Romans and Jewish leaders were. He showed the emptiness and pathetic nature of their grasping for power, that wasn’t really based on anything at all.

And he invites us to do the same. 

I found this such an exciting way of seeing this passage, and I encourage you all to listen to the whole thing on the Bible Project podcast! And give Sarah McDugal a follow on Facebook to thank her for summarizing this all for us!

Join me this Saturday (May 4) at the online Sexual Attachment Conference!

I’m joining Jay Stringer and Adam Young, both licensed therapists, to talk about how we can rediscover our desire pathways when they’ve been interrupted. And I’ll specifically be looking at how to re-integrate with your body and your sexuality when you’ve had negative dynamics in your marriage and negative messages growing up!

It’s going to be awesome, and you can use the code BAREMARRIAGE to get $25 off enrolment! 

Check it out here.

How can we go about subverting these power structures today? How can this apply in churches that marginalize women or others? Let’s talk in the comments!

Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Codec

    Good post

  2. Laura

    Wow! The meaning behind this verse is so helpful to me. That is why I think it is so important that we don’t just “read” the Bible and take the translation of our native language literally. We must learn the context, the culture, what it means in the original language, and to whom was the writer addressing. If more people did that, instead of just taking it literally in the translation of our native language (mine is English, not King James’ English), then I think there would be a lot less abuse in the church against those who have been marginalized.

  3. Jen

    I listened to this podcast when it came out, and I had so many questions. I’m glad you’re discussing this topic.

    The teaching many have received on the turn the other cheek is highly confusing. It goes right along with “forgive and forget”, which is also not biblical (in my new understanding). And I never heard any other interpretation until I started listening to people who applied cultural context to reading the Bible.

    As an example (and to relate to this blog), let’s look at an unhappy marriage. So if we take this new way of understanding Jesus’ teachings, it sounds to me like the unhappy/mistreated spouse should refuse to be treated as “less than”. S/he should make needs known, make behavior change requests, and set up boundaries — all in the name of refusing to be treated as less than in the marriage. Essentially, then, the teaching is saying this: don’t scurry away seeing yourself as less than human, and don’t take revenge. Instead, demand that the person hurting you see you as an equal and treat like a human who is made in God’s image.

    If that’s correct, it is utterly mind blowing both in the freedom the teaching brings and in how badly the it has been bungled in modern theology. Just . . . Wow.

    • Angela

      It’s kind of like “dress for the job you want.” You don’t wait to be treated as an equal. You don’t beg for crumbs of kindness. You walk with head held high and EXPECT it. We cheer in movies when the underdog finds her muchness and does this. So we should too.

  4. Karena H

    This is so interesting! This background and interpretation shed an entirely new light on this verse. My followup question would then be this: what does it look like, in our culture and society today, to turn the other cheek (and thus even up the power dynamic) in a way that is true to Jesus’ original message and intent? The intricacies of being hit on the right cheek (as a lesser person), then offering up the left one (to be slapped as an equal), are totally lost in translation today. I would love to know an applicable context for our current time, if anyone has any thoughts on that!

      • Tim

        Copying and pasting the bit that directly answers your question, for anyone who’s interested, but not interested enough to read the whole article…

        – Simply do not respond. No response is a powerful response. For example, if your spouse baits you, stand firm in the power of your silence. It speaks volumes.
        – Name what is happening with confidence. If you get a snide comment from a friend, look them straight in the eye and say, “That was a rude comment. Is there more where that came from?”
        – Clarify the choice they are making. For example, you might say to your mother-in-law, “Is that really how you want to talk to me?” A little attitude in your voice won’t hurt anyone.

      • Karena H

        Tim, this is so helpful. What a great article! Thank you for sharing it.

        • Tim

          You’re welcome. I actually found it via another post on this site a year or so ago, so just paying it forward!

          I will say that I wonder if some of her examples take the idea a bit too far perhaps. I could be wrong on that.

          As always, start with treating others as you’d want to be treated, but it’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of a bully…

    • Angharad

      The first hearers of his message lived in a world where the Roman soldiers had the power to force them to carry burdens for one mile, but Jesus tells them to do this for two miles. And if someone takes your shirt, to give them your coat as well. I read it as a call to live in a way that shows those around us that God is the one who is in charge of our lives, not those who ‘seem’ to be in control. I imagine most people who were forced to obey a Roman for one mile would do so as sulkily as possible, and would drop their burden and vanish as soon as the mile was done. Can you imagine what an impact it would have made when someone reached the first mile and announced with a smile that they were going to continue for another mile?!! Totally turns the power balance on its head, because now it is the ‘oppressed person’ who is deciding how far they will walk with the oppressor!

      Responding calmly and graciously reminds those who are being unjust of our dignity and worth as people God has made. And going above and beyond what people with earthly power demand of us demonstrates that God is the one who is in ultimate control not those who think they are in charge!

      • Learning to be beloved

        There were also legal issues involving both the walk a second mile and give your shirt, too situations. If someone walked more than 1 mile with the Roman soldier, the soldier was put in jail. If the person who takes your coat also takes your shirt, they’d be making you naked in public – also punishable for the one causing nakedness.

        Jesus was quite revolutionary! After all, he was born into a captive people who wanted to be free. Jailing the oppressors was a smart move that would have been obvious to his culture.

        • Tim

          That’s interesting! Do you have a source on those first points?

          • Learning to be beloved

            Tim, I don’t remember where I read or listened to these passages interpreted in a freeing way rather than an oppressing way. A Google search gave me quite a few results, but not the original author/speaker that I learned it from.

            Angharad, please be careful that you are not glorifying suffering and enabling abusers. Hearing/reading these passages this liberating way is indelibly printed on my mind after being raised in “suffering is holy, more suffering is more holy” conservative, evangelical protestant churches. These teachings kept me silent as an abused kid and kept me manipulatable in my 21 year abusive marriage that I am currently escaping from, from the man that tried to kill me when I stood up to him and stopped allowing him to continue to abuse me. I let it go on for 21 years, waiting for God to show His power to my abusive husband. My mother-in-law, a pastor’s wife, used to praise my suffering at the hands of her son who learned his abusing techniques from his father. My MIL told me repeatedly that her son was so much worse than his father, and that I was such a saint to suffer so well without lashing out as she did. Now she disowned me because I am “not forgiving” her son for repeatedly trying to kill me; now I am not suffering as a fellow abuse victim, I am a traitor and spiritually inferior because I chose to stop my suffering before it literally killed me.

            Suffering is not holy; it is degrading. Jesus never wanted this for me. Now I am learning that God really loves me too, not just other people that I have to please to ensure my safety.

    • Angela

      Calling someone out.,making and keeping boundaries. Anything where you are sticking up for yourself or others without actually escalating violence. Or like non-violent civil disobedience protests.

  5. Nathan

    >> I would love to know an applicable context for our current time,

    My guess would be if a husband demanded that his wife submit biblically in all things, or told her that only HIS thoughts, wants, feelings, etc. mattered, and that hers meant nothing. She would “turn” by saying that she’s a human being, a person and a child of God just as much as he is, and that God views them both of equal worth, value and dignity.

    Or maybe in a corporate setting with an abusive boss. Tell the boss that yes, you’re in charge and make the decisions, but you don’t get to bully me.

    • Lisa Johns

      Or in dealing with someone who wants you to believe you didn’t perceive their actions or words correctly, to say, “I know what I heard/saw. So in telling me that things are different from that, either you are lying to me, which is not a good look, or you are having memory problems, in which case I am concerned for you.” This is how you turn the other cheek to a gaslighter.

  6. TK

    So glad this episode of The Bible Project was brought to your attention! I’ve been listening through the whole Sermon on the Mount series they’ve been in and it’s been incredible. Their episode on Lust was also amazing (“Jesus’ Vision for Sex and Desire”), and aligned so well with what I’ve been hearing from you for years. They’re coming up on the Lord’s Prayer and the forgiveness verses so I’m interested in seeing how they handle those.

  7. Willow

    “Turning the other cheek” by asserting my dignity in an abusive relationship certainly enflamed the fire. It was a type of “naming and shaming.” This can be really dangerous with someone who is abusive, violent, etc., especially where their weapon of choice can be a loaded gun (as it was for my ex). If you are going to stand up for yourself, be prepared and stay safe.

    The same goes even in the workplace, where I worked for an abusive boss whose weapon of choice was a knife. When he (totally unprovoked) pulled the knife on me to show me who was in charge, I loudly called it out to the people around me: “Are you planning to use that knife?” He slipped it back in his belt. But it was still a risky move – then and for the rest of that working relationship. Be careful.

    • Lisa Johns

      Did he seriously walk away from that without legal consequences??!? I do hope you were able to press charges!

  8. Sharon

    I’ve applied this technique and taught others to use it, particularly against verbally and emotionally abusive people. If my father shouts insults at me, I have learnt to calmly and simply reply, “You don’t have the freedom to speak to me like that.” I have taught others to say, “You don’t have the freedom to tell others that about me,” when confronting slanderers and gossips.

    I agree though, that applying this to an interaction with a physically abusive person requires circumstances that would assure your personal safety, such as the presence of other people who can protect you.


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