Spousal abuse is a widespread sin that many churches ignore at their—and their members’—peril
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On Jan. 27, 2015, T—to protect privacy we are using only an initial—emailed leaders of her nondenominational church in western Washington state: “I’m asking for HELP! I’m desperately asking for help.” She said her husband had abused her with threats, lies, blame-shifting, and manipulation throughout 24 years of their marriage. She felt lost, afraid, broken.
For the elders, this email was more perplexing than surprising: For seven years, T and her husband had been active church members with marital problems, and many people had devoted hours of marriage counseling with them. The couple even flew to Missouri to participate in an intensive four-day marriage conciliation program. Now T was saying that after all that effort, things had become worse—and she was now claiming “abuse.”
The elders were facing a challenge that’s increasingly common in churches, though many leaders choose to ignore it. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime. Some say the statistics are even higher for emotional abuse. The elders of this suburban evangelical church have now dealt with at least six cases of claimed domestic abuse in the last 10 years.
To learn more about how churches work through such cases, I visited what had been T’s church—until it excommunicated her. I interviewed elders, listened to five women who had accused their spouses of abuse, verified their stories with the elders, met with two families that had confronted the elders about the way they had handled past abuse cases, read through pages of documents and email exchanges, and conferred with abuse specialists. I found out what the elders themselves had realized: Dealing with domestic abuse charges is ugly and messy, full of hurt and brokenness and sin.
Like many other Christian couples, T and her husband met at church. At the time, she had just left her second marriage. She had a baby son and was unsure about ever marrying again. But, as T tells the story, for three years the man who became her third husband wooed her, telling her all the things many women yearn to hear: You’re beautiful. You’re such a godly woman. You’re everything I want in a wife. I want to take care of you and your son.
When they married in 1991, T thought her new husband was a wonderful, sensitive man who was crazy about her. She says all the lovely words and affection ceased three months into their marriage. One day, she and her husband argued: She says he shut her up by lifting and slamming her onto the ground. The impact snapped her ankle.
Her husband told the elders a different story. He said he did not intentionally break T’s ankle—they were horse-playing, and what happened was an accident. The elders believed him. (I repeatedly sought a meeting with T’s husband to get his side firsthand, but he refused. At his request I emailed him a list of questions. He never answered them.)
T says she kept quiet about the unhappiness inside her home for two decades: “I wanted to look good. I idolized marriage and wanted to appear like I had everything together.” Once she started saying she had been abused for all those years, the elders wondered why she had been silent about her marriage dynamics during so many years of marriage counseling. They say her husband accused T of mentally and emotionally abusing him by criticizing, manipulating, and falsely accusing him. Now the elders were in a bind: Who was telling the truth? Who was abusing whom?
One elder said he and his colleagues were at their “wit’s end,” stuck in a “he-said/she-said situation.” He said he knew the husband as a “kind person with a servant’s heart” and T as a faithful women’s ministry leader for years. The church’s family pastor said the elders were “trying to separate the weeds of so many years of counseling from the sudden abuse claims. It’s like different-colored Play-Doh that’s been mushed together. You can’t separate them.”
T says it took her a long time to use the language of “abuse” because she didn’t know what it was. In 2014 she started reading books about domestic abuse: She says the stories of depressed and distressed women sounded like her own story. Then during a counseling session in Missouri, the counselor suddenly sent her husband out of the room and told her what she had just described was sexual abuse. She burst into tears and couldn’t stop crying. She then sent the email to the elders accusing her husband of abuse. She was hoping the elders would support her.
Soon after she sent that email, two pastors and a pastor’s wife met with T. One pastor (no longer at the church) who had counseled T and her husband said he didn’t believe her because the man he knew wasn’t the man she described. After the meeting, T continued sending emails to the leaders asking for help but received no response. Today the elders say they could have responded to her faster, but they say it wasn’t due to a lack of care. Rather, they felt stymied and unsure how to move forward.
Then T took several actions that alarmed the elders. She moved out of her house and filed for a legal separation without seeking their counsel. She said that was a way to keep her husband financially accountable for all his secret bank accounts, but the elders saw it as sidestepping their pastoral leadership and moving toward divorce—a violation of their church covenant.
During a counseling session … the counselor suddenly sent T’s husband out of the room and told her what she had just described was sexual abuse. She burst into tears.
The elders asked both husband and wife to take a domestic violence inventory test, a self-reporting tool used to assess accusations of domestic abuse. The husband took it but T refused, an action the elders saw as further noncompliance. They met with the couple a second time and conferred with T’s marriage counselor, who told them he didn’t think she was in any danger.
T saw the elders as not following through—other than two meetings, she didn’t see or hear much from the elders, and she didn’t see any change in her husband. She was alone in a new apartment, struggling to make ends meet, still sending the elders updates about her situation but not hearing back or seeing any action. Feeling abandoned and defeated, she stopped attending church. Again, the elders read that as a lack of submission to them: “It became clear that she was just going to go her own way.”
When the elders heard that T had been meeting with other church members to tell her story of disappointment with them, they accused T of causing division within the church body. In March 2016—14 months after she charged abuse—the elders sent her a 10-page letter saying they did not believe her accusations. If there was any indication of capital-A abuse taking place in the couple’s household, they wrote, it was from her.
The elders asked her to repent, threatening to remove her from church membership. T refused to withdraw her accusations of abuse. Two months later, the elders excommunicated her and sent a letter about that to the entire church. Today, T’s ex-husband is still a member of the church, while T has moved to Minnesota, feeling the church had spiked a scarlet letter to her chest.
Meanwhile, the elders stand by their judgment. They said they had “poured heart and soul” into the couple, but ultimately, T chose to “stretch out [claims of abuse] to justify her way out of a really tough marriage.”
Today, almost two years after the excommunication, T’s story is still stirring confusion, division, and hurt in the church. Congregants took sides. Several church members confronted the elders asking for answers: One couple left the church because they disagreed with the elders’ decisions. Another couple, part of the church for 14 years, circulated a letter calling the elders to repent.
AFTER T LEFT THE CHURCH, two more women came to the elders with claims of abuse.
One of the women—G, a mother of five—suffered abandonment by her first husband and had been married to her second husband for 10 years when she asked to meet with church leaders. She printed out a chart outlining various forms of abuse and circled the ones that she’d experienced from her husband. She also jotted down a 20-page-long list of abusive incidents.
When she showed a pastor and his wife the chart, they said they had experienced conflicts in their own marriage and recommended a marriage communications class. “I was crushed,” G told me. “I was pleading with them for help, and it felt like they were saying, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad.’” After the meeting she sat in her van at the church parking lot for a long time, weeping and praying, “God, You’re sovereign over this. I don’t know why they’re responding this way, but this is not OK.” (The pastor is no longer at the church and did not respond to my interview requests.)
One day, G’s daughter became scared enough of her father’s yelling that she called the police. The church elders told G’s husband to move out of the house temporarily. They got together with the husband to set up some rules and boundaries, then sent him to anger management counseling. When he seemed to show signs of repentance, the elders suggested that G and her husband move forward into marriage counseling. G refused: She wasn’t seeing any changes in her husband’s behavior.
The husband eventually admitted that he had been abusive to his wife, but then accused her of abusing him too. The elders floundered and agonized: Whom to believe? Finally, they decided they needed professional help and suggested the couple see abuse counselors. But it had been more than a year since G had first asked elders for help, and she had lost trust in them. She left the church. Her husband is still a member and is seeking to divorce her.
The elders examined themselves. The church’s executive pastor declared, “We may be trained Biblically, but we lacked practical wisdom.” In September 2017, the church invited a Biblical counselor who specializes in abuse training to teach them how to do better. They then identified what they could have done differently with G and her husband: They should have met with them separately and invited another woman into the room with G so that she felt safe. They could have asked better intake questions to draw out patterns of abusive tactics.
The elders concluded they also could have answered emails more promptly and sent church members to care for her and walk alongside her. While G was frustrated that nothing seemed to be happening, the elders were spending dozens of hours in elder meetings discussing the case. The executive pastor says, “We were working for her, but not with her.”
Three months after the church leaders’ domestic abuse training, a church member one night yanked his wife by her hair, whipped her with his belt, and punched her several times. He then acted like nothing happened and asked if she’d like to go out for dinner. The woman, D, refused, so her husband took two of their kids out for burgers. When he left, D called a deacon and a family friend. They came over immediately and called the police.
The elders quickly got involved. They didn’t start with marriage counseling, but asked the wife what she needed first. An elder welcomed D and her children to his home. A deacon invited her husband to stay at his home for as long as he needed. The elders set up a team of church members who took care of practical needs such as picking up the kids from school, meeting the husband at the courthouse, and checking up on D. Today D and her husband are still living apart, but the husband has confessed abuse and they have begun marriage counseling with the goal of reconciliation.
That one potential success is not enough for other church members who say the leaders should re-evaluate every past case. Recently, the elders asked to meet with G again, and one pastor apologized to her for not having been better equipped to care for her.
As these three cases suggest, refereeing domestic abuse situations is not easy. They often do not provide obvious evidences of broken bones or bruises. Most of the damage from domestic abuse is invisible: It involves repetitive behaviors that terrorize, dehumanize, objectify, degrade, and control spouses. Such abuse is a hammer to the soul, pounding over and over at the personhood, dignity, and freedom of a spouse.
Many church leaders don’t understand the dynamics and effects of domestic abuse, or don’t even believe that such evil exists in their pews (see sidebar). Instead of addressing the deeper heart issue behind abuse, church leaders typically address the behaviors by recommending anger management counseling, couples therapy, confession, and forgiveness.
One problem, though, is that when one spouse is unrepentant and unchanging, the other may shoulder the extraordinary burden of constantly asking for forgiveness, offering forgiveness, and repairing the relationship. Often, the victim then reacts out of anger, hurt, and bitterness, which provides the abuser grounds to frame the victim as an unstable, delusional, and malicious henpecker. The victim who keeps emailing, calling, and texting the pastors for help may be perceived as an irritating, relentless commotion-maker.
When that happens, who else will care to listen to the victim’s cries?
—with reporting by Christina Darnell
This story has been updated to correctly describe why G’s daughter called police.
‘A satanic distortion’
Bethlehem Baptist Church Pastor Jason Meyer learned something shocking in 2015. Three women in his Minneapolis congregation were victims of domestic abuse. They claimed the church wasn’t helping. Leaders heard whispers of victims afraid to come forward. “It was a wake-up call,” Meyer said. “We didn’t know this was happening.”
Many pastors don’t. LifeWay Research surveyed 1,000 Protestant pastors last year: Forty-seven percent didn’t know of any victims of domestic violence in their churches during the previous three years. Another 15 percent said no one had experienced domestic violence.
Sociologist Christopher Ellison found that “men who attend religious services several times a week are 72 percent less likely to abuse their female partners than men from comparable backgrounds who do not attend services.” With national numbers of women in physically abusive relationships hovering between 25 and 33 percent, that still leaves a lot of abuse, but few church leaders know how to handle such problems. Sometimes their help actually hurts.
Bethlehem elders invited Biblical counselor John Henderson, author of Abuse: Finding Hope in Christ, to train them. They started a Domestic Abuse Response Team (DART), led by a survivor of domestic abuse. Meyer presented the joint elders’ statement in a sermon, “Fooled by False Leadership.” He denounced “harsh lordship” by husbands and male leaders, called abusers to repentance, and offered help to victims. He called all forms of domestic abuse a “satanic distortion of Christ-like male leadership because it defaces the depiction of Christ’s love for his bride.”
Since then, Bethlehem has walked through roughly 27 cases on its three campuses. Chris Moles, a Biblical counselor and pastor who has counseled abusers for more than 10 years, helped Bethlehem develop strategies to hold abusers accountable and avoid common missteps. Moles used an adage to describe the lack of preparation within churches to address domestic abuse: “When you hear hoof steps, you think horse, not zebra.”
Most pastors and counselors are familiar with the common “horse steps” of marital problems, but few are trained to recognize the “zebra steps” of abuse. When a woman (or occasionally, a man) approaches them with marriage turmoils, they conflate the symptoms of abuse with normal marital sins. In other cases, church leaders may endanger a victim by alerting an abuser that she is seeking help. Moles also exposes faulty theology: If pastors convey an unbalanced view of submission without requiring a husband to love his wife, abusers feel empowered and victims imprisoned.
Still, Bethlehem refuses to write off those who abuse—and this part of the program is not without its critics, says Kïrsten Christianson, who manages DART cases. Statistically, few abusers will repent, but God hasn’t made us privy to who the select few are, she says. “We pursue the hearts of those who abuse until they reject being pursued.”
At Bethlehem Baptist, the learning curve has been steep, volunteer burnout is a problem, and discipleship is key. The church pairs new volunteers with experienced ones. Together they check in regularly and pray with a victim and develop a safety plan. Training is hands-on. Meyer says elders now do more pavement-pounding and know their people better: “Our elders are out there more, being shepherds. … Not just addressing messy situations, but all situations.” —Christina Darnell
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