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Hidden violence

Spousal abuse is a widespread sin that many churches ignore at their—and their members’—peril


T: To protect privacy, we are not showing her face. Jim Mone/Genesis

Hidden violence
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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.

G: “I was pleading with them for help, and it felt like they were saying, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad.’”

G: “I was pleading with them for help, and it felt like they were saying, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad.’” Benjamin Brink/Genesis

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.

Offering support to victims: Pastor Jason Meyer

Offering support to victims: Pastor Jason Meyer Bethlehem Baptist Church

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


Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband.

@SophiaLeeHyun

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Larrygeo

While I am against any kind of abuse, verbal, physical, or emotional, I believe this article left out some information that seems important to me. First, you mentioned that T had been married three times. What is the story behind her three marriages? It seems we are not getting the whole picture when you leave out what caused the first two divorces. Secondly, you did what almost every article on this subject does, you left out the fact that women can be abusive as well. In my years as a pastor, I have discovered that there is more to the story than what, generally, is the first look at any situation. Abuse from anyone, male or female, is unacceptable.

EPA8521

I lived with a very emotionally abusive husband for 26 years, believing in the sanctity of marriage and afraid to get a divorce. Early in our marriage he was physically abusive, but being smart, ended the physical abuse. The deception and mind games were incredible, yet the outside world saw him as a nice guy. I always knew something was wrong and believed that I just needed to work harder on the marriage by going to church, bible studies, listening to Christian radio shows, etc. Now I know that he has every trait of someone with a covert narcissistic personality disorder. When the discard happened he just walked out, found another church, obtained a new church 'family', and filed for divorce.

I believe the church is a perfect place for abusive men to 'hide' in, and consistently fails to protect the most vulnerable women and children. This article consistently puts this failure on display. 

4SKIBUMS

Both of these articles are much needed in the church, I can only pray and hope that pastors and elders everywhere will actually read them. 

I write as survivor of emotional and spiritual abuse. When I finally spoke up, no one believed that my christian college and seminary trained spouse could be such a person as I alleged. He's never repented and today pastors a church, after he filed for divorce and left me.  Praise God, years later after going through much counseling myself, God redeemed my life and brought me a man who loves me as Christ loves the church!

Today I have 3 girlfriends, all married more than 20 years, all christians married to christian men...all 3 are living your articles. Living with husbands who refuse to repent and who've turned the shame/blame on them, going to churches where the leadership refuses to acknowledge the sin of the husband.  My heart is grieving and broken for these 3 friends. I know their pain and turmoil.  How sad that as women, we actually pray and think, Oh if there were only broken bones and black & blue marks to make the church leaders believe! 

Please keep writing more articles and bringing this crisis to light in the church. We must keep speaking boldly.

4SKIBUMS

Amen! Excellent comments you have added to the article and the other comments.  Thank you for the resources you named. I will add them to my reading.

4SKIBUMS

Not Silent, your words ring so true - - YES, to everything you are saying! Thank you for commenting and speaking up.

SBA5991

How could my evangelical church, which did so much right, have gotten spousal abuse so wrong? My letter to pastors and elders citing spouse abuse went unacknowledged. When I obtained a restraining order, they rebuked me, "Would Jesus have done that?" A third restraining order, HER arrest for assault, a criminal prosecution, and our divorce.followed. Throughout, never did the pastors and elders utter a word to me. So sad.

D.B.,

National Certified Counselor

Virginia

Deb O

The people who have commented thus far 'get it' and that makes my heart glad. I am pleased to learn about even more resources for victims and the church from the article and commenters. My story is nowhere near as tragic as those reported and so many others who go unmentioned, but I had to walk away from my last church for some of these same reasons, while my husband continues to be welcome to attend. The elders did not get it. But thank God for those who do and those willing to learn. Real love requires justice for the oppressed.

Mya7951

I've spent my life training biblical counselors in East Asia and this topic is part of our usual curriculum. Thanks for this informative article, and alerting us to the typical church leaders who lack experience with the sinfulness and deceptiveness of abusers (similar to the way people with any kind of addiction respond to investigative queries, with persistent lying to protect their own interests).  The article also points to some churches who have developed counseling awareness--Bravo to church leaders sharing likeness to the kingly protection of Christ! I recommend a good book by Leslie Vernick The Emotionally Destructive Marriage and her website for other resources https://www.leslievernick.com/free-resources/   She is a very well-informed and case-wise experienced counselor to properly analyze and confront abuse cases. She offers a very wise set of principles to hold abuser accountable as well, not just accepting false promises and lies that abusers typically give. She also wisely notes that marriage counseling is not recommended if an abusive liar is one of the people in counseling (scoffer, mocker, divisive fool in Proverbs should be separated from). Diane Langberg also has some good books for both counselors and survivors of abuse, especially sexual abuse, Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse, On the Threshold of Hope, (+ workbook) and the difficulties of counselors (and church leaders) facing abuse atrocities in Suffering and the Heart of God. Another related resource is Betrayal of Trust by Stanley Grenz & Roy Bell, about abuse by those in authority, such as church leaders or counselors themselves--average of 1/10 influence-leaders may abuse their authority with those under their supposed care to seek personal gratification with their flock, and the need to properly investigate claims of leadership abuse presented by church members. With stories like this of abuse and church failure to protect in both church and marriage, feminism seems to offer a correct analysis of the problems of male abuse of authority, and substitutes female leadership instead. The way forward is not role reversal, but role reformation: husbands being accountable to love and sacrifice and wives enjoying the protection and selfless concern of husbands; church leaders being trained to protect victims in the image of Christ the King, and woe to those who cause one of these little ones to stumble! May the Lord, though his shepherding church and her leaders, have priestly mercy and kingly protection for his victimized people. May the Lord lead abusers to sincere repentance (2 Cor 7:10-11). But if they are not willing to repent, may the church and her leaders show his cursed face to all cowardly abusers and faithless liars, representing his future judgment by excommunication from the fellowship/membership of the church in the present (Rev 21:8)! 

Hans

The issues that have already been raised by the above comments are excellent. I would add to that that there are certain theological issues that also end up creating the backdrop for sweeping this terrible issue under the rug or blaming the victims. The doctrine of sin as promulgated by evangelical churches tends to flatten distinctions between sins, suggesting that they are all equal, or that "we are all sinners," which draws a false equivalence between abuser and DV victim. The victim is pressured to acknowledge her own "sinfulness" in the marriage, which she hestitates to do in relation to these issues, while the perpetrator, particularly if he is well integrated into the church, is going to be more than adept at making "confessions" of "failings" as a means of deflecting serious consequences. This puts the victim into the defensive posture either of re-concealing their status as a victim lest they be further blamed for it, or fleeing the church altogether lest she receive further hostile and skeptical treatment. The church is fooled into (or fools itself into) believing in "grace," which is always oriented at giving sinners the benefit of the doubt when they say they are sorry, rather than grace that provides comfort and support for those who have been wounded. This is a stark distortion of the gospel in the evangelical tradition that provides such a focus on the message of sin and forgiveness, but lacks a corresponding focus on issues like restoration, healing, and recovery for those who have been hurt by the sins of others, which is at best seen as an implication of the gospel, rather than its core.

 

I would add to this that the complementarian models of church leadership often pushed by evangelicals lend themselves in particular to creating a hostile environment for DV victims, since abused women are often brought, either by themselves or with their abuser, before a group of only men. When one adds to this the description of "biblical womanhood" that has been pushed by, among many others, men like John Piper that the biblical woman is supposed to be characterized by (among other similar descriptors) being "meek," "delicate," and "gentle," you also get a serious problem. A DV victim who is seeking help and finally unmasking her abuser is usually anything but meek, delicate, and gentle. In these situations, the mask of normalcy that typically hides the abusive relationship appears to offer a far "better" version of what the woman supposedly "ought" to look like. This means that her progress towards freeing herself from an abusive relationship is often reinterpreted (and, I might add, grossly misinterpreted) by church leadership as a regression of her character into resentment, bitterness, and hostility. 

 

Finally, the assumption among elders (as represented in T's sad story) that they are owed obedience and deference as the core part of their position as ordained leaders frequently causes church leadership to fall back on this in these situations, especially when they feel that their "advice" is not being heeded. It is hard to imagine something more harmful, consiering that abuse of all kinds is fundamentally about the abuser asserting power over his victim. When the church "leadership" demands the acceptance of their "assistance" by asserting their authority over the victim, whether they mean to or not, they align themselves with the abuser by removing agency from the victim. Small wonder that abuse victims very often find the church to be one of the least safe places to be open about their experiences.