Every marriage faces difficulties, even Christian ones. But a difficult marriage or even a bad marriage isn’t an abusive marriage. A disengaged husband, an unaffirming wife, isn’t being abusive. They are failing in their roles but their actions don’t come up to the definition of abuse.
Abuse is the use or misuse of a person for your own purposes or pleasure. It involves the use of cruel words or actions towards another for the purpose of manipulation or control. Abuse comes in many categories but the main ones an abused spouse might face are physical, emotional, verbal, sexual and financial.
Most abuse victims are female, though male abuse can and does take place. Since most abuse is by a male perpetrator towards a female victim, this will be what the rest of this article assumes.
Abuse doesn’t just happen “out there”. It’s not just to “those kinds of people”, or to a certain race, age or social level. Domestic abuse happens to all races, all ages, all religious persuasions, and in all social classes. It happens in the church, too. One in four women in the U.S.A. experience domestic abuse at some point in her life. Some of these women are Christian women. Some of them you probably know but are probably unaware of what she might be facing.
Part of the trauma of living in domestic abuse as a Christian woman is that you don’t know who to trust with your story. Most Christian women who finally get up the courage to tell someone tell their pastor. Sadly, most pastors are not prepared to understand or deal with abuse. I’ve known so many Christian ladies whose husbands were horrible–behind closed doors. Out in public, they seemed to be the salt of the earth. When these ladies turned to the church, they were either turned away, blamed, told to work on themselves, or sent back into the abuse with directions to serve him better and love him more.
Most pastors just don’t get it when it comes to domestic abuse. And, it sadly seems that many of them just don’t want to. It’s so much easier to pass by on the other side of the road, issuing platitudes as one passes, than it is to stop and bind up open gaping wounds–inside wounds or outside ones–of one who is being abused. Getting involved means getting dirty. It might be costly financially, it takes time, and it takes concerted effort to learn about abuse and the needs of abused women and their children. It’s plain hard. And most of them don’t want to have to get involved. I know. I’ve tried to find a pastor who had the wisdom needed to help me to have the wisdom to figure things out.
When I have tried talking to pastors, several of them over several years, about my situation, I was 1) thrown out of one pastor’s office, 2) another told me to divorce him but no further help was offered, 3) still another told me he had anger issues and I needed to be more understanding, 4) another told me that “if you are telling the truth your life is a mixed up mess”; again, no further help or guidance was offered, 5) another offered to talk to him, offered us couple’s counseling but refused to speak to me alone. And there were other responses, none of them good.
Only one of them ever offered to listen further (the anger issues pastor). He eventually listened and tried to help–though by that time we had moved away then he moved even farther away and because of that there was little he could do long distance. The others–nothing. No counsel, no guidance. Nothing.
Not one of them, except for him, tried to come to an understanding of what I was facing. Among the abused Christian wives that I’ve known, and I’ve known quite a few, it has been exceedingly rare for any of them to receive the kind of counsel, love, guidance, or help that they really and truly needed from their pastors or from their brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen. It does happen. It happened to my mother when she left my abusive father for the final time. I have read about it happening (the new lead pastor in John Piper’s church really seems to “get it”–though Mr. Piper himself didn’t seem to). I’ve worked with a pastor whom I later wrote a book with (though we never met) who gets it. But most pastors don’t get it.
Lest you think I don’t love God’s people, I do. Church is one of my favorite places. It’s also one where I often dread to go. Once my situation becomes obvious (and it’s not really that hard to figure out if you know what you’re looking for), the pitying looks, the side glances, being talked about and ignored begins. I’ve experienced it all and more–in two states, multiple conservative denominations, and in many towns and cities.
I’ve learned, through many a painful trial and error, that God’s people are not always like Him. Where He welcomes the oppressed, His people often treat us as if we are lepers. Oh, the stories I could tell–the way I’ve been treated, things said to me, things done or left undone. Worse, the way my precious children have been treated by God’s own people because of our circumstances–shameful doesn’t even begin to cover it.
I was born into abuse. I married an abuser. Some would say my story fit the pattern–an abused girl marrying a man just like her Dad. But I say that those would would say that are missing the greatest part of my story: Jesus. Though I’ve lived through immense pain, pain formed by the depravity of ones whom I should have been able to trust, God has redeemed my story. He has made me whole.
That’s not to say my story has been an easy one. Far from it, in fact. Even now, the trauma of abuse haunts me. I live with its impact every single day. Our financial struggles are formed by it. Financial abuse, financial misuse through carelessness, has been part of my craggy pathway–along with other, equally painful, types of abuse. But, even in the pain, God has formed a way for me to tread. The way is winding, painful, and often darkened. I cannot see its end but I can see the One who is leading me. And, even in want, even in times of great need and financial uncertainty, that is enough. I don’t have to worry for I trust in God’s character. I have no idea what to do about the past due rent, how to afford to fix the van or the dryer or…so much more…but I don’t really have to worry about those things. God has all of those issues safe in His hands, and I trust Him.
So why am I sharing this? Because things need to change. God has taught us how we are to treat one another and the way I’ve been treated by God’s people, the way so many in my circumstances have been treated, does not honor Him. If you read this and your heart is touched, look around you. Somewhere, in your congregation is a woman just like me. She needs you. Just like I need you and other Christians. We’re not so different from you, she and I. We’ve been beaten down by words or force, manipulated, treated cruelly. We’re hurting, me and my abused sisters-in-Christ. Part of the reason we’re hurting is that we have been ignored, overlooked, or even flat-out blamed for our own pain by our fellow Christians, for so very long. It’s bad enough our husbands hurt us. Please don’t add to the pain.
The church isn’t always the safest place for an abused woman but hopefully one day that will change. It is my fervent hope and prayer that God’s people develop God’s heart for the oppressed. I’ll never be one who will say that I love Jesus just not the church. I do love the church but, sadly, the church hasn’t always known how to love me or others like me. You can help change that. Hopefully, I can too. Jesus is honored when we love one another in word and deed–by serving, by sharing, by doing. Remember the second greatest commandment then put yourself in my place: if you were me, or if you were the abused woman in your church, how would you want us to “love thy neighbour as thyself”?