“When we speak of domestic violence, and the cultural factors that foment [instigate] it, one crucial element missing from the discussion has been religion...”
Why? Is it really that much of a secret? The Bible is rife with toxic advice about relationships, most often giving undue power to the man and all but silencing the woman. It protects men and exposes women to all kinds of abuse.
“Research shows that the men most likely to abuse their wives are evangelical Christians who attend church sporadically*. Church leaders in Australia say they abhor abuse of any kind. But advocates say the church is not just failing to sufficiently address domestic violence, it is both enabling and concealing it.”
I do think it's important to mention here that this is one of those society problems and not one specific to evangelicals. There are plenty of unchurched people out there going through all the same things. The difference here is largely in the counsel evangelicals get and what influences abused partners' decisions to stay. The reasons are more nebulous and greatly, greatly varied among the general populace than they are in a religion that mandates unconditional forgiveness and advocates, in a staggering majority of instances, that abused partners submit to and stay with their abusers.
It's bad enough that so many people have a propensity for just taking abuse. Mixing in toxic advice to someone that provides a better chance of the abuser getting away without it is just plain wrong. And it SHOULD be illegal, but it isn't. Pastors and Christian counselors can tell people whatever they want and their words are protected by applying “separation of church and state” principles to the situation. If it can be argued that the relationship dynamic is governed by religious principle, and if the abused partner refuses to cooperate with any kind of prosecutory effort or even report the abuse to secular authorities, there is little the law can do to curtail it unless and until it becomes physical, and at that point it's often too late. So let's focus this one, glaring, fetid, observable cause and start taking it apart.
Whenever a woman is abused or victimized in the Bible, it either blames her or punishes her, and the biblical view of women has always been one of inferiority.
The ABC Australia article poses several questions about this subject that I want to address:
1. Do abused women in church communities face challenges women outside them do not?
Of course they do. In a non “Christ-centered” relationship, people don't typically get married just so they can have sex, which happens all the time in evangelical circles. What does this do? Several things:
It gives the man the idea that his wife is his property and that notion is affirmed and reinforced through their faith communit(ies).
It places sex at the center of the relationship.
When sex becomes commonplace in the relationship, the man treats his wife's decreased interest as a sign of disrespect and even views it as spiritual disobedience in some cases.
Many couples, especially young couples (and you are encouraged to marry young in evangelical circles) get married too early to have even the slightest clue what they want in a partner. They marry for lust, not for love, whether they know it or care to admit it or not. We were told I needed to be married if I ever wanted to land a position as a youth pastor, so there are other situational motivations, too.
Young couples in evangelical circles are routinely forced into marriage by angry parents who discover their premarital sexual activity. Shotgun weddings are a “real” thing (metaphorically speaking) and don't always have to do with unwanted pregnancy, but...
Unwanted pregnancy also accounts for a lot of forced or coerced marriages, especially with very young and often immature couples who just wanted to do a little exploring of their own sexuality with someone they liked and trusted.
Women are shamed for being even remotely sexual and often agree to marry men they barely know as a means of protecting their reputations should the desire to sleep with a man become difficult to hold at bay.
2. Do perpetrators ever claim church teachings on male control excuse their abuse, or tell victims they must stay?
Um... yeah. Constantly. Whether it's outward or inward. When issues of abuse come to light, abusive behavior on the part of males is either outright dismissed, viewed as a sign that he “needs prayer,” or is deemed indicative of various needs not being met. Many Christian counselors also either suggest or state outright that it is the woman's JOB to change the man by upholding more godly standards for herself and in the household. What does this entail? Being obedient, never arguing or asserting an opposing view, dressing how he wants, never giving another male the time of day even on a purely platonic level, and providing sex on demand. When any of the above happens or fails to happen, it is an avenue for the man to exert dominance and justify his abusive behaviors.
From the same article: “[One woman] wrote in a statement prepared for court: 'If I refused [to have sex with him], he would become incandescent with rage. It was easier to give in than argue. Those nights I felt that I was almost being raped.' She then tells the interviewer that her husband once forced her to have sex just three weeks after giving birth.”
Two things: A) I've heard of this happening DAYS after childbirth and, B) There's no almost about it. She was a victim of spousal rape. Period.
3. Why have there been so few sermons on domestic violence?
Because abuse of women is practically a biblical mandate. It's also a touchy subject because any congregant to whom any of that message seems to directly apply could respond negatively to both the pastor and to his wife. Oh and if you insult a guy from the pulpit, he takes himself, his family, and his tithe to another church.
4. Why do so many women report that their ministers tell them to stay in violent marriages?
In many cases, and definitely in Assemblies of God terms, counseling a couple to separate could be a career-ender for many clergy. That and they all read the same bible. And they're usually male. That makes them sympathize with the abuser at least on a surface level when the abuser is the man. They disapprove of the behavior, but they understand it which makes it more difficult to personally condemn.
5. Is the stigma surrounding divorce still too great, and unforgiving?
Very. Men who marry divorced women or divorce and remarry are typically denied all kinds of authority in evangelical churches from being barred from membership and board positions to being denied their pulpit. And let's not forget that the Bible describes marriages where one or both partners are divorced as adulterous whenever either previous partner is still living.
And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery. (Matthew 19:9)
There is also no path to reconciliation after divorce, even if the divorce happened for reasons other than abuse. Once divorced, always divorced and if you go back, especially after having sex with someone else, you're considered “defiled...”
...but only if you're a woman.
(1) When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. (2) And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife. (3) And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; (4) Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)
Women who divorce and remarry are therefore considered damaged goods in terms of any previous relationship.
6. Is this also a problem for the men who are abused by their wives?
Yes, and we will delve into this side of the equation more in a bit. In the context of the current conversation, abused men are often counseled to be more assertive and figure out how to “control” their wives which can, and often does, eventually turn them into abusers, particularly in subsequent relationships, should they decide to divorce and remarry.
Christianity Today claims that this isn't an evangelical problem in an article titled Evangelicals and Domestic Violence: Are Christian Men More Abusive
(I was appalled but not surprised to learn they have more than a few articles on this subject, all of which try to argue that this really isn't a problem)
Brad Wilcox (author) - “In general... the answer... is “no.” In my previous book, Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands, I found that women married to churchgoing evangelical men—compared to women married to men in other major religious traditions or women married to unaffiliated men—report the highest levels of happiness.”
He fails, however, to offer any real numbers or to present his argument in any way that even suggests that there was balance in the collection of data between groups. If you poll 50 evangelical couples and 20 non-affiliated couples, you are more likely to get a higher percentage of data that agrees with you, so where are your hard numbers, Brad? Walk us through your research.
The other thing I found very interesting here is that he doesn't split up the data between men and women. He polled “couples” and found the majority of participants to be satisfied with their relationships. Well... if 80% of men and 20% of women respond in the affirmative, you get a majority of the participants saying they're happy, don't you?
He also says: “My research suggests that wives married to churchgoing evangelical men are comparatively safe.” Heh... as compared to what? Women married to drug kingpins or mafia bosses? Talk to me, Brad...
A little further down, he, in the SAME paragraph, makes two statements that I think cancel each-other out:
1. Women who were married or cohabiting were significantly less likely to report abuse if they regularly attended religious services.
2. “men who attend religious services several times a week are 72% less likely to abuse their female partners than men from comparable backgrounds who do not attend services.”
Those two statements, and their proximity to one another in this article, are interesting. Women are significantly less likely to report abuse. Doesn't that nullify the later statistic considering that women in relationships with “religious” partners who attend “several services per week” (this all but identifies the religion as evangelical) are unlikely to report abuse? How much less likely are they to experience domestic abuse really?
I'll also submit that evangelical women could appear less likely to be in abusive relationships because they are in a much smaller segment than the general public. Again, if you're dealing with a sample of 100 couples versus a sample of 1000 couples, the number are most assuredly going to look smaller. That doesn't mean they are. You can pick and choose the segments and the sizes of segments you want to study, but when you do that you're no longer engaging in science, and science is the thing that matters here, not shoehorning your findings into specific conclusions using skewed data.
And let's not forget, divorce rates among evangelicals are higher than the national average. Yeah, lots of happy people in this religion...
Finally, the author asserts that “nominal Christian men” are more likely to be abusers, and that partners who follow different religions are also at a higher risk. Translation: only backsliders and those who are 'unequally yoked' have significant issues in this area. Whatever...
Here are a few more problems when it comes to disconnecting Christianity from domestic violence and abuse:
1. Steven Tracy, author of "Patriarchy and Domestic Violence" states: "While patriarchy may not be the overarching cause of all abuse, it is an enormously significant factor, because in traditional patriarchy males have a disproportionate share of power...” source: Patriarchy and Domestic Violence: Challenging Common Misconceptions, published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.
2. Misogyny is, in fact, a minority factor in domestic abuse (or at least conscious, intentioned misogyny). This could mean that it's either the outgrowth of mental illness and/or personality disorders, or the product of conditioning about the male role in non-platonic relationships.
3. Pastors admittedly counsel abused women to stay with their husbands:
One mid-1980s survey of 5,700 pastors found that 26 percent of pastors ordinarily would tell a woman being abused that she should continue to submit and to "trust that God would honor her action by either stopping the abuse or giving her the strength to endure it" and that 71 percent of pastors would never advise a battered wife to leave her husband or separate because of abuse.
Grady, J. Lee "Control Freaks, and the Women Who Love Them". New Man magazine (Jan/Feb 2001).
4. This is a largely and observably evangelical problem.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said in 2002, "As pastors of the Catholic Church in the United States, we state as clearly and strongly as we can that violence against women, inside or outside the home, is never justified."
The Church of England's report, Responding to Domestic Abuse advises that Christian pastors and counselors should not advise victims to make forgiving the perpetrator the top priority "when the welfare and safety of the person being abused are at stake."
Keeping well in mind the myriad ways that the Catholic church has perpetuated and facilitated all kinds of abuse, (particularly of impressionable children), they are, at least on paper, not telling women to stay with their abusers. It doesn't change my opinion of them. It just shows the stark contrast between protestant evangelicalism and more traditional denominations like the Church of England and the RCC in the U.S. at least in what their official stances on this subject are.
I am neither advocating nor congratulating the Catholic church for ANYTHING and, frankly, I think it's very telling that an organization that routinely covers up the abuse of children would make this kind of public statement but your average evangelical pastor will not. It makes a person wonder what kind of hell is going on behind the scenes in the average pentecostal church and I KNOW that all the same abuses happen in evangelical environments. Why it's not more visible in the information age is beyond me. What I think it boils down to is that the Catholic church has simply had more time to amass more skeletons in its closet than any protestant faith system.
Let's talk just briefly about the men who become victims of abusive partners...
While rare in evangelical circles, men can, and do, often find themselves on the receiving end of abuse. And the propensity for being abused can linger even if you stop going to church and long after you stop believing in anything spiritual. Men who have a genuine sense of compassion, empathy, and forgiveness are much more apt to find themselves with abusive partners.
See, that's the other end of the equation. The way we're conditioned to view forgiveness and approaching relationships from a “christlike” perspective can make it feel more mandatory in our heads to go on forgiving and loving and hoping things change. Women are more apt to approach relationships this way, but plenty of men do too, and with the wrong partner it can be a recipe for misery.
So to the men out there, here's a little bit of encouragement. If you are that capable of loving someone, be proud of yourself. Most men aren't. Hell, most people aren't. But also be on guard. Understand that you don't have extra responsibility as the man in the relationship to hold things together and you aren't a failure if you choose to end an abusive relationship (or if your abuser leaves you). You aren't less of a man if you can't make a woman who is never going to love you or be satisfied with your relationship love you back. The abuse will not stop. You're going to have to put a stop to it if you ever want to be happy again.
Now to everyone out there, men and women:
The things we learn either through conditioning or by being told directly by our spiritual leaders about what god expects us to endure in our relationships is largely bunk. The positives, like “husbands love your wives” are great, but the notion of male dominance and the giving of perpetual forgiveness with no deference to the giver's physical and emotional wellness will leave you miserable at best and, in far too many cases, could leave you dead. Relationship problems won't be solved through prayer. They won't be solved by being more agreeable and submissive. That just feeds the abuse and empowers the abuser. And they WILL NOT be solved by “finding the strength to endure it.” No one, and I mean NO ONE is required to endure domestic violence, emotional abuse or spousal rape. NO ONE. I don't care what anyone's miscreant god or his crackpot bronze age sycophants have to say.
Be OK with the idea that things just aren't ever going to work out and find someone who will actually love you back. It's important. And if you're really struggling, go to google and look up the term “trauma bonding” and educate yourself to the emotional reasons you're finding it difficult to walk away.
And regardless of what your pastor says, leaving is OK. Asking for a divorce is OK. Finding someone new and starting over is OK. No one is up there judging you and withholding paradise from you because you're “living in sin.” The belief that a loving god – your “heavenly father” - would want you to be alone and without human affection, the notion that any loving creator would want you to live without sex and intimacy because you, someone made in his image, made a mistake about someone and can't live with them anymore is ridiculous.
You have the right and responsibility to protect your body, protect your mind, and figure out how to be happy and satisfied with your life. Because that's what it is: it's YOUR life. It doesn't belong to a god who wants you to be miserable.
For women, I say go to your nearest women's shelter and inquire about mental health and social services. If you don't have to spend one more night cohabitating with an abuser, DON'T. There's help for you and for your children if any are involved. If you prefer (and this option is available to men, too), you can call the national domestic violence hotline at 800-799-SAFE. That's 800-799-7233.
Please do not call your pastor or your best friend (if she... or he goes to your church). Seek secular, effective, and meaningful help and get free from the nightmare you're living. This isn't what any loving god would want for you and it's certainly not something you should go on enduring hoping your partner will change. They won't, ok? They won't. I wish I could tell you to look me in the eye, but, virtually, in your head, look at me. THEY. WON'T.
It's time to stop thinking that you have some sort of superpower that's going to circumvent their nature. It's time to understand that staying is a bad idea. You need to forget everything you've been told about your spiritual responsibility toward an abuser and take steps, immediate, definitive steps toward getting out, starting over, and finally getting to know who you are. You've spent enough time being TOLD what you are by your abusive partner. It's time to break free. It's time to strip your abuser of their power and get tangibly, physically, and most important, emotionally unbound.