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Domestic Violence and Spiritual Abuse: Part 4
When disclosing situations of domestic violence and spiritual abuse, Christian victims-survivors who are women are often pressured by clergy and congregation members to remain with the very men who are harming them. Church leaders and congregation members are especially susceptible to the following claims, which are made frequently by men who harm their female intimate partners:
- Men claim their behavior is caused by the actions or inactions of their female intimate partners.
- Men claim that God, Jesus Christ, the Bible and/or cultural and familial traditions provide justifications for the manner in which they treat their partners.
- After their crimes and sins are discovered, the men claim to have undergone a miraculous change, usually, they say, by God.
Let’s consider the story of one Christian survivor, Mary. After she filed for divorce because her husband was abusing her emotionally, physically, psychologically and spiritually she received the following words from her pastor in the form of a letter. Take note: Mary’s safety and wellbeing are never discussed, and the pastor’s response is filled with many of the victim-blaming responses that prevent victim-survivors from receiving the help and counsel they need, or even coming forward in the first place.
A Pastor’s Response
"Besides biblical reasons, I believe there are some other reasons which urge you to hold off on getting a divorce at this point. As I explained in our last meeting, I am concerned that you might be relying on a divorce to accomplish what only you can accomplish and that is the breaking free from your pattern of co-dependency on [your husband]. The legal action of divorce will change nothing if you do not change. You can get a divorce and still be just as co-dependent on [your husband] as ever. The only thing that can “divorce” you from your relationship of co-dependence on [your husband] is you. And that is achieved as you learn to understand the issues that drive your unhealthy dependence on [your husband] (and others) and you solve those issues. Otherwise your co-dependence will continue only it will be with things/people other than [your husband].
"I am concerned what divorce will do to your children. (Mary, I know I’m not telling you anything you don’t know.) The greatest thing two parents can do for their children is to provide a stable, healthy marriage. Children need that security to grow emotionally healthy. I know that a deep and strong love and concern for your children was one of the driving forces which led you to file for divorce. For the sake of the children, you needed to put an end to the kind of relationship that you and [your husband] had and I wholeheartedly and fully agree with that decision. But the changes [your husband] has (sic) made gives strong reason to hope that you and he might one day be able to provide your children with a stable healthy marriage. And even if it takes two or three years to get there, for the kids that would be a whole lot better than divorce. Mary, I know you love your kids. You were able to do what was probably the hardest thing you’ve ever done (go to the cops and file for a divorce) because of your love for your kids. Mary, let that love for your kids move you to take another hard step and put off the divorce for now and see what God might do, for this miracle working God of ours just might give your kids the kind of parents they need.
"I am also concerned with what appears to me to be a lack of follow through on your part. In our past discussions, I had asked you what you would need from [your husband] before you would consider pursuing the process of reconciliation. You said that his pleading guilty would be a big step, that it would show you that he was willing to own up to his problems. I communicated this to him and said that if he wanted any hope of reconciliation with you, he had to plead guilty as a sign of his ownership of both those actions he was arrested for and (sic) well as all his past actions. Well, he did that, and more. He went before the church leadership team and confessed his sin and made himself accountable to them. [He] has done everything you could possibly ask him to do to show that his change is genuine. And though it is too soon to make a final judgment, I do believe it is time for you to make an initial recognition of change. And I believe that step should be put off the divorce."
A Good Show
“After 10 years of abuse and finding the courage to have my husband arrested for domestic violence, my pastor’s focus became the salvation of this man and what he called the ‘Marital Restoration Plan.’ I therefore ended up filing for legal separation instead of a divorce at the insistence of my pastor, who let me know, without a doubt, that I would be disobeying God by divorcing my husband. I spent two more years of agony as a result of heeding this advice, going to counseling every week with a man who would never change but who certainly put on a good show.”
“[Initially] He became a ‘wonder husband.’ He miraculously found Jesus after his arrest and began to live a life that temporarily convinced me, my pastor, friends, church members and even my counselor that he was a miracle. He started his own men’s Bible study. My pastor even attended and would regularly report to me the incredible strides my husband was making. He went to a group of men in the church and confessed what he had done to me. They all embraced and forgave him. He became an usher and even donated a large sum of money to finish a construction project at the church. He came to counseling sessions with me and, faithfully and slowly, I began to let my guard down and trust him again. I started to love him again and was sure he had changed for good. But, suddenly, he started to revert back to his old abusive tactics.”
“During his ‘conversion,’ my husband had managed to banish swear words from his vocabulary. And, he never missed a chance to tell me how impressed people at work were with his new found personality. Then, suddenly, he returned to using the word ‘fuck’ liberally and, on a regular basis and usually in the same order, started once again telling me I was fat, ugly, lazy, stupid and worthless. He’d also call me a ‘cunt’ and a ‘whore,’ and began telling me he didn’t like the way I was dressing; that I dressed our young daughters too conservatively; I talked too much about God; and that I listened to too much Christian music. He would also refer to the Bible and tell me I was a bad Christian wife for not being submissive to him.
“I eventually found out that all the time he was coming to counseling with me and pretending to be changed, my husband was seeing another woman.”
Spiritual and Emotional Impact
“My heart began breaking again. How could this be? I had now given two more years to this relationship, and done all that my pastor told me to do, and couldn’t understand why this was happening. I felt as if I was going crazy again, just like prior to having him arrested for physically abusing me. I could not believe that after all I had gone through for this man, forgiving him and allowing him back into my life and our daughters’ lives, and trusting and believing he could somehow become a man of God, he would betray us. He had not changed at all.
“I was broken, so deeply wounded and could barely function. I would just lie in bed curled up like a fetus and cry. I didn’t want to get dressed or eat. My family felt I was at the point of a nervous breakdown. Looking back, I totally agree. I just wanted to give up. There was nothing left in me to fight with and I felt like an empty shell. I lost weight (and I am already a thin person.) Many days I felt helpless and hopeless. The abuse was wreaking havoc on my body, mind and soul. If not for my sister coming to live with me for several months and taking care of my children and me, I do not think I would still be alive.”
Her Pastor and Congregants
“I felt abandoned by my pastor. As stated previously, he was focused on my husband’s salvation and the restoration of our marriage. There were no phone calls to me, no concern shown for my children. I felt he did not believe what I had told him. I was deeply hurt by his lack of interest in my and the girls’ wellbeing.
“As for the congregants my husband fooled, I realize now how amazingly adept abusive men are at convincing people of their ‘purity.’ It’s scary and frustrating. The congregation wanted to believe my husband could change—even I wanted to believe this. But he was never going to change and I had to walk myself out of the prison that my mind told me I could never escape. One day, I learned I could.”
Feelings toward God
“As strange as it may sound, through all of this my faith became stronger. I had my moments of crying out to God as I was brought to my knees praying that God could deliver me and my children from the horror of my husband’s abuse. I felt so weak by the time I decided to get out that I knew prayers, and my family and friends were the only way I did not fade away. There were times when I was simply too exhausted to pray. So I’d just hold the Bible on top of my head or next to my heart as a shield of protection. I was mad at God many times, but never enough to turn away as I knew God was my only hope for having enough strength to finally get free.”
In part 5 of our series, we’ll look at practical steps to take in order for us to help free Christian abused women like Mary from the clutches of harmful male intimate partners.
About the Author
The Reverend Al Miles is a member of the Joyful Heart Foundation’s Board of Directors. Since 1993, he has served with Pacific Health Ministry as the coordinator of the Hospital Ministry department at The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. A nationally recognized expert on how culture, faith, religion and spirituality intersect with domestic and sexual violence, especially when perpetrated against women and children, Miles speaks widely on these topics. He has authored four books and hundreds of articles on intimate partner violence. Rev. Miles is a Board Certified Chaplain with the Association of Professional Chaplains and has been an ordained minister in the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) since 1983.