How the church can (and must) do better on abuse & divorce

It's been a few weeks, but I recently dove into the topic of "When Jesus Exaggerates on Divorce."  See parts one & two to see why Jesus' words in Matthew (and Mark) employed overstatement, commenting on marriage and divorce laws already in the Torah. What I am about to write is based on the prayerful understanding that: 1) the Bible doesn’t give a “no-fault” divorce as an option—you can divorce and remarry only if a spouse breaks their vows; and 2) the Old Testament laws on divorce always protect the victim. 

Now that I've made that clear, let's talk about abuse in marriage for church-going folk. I am not an expert, but I am more than a little concerned at the dismissal of spousal abuse that often happens in evangelical churches. It has happened to my friends. It has happened to women I've talked to while serving as a pastor and chaplain. And while women are not the only ones abused in marriage relationships, the National Coalition against Domestic Violence reports that:

  • one in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime
  • 85% of domestic violence victims are women

Author Margaret Atwood put it this way, in a quote that has been circulated around the Internet:

"Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them."

While this quote takes our breath away, it gives pause for thought. The men God created to lovingly protect women, using their strength to aid and complement them as their greatest allies, are most often the ones who commit horrible violence against them, both emotionally and physically. It happens everywhere, and unfortunately, it is likely happening within your church right now.

-Why? Because men are physically stronger than women.

-Because when women being abused try to cry for help (and many don't), they are often not allowed to meet with their male pastor privately. 

-Because if they do somehow get to their male pastor, their husband comes with them or is aware of it and abuses them more.

-Because their pastor tells them it would help if they would learn to submit more, to be more willing, to be more giving and available.

Let me be clear: this last one is a lie from the pit of hell, no matter your theological bent. 

I'm not a professional counselor, but I have talked to many of them. When abuse is happening in a situation, you must assume it will escalate. An abuser does not back down. Someone in a pattern of abusing is not repentant. If an abuser has abused, he will most likely abuse again. And next time, the abuse could be much worse.

If you serve our Creator God, the one who makes clear throughout the Old Testament and the New that he takes up the cause of the oppressed and created you to be his representative, you must take up the cause of the woman in your church body who is abused.

(And if statistics are right, God help us, that may be 25% of them.) You must help stop the abuse, which often means encouraging her to remove herself from her home. You must find a way to keep her safe, to speak truth and life to her troubled soul. And if her husband is not willing to seek radical repentance and help before living with her again, I believe you must provide enough light for  a way out of her abusive marriage, a marriage in which the husband long ago discarded his vows.

To do anything less is not Christlike, in my view. It is not redemptive. It could even be described as evil. 

One last thought: from experience, I can tell you that women being abused (or that have been abused), seem to be much more willing to confide in a female pastor. Just one of the many reasons why having a female on your church staff can lead to healing and growth for many of the women (and men) in your church. I carry these stories close to my chest, I mourn the loss of the light in these women's eyes, and I thank God that, in His mercy, he provides safety and hope for them beyond a marriage that was killing them, both metaphorically and sometimes, literally.

And for all the men of courage and valor who are reading this post, God bless you, and may he use you to lift up and protect your sisters. If you're interested, read one male pastor's story of courage here.

Resources that help and heal: "The Dark Side of Wives Submitting to Husbands," by Lee Grady, Charisma Online When Love Hurts—Understanding and Healing Domestic Abuse (4-part DVD) from RBC Ministries "The heart of God is to protect the vulnerable." -Dr. Steven Tracy Elisabeth Corcoran's blog

Your turn: How does our theology influence the way we help women who are abused? What things could the church do to provide a safe haven to women in these circumstances?