Enabling Abuse Within the Church
First of all, let me state one important fact as I begin this blog post. I am trying to raise awareness of the fact that abuse occurs in marriages within the church. I love the church with all my heart. It is my life. It is my heritage. It is the body of Christ. And I can’t even express my love and deep need and desire for the word of God. It is my breath, and I will carry its infallible precepts to my death. That precious Word depicts the sanctity of marriage. But the church and marriages are made up of imperfect humans, and humans make mistakes. I will live and die for the church of my Lord. But that does not mean that in the effort to be what God would have the church to be, that there have not been some errors in recognizing and dealing with hearts that are being destroyed by abuse. Someone said recently, “I’ve been in the church for years, and have never known of any abuse that went on.” MY. POINT. EXACTLY. People aren’t aware abuse goes on within the confines of the church, and because of our preconceived notions, and because of the doom we procure on anyone who would leave an abusive marriage, victims suffer in silence. They believe there is no other option and certainly no way out if they want any sort of relationship with God. The word of God has been used to make them fear God’s retribution for a situation over which they may have no control.
In preparing to author this blog, I have not only processed my own experience with abuse, but also have listened to other women in abusive situations. Many have opened up to me because they found someone to whom they could relate, and could share the dark secrets they have held for so long. The thing is, if you are in ministry or if your family members are pillars in the church, and you are experiencing abuse, it compounds the insanity of the problem into a realm almost unimaginable. It literally makes me want to vomit when I hear of what men are allowed to get away with while hiding behind the curtain of ministry, or being the “good-ole-boy” in the church. One Christian woman told me she was even threatened with being killed by her so-called Christian husband! And he was the fun-loving great guy everybody loved on the outside. Someone, somewhere has got to be a voice and try to expose this evil and offer hope of some sort. And so, I write from my own experience. Someone who has lived it. It’s more difficult than you can imagine to write these posts. But I’m hoping to shed some light and to help people see the facts that perhaps things are not always as they seem.
I have recently been in contact with a woman, whom I have never met, who reached out to me when she heard I was composing this blog. Her story went something like this: She married a minister when she was quite young. He also happened to work in law enforcement. The abuse started early in their marriage–control, manipulation, explosive rage, narcissism. And in this instance, he would actually beat her. When the children came along, they also witnessed the abuse and suffered the tyrannical rule of their father. Of course, she suffered many years in silence. Nearly 30, as I recall. Finally, when she had taken all she could, she decided she had to leave. Do you know what the church with whom she was affiliated did? They made HER out to be the guilty one. They ostracized and “disfellowshipped” HER because she left the marriage. And in true course of mind control and manipulation, none of her children will have anything to do with her because they have been convinced by their father that SHE is in the wrong. They are in fear of the scriptures and of their father. Her husband has never been called to repentance. So, in essence, that particular church has become an enabler. And sadly, this woman basically told me that in her own eyes, she has no hope and is going to hell. And that is the mindset that plagues so many. It has to stop. It has to.
Because of positons like this held by the church, abuse victims suffer in silence trying to cope the best they can–especially those in ministry. There is some sort of inexplicable shame associated with their situation. And they die. I don’t necessarily mean die physically, (although that is a possibility) but they just become numb and start to simply find coping mechanisms to survive. And they lose basically every ounce of their identity in trying to stay ahead of the insanity. Those tactics are temporary, and many break or end up in horrible mental and spiritual anguish because they have nowhere to turn. The loneliness is overwhelming. They can’t reveal the crack in the armor because it will cost them their livelihood and/or their reputation, and the retribution will be horrendous. I am afraid the church has seen the horrific results when a victim finally breaks–even in the national media–and the church was not spared the fall-out.
I’m sure we all remember the story of Mary Winkler, who shot her minister husband after experiencing horrible abuse at his hands. I, in no way will attempt to comment on the justice or injustices of the situation or the judgement or sentencing. That was in the hands of a jury who heard it all, and even more so, in the hands of an Almighty righteous judge and Heavenly father who saw every second of every day for all of those years and throughout the trial. But here is what I will say: people tried to convince the world that Mary was making up the abuse, and that it was not founded or “documented.” I will tell you this. I experienced EVERY ONE of the scenarios Mary said she experienced, and more. Thirty years of it. And it was NEVER documented–until this blog. It was never even spoken of. For reasons beyond my explanation–except for fear and co-dependency traits that develop from abuse–you never speak of it. It is a hushed subject. You can’t breathe a word to anyone–especially to the authorities. And I even experienced or witnessed situations that were technically a crime. Do you think for a moment I would share that with anyone–especially with anyone in the church?? And so, because of the condemnation and the desperate feeling of being trapped, you suffer alone–telling no one.
Unfortunately, the church, at least in some of the circles I have seen, has not always been a safe place to be vulnerable and to show weakness or share secret pain. The stigma seems worse than the abuse, and the victims swirl in a cesspool of unfounded guilt and fear and shame, and do their best to fix it on their own. But, sadly, in most cases it is way past being fixable. A huge culprit is the legalistic view of God and his Word. I know there are absolutes and standards that are written for us to try to attain. Believe me, I believe marriage is for a lifetime, with God as the center. But God simply did not address each and every scenario. Even up to the time I left just 6 years prior to the date of this post, I visited a church where I had attended when I was still married to my ex-husband. One of the first things one of the leaders said to me was, “You know you have to go back to him.” He had not asked one tiny detail about my situation. He had no clue of my broken mental, emotional or spiritual state at that time. Not a shred of my story did he know, nor did he ask. He offered no comfort, no understanding. Just that one simple statement: “You have to go back.” It was a statement that left me feeling like I was hanging on a tightrope between Heaven and Hell depending on my decision to go back.
And there you have it. The reason I and so many others suffer in silence. There is no way out. None. And believe me, there is no easy answer. But there can be victory in the grace and mercy of Jesus when hearts are yielded to him. Unfortunately, many times the church has left people hopeless because they supposedly knew the answers to the most mangled situations. So, in their quest to make sure to not cross any grey lines with God, they have enabled (perhaps unknowingly) horrific sin–sometimes in the lives of their own leaders.
I don’t claim to know all the answers. No one does, except God. But there has to be a spirit of grace somewhere. That much I do know. And praise the Lord, that grace is becoming more evident in the churches through the years. But 35 years ago, at least in the circles I was in, it was not that way.
I also believe part of the problem is that people are just not aware of what abuse looks like. They are living their own quiet lives and they don’t see it. So please, be on the lookout for abuse occurring in the church. Be aware of signs or occurrences that you question. If things look odd or bewildering, check it out. If you wonder if a situation is abusive, it probably is. Ask questions. Even if those whom you question are in leadership roles, ask anyway. I am fully aware that those questions will probably always be answered with some sort of response to evade the question. Perhaps they will even take offense. I know that would have been my response–evasive and offended. But there is always at least a chance that they will accept the invitation to be vulnerable and share, and it will be in the back of their mind that someone cared enough to ask. Don’t suppose that all is well. And don’t be afraid to call out the perceived offenders. In most cases, their pride and narcissist personality will not allow them to recognize their deep problem, but at least they will know they are on the radar of suspicion.
I can’t tell you how many people came out of the woodwork when I got out of my situation to tell me they had “wondered” about things they had observed. They watched me humbly “obey” commands, or they saw me exploited as some sort of trophy wife, and never mentioned their concerns. Of course, it was not out of lack of care, but rather probably trying to not make me feel uncomfortable or invaded. But if you question what you are witnessing in public, you can imagine what is going on in private. And you would be shocked. So be invasive. Be intrusive. Ask questions. Express your concerns. Go to the victims or the perpetrators in love. Jesus instructed us in the church to do that very thing (Matthew 18:15). And James says this kind of love covers a multitude of sins (James 5:20). Would it have changed my situation? I really don’t know. But I would not have been so alone.
The victims need you. Be there for them. Care for them. Give them a safe place to land, and a sure place to stand. I came across this article after I had already begun this post, and then a friend of mine sent it to me. It tells the story from a pastor’s point of view of some stories he heard from women in the church who were in abusive marriages. It is well worth the read.
All I’m trying to say is this: Be quick to extend a helping hand and a listening ear. Be quick to extend grace and not judgement. And above, all, be quick to extend love, for love covers of multitude of sins.