The Church and Domestic Abuse
By Lyz Lenz
March 12, 2009
I can't tell you her name or how I know her. This is because she is still living with her husband despite years of emotional and physical abuse. He's cheated on her and cleaned out their bank account to spend on drugs, pornography and online gambling. She left him briefly after a young girl accused her husband of molestation, but she went back to him after a week. Why? I asked her.
She told me that a woman spoke at their church a couple weeks before. The speaker explained how her husband used to be violent, but she didn't leave him because she knew that God's plan for a marriage was that it should last forever. Once, the husband's violence put their baby in the hospital. When he saw what he'd done, he repented and was never violent again.
"That's why I went back," the woman told me. "What if it doesn't end?" I asked. But the woman didn't answer. The conversation was over.
According to the Department of Justice, almost one-quarter of Americans were raped and/or physically assaulted by a current or former spouse, cohabiting partner or date at some time in their lifetime. Jocelyn Andersen, a Christian domestic violence survivor and author of Woman Submit! Christians & Domestic Violence, argues that the Church’s teachings on women and submission have given rise to an epidemic of domestic violence among Christians. In her book Quiverfull, journalist Kathryn Joyce argues that the Christian belief system, which focuses on women's submission and the headship of men, encourages the abuse of women. In his book Domestic Violence, What Every Pastor Needs to Know, Al Miles reveals that the theological training and beliefs given most clergy can actually contribute to increased violence and abuse of the victim. Christianity, according to some, is the problem. Here are three women from different Christian backgrounds who share their own stories and answer the question, "Do the Church’s teachings sometimes cause domestic violence?"
Christina Hernandez ministers to young women at a nonprofit called House of Hope. She loves talking about her faith and spent several years in South America working as a missionary, but that was after her divorce. "I wasn't raised in the Church," Hernandez says. "I became a believer when I was a senior in high school and started attending what I would call a conservative fundamental Christian church." Hernandez loved the church, she found the people there to be supportive and loving, and it was through that church that she also found her now-ex-husband. Hernandez says: "I was led by him to believe that he was a Christian and he loved the Lord and that we were going the same direction in our lives. And we got married, I was 21 and he was 23, but I thought this was where God was leading us."
After they got married, everything changed. Only days into their honeymoon, Hernandez didn't recognize the man she had married. "I started to see that he was living a double life. He had his external life where he was a good Christian guy, where he put on a smile and did all of those things, but behind closed doors he became very controlling and very manipulative and very hateful to the church … behind their backs. ... Everyone else thought he was this great guy and everyone loved him. He had a very charming personality, he was very winning and that's what I fell in love with. The man belongs in Hollywood—he was very convincing."
Her husband's duplicity frightened her. At church, he was warm and friendly, but when they got home, he was violent. "He would break things and punch doors and punch through windows, but he never hit me,” she says. “Most of the abuse was psychological and controlling. He alienated me from my family and my friends. He felt that I belonged at home."
Unlike Hernandez, her husband was raised in the Church and, she says, his family situation may have contributed to his abusive nature: "He was raised watching his parents. The dad was very controlling and called all the shots, and his mother just went along and kept the peace. That's how he thought it should be."
As her husband spiraled and the abuse got worse, Hernandez became depressed. "I just thought this was my new reality, I [was] going to have to be this Stepford Wife,” she says. “Do the right things, go through the motions, but I couldn't feel anything, and outside I still felt like I had to put on a smile and be what I thought was a good Christian wife. It was all twisted in my mind; I don't believe that this is what the Bible has to say."
Leaving her husband wasn't an option. "I just wanted to take my own life,” she says. “I didn't see any other way out."
Hernandez appealed to the leadership of her church, and while they seemed sympathetic, they offered no help. Hernandez recalls once when she tried to visit her sister, her husband forbid her to leave and physically stopped her from walking out the door. Hernandez went to her church again and got them to agree to let the couple go through a temporary separation. "The condition was that we were going to get Christian marital counseling together, with the point that we would get back together," she says. Hernandez stayed at the home of an elder, but things didn't improve. After a month, her husband told the church leadership that he needed her to go back to the house so he could prove that he'd changed. That's when the elders told her to obey her husband and return home.
"I knew what would happen," Hernandez says. "Things went back to the way they were before, if not worse." Once Hernandez returned home, her husband refused to go to a counseling session, so Hernandez went without him. There, in the office of the Christian counselor, Hernandez found an ally who helped her understand that the role of the woman is more than to submit and obey. "I really felt, all those years while I was still [married], that if I could just submit and obey well enough, everything would work out, that he would change. But that's not what happened."
Suzanne (name changed for protection) works with women who are victims of domestic abuse, but most people don't know she's a survivor of a violent relationship. Suzanne is a leader in her local church, but she's afraid her church would ostracize her if they found out. "Can you imagine how that would affect my work if they found out I left my husband and got my marriage annulled?" she says ruefully. Suzanne's seen other women asked to step down out of their leadership positions simply because they left an abusive relationship.
She's also afraid of her ex. After she left him, he broke into her apartment and left a piece of jewelry lying on her dresser. "It was like he was saying, ‘I can still get to you. I still have power over you.’ I was afraid for my life."
When Suzanne first met her husband at church, he seemed like a "really, really, really nice guy." But two weeks into their marriage, the abuse began. "He used every bad word against me, every word of God against me," Suzanne says. Eight months into their marriage, Suzanne, who struggled with cancer, had to undergo surgery to remove a growth. At the hospital, she told the doctors she was afraid of her husband, and they refused to let him near her. When she left, she got an injunction against him, but her lawyer told her that an injunction needed to be followed by a divorce. "I told him, ‘I don't want a divorce, I want to work this out.’ It was hard for me because, as a Christian you take your vows seriously and for life," Suzanne says.
Afraid of her husband, Suzanne turned to her pastor. "He was very supportive of me, very supportive. He never doubted me," she says. When Suzanne told her pastor what was going on, he advised her to stay away. "When I saw how serious he was, I knew how serious and scary the situation was." Other women Suzanne has counseled haven't been so lucky. She recounts the story of one woman who told her pastor her husband was abusing her. The pastor, along with some elders, went to the house to confront the man. When they left, the husband turned his anger on his wife. Things got worse for the woman, who eventually fled her husband and left her church. "She couldn't trust those men anymore," Suzanne says.
"I was raised in the church and fully intended on marrying someone who fully shared my faith," says Lisa Van Allen, a licensed therapist and owner of Van Allen and Associates. "I went to a Bible school and came home and met the man who would be my husband at church. There was a total of three years from the time we started dating until we were married. "
Not everything was perfect. Van Allen found out later that there were some people in the church who knew her husband had problems, but no one told her about them at the time. She says: "When it got closer to the wedding, I had some concerns. He struggled with intimacy. Anything with touch or opening up, he pulled away." Van Allen took her concerns to her pastor who told her that they were just pre-wedding jitters and all the trouble would go away once they were married.
But it didn't go away. "In the car on the way to the honeymoon, I knew I had made a horrible mistake," she says. Her husband began to exhibit bizarre behavior on the honeymoon: He locked himself in the bathroom and ranted and raved in front of the mirror. When they got home, the physical abuse began. Again, Van Allen took her concerns to her pastor, and he told her she was nagging and henpecking. She talked to her pastor a third time he told her, "You go home and you obey your husband and everything will be fine."
The violence escalated. At one point, he exploded and pushed her down the stairs. Van Allen tore a ligament and hurt her back. She told her parents who confronted her husband, but it didn't help. "The way I was raised," Lisa says, "divorce was never supposed to be an option." Van Allen and her husband moved and went to a new church, but there she experienced the same accusations and stonewalling she endured at her previous church. "No one did anything," she recalls. "Most of the time I was put down, I was told I was 'pushy' and not being 'in submission.'" The violence escalated and Lisa reached out to a professor she was working with in graduate school. He got her husband into a drug trial and his personality improved. "Toward the end of the trial," Van Allen says, "I went to the pastor and I told him how sick my husband was and how the drugs had helped, but that I knew he would go off them. I asked them for help and again, they blew me off, like they did before."
Van Allen stayed in her marriage for 10 years because of the advice of her church. "It was hard for me," she says. "I was raised to believe that pastors were second to God and that wives were supposed to be submissive and that divorce was not an option." But that changed the night her husband tried to kill her. When her church found out that she had filed for divorce, they disciplined her. "They told me I could no longer serve. They told me I could come if I wanted, but I could only sit on the pew. I couldn't sing anymore, I couldn't play the piano, I couldn't work with the kids. I was treated like a pariah."
"Looking back," Van Allen says, "what [the church] did to me was abuse. They used their power to control me—to not help me but to add to my pain." After the divorce, Van Allen left the church and went on what she calls a spiritual journey, visiting and working with different churches. When her husband started stalking her, those churches provided refuge. Van Allen recalls once when her husband broke into her apartment; she fled to the Episcopal church she had only recently started attending. "The pastor there sheltered me and went with me to make sure my apartment was safe."
Van Allen moved and her husband followed. "I felt threatened, he was following me around in his car, so I drove to a Catholic church that was in the area, and these people didn't know me at all. I ran in and I said, 'I need to call the police. I need your help.'" The pastor brought her in, never doubting her for a moment, brought her a cup of coffee and stayed with her until she felt safe. But on the whole, Van Allen says the experience made her lose faith, not in God, but in men in the church. "The more conservative the church," she says, "the worse they are."
Do The Church's Teaching's Cause Abuse?
Van Allen, now a licensed therapist and Ph.D. who has worked with many women going through similar situations, believes the blame only belongs with her ex-husband and the men who, instead of helping her, encouraged her to stay. "The problem of domestic violence is a huge in the Church," says Lisa. "No one wants to face it." But she doesn't blame religion. "Look," she says, "you can use the Bible as a comfort or as a weapon, depending on whose hand it's in. It is individuals who use God's Word to beat you up."
Hernandez doesn't think the church made her ex an abuser. "But," she says, "I think he had abusive tendencies that had fresh soil to grow in that environment. I think he would have been abusive in any environment, but there he was able to act out some of these tendencies in a way that was almost accepted. … I hate to use the word brainwashing, but these ideas infiltrate our minds until we think there is no other way of looking at things."
"A lot of church people, even in this day and age, do not understand what domestic violence is and they have the wrong attitude," Suzanne says. "And [these men] are so skilled at church. They come across as these nice guys who everybody loves. They don't show that side at church." This, she explains, makes it easier for churches to look the other way, rather than face the problem.
While religion kept Hernandez, Suzanne and Van Allen trapped in their relationships, the women also believe that their faith ultimately made them free. "Finding the true God, on my own, made the difference," Hernandez says. "Knowing that God loved me and cherished me and wanted better for me was how I became free."
While the stories of these women are different, they have many things in common. Including the fact that the men who abused them are still attending churches and many remarried. Suzanne says: "When I heard he got married again, I just waited for the call from his wife. One day, as I was getting ready for school, it came." Van Allen says, "Something has got to change."