(Update to this article: When I originally wrote it, I didn’t mention the name of the church or the pastor. It wasn’t important at the time. Two years later it became important because that pastor, now pictured above, was accused of having inappropriate sexual relationships with girls in his youth group when he served as a youth pastor. Then I came out in this article HERE to talk about my interactions with the pastor (Wes Feltner of Berean Baptist in Burnsville, Mn). I talk about this further in podcast episode 43: When Abusers Demand Reconciliation if you’re interested in a better way of understanding what reconciliation actually entails. Because it’s not what the abuser says it is.)
I came to worship within your walls this morning. I came to worship, and I left with one hundred other women—every single one bleeding.
I began my worship journey within the walls of another, smaller church when I was seven years old. I fell in love with Jesus that day. I wanted to be a missionary. I wanted to be a pastor’s wife (I was aware that girls couldn’t be pastors). I wanted to be like Corrie Ten Boom and Elisabeth Elliot and Ann Kiemel – my heroes. I wanted to share Jesus with everyone I knew. I wanted to live and breathe and die for Him. I loved him as much as a girl possibly could.
I did share Jesus with everyone I knew. I got in trouble for it at school with my peers. You hit a certain age, and it’s not cool to share Jesus anymore. But I did anyway. By the time I graduated, I was affectionately voted “Most Likely to Become a Nun.”
I had a reputation for loving Jesus.
I went to a small Christian college in Roseville, MN and held leadership positions there, working with other college women in the dorms doing discipleship. When I graduated, I taught English in a small Christian school and listened to the teenaged woes of my students after school hours. Later, I raised support and went into full time ministry working on the University of Minnesota campus doing what I loved. Sharing Jesus with women.
I loved my life. And then I got married, and everything changed.
But this letter isn’t about me.
This letter is actually about 100 other women who were sitting inside those same walls with me this morning.
Did you know that among those who claim faith in Jesus, the vast majority of divorces are initiated by wives in their 40’s-50’s?
Did you know that the top three reasons these women give for initiating divorce are 1. Spousal adultery 2. Spousal addiction 3. Spousal abuse?
Did you know that of the men who initiate divorce in “Christian” marriages, the number ONE reason is infidelity? Their own?
What does this communicate to you? I hope it raises your awareness of a massive epidemic in the church and how it destroys women and children.
One out of three women sitting in your auditorium this morning are being emotionally, spiritually, and (sometimes) physically abused by their intimate male partner (“Christian” husband) when they go home.
I’m just taking a wild guess, but let’s say there were 300 women in there. That means 100 of them are in one of the deepest, darkest, most hidden and prolonged sufferings of the human race.
Many of these women have been enduring emotional and spiritual abuse for two-three decades. I recently wrote about the strength that enables them to continue supporting their abusive partners in spite of being dehumanized and used by them. But you need to know they are wiped out physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Many of them are on prescription drugs for depression and anxiety. They’ve got hormone imbalances, and their immune systems are shot. Most of them suffer from C-PTSD.
Because long-term covert abuse does that to a person. It messes with their bodies in unseen ways.
I want you to keep that in mind as I recap some things you taught them today.
- You taught them from the book of Jude that when people get tired of their marriages, they want a change, so rather than staying committed, they decide to “do it their own way.” They say, “I’ll be my own authority.” And they discard their marriages in pursuit of their own selfish desires.
When you said that, 100 women who are regularly begging God for mercy on their bathroom floors, begging God to end their lives so they can find relief, experienced paralyzing terror and despair. They may have even heard from an abuse hotline or secular counselor (Bible counselors tend to re-abuse them so they do eventually find real help from the secular culture which is more educated about abuse dynamics) that they should get to a place of safety.
But they love Jesus, they are committed in ways most folks can’t fathom, and they are far from selfish. They’ve sacrificed everything on the altar of marriage. Their girlhood dreams of being in a safe, loving relationship. Their careers. Their desire to use their gifts and skills. And they know that if they were to stand up and tell the truth about their marriage, they would be accused of being selfish. Of “doing it their own way.” Of “being their own authority.”
They believe they are earmarked for a lifetime of abuse. Why? Because God says so. It is His will for them. If they were to “rebelliously” believe otherwise, they would be accused of not knowing God. (Ask me how I know.)
2. You said, “If what I’m saying feels offensive to you, you are identifying with worldly captivity instead of biblical reality.”
When you said that, one hundred women were offended. Not in an angry way. But in an utterly hopeless “I wish I was dead” way. Because they are damned for “identifying with a worldly captivity” and also damned for being forced to be in a position to be damned.
It is the quintessential catch-22 of abuse.
3. You said there are consequences for this selfish autonomy. DESTRUCTION.
When you said that, if any of those 100 women had been considering getting to a safe place, they are now terrified to make any moves. Because what is unsafe now is AT LEAST FAMILIAR. But this nebulous “destruction” the church speaks of? That is an unknown terror they can only guess at and have nightmares over.
Perhaps it will involve her children, and she can’t let that happen. So even though the long term consequences for children growing up in abusive homes are devastating, and statistically they do much better when Mom is safe and emotionally well, the unknown “destruction” that could come upon them is not worth getting them to a place of truth and safety.
Better to sit in church and smile. Keep pretending all is well. Better to deny and enable than to risk losing everything.
Besides, if they were to get out of their abusive relationship, they would have to initiate the end of a marriage. They would be labeled a “covenant breaker.” A “marriage-destroyer.” They don’t realize yet that it is their abuser who has broken covenant with them. That their abuser has destroyed the marriage, but more importantly to Jesus, he has destroyed the human lives within the marriage, including his own.
If they were to initiate the end of the abusive marriage, they would be forced to pay a heavy price. They were reminded of that heavy price this morning. It lay like a cold, threatening mountain in the depths of their being.
4. You told them their bodies didn’t belong to them. You told them their lives didn’t belong to them.
When you said that, you reinforced the message they get every day from their abuser. They exist for one reason only. To service the abuser. Their bodies belong to their abuser. Their lives belong to their abuser.
For them to rise up and make any other choice would be rebellion against God, their abuser, and the church. Why? Because they’ve been taught that God speaks through their authority. Their authority is their husband and the church.
They have no choices. They have no autonomy. They are only one hundred hidden women sitting next to abusers in the pews of your church.
And unlike their abusive husbands who didn’t hear a damn word you said, these women took every. single. word. to heart.
Let me back up a minute now. I get what you were saying. I get it, I really do. I’ve been going to church, reading my Bible through every year, doing Bible studies, listening to sermons online, and reading bazillions of non-fiction Christian books for 40 years. Everything you said is true unless you are talking to an abuse survivor and an abuser.
Here’s what you need to understand:
An abuse survivor…
- believes there is grace for everyone but her.
- believes she is only worth love when she is making her abuser and her church happy with her.
- believes she will not be heard or believed.
- is scared
- is exhausted
- is hiding to survive.
- feels crazy
- feels hopeless
- feels unloved
- acts as if he is entitled to whatever he wants, when he wants it.
- demands grace and forgiveness without repenting or asking.
- ignores his wife’s voice.
- blames his wife for his sin.
- minimizes his sin.
- expects submission.
- expects unquestioning support.
- expects to get his way.
- is intermittently kind and then mean depending on his agenda.
There is a world of difference between the sheep and the wolves. Shepherds who love the sheep need to get this straight.
I’m asking you – no – I’m BEGGING you to keep those 100 women in focus when you preach. Because if you knew who they were when you looked out over that sea of faces, and if their upturned eyes were looking into yours, you might phrase things more carefully.
I don’t know if the problem is that you don’t care about those 100 women—or if the problem is that you aren’t AWARE of those 100 women. Bear with me, and I’ll explain my unwanted confusion.
You see, I was excommunicated from a church that, for many years, I assumed just wasn’t AWARE of me and others like me. I assumed it must be a lack of awareness because I absolutely could not FATHOM anyone so flippantly not caring. It was so foreign to my thinking and so unlike the Jesus I knew.
But now I know they really and truly didn’t care. And it was more than just a lazy apathy, it was a deeply rooted misogyny that was so thick, I could feel it.
But you know what? I don’t know anyone in this new church of yours that I’ve been going to for a couple of years now. I’ve kept my head down. I’ve desperately wanted to go back to my innocent belief that “church folks are good folks who care.”
Assuming you do care, and this was just a matter of being unaware, I have some ideas for how you can preach and teach while keeping a large, wounded segment of your church body in mind.
- Instead of saying “Your body doesn’t belong to you. Your life doesn’t belong to you,” how about saying “Your body and your life belong to Jesus, your Ultimate Authority. As long as you are connected to the Vine and seeing Truth and living out the law of LOVE (which trumps the law according to the gospel of John), you are doing well. Sometimes following Jesus’s authority means disobeying worldly authority (which can also be found in a church and home setting.) An example of this would be a woman being emotionally and spiritually abused in her home. Her body belongs to Jesus, not her abuser. And by the way, not only does YOUR life body belong to Jesus, but your spouse’s life and body belong to Jesus as well. So if you’re not treating your spouse’s life and body with loving honor, then you’re missing the point of grace.”
Now THAT’S a message that would speak living truth to BOTH the victim of abuse AND the abuser. It would deliver hope to a victim and truth to an abuser. (Abusers almost never repent. It’s part of what makes them abusers and not just your average Christian sinner. Getting a personality-disordered individual to repent and change is not your job. That’s God’s job. Telling the TRUTH is your job.)
A victim needs to know that while her life and body belongs to Jesus, her Creator has given only one human being full stewardship over that life and body. And that’s HERSELF. This is not selfish autonomy. This is common sense responsibility and personal accountability. And it saves lives.
2. Instead of saying “If you make a decision autonomously, you are rebellious and will reap the consequences which will be DESTRUCTION!” How about saying, “We need to make decisions before God. Sometimes other people won’t like our decisions, but we need to obey God rather than men. When we make a decision with God’s guidance, we can rest assured that He will bring good from that decision. Maybe not right away, but down the road. He is always working things for our good when we obey Him.”
Now THAT’S a message that communicates FREEDOM to a victim. Freedom to look to GOD as her authority, not fraudulent authority. It also communicates to an abuser that HE IS NOT GOD. And his wife gets to look to God for direction and help. She is not to be controlled by the selfish whims of men.
3. Instead of saying “If you’re offended by my message, you are operating from a worldly perspective,” how about saying, “This message isn’t meant to offend the sensibilities of those who are hurting here today. There may be folks here who are fresh out of battle and bleeding out. This message isn’t meant to shoot another bullet through your chest. But if you are confident you have the right to do whatever you want, whenever you want, with no accountability whatsoever, then this message may offend you. It SHOULD offend you.
Now THAT’S a message that communicates LOVE to a victim. Love that says, “we are here to bind up your wounds, not carve out more bloody places in your heart for us to suck.” It also sends a message to abusers. It lets them know that you actively care about victims. That you don’t pussy foot around covert abusers, hoping to keep their tithe. You hold them accountable even if it means they leave your church.
4. Instead of saying “When people get tired of their marriages, they want a change, and they rebelliously discard their vows and find a new partner,” how about saying, “There may be people in this room who feel tired of their marriage and want a change. They may be having an affair. They may be considering discarding their spouse by filing for divorce. Or EVEN MORE COMMON they may discard their spouse every day in the way they emotionally or spiritually or physically treat them. To be clear, I’m not referring to those who are forced, through no desire of their own, to initiate a divorce to end an abusive marriage. Divorce for the purpose of protection and safety isn’t what I’m talking about. We want our women and children to be emotionally, spiritually, and physically safe here at our church. Always remember there are more ways than one to discard your spouse, and abuse is far more common than divorce.”
Now THAT’S a message that communicates HOPE to a victim. Hope that says she is SAFE to tell the truth in your church without being accused of gossiping and slandering her husband. Hope that says you will support her if she decides it is in her best interest to make legal what has already been destroyed. It also communicates to those 100 abusers that you have zero tolerance for their behaviors. You will not harbor them, enable them, and encourage them. They will repent and turn toward the Living God for mercy, or they will reap the consequences of their behavior.
Why am I so passionate about this? Because I spent 25 years begging for help from the two churches we were members of, and nobody heard or helped me. In the end, I was forced to initiate a divorce on my own with very little support from anyone at my church. Going through a lengthy separation and lengthy divorce was, by far, the most hellish experience of my life. My church not only refused to comfort me through it, they excommunicated me for it.
The destruction came from one place only. The church. Praise God, He is NOT a destroyer of women. I am now in a healthy marriage relationship, and I sat in the front row this morning with a man who loves and respects me. That is part of His redemption story for my life. I trusted Jesus when I was bullied for my faith as a child. I trusted Jesus when I was in my abusive marriage. I trusted Jesus when I separated. I trusted Jesus when I divorced. I trusted Jesus when my church betrayed me. I trusted Jesus when I remarried. And I will trust Jesus as He gives me a platform to advocate for others.
Jesus is the air I breathe, the food I eat, and the Savior I trust.
But I will always hear certain types of sermons through the ears of an abuse survivor. I will always see those one hundred women in the room. I’m asking one simple thing.
I’m asking you to see them, too.
P.P.S. If you are an abuse survivor who has also suffered harm from your church, I invite you to share a little bit about your experience in the comments section in case any pastors are open to hearing your voices. May God use your testimonies to bring repentance and compassion to this very broken table.