About five years ago, I sat next to her the morning she was trying church again. I understand why she had quit trying altogether up until now…the threats and the punches from her husband, the need to stay in the marriage from her old church and pastor, the reality of how in hell to care for her children and protect herself at the same time. I couldn’t believe she showed up to begin with. And on that Sunday morning, the sermon itself was ultimately about how wives should keep doing the right thing even when their husbands’ don’t in hopes that their husbands will come around. God bless.
For people dealing with socks in the floor or toilet seats left up, perhaps this is not a problematic statement. But the reality that more than two thirds of christian women in violent relationships feel like it’s their duty to tolerate the violence1 makes it a problem. The difficulty with knowing that nine out of ten church-going, christian women interviewed felt that their husbands used their religion and doctrine to support their abuse2 makes it even messier.
I worked at the church at that time, so I found myself on Monday morning wringing my hands while deciding whether or not to mention this difficulty to the preacher. When walking in that morning, one of the staff who worked there at the time asked if I had been at church the day before and what I thought about it. After playing dumb and answering with questions, it became clear that she was a survivor of domestic violence and left the sermon the day before feeling guilty for leaving the marriage. Another conversation with yet another church staffer made it clear that there were at least two women in the building who had been in “christian” marriages in the past where domestic violence was present. They had both pushed courageously through their church’s tradition that you have to stay, wait it out, and keep doing the right thing in hopes that your male “head of the christian marriage” will come around. The two of them before 9:30 in the morning made it clear that I had to mention this issue to the preacher in hopes that in the future he would be willing to make the caveat to avoid these silent sufferers leaving church thinking God is mad at them for their bravery in avoiding assault.
His response when I scheduled a meeting with him about the issue?
“You can caveat a sermon to death.”
A few days later, an additional response.
“It’s not your place to talk to me like you’re my teacher.”
I managed to leave my employment at that church too many months later after these interactions. I’ve learned in the meantime, now serving my second year as chair for an incredible nonprofit working to empower women and men in abusive relationships to get the hell out, the reality that many churches are afraid to address head on the issues of domestic violence out of fear that people are looking for excuses for divorce.
Please catch your breath with me.
Many churches and their male pastors, in this area at least, are afraid to address head on the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault out of fear that women are looking for excuses for divorce. Or, for the incredibly important reason that we can “caveat a sermon to death.”
To my friend that Sunday morning sitting next to me, leg and arm muscles tightening as you received word from the pastor that you should stick it out, I’m so sorry. I wan you I left. I moved on. And I wish I had never invited you. To church staff who pushed through the same issues, I’m so sorry. I left. I want you to know I moved on. And so did you. To the women who are still in church and still in marriages and still wondering whether or not God honors marriage more than your own safety and dignity, I have good news. He is for you.
This past Sunday, I watched as the Executive Director of WRAP, the nonprofit working to empower survivors of sexual and domestic violence, climbed the steps to the microphone at my church during the middle of the service. I felt my watery eyes turn on as she spoke gently and directly about the number of women who show up for services at WRAP and say that they were afraid to tell their churches because they were afraid they wouldn’t be believed. I watched the priest walk over to this woman as she was trying to make her way off the platform as he said, “please don’t go yet. If I can, I’d like to pray for you and the people your organization works with.” I watched him put his arms around her and say, “Thank you God for women like Daryl, and for places like WRAP, and for the work they do as a part of your church to let people know your heart if for marriages and families of mutual respect. You are a God who wants peace in families, and safety for all in the family. We know, God, that you are never for the abuse of your children. So we say today that we stand with you against domestic violence for all reasons. Empower your servants to work with great power to free those in danger, and know that you are with them.”
You will go to church tomorrow. Is your church willing to honor peace over abusive marriage? Ask. Find out. Make it an issue, and make sure that your church will speak up. The people affected by these issues won’t cause problems in your congregations; they will go home and take another fist to the face. The burden is ours. The insistence is His.
If you or someone you know is experiencing or has experienced domestic or sexual violence, contact WRAP by visiting www.wraptn.org.
1 Nash, S. T., Faulkner, C., & Abell, R. R. (2013). Abused conservative Christian wives: Treatment considerations for practitioners. Counseling and Values (58). October, pp. 205-220.
2. Nickmeyer, N., Levitt, H. & Horne, S. G. (2010). Putting on Sunday best: The silencing of battered women within Christian faith communities. Feminism and Psychology. (20)2. February, pp. 94-113.