I want to start off by saying that I know this is a touchy topic, and I am certainly not passing any general sweeping judgment on the subject, but am simply sharing my experience and what I have known to be the experience of other women in the church. To me it is more important to discuss this in the open than to keep everybody comfortable. Life is messy. People are messy. And the church is made up of people, so it is bound to also be, at times, messed up. This is also a longer post than normal, so if you are looking for a 5 minute read – choose something else and come back when you have a little more time to invest.
I grew up as a woman in the church. I was a preacher’s kid, a missionary kid, and as an adult I remained very involved in various ministries in church. Like all respectful church-going women, I submitted myself fully to the authority of the elders who, in my case, were always men.
Somethings in life are black and white – it is wrong to steal, to cheat, to kill – but in the vast array of earthly experiences, it turns out that very few fall into these clear categories.
The vast majority of issues that we humans struggle with are not so clear cut. They are varying shades of gray, and it takes true discernment and understanding to be able to make a right judgment and navigate them well.
When it comes to relationships and marriage this is especially true. Years of unhealthy patterns coupled with past hurts and future fears come together to form a big knotted ball of confusion. Teasing out the truth and the reality of the situation is the role of therapists and psychiatrists. And yet as trusting church-goers, we often place this knotted ball into the hands of the leaders of the church, and most of them have had little to no training with abusive relationships.
That was the case for me. Years in the making, my marriage was a hot mess by the time I asked the elders for help. I was done, at the end of my rope, and so we unloaded the baggage before them and accepted to follow their directives. I was desperate for help.
I found out that Church leaders tend to place the sanctity of marriage above the emotional and psychological well-being of those involved. It’s just an easy way to stick to the black and white of the situation. God hates divorce, period. Easy to quote scripture. Therefore the goal is to keep the relationship together. The cost is irrelevant.
These men were good men, fine upstanding citizens and nice people, but they knew nothing of the twisted behaviors of a manipulative and controlling personality. I was exhausted just trying to survive the relationship, and I was also naive and uneducated. I was growing in my understnading as I gained knowledge from books and experts, but I lacked the fortitude, the energy and the confidence to also teach them what I was learning. Besides, as men, their role was to guide me and direct me – not to learn from me – that was made clear. Most of my suggestions, over the 2 years that this went on, were ignored.
Due to the undeniable negative toll the anger and tension in the home was causing, they finally recommended a temporary separation so that we could heal and each get help on our own without continually adding to the hurt.
However since we had two young children, we were forced to continue relating to one another even if just to discuss their schedules, which would always open the door to an unhealthy exchange, which would then continue to aggravate the very precarious situation. Yet the goal was always reconciliation.
The church sees marriage as a holy symbol, a tangible example of God’s relationship to us, a way of showing the world how God loves us. Yet my rocky marriage was anything but that.
Truly if someone were to observe our toxic relationship, they would deduce that God is controlling, angry, vengeful, uncaring, self-absorbed, accusatory, sometimes passive and sometimes abusive towards his people.
Yet the elders wanted to let this continue on and on. After all my husband would convince them with his words that he was willing to work at it. What is was wasn’t honoring to God, it wasn’t healthy for anyone involved, and it wasn’t setting any kind of good example for my sons. But they believed in what he said it could be.
Words are cheap. A dime a dozen. They don’t impress God and they shouldn’t impress us.
Who turns out to be the good son in the parable of the two brothers? The one who said he would go out and work the fields, or the one who went and actually worked the fields? Does God value words or actions more?
In many places in scripture we see that hollow words mean nothing to God. He looks at the heart, which spills out into actions everyday. Look to the fruit of the tree to see what it is.
When a man removes his love, his caring, his presence, his provision and his protection – he has for all intensive purposes abandoned the marriage.
This was my case yet the elders refused to acknowledge it. They would ask me time and time again to give him another chance.
Yet when he WAS given chance after chance to put those things back in place and he DID NOT do it – for whatever reason or excuse – he was by his actions abandoning and rejecting his wife all over again.
This is what repeatedly happened during the 15 months before I asked for a legal separation.
And each time I would hurt, and grieve, and desperately want it to end. And each time they would ask for me to wait it out and give him another chance – which only turned out to be another chance to hurt me.
It’s not that the elders wanted me to suffer endlessly at the hands of a manipulator. They simply bought into his empty promises because they could not discern the cycle of abuse; they were not equipped to deal with the insidious nature of abuse and addiction.
My therapist however was an expert – meaning she trained others and wrote books about abuse which were recognized and highly regarded in the counseling community. She was my insight, my shoulder to cry on, my sanity.
I recommended time and time again that they seek her counsel and wisdom.
They never bothered.
Yet they felt fully justified in telling me to wait it out, continue to hold on. They wanted me to continue this dance of insanity, yet they themselves did not have to live with the burden of what they asked me to do.
I was the one getting the blame and dealing with the head games in our joint counseling sessions. Then after an hour of being blamed and accused by my husband, I would have to pick up two loud and active boys, go home, feed them and get them to bed while being an emotionally stable caregiver. Stuff the anguish. No time to cry.
I had to help with homework, do the laundry, feed the cats, pay the bills on time (including my husband’s car and life insurance and all of the household taxes and insurance although it was all still jointly held), shop and cook, change the sheets, clean the house, taxi the boys to sports events and remember to sign them up on time, schedule play-dates and sleep-overs, find sitters for the nights I would have classes (as I was beginning to go to college because I lived in a reality where I didn’t have a husband to provide a secure future for me and my boys so it was up to me to get an education and a better paying job with medical benefits), then I needed to do my homework so I would pass said classes, and I also needed to juggle working 30 hours a week with picking up my oldest from school and figuring out how to work when the boys were sick yet the bills were still due. Meanwhile my husband stayed with a church friend, worrying only about himself and his work, sporadically contributing money and barging into the house in order to remind me it was still his and to keep me off-balance.
Then I would need to return to joint counseling the next week, to again be accused of everything under the sun by a man who claimed that he wanted to be my husband yet for all practical and emotional purposes left me hanging alone and overwhelmed with nothing to show for his words.
And the elders would occasionally drop me a line to see how I was doing. Every few months the pastor would even check in.
As I would cry before God on my knees and beg for help and for someone to make this stop, it seemed to me that their silence and willingness to allow this to continue month after month expressed their approval of it.
I wondered – how much would they sacrifice to “save” this marriage? My life? My sanity? My dignity?
I often felt like I was only valued for the part I played in my marriage and in helping my husband to grow and become who they thought he could be. I was a secondary character in this story.
I wondered – if I didn’t continue on with the role they wanted me to play, would I lose my value to them?
God slowly shed light on the madness of the situation, and taught me that my husbands lack of action was indeed a choice which I needed to deal with. I had waited for close to 2 years to see if the separation would yield genuine change and to see if the responsible, loving actions he claimed he wanted to take would materialize. We had all been waiting for him to choose to act. It never happened, but the church leadership would not recognize that as a choice…perhaps because they didn’t know where to go from there.
When you ask for action, and none seems to be taken, look closer – INACTION IS THE ACTION.
To my horror, it began to dawn on me that no one was going to come to my rescue. My good-girl, MP, PK, church-going self was devastated but I knew it was time. I needed to be the one to put an end to the madness.
In a way my husband relished the fact that I was the one to finally file for divorce. He was able to continue his blame game, making me do the “dirty work” of functionally following through on what had already occurred.
I had been abandoned by an irresponsible, immature and self-centered person. I was simply acknowledging that fact and now making it plain and clear and legal.
And of course the elders denounced it, and reminded me with a long letter that it went against God’s will and was not what He wanted for us. My husband told the kids to pray that mommy would not do this terrible thing. I lost many friends and also left my church because of it.
And 15 years later I still know without a doubt it was the right decision.
At the time I tried to explain to the elders why I was taking this ill-advised option. It was not a reaction to “feelings” of abandonment, as they put it. In truth I did feel abandoned, but that was because I HAD indeed been abandoned. I wasn’t making this up. And it saddened and worried me that they were incapable of recognizing when a man had abandoned his wife.
I know that there are many other women who are silently suffering alone in their marriages, who desperately need help from insightful, strong, godly men. Where will they get that help, if not in the church?
Now I want to be clear that not all churches are like mine, and not all church leaders are ignorant about abuse and neglect. But sadly, many are. We allow these men to speak into our lives and guide our choices because we are scared and we need help. We trust them and place our fates into their hands. Yet many do not possess the spirit of discernment and truth. Why do we put them in such a position of power in our lives?
One reason might be our personal tendencies. If we are in an abusive or unhealthy relationship, it is probably because at some point we allowed an unhealthy person to take control. We handed over the reigns. In other words, we did not take ownership of our own decisions and our own lives because…deep down we are terribly insecure. We prefer for others to decide for us.
If a man in a position of authority says so – it must be so. In a way it is comforting to not be responsible for making big decisions on our own.
So I placed my faith and my well-being into the hands of unqualified men.
The greatest gift in this whole experience ended up being the hardest part – when God forced me to become my own rescuer, my own hero – the one to put a stop to the cycle of abuse. I had to be the one who CLOSED THE DOOR.
I kept waiting for another to do it, someone more qualified, with more authority.
But none did.
So God reminded me of who I was, and He taught me to stand. And with His help – and that of my loving family and friends – I did.
Turns out that God is familiar with the pain of desertion and abandonment that I experienced, because he was betrayed and rejected also. He was in a position where he had to call his “bride” to the table and make a decision about her actions. He wrote her a certificate of divorce and gave her what she wanted (check out the book of Jeremiah).
That is what I had to do. Divorce was what my husband wanted, whether he would admit it with words or in action only.
While I was hoping it would be the elders, God himself became my defender, my refuge and my shield. I decided to follow Him through a valley I never wanted to go through, and to do that I had to make a break with the leadership in the church.
I had to stand on my own.
Please understand that I am not saying there are no churches that offer help to women in these situations – since then I have heard words of truth spoken from various pulpits and support shown to women in abusive situations. There are many good people in the church who know about manipulators and will hold men (and women) accountable for their actions. At that time, my church was simply not one of them. And it could be that yours isn’t either. The letter of the law can easily be spat out at women in this situation. Black and white is safe, and requires no real insight.
Divorce and going against the counsel of church leadership was not what I would have chosen, but it was my reality, and for some reason God had chosen to allow this in my journey.
Oftentimes God does not reveal WHAT He is doing , but rather WHO He is. That was where my hope came from. I knew that He was my guide and my provider and that because of that, the boys and I would be OK. Because He is faithful, and He cannot be untrue to His nature.
You may be a long-time church member like myself, loving God and desiring to do His will. You may be hoping that the leadership will step in and help your situation. And having been taught the virtues of submitting to one’s elders, you may be committed to doing what they say. The idea of going against them may even seem rebellious and sacrilegious.
But by doing what they say you may be – in good faith- perpetuating a very unhealthy situation, creating a place of comfort and ease for the evil in your home to continue and even to thrive.
You hope and you wait for the church to save you. Stop!
There is one much better – MUCH better – to whom you can commit your plight. Trust in Him. Not the limited understandings of men.
He sees it all. He knows.
He does not ask you to lay down your life for a toxic person to continue their sick cycle of abuse. He tells us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.
Place your fate into HIS hands!
Stand up, trust yourself, trust in Him, and know that if you do, you WILL BE OK.
Even without man’s approval.
“So he said to the keeper of the vineyard, ‘Look, for the past three years I have come to search for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Therefore cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone again this year, until I dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine. But if not, you can cut it down.’”… Luke 13:7-9