On Christian marriage, submission and abuse

Last Sunday 25 November was White Ribbon Day, kicking off a week of awareness-raising about domestic violence in Australia. In today’s opinion piece, Amelia Schwarze examines domestic violence and abuse within Christian marriage. 

Last week, the Dean of St Andrews Cathedral, Phillip Jensen attempted to tackle the submission versus subjugation theme. It was a brave attempt and I hope not the last time he ventures into the subject area. Strangely, the media haven’t picked up on his article that clearly articulates what isn’t acceptable conduct on the part of husbands in a Christian marriage.

We need more statements like this by ministers and those who blog, preach and influence those in the Church and those whose comments are picked up in the media. However, we need to be careful that we don’t just fall into what I fear is a defence of ‘what should be’, rather than acknowledging ‘what actually is’ in relation to the submission/sacrifice dynamic in many ‘Christian’ marriages.

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Anyone who has been married to another human being knows that each marriage has a power dynamic, and both partners at different points in time take advantage of the other and contrastingly at other times willingly serve each other sacrificially.

We oscillate between sin and service in a normal marriage context, often depending upon how much sleep we’ve had, how lazy we’re feeling, how sick the kids have been, who forgot to put the garbage out, pay the tax or other life stresses. This might cause us to raise our voice, roll our eyes, sulk, slam a door. Other relationships might roll along, with hardly a disagreement or argument but with this sinfulness playing out in slightly less obvious ways. Both types of marriages are fairly normal albeit at opposite ends of the normal range.

However, another dynamic exists in intimate relationships, which is far from normal or acceptable. A definition of Domestic Violence is found at the Parliament of Australia site and includes a reference to the following crucial point (highlights are my own):

… a central element of domestic violence is that of an ongoing pattern of behaviour aimed at controlling one’s partner through fear (for example, by using violent or threatening behaviour) … the violent behaviour is part of a range of tactics used by the perpetrator to exercise power and control … and can be both criminal and non-criminal in nature…

It goes on to state that domestic violence includes (among other things) “spiritual abuse—denial and/or misuse of religious beliefs or practices to force victims into subordinate roles and misusing religious or spiritual traditions to justify physical violence or other abuse”.

Domestic violence is a campaign (whether conscious or not) for one partner to dominate the other, to break them, to make them give up their sovereign personhood and to control what they do and how they think. Ultimately, to make them worship the other. It may not necessarily involve a man physically harming his wife. It doesn’t always need to in order for him to achieve ‘control’.

How can this exist in the church? Unfortunately, people come to churches for a variety of reasons. Some may come because someone they like goes; others come to hear the word of God;  and others because ‘being a Christian’ makes them feel good or gives them the opportunity to be in a position of authority.

Even more sinisterly, some come because they are places where people are likely to trust others, and at which vulnerable people are present. The tendency of paedophiles to hang around churches due to the ‘easy pickings’ is a well acknowledged danger.

In the same way that paedophiles ‘groom’ children, the types of men who become ‘abusers’ groom women. They may not even consciously know they are doing it, but in the majority of cases, they follow a well-worn script. Paedophiles and abusers are both very unlikely to acknowledge that their behaviour is wrong, and even when they do so, are even less likely to be able to stop the compulsion to behave that way.

Experts tell us that men with this type of character find churches an attractive place to act out on their dominance fantasies. Young Christian women trying to work out what submission means, are in a perfect position for this type of ‘wolf’ to practice on. A charming young man tells them he wants to ‘lead’ and ‘present her pure and blameless’. All she has to do is to be tractable and submit. She tries to do so, and in a step-by-step destabilisation process she slowly lets go of most of her boundaries, relationships and ideals.

Several months or years later, the woman is at a stage where she has to plead with her husband to let her go to her sister’s wedding, her mother’s funeral, her friend’s birthday party or to buy a new pair of shoes or underpants. He might tell her what she is ‘allowed’ to watch, to read, to eat. He might control her sleep, her clothes, her hair, whether she wears make-up and the contents of her bank account. All this he justifies by the fact she must ‘submit’ to him– because the Bible calls her to.

If she objects to such treatment, he scolds her, scorns her, calls her a nag, threatens her children or beats her up. In the end, she asks permission to do anything and everything. Her husband is so unpredictable that one wrong step could result in several days of abuse.

This isn’t an exaggeration; it is an everyday fact for a wife living with a man of this type of character.

Why am I telling you this? Statistics and anecdotal evidence suggest that these types of marriages are present in many (if not all) churches in Australia. Some of your congregation, your Bible study leaders, your Parish councillors, and possibly even your Ministers are men like this, living with wives who are silently going crazy. Shocking, yes, but more common than one would ever want to admit.

How many of them are there?

Statistics on domestic violence are very much under-reported in the general population and even more so in churches.  If you are the minister of a Church and you have a hundred couples in your congregation, the numbers suggest that somewhere between two and eight of those couples have a relationship that could be described as abusive.

Potentially, there also between four and sixteen people where their marriage is more reflective of a Punch and Judy show (without the humour), than of Christ and the Church.

I know no credible reason to believe that the rate of domestic violence within Australian churches is to any degree lower than in the general population (if anyone can provide any reliable statistics on this, by all means, leave a comment).  We might wishfully think that they must be lower, but as I’ve just stated, there are many attractions in church life to this type of man, especially as a continuing control mechanism for their unfortunate wife.

The best book I have come across on this topc is But He Says He Loves Me by American-born Sydney-based psychologist Dina McMillan. It is essential reading for any minister of the gospel, any women’s worker, and any young woman considering marriage.

It is a useful book to give to someone you suspect is suffering in this type of relationship or who may be dating a man of whose character you have concerns. The aim of the author is explicit–to stop women falling for these types of men, before they get too far into the relationship.

McMillan asserts you should be able to pick an abuser before you sleep with them, move in with them, marry them or have children with them. Abusers, she says, follow such a predictable pattern of behaviour and use such unoriginal language and tactics, that anyone after reading her book and analysing their partner’s behaviour, should be able to see whether they fit the profile of an abuser.  She also details the types of women these men might select as targets and notes that women of faith are one of those targets.

But submission to her husband is not the highest Christian virtue a woman can display and it is certainly not a wife’s “First commandment”. Her first commandment is the same as her husbands–to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind and have no other gods before Him. Idolatry in marriage is one of the most perverse things imaginable.

These issues are likely to be very well hidden by the couples concerned. It is a shameful situation and one in which the injured party themselves are likely to be greatly ashamed of, even if their spouse isn’t. Why is this so?

The man in this situation has a vested interest in not being found out and in maintaining control over his wife. His wife loves him and wants the best for him and wants the marriage to work. She wants to please God too, and often takes her promise ‘to obey’ very seriously.

This consideration of her promises is likely to be reinforced on a very regular basis by her husband telling her she needs to obey him and that she is very disobedient and sinful. He quite possibly quotes bits of the Bible about nagging wives to her (not in a joking way). He thinks he loves her, and knows best and should be guiding her, training her and rebuking her (and occasionally a good beating might be justified if she’s been a bit too naggy).

The wife is exhibiting something very close to Stockholm syndrome. She might well escape out the door at any well-chosen moment (remembering that a badly chosen moment will result in serious abuse), but the thought of doing so is generally too hard to bear, unless the cost of staying becomes higher than the cost of leaving. This is one reason why women will often leave not when they suffer abuse themselves, but when their husbands start threatening the same to their children.

The marriage becomes an empty vessel – white on the outside and whilst in the company of other people, but black and filthy in its heart and behind closed doors.

The prospects for any type of regeneration and behaviour change in the husband are pretty bleak in these situations. Generally, a wife has two choices–stay and put up with the situation or abandon the marriage and everything that goes along with that. It is not often that the situation can be ameliorated and the marriage maintained. We might like it to be, but the plain statistics are that it hardly ever is. The averaged battered woman attempts to leave her husband around seven times before she realises his promises of change are hollow.

Some of the most unhelpful statements from ministers on this subject appear to be fed by the misguided view that preserving the marriage is the highest aim. Marriages are delicate things, and certain types of behaviour can and do break them beyond repair. They are not more important than the wellbeing of a psychologically tortured woman or an abused child. Marriages should be reflective of Christ’s relationship with the church. When they become so distorted that they feel more demonic than descriptive of the mystery of marriage, then it needs to be considered–why are we preserving them?

A phrase often used by ministers is that it is permissible for someone experiencing domestic abuse to separate from their husband–sometimes with the addition ‘for a while so you can sort things out’.  Permissible?  Why not wise, or simply the right thing to do? How about we try something stronger, such as pleading with the woman to look after herself and her children and telling her that allowing herself to be treated like that is not respecting herself, God or the law.

We should be teaching that this is the righteous thing to do, not that it is permissible when someone can’t ‘tough it out’ any more. It is not an admission of failure; it is the first necessary step in refocussing your life on God and not Baal in the form of your husband.

Christians who encourage those who are ‘merely’ verbally abused by their husbands, to go back into the ring for another round, miss the point that this abuse is an ongoing campaign on the part of the husband for control of the wife’s thought life, and not the occasional action of a grumpy husband who has had one too many drinks after the footy.

In order to please her husband, wives in this situation may spend many hours of the day thinking about how her husband might possibly react to everything she does, second guessing herself about how some of life’s simplest choices might possibly upset the balance at home. She comes up with strategies for how she might appease him, should she cross some line of ‘unacceptable’ behaviour she never knew was there. This is idolatry, in its worst form. It is wicked, not ‘biblically’ wise to encourage someone to persist in this environment.

If you are a woman reading this, and you think your partner might have a control problem similar to the one I have described above, please be sure to delete this site from your browser history, if you are using a computer that your partner can access.  And please, be brave and summon up the courage to talk to someone you trust about what is going on in your marriage. God wants you to share your burden with others.  He loves you and He wants you out of there.