From hero to zero: When #MeToo arrives at church

A survivor of an abusive marriage issues a challenge

The “judgment of God has come” on America’s “largest evangelical denomination”, the Southern Baptist Convention. That’s the opinion of Albert Mohler, one of its most outspoken conservative leaders, and a well-known blogger.

Mohler says “the #MeToo moment has come to American evangelicals” as Paige Patterson – president of the influential Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas – was stood down this week.

Following weeks of outcry relating to Patterson’s comments about and handling of domestic abuse, he was made emeritus professor by Seminary trustees.

“Sexual misconduct is as old as sin, but the avalanche of sexual misconduct that has come to light in recent weeks is almost too much to bear,” wrote Mohler, referencing beyond Patterson and within the Southern Baptist Convention. “These grievous revelations of sin have occurred in churches, in denominational ministries, and even in our seminaries.”

Before Patterson was stood down, Isabella Young – an activist against domestic abuse – wrote this personal response about how survivors can be continually traumatised by church leadership.

Paige Patterson, the 75-year-old president of the influential Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, has in the past few weeks wandered into a firestorm many years in the making.

Patterson has been a major leader of the conservative resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which numbers around 15 million people.

For centuries the church has provided poor advice and misguided teaching to those suffering from domestic abuse. Patterson, who is a proud defender of the permanency of marriage, has recently been challenged about comments he made in 2000 after he was asked “What do you recommend for women who are undergoing genuine physical abuse from their husbands and their husbands say they should be submitting?” His answer is worth examining as it typifies the type of advice that has been given to abused spouses in many modern-day churches.

Since the #MeToo movement began, the church has been under increased levels of scrutiny.

Patterson’s response to the women can be summed up as “pray, stay and submit,” with no option to leave unless the marriage was subject to the “most serious” level of  “physical or moral danger.” Patterson stated that he had never counselled divorce and only counselled temporary separation in the most serious of cases. He also stated the details of such cases were so awful he wouldn’t speak about them in public.

Instead, for “less serious” abuse he counselled prayer, and for the wife to “submit in any way that she is able” and to “elevate” her husband. He placed emphasis on the way the wife should behave to win him for Christ.

As an illustration of this, he said: I had a woman who was in a church that I served, and she was being subject to some abuse, and I told her, I said, “All right, what I want you to do is, every evening I want you to get down by your bed just as he goes to sleep, get down by the bed, and when you think he’s just about asleep, you just pray and ask God to intervene, not out loud, quietly,” but I said, “You just pray there.”

And I said, “Get ready because he may get a little more violent, you know, when he discovers this.” And sure enough, he did. She came to church one morning with both eyes black. And she was angry at me and at God and the world, for that matter. And she said, “I hope you’re happy.” And I said, “Yes ma’am, I am.” And I said, “I’m sorry about that, but I’m very happy.”

He went on to describe how the man came to repentance at church following the assault and how now the man in question was a “great husband.” The couple in question are yet to emerge to support Patterson’s assertion that their marital issues were so neatly resolved.

Patterson’s comments have been critiqued before, but since the #metoo movement began, the church has been under increased levels of scrutiny. A few weeks ago, the public outcry began. Firstly, a blogpost, then a Southern Baptist male leader broke ranks to do the unthinkable, in publicly criticising Patterson. Then the floodgates opened, and the women came out.

The abused are extremely traumatised people.

It seems Patterson has underestimated the sheer numbers of women who count themselves affected by the domestic abuse issue within Baptist churches. At the time of writing, around 3000 women of the Southern Baptist Convention had signed a petition calling for his resignation from the seminary, and other male leaders have also called him to account.

From the accounts that I have read, there are many Southern Baptist women who have left their congregations due to secondary abuse by their pastors and churches after revealing domestic violence within their marriages. Most of these women are still “members” and eligible to sign the petition. They have been collectively disempowered and spiritually isolated but have just woken up and made their voice heard.

After much bluster to the contrary, Patterson has partially apologised, but his apology leaves the reader still wondering if he at all understands what he has done wrong. And he still makes no apology for his stance on divorce.

There is not much difference between the experience of Southern Baptist women and that of abused spouses in Australian churches. We have mostly moved past “submit til you bleed” theology, but we still haven’t all got our head round why divorce might be a highly appropriate recourse for many abused husbands and wives.

I don’t intend to put forth an argument here as to why divorce in such situations is biblically justified; others have provided convincing scholarship on this, the most thorough being David Instone-Brewer’s Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: A Social and Literary Context.

If you do not believe that divorce is justified for abuse, I’d challenge you to read it.

Rather I want to demonstrate just one of the negative effects of making divorce difficult for the abused within churches.

The abused are extremely traumatised people. If you manage to exit an abusive marriage without Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or major depression, you are fortunate. Abuse survivors are unavoidably damaged, psychologically, spiritually and physically. The brains of some abuse survivors more closely reflect those of “shell shocked” war veterans than they do the general community. Ongoing marital abuse really is that bad.

What is one of the most terrifying things to propose to an abuse victim who has reached their limit?

Healing can only properly commence once the victim is away from the danger and their flight or fight instinct can begin to be calmed down. For some of the abuse victims I know this will take years of therapy, if they can access something that works. And many can’t.

What is one of the most terrifying things to propose to an abuse victim who has reached their limit? That they somehow still belong to their abuser, spiritually, physically, psychologically or legally. And still being required to be married to someone, even if permanently separated from them, fulfils several of those categories.

Abuse victims who have left instinctively know this. In fact, their bodies bristle in rebellion when a pastor tells them, “no, you can’t get divorced” or “you’re not eligible to be remarried” (because you still belong to that person). When they recoil in their chair at the mention of their abuser’s name, their bodies are telling them to get away.

This is a self-protective action. The American trauma psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score, argues that one of the major factors in determining whether traumatic experience develops into PTSD is whether the victim is able by their own efforts to get themselves away from the danger. For people on the ground in New York who were able to physically run away from the collapsing World Trade Center, their ability to flee was a major protective factor in reducing their chances of developing PTSD. For those pinned in a vehicle after a crash, wondering whether it is about to blow up, the fact that they are immobile and helpless adds to the traumatic effects of the physical crash.

These people have a right to be angry …

Unfortunately, Christian domestic abuse survivors have more than one thing “pinning them down” making them immobile. They have the words of the abuser themselves and their loyalty to their abuser. They have their wedding vows. And many have the misguided teachings of the church on separation and divorce and sometimes overt pressure to remain with their abuser. These pressures are why domestic abuse within the church, I would argue, can have a greater impact, than that in secular relationships. Our barriers to exit are higher and consequently we’re more damaged when we get out.

And even when we do get out, we’re often told we’re still “tied” in the bonds of marriage, never truly able to get away from them. Which delays our healing and does not allow the righteous anger at such an experience to dissipate. Which is why I think the strength of the anger directed at Paige Patterson is not just coming from those who believe him a misogynist. Rather, it has been significantly enhanced by those within Baptist congregations who have been burnt by pastors to whom he has taught his version of permanency of marriage.

These people have a right to be angry, it’s just a shame that it has taken so long for their anger to begin to be heard.

Isabella Young is a pseudonym for an activist against abuse.

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