Opinion  |  

What victims of domestic abuse really need to hear

“I wish she had told me that the Bible allows divorce for domestic abuse”

Earlier this week, the ABC’s 7:30 Report published and aired a story on domestic abuse in the church. The reactions from Christians have been mixed. Some applauded the ABC for opening up discussion about this issue, while others have broadly condemned the ABC for its “selective”, “inaccurate” and “anti-Christian” journalism.

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Barbara Roberts appeared on the much-discussed 7.30 Report story, to explain her own story of abuse. She writes for Eternity about what she wishes she had been told while living with abuse.

What would have been the best thing for someone in ministry to have said to you while you were living in an abusive marriage?

To answer that question, I need to tell a bit of my story.

I wasn’t living as a Christian. I married a man who appeared to have no vices: he didn’t drink, smoke or gamble. He turned out to be an abuser. After five years I separated, got a protection order, and started going to an evangelical church. I had been born again years before but had been “travelling in the wilderness” till I got to this church. Going to church — first a Church of Christ, then a Pentecostal church — brought my nascent faith to life. I began studying the Bible and living like a Christian. I told a female pastor what had happened in my marriage and asked her whether I had grounds for divorce. She told me that since my husband hadn’t committed adultery and I had left him, he hadn’t left me, I didn’t have grounds for divorce.

I wish she had pointed out that God does not condemn all divorce…

I wish she had told me that the Bible allows divorce for domestic abuse, on the basis of 1 Corinthians 7:15 with abuse being a form of desertion. The abuser’s wicked conduct effectively pushes the victim away so she ends up fleeing the marriage.

I wish she had pointed out that God does not condemn all divorce, he only condemns treacherous divorce — divorce done for trivial reasons. I wish she had told me that “God hates divorce” is a saying that has arisen from a mistranslation of Malachi 2:16 but, at that time, very few Bible versions had correctly translated that verse. These days you can find a correct translation in the ESV, the 2011 NIV, the HSCB and the CSB.

I wish she had also pointed out that in the Old Testament there is provision for a woman to be divorced if her husband mistreats her or neglects her basic needs for food, clothing and marital love (see Exodus 21:10-11; Deuteronomy 21:14).

I wish she had pointed out that God divorced Israel because Israel had repeatedly and hard-heartedly broken the covenant (see Jeremiah 3:6-8).

The Family Court eventually gave me custody of our daughter. When handing my daughter to my husband for his fortnightly access, I gave him a Bible and briefly told him the gospel. Four years later he ‘appeared’ to become a Christian. I voluntarily reconciled with him.

Within 12 months of our reconciliation, my husband assaulted me again.

We lived together for nearly a year. During that time, the woman who had told me I didn’t have grounds for divorce years before did not proactively approach me to see how I was going. I do not know whether she had told the other church leaders about how I’d reported years before that my husband had abused me.

I wish one of the church leaders had come to me and gently asked questions like this:

  • Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?
  • How are things at home? Is your husband respecting you? Is he respecting your views? Is he taking into account your preferences? Is he treating you well?
  • You mentioned years ago that your husband had abused you. Would you like to tell me more about about how he mistreated you? Is he doing anything like that again?
  • Do you ever feel like you are walking on eggshells with your husband?
  • Are you concerned about your husband’s behaviour?
  • Do you think your husband is pulling his weight in the marriage partnership?
  • If you express a grievance to your husband, how does he respond?
  • Do you ever think your husband is overly-controlling?

Within 12 months of our reconciliation, my husband assaulted me again — but all that time we’d been reconciled, he’d been emotionally abusing me and I didn’t see it. That is why I’ve suggested the questions above. They are the kind of questions which tell the woman that this person who is inquiring about her wellbeing is actually caring, willing to listen and non-judgemental.

And they are questions which might help a woman come out of the fog of living in abuse — a miasma of lies, half-truths, blame-shifting, psychological undermining, and all the other coercive controlling tactics which abusive men use on their targets. That fog is intensified by distorted scriptural interpretations which are laid on victims.

Within a few days [of leaving my marriage], the male and female leaders in my Pentecostal church publicly condemned me, at a well-attended church prayer meeting.

After that assault, and after my husband had left for work, I rang one of the church leaders and told him what had happened and that I was going to the court for a protection order. I also told him that I thought he and the other leaders needed to offer my husband support. He said they would.

I wish that church leader had told me, “We won’t offer your husband support. We will hold him accountable.” That would have given me more clarity. It would have helped me see that my husband needed to be confronted and held accountable, not merely assisted and educated.

Within a few days, the male and female leaders in that Pentecostal church publicly condemned me, at a well-attended church prayer meeting. They announced that Barbara and her husband had separated, Barbara had got a protection order, and 1 Corinthians 6:1 says we mustn’t take a brother to court. They didn’t mention the verse which tells husbands to love their wives and not be harsh with them (Colossians 3:19).

Later, I moved to a Presbyterian church where the pastor explained that the church which condemned me had misused “do not take a brother to court” — because Romans 13 says that God has appointed the secular courts to protect the vulnerable, restrain wickedness and punish evildoers. That was so wonderful for me to hear!

Was there anything missing from The 7.30 Report story? If you were a church leader, what would you have wanted to add to that story?

The ABC has given a GREAT OPPORTUNITY to the church. If the church starts dealing with domestic abuse properly, unbelievers will see it, and they will be less likely to think Christians are naive idiots and rank hypocrites. They will thus be more open to hearing the Christian message about how Jesus died for our sins.

Churches are teaching in an unbalanced way about love, marriage, suffering, forgiveness, repentance, conflict resolution and divorce. They do this by emphasising some parts of the Bible and under-emphasising other parts. Some of what churches have been teaching is downright UN-biblical, for example, the “God hates divorce” mantra.

Even when churches are getting some of this right, they’re not getting it all right. And when they get it wrong, it has devastating effects on the victims.

Church leaders are not aware that they’re being groomed by abusers.

I believe the church is largely complacent: They think it’s not a big issue in the church. They think they’re dealing okay with the individual cases they know about. Also the church is arrogant: They think they don’t need to learn more about domestic abuse. But perhaps the biggest problem is that the church is ignorant. Christians are very ignorant about the mentality of evil and the tactics evildoers use to hide out in the church.

There is nothing wrong with the Bible. The Bible says:

  • God cares for the oppressed and afflicted.
  • A Christian husband should love his wife as Jesus Christ loved the church — he must be willing to give up his privileges, his ‘superiority’, his very life, for his wife.
  • Christians must beware of evildoers hiding out in the church.
  • If someone is committing sexual immorality, greed, idolatry, verbal abuse, substance abuse or swindling as a pattern of behavior, and that person professes to be a Christian, the church should put him out — excommunicate him — not even eat with him. (1 Corinthians 5:11-13)
  • The church should care for women who are bereft of husbands, and also care for fatherless children. When a man abuses his wife and the mother of his children, he is the very opposite of what a husband and father should be!

Church leaders are also not aware that they’re being groomed by abusers.

They think that by teaching what the Bible says, the abusive man will change. But he almost never does; he gives an appearance of change, but that’s just one more tactic in his manipulative arsenal. In my experience, no abuser has ever changed simply by being taught what the Bible says about how husbands should treat their wives. Because the abuser is so skilled at flipping the script and manipulating those who confront him, genuine Christians need to be wise as serpents if they are going to hold him accountable.

I suggest church leaders to go to our site, A Cry For Justice, and look at the page we created especially for pastors who want to learn how better to respond to domestic abuse.

Barbara Roberts is the co-leader of A Cry For Justice, author of Not Under Bondage, a survivor of domestic abuse, and a victim-advocate. Find Barbara on YouTube and Twitter @NotUnderBondage. She is also on Facebook

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