Spousal Abuse and the Church1
Running Head: SPOUSAL ABUSE AND THE CHURCH
Spousal Abuse and the Church: The Impact of the Fall on Gender Relations Jeff Eckert, LSW, M.A. Wheaton College
Spousal Abuse and the Church2Spousal Abuse and the Church: The Impact of the Fall on Gender Relations To the casual observer, it might be a surprise that the terms spousal abuse and the Christian church appear in the same sentence together. With the Christian emphasis on such virtues as love, peace and kindness, it would seem that these concepts would be mutually exclusive. Van Leeuwen (1993) quickly dispels this myth in talking about the incidence of violence perpetrated upon women: Whatever the causal connections, it is clear that there is still as much “bad news” as “good news” in contemporary gender relations. Moreover, this “bad news” is not limited to the unchurched…in the same denomination whose college sponsored the writing of this book (Christian Reformed) , a 1990 survey showed that reported prevalence rates of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse were within the same ranges typically found in studies of North Americans at large” (pp.5,6). While this high incidence of spousal abuse in the church is increasingly evident, little research has been conducted in this area because of the controversial nature of the subject matter. Many researchers (Heggen, 1996; Walker, 1979; Dobash and Dobash, 1979) argue that a patriarchal system was put in place in biblical times, and this hierarchical model of marriage still remains in much of our society. Most violent couples have strongly stereotyped sex-role attitudes along with traditional views of marriage. The men in these couples often have adopted a legalistic, highly traditional world view, and have extreme needs for dominance. At the same time, abusive Christian men often have poor verbal Spousal Abuse and the Church3skills to try to establish dominance along with an exaggerated anxiety about relational issues and difficulty with intimacy (Alsdurf and Alsdurf, 1989). This paper will attempt to flesh out the biblical and theological bases for these belief systems while at the same time discussing the importance of the church’s response to this issue. It will also foster awareness of some of the distorted understandings of scripture leading to spousal abuse which must be considered in the therapeutic setting by Christian mental health professionals. Collins (1988) defines mate abuse by articulating that the wife is most often the victim, and the abuse includes “deliberate physical assault, threats of violence, emotional abuse, and forced involvement in sexual acts” (p.295). The National Family Violence Resurvey (1985) found that 8.7 million U.S. couples experienced one or more physically violent episodes within their relationship over the previous year. No statistics were available for incidence of violence in the church. The author proposes that this is because the issue of spousal abuse in the church is taboo, and thus, little research has been conducted in this area. Murder in a Christian home? Lucy Tisland was a thirty-one-year-old woman who was described by friends at church as a “saintly character.” She was a devoutly Christian woman and mother of five children. In 1984, she stood trial for the murder of her husband of fourteen years. This homicide occurred as a result of the fact that her husband, a Baptist pastor, had repeatedly abused and threatened to kill his family. In a landmark decision, Tisland was acquitted of the murder. One juror commented after the trial, “It was probably the hardest thing I ever Spousal Abuse and the Church4had to do—not making the decision but hearing the heartbreaking testimony” (Alsdurf and Alsdurf, 1989, p.13). Robert Tisland ruled his family with a tyrannical approach to being a father and husband. He beat his children regularly because he demanded perfection from them. Included in the beatings was twenty-five pound, seven-year-old Mark who was left blind and brain damaged by a stroke. When Mark eventually died, Robert was relieved because Mark was an “imperfect child.” In Robert’s theological view, Lucy was responsible for Mark’s illness because of sin that she had committed. Robert beat her when she cried over Mark’s death, and beat her again on the way home from the funeral. Lucy endured the abuse silently because her scriptural understanding dictated that once she was married, she was supposed to obey her husband. Lucy believed that she was appropriately and obediently living out the injunction of Ephesians 5:22, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord” (NIV). As a result of this interpretation of the Ephesians passage, her role was abundantly clear to her. She was there to meet her husband’s needs, and if she failed in this endeavor, she believed that she would be exercising disobedience towards God. Beatings always came as a response to a lack of submissiveness. In the midst of the abuse, Robert bragged to his friends and family that there were no problems in his house and that he had the perfect marriage. One day, Robert came home from his job as the director of a Christian school in a state of emotional panic. This response came as a result of accusations leveled against him surrounding a questionable relationship that he had been conducting with a fourteen-year-old female student. Robert laid down for a nap, claiming that he would kill Lucy when he arose. Lucy stated in the trial that Robert always followed through on his Spousal Abuse and the Church5threats. As she realized the danger to herself and her children, she woke Robert up from his nap and shot him between the eyes with a pistol, immediately killing him. Over the course of the trial, Lucy articulated that she was afraid to leave Robert because he claimed that if she ever left him with the boys, all that the authorities would find of them would be pieces. This is just one isolated example of the impact of distorted biblical interpretation on marital relationships (Alsdurf and Alsdurf, 1989). At the same time, passive acceptance and condonation of abuse in the church has historical roots that go back hundreds of years from the contemporary church. A Brief History of Wife Abuse and the Church Over the centuries, males have determined whether violence towards women was acceptable. Augustine, often regarded as the greatest theologian of the ancient church, lifted up his mother’s submission to abuse as a model for all women and their husbands, and claimed that Genesis 2 and 3 help us understand women as inferior to men (Scholer, 1996). Centuries later, theologian Thomas Aquinas deemed that men had the right to beat their wives as long as they did not murder them. He argued that women were inferior, dependent, dominated by their sexual appetites, and generally unfit for any important role in society and the church (Scholer, 1996). These theological viewpoints of a few church fathers resulted in a bleak situation for women in early Christian households. The position of women began to improve as early Protestant views began to teach that husbands were to be kind and considerate to their wives and to refrain from severe chastisement (Horsfall, 1991). These new levels of chastisement were to lessen the acceptable extent of violence that a husband could inflict upon his wife. At the same time, husbands were still seen to be rulers in their households. This attitude still pervades Spousal Abuse and the Church6many evangelical churches, where men are seen as being dominant with wives in a position of unquestioning submission. Van Leeuwen (1990) states her concern about this issue in saying, “I would like very much to be able to say that the statistics for wife abuse and father/daughter incest are dramatically lowered when church affiliation is taken into account—but the facts are otherwise” (p.119). With much of the power structure of church and society geared towards lenience concerning spousal abuse, it is little wonder that there have been distortions of Ephesians 5 regarding the roles of husband and wife in a marital relationship. This text is important to discuss in this context, as this passage has been used as one of the main biblical arguments for men controlling their wives through violence. A Challenge of the Traditional View (Ephesians 5:21-33) A number of different translations of this passage will be utilized, in order to explore some of the nuances in language contained in Ephesians 5:21-33, as well as to access the expertise of a variety of biblical scholars. Many students of the Bible would articulate verse 22 as the beginning of this passage, in that this provides the first direct reference to wives and husbands, but Ephesians 5:21 is an integral antecedent to the rest of the passage: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (NIV). In an eagerness to clarify male and female roles in marriage, this verse is often overlooked, as it is often subsumed under the heading directly before it in the text. But to do this is to overlook the biblical injunction of mutual submission, placing the role of submission solely on the wife. The Ryrie Study Bible (1978) states that an understanding of this verse is essential for understanding Paul’s view of proper personal relationships in a Christian household, where subjection is to be mutual and based out of reverence for God. It is Spousal Abuse and the Church7clear that Paul is prescribing appropriate relationships between partners in verse 21, but those who give this verse secondary importance help maintain the overarching patriarchal structure of the church. As many conservative evangelical churches argue for the headship of males in the family, misunderstandings of biblical headship lead to domineering, abusive approaches to family life. According to the New American Standard Concordance (1981), the Greek term kephalay was the word used for head in the original text. It refers to the physical head 69 out of 75 times that it appears in the New Testament. Only three of the 75 times does it use kephalay in reference to ‘chief,’ and each of these three times uses the term ‘cornerstone’ to clarify the image. Although the man is called to be the cornerstone of the building that is the family, or the head of the family body, there is no reference to the man as a dominant ruler. The physical head works in conjunction with the rest of the body parts and is unable to function without the nurturance of the rest of the body. Using the other metaphor, the cornerstone plays an integral role in the structure of a building, but is useless without the framework surrounding it. In examining verse 24, another term emerges that must be examined in light of a theological discussion of gender roles. It states that, “But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything” (NASB). The New American Standard Concordance (1981) points out the fact that the Greek term for subject is hupottasw and is defined as, “to place or rank under; to subject; to obey.” Conservative theologians view this definition and argue that, in the Ephesians 5 passage, this calls for women adopting a primary emphasis as subjects of their husbands, calling them to obey their leadership in an unquestioning sense. Christian speakers and writers Spousal Abuse and the Church8echo these sentiments in books and speaking engagements all over the country. For example, in her book, The Spirit-Controlled Woman, Beverly LaHaye (1995) argues that, “The woman who is Spirit-filled will want to be totally submissive to her husband” (p.167). This author would not have a problem with LaHaye’s statement if the husband is fulfilling the injunction leveled in verse 21, which uses the same Greek term as that used in verse 24. This would imply that we must subject ourselves, rank under, and obey one another, rather than laying the onus of submission solely on the wife. The fact that Paul introduces the passage with verse 21 lends it power and should caution the reader that the rest of the passage must be read in light of this important pronouncement. The New Oxford Annotated Bible (RSV) also makes some important distinctions concerning Ephesians 5. It argues that the general principle of the passage is that of mutual subjection, which is also discussed by Paul in Philippians 2:3. Being the head of the wife involves a responsibility for both cherishing and protecting her. It is easy to get so focused on the section concerning submission that one loses sight of the fact that verses 25 through 29 deal with the command for husbands to love their wives. If the relationships of husbands to their wives are to mirror that of Christ and the church, the husbands should be willing to give themselves up for their wives as Christ gave himself up for the church. How does this look in practice? Christ gave his life for the life of the church, so a husband must be ready to make the same sacrifice for his wife. One has to wonder whether those who passively or actively condone spousal abuse on the basis of this scriptural passage are reading the sections on loving and sacrificing for one’s wife. Physically, verbally and emotionally abusing one’s wife is not in keeping with a marital love centered in Christ. Those who focus on the aspect of Spousal Abuse and the Church9female submission and subjection in the Ephesians passage are exhibiting a narrow, distorted view of the word of God. This approach makes men into rulers in their homes and fails to challenge them to apply the more difficult sections of the passage to their lives. In commenting on this hierarchical view of marriage, a battered woman makes an insightful comment: “While the hierarchy of marriage can produce profound humility in some men, in others it can be fuel to flames of dominance and even violence” (Alsdurf and Alsdurf, 1989, p.17). Looking at the example of Christ in the New Testament should dispel the idea of woman as sitting at the bottom of the hierarchy, as he befriended prostitutes and saved the life of a woman in adultery. The church could exert a profound impact on the incidence of spousal abuse if it would do the same thing for women. The Church’s Response As women of faith struggle with being Christians in the context of abusive marital relationships, they face a painful dilemma. Most women feel bound to their abusive relationships by the very tenets of their religious beliefs, as has been articulated in this paper. These women look to a minister or priest to interpret God’s word and explain the consequences of leaving their husbands. They are often left wondering whether getting a divorce or leaving their husband will relegate them to outcast status in their church body, or on a deeper level, to eternal damnation. In this type of situation, the quality of assistance provided by a church can have life or death consequences, as illustrated in the case of Lucy Tisland. The church has a weighty responsibility to reach out to the hurting and the oppressed. This responsibility also extends to providing help for the abusers. Our responsibility is best summed up by modern day theologian Anthony Hoekema (1986) when he states: “Believers are inspired by examples of their fellow Christians, Spousal Abuse and the Church10sustained by their prayers, corrected by their loving admonitions, and encouraged by their support” (p.89). James Alsdurf decided to survey the response of the church in the area of spousal abuse, so he sent out a two page questionnaire to 5,700 ministers in Protestant churches in the U.S. and Canada. In a frightening response, about one-quarter of the pastors agreed that the wife should submit to her husband and trust that God would honor the action either by stopping the abuse or giving her the strength to endure it. A full half of the pastors were concerned that the husband’s aggression not be overemphasized or used as justification to break up the marriage. One-third argued that the abuse had to be severe in order to justify a Christian wife leaving her husband (Barnett and LaViolette, 1993). The theme that arose in looking at these results appeared to be that the majority of pastors in these churches see few instances where divorce is a viable option in the case of domestic violence. With this type of mentality guiding a church, a woman may well stay in a dangerous situation to avoid the ostracism of her only support system, the church body. A church should be a safe place for an abused woman to begin to heal, regardless of the decision that she makes about her marriage. As women undergo the healing process, there should be opportunities for them to learn new ways to understand the Bible and to view their situation in light of this understanding. It is hard to see how churches are reaching out to battered women when pastors are telling these battered women that they must think of violence as an opportunity to demonstrate Christian servanthood (Scanzoni and Hardesty, 1992). In 1991, a group of church and community leaders held a conference on how to deal with violence against women. They discussed a theology espoused by many pastors Spousal Abuse and the Church11which glorifies the suffering and powerlessness of the abused woman in an emphasis on peacemaking at all costs. In examining abuse among Mennonites, a pacifistic group of Christians, Harriet Sider Bickler asks, “How are men able to espouse a theory of nonviolence to the world and beat their wives and children at home?” (Scanzoni and Hardesty, 1992). One battered wife claimed that she turned the other cheek and her husband struck that one as well. She wondered what these proponents of a peace theology had to say to her husband’s response (Scanzoni and Hardesty, 1992). Increased reports of violence against women in the church is forcing these “peace churches” to take a woman’s experience into account. While enduring pain and suffering is part of the Christian journey, the type of pain dealt with by battered wives is an area where the church must take action. Forming accountability groups for men, such as Promise Keepers, is a step towards making men better fathers and husbands. Providing opportunities for individual and group therapy in the church setting may give both battered women and their batterers a place where they can deal with their pain. An overarching goal should be for the church to be imaging God in all of its actions, which means following the model of Christ in dealing with those in pain. The case of Lucy Tisland, illustrated earlier in this paper, was one in which the church failed to follow Christ’s model. It is impossible to imagine that would not have stood by and watched a woman in the process of being slowly beaten to death by her husband. The church must take direct action, as Christ often did when an injustice was being perpetrated. Conclusion There are deep implications for Christians and the church body in dealing with spousal abuse. Many of these same responsibilities also hold true for the Christian Spousal Abuse and the Church12therapist. Battered women should be approached with love and support rather than with the skepticism, minimizing, and blaming that characterizes the response of many Christians, including those in leadership. A therapist has the ability to perpetuate some of the same entrenched, traditional values that leave a battered woman in a dangerous setting. Much of a woman’s personhood is damaged in the context of abuse, so it is essential to provide her with a safe environment in which to begin reconstructing her life in the context of therapy, or in a supportive church. These women must realize that, while they feel as if their spirits have been broken by the abuse, and their souls cry out for help, they continue to be image bearers of God. In the life to come, despite the pain of their time on earth, these battered women will be rewarded in a way that will heal all of the pain and suffering wrought through their abuse. As Hoekema (1986) puts it, “Only then shall we see what the relationship between men and women can be like in its richest, fullest, and most beautiful sense” (p.98). Spousal Abuse and the Church13References Alsdurf, J.M., & Alsdurf, P. (1989). Battered into Submission: The Tragedy of Wife Abuse. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press. Barnett, O.W., & LaViolette, A.D. (1993). It Could Happen to Anyone: Why Battered Women Stay. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publishing. Collins, G.R. (1988). Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide. Dallas: Word Publishing. Dobash, E.K., and Dobash, R. (1979). Violence against Wives: A Case Against the Patriarchy. New York: The Free Press. Heggen, C.H. (1996). Religious beliefs and abuse. In C.K. Kroeger and J.R. Beck (Eds.). Women, Abuse and the Bible: How Scripture Can Be Used to Hurt or Heal (pp.15-27). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. Hoekema, A.A. (1986). Created in God’s Image. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. Horsfall, J. (1991). The Presence of the Past: Male Violence in the Family. Sydney: Allen and Unwin. National Family Violence Resurvey. (1985). The New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. (1981). Lockman Foundation. The New International Version Study Bible (Ed. Kenneth Barker). (1985). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Bible Publishers. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha (Revised Standard Version (expanded edition). (Eds. Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger). (1971). New York: Oxford University Press. Spousal Abuse and the Church14The Ryrie Study Bible (Ed. Charles Caldwell Ryrie). (1978). Chicago: Moody Press. Scanzoni, L. and Hardesty, N. (1992). All We’re Meant to Be (3rded.). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. Scholer, D. (1996). The evangelical debate over biblical “headship.” In C.K. Kroeger and J.R. Beck (Eds.) Women, Abuse and the Bible: How Scripture Can Be Used to Hurt or Heal (pp.28-57). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. Van Leeuwen, M.S. (1990). Gender and Grace: Love, Work and Parenting in a Changing World. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press Van Leeuwen, M.S., Knoppers, A., Koch, M.L., Schuurman, D.J., and Sterk, H.M. (1993). After Eden: Facing the Challenge of Gender Reconciliation. Grand Walker, L. (1979). The Battered Woman. New York: Harper Perennial.
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