If it weren’t for that one line, the one that says women should submit to their husbands, Patty Gaddis’ job might be easier. But the words are in there in the New Testament, along with the part about it being a sin to divorce. Those biblical directives make her job tougher than it might be otherwise.
Gaddis has spent the past 12 months knocking on the doors of 200 churches in the seven western counties, preaching to pastors about domestic violence and the right and wrong way to handle it.
“The church has chosen through the ages to remain silent on this issue, considering it a private family matter,” Gaddis said. “Very often the church is the last place a victim will turn for help.”
When an abused woman does turn to the church, she is rarely advised to leave her husband. Instead, the pastor, trained to keep couples together, sends the woman back to her abuser.
“I’m not sure divorce is God’s will but neither is abuse. Sometimes you’re dealing with the lesser of two evils,” said Rev. David Russell of Bryson City United Methodist Church.
Russell has had to chose between the two evils himself. When he discovered his wife was abusing two of their adopted children, he chose divorce for the safety of the children. But he couldn’t reconcile his actions with his religious beliefs, so he withdrew from the ministry for several years. Today, he is back in the pulpit, offering assistance to women bearing the silent burden of domestic violence. The apprehension of one woman who recently confided to Russell reveals why many don’t see the church as a safe haven.
“She said ‘I had talked to other ministers who told me I needed to stay in there, that it was wrong to leave.’ She resisted coming to me because she thought that was the only thing a minister would say,” Russell said.
But the response an abused woman gets from a minister varies. Pastor Harold Ball of First Baptist Church in Franklin said he would not freely advocate divorce.
“The biblical ideal is to stay as long as it is possible,” Ball said. “Of course, there are times when staying might cost you your life.”
Ball said a lot has changed with the issue of domestic violence in his 33 years of preaching.
“In times past, it was something that was totally taboo. You just toughed it out,” Ball said.
But today, Ball said, if a woman in his congregation confides in him, he would try to find out as much as possible about the situation.
“There’s always two sides,” Ball said. “There are no easy answers, obviously. Every situation is unique. I would certainly try to explore all the alternatives involved.”
Ball’s approach to domestic violence is similar to most pastors, who rely on the seminary training that taught them to help couples work through marital disputes.
But domestic violence is far from a marital dispute, according to Gaddis.
“Couple counseling is the most dangerous thing a pastor can do in a domestic violence situation. Domestic violence is not a communication problem. It’s not an anger problem. It’s a power and control problem,” Gaddis said. “Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women in the United States, and domestic violence is the second leading cause of death. Studies show violence always escalates over time. It always gets worse.”
A one-woman mission
Gaddis clearly has her work cut out for her. With more than 1,000 churches in the seven western counties, the lack of seminary training on domestic violence issues and centuries of repression of the issue, Gaddis’ personal mission to educate the clergy in the region is daunting.
She began studying the relationship between Christianity and domestic violence nearly 10 years ago. She was working as a counselor to abused women in Haywood County with REACH and noticed nearly all the women she worked with went to church every Sunday, yet had never turned to their church for help. It both puzzled and perturbed her. Furthermore, she was piqued by the number of women who told her divorce was against their religion. So she embarked on a study of the biblical text, spending her evenings poring through passages looking for references to marriage.
“Nothing in the scripture promotes violence,” Gaddis found. While one passage does tell women to submit to their husbands, a rarely cited passage gives husbands similar instructions.
“‘Husbands love your wives like Christ loved the church,’” Gaddis quoted from Ephesians. “If men love their wives like Christ loved the church, he’d be willing to give his life for her, and not take life from her.”
Looking for books to back her up, Gaddis found none. So she wrote her own. Battered But Not Broken: Help for Abused Wives and Their Church Families was published in 1996. On and off for four years, her publishing company sent her on national speaking tours. She discovered that the same problems she had encountered in Western North Carolina were prevalent around the country. There was a failure among preachers to recognize that domestic violence could be happening in their congregations. So last year, she embarked on her door-to-door crusade.
“They have all been very gracious to me,” Gaddis said of the churches. “But a lot of them are not aware that one in four members of their faith community are battered, that they are a victim or survivor of abuse. It’s not something that happens out there. It’s something that happens in here.”
When Rev. Russell went back into the ministry, he had a whole new outlook. After failing to recognize child abuse in his own home, he could only imagine what he might be overlooking in his congregation.
“Not only do most pastors not recognize it is a problem, but they don’t deal with it well either,” Russell said. “All too often they will do it at the expense of the victim being abused. A lot of pastors only think in terms of ‘Divorce is wrong. I have to keep these people together,’ and not realize someone is in a life-threatening situation.”
Father Frank Doyle, a Catholic priest in Maggie Valley, has performed hundreds of marriages but said he does not hesitate to support an abused woman’s decision to leave her husband. She is not the one breaking the covenant, Doyle said.
“It’s already been broken,” Doyle said. “God doesn’t want you to live in that kind of a threatening environment.”
Doyle said since he can only help women who come to him, he’ll talk about it at the pulpit.
“I don’t devote a whole sermon to it,” Doyle said. “But the person in the pew needs to hear the pastor mention this publicly.”
Even then, it takes a lot of nerve for women to come forward. The pastor likely sees both her and her husband in church every Sunday. She’s embarrassed. She thinks she’s a failure for not making her marriage work. She thinks her pastor won’t believer her. Or worse, that he’ll talk to her husband about it and attempt to counsel them.
“It’s a very dangerous situation,” said Doyle. Doyle doesn’t limit his support to women in his congregation. He counsels women staying at the Haywood County domestic violence shelter run by REACH. He also is the co-chair of the Haywood County Domestic Violence Task Force.
Doyle and Russell have joined the group Gaddis started called Partnership for Peace, a faith-based association with the mission to educate churches on how to address family violence.
“We all need a little more education on what should be done, what the steps are if someone comes to them and says they are being abused,” Russell said.
Gaddis’ work — educating one pastor at a time — is being funded with grants from the Duke Endowment, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and several thousand dollars in donations from the Catholic Community of Western North Carolina.
“We’ve still got a long way to go in educating our community on the dynamics of domestic violence, but it’s much better than it was,” Gaddis said.
The first thing pastors need to do is get the victim out of danger and in a safe place, be it a women’s shelter, another church member’s home or a motel room, Gaddis said. The second step is to get professional treatment for the abusers, treatment few pastors can provide themselves. Only then, after true reform by the abuser, should the couple be reconciled, Gaddis said.
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