How the church can (and must) do better on abuse & divorce

It’s been a few weeks, but I recently dove into the topic of “When Jesus Exaggerates on Divorce.”  See parts one & two to see why Jesus’ words in Matthew (and Mark) employed overstatement, commenting on marriage and divorce laws already in the Torah.

What I am about to write is based on the prayerful understanding that: 1) the Bible doesn’t give a “no-fault” divorce as an option—you can divorce and remarry only if a spouse breaks their vows; and 2) the Old Testament laws on divorce always protect the victim. 

Now that I’ve made that clear, let’s talk about abuse in marriage for church-going folk. I am not an expert, but I am more than a little concerned at the dismissal of spousal abuse that often happens in evangelical churches. It has happened to my friends. It has happened to women I’ve talked to while serving as a pastor and chaplain. And while women are not the only ones abused in marriage relationships, the National Coalition against Domestic Violence reports that:

  • one in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime
  • 85% of domestic violence victims are women

Author Margaret Atwood put it this way, in a quote that has been circulated around the Internet:

“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them.”

While this quote takes our breath away, it gives pause for thought. The men God created to lovingly protect women, using their strength to aid and complement them as their greatest allies, are most often the ones who commit horrible violence against them, both emotionally and physically. It happens everywhere, and unfortunately, it is likely happening within your church right now.

-Why? Because men are physically stronger than women.

-Because when women being abused try to cry for help (and many don’t), they are often not allowed to meet with their male pastor privately. 

-Because if they do somehow get to their male pastor, their husband comes with them or is aware of it and abuses them more.

-Because their pastor tells them it would help if they would learn to submit more, to be more willing, to be more giving and available.

Let me be clear: this last one is a lie from the pit of hell, no matter your theological bent. 

I’m not a professional counselor, but I have talked to many of them. When abuse is happening in a situation, you must assume it will escalate. An abuser does not back down. Someone in a pattern of abusing is not repentant. If an abuser has abused, he will most likely abuse again. And next time, the abuse could be much worse.

If you serve our Creator God, the one who makes clear throughout the Old Testament and the New that he takes up the cause of the oppressed and created you to be his representative, you must take up the cause of the woman in your church body who is abused.

(And if statistics are right, God help us, that may be 25% of them.) You must help stop the abuse, which often means encouraging her to remove herself from her home. You must find a way to keep her safe, to speak truth and life to her troubled soul. And if her husband is not willing to seek radical repentance and help before living with her again, I believe you must provide enough light for  a way out of her abusive marriage, a marriage in which the husband long ago discarded his vows.

To do anything less is not Christlike, in my view. It is not redemptive. It could even be described as evil. 

One last thought: from experience, I can tell you that women being abused (or that have been abused), seem to be much more willing to confide in a female pastor. Just one of the many reasons why having a female on your church staff can lead to healing and growth for many of the women (and men) in your church. I carry these stories close to my chest, I mourn the loss of the light in these women’s eyes, and I thank God that, in His mercy, he provides safety and hope for them beyond a marriage that was killing them, both metaphorically and sometimes, literally.

And for all the men of courage and valor who are reading this post, God bless you, and may he use you to lift up and protect your sisters. If you’re interested, read one male pastor’s story of courage here.

Resources that help and heal:
“The Dark Side of Wives Submitting to Husbands,” by Lee Grady, Charisma Online
When Love Hurts—Understanding and Healing Domestic Abuse (4-part DVD) from RBC Ministries
“The heart of God is to protect the vulnerable.” -Dr. Steven Tracy
Elisabeth Corcoran’s blog

Your turn: How does our theology influence the way we help women who are abused? What things could the church do to provide a safe haven to women in these circumstances?

  • John1Elmore

    I agree with you, Suzanne. It is important to protect victims and not minimize their terror at suffering abuse of any kind. Since when is it okay that man has hit his wife ONLY a few times? When is it okay to beat down and threaten your spouse emotionally? Never. It crosses the line. “Husbands, love your wife.” Can’t get any clearer than that. Pastors – take this commandment seriously for your congregation and for yourself.

    • Suzanne Burden

      You know what is a great start to help women in abusive marriages, John? Men speaking out on their behalf. Thank you!

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    One aspect you may wish to consider is that there are 2 different things that should be distinguished as I see it. 1) divorcing for no good reason. 2) obtain a (civil) divorce by using methods that do not need to give a public reason, often called “no fault” divorce. Joseph in Matt 1 was going to do #2 but he thought he had a good reason with Mary being pregnant and him knowing he had not had sex with her. It took an angel’s intervention to explain.

    • Suzanne Burden

      Hi Donald: Thanks for the comment. Are you saying the Pharisees in Matthew would have pursued a civil divorce, then? What does seem certain is that both options #1 and #2 do not line up with the counsel of Scripture on divorce.

      • DonaldByronJohnson

        No, the Pharisees in Matt 19 only knew of a religious divorce and since they were the judges who sat on the cases, they decided them. So one got 3 Hillel Pharisees if one wanted a “Any Matter” divorce to do the judging for you.
        I was speaking about Matt 1, where Joseph was going to divorce Mary because he was righteous. The Pharisees taught that one partook in the spouse’s sin if the husband did not divorce. But that was not my point either. It is that there are 2 different things: one is to divorce for no good reason and the other is to divorce using the “no fault” method; the latter can be the correct thing to do as there is no public shame involved, but the former is always wrong.

  • Stephanie Wilson

    Well written :) So loved reading this. So my heart and passion. God’s heart is to free the oppressed and save those in bondage. God does not turn a blind eye to any kind of abuse albeit emotional, physical, spiritual, financial, or sexual.
    For when his children suffer, he suffers alongside of them.
    “Whatever you do for the least of these you have done it on to me!” It is time the church starts acknowledging abuse and stop ignoring its devastating affects by simply believing divorce is always wrong unless a spouse shacks up with someone else! This “shack up” idea can motivate a woman to wish her spouse would cheat on her so she could be free. That is ridiculous. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind…” We need to confidently proclaim the gospel of Gods love to all.

  • Kate Winters

    This is very needed. Some ten years ago I was a member of an evangelical church and also an abused wife. The lack of support from some regarding the abuse was stunning in hindsight. (The church ended up supporting me because of a different sin my husband committed which was considered more egregious than abusing his wife. Looking back… I do feel a sense of bitterness still.) I was a member of one other church for a few years after that, and since then I’ve tried many others but I’m now incredibly gun shy. Frankly, most church culture makes it clear that people like me aren’t welcome – not really. We can fill the pews, but we aren’t allowed to contribute in any meaningful way.

    • Suzanne Burden

      Oh, Kate, your poignant response is one of the reasons I felt compelled to write these posts. Call me an eternal optimist, but I hope and pray you will yet find a church who stewards your life, your gifts and your story well. Peace to you.

  • twilabennett

    So good, Suzie. Proud of you for taking this stance. I was appalled at the way my mother-in-law’s former pastor addressed the situation when she told him why she left her husband. It was never assumed that the husband was at fault. That his mental illness would be anything that would cause some of their issues. It was instead this–that she simply did not do enough to save it. We found out later that he had choked his first wife, almost to death. I am overjoyed that we got her out in time before he physically abused her in the same way.

    • Suzanne Burden

      Hard to hear that she had to go through this (and you as family). Thrilled to know that there is hope and healing on the other side of an abusive marriage. And that our Bibles and our Savior point to relief for anyone who is being victimized and abused in a marriage. Thanks so much for posting.