Let’s address an often hidden reality in our local churches.
Abuse. Specifically marital abuse. Dr. Jack Taylor recently started a new ministry, “One-Heart Coaching”, a coaching and counseling ministry for Christian leadership marriages. Jack is no stranger to the Fellowship. A former Fellowship pastor, missionary to Africa, Christian counselor, author, and mystery novelist who makes his home in Vancouver, BC.
I asked Jack to address the sensitive subject in the following article:
Has COVID-19 ripped apart the façade of what happens behind closed doors in Christian homes or has it always been like this? Or, in these current times, has our understanding and definition of what abuse looks like broadened enough to include one out of every three marriages? According to the CEO of WINGS (Women in Need Gaining Strength), Lorrie Wasyliw, “the statistics are now the same for Christian or secular marriages when it comes to abuse.” Ninety percent of abuse is focused against women.
The United Nations defines violence against women and girls as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life”. If this definition stands, then 51% of Canadian women will experience some form of violence after they turn 16 but only 14% will find the courage and strength to report it. Only one in five will turn to anyone outside the home for help.
According to Monarch Place Transition House, “Abuse is a pattern of behaviour used by an abuser to establish power and control over another person. Underlying all abuse is a power imbalance between the person and their abuser.” WINGS states on their website that “Psychological and emotional abuse are as damaging as physical abuse to a woman’s self-esteem. Forms of abuse include: excessive possessiveness, threats of suicide, threats of violence, threats of endangering children, restricting activities, isolation from family and friends, forcing degrading activities, verbal insults, put-downs, name calling, controlling money and decision making, threatening and/or harming pets, destroying personal property.”
MH, in a letter, explains her story. “Raised in a Christian home, I was immersed in a culture that taught Biblical truths and principles that created the framework for my life – how I looked on the outside, how I behaved, how I engaged the world around me, how I interacted with God, and fundamentally, how I thought…So, as a young woman, committing myself in marriage to a man, I believed as I had been taught— that marriage was a lifetime commitment and that no matter what challenges life presented, our faith in God’s sovereignty and His power would see us through. I was taught that my husband had ultimate authority in the home, and my role was to support him and defer to his authority when we could not agree. A good wife would meet his needs and by honouring him, she was honouring God.”
Wasyliw says that not all pastors preach clearly that God hates abuse and they don’t always make themselves approachable on the issue. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” is her mantra. One woman who approached her pastor was left with the thought that she needed to submit, bake more cookies, and provide better sex. The husband held a significant position in his church, was well liked and it was clear that the woman was not believed. “You never know what a person is capable of doing behind closed doors,” Wasyliw says.
“Family violence and abuse affects all levels of society. It involves all cultural groups, ages, economic classes, and religions. The younger and poorer are more vulnerable. Physical, verbal, emotional and sexual abuse is epidemic.”
MH says, “It took a very long time for me to understand that I was living with abuse and that God does not sanction it. When I reflect on my relationship with my former husband, I can see the red flags were there, the moments in the courtship that would have caused alarm in a more informed person. In fact, others tried to warn me that there was an inherent problem in the relational dynamic. However, I brushed off their concerns, nurtured my dreams, and marched headlong into marriage, committing it to God – just like so many others before me.”
A cycle of abuse often has three distinct phases—each abusive in its own way. There is often a phase of blow-up where harmful behaviour occurs. There is a phase of make-up where wrongdoing is recognized; guilt, regret, shame, and remorse are expressed; promises are made to reform or get help; and behaviour is modified with a lot of attention given. Then a phase of build-up starts where promises aren’t kept; excuses are made; bad behaviour is justified; blame is dispensed; red flags are ignored; focus is put on the abused partner’s behaviour; tension, stress, frustration, resentment, fear, worry, anger, loneliness, and hurt build up; and then unmet needs lead to another blow-up.
Numerous resources are available to help support caregivers when abuse arises. Raising awareness is crucial and websites like theraveproject.com or www.monarchplace.org will give a broader picture of what is involved.
MH notes that, “Awareness changed everything. I will never forget that day, the day when I felt another horror – the horror of recognition. I was a victim of abuse. I was not battered physically, but I had all the wounds and scars of decades of abuse. Finally, I had some clarity. The fog lifted and I was able to see how my actions would never elicit the response I longed for from my husband. He operated from one set of fundamental beliefs and I operated from another. I recognized that I had been living through cycles of abuse and I acknowledged that without changing his core beliefs, change would never happen. I appealed to my husband to get appropriate counselling. However, he could not own his abuse long enough to get the help he needed. I knew that until he recognized that his belief system dictated his behaviour and that his behaviour in his intimate relationships was abusive, he would not change. And, I did not believe that God required me to be a victim of abuse. I believed that God wanted something much more. I believed that my responsibility to my children and to my God was to create an environment where they felt safe and valued, a context where the individual was honoured and respected.”
Hidden secrets can create public pain in ways we don’t imagine. It is time for evangelicals to create places and spaces for healing, and hope for homes and families who for too long have lived in the shadows of fear and abuse.
Thanks, Jack, for sharing this sobering post. It is a keen reminder of our need to walk in Christ’s shadow as we not only encourage, uplift, and love our spouse, but seek to come alongside those in our congregations and circles of influence who may be struggling in their own marriages.