Deb* still has a hard time saying she was abused. Her husband knew the Bible well and proclaimed his Christian faith boldly. They studied Scripture together, prayed together, and hosted Bible studies in their home. But a domineering nature lurked behind his confident, God-fearing front. He spent years tearing down Deb's sense of security and self-worth.
"I had things broken around me, threats made to me, emotional games played on me—a knife held to my throat, a gun held to my head," Deb says. "The Bible itself was even used as a weapon against me—always out of context, mind you, but used nonetheless."
He blamed his outbursts on Deb, and for years she bought the lie that she was partially responsible. "I had to have been doing something wrong if things weren't going well in a relationship that included God, right? I tried so hard to be godly … and the Bible told me to submit to my husband. Maybe God just wanted me to suffer a bit, to make me more holy. Besides, it wasn't that bad—he never hit me."
But it was bad, enough that their marriage disintegrated under the strain, leaving Deb brokenhearted, fearful, and ashamed.
Deb's story is not unusual. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four American women experiences domestic abuse in her lifetime, with emotional abuse present in the majority of cases. The numbers are no better among churchgoers (a fact supported by research, studies, and statistics in No Place for Abuse: Biblical and Practical Resources to Counteract Domestic Violence, by Nancy Nason-Clark and the late theologian Catherine Clark Kroeger). In fact, the difference seems to be that Christian women are less likely to seek help, because many believe the Bible says they must submit to their husband regardless of his behavior. When they do seek help, it is their churches they go to first.
Emotional abuse is a particularly sticky topic for Christians committed to the sanctity of marriage. While an increasing number of church leaders will suggest that a woman remove herself from a violent situation, they aren't sure whether nonviolent forms of abuse merit anything beyond the suggestion that she "pray and submit." The misguided advice many well-intentioned Christians give victims reveals a common misunderstanding about the problem—a misunderstanding some Christian organizations are working to correct.
Yvonne DeVaughn is the national coordinator of AVA (Advocacy for Victims of Abuse), a ministry of the Evangelical Covenant Church that equips churches to address domestic abuse. She explains that, contrary to what many believe, domestic abuse is not about an angry person losing their temper and lashing out at their spouse. Rather, it is a pattern of behaviors that people use to establish dominance in their relationships. "The common denominator is that it's about having power and control over another human being," she says. "It's not about anger management—often you see that the person can manage that anger when they're in social situations. It's not about drugs, alcohol, genetics, biology, out-of-control behavior, or stress—it is about having power and control over another human."
Abusers use a variety of nonviolent tactics to keep their partners under their thumb. They may chip away at their partner's self-esteem through constant criticism and name-calling, or intimidate them by yelling, using threatening body language, or displaying weapons. They may isolate the victim from family and friends, insist on knowing their every move, or keep them dependant by denying them access to financial information or accounts or preventing them from attending school or getting a job. They may humiliate the victim by manipulating them into performing degrading sexual acts or violating their religious beliefs, and may threaten to hurt the victim, loved ones, pets, or even commit suicide if the victim defies them. And of course, many abusers who are Christians twist Scripture to insist that the victim submit to their sinful behavior, using God as a weapon against their partner.
Here's the distinction many Christians fail to make: Emotional abuse is not a relational problem, a symptom of an unhealthy marriage (although it can certainly cause both of those). It is a heart problem, stemming from the abusive person's un-Christlike drive to attain and maintain dominance. Emotional abuse is a habitual sin that seldom goes away on its own. The church needs to treat it accordingly.
Telling the victim to submit to sinful behavior will rarely encourage the healing God wants to bring about in the life of both victim and abuser. Instead, it enables the abuser to continue down his or her destructive path, while their family pays the price. The best chance a marriage has for long-term survival is for the cycle of abuse to be broken, and for the abuser be brought to repentance (not just remorse) and get the help they need, preferably from professionals trained to address abuse. Churches can assist families in finding this help, and come alongside them to provide spiritual guidance, emotional support, and ongoing accountability.
Nowadays, Deb puts her painful experiences to good use, sharing her story with advocacy groups and encouraging women who find themselves in the situation she was in 20 years ago. She has made peace with her ex-husband, and can speak with him in grace instead of fear. "God has done great healing in his life as well," she says. "Had we not divorced, I am not at all sure that would have been the case—not because God couldn't, but because the need wouldn't have been acknowledged and healing accepted. God's desire would be to heal marriages. But the healing can happen on both sides only after the pattern has been broken."
As the church, let's help people break those patterns earlier, instead of later, and support them wherever they are in the journey.
*Full name withheld
If you are being abused, or think you might be abusing someone, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Churches can call the hotline to find out what resources are available in their area.
Jenny Rae Armstrong is an award-winning freelance writer and a member of the Redbud Writer's Guild. She lives in northern Wisconsin with her husband and four not-so-little boys, and recently launched AVA (Advocacy for Victims of Abuse), a ministry that equips churches to deal with domestic abuse and sexual assault, in her region. She blogs at JennyRaeArmstrong.com.