Sunday, October 10, 2010

Expendable Wives and Children

A repeated refrain on many blogs is that the gender issue is secondary doctrine that has nothing to do with salvation. Folks who believe husbands are to take authority over their wives and wives are to subject themselves to their husbands, (even when they are abused) are going to heaven just as much as those who believe husbands and wives as a team are to take authority over their children and households. But is this a scripturally sound view? I considered splitting this into several posts, but decided against that, since it needs to be read in one sitting to get the picture.

On the surface, I could agree with them. The Bible does not say Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and submit to your own husband, or take authority over your wife, and you shall be saved. Nor does it say Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and practice egalitarian marriage and you shall be saved.

Although egalitarians often understand that the doctrine of husband authority and wife subjection is the seedbed—yes, the CAUSE—of domestic abuse and domestic violence among Christians, complementarians deny that this is so. We know this is so because the abuser announces it frequently, telling his wife she is required to do as he says, because he is the man and God gave him the authority and she must submit to him. He frequently verbalizes this as he is abusing her for any real or imagined infraction of his rules, or just because he feels like it. He believes he has the right to determine the value of his wife, himself and of each of their children, to define their character--usually falsely defining himself as righteous and his wife as evil, decide the freedoms and limitations of each, the work each is to do, how much influence each will have, and to decide how much of their lives he wants to control. He can change the rules at a moments notice and punish the person who has not obeyed the rule that he had not yet decreed. He also believes he has the right to determine the type of punishment, whether "verbal unkindness," put downs, name calling, threats, intimidation, a slap, physically restraining, choking, raping, beating, kicking, or more subtle control methods like manipulation, driving wedges between people, deception, etc.

Except for wife beating and smacking, all these forms of domestic abuse against wives are protected by John Piper's church, for example, (see Bruce Ware publicly suggested the wife is at fault when the husband does these things, and most (if not all) of the Counsel for Biblical Manhood & Womanhood say things that indicate similar viewpoints.

Some complementarians say “Of course, a wife should never tolerate abuse.” Yet, churches all over, even those who seem to support women in divorcing abusive husbands, are frequently inhospitable to the abused women among them. The result is that many abused women give up on going to church. They have already suffered for years, and when their church hears about it, they abuse her still more through their avoidance of her, and frequently through taking disciplinary action against her. Some claim they don't want to get involved or take sides, yet uphold her abuser, offering him support, praise, and important and prominent roles in the church. Frequently, an abused woman's own friends turn away from her, and/or tell her she ought not be bitter or angry and to just get over it. If the couple had friends in common, the friends tend to maintain friendship with the husband, while claiming they cannot take sides.

The result is that many women who have experienced abuse, whether from pastor or husband stop attending church. Now this is NOT their initial response. They usually try to stick it out for awhile, but soon find that the retraumatizing at church in addition to the abuse they have already suffered, and are still suffering at home, is too much. In my work with abused women a common theme is that they stop going to church, often for more than a year. Some keep trying to find a church where they can find friendship and support, but never are able to find such a church.

One woman who had suffered domestic violence and long-term abuse through the custody decision of the court and her ex-husband, reported that it was so hard to even find someone to say “hi” to, after trying to make friends for 1-2 years, that she left that church, too embarrassed to return. A friendly, talkative, and open person, she experienced similar responses in 4 churches, including those where she never or rarely shared her personal story and made every effort to engage people in conversation of their choosing. She currently finds it too embarrassing to go to church, because people act as if she has the mark of Cain on her, often even refusing to make eye contact. If she did, she would have to plan to make a beeline for the car every Sunday, thereby defeating the purpose of attending church—which is fellowship. (One can worship, read the Bible, and listen to sermons at home.) But she knows that kind of self-isolation also hurts, so she associates extreme pain with church attendance and has no desire to force herself to suffer that kind of pain Sunday after Sunday.

Children who have suffered domestic abuse are also affected by the church's attitude toward abused women. When a mother leaves a church or stops attending church altogether, she usually takes her children with her. Yet the response of Christians is to either ignore those who give up on church, punish them, or shame them into returning to church, even though the only way to survive such shunning and shaming is to attend without any expectation of warm fellowship with other Christians—ie: avoid eye contact with others and make a beeline to the car the second the last amen is said so it won't hurt so much.

Diana Garland, co-author of a ground-breaking study on the sexual misconduct of ministers against their congregants, said
“(I)f the cases of reported abuse were spread evenly across the country, every average-sized congregation with 400 members would include seven women who have experienced clergy sexual misconduct at some time since they turned 18. That includes only women who go to church regularly, not those who stopped attending after their abuse.” (see for more on the clergy abuse article)
Finally someone mentions the fact that many leave church because of abuse! Even if the article deals with clergy inflicting sexual abuse on women, the comment applies. No one seems to be keeping count of the women who are not attending church because of the abuse they suffered from a complementarian, authoritarian husband. And then there are the women who attend, but who will never again be members of a congregation because of the "permission to abuse" that membership seems to carry with it. And we have no clue how many children are leaving the faith altogether because of the church's support of their abusive father. According to Barna, the number of non-churched Christians is growing steadily.

My first experience with this issue I was in my thirties, and found my insurance agent had left her church and said she would never go to church again because of how the pastors did not deal with her abuser and blamed her. She still had a good relationship with God, but would never again involve herself in organized religion. It was my own experience with abuse that opened the subject, so it appears that abused women share this information among themselves, but through experience know better than to divulge such information to men or to the 50%-75% of women who have not experienced abuse. Recently, my insurance agent mentioned a rule she had set for her daughter. Even though she said it in humor, I caught how difficult it is to train up a child in the way she should go when there is no church family to second the message.

At a time when a woman is in dire need of Christian support, when she has suffered years of abuse that has drained her energy and her belief in her own worth and competence, when she becomes a single parent, that is the time the church adds their pounding, humiliation, and avoidance to an already beaten-down woman and her children. The attitude of some churches toward abused wives seems to be “good riddance.” Her husband doesn't value her, therefore, her church refuses to value her, too. The faster they can push her out the door, the sooner they wash their hands of a difficult problem. Meanwhile, they keep the person who caused the problem in their midst. No one bothers to invite her back to church, or offers to be her supportive friend. And if someone does offer to be her friend, that person, too, will be ostracized. If she doesn't come back and face their shaming and disciplinary action, they are well rid of her.

But why blame the wife for her husband's behavior? Could it be that most Christians, in spite of what they SAY they believe, are acting on the belief that it is the WIVES who are to subject themselves to husbands and therefore any marital discord must be the wife's fault? From their behavior, it would appear that most Christians, even those who claim to be egalitarian, hold a deep-down suspicion that if the wife would just submit all would be well, therefore, the abuse must be her fault. Why else would they avoid abused women and cozy up to her abuser?

Not only has the church refused to be the Good Samaritan to abused women and their children, some of them have been the “Priest” and the “Levite,” passing by on the other side in their avoidance of her, and some have been the robbers as well, going right up to her and verbally attacking her and beating up the very one who is already black and blue on the inside.

After making every attempt to drive the abused woman and her children away from God's table, and succeeding, or after sitting by and watching others drive the abused woman and children away from God's table, they sit in their emptied pew and declare the egalitarian/complementarian debate is not a salvation issue.

What does Jesus say? Matthew, Mark and Luke all recorded Jesus's statement.
Matthew 18:6 “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”
According to Strong's concordance, #3684, Jesus was talking about a large millstone that required an ass to turn it. So He was speaking of a large enough weight to make sure the person goes down to the bottom and can't get back up. It sounds to me like Jesus is saying it would be better for a person that they drown than that they offend a little one.

Who are the little ones? The context in Matthew is speaking of children. But the context in Mark and Luke is speaking of anyone. Little, Strong's #3398 refers to “small in size, quantity, number, or (figuratively) dignity. The word clearly refers to short people, like children. The figurative usage would definitely include anyone who is already downtrodden to the point they are small in dignity—like the handicapped or abused wives; people who may be more easily intimidated due to social standing, past experiences, or height. Interestingly, although there is a list taking up ¾ of a column for verses with “ones” in them, the word is only used in Hebrew once, and not at all in Greek. It is added for understanding, but not italicized.

Offend, Strong's #4624, is “skanalizo,” where we get “scandalize.” The word is from 4625, and means
“to entrap, ie trip up (fig. stumble or entice to sin, apostasy or displeasure). (make to) offend.”
The offense Jesus was talking about is that of a believer being tripped up and enticed to sin or even apostasy. Jesus said it would be better FOR HIM that HE were drowned in the sea than that HE should offend a believer, causing them to sin or turn away from Christ. (Caps used to show who Jesus was talking about.) We already know it would be better for the offended one to not have been offended, but Jesus said it would be better for the one who does the offending that he/she were drowned rather than give them a chance to cause someone to stop believing in Christ. This suggests that God's judgment is extremely harsh on one who causes another to sin so much that they are in danger of losing their faith in God. Do we know of any such harsh judgment meted out to those are saved? No. So this suggests the one who causes another to lose or nearly lose faith is in danger of losing their salvation and going to hell.

Thus, in a round about way, the issue of husband authority vs functional equality in marriage does become an issue of salvation for both those believers who are driven out of church and those who drive them out. This is the second count against the abuser, who already does not produce fruit that shows he is connected to the vine. It is also the second count against the church that protects an authoritarian husband's right to maintain his authority over his wife, requires the wife to suffer under her husband's cruel reign, and now drives out the wife and children who are the targets of their husband and father.

It looks to me like the narrow way is much more narrow than I thought. If whole churches are teaching husbands to take authority over their wives, causing some of them to become lords and disconnect from the vine, if whole churches push traumatized believers away from church, causing abused women and their children to lose or nearly lose faith, are whole churches going through the strait gate, but leaving the narrow way to join those on the broad way to destruction?

Waneta Dawn is the author of "Behind the Hedge, A novel" See A Mennonite woman fights to save her family yet keep her faith.


  1. They are cowards. They fear not towing the line of man more than God.

  2. I have often noted that some/many men/churches consider men important and women expendable.

    Another example is that often the same groups who send a woman back to an alcoholic or abuser to submit in order to win him for Jesus will have a "drive the jezebel out" attitude toward any woman who doesn't line up with their personally and narrowly defined version of what female submission should look like. And somehow these people feel very justified and righteous in both attitudes. So in many cases, women are very much considered expendable.

    On the bright side, I personally know of a woman who divorced or is divorcing her husband and my parent's church is embracing her, gave her a place to live, and she's teaching an adult Sunday school class this month. She's an awesome teacher of the word. Her husband was not physically abusive. But he was terribly controlling and verbally abusive and unwilling to change.

    So while what you say above is a truthful account of terrible attitudes and situations that churches put women in, I wanted you to know that not ALL of the church is this way.
    There are bright spots in the darkness.

  3. Helen,
    I had to think your comment through. Is fear of man driving the whole comp movement? The comps who comment on egalitarian blogs seem convinced that THEY ARE obeying GOD. They keep repeating the same stuff, and don't seem to notice when their pet verses don't add up with the rest of scripture. They seem unwilling to seriously consider a view that does a better job of taking the whole scripture into account. What keeps them so unwilling to even consider a different view? Especially when the bible makes so little of wife submission and so much of husband sacrifice? I just reread a previous post on your site, pointing out how many things are blamed on feminism. And suddenly I see what you saw. Complementarian leaders have been actively nurturing fear in their followers; fear of feminism, fear that folks in their church will condemn them, fear of getting a bad reputation if they don't do what they are told, fear of their husband's abuse if they don't "submit." You are right; the people are afraid of man. Cowards. If they were not afraid, they would investigate feminism for themselves, for example, and not believe everything they hear from the pulpit. Their educated women in particular who have to research to teach, speak and write books, are cherry-picking the info that will keep them in the men's good graces. The "Do Women Need Feminism" forum I linked to from your blog, is very telling. The comp commenters are quite limited in their knowledge of feminism and gender issues. I wrote a research paper a few years ago which included info from a 1998 study where they found men with traditional male-superior thinking, thought male interviewees were more qualified than female interviewees, even though the opposite was true. Yet, several of the commenters on the forum thought there was no need for requiring employers to hire a certain number of women, that if the women are better then the men, they will be hired. This is just plain false. Also, egalitarian men are less likely to be promoted than male with traditional male-superior attitudes. Therefore, egalitarian men tend to make less money than their put-women-in-their-place brothers. The comp commenters thought gender equality has been attained, even though it has not.
    Helen, in addition to cowards, they are also deceived and uninformed.

  4. Mara,
    You said: "I have often noted that some/many men/churches consider men important and women expendable...And somehow these people feel very justified and righteous in both attitudes."

    So you've seen it too. What a sad commentary on our churches! Have you seen this article by Chuck Coleson? "Domestic Violence within the church: the Ugly Truth"

    Thanks for sharing the bright side! I am so glad at least some churches are dealing with dv. It is especially noteworthy that your parents' church dealt with it BEFORE it became physically violent. WOW! That brightens my day!