By Danni Moss
Copyright protected, all rights reserved
Why pastors won’t stand against abuse, and my experience of betrayal and abandonment by my pastors over the years:
I was surprised to find that my pastors would not stand against the abuse in my marriage, even when they knew I was telling the truth about it. The first time I left Gary, my pastors (SBC church) were shocked at my accusation of abuse. They did not believe me.
I later learned that apparently a huge percentage of women who leave their husbands claim abuse as the reason. Abuse is a nice hot-button word that, at one time perhaps, engendered automatic horror and sympathy. Now (and perhaps always, I don’t know) there is so much concern that accusations might be false pastors “err on the side of caution” and are more likely to disbelieve an accusation of abuse than to take it seriously.
The church provided counseling from an elder who was also a professional certified counselor. In our first session, which was when I told Gary I was leaving him (he didn’t know before then because I was afraid of him) the counselor got to see his anger.
However, Gary’s facade never completely cracked in public in 20 years of marriage. Only one time did he ever reveal his rage to someone outside his own family (wife and children) and that was to his sister. But to her it was a one-off anomaly. For us it was a way of life. When I tried to tell counselors about his anger they discounted it, thinking I meant “anger” in the way we all sometimes get angry. By anger I meant uncontrolled rage. But if I used the word “rage” with counselors they just heard “anger” and discounted it.
That first counselor did see the anger and agreed we needed to have separate counseling. He also was the first to ever tell me that physical violence in the home, even if it was directed at objects instead of people, was considered abuse, domestic violence and child abuse. While there was physical violence against the kids, there was also a lot of throwing furniture, punching holes in walls, slamming things, etc. (About the 3rd or 4th time he hit me I looked him straight in the face and told him if he ever did it again I’d call the police. For some reason he believed me and never hit me again. I can only guess he would never quit with the kids because he always excused it as “discipline.”)
This counselor knew these things were happening in our home; I told him everything. He said he believed me. In hindsight though, as a licensed counselor, he either did not believe me or he deliberately chose to violate the law because he did not report it to the authorities. I didn’t know then that he was legally required to report abuse if he was told about it.
But his attitude was the same as I found from every other Christian counselor (except the one who did report my husband). Saving the marriage was their only consideration. This first church counselor told me that I had no grounds for a divorce, period. I started proceedings toward divorce because, while he was crying on everyone’s shoulders in public, in private Gary was threatening to charge me with child abuse, to take the children and run out of state, to cut me off financially, etc. I consulted with several professionals and they told me my only protection was to get a divorce.
However, I told the counselor and my pastors that I would stop the divorce if Gary gave any indication of repentance. The pastors and counselor promised they would keep that qualification a secret. After winning me back with an amazing repentance performance (that I didn’t realize until years later was all private – he never acknowedged publically that he had done anything wrong) Gary slipped and told me one of the pastors had told him I would drop the divorce if he repented. Still later, he denied it. But how would he have even come up with such a statement in the first place if the pastor hadn’t told him?
In this first separation, the church denied the reality of the abuse in my home, failed to report the abuse allegations to the authorities, and betrayed my confidence to Gary, enabling him to manipulate me back into the marriage with their support and blessing.
The second time I separated from Gary the pastors of my church (the same church) did believe me. I had started telling them things were slipping back into old patterns within a couple years of our previous separation. By “old patterns” I was talking about the physical violence. It wasn’t until about the time I left him for the final time that I acknowledged the verbal abuse was just as serious a problem.
Four years after our first separation, I took our oldest son, J, to a Christian counselor recommended by a pastor friend (who later became our pastor). My goal was for us to learn how not to push Gary’s buttons and cause his anger and violence – I still didn’t understand that Gary was responsible for his own anger and rage choices.
When I told the counselor what was happening, culminating in Gary punching J in the stomach in front of neighbor children when I was away from home, she told me she would talk to J to see what he said, but if he said the same thing I had, she was required by law to report Gary to the authorities. And she did.
Even though my pastors believed me the second time, I was clearly told they would do nothing. Well, to be specific, the senior pastor called me into his office for a meeting. He told me that he believed it could be that I had no choice but to get a divorce (which I was not pursuing at that time) if Gary did not repent of his abuse. But at the same time he told me not to tell anyone he had said so – which I correctly interpreted to mean he wasn’t going to say so in public or make any move to stand up for us.
Gary did not want us to have anything to do with the counselor who reported him to the authorities, telling me our former counselor discredited her (I never heard it directly from the source but I believed him at the time). I didn’t trust the counselor from our church that we had previously, based on what had come out of that experience.
A close friend and mentor offered to provide counseling. She was not a Baptist (which was a positive factor to me by that time) and I had seen God use her, so I trusted her. She was not a professional counselor but had majored in counseling in some capacity in school.
However, she did not believe I should have separated from Gary. In her theology that was never acceptable since it was “putting asunder” what God had joined. This was lack of godly submission on my part. In our 4-5 sessions she focused on me during all but one. She never believed me about the abuse or violence. And after just a few sessions she told me “God said” it was time for us to get back together.
Nothing had been addressed. Gary never had to acknowledge what he had done and he definitely came out of that separation believing he had been vindicated. My heart shattered in a million pieces. But I obeyed her because that’s what I’d always been taught to do.
Gary convinced the social worker that I had taught J to be rebellious. He convinced the social worker and everyone else who would listen that J was so violent and rebellious that he (Gary) was only defending himself and standing up for his honor when he hit his son on a very regular basis. No one would listen to me when I tried to tell them J was responding back to his father in exactly the same tone of voice, profanity, and attitude that his father used toward him. The people in Gary’s required anger management course told him if their son back-talked them they’d hit him, too.
For the remainder of our marriage, Gary believed it was his right to hit back “in self defense, to stand up for himself as a man”, physically or verbally, every time he could egg one of the boys into a fight. And he was usually the one doing the “egging” – he just didn’t swing first, so he could say he never “started it.”
This incident cemented J’s hardness toward God because the church and the system that was supposed to protect him, blamed him. He knew from then on, his father would always be believed and he would be the “bad guy.” It happened over and over. My health broke down due to the stress at this point.
I wanted to believe that this time the reconciliation would be different. I desperately wanted it to be OK. If more submission was the problem then that’s what I wanted to do. But I couldn’t understand why his abuse and violence were always excuseable. Why was his anger always excuseable but no one else was allowed to have any emotions other than delight in his every thought or expression – even the nastiest ones?
After our second separation, we ended up changing churches for reasons unrelated to our marital issues. We went back to a church we had attended the first couple years of our marriage. Through one thing and another the pastors of this church were aware of our marital situation through the intervening years.
It didn’t take long before they began to see problems with Gary themselves. This was surprising to me because no other pastor had ever bothered to pay attention enough to see problems. They proved for themselves that he was a liar, manipulative and controlling; this had nothing to do with our marriage or family issues.
When Gary’s anger, rage and literal expressions of hatred toward me increased while I was sick after chemo I realized it was never going to end. This time I didn’t attempt counseling. I knew what would happen; it had all happened before. I also felt that God was very specifically leading me to get a divorce – an assertion that has gotten me a lot of flack. But I’ve been listening to that voice for a long time; I know what it sounds like. I had also told Gary after the second separation that if he escalated again I would get a divorce. And that’s what I did.
However, when I told my pastors I was getting a divorce I was surprised to find they were not supportive – even though they knew I was telling the truth. But one pastor said, while I might need to get a divorce for the safety of myself and my children, I could never remarry since there was no known sexual adultery. I have no idea whether Gary’s subsequent remarriage would change his opinion about this. The other pastor said I had no grounds for divorce since there was no known sexual adultery – regardless of the abuse going on in our home. The logic which would allow him to kill me but not have sex with someone else escapes me.
I was very hurt by this, even though I understood why they said the things they did and they weren’t ugly or mean about it. What pastors (speaking in general of all the pastors I had) don’t realize is that when they don’t stand up for abuse victims, by default they stand up for the abuser. The victim needs the protection of the church leadership at least standing up to say, “this person is getting a divorce with cause. We know about it, we know the details, and we agree the cause is valid.”
Even if they don’t give details, taking a stand for abuse victims when asked keeps the abuser from poisoning people against the victim — which will happen, guaranteed. It happened with me and really hurt that Gary went around telling people a variety of lies about me and muddied the water. I still do not feel completely comfortable in that church because I know there are people there who see me the way Gary painted me, even without realizing it.
So why will pastors not take a stand for the abused within their churches?
One, they don’t want to make a mistake in taking sides. If an abuser denies the allegation of abuse, they are afraid not to believe him (or her). However, from the first separation I begged my pastors to follow the Mt. 18 pattern for church discipline. But they wouldn’t do it and follow through to the final step of withdrawing fellowship. The problem with this is, when pastors will not “take sides” they are taking sides. They are taking the side of evil and leaving the abused abandoned in their abuse. The hurt of this is overwhelming!
Pastors are also afraid of creating division in the church. This is the ostrich approach to the issue, I suppose. Unfortunately, the Bible says that those who sin are to be rebuked publicly so others will see and fear. The silence of the church on the issue of abuse is contributing to its continued growth because abusers are affirmed in their behavior. So by saying nothing pastors are “calling evil good” and enabling evil to continue.
The big one though is that pastors don’t want to be guilty of “putting asunder” what God has put together. They take one statement by God (repeated two or three times in the Bible) out of the context of the whole and elevate it above every other consideration. As I outlined in my article on the theology of an abusive marriage, the Bible has more to say about the issue of abuse. Besides the little bit in that article, there is even more Scripture has to say about marriage and abuse as well. But seminaries and Bible colleges don’t teach the rest of the Word on the subject of marriage.
I suspect when pastors fail to take a stand against abuse in marriages, they are afraid of either making a mistake that would earn them God’s wrath or they are afraid of gaining the disapproval of church members who have the power to ruin their careers.
Until something changes, abuse will abound in Christian marriages. The Bible does have an answer for the issue of abuse and that answer isn’t silence and denial.