Is there abuse in our churches?

Posted by Karen Soole Karen Soole
My children mock me for listening to The Archers:  a gentle radio drama about ‘everyday country folk’, milking cows, housing their hens, making jam and putting on events in the village hall, which admittedly all sounds very dull. However, recently ‘The Archers’ has been making waves, twitter has exploded, newspaper columnists have been fuelled with ample copy and listeners have started a ‘JustGiving’ page - The Helen Titchener Rescue Fund which at time of writing has raised £112,410.00. The Archers is no longer dreary.[1]

Played out over two years The Archers has run a story of domestic emotional abuse in which Helen, an articulate, independent woman with good family support became trapped in a cycle of bullying and control which caused her to doubt her own judgements, and becoming isolated, depressed and fearful. The control her husband Rob exerted over her was wrapped in the guise of ‘doing what is best for you Helen’ and ‘showing my love’. It was a ‘love’ that diminished her, it led to her giving up work, giving up driving  and not even answering calls from her friends. It has been harrowing to listen to. There has been nothing gentle about this storyline, which included marital rape and eventually a brutal stabbing. The listeners outrage was exacerbated by the fact that to the outside world Rob was a good man, a loving husband who was doing his best for Helen. Listeners were screaming at the radio and Twitter for Helen’s family to notice things were terribly wrong. I confess that I found myself unable to listen to parts of it. The writers have been guided every step of the way by professionals who work with victims of abuse and it has shown what Sandra Horley chief executive of Refuge describes:

‘The grinding impact of emotional abuse can chip away at a woman’s sense of self. She may begin to believe her abuser when he tells her that she is worthless, that no one will believe her, that no one cares about her but him. Distorting a woman’s reality is the kind of mental torment used so successfully by torturers and terrorists, who know they can keep their prisoners compliant by frightening and disorientating them’.[2]

This sort of stuff happens behind closed doors and in secret and that means it could be happening in our communities and our churches too. Statistically it is. In fact just as sex offenders found our churches an easy place to prey on young children so men with a desire to dominate can find easy pickings among our young women particularly in complementarian settings where women are prepared to be submissive. Amelia Scharze in her excellent article for the bible society in Australia made this observation:

‘Experts tell us that men with this type of character find churches an attractive place to act out on their dominance fantasies. Young Christian women trying to work out what submission means, are in a perfect position for this type of ‘wolf’ to practice on. A charming young man tells them he wants to ‘lead’ and ‘present her pure and blameless’. All she has to do is to be tractable and submit. She tries to do so, and in a step-by-step destabilisation process she slowly lets go of most of her boundaries, relationships and ideals.’ [3]

Are we aware that this could be going on in our churches? Are we blind to it like Helen’s family who trusted their daughters abuser and failed to talk to her themselves? Or are we like the villagers in Ambridge oblivious to cruelty that is happening under our noses? As complementarian believers we may be doing worse and be colluding with it through our teaching. Are we helping husbands know what it means to love their wives or telling them to take control? Do we understand what it means for a wife to submit and the variety of ways that can be worked out in practice?

‘Whilst the Bible calls upon the wife to submit it never calls upon the husband to subjugate or subdue his wife. It is never his prerogative or responsibility. Hers must always be her own willing, Spirit-filled response to the saviour, never a response enforced by her husband. All forms of coercion—physical, economic, social, psychological, spiritual—are inappropriate and wrong for a husband to use on his wife.’ [4]

Does our application of the bible join forces with an abusive husband allowing him to tell his wife that she is worthless (deeply sinful and rebellious) whilst simultaneously leaving his wife unable to trust her own judgements because she agrees that she is by nature a sinner? Such women do not tell others in church what is going on because to do so appears to reinforce her husbands accusation that she is not being submissive. Such women are in a terrible dilemma because not only are they receiving cruel treatment at home but it feels as though the gospel of grace and freedom is the cause of their suffering.

We must protect women from this form of abuse. Godly women who long to obey scriptural injunctions are especially vulnerable; it is very hard to question someone when you believe the very act of speaking up is disobedient. We need to speak up for them. Church leaders take note we must not be lazy in addressing this. I fear we may have Rob and Helen’s in our own church communities hidden away disguised as godly. Some may be leaders themselves. If we fail to admit this and teach correctly in this area not only will this generation of  Helen’s suffer but others will follow as they learn a pattern of marriage that subjugates women rather than enhances them.