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Biblical Battered Wife Syndrome: Christian Women and Domestic Violence

Escaping an abusive marriage is no easy task for many evangelical women, many of whom have pastors that say physical abuse is no reason for divorce.
 
 
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What is a good enough reason for divorce? Well, according to Rick Warren’s Saddleback church, divorce is only permitted in cases of adultery or abandonment -- as these are the only cases permitted in the Bible -- and never for abuse.

As teaching pastor Tom Holladay explains, spousal abuse should be dealt with by temporary separation and church marriage counseling designed to bring about reconciliation between the couple. But to qualify for that separation, your spouse must be in the “habit of beating you regularly,” and not be simply someone who “grabbed you once.”

“How many beatings would have to take place in order to qualify as regularly?” asks Jocelyn Andersen, a Christian domestic violence survivor and advocate, author of the 2007 book Woman Submit! Christians and Domestic Violence , an indictment of church teachings of wifely submission and male headship. As she sees it, by convincing women that leaving their relationships is not an option, these teachings have laid the ground for a domestic violence epidemic within the church.

Andersen writes from personal experience, describing an episode of being held hostage by her husband -- an associate pastor in their Kansas Baptist church -- for close to twenty hours after he’d nearly fractured her skull. Andersen was raised in the Southern Baptist Convention, where she heard an unremitting message of “submission, submission, submission.” She saw this continual focus reflected in her ex-husband’s denunciations, while he detained her, of women who wanted to “rule over men.” Though Andersen was rescued by her church’s pastor, who had his assistant pastor arrested himself, she says other churchwomen aren’t so lucky, particularly when churches tell couples to attend joint marriage counseling under lay ministry leaders with no specific training for abuse survivors, who instead offer an unswerving prescription of submission and headship, often telling women to learn to submit “better.”

Pastor Holladay takes care in the taped sessions to explain that enduring abuse is not a part of a wife’s call to submit to her husband -- a principle that Warren and Saddleback espouse. “There’s nowhere in the Bible that says it’s an attitude of submission to let someone abuse you,” he says in the audio clips. Nonetheless, Andersen finds it telling that the issue of submission always arises in church discussions of domestic violence, “subtly reminding women of their duty to maintain a submissive attitude toward their husbands.”

That this occurs even in Warren’s church, which is derided by more conservative Southern Baptists for its purported cultural liberalism. Andersen sees this as proof of the centrality of male authority throughout mainstream evangelical culture, “which can still be maintained in a controlled separation but is seriously threatened when a woman is given leeway of any kind, for whatever reason, in ceasing to submit to an abusive husband by divorcing him.”

There are more blatant examples of excusing abusive male authority among stricter proponents of complementarianism and submission theology. In June 2007, professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Bruce Ware told a Texas church that women often bring abuse on themselves by refusing to submit. And Debi Pearl, half of a husband-and-wife fundamentalist child-training ministry as well as author of the bestselling submission manual, Created to Be His Help Meet , writes that submission is so essential to God’s plan that it must be followed even to the point of allowing abuse. “When God puts you in subjection to a man whom he knows is going to cause you to suffer,” she writes, “it is with the understanding that you are obeying God by enduring the wrongful suffering.”