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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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While Saddleback’s teachings certainly don’t make such an explicit argument for submitting to violence, and Holladay tells abused women they must seek safety before they attempt to reconcile, there is a similar profession of helplessness before biblical mandates. In the audio clips, Holladay protests he could tell women that there was a third biblical justification for divorce, “a Bible verse that says, ‘If they abuse you in this-and-such kind of way, then you have a right to leave them.’” But ultimately, he says, there’s not, and the question of separation versus divorce comes down to a matter of dealing with the pain of fixing a marriage now or later, almost a matter of discipline.

“It’s not like you can escape the pain,” Holladay explains. “You think you are -- there’s an immediate release when you get the divorce.” But the pain abused wives escape through divorce will just be traded for pain down the line as they have to negotiate shared parenting duties with their exes, or encounter “old issues” with a new spouse -- a seeming charge that the abused spouse’s “issues” contributed to the abuse. “I’d always rather choose a short-term pain and find God’s solution for a long-term gain, than find a short-term solution that’s going to involve a long-term pain in my life,” Holladay says.

Saddleback’s position is “typical evangelical fare on the subject of domestic abuse and domestic violence,” responds Andersen. Typical because, like other well-known and extremely influential evangelical leaders, Saddleback is pushing a message of “leave while the heat is on,” but only with the intention of returning to the marriage when the violence has cooled. This is the message that Andersen tracks from Christian leaders as prominent as megachurch pastor John MacArthur, Focus on the Family head James Dobson, and established Christian radio psychologists Minirth and Meier on the far-reaching Moody Media empire. “Everyone with a lick of sense knows that, in a violent marriage, the heat is never really off,” Andersen tells me. “Everything can be fine one minute, and the next minute you’re dead.”

In the face of prominent leaders who claim helplessness in the face of biblical tradition, Andersen and a small but growing cadre of like-minded abuse survivors are fighting this established conservative wisdom on domestic violence not with secular or feminist domestic violence tactics, but with new theological arguments arguing for abused wives’ rights within a biblically literalist, and in some cases even complementarian, framework.

While Holladay explains that divorcees will not be turned away from Saddleback, and their divorces will be treated as either any old pre-conversion sin if it happened before they were saved, or forgiven as a repented sin if it happened post-salvation, he nonetheless stresses that mature Christians must admit that their divorce “was more for [their] own selfishness than any other reason.”

For Danni Moss, a pseudonymous blogger and formerly-Baptist abuse survivor, this offer of forgiveness isn’t good enough. “I’m not ok with being accepted because my divorce is in the past, and God accepts and forgives our sins. I didn’t sin in getting a divorce. God directed me.”

Moss’ story of entering and eventually ending an abusive marriage reads like a cautionary tale of the excesses of male headship theology. A daughter of missionaries who followed the popular authoritarian teachings of Bill Gothard, Moss says that her marriage was “arranged” by her father, who believed, as Gothard, that parents know what’s best for their children. Following a popular fundamentalist women’s teaching that love is a choice rather than an emotion, Moss dutifully complied with her father’s choice for her. Hyper-criticism that began on her honeymoon turned into physical abuse when Moss bore the first of her and ex-husband “Gary’s” three children. Sexual assaults and marital rape later became commonplace, as did violence towards both Moss and her eldest two children.