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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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Andersen, who also writes extensively on biblical prophesy, has a different theological explanation, one with a seemingly more feministic bent. The story of the Fall should not be seen as a prescription for marriage roles, she argues, with women charged to follow men as punishment for acting outside the chain of command, but rather as the first chapter in a long history of domestic violence of husband against wife. In Andersen’s reading, the story of Adam and Eve is that of Adam’s deadly betrayal of his wife: offering her up for punishment -- the wages of eating the apple were death -- rather than owning his blame for sin. Women have been responding in a sort of biblical battered wife syndrome, the “Eve Syndrome,” ever since.

Another of Moss and Andersen’s contemporaries, Barbara Roberts, Australian author of Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion , even calls herself a complementarian. Though Roberts believes that complementarianism too often has “an undue emphasis on female submission and too little emphasis on the husband’s duty to protectively lead his wife,” she still agrees with large portions of classic complementarian documents, such as the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s Danvers Statement. She holds this belief even as she lays out a theological case for including abuse as one of biblical grounds for divorce: a counterintuitive confluence of ideas, but one which Roberts says is an essential protection for Christian women.

“We know from small studies in Christian contexts, as well as from a great deal of clinical and pastoral experience that domestic abuse is prevalent in Christian contexts,” says Roberts, adding that research has found that Christian women often stay in abusive situations several years longer than secular abused women.

While she sees some churches teaching that “wifely insubmission is the cause of domestic abuse,” as had Bruce Ware, more common is the approach of churches like Saddleback, which allows separation but never divorce for abuse.

“I think Saddleback’s teaching is profoundly and dangerously wrong,” says Roberts, who tried to contact Saddleback twice after the teachings were publicized in early January, offering them her book’s findings that 1 Corinthians 7:15 -- a verse commonly interpreted as applying solely to an unbeliever deserting a believing spouse -- provides the biblical grounds for abused wives to consider their union nullified. “The key question is not ‘who walked out’ but ‘who caused the separation?’ I believe I have provided a thorough and comprehensive refutation of the view held by people like those at Saddleback.”

Refuting Saddleback’s position on biblical grounds is direly important, says Roberts, to account for the different and additional burdens Christian women experience in weighing whether to leave a marriage. “Devout Christian believers are more intensely bound by their desire to obey God: their very real Savior, who they do not want to displease in any way. Christian victims thus put a positive internal pressure on themselves to ‘stay, submit, pray, forgive, and forget the previous abuse because that would be holding unforgiveness.’” Simply put, Roberts says, “A Bible-believing Christian woman needs a biblical argument for leaving a dangerous marriage because she loves God and wants to obey the Bible…Her scriptural dilemma can only be solved by applying and properly interpreting more scripture to counterbalance and correct her unbalanced emphases and misunderstandings.”

It’s to that end that Roberts and her fellow travelers are amassing a library of resources -- novels, personal testimonies, and exegetical material -- for women to whom secular reasons for leaving can’t appeal. Perhaps what’s most compelling about the existence of these seemingly contradictory stances on women’s rights, submission, complementarianism, and abuse is the fact that complementarian teachings and domestic violence are both large enough issues within the evangelical church to give birth to such an array of approaches. These including such nascent theological attempts -- neither quite feminist nor complementarian -- to help give biblically literalist women a safe exit.