Since Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson published, 'Submit to your husbands': Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God (ABC News, July 2017), Fixing Her Eyes has received many emails from Australian women in evangelical churches who identified with the issues raised. Here we publish some of their stories. We hope that their words will be heard by all who read them. We hope that all readers will do something to help bring change. Whether you are in church leadership or part of the church. We can all do our part. No one should have to endure what these women have endured. We believe in, and pray to a God who is described in the following way in Psalm 91.4, "He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart."
Fixing Her Eyes welcome the windows being opened and the light shining in on this issue and believe that there is an opportunity for the church to better reflect the church Jesus calls us to be. May we listen to the Holy Spirit and may we listen to the testimonies of women.
If you are experiencing Domestic Violence and are afraid for your safety call the National Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Counselling Service on 1800 RESPECT. If you are in immediate danger in your home, please call 000 (if in Australia). More contact details at the end of this article.
ACACIA: The domestic violence my ex husband used on me was physically sporadic, but other methods of control were constant. It took me many years to tell anyone what had happened and wasn't until I studied it at University that I realised the methods of control are an integral part of the DV cycle.
My ex husband was a pillar of the church. He was (still is) on many committees, was active in ministry and people think he is a charming, highly educated, godly man.
After years of deep friendship with the minister's wife in our church, I opened up to her about the fact he had hit me several times., Her response was "well it takes two to tango: what did you do to deserve it?".
Needless to say it took several more years to attempt to tell someone else. This time it was a minister we had known for many years who headed up a large church. He had heard (from my husband) that things were not going well in a marriage that had always been admired from the outside by other Christians. I was called to his office to explain myself.
Bravely, I told him the truth, naively assuming he would help protect me. Instead he told me to " forgive, get over it, and get it sorted out". He then announced our marriage "difficulties" to parish council and told them I was being stubborn in holding onto the hurt. No-one helped me, and I lost my church family because I was too embarrassed to continue attending there.
Still in the marriage two years later, I told a non Christian. I was believed and supported. This went well so I decided it was time to tell my Christian best friend. She said she "couldn't believe me" and refuses to hear anything bad against him to this day. It's a no-go zone in our friendship and she maintains contact with him.
Through all this my faith has wavered, but Jesus has never let me go. If only His church could show love like He does. I have lost a church, friends, and nearly lost my faith through this nightmare caused by DV, though no fault of my own.
BORONIA: He deliberately ran over a cat when we were engaged. You might think that was an obvious red flag and I was stupid to go ahead and marry him. I have thought that too - a thousand times. He wouldn’t look at me when he was saying his wedding vows. Perhaps I should have walked out then and saved myself the anguish of the ensuing years. He started the silent treatment on our honeymoon. For not buying him a snack that I didn’t know he wanted.
A few months later, when my grandfather died, he stopped talking to me for three weeks. Because I had not consulted him about attending the interstate funeral. I just assumed it was okay to go.
He also had a sex quota for every week. When I didn’t meet it, he punched me in the ribs and kicked me. I owed him sex according to the Bible verses he quoted to me. He made jokes about me to our friends. Over dinner. That I was frigid.
Then he decided to go to Bible college. I took myself to a Christian counsellor. I told him that my husband thought I was frigid and that he hit me. The counsellor told me to keep forgiving him and that I needed to heal from the sexual abuse I had endured as a child. That would fix it. My counsellor told him about the sexual abuse in my childhood. Later my husband forced me to reenact the abuse because he was angry with me and he said he knew it was the best way to hurt me. He raped me a number of times. I refused to have anal sex but he forced that on me too. After two years of counselling my husband was still hitting me. I was crying through every counselling session. The counsellor said I was getting too depressed and needed a break from counselling. My husband was a student pastor by this time. He punched me on the way home from church because I hadn’t smiled enough. He punched me when I was taking a shower because I asked him about our finances. He threw furniture around the room when I refused to have sex with him. He drove dangerously to scare me. He would slam on the brakes if I asked him to slow down. He would race other drivers in the backstreets at night. One night he forced another driver into a parked car at high speed and kept driving. He threatened to drive me in front of a truck so that I would be hit on the passenger side. He drove up and down streets where prostitutes would stand waiting for clients. He would slow down and point them out to me. He told me I was ugly and useless. If I stood up for myself, he said I was arrogant.
One day I found one of his study notebooks lying open and noticed my name. I kept reading. He had written that it would chill me to the bone if I knew about his fantasies. To rape prostitutes. To rape men. He also wrote that he had planned my murder. I asked him about the notebook when he got home. He took it from me and threw it in the fire. Then he told me how he was planning to kill me and if I tried to leave he would hang himself in the garage. He strung up a rope for that purpose. To remind me. For the next few days I went to bed early each night, pushing furniture up against the bedroom door so he couldn’t get to me. I decided to see another counsellor. When she heard my story she insisted that it wasn’t safe for me go home. I stayed with a friend and wrote a letter asking my husband to leave the house. He agreed. It was the middle of winter. When I returned to the house he had left all the doors and windows wide open. All the lightbulbs had been removed. He had also cleared our bank account. Over the next few weeks he stalked me. The police were quick to respond when I called. They urged me to get an apprehended violence order. The magistrate readily granted one.
My Christian boss did not know what an apprehended violence order was and expressed surprise that I needed one. My Christian colleagues wanted to have a dinner party to try and reconcile us. My Christian grandfather (the one still living) wrote to me and told me I needed to go back and stick it out. My husband told people at church and Bible college that I had experienced a ‘mental breakdown’ and left him. No one from those places asked me what had happened. I wrote to the Bible College to tell them about my husband’s behaviour and my concerns for the safety of the women on campus. They did not respond. I went to another church where coincidentally one of the Bible College lecturers attended. He brushed me off when I tried to have a conversation with him. I tried another church. When the subject of my divorce came up I was told that I should never have left the marriage. That I should have endured the suffering as Jesus did. That I should have had the faith of Abraham. That there were no grounds for divorce except sexual infidelity. That I had sinned by filing for divorce. That I would never be allowed to marry again.
My now ex husband went on to graduate from Bible college, remarried and worked as a church minister for many years.
My story is not unique. Domestic violence in all its ugliness is frustratingly commonplace, and devastates the lives of many people in our communities. In light of recent discussions among Christians about domestic violence, I am compelled as a survivor to speak up.
I hope that my story can shed more light on the issue of domestic violence so that effective strategies can be developed to address it. I also hope my story is of some consolation to others who are or have been affected by domestic violence. To those who care about this issue, I propose that it is not enough to address domestic violence as a problem in itself for often it only first layer of abuse. The second and subsequent layers of abuse are the unconscionable responses of people who are mandated to help and don’t. There is a phenomenon in which victims of domestic violence are often ignored and/or blamed and the actions of the perpetrators are denied and/or covered up. It is tragic enough that these layers of abuse occur in the wider community but when they occur as pervasively as they do in Christian contexts we need to ask some serious questions of our culture and leadership.
EUCALYPTUS: My mother is a very capable, intelligent and lovely woman. But within the Pentecostal movement in the 1980s, there was a push towards headship theology. It was difficult to argue towards autonomy for intelligent women, particularly for their success in the workplace. Their main role was at home. Even now, most people older than me in our congregation refer to this construction as "the biblical view of marriage"... although of course my subsequent theological studies have helped me identify that "headship" as we know is a cultural matrix of ideas, many of which have been attached to the biblical text in recent times. I grew up in a terribly physically and verbally abusive environment, and my mother struggled to make it safe for us as she pursued her calling, or vocation. We were often used by my father to enact his disappointments about their "non-traditional" union. The more she succeeded, the more insecure he got.
That's not really what I want to highlight here, but instead I want to speak about the reaction of Christian leaders when they found out what was happening in our home. One very prominent female pastor told me to "get over it" after I approached her after youth group. The previous night had been a particular turning point event in which I was dragged around the house by my hair and then verbally abused on and off for twelve hours. Before that, though, there had been plenty of signs. My pet name at home was "retarded" for about three years. Because of that pastor's response, I believed for many years that I was being too dramatic, and deserved this kind of treatment, because I should be able to just "get over it."
Throughout that time, my parents' connect group and many other Christians from our church saw the way my father treated me and laughed at it. They all said nothing. Because of this I struggled with great fear at church. I shook for many years each time I took the stage to lead the worship team. I loved church, because I loved God. But it has never, ever, felt safe.
About ten years later, my boyfriend's behaviour began to parallel my fathers and enraged, he threw me against a wall during a disagreement. I took this to another youth pastor and was told "but you said you loved him," as if this was in some way my own character flaw that I was dealing with. I had missed the signs and dated someone who I now had responsibility for, potentially for the rest of my life. Unsatisfied, I took this incident to over five pastors, but conveniently this boyfriend claimed to have "blacked out" and could not remember anything of the event. Additionally, many meetings were held to discuss the ways I had caused the violence, and I was not invited to them. This led to a chain of events that affected me really negatively, and have permanently scarred my reputation in some circles.
GERALDTON WAX: I entered my marriage 18 years ago from a Christian culture that taught that wives should leave all decisions to their husbands and treat their husbands’ decisions and directions as God’s will. I thought this was how God wanted me to live and it would glorify him if I obeyed my husband in everything, and I believed my husband was trying to love me like Christ loved the church. I didn’t see that my husband was taking away my agency in every detail of my life - choosing what I wore, what we ate, how I spent my time, how often I saw my family, what friends I could see - controlling me emotionally, socially, financially, and spiritually. I often felt unhappy, but blamed myself for not being a better wife and appreciating his care more.
After we had children he became even more coercive, telling me when to feed the babies, change their nappies, put them to bed. He constantly criticised my parenting and anything I did around the house (I was a stay at home mum and very isolated) and I believed that I was a terrible wife and mother and he was wonderfully kind and patient to put up with me. For much of our marriage he was based at home as he was in ministry positions or studying for ministry, so he was always watching, directing and criticising what I did. He made me believe that this was because he loved me and I needed him to ‘manage everything’ because I was incompetent, and that I should be grateful for how devoted he was to taking care of me. I reached a point where I was heavily medicated because I believed that I had a major depressive disorder.
Eventually he decided that I was a liability to his career, and began telling me that I needed to be locked away in a psych ward, or else that I should suicide, because he and my children would be better off without me. I felt really scared and confused and tried to get away to a friend’s place. But he found me, brought me home and raped me, and told me I couldn’t see that friend any more (she was the only person I felt I could trust as she wasn’t a Christian). I escaped again and got to a safe place where God brought me in contact with Christians who helped me see the abuse. It was really hard for me to see it clearly for a while after two decades of thinking he was the perfect Christian leader and husband, but it became much clearer after I left because of the obvious evil and deceitfulness in how he responded to the situation. I am now on my own and waiting for the family court process to take its course over the next few years. When I left he took me to court to get custody, arguing that he was a respected church minister and I was mentally unfit.
As a result of the initial interim decision, my children spend the bulk of their time with him and they are very much under his influence and control, but when they are with me they can see that I am sane and happy, functioning well, holding down a full time job and surrounded by supportive family, friends and church. I’m thankful to be alive and I’m trusting God for my children’s safety and for our future.
GREVILLEA: I'm a normal person. You wouldn't know I'm a single Mum and a survivor of abuse. And I probably won't tell you because I am too embarrassed and ashamed. But I'm sitting next to you in church. Watching your happy family. Feeling like I failed. Like my husband is right - that I didn't try hard enough, that I used his imperfections as an excuse to give up, run away, throw away my vows. Don't I know that God hates divorce? Don't I believe in forgiveness, grace, second chances? In love that doesn't keep a record of wrongs? In faithfulness, perseverance, and sacrificial servant love? I don't know anymore - maybe I don't.
What I know is I can't do marriage anymore. I can't live with the fear pervading my body as I walk through our front door. Holding my breath, placating, saying whatever you need me to, to make the anger go away.Why though, did it need the eyes and words of a small child, to let me see how bad it was. Only when my child was too scared to go home was I able to see. And now I wear the double sided guilt. That somehow both the abuse was my fault, and that I should've seen, should've known, should've protected my children. Oh the guilt of the damage I have let come to them. My own wounds will have to wait.
MELALEUCA: I must admit I've been struggling since the 7:30 Report on domestic violence in the church. It was hard not to cry when listening to the stories of these women who had suffered so much.
Their stories triggered teenage memories for me, witnessing the violence of my step father towards my mother and watching her self esteem and independence drain away. I am traumatised by the experience: years of feeling like we were constantly walking on eggshells. If he came home with a wild look in his eyes, I knew to make myself scarce. I remember the shock of waking up to see bruises on my mum's face, and then accompanying her to see the doctor about her injuries. I remember the repeating cycle of leaving him and then going back again when he found where we were staying and he said sorry, with flowers...again. Things would be ok for a while until his next drinking session or something minor that someone said or did triggered his anger. The constant fear was exhausting. School was my safe place. I'd arrive really early before my friends' early bus would come to school. I'd go to friend's house after school.
Since then, I find myself automatically going into flight or fight mode hearing about DV, and even reading about submission/headship in the Bible puts my stomach in knots. Everything in me wants to yell, "Run!" -which is something I yelled to a friend of mine when she dropped into my house as we were fleeing my step father. We had 5 minutes to pack a bag before my step father came home to try to stop us from leaving. As his car pulled into the driveway, my mum, sister and I fled out the back door with my school friend, down the other side of the house, we jumped over the front fence and, mercifully, our taxi arrived just in time and we sped away. I remember looking out the back window of the taxi, watching as my friend ran as fast as could up the road towards her house. We all escaped safely.
I was relieved when they finally divorced and we could have a peaceful life.
However, the defensive reaction and blame shifting of some Christians after the 7:30 Report has added insult to injury. While many Christian leaders responded with compassion and a desire to do better at caring for survivors of domestic violence, some have cried foul and wanted to point the finger elsewhere: "What about that group? It doesn't happen at my church! They have an agenda! Feminism has no place in the church! The stats weren't reported properly! Regular church goers are least likely to abuse!" etc etc etc.
Frankly, they've missed the point. These stories of violence in the church actually happened. There are many more stories like these. One story is one too many.
Here's the response I wish I'd heard from all Christians:
These stories are heartbreaking.
What can we as a church do?
Can we hold a White Ribbon fundraiser every year?
Can we donate toiletries to women's shelters?
Do we believe the women who come forward, even if their violent husbands claim to be Christians and are regular churchgoers or are on staff, or do we disbelieve/dismiss/blame them/tell them to go home and submit better?
Do they receive support from the church to find safe lodging and access to outside support services?
Do we clearly state every time marriage/divorce or headship/submission is read about from the Bible, or studied from Bible Study guides, or spoken about in church or at Christian conferences, that all domestic violence (physical, sexual, emotional, controlling behaviours: financial, social, spiritual abuse) is a sin and that separation/divorce in these situations is not a sin?
Do we actively seek and welcome a comprehensive, Australia-wide research study into domestic violence in all church denominations?
Do we actively seek to have a consistent, Australia-wide response to DV in the church?
Do we welcome difficult questions about female roles and responsibilities in each church and give thorough and respectful answers without being defensive?
Are women visible in church services?
Are half of the paid church staff women?
Are half of the MCs, up-front prayer leaders, Bible readers and song leaders women?
Do the Bibles in the pews have gender-inclusive words, or is it just assumed that women feel included when the verses repeatedly say 'mankind' and 'men', despite the original intention which included men and women together?
Do women regularly preach in church on Sunday?
Do men serve equally on the morning tea and childcare rosters?
We can't keep blaming sinful human nature as the only contributing factor for domestic violence. The church needs to hear the wake up call, and proactively investigate the attitudes, beliefs, practices and structures of each church to discover if there is any inadvertent complicity or unhelpful misunderstandings that contribute here. One woman or child facing violence in the church is one too many.
ROCK ORCHID: Throughout my marriage, all I saw in my husband was anger and selfishness. He emotionally degraded me and our children and got physical at times. When he wasn't attacking us, he was completely closed off. It wasn't until I started seeing a Christian counsellor that she told me I was being abused. I've had to educate myself about the many types of abuse and the abuse cycle to really come to terms with what I've been dealing with for so many years.
ROYAL BLUEBELL: The kids and I moved out after years of abuse. Our trauma seeped into every aspect of our lives, relationships, dreams and bodies. My friends understood that I had to do what I did by leaving. My family did too. My friends from church got it and supported me. My church leaders, however, approached me with suspicion and interrogation. Most of the time they said nothing and avoided me. If they said anything at all it was insensitive, uncaring, uneducated, and damaging. Some of the worst conversations included “isn’t marriage important to you?” and “are you aware how your actions have made it awkward for everyone around you?” If my husband was ever my spiritual head, that has crashed and burned, and my church leaders are doing a pretty awful job of shepherding me. So much for biblical headship. I thank the Lord for other survivors who point me to Jesus by caring and listening. And I thank the Lord for the few insightful, compassionate Jesus-followers out there who listen and believe.
STURT'S DESERT PEA: I lay in bed that night, weak, completely broken. I lacked the strength to leave my situation and I felt helpless, trapped and without any means of escape. That night I spoke to God and said “I can’t do this anymore. Please do whatever it takes to get me out of here.” I drew breath sharply at the gravity of what I had just said, but then I said it again softly, “whatever it takes…” The very next morning [boyfriend] had a complete 360-degree change in attitude, told me to pack my bags and get out. The decision to leave had been made for me, when I was unable to make it myself. I called a friend who called another friend, and two utes and two trailers turned up at my house within hours. Two loving, male friends silently and methodically packed my possessions, ignoring the screams and threats that howled from my boyfriend’s mouth (he’d immediately changed his mind about wanting me to go when he realised I was actually going), and I didn’t shed a single tear until my friend drove me out of the driveway, then something inside me snapped and I cried, and cried, and cried.
WARATAH: I was sexually abused by a male teenager at the age of around 5 years old. This is around the same time that my father became an alcoholic and started to emotionally and verbally abuse me. I ended up running away from home at the age of 16. My father is a recovered alcoholic and we have now reconciled.
When I ran away from home at 16 I was depressed and suicidal. I ended up going to my high school chaplain seeking help with accommodation as I had no where to live. I ended up boarding with her son's family who were Christians. From seeing how this family lived, I started attending their church and a youth group at this church. That's where I met my ex-husband.
My ex played drums in the worship team at church. He was raised in a very strict Christian family and had attended church his whole life. I fell head over heels in love with him. I decided to give my life to the Lord and as soon as I prayed the prayer of salvation, he asked me to be his girlfriend. I was 17 years old. He was 20.
The relationship was dysfunctional from the start as my ex was living two separate lives. One as a clean cut church boy and the other as a university party animal. I had no former experience with Christian men and no solid foundation with the Lord yet, as a new believer. I thought that what he was doing was normal behaviour and he treated me well at that stage. We were together for four years before we got married. The relationship was dysfunctional the whole time and I had no inner peace about marrying him, but unfortunately I was 'in love' and refused to see things clearly. We were married when I was 22 years old and he was 25.
We were married for 13 years and throughout this time he was unfaithful and physically, verbally, emotionally, financially abusive. I felt pressured into having sexual relations with him, thinking and knowing that he would go else where to get this if I didn't. So I did this willingly but hated it.
My ex was raised in the church culture of 'male headship'. The husband is the leader and the wife 'submits' to his authority. My ex made business deals involving hundreds of thousands of dollars without me even knowing until the deal had been made because he believed that I had no right as a woman to be involved in these types of decisions. My role as the wife was to raise the children, cook and clean, provide for his sexual needs and nothing more. I was his slave. Well this is what he tried to make me be anyway!
A pastor from my former church knew my struggles with my ex for over a period of ten years. I attended his bible study for years and shared openly with him and the group. I thought that he was a friend, that I could trust him and that he would help me. When I was six months pregnant with my third child I discovered that my ex was cheating on me again and decided to separate. My pastor helped me through this time but there was an expectation that I would take my ex back because the baby was on its way. When my third child was born she had a serious medical condition and I did end up reconciling with my ex because I wasn't coping with the hospital commitments as well as two other young children.
I ended up staying with my ex for two more years until I finally decided to leave him for good as his behaviour got worse. The last week that I was with him was by far the worst. My ex made it very difficult for me to leave. I feared for my life and I didn't think that I could escape from him. I started having suicidal thoughts. Believing the lie of 'no escape'. I told my pastor everything. He had known the background and history of the marriage. During this time he showed little concern about my safety or mental health and he encouraged me to stay in the marriage.
Praise be to God, I didn't stay in the marriage. I left my husband and that pastor for good. I am now in a state of recovery after nearly a lifetime of struggle with abuse and I am thriving in God's purpose for my life. I now attend a church that view woman as equal and that have women in leadership positions and preach on a regular basis.
A MAN'S STORY
I was in ministry. In my marriage of some years, there was abuse by my wife from the beginning but it got worse over time. For years I didn’t recognise it as abuse. The abuse was largely emotional. The emotional abuse consisted of things like gas lighting, humiliation and put downs. I became apprehensive about any intimacy with my wife. Toward the end of the marriage, my wife was making threats of physical violence towards me. I was afraid that if she did start a physical fight, as the man I would be seen as the perpetrator. I also didn't want to retaliate. I felt defenceless. As a Christian, for a long time leaving the marriage didn’t feel like an option. I didn’t want to hurt my wife or my kids. I didn’t want it to damage my ministry. Also, the emotional abuse meant I would think it was my fault and I kept striving to be a better husband so it wouldn’t happen again. But all this meant that I ended up in a place where I thought I might kill myself. So eventually I left. When I left I got hate mail, lost my job and experienced judgment from many Christians, though some have been there for me. It has been a few years, but I still cry every day. What I found as a man was that there was automatic disbelief that I was a victim. I wish that Christians recognised that marriage should never include abuse and I would be affirmed in removing myself and my kids from the situation.
Family and domestic violence support services:
1800 Respect national helpline: 1800 737 732
Women's Crisis Line: 1800 811 811
Men's Referral Service: 1300 766 491
Lifeline (24 hour crisis line): 131 114
Relationships Australia: 1300 364 277
For Fixing Her Eyes articles and links regarding Domestic Violence, please visit this page: http://www.fixinghereyes.org/domestic-violence