When I first heard Janet Levinson from the Protective Mother's Alliance speak for the first time, I had no idea what was coming. I sat near the front, and I remember wishing later that I'd hidden somewhere in the back of the crowd. Tears streamed down my face throughout her entire presentation. Why, you many wonder? Her talk reminded me of the plight of many wives mothers I've come to know... in the churches I've attended. When churches dehumanize and vilify women, for several reasons, the family dog often gets higher esteem.
Secrets About Domestic Abuse Under Gender Hierarchy
The Shepherding Discipleship Movement church I attended in the Nineties followed the dynamics described in this recent post. Abused women who attended there were called to let “ooey gooey love cover” their husbands' sins against them because of gender hierarchy. (Of course, at the time, I had no clue that there was such a thing as a “Shepherding Movement,” nor that domestic violence was tolerated within it.) These types of churches view a woman's lack of complete and unqualified submission as the source of all family conflict, treating it as an unpardonable sin. When I say that the church expected wives to “cover” her husband's sins, those sins notably included domestic violence, adultery, and pornography.
Suffering unjustly through submission at the hands of an unjust authority was taught as a virtue that imparted spiritual power and shaped character. Resistance to the hierarchy, God's primary tool for sanctifying the Believer (the process of transformation to make them ever more what God wants them to be), was deemed to be an act of direct rebellion against God Himself. If someone was harmed in this process, they were celebrated as a the greatest of martyrs for the cause of submission. I'm sure that Paige Patterson would agree (partial transcript/context and audio). Dr. Dorothy Patterson, Paige's wife, also tells other wives that they are not liable for wrongdoing if they go along with the errors of their husbands, so long as they submitting.
I would eventually learn that the whole network of churches had what they believed was a foolproof backup plan for enforcing wives' submission as well. Though not often, they would file reports with the local child protective service (CPS), falsely claiming that these mothers were abusive to their children. They also occasionally relied on the principle of hierarchy to coach a non-compliant mother's children to “advocate” for and obey the father only by offering crafted statements to CPS investigators. “Father knows best.” It became part of a foolproof plan to make a woman compliant. When the few women managed to go to family court to seek separation from abusive husbands, those CPS reports were enough to stigmatize and blacklist them from gaining custody of their children, even if they were never found guilty of endangering their little ones. If they wanted continued access to their children, they knew that they would have to do whatever their husband and the church required of them. The truly “rebellious” woman would get the double whammy of both a false CPS report and the swearing out of a fictitious mental health/medical warrant which falsely claimed that mom posed physical harm to herself and/or others.
During those years when I attended, these families would be assigned to the same home group (midweek cell groups for Bible study), a group that I ended up calling the “wife-beater's home group.” I was reprimanded for my comments and for “gossiping” with the wives who attended – women who came to me for support in the midst of confusion. It made no sense to them that no restrictions were put on their husband while so much more was required of them, all accompanied with attitudes of blame for their husband's actions along with a disturbing lack of empathy or concern for their pain.
When I was confronted by church leadership for listening to these women, I was told that they were rebellious, dangerous, and unreliable. I was instructed to stay far away from them. When asked who had knowledge of these matters, I explained that I'd told my husband what other women had shared with me. I was then told that I “shouldn't discuss everything” with him.
I learned that a few active deacons attended the wife-beater's home group. (Yes, these abusive men were permitted to keep their positions of leadership within the church while their families were being “counseled” because the wife was seen as the cause of her husband's aggression over which he became helpless.) I was told by one of these wives that the group leader himself would discuss his personal struggle with his own urges to refrain from physically abusing his own wife. For women, the declared panacea for domestic abuse and the stabilization of these troubled marriages was a wife's unqualified, unquestioned submission to her husband. Providing creative, readily available sex to their husbands was also recommended to these wives as an appeasement which I criticized as an escapist “sex therapy” (like an addict used substances to avoid attending to their feelings of toxic shame).
I suspect that Bruce Ware might agree with this perception and strategy (read more HERE and HERE with the original audio HERE). The Mahaney's also seem to share this outlook, too. It seems that outside of the circles of Shepherding, men have two options when their wives don't submit to them. They can take the passive role which is feminine, the unthinkably sinful choice. The aggressive role which results in abuse seems to be the masculine choice and can be seen as somewhat understandable (that first step toward justification). What good man will choose the passive option when he, as a husband, becomes overwhelmed with his wife's “sin” against him through her failure to submit? For one couple in our church, buying the wrong kind of toilet paper was a marital issue. And while on the phone with women at the church, more than once, I've heard husband's raise their voices to say “Woman!” and “Submit to me!” as they commanded their wives.
No Informed Consent
Of course, I didn't find out about this dirty little secret until I'd attended that church for three years. When we first joined, we attended three evenings of membership classes, and no one told us that the church required members to accept this unjust suffering imperative as a spiritual virtue – a way of earning additional favor with God and spiritual power through “learning humility” to build character. They didn't tell us that they held to gender hierarchy, as those lessons were only learned through punishment after violation of these mystery rules. They certainly didn't tell us that they had a “wife beater's home group” that taught wives to forgo justice and their own safety in the process. They didn't give us informed consent that people in the church called CPS on rare occasion to falsely report a mother as an alleged child abuser. They did not tell us that if we women ever needed an advocate in family court that church leaders would usually show up only to support men. They were too busy love bombing us at that point, the tactic that they used during the seductive phase of the cycle of abuse during the recruitment process.
When I first heard about the problem of domestic violence in my church – the first incidence to come to my attention – I was willing to believe it. During my first year at the church, I worked on a collaborative project with the abused woman's husband. He quite unexpectedly raged at me, fists clenched with a face redder than red, and I felt like he mustered what little available strength he'd not devoted to anger to refrain from attacking me. I was shocked that the other people in the room didn't hold him accountable for this aggression. I didn't learn until some time later that, though my actions were not unreasonable and they agreed with the point I'd made which provoked the angry man, some of those in the room believed that I deserved the rage for another reason. I'd failed to publicly submit to this man's whims, agreeing to the error, merely because of gender hierarchy rules at the church. A woman never openly confronted a man, and certainly not publicly, as it might be seen as “speaking into his life,” a cult-speak phrase with ambiguous meaning that was used there.
Submission to hierarchy trumped any wrongdoing, though I did not yet fully understand that element of the group's unspoken rules of conduct. Recalling this event that occurred over the planning of music for a church service, I could only imagine what the church required of this man's wife at home. Indeed, these unspoken rules of conduct or the “hidden curriculum” can be far more powerful standards for how a church is governed than are any guideline found in a formally written doctrinal statement.
My Undeniable Wake Up Call
K and I were friendly, and I'd attended classes of hers at the church. She was a wonderfully dynamic and interesting person, not really the sort that the church preferred. I remember when we bought our first house, she gave me a flat of flowers that she'd grown from seed herself. One Monday morning when filling in for the church secretary in the pastor's office, into the fourth year of my attendance at the church, I received a call from K. She sounded quite frantic. I'd arrived before the pastor, so I tried to get some information from her, concerned because she was in such distress. Even after the pastor arrived, she called several more times that morning but would not share with me why she sounded so upset and with such a sense of urgency.
When the pastor told me that he was going to a local eatery for lunch and that he would soon return, I was concerned that she would call again. I asked my pastor whom I saw then as my trusted friend if it would be inappropriate for me to inquire about what was going on with K. He very glibly said, standing there in a plaid shirt and khaki pants as he made his way down the hall and to the door, “Ah, she's alright. (scoff) She said B locked her in the basement.”
Here's what I recall about my thought processes as I tried to make sense of things. Okay... A whole lot doesn't make sense, particularly the casual way the pastor has just related this really horrible, horrible thing to me. My heart starts to race, but I feel pulled out of the appropriate passage of time. Processing, processing... B had apparently shoved his wife down the stairs into the basement of their very nice little country home and locked the door. I'd visited their home before. I knew where the basement door was. My mind, seeming somewhat apart from me, quickly considers that she has boys that are young enough to still need supervision and homeschooling, and her husband worked during the day. Thinking... Thinking... This must have happened yesterday. (I'm experiencing cognitive dissonance at its finest. The pastor's words and his detatched attitude didn't match his actions which didn't match his responses which didn't match the situation. And none of any of that matched what I would do if anyone were trapped in a basement.)
My brain is still frantically racing, trying to make sense of things, as though the world is also moving in slow motion around me. K's calling here, so she is able to get to a phone and could call anyone. If someone had shoved me down stairs and locked me in a basement, and I had a phone, I would immediately call the police. Whoever had done this to me would probably regret the day that they were born for a little while. I would make sure I'd done all that I could do so that they could never do such a thing to me or anyone else again. The pastor had not run to her aid and wasn't planning on going. This surely must mean that this happened on Sunday, and assuming that she'd been liberated and thus had access to a phone, she very likely waited all night to call the pastor in the office for moral support. That's why she must have called so early in the morning, before he even arrived.
But nothing about how he responded made any sense. I stood there in shock as the pastor left, wondering why he didn't express concern or distress and had so glibly referred to what had to be yesterday's terribly threatening events. Why didn't he go to her to comfort her? Why didn't he at least invite her to come to the church if he couldn't go to her, if only to have someone let her know that they cared about her?
I learned a couple of weeks later from K, after she was granted an exparte because of escalating problems, that when I spoke to her on that Monday morning, she wasn't calling about past events. She had access to the phone in their basement and was calling from her confinement. She didn't call the police. I didn't know then that the church unofficially recommended through an unwritten code that good, submissive wives were expected to turn to the church for this kind of help. Calling the police would slander her husband and threaten his reputation. K followed church procedure when she called the pastor.
Again, I scramble to make sense out of these nonsensical actions to exonerate the pastor. I suppose that K had followed chain of command and called her home group leader “covering” first, but perhaps couldn't get him on the phone, so she called the pastor instead. I remember wondering if this might explain why the pastor didn't immediately rush over to the home to help her – because she'd failed to follow “chain of command” through her home group. If you don't attend a home group, you can't have access to the pastor, essentially I'd recently learned that this was a rule that seemed new to me, even though we'd attended for some time. What a crazy thought to have! . . .but I recently learned that the pastors would often not receive someone if they had not discussed a matter with their home group leader first. I thought that when the pastors did this, they were just setting limits with people who failed to show respect for their time and were abusing privilege. Why else would you turn a person in distress away? Upon learning that I'd talked to K while she was confined, I was mortified and stood paralyzed, unable to speak. I didn't know what to say. I was angry, but I was so confused. How could I let myself believe that this had been a past event.
I eventually went back to K and repented to her. I was so sorry. I explained that because of the pastor's responses and the manner in which he'd told me about things, I found the idea that she was in active distress unthinkable. Who would not intervene on her behalf? I had only really just begun to see how the hierarchy requirement which required submission of women drastically affected how women were esteemed – and how I'd condoned this attitude and the serious consequences that resulted. I told her that if I had known the true nature of her circumstances that morning, I would have arrived at her house immediately, with an axe and the police. Her boys were upstairs, unattended. She was alone in the basement, after the additional trauma of having her husband push her down the stairs, at least enough to shut and lock the door.
I was even more mortified that it took me so long to tell her that I would have been there for her, with an axe and the police. I was so dumfounded under the effects of the church's system of mind control that I didn't even find a way to tell her how sorry I was immediately. I'd been manipulated into accepting the idea that God required gender hierarchy to protect women. But contrary to what was said about it, all of the evidence that I could see demonstrated that the intense focus on hierarchy and all that was done to enforce it proved to work quite the opposite. It was actually used to justify the abuse of women. Leaders did nothing but run around like policemen who try to disperse a crowd by saying, “Move along, folks. There's nothing to see here.”
Ideas Have Consequences
Studies have shown the power that an authority figure representing a system that is believed to serve the greater good holds over people, most notably in the Milgram Study. Bandura's studies concerning moral disengagement show that when investigators prejudice and prime people, telling them that the other test subjects are beneath them or are “like animals,” the amount of punishment that individuals are willing to execute increases in intensity and duration. (Note that these studies all claimed to be advancing science for the common good.)
Though many sources point it out, one I've reported on this blog discusses how dehumanizing the foe during times of war enables people to justify and then commit greater acts of aggression in order to win for the “just cause.” Hannah Arent also explains the same in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, adding in the additional motivators of blame, greed, and power which can also be used to justify aggression and dehumanizing behavior. For example, in the early days preceding World War II, people became willing to wink at the horrors of the Holocaust because they were jealous about the financial success of the Jewish Rothchilds who had governed much of the wealth of Europe. Human beings have an innate sense of justice, if only for their own “just” benefit of self-interest. Human beings are also very willing to relinquish moral responsibility to an authority if they represent an an idealistic cause, no matter how misguided.
When men like Bruce Ware teach that women are merely the derivative image of God and are only the indirect image of God, it plays upon these same principles. When men like John Piper claim that a regenerate Christian wife's nature helplessly drives her to overthrow and dominate their husband's position, wellbeing, and person, it sets up a false dilemma. It pits man against woman and renders that woman immoral due to her very essence. (How do men who believe this close their eyes in bed at night while laying next to their natural enemy?) Piper then heaps additional blame for sin on Eve by holding her accountable for original sin that exceeds Adam's, but then claims that Adam was only punished for her because a woman is said to be something of a hapless simpleton who can't even answer for her own mistakes. All women are then said to be prone to deception and more readily given over to sin than a man, requiring a paternal influence to help them if then want to live effective Christian lives. They can't even share the Gospel effectively, according to MacArthur's view. When Michael and Debi Pearl teach that infants are diabolical tyrants who seek to confound and control their parents, their ideas also prime their followers for tragic behavior.
Why would a poorly esteemed woman who is said to have a subordinate essence and an inferior moral capability be treated any differently than the Jews were under the Third Reich? The subjects in the Milgram experiment were told that they were helping to further research that would ultimately enhance a person's ability to learn, and they operated under the assumption than the other test subjects were good, decent people. They weren't working justice against an adversary. Better than sixty percent of participants were willing to shock the test subjects to the point of unconsciousness and with what they believed to be dangerous levels of voltage. In the Bandura study, the students who believed that they were delivering electrical shocks to other rude, “animal” students were more aggressive and generous with punishment.
Would a husband likewise not also be more willing and even feel a duty to punish a wife who was always “out to get him?” And what if he's taught that the Bible teaches that women are the root cause of sin from the beginning because of their inferiority and their inherent moral lack? They're dependent upon men to correct them and look to men for help to do what they cannot do on their own? Consider also the subtle impact of watching his pastor lay all of the fault on the head of his wife for a troubled marriage. Why would he not feel aggression? The primary beliefs about what a woman and a wife are define her as evil and something less than human.
How should a rational person respond to an adversary? When complementarianism dehumanizes, objectifies, scapegoats, and vilifies women, why should we not expect to see the tolerance and justification of domestic abuse? Isn't it the logical conclusion? Isn't it understandable? Is it not a matter of survival and good reasoning to hold an inferior adversary at arm's length? If a woman is basically worthy of blame and given to rebellion, doesn't abuse seem to be a foregone conclusion?
If a woman is something less in essence and virtue than a man, doesn't the tendency responsible for the expression “kick the dog” seem likely? Woman is said to be of lesser essence than the man, and so is the humble, faithful dog. But it seems to me that the family dog is likely esteemed with more virtue in a complementarian home that exposes these ideas. The dog is man's best friend, not his greatest adversary. And the family dog is not the source of original sin.
Is it any wonder that so many people – and so many churches – use complementarianism to justify domestic violence? I'd rather be a complementarian family's dog than its beleaguered wife.
Great blogs that focus on domestic violence in Christian settings:
- A Cry for Justice
- Submission Tyranny in Church and Society
- Emotional Abuse and Your Faith
- Woman Submit!
- Not Under Bondage
- Because it Matters
And don't forget to visit the FreeCWC Playlist concerning Domestic Violence
(I was half punch drunk silly from editing videos when I put together this clip about the complementarian dogs barking. I was inspired by Shirley Taylor's blog post wherein she makes the statement. Watching it today, after over two years of thinking little about it, I wept. I meant to bring a bit of levity to a terrible topic, but the sad fact remains that women and children suffer under these ideologies. People may believe that these systems help them honor and obey God's Word. I think that they violate the Word, twisting it into the traditions of men for the purposes of manipulation and control. They use the sweet Word of God to tread upon the weak. None of any of this is a laughing matter. Quite the opposite.)