What do you think of when you think of an act of courage? A soldier going willingly into battle to defend his country? A teacher flinging herself in front of a child to take a bullet? Missionaries sacrificing their lives while bringing the gospel to a repressive regime? We tend to think of courage as an act of going towards something dangerous. But for persons in abusive relationships, often the most courageous step they can take is a step away. As Dr. John Townsend and Dr. Henry Cloud write in Boundaries, “Setting limits is an act of love in the marriage; by binding and limiting the evil the protect the good … Instead of taking responsibility for people we love, or rescuing them, we need to show responsibility to them by confronting evil when we see it. This is truly loving our partner and the marriage. The most responsible behavior possible is usually the most difficult.” A person who chooses to set the boundary of refusing to live with abuse (be it physical, emotional, or spiritual) are doing an incredibly brave thing: leaving their homes and lives to start all over again, on their own, often with young children to care for. In addition, they are doing the most loving thing for their partner, by refusing to enable sinful patterns of behavior.
Unfortunately for believers who are abused, especially women, leaving an abusive spouse can require almost superhuman courage, as it must often be done with little to no support from their brothers and sisters in Christ, and often times hostile opposition from the people who should be most supportive: their spiritual leaders. In a vicious cycle author Jonathan Hollingsworth calls “mob forgiveness” and “selective grace,” the church first bands together to minimize the wrongs committed by the abuser, then lavishes him with support, love, and forgiveness that they, who have not been wronged, have no right to give. Hollingsworth says, “By extending mercy to the perpetrator when no one else will, the mob hopes to prove to a watching world just how “edgy” and “countercultural” Christian forgiveness is. The more visible the forgiveness, the better the witness … Too often, Christians mistake the transgressors, not the transgressed, as the ones most in need of grace. This is where grace goes too far. Not when it forgives the unforgivable, but when it reaches so far in the direction of the abuser that it leaves the victims behind.” In the end of this cycle, the victim is the one framed as the greater sinner: hard-hearted, bitter, and unforgiving, and faces the impossible choice of either standing alone against abuse, or returning to abuse to regain her “support” network.
For women who bravely choose to set the boundary of separation with a partner who is not physically abusive, this difficult choice can be made even more difficult by the church’s failure to understand reality of emotional abuse and a history of expecting unlilateral submission from women. As Jenny Rae Armstrong explains in her excellent Her.meneutics piece, “‘But He Never Hit Me’: A Christian Primer on Emotional Abuse”, “Emotional abuse is particularly sticky topic for Christians committed to the sanctity of marriage. While an increasing number of church leaders will suggest that a woman remove herself from a violent situation, they aren’t sure whether nonviolent forms of abuse merit anything beyond the suggestion that she “pray and submit.” The implication that fleeing a violent marriage is only now being widely supported by the church is disturbing enough. In a culture that has historically valued “intact” marriage over even the physical safety of women, the position of Christian women being tormented by a constant barrage of threats, self-image shredding insults, manipulation, and more can be truly desperate, as those they turn to for help deny the gravity of the problem. This is due, Armstrong says, to the church’s fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of emotional abuse, that “Emotional abuse is not a relational problem, a symptom of an unhealthy marriage…It is a heart problem, stemming from the abusive person's un-Christlike drive to attain and maintain dominance.” This is reflected in the way church leaders so often respond to allegations of emotional abuse by claiming to be impartial mediators who are not “taking sides” in a “marriage dispute.” However, in doing so the church is failing to take God’s side against sin, and is quite often, as Hollingsworth relates, by default taking the side of the abuser against the victim.
Last week we heard the story of a woman who was placed in this terrible position, emotionally abused by her husband and unable to seek support from her church body. Through God’s grace she was able to escape from her bondage. There are untold numbers of women in the church still trapped by a culture where emotional abuse is not recognized as the grave sin it is, and abusers are protected at the expense of their victims’ souls. We need to pray that God will raise up more leaders in the church like Anonymous’s discerning father, and take a closer look at our own church communities to see if there are any silent sufferers that God is calling us to support, or if there are any situations in which an abuser is being defended at the expense of a victim. The bravery of women who choose to protect themselves should be met with affirmation and assistance, never guilt, condemnation, or the dangerous command to “stay and pray.”