Rescue me, O LORD, from evil men; protect me from men of violence, who devise evil plans in their hearts and stir up war every day.… Keep me, O LORD, from the hands of the wicked; protect me from men of violence who plan to trip my feet.

Psalm 140:1–4, NIV

JAMES AND PHYLLIS ALSDURFJames Alsdurf, a forensic psychologist, and Phyllis Alsdurf, a writer and editor, are authors of the book Battered into Submission, to be published next month by InterVarsity Press.

I would never in my wildest nightmares have dreamed that my husband would ever abuse me, but he did. I took our two-month-old son and fled after the fourth time my husband struck me, which each time had gotten swiftly worse. My husband is a Christian, but his rage at things was unreal.”

Wife abuse. The Christian home. Two terms that should be mutually exclusive. Tragically, however, they are not. In the past eight years as we have attempted to examine whether or not physical wife abuse is a problem in Christian homes, we have met and talked with many women with heart-rending stories of violent abuse.

The Battered Woman

She comes from every class, every ethnic group, every walk of life. She sits in the church pew next to you each week. If current research is correct, roughly every other married woman you meet will at some point in her marriage experience at least one incident of physical violence at the hands of her husband. A 1988 estimate by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence suggests that three to four million women are beaten annually in their homes by husbands, ex-husbands, or lovers. Those figures account only for severe physical assaults that receive police and medical attention.

Wife abuse does not occur just in families where husbands are unsaved or alcoholics, where mothers work outside the home, or where couples are only nominally Christian. Some of the abused women with whom we have talked are married to church leaders, deacons, or pastors. They consider themselves to be committed Christians and for the most part would uphold traditional family values. Few, if any, would label themselves feminists, and almost without exception they have worked hard at being submissive to their husbands.

The majority of women in our sample (based on a survey of pastors in various Protestant churches as well as interviews with and letters from abused, Christian women) were in their first marriage, had children, at least some college education (almost 50 percent had graduated), held a part-time job, and were in good physical health. The families in which they grew up were, on the whole, “very religious,” stable (only about 10 percent had parents who were divorced or separated), relatively violence-free, middle-class families.

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While Christian marriages have been shown to have a lower incidence of abuse, the tragic truth is that it does occur in some Christian homes. Generalizing from the different studies done on this topic, one can conservatively estimate that for every 60 married women in a church, 10 suffer emotional and verbal abuse, and 2 or 3 will be physically abused by their husbands.

The Batterer

What kind of a man beats his wife? One answer is that many men learn unacceptable methods of coping with anger and stress—methods that can be unlearned. Some experts focus on the “emotional illiteracy” of men who have been taught to “keep a stiff upper lip” and show no emotion. Men who have no outlet for ordinary, everyday anger are at risk of finally exploding in rage toward the people who have to put up with it: their wives.

Constance Doran, a Christian psychologist, characterizes the abusive man as very dependent, possessive, and deferential. Roughly 60 percent of the abusers with whom she worked were themselves abused or saw their fathers abusing their mothers. “Typically the violence pattern begins with the wife’s first pregnancy and is really directed toward the fetus,” Doran says. “There’s going to be another sibling and the husband is jealous.” The more saintlike and forgiving the wife is, the more it puts the husband in a victim role, and he doesn’t like it.

Rather than learning techniques for being more sensitive to her husband’s desires, the wife needs to let her husband bear the consequences for his violence, Doran contends. “The first step is to let the husband grow up and take responsibility for controlling his impulses. He needs to experience the natural consequences of his behavior.”

“By her compliance,” Doran continues, “the wife reinforces his violence. She exerts tremendous levels of energy to meet his every need. He hits her. The neighbors call the police. She says she fell and doesn’t press charges. By lying and covering up for her husband, the wife provides negative reinforcement for his violence. She is reinforcing tantrum behavior in a man who on the exterior may be very macho, but inside is as possessive as a two-year-old.”

Because of the nature of violence and evil, no one is exempt from being a possible abuser. Consider, for example, Swiss physician Paul Tournier’s own painfully honest admission in his book The Violence Within (Harper & Row): “Well-brought-up, reasonable, kindly people, gentle as lambs, can suddenly break out into brutal violence, in words, thoughts, or deeds—and it happens more often than you would imagine.… I have on occasion slapped my wife, and I have often spoken to her in the most wounding terms. I might try to reassure myself with the thought that it was only a passing accident, a mental aberration, when I was no longer myself in the heart of the moment—something soon put right! It would be more honest to say to myself that it was I who did it, and to see that it reveals an aspect of myself that I find hard to recognize; that I am much more violent than I care to acknowledge.”

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Blaming The Victim

A few of the women with whom we have talked praised their churches and pastors for their efforts at intervention. Said a woman from the East Coast, “One of the reasons that mine is a ‘success’ story—my husband and I are back together after a three-month separation—is because my church did take action. It forced my husband to make choices, and he sought counsel himself.”

Another woman found that pastoral counsel varied greatly in the two churches she attended. “The first pastor I talked to focused on keeping the family together. The others had a more realistic and (now I believe) spiritual approach. They advised separation for as long as it takes to make a wise decision and to see if my husband is truly willing to change.… The pastors were committed to finding me a place to stay.… They have also loved and cared for my husband. One pastor has confronted him in love and has been involved in helping him to change.”

Unfortunately, some of the pastors who counseled the women we have interviewed were inclined to spiritualize and simplify the psychological, familial, and social complexities involved. Women report receiving such advice as that given to a Nebraska woman who was told to consider the abuse “an opportunity to suffer for Jesus’ sake.”

“The pastor put the guilt on my shoulders,” a Florida woman told us. “He blamed me for not submitting to my husband and said he would change because he had asked for forgiveness. But after counseling I realized he would never change; he was more abusive than ever. In a sense, the pastor was on my husband’s side. I was showing little faith, he said.”

Many women report that their pastors focused on getting them—not their abusive husbands—to change. What this technique communicates to the woman is that the responsibility for change is hers; it becomes a spiritual strategy for blaming the victim. According to this logic, if we could just get that nagging wife to stop carping at her husband, she would no longer be dragged across the floor by her hair.

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A problem arises, however, when one considers what the data say: Most battered women do not know what triggers their husband’s violence. That is part of the terror of battering. The women have no idea when the abuse will occur, what will precipitate it. If they did, they would be the first to change. There is no masochistic joy in getting choked and stabbed, burned and bruised. Unfortunately, many women become almost obsessive in their attempts to figure out what they are “doing wrong” despite their powerlessness to control their husband’s outbursts.

The first time Mary was beaten she was riding in the car with her husband of 15 years and their three children. Inadvertently she gave the wrong directions. “Suddenly he turned around and slapped and socked me,” she said. “It was such a shock. That night I had a hemorrhage.” Her husband, an author, educator, and well-respected Christian leader, continued to beat her brutally for seven years. “You have this terrible fear of being alone with him in a room,” she said. “He’s so unpredictable you don’t know when he’s going to suddenly turn on you.”

When people blame the victim, they unwittingly become part of the problem. In shifting the focus from the abuser to the victim, the victim is, at least tacitly, held responsible for the abuser’s violence at a time when she most needs to be empowered.

Master Manipulator

For several years former pastor Dan Keller has been supervising therapy groups for batterers, offered by the Indianapolis Salvation Army. Four 26-week groups are run simultaneously and are always filled to capacity. Referrals come primarily through the courts.

Labeling wife abusers as “master manipulators,” Keller says he works at getting them “narrowly focused so they don’t get off on sidetracks. For the first 12 to 15 weeks I don’t believe anything they say.” Keller’s confrontational approach starts by breaking behavior down into small parts. “When you do, it gets extremely uncomfortable for the abuser. I don’t look at the big picture—what she did to justify his behavior. I don’t care what your wife did. It’s what you did, how you responded.”

Keller’s first goal with an abuser is to get him to “own up to the fact that he is abusive.” Gradually he helps abusers examine their emotions. “They think anger is the only emotion they have. We look at how they feel, how their bodies are feeling.”

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Abusiveness, says Keller, is a learned behavior. “In the Christian relationship anything we learn we have to unlearn, as Paul said, by the renewing of the mind.” Keller does not introduce the Christian perspective until the end of the program because “most abusers have gotten saved, baptized, or had some religious experience before coming to see me as another way to manipulate their wives. If they know I’m an ordained minister, then they want to refocus their problem in terms of my theological position.”

Though he has seen the effectiveness of the Indianapolis program for abusers of all types—“I’ve had ministers in my group, and those from derelicts to Ph.D.’s, men of all socioeconomic and intelligence levels”—Keller is cautious about making predictions about the success of the program in terms of reconciliation. “When abusiveness has gone on for 10 to 15 years, the memories of those problems for the victim will hinder reconciliation for years.”

Traditional therapeutic approaches are ineffective with abusers, claims Keller, because you “counsel to the pain, you focus on her. The minute you do that you reinforce him.” “As hard as I push these fellows and despite all the baloney they give me,” concluded Keller, “no one says, ‘You don’t understand.’ … I’m the one person who refuses, without manipulating them, to be manipulated by them.”

By James and Phyllis Alsdurf.

Submission And Power

Over two-thirds of the women with whom we have talked stated that they felt it was their Christian responsibility to endure their husband’s violence, and that in so doing they would be expressing a commitment both to God and to their husbands. Fifty-five percent noted that their husbands had said that if they would be more submissive, the violence would stop; and one-third of the women believed that their submissiveness could be the key to stopping the violence.

Yet some studies seem to indicate that a battered woman’s use of compliance as a coping strategy can actually serve to provoke abuse. A 1986 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey concluded that women who report their abusive husbands to the police, rather than those who submitted to the violence, were less likely to be attacked again within the next six months. The survey found that “41 percent of married women who were attacked by their husbands or ex-husbands but did not call the police were assaulted again within an average of six months, compared with 15 percent of the women who alerted police.”

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A misunderstanding of biblical submission can have a profound impact on how couples respond to abuse. No matter where one wants to locate power and authority in a marriage, the New Testament places explicit limits on their use and expression.

New Testament theologian S. Scott Bartchy points out that “the models of leadership to which even many Christian males appeal come straight from the battlefields and corporations of the ‘Gentile’ world.” It is Jesus himself, points out Bartchy, who calls us to examine the ways we use the power we have. In Mark 10:42–44 Jesus confronted the presuppositions of male power and dominance: “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”

As Richard Foster rightly discerns in The Celebration of Discipline (Harper & Row), if anything, “the sting of the teaching [on submission] falls upon the dominant partner.” He is to surrender his prerogative to power through self-sacrificing love. The degree to which a husband’s lack of Christlike, sacrificial love is overlooked is the degree to which a fully biblical marriage languishes.

What The Church Can Do

As antithetical as it is to all that life in Christ implies, there are Christian men who beat their wives. Some feel justified in doing so. Others recognize the sinfulness of their actions but feel powerless to stop.

For the former, the church needs to engage in an aggressive program of re-education. Abusers who feel biblically justified in keeping their wives “in line” through physical and emotional manipulation must be challenged and disciplined so they can see and express the Christian call to sacrificial love and so they can know God’s abhorrence of violence.

For those batterers who want to change but appear unable to do so, forces of spiritual bondage are at work that need to be confronted by the Christian community.

How can the church communicate its willingness to support the battered woman and her husband? By talking about this taboo subject in prayers, sermons, and Sunday school lessons. One former victim, now heading a task force for battered women in her rural area, tells pastors she addresses to pray at the end of each service for “homes where there is violence, homes where women and children are abused. It gets the church familiar with the words ‘battered woman’ so they aren’t so afraid of them. And it lets the battered woman in the congregation know that the pastor is aware of the problem. She’ll think, ‘He does care about me. I can go and talk to him.’ ”

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Announcements can be made from the pulpit about area shelters or support groups for abusers and victims. The problem can also be discussed in Sunday school classes or confronted directly in a sermon on the subject of family violence. These small steps will help raise the level of awareness of the issue in the congregation.

Several women advised pastors to be wary of couples who are “too good to be true,” for by all outward appearances, such were they and their abusers. Said one: “I knew that if I didn’t treat him well and act real happy in public, I’d get it at home.” Frequent church hopping, intermittent attendance, and inappropriate outbursts of anger by the husband can also be signals. Another sign to look for, they noted, is very “private” couples, those who keep to themselves and rarely socialize or interact individually with church friends or even relatives.

One giant step toward rebuilding the shattered self-esteem of Christian battered women would be made if the church were to acknowledge publicly that wife abuse is indeed a sin. To recognize abuse as sin will often require the appropriation of church discipline. Numerous battered women with whom we talked noted that their violent husbands were not dismissed from the church board, refused Communion, or released from teaching Sunday school classes even after their abuse became known to the pastor.

Ministering to an abused wife means a willingness not only to stand in the gap by providing for physical services such as child care or temporary housing, but also to make a commitment to the long-term process of rebuilding the dignity of a woman whose sense of worth has been utterly shattered. A pastor can expect that efforts to intervene in the life of a battered woman will be characterized by trial separations, emotional vacillation, and the full range of possible disappointments.

Examination also needs to be made of the type of religious environment that permits the abuse of women to occur. Education within the church about the problem of wife abuse must be preventative in nature if it is to touch the issue at its root. A study of 296 California high-school students found that about 27 percent of those surveyed had experienced some form of violence while dating. Youth programs need to address the dynamics of male-female relationships. This will include expanding content within Sunday school classes to patterns of communication within male-female relationships, conflict resolution, challenging kids to define what their assumptions are about male-female interaction.

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The challenge we face is thoughtfully to reexamine interpretations of what Scripture says about power and authority in relation to marriage and to embrace a definition of Christian marriage based more on mutuality. The word of hope to battered women, then, is found in God’s promise that “they shall know that I am the LORD, when I break the bars of their yoke, and deliver them from the hand of those who enslaved them.… They shall dwell securely, and none shall make them afraid” (Ezek. 34:27–28).

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