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Does Faith Hide Marital Abuse?

Too often spouses allow abuse because of twisted theology and Scripture interpretation.

Sherri (not her real name), a newlywed, was suffering from intense mental abuse that had the potential to escalate to physical abuse. When Christian friends tried to intervene, she smiled and said quietly, "I don't mind doing that for him. I love him." She ducked her head and walked away—alone.

It's difficult for Christian women to separate the demands of their husband from the demands of their faith. The hardworking Proverbs 31 woman may make some women feel totally responsible for the home, the children, and anything that goes wrong. Rather than evaluate circumstances they accept the abuse hoping that their Christian love will cause the situation to change. These women often refuse to believe they are victims and instead view their role as peacemakers. These women rarely acknowledge abuse until it becomes physical.

Sherri was one of those women. She reluctantly came to me for counseling at the urging of her parents. Her mother wasn't sure it was abuse, but worried that something was wrong. Sherri quietly talked about her desire for a Christian home and that she was committed to doing whatever was necessary to keep her home together. Her husband made unreasonable demands, criticized every action, damaged her self esteem, and blamed his inadequacies on her choices. He even refused to share control of bank cards or the checkbook, and often left her without change to purchase a small drink while shopping. She endured the mental abuse by quoting Scriptures and the fact that she might be able to bring her husband to a deeper walk with Christ. By quoting 1 Corinthians 7:14 she felt it was her duty to take the mental abuse thinking that her prayers, her patience, and her love would heal her home.

It's easy for a newlywed to explain changes in personality, friends, and obligations as a desire to be the devoted spouse. A devoted Christian can take a verse like, "Wives submit to your husbands" (Ephesians 5:22) or "The two shall become one flesh" (Ephesians 5:31) and turn it into a reason to accept mental or physical abuse.

If you fear your friend or family member is a victim of abuse, there are four ways you can help her, especially when she uses faith to justify the abuse.

1. Don't try to argue into understanding. Faith abuse is rooted in the lack of scriptural understanding concerning God's desire for women and marriage. If you choose to argue marital opinions with a victim, you'll create avoidance and the loss of all incoming information. Instead coordinate your efforts with friends and family, agree to be pleasant, kind, affirming, and compassionate. Your goal is to share Scripture as if you were planting a seed that will counteract what he/she is hearing at home. Be patient and compassionate as you wait for the seed to take root.

2. Ask your church to provide a coordinated series on subjects such as real love, God's designs for us, or relationship skills. Seek to teach them from both the pulpit and classes in order to double-up the message. Strong scriptural teaching that promotes individual self-esteem while teaching against abuse will also plant a seed. Be aware that the abuser may restrict the victim from attending those events. Approaching the abuser will cause a larger problem. If the abuse is mental, it's better to give the abused the tools he or she will need to break away from the abuser.

3. Plant little seeds. It's dangerous to allow a victim to feel alone and helpless. Make time to be with the victim. Chat and laugh about as many different topics as you can. Your goal is to build trust rather than make a point. In each meeting use chatty comments about how your spouse or boyfriend supports your self-esteem. Be sure and support their actions with Scripture. Rather than accuse her husband, share an example of how your husband treats you. If you're gentle you can offer a general negative remark like, "I'm so glad my Tom allows time for my girlfriends. Don't you just hate it when some men are so controlling that they won't let their wife have a life?" Look away. Don't connect with her as if you're talking about her husband. Immediately change the subject. our goal is to plant a lot of little seeds with situations and Scripture.

4. Do your homework and be ready with the name and phone number of a good counselor. After the seed begins to grow, the victim may decide to share her or his situation. Without being judgmental, offer counselor information and quickly add, "Only if you want to."

An abused person must develop the strength to endure separation, guilt, and the possible physical abuse that comes with correcting the problem. It's important to give her time to develop the desire and the strength to change.

5. Pray for her and that she'd understand the true meaning of Scripture. It's difficult to look past some Scriptures to the larger truth that God's will does not include the destruction of talents and abilities he placed within us. Marriage shouldn't tear down who we are. Marriage should celebrate and magnify our good qualities. It's only when we concentrate on the responsibility of both parties to lift up the other that we can see God's true purpose for marriage.

I was able to help Sherri realize that God's love for her included a mandate for her husband to treat her with respect and protect her mentally. She isn't responsible for her husband's sin. God loves her and doesn't want her to suffer.

When Sherri began to see her purpose through the eyes of a loving God, she was able to correct the abuse within her home. She sought help from her family and church friends. She confronted her husband in a safe environment, and put boundaries in place that would hold both of them accountable—him to no longer be able to abuse, and her to no longer tolerate the abuse.

As Christians we're asked to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, and to give until it hurts. Scriptures that support self esteem and personal talent must also be applied to marriage. For example, 1 Corinthians 12 describes personal gifts and their importance to the church body. In the same way, individual gifts are important to marriage if partners are to function as one body. If a dysfunctional definition of faith allows one partner to destroy the talents and abilities of their spouse, it can only be labeled as abuse.

All of that giving might confuse some partners into believing that God requires them to suffer through an abusive marriage. If you step back and look at the Bible as a whole, you'll find that God's design is for each spouse to support the abilities and talents of the other (1 Corinthians 12:7). We should not allow faith to hide marital abuse.

As the husband explores his God-given abilities and the wife expands her God-given abilities, the marriage becomes a unique blend of Christian potential. It's only in this blending of talents that a marriage can be successful and reach out to a hurting world.

Debbie Jansen is a family specialist, author, speaker, and owner of The Family Training Center. She writes and teaches the curriculum for more than 90 classes on relationships. www.debbiejansen.com

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Debbie Jansen
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