Abuse and the End of a Christian Marriage

May 1st, 2018

Last week, comments surfaced by Paige Patterson, the current head of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, that he had given in 2000 where he appeared to urge abused women to stay with their husbands rather than divorce. In particular, he said in response to a question on whether wives should submit to abusive husbands, “It depends on the level of abuse to some degree. I have never in my ministry counseled that anybody seek a divorce, and I do think that's always wrong counsel.” Even in the most serious of cases, he would only admit to suggesting and supporting a temporary separation.

Though Patterson states that he agrees with the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s statement on abuse, he also denies that he ever suggested that women prayerfully stay in abusive relationships in the hopes that their abusers would come to Christ. The shocking anecdote that Patterson related in his initial comments involved a woman whom Patterson counseled to remain in a relationship despite evidence of physical abuse who, after praying for her husband, witnessed his repentance and reconciliation with God and his wife.

Comments like Patterson’s unfortunately represent a stream of thought on marriage, divorce, and abuse that is still present in places in the Christian church. Despite knowing more about domestic abuse and how abusers function, there remains a denial of a woman’s personhood and safety, particularly in more conservative traditions that espouse complementarianism. The belief that women and men have separate roles in marriage, family, and religious life based on their gender requires a woman to submit to her husband, even if her husband is abusive.

This belief implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) tells a woman that her marriage is more important than her physical safety. There are already many obstacles to leaving that women in abusive relationships face; spiritual manipulation by their clergy should never be one of them. As a pastor myself, I would certainly hope and pray for repentance and reconciliation, but the priority should always be physical safety for the victim of abuse.

Furthermore, Patterson’s insistence that counseling divorce is always wrong reveals an idolatry of marriage. I have counseled divorce in a situation of emotional and financial divorce. I am a divorced person myself, a decision that was not the one I would have chosen. Divorce is painful and hard, and those who are divorced and divorcing need the support and love of their faith communities. Even though my own divorce was not my wish, that experience has enabled me to minister out of it to others in my congregation going through a similar situation. While Patterson might believe that divorce is a sin, there are greater sins than divorce, and one of them is certainly the abuse of a person to whom someone has made vows to love and comfort, to honor and keep, to have and to hold.

The ending of a Christian marriage in divorce is a tragedy, but it can also be the best choice. Privileging the longevity of a marriage over the safety and flourishing of the people in that marriage is a mistake that, hopefully, the church is slowly realizing. In any event, no victim of abuse should have to wonder whether her church or her faith leader will be on her side and work to protect her in whatever ways possible. To fail to do so would be an abdication of the church’s role to advocate for the vulnerable.

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