Not every divorce is the result of abuse, but mine certainly fits this category. Leaving my husband of six years was the right choice for me, but the “Bible-believing” church does not necessarily see it that way, and I’m not the only one. Many women I know who have left toxic marriages found themselves fleeing the church around the same time. This isn’t a coincidence. As I meet more and more women with stories eerily similar to mine, I’ve begun to uncover some themes. There are reasons why women like me are walking away from Evangelical Christianity in the wake of crumbled marriages, and here are a few big ones:
We’re becoming aware that the way we were taught to be wives contributed to our abuse
As John Shore eloquently explains in this article, you cannot teach a women that she is inferior to men AND teach her healthy self-esteem at the same time. The two are mutually exclusive. As the explosion settles and we blink away the dust, women like myself are starting to see the startling connections between the way the Bible taught us to be wives, and the damage we suffered.
The Bible has a handful of examples of what a woman should NOT be. Jezebel the queen is one. She is depicted as strong, opinionated, and determined. She was executed, and her story remains in the Bible as a cautionary tale. Keeping wives’ self-esteem in check is vital in a relationship where the husband is the aggressor. To that end, young women are taught that wives are to be submissive, cheerfully obedient, and completely loyal to their husband’s “spiritual headship.”
Despite this teaching, people are still shocked when a story of long-term abuse is brought to light. The implication is that even the most submissive woman should know to leave if she is being harmed. “But if things were that bad, why did she stay?” is a question that most of us have encountered in these scenarios, and there’s a very obvious reason.
One of the most dangerous teachings on marriage in Christianity is the comparison between the covenant of marriage and the covenant of Jesus. Christians are taught that marriage is meant to be a tangible metaphor for the sacrificial love Christ had when he offered himself up on the cross. At first blush this sounds beautiful, but in practice, it sounds like something out of a horror film. Women are told, directly and through context, that if Jesus sacrificed himself to the point of death to maintain his covenant, we should be willing to do the same to show the earthly representation of that love.
Vickie Garrison explains in her heart wrenching story how abuse in Christianity is often repackaged as part of the “godly model” of marriage. She says that her first encounter with the wheel of abuse forced her to confront this reality: “I began to realize that yes, of course, all of these elements [of abuse] were present in my marriage… it’s just that we had different names for these things… we had chapter and verse to teach us that power and control is actually good and godly. We called it ‘agape love’ – it’s the kind of love which God has for his creation… this was the relationship we were supposed to use as our model between husband and wife.”
I remember clearly when a relative of ours left her husband, how my husband and I (good, Bible-believing, churchgoers at the time) sent her a series of sermons on this very subject. We bemoaned her inability to see that marriage, according the the Bible, was not for her happiness, but “for the glory of God.” We condemned her decision to break her marital covenant, because Jesus never broke his promise to us, even unto death. When, years later, I was forced to confront my own decision to leave, these words hung in my heart like a rock.
We have to be our own lawyers when you judge our decision to leave
When I broke the news to my parents that I was leaving my husband, their first move was to contact their pastor. Even though I didn’t ask for it, dispensation on my divorce was important to my family. I remember a conversation in which I was asked to detail the sort of abuse I suffered, and it was weighed against the Bible to see if my divorce could be “justified.” At one point it was even suggested that I could be spared from the guilt of the “sin” of divorce if we could convince my husband to file first.
To this day, I find myself jumping to the most stark and horrible aspects of my marriage when asked about it by church people. I’m not only painfully aware that they are judging my choice based on the gory details, but in a way, I’m still grappling with it myself. It’s as though I’m in a constant game of “your trauma must be at least THIS bad to earn my sympathy.”
“Was my abuse BAD enough to justify divorce?” is a question no women should ever have to answer.
We see you focusing more on “redeeming” our abusers than validating what we experienced
This one is horrifyingly prevalent in Evangelical Christianity, and to my shame, I have taken this damaging stance myself in the past. The emphasis in the modern church on grace and welcome can be a beautiful thing, but often the aggressor becomes the focus when abuse comes to light. In the rush to redeem and “restore” the abuser, the victim tends to find themselves on the back burner, or worse, being pushed to forgive and reconcile with their abuser at the slightest sign of repentance.
I’ve seen it too many times to believe it’s coincidence: the victim (often the wife) is told she is in sin for refusing to accept her abuser’s apology and take him back. This subtle form of victim-blaming makes the decision to leave the church an easy one. In the quest to love unconditionally, the church tries to maintain a stance of neutrality, but neutrality doesn’t exist in situations of abuse. As the familiar quote by Desmond Tutu reminds us: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
We don’t want conditional love or acceptance
At the end of the day, no matter how “justifiable” the divorce, we feel the conditional acceptance of the church. We will spend the rest of our lives in the church listening to sermons about the sin of divorce. We’ll see the articles church members post on Facebook about the sanctity of marriage and the abomination of breaking one. We’ll feel the weight of what we did by leaving. And then we’ll see members of the church smile at us, hug us, tell us they “love us no matter what,” and those words will ring hollow.
Church, no amount of love or support feels quite real when the subtext is always “despite.” “Jesus loves you even though…” sounds to us like he’s willing to offer us second-hand compassion since the damage is already done anyway. We went into our divorces with open eyes. We have felt every bit of the pain and fear associated with the decision to leave. Love says “What you did was terrifying, and I’m proud of you for doing the right thing.” Love says “What you experienced was not your fault, and you deserved better.” Love doesn’t demand explanations, force a person to justify self-preservation, coddle abusers, or blame victims, and until the Bible-believing church can recognize that they are, in fact, doing these things, divorced and heartbroken women will continue to leave for the exact same reasons they left their marriages.