Statements from the president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Paige Patterson, have stirred up a dark message I heard as a young girl and still hear as a 43 year old woman in the conservative evangelical American church. The message goes something like this:
Being a Christ-like means being passive, quiet, soft-spoken…don’t upset the apple cart. Being a Christian woman especially means you exist to please men, serve men, and submit to men. When people hurt you, turn the other cheek and don’t say anything.
Those messages are the dark hiding place for abusive men. And they aren’t Biblical. But it’s the message I heard as a girl. I heard a lot of teaching about wives being submissive to their husbands, that they should be quiet, and that Christians turn the other cheek. I accepted these messages and formed my relationship with my husband at the young age of 19 with those messages in mind. After 24 years of tumultuous marriage marked by unhealthy cycles of separation and “reconciliation,” I found myself ready to file for a divorce in a marriage counselor’s office. There, unhealthy patterns, both on my part and my husband’s that helped hide and grow sin in our lives, were exposed. A lot of my unhealthy thinking came from growing up in a church environment where submission, anti-divorce and turn the other cheek was preached but condemnation of abuse, the empowerment of women’s voices, and true Christian love which deals with people’s sin rather it hiding them wasn’t.
When I read Mr. Patterson’s statements this old, disgusting feeling crept up in me. I realized that I wasn’t the only one who had experienced the dark, unhealthy thinking where abusers hide in the church. Although my husband has never been abusive, the unhealthy patterns of not dealing with the sin in my husband’s life because I thought I was supposed to be quiet to be loved by men and God allowed an evil to grow that nearly destroyed our marriage. That kind of thinking is the kind of thinking women in abusive relationships have. They hunker down in churches where pastors aren’t exposing abusive thinking, quietly telling themselves that to love their husbands and obey God they needed to be quiet and endure abuse.
Passages in the Bible such as Matthew 5:38-42 where Jesus teaches us to, “turn the other cheek,” can be confusing to people living in abusive, unjust or unhealthy situations. In fact the whole crux of Christian living- that we take up our crosses and follow Jesus– can be misconstrued as a call to live passive lives enduring abuse in the name of Jesus. The concept of being Christ-like can be miscommunicated as being doormat-like to the people on the receiving end of the abuse of power. Passages that teach submission can be communicated in such a way that women in abusive marriages or women living with husbands who abuse alcohol/drugs, use pornography, commit adultery, lie pathologically, and other sins which destroy the trust in a marriage, feel like if they are going to be Christlike and pleasing to God they must quietly endure.
I believe in the complementary nature of the male/female relationship. We are made for each other, to help each other. But women are not first and foremost made for men.
I believe we are called to self-sacrificially love each other. But love abhors the evil of abuse. It exposes darkness. It’s love that compels us to call each other out on sins such as abuse, adultery, pornography use, etc. And in some of these cases, loving each other self-sacrificially may mean losing the man your married to because he has to go to jail or to an inpatient treatment program.
Because abusers of power can twist precious truths in scripture and use it against those who are on the receiving end of their abuse, pastors must shine light where these wolves are hiding in their churches. A few months ago I heard my pastor preaching on marriage from Ephesians, and it was the first time I had heard a pastor say, “Listen, I’m afraid that I’m going to teach what this passage says to you wives and some of you are going to think I’m saying you should stay in your abusive situations. I’m not!” It was like someone opened the door to a very dark dungeon and let the first glimpse of light in a room that has been festering with things that love the darkness for too long.
No doubt being a Christian means we will endure suffering. Jesus said that and modeled that very clearly. But there needs to be a very clear message from the pulpits of churches, a message that Jesus brought, that God hates abuse of power and taking advantage of those in vulnerable positions. We women need to hear our brothers in Christ standing up there in their positions of leadership in the church saying, “If you are an abusive man, we will not tolerate your abuse! You can not hide in this church behind passages in the Bible directed at self-sacrificial men and women who love Jesus.”
We also need to hear the message of empowerment of women’s voices. We need to hear Jesus’ men in positions of leadership say, “Sisters, we don’t want you to be silent! The Bible doesn’t want you to be silent! Jesus wants you to address the sin of your brothers, husbands, dads, pastors, teachers, etc.” As a woman in the conservative, evangelical American church, it’s the silence from our brothers that speaks the loudest. But thank God the silence is being broken.
I know there are men who love Jesus, who affirm women, protect them, empower them, stand behind them, and lead them in self-sacrificing ways. And I’m so thankful. We need to hear from you brothers! We need to hear you being like Paul to Peter and calling out leaders in the church who are getting it wrong when it comes to loving, leading, protecting and empowering women like Jesus does. We need you to be like our Good Shepherd and take on the wolves. We need to hear you in the pulpits. We need to hear you telling us what Jesus told us, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers...”