A Time to Examine Abusive Mindsets Within Christianity

In 1995, the University or British Columbia conducted a study on men who exhibited abusive behaviours [1]. What they found was that these men shared three core beliefs in common. These beliefs helped to support their own actions when it came to the power and control they maintained over their partner [2].

The men believed that they were CENTRAL, SUPERIOR, and DESERVING.

I’m going to suggest that the church has taught men to believe these very things.

You might agree.

You might think I’m being straight-up blasphemous.

I get it. You can disagree with me vehemently. I only ask that you consider these ideas. I’ve noticed that the Bible is often used to support the root beliefs of men who abuse. We need to think critically about these things. So, I wonder: how much has the church actually contributed to the abuse of women?

This is worth examining.

“But Thalea, that’s not what they teach at all! The church teaches that men and women have different ROLES in marriage. Equal in VALUE, different in ROLES.”

Or

“No, Thalea. Leadership means to PROTECT and PROVIDE.”

Or sometimes, even

“But Thalea, you’re misunderstanding biblical gender roles. The church teaches MUTUAL submission. Men just submit in different ways. See, they’re supposed to DIE for their wives. Wouldn’t you agree that’s the ULTIMATE form of servanthood and submission?”

So, yes: I agree that if men were out there, actually dying for their wives, that would be ultimately sacrificial (albeit slightly problematic, what with all of these extra widows walking around and such). But let’s be honest here: that’s not happening, nor does it need to. And I would suggest that Paul was perhaps not being as literal in Ephesians as some might suggest anyway. I DISAGREE that men and women submit to each other in different ways.

There is no special category of submission among humans.

So what do men learn when they are taught from a young age that there IS a special category of submission, one that looks more like obedience, and that they are on the receiving end of it?

Let’s talk about these beliefs, about how the church has been encouraging men to hold onto them. Let’s talk about why that matters.

They believe they are CENTRAL in the relationship

“The creation order means that all husbands are called to a particular task… Their wives are called to the role of aiding and supporting them in their calling.” – Douglas Wilson [3]

Let’s be real and blunt about the roots and the reasoning behind patriarchal mindsets. Men are the leaders, and women are designed to help these men achieve the most he can in life. Their role is to support him in his gifts. He gets to be the best HIM he can be, with his wife’s help.

Depending on who one speaks to, the degrees of the wife’s assistant role will vary. However, upon digging through the layers of the often flowery language used to describe this, we will find that the root is the same, and that root looks like the man being central in this “role.”

Even scripture, when we fail to read it in context, appears to support this in some (not all) places. An example of this is 1 Corinthians 11:9 – neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.

Marg Mowczko addresses 1 Cor. 11:9 well in this article.

They believe they are SUPERIOR in the relationship

“Nevertheless, a wife’s attitude of submission to her husband’s authority will be reflected in numerous words and actions each day that reflect deference to his leadership and acknowledgment of his final responsibility—after discussion whenever possible – to make decisions about the whole family” – Wayne Grudem [4]

“Marriage is defined in part by the headship of a husband over a wife. In other words, without this headship, there is no marriage” – Douglas Wilson [5]

People within the church generally won’t say men are superior to women. In fact, they will probably say the opposite, maybe even mention that even though the roles are different, we are equal in value.

I don’t think superiority is what they’re trying to teach. Unfortunately, the language used makes room for much of this message to be subliminal. It’s slippery.

When someone’s alleged authority is justified not on qualifications or on competencies, but instead on their body parts, then what is this authority based on, if not some form of superiority?

An example of this is the idea of men covering women. Remember the Bill Gothard umbrella? Here’s a refresher:

God is sitting there with a huge umbrella. Perhaps some think God’s umbrella is leaky, or not enough, because it has a smaller umbrella labeled “husband” underneath it.

The message is clear.

Man = Over.

Woman = Under.

No matter how beautiful we make it sound, no matter how lovely it seems that a woman gets to be cozy and safe and warm under the protective care of her husband’s umbrella, the root here is male superiority.

In this diagram, the sense of a woman’s direct relationship to God is muted, as is her individual responsibility to God.

They believe they are DESERVING of special privileges in the relationship

“Submission is the divine calling of a wife to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership, and to help to carry it through according to her gifts. It is the disposition to follow a husband’s authority and an inclination to yield to his leadership.” – John Piper [6]

“Men need respect, women need love.” – pretty much every evangelical pastor at some point.

Think about this. I don’t think this one needs a detailed explanation. It’s the crux of patriarchal teachings.

Yes, men are taught to be benevolent with this supposed authority and leadership. They are often taught, in the spirit of Spider-Man, something to the effect of “with great power comes great responsibility.” They are told to lead sacrificially, to stand strong and protect their wives, to be the manliest of men. Courageous.

But at the end of the day, they are still taught that they HAVE authority. This is the point.

What if, in reality, this authority doesn’t actually exist? What are the implications of this?

Whether a king is benevolent or not, it is irrelevant if he was never actually a king to begin with.

I’ve referenced spiritual authority in this post, and also in this post.

Where does this leave the women?

Now that we’ve looked at what the men are taught, let’s look at the women.

What does the church teach women?

Why does this matter?

In contrast to men who are exhibit abusive behaviours, the women in these relationships are left in a position of being PERIPHERAL, INFERIOR, and SERVING.

In what ways has the church taught women that this is their role, that this is where they fit? Have they been taught this?

Let’s look at what has been said to women.

“One of the unique things about women is that they are called by God to receive from man and honor man and support the leadership and the protection and provision of godly men appropriately according to their different roles.” – John Piper [7]

“Like you submit to Jesus, submit to your husband. I don’t know that it gets any stronger than that” – Matt Chandler [8]

“Wifely submission is not an indication that women are inferior to men, nor is it a result of sin and the Fall. Instead, husbands and wives are equal image-bearers of God with distinct roles in marriage as leaders (husbands) and helpers (wives)” – Dr. Georgia Purdom [9]

“You can be submissive and question the wisdom of a choice, but it is not submissive to undermine the right of your husband to lead” – Lisa Bevere [10]

“Nothing is more important to a man than respect. If a man gets angry or a man pouts or a man pouts angrily, nine times out of ten, it’s because he feels disrespected. A man who feels disrespected tends to react in ways that are ungodly.” – Matt Chandler [11]

(So, in other words, if a woman just caters to the man and his needs, he wouldn’t have to “pout angrily” in the first place. Listen up, church: he is STATING that it’s the woman’s fault when a man acts this way.)

It can get confusing when someone claims that women aren’t inferior, or women are equal in value, and then goes on to explain how the opposite is actually true.

It can be head-spinningly frustrating.

Marriage is often a mental swimming pool where women who experience abuse are fighting to keep their heads up for air; many are drowning. But instead of pulling them out of the waves, onto the land where it’s safe and where everyone else is, the church is teaching these women how to tread water. Because, MARRIAGE.

“Instead of complaining to your husband, how much of this are you taking to God?”

“Maybe he feels disrespected. Men need respect.”

“A woman’s role is to support/submit to her husband. Are you submitting?”

“God hates divorce.”

In order to fix things, we need to look at some hard truths. One of these truths is that the church hasn’t just been a petrie dish for abuse; it has actively bred abuse. It has planted seeds of abusive mindsets in men, and watered them. Men can choose their behaviour as a result of these seeds, but the root beliefs are often still there.

The church has blamed culture, the world, egalitarianism, feminism, and ANYTHING ELSE it can blame for abuse. It’s time to pull up a chair, grab a mirror, and examine the giant log in its own eye.

This isn’t who God is. This isn’t what God loves. God is GOOD, and KIND, and very likely heartbroken over the way we as humans have attempted to order this world to suit our own needs.

Now, it would be ridiculous to suggest that being a Christian automatically makes someone abusive. That’s not my point and I’m not going to make that claim. Abuse is an action, a choice. I know women and men who believe in the idea of headship, who I love and respect as humans. We are brothers and sisters in Christ FIRST.

At the same time, this is an issue which I lay down at the doorstep of the church.

How can we fix this?

The good news is that we CAN fix this. We can change. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.

What do the mindsets behind healthy, abuse-free marriages look like? How is this different from what many within the church teach? What difference does it make?

In contrast to being central, superior, and deserving, a healthy relationship is one in which both partners are CONNECTED, EQUAL, and MUTUAL.

I like this sketch done by my friend Gail in response to the umbrella diagram shown earlier. I love it that they have their arms around each other, dancing together in the rain. This is a better example of God’s design for humanity: relationship, true community.

Hierarchy, by its very nature, divides.

It categorizes.

One of the things Jesus did was to flip humankind’s idea of power and hierarchy on its head. The upside down kingdom of God looks like connection, equality, and mutuality.

Marriage is no different.

One thing I’ve noticed is that there’s often good advice given in sermons about marriage; it’s just categorized in ways it doesn’t need to be.

Sacrificial love is something we should all practice. Philippians 2:5-8 speaks of relationships, and how everyone should adopt the mindset of Christ.

Submission is an attitude we can also all choose to adopt towards each other, and we should (Eph. 5:21). To submit to one another means to be yielding. It means to be easy to get along with, kind. It’s the fruit of the spirit lived out.

Love and respect fall into this category too. How can we even love someone we don’t respect in the first place? This is a fruit of the spirit issue, an all-the-humans issue. A husband AND wife issue.

Connected. Equal. Mutual.

It’s always interesting to me when people go to passages like Ephesians 5 and connect men to Jesus and women to the church, and then connect THAT to a submission model. I think they’ve missed the point. Jesus didn’t come to restore a headship/submission model to its rightful place. Patriarchal ideals were around long before that. Paul wasn’t trying to enforce these ideas; he was doing the best he could within his culture at that time to take the ideas they had about women, and turn those upside down.

God’s plan is to be in relationship with us. That has always been the plan. It has been about wholeness and restoration of relationship with humanity. Not hierarchy.

Heaven.

Intimacy.

Community.

Connection.

I have hope for the church. I have hope that humans can see the effects of their teachings and that they can change. Whether they choose to or not is one thing. But the first step is to question it, to really think about it, to acknowledge the need for change in the first place.

Let’s SEE the need for change. Let’s ask some hard questions. Let’s do better.

[1] M.N. Russel and J. Frohberg, Comparison go Confronting Abusive Beliefs and Anger Management Treatments for Assaultive Males (Vancouver, University of British Columbia, 1995)

[2] Cory, Jill; McAndless-Davis, Karen (2014). When Love Hurts: A Woman’s Guide to Understanding Abuse in Relationships

[3], [5] Wilson, Douglas (1995). Reforming Marriage

[4] Piper, John; Grudem, Wayne (1991) Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism

[6] https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-beautiful-faith-of-fearless-submission

[7] https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/husbands-who-love-like-christ-and-the-wives-who-submit-to-them

[8], [11] https://www.tvresources.net/resource-library/sermons/authority-in-the-home

[9] https://answersingenesis.org/family/marriage/genesis-wifely-submission-and-modern-wives/

[10] https://messengerinternational.org/blog/lisa-devotional/part-three-submission-silence-stupidity/

13 thoughts on “A Time to Examine Abusive Mindsets Within Christianity

Add yours

  1. Very awesome! Great research and great thoughts. Often we look back and see how the teachings of the church can sometimes go far, far astray from God’s heart – from launching crusades and condoning genocides to the less noticed things, like creating unhealthy family dynamics or attitudes of racism or such. The faith can bring great healing but it’s also important to keep it accountable to doing good instead of facilitating evil!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your input! I think it’s super important to be constantly self-checking, as individuals and also as a whole.

      Sometimes, even when we’re well-meaning, things get so twisted. And when people are getting hurt, that’s when we need to adjust.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes! Self-checking is such a great way to put it, and it is important for individuals as well as communities. Sadly, most churches have zero self-checking processes. They assume the way it is should be fine and if someone leaves, it’s not their problem, and they don’t need to change or reform. Self-checking needs to be a regular part of any community – particularly churches, communities built around the ideas that we are never perfect, we can always improve, we should always repent, and such!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh my goodness, this is perfect. I sat down to write a post on Patriarchy and the abuses that spawn from it and instead was directed through a friend to your blog. Thank you. I cannot say that strongly enough.

    I LOVE this quote: “Marriage is often a mental swimming pool where women who experience abuse are fighting to keep their heads up for air; many are drowning. But instead of pulling them out of the waves, onto the land where it’s safe and where everyone else is, the church is teaching these women how to tread water. Because, MARRIAGE.”

    I am happily married to my husband of 35 years who was raised in 185% Patriarchy in his home. Not Christian – just TOTALLY Patriarchal. Having come from an upside down home with no Dad, I thought it was great! Until it was my turn… Add ATI/IBLP to a total patriarchal upbringing and you have the man you described. 😦

    God has been helping me open my eyes in the past 8 years and we have been coming away from this. I had to come to the place where I did not give a —- what ANYONE thought – Jesus is Lord and I will love Him and my husband and family with Him leading me but will NOT put up with the unkindness and control that patriarchy brings to a relationship. Oh my goodness. Things are about 90% better now. God is so good.

    May I link my blog to this page and save myself from trying to say this – which is waht I got on here to do…?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very good! I write and teach about narcissism, particularly in Christian or church context. The three points you make are spot on the narcissistic attitude. For several years I have taught that narcissism and legalism show these links. One of the reasons narcissists are drawn to the church is this atmosphere of comparison and entitlement. Thank you for this excellent and positive presentation!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thalea, this indeed is an excellent article. Great research and great feeling put into it. This is not really my area of expertise, but I do know that people like John Piper have contributed mightily to this issue and that many in the church have been misguided about women’s roles in the church and in the home. The one thing that I would caution you about is throwing a complete umbrella over the church with this issue. Yes, again, many in the church and the pulpit have a very skewed way of thinking about not only this issue but many issues. I grew up Catholic, but ever since I left the Catholic Church when I was 18, I personally haven’t seen the abuse of women and the negation of women in the church. Maybe I’ve just been fortunate to have attended churches that respect women and have allowed them to use their gifts within the church. I do realize that the “abuse” happens and that many churches limit women and the plans God has for them. These churches take away their destiny or else they need to search for different venues in which to pursue that destiny. But the church is addressing this, and views such as John Piper’s are simply outdated and, to say the least, wrong.

    Joyce Meyer is partially responsible for the molding of my spiritual upbringing. I listen to many others and have many women friends that stand in the pulpit and preach God’s Word with boldness. My mother has also been the biggest spiritual influence of my life.

    As for marriage, it is a partnership, and both the man and women need to share in that partnership. It’s an equal partnership. My wife does things in our marriage that may be traditionally a man’s job, such as pay the bills, but she does it because she’s much better at it and it’s much better for our marriage. I do other things that contribute to the harmony of the marriage. We’ve been married for 20 years and we are still going strong. Submission means to listen to what the other has to say and to always do what is best for the relationship as a whole without thinking of your own needs.

    If indeed, as you write, “the church has blamed culture, the world, egalitarianism, feminism, and ANYTHING ELSE it can blame for abuse,” then those who think that way either need to be retrained or removed from their position. But again, please don’t throw a blanket over the entire church for this issue. I realize that probably wasn’t your intention, but it does sound that way from some of what you have written.

    Besides that, I really loved what you wrote. Please keep it up. All of God’s blessings.

    Shawn

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Shawn,

      Thank you for your thoughtful response!

      I hear you and can see where you are coming from, in that I think your concern here is one of unity. While it is true that the whole church should not be painted with the same brush, I believe this problem is more widespread than many people can see. When I refer to the church, I refer to the global church system. It sounds like we are in agreement about John Piper’s teachings. Unfortunately, he is still influential, as is the organization he founded.

      I would like to acknowledge that there are many, MANY wonderful Christians within the church.

      I wish more churches would address the issue of abuse. Sadly, although the church might address physical abuse more often than they used to, other forms of abuse – such as mental, emotional, and spiritual – are often overlooked. Or worse, the woman is assigned blame for “her part” of the abuse.

      I appreciate you sharing your perspective about this with me 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are certainly correct, Thalea. The problem is more widespread than what some may think. And yes, my concern is unity. Although I do like many of John Piper’s blogs, he’s just plain wrong in his assessment of this subject. Please, if you feel compelled, go to my blog and follow it and share it. It’s shawnakersministries.com. All of God’s blessings.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for writing this. While I agree with most all of what you say, I would like to offer a slightly different perspective. I do not believe these doctrines cause abuse. I DO agree we should talk about these doctrines in light of how they can be appropriated by an abuser to excuse his behavior (and how a wife might use them to stay in denial about being abused)…but changing how we teach them will NOT change an abuser. Abusive people will use anything and everything as a weapon. You can be hit for failing to submit, or for buying the wrong flavor of breakfast cereal. We need to present doctrines like this carefully, while also loudly proclaiming where they can cross into abuse for the sake of the victim. It is the victim who needs to understand they are NOT called to simply, endlessly forgive the sin. Like buying liquor would trap an alcoholic, they are enabling the abuser to keep abusing (even though the church may advise them to do just that, as you eloquently said “because, marriage”). Abusers are trapped in sin, and abuse needs to be handled by the church as SIN.
    I was that woman in denial, endlessly forgiving. Thinking I was crazy, not trusting my instincts. I tried to submit more, trust more, speak softer, fast more, pray more. Things only got worse. I spent years trying to avoid the truth and denying the abuse.
    I wanted to save my marriage, even though it was arguably not worth saving. Most resources I found for the victim suggested that the abuser is broken and unfixable. “Control, superior and deserving” are not attitudes the abuser will want to leave. I was married to my abuser for 17 years. My story, however does not stop there. My church spoke clearly against abuse, and had resources in place for me when I finally faced how bad things were. We took Paul Hegstroms’ Lifeskills International classes (-lifeskillsintl.org. – They made a movie about the Hegstroms titled “Unforgivable” starring the late John Ritter). Classes lasted 6 months. It both explained the reasons behind the behavior and clearly called it sin. It was very hard, but I was finally ready to face the abuse, and this was our last chance. If the classes failed, I was taking my kids and leaving. That was 10 years ago. TEN healthy years later, we are whole and happy, trust rebuilt and love restored. Lifeskills maintains that the behaviors of the abuser are due to brokenness, and it gave us both the tools to heal. The controlling/superiority/deserving behaviors are camouflage, trying not to let the world see the brokenness. (They also went into detail about how scripture/doctrine is often used as a weapon by abusers, validating your observations). No more eggshells, tears or heartbreak. God gets the glory, because it still feels like a miracle 10 years later, and I am friends with other wives who experienced this same victory through those classes. Happy endings in abuse situations are rare, so I wanted to share.
    I hope I have not said anything to step on toes or offend. I appreciate every voice speaking out against abuse, particularly in church. Bless you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Sonja,

      I’m sorry that you experienced that. It’s wonderful that your husband decided to make the choice to change his behaviour, and I’m glad that you’re happily together now. Unfortunately, stories like yours tend to be the exception rather than the rule (as you said).

      It’s ok if we disagree about the doctrinal issues. I mean it when I say we are brothers and sisters in Christ first and foremost.

      One thing I’ve learned about abuse is that it is a choice. It is something within control of the one who is abusing (this is why so many are able to put on a good front at church and in many other public settings). If a man chooses to change his behaviours, that often starts when he addresses the belief systems which led him to exercise power and control over his partner in the first place.

      Thank you for sharing your perspective, and your story. I welcome input and appreciate your response 🙂

      Like

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