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Ever since I started working on a feature article on domestic abuse, I have been mulling over the topic of repentance: What does it mean? How does it look? In a situation as destructive as spousal abuse, should the abuser refuse to repent, is that grounds for divorce in God’s eyes?
For this story, I interviewed five women, all of whom experienced abuse from their husbands while attending the same church. Only one woman had positive things to say about the way the church elders handled her case. She also happens to be the only woman who dealt with clear physical abuse—her husband whipped her with his belt and punched her—and she’s also the only woman whose husband confessed to abuse and displayed signs of repentance.
So although the circumstances are still terrible, this was a pretty cut-and-dried case for the elders to handle: Both sides identified what happened as abuse, the husband appeared to repent in word and deed, and both husband and wife are working towards reconciliation in their marriage. A marriage cracked by sin is slowly healing. That’s the kind of testimony everyone hopes for, the kind of redemption story that church leaders would be proud to preach about in the pulpit—and should indeed celebrate.
But what if the abuser refuses to confess to abuse, refuses (or pretends) to repent, and continues to abuse his spouse? What if there are no police reports or bruises to prove abuse? What if instead of whips and knuckles, abuse takes the invisible forms of mental terror, emotional manipulation, financial oppression, shaming words, and guilt-tripped sexual favors? How, then, can the abused spouse convince church leaders to take seriously her claims of long-term, continuous pattern of abuse? How can that long-suffering spouse persuade church leaders that what they need isn’t another marriage counseling session, but strong, bold, biblical intervention for justice and repentance?
As a pastor’s kid, I’m loathe to be quick to condemn church leaders. I’ve witnessed, at personal range, church members attacking pastors and deacons over misunderstandings or misspoken words that don’t bear the serious label of “sin.” But after spending hours with the church elders at this particular church, I can see why four of the five women I talked to left the church hurt and confused—and that’s concerning.
I asked one elder—let’s call him S—if he had read up on domestic abuse, and he said he had browsed through a book people recommended called A Cry for Justice by Jeff Crippen, but “didn’t read it in depth.” Yet apparently he had read enough to express suspicion that the book uses the “language” of a progressive, hysteric culture that calls out “abuse” when there’s none. He was worried that such literature too quickly encourages people to play the victim, give up, and break the sacred covenant of marriage. That book, he said, is “trying to assign the word ‘abuse’ to every cross tone and angry word.”
I’ve read that book, so I know that though it’s hard-hitting (and that’s not a bad thing), it also clearly defines “abuse” not as an isolated conflict, but a persistent mentality of entitlement that directs the abuser to use various tactics to control and manipulate his victim—often without remorse. That’s not marital conflict. That’s evil.
I then asked S how he would define “abuse.” He hesitated, umm-ing and uhh-ing, then said, “It’s hard to define. I guess it’s hitting someone with a bat on the head. Or throttling someone. Obvious bruises.” In this elder’s definition, “where you don’t see bruises, it’s a sin issue.”
In a marriage, sin goes both ways, he said: Assuming that both husband and wife are Christians in whom the Holy Spirit dwells, then however grievous the sin, they should both confess their sins, forgive each other, and reconcile by the power of the Holy Spirit. His root conviction: “I don’t feel that divorce is an option under God’s authority.” (Other elders said in certain cases of abuse, they won’t stop divorce, but they won’t encourage it either.)
I saw that conviction in the way S handled claims of abuse in his church. One woman, P (I’m only using initials to protect privacy), told me that after years of tolerating her husband’s emotional, mental, and financial abuse, she finally asked her husband to leave the house after multiple physical altercations with the kids. The church recommended marriage counseling, but after a few months, she stopped going because she felt like nobody was addressing the real problem. She felt like she was being told she wasn’t praying enough and wasn’t forgiving enough—and all the while, her husband was still harassing her with angry phone calls, text messages, and voice messages accusing her of being crazy.
A year after she confronted the church, she saw no sign of repentance from her husband or support from the church. P filed for divorce. Elder S was alarmed. He showed up at her house, called her, and texted her trying to talk her out of divorce. P said he told her that she’s disappointing and displeasing God, that she would be ruining her children. He told P that marriage is an institution of God—and she agreed, but felt “he was holding the institution of marriage much, much higher than either of the individuals involved in that marriage.” Eventually, P divorced her husband and left that church.
Another woman, J, found out that her husband had a five-year affair with her best friend and fellow church leader. She was in such a state of shock and devastation that she holed herself in her house, unable to sleep or eat or function. Again, Elder S earnestly tried to save their marriage. He visited J and preached that God can heal any marriage turmoils, even betrayal. He said if only J would give her husband a chance, her marriage could be stronger than ever. “I felt cornered,” J recalled. “I was ready to fall apart in tears, I was ready to throw up. I wanted somebody to sit and cry with me, not tell me to take my husband back.”
By then, J’s husband had confessed to adultery but was also pushing blame on her, and getting impatient that she wasn’t forgiving him fast enough. That, J deduced, wasn’t true repentance. That was a man who was caught in sin, angry and remorseful that he’d been exposed, and eager for everyone to get over it. So she also divorced her husband and left her church where she had served in leadership for 14 years. J said her now ex-husband broke their holy covenant of marriage when he led a double-life sleeping with another woman for five years: “When it’s warped, when you minimize sin and trivialize evil, that’s not a marriage.”
Marriage is a beautiful, glorious, sacred covenant between a man and a woman—and it’s supposed to reflect the beautiful, glorious, sacred intimacy between Christ and His Body. But what if that’s no longer the case? The gospel has the power to reconcile any broken relationship, but what if the abusing spouse doesn’t repent of his or her sins—and perhaps was never saved? What if he or she does the bare minimum of apology-making to look good in others’ eyes—but privately shows no fruit of repentance? What then, should churches do?
I respect the elder S’s faithfulness to Scripture, and his dedication to save failing marriages. I have heard people who disagree with him say they still respect him as a hard-working, servant-hearted man who acts according to his convictions. But good leadership includes the humility to self-analyze and admit mistakes and remain teachable. That requires careful discernment of whom to protect and whom to discipline, because the Bible is full of references to God’s compassion for the brokenhearted and His justice for the wicked.
Abuse is evil, and it needs to be treated as such. And when it’s not, everybody loses—especially the people in that marriage.