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Houses divided

What happens when an abusing spouse refuses to repent?

Houses divided


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.


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  • Nat Manzanita
    Posted: Tue, 05/15/2018 06:01 pm

    I believe in trying really hard to save marriages. I also believe that when a husband has betrayed the covenant to the extent of the men mentioned in the article, his repentance needs to run so deep that he's willing to offer his wife pretty much any reparation she believes is required. A wise pastor who specialized in reconciliation for troubled churches said that in such contexts he'll tell the husband that he needs to say to his wife, "If you want me to jump out of a plane without a parachute, I will." The pastor wasn't advocating literal suicide -- but I think the shocking statement makes a good point. The husband should have been willing to die for his wife, but instead he failed her profoundly. He should be willing to give up anything -- financial control, freedom, hobbies, luxuries, anything he has -- in order to love her and save the marriage.

  • Narissara
    Posted: Tue, 05/15/2018 09:47 pm

    I've been reading a lot lately about "narcissistic personality disorder."  I'm a little skeptical about applying psychiatric diagnoses to what are clearly sin issues, but I use the term because it's the simplest way to describe behaviors that are deep-rooted and very complex.  I'm certainly no expert, but many of the patterns of abuse listed in the article match the tactics and behaviors of people with NPD.  

    In my experience, it's nearly impossible to get a narcissist to admit he/she is wrong about anything.  It's not just a matter of getting him/her to see a need for repentance; deep down inside, they're convinced they're actually doing a better job with their relationships than anyone who may try to intervene.  They're more likely to respect someone in a place of authority, which is why it's so important for elders to get involved.  But they can be very charming to outsiders, and they may admit to wrongdoing just to keep someone's respect.  If the Internet is to be believed, NPD is becoming an epidemic.  Church leaders need to be familiar with these tactics and recognize the patterns of behavior so they're not so easily fooled into believing the victim is the instigator.  

    What I've learned is that narcissists often become so as a means of coping with abusive treatment they themselves received, especially during childhood.  Whatever else can be said about trying to save a marriage, I'm not sure children are under the same obligation to forgive as an adult, especially when they don't understand that they're dealing with sinful behavior to begin with.  They grow up believing they're the problem and then, what I think happens, is that at some point, they realize that it was their abusive parent who was the problem. But if there is no one to help them work through their anger, they are likely to try to adapt the same way they were taught.  

  • RC
    Posted: Mon, 05/21/2018 12:18 pm

    I agree, that at least some abuse in marriage, it is rooted in some sort of mental problem be it chemical imbalance, physiological, psychological or some past abuse the abuser has suffered, probably as a child. I know of a case in our small group from church where we doubted the wife’s word as we never saw anything abnormal from the husband until one time.  An individual was cleaning in their house in a back bedroom and the husband came home in the middle of the day and exploded on his wife.  The shocked cleaning person stayed in the back bedroom and heard (witnessed) it all.  He left going back to work and never knew cleaning person was back there. He would never admit to his violent temper problem. He was unwilling to change or get help. She had to divorce him to protect herself.

  • Dick Friedrich
    Posted: Wed, 05/16/2018 08:13 am

    Great article about a crucial topic in the church. Obviously those outside the church don't see the full implications of marriage and sin so their issues are trivial by comparison. We in the church should always start with forgiveness and our own great need which is only satisfied in Christ. That being said we should also recognize the lasting impact of sin and that saving marriage at any cost is not the objective but bringing some measure of shalom to the church community (and by example the community outside the church) through Christ. God's peace includes taking justice into account as well as mercy. Marriage should do that but where it doesn't we should be careful about insisting that marriage is the end. People can see the difference and Christ's reputation is at stake. 

    Much of our problem is with living by the cultural instead of biblical understanding of love but that's a larger discussion.  

  • TY
    Posted: Wed, 05/16/2018 09:17 am

    I refer readers to an excellent book by Leslie Vernick The Emotionally Destructive Marriage for what real repentance should look like in abuse situations, and her website for numerous resources related to abuse and violence  1 Corinthians 7:15 gives us a principle that applies . . . "God has called us to peace," which I take to mean that separation, and potentially divorce is the best way to deal with unrepentance and an intentional, conflict-inciting spouse, or one who will not repent of clear sins against the 6th commandment to repent of anger and protect and promote life, or the 7th commandment to honor the marriage covenant or the 8th commandment to share wealth resources rather than using money as a manipulative tool. Drive out the scoffer and quarrels will cease (Prov. 22:10).

    Of course both sides in the conflict need to be heard, but opt for hearing the weaker one who is likely telling the truth, or get the couple to agree to install video cameras or audio recorders in the house to verify the stories, if truly unable to descern the truth, or have the abused spouse have some sort of recording device installed or turn on smart phone to record when the abuse starts to verify the abuse (check the legality of such actions prior to implementing). Let obedience to the 9th commandment be proven on the one who demonstrates integrity . . . who is bearing false witness about his/her spouse? 

  • Janet B
    Posted: Thu, 05/17/2018 09:46 am

    Excellent article on a difficult subject.

  • Hope
    Posted: Fri, 05/18/2018 01:37 am

    "Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke?  ...Then your light will break out like the dawn... the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.  Then you will call, and the Lord will answer... If you remove the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness, and if you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness... and you will be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets in which to dwell (Isaiah 58:6-12)."

  •  Ed Walkwitz's picture
    Ed Walkwitz
    Posted: Sat, 05/19/2018 09:59 am

    Sophia Lee has written two seriously unbalanced articles about spousal abuse.  That's not to say that she hasn't done a service by bringing up some good points.  True abuse is serious and the church has not always responded properly, as she rightly points out.  But her articles have problems. She gives lip service to the fact that spousal abuse happens both ways, but all her examples are of men allegedly abusing women--6 in the first article ("Hidden Violence"), and 5 in the second ("Houses Divided"), where she admits she ONLY interviewed women!  In the articles, and almost all of the readers' comments, "he" is used exclusively when referring to the abuser, and "she" when referring to the victim. The language and assumptions throughout communicate the same. This is typical of discussions about "abuse" these days. Men are always to be blamed, and women are always innocent and to be believed.  And though the articles presented churches as generally taking the man’s side, often it is the opposite.
    It appears that many, if not most cases of alleged abuse are not physical abuse, but are described in terms such as "emotional," and "verbal."  Now it is probably true that in the large majority of cases of serious physical abuse, the aggressor is a man; men are typically bigger and stronger.  However women are typically more verbal, and it is very unlikely that in most cases of verbal and emotional "abuse," the aggressor is a man. So if we're going to expand the definition of "abuse" to include verbal and emotional, why did Lee only interview women?  Maybe it's because men are less likely to file for divorce base on such grounds. Statistically, women file for divorce much more than men. I’ve seen up close the sort of “abuse” described in these articles perpetrated by a wife on her husband. But he never would have divorced her.  He accepted the fact that she harshly yelled at him a lot, etc, and simply determined that for the sake of loving God and his children he could endure it. She even beat his chest with her fists once, and jumped on him several times. But since he wasn’t seriously hurt, and didn’t feel in serious danger, he chose to let it go.  She then divorced him. Thankfully he eventually got remarried to a very sweet lady, and they are very happy together. I think that probably the word "abuse" is often abused to justify divorce. When one says that, he's pounced on, accused of not taking abuse seriously. I'm not denying real abuse, just the abuse of abuse.

    In the readers' comments section (so not Sophia Lee's fault), complementarianism and submission to church leadership, both  biblical, are blamed for abuse! This is part of the "professional counseling" worldview which underplays the Bible, and overplays the supposed professional and experiential knowledge of the counselor.  Lee's first article did quote a pastor as saying, “We may be trained Biblically, but we lacked practical wisdom.” So the Bible is lacking in practical wisdom?! Later in the article she refers to church leadership which, "identified what they could have done differently with G and her husband: They should have met with them separately and invited another woman into the room with G so that she felt safe. They could have asked better intake questions to draw out patterns of abusive tactics."  So they should not use the biblical example of a judge meeting with both parties at the same time, a pattern which has found it's way into our legal system as a safeguard for the accused? And then they should have asked leading questions without the accused there to defend himself?! Someone may respond, "but that's counseling, not judging." That's part of the problem: we've replaced biblical judging with modern "counseling," something not found in the Bible.

    So I'll close with a quote from Lee's article: "good leadership includes the humility to self-analyze and admit mistakes and remain teachable."  So, Ms Lee, are you willing to reevaluate some of what you've written and bring more balance?

  • RC
    Posted: Mon, 05/21/2018 12:31 pm

    I think you are out-of-line with your criticisms of Ms. Lee. Her job is to report and develop stories that she sees fit for the readership.  Ms. Lee cannot be held responsible for knowing what you perceive as “balanced”.  While it would have been nice if she had found a female abusing a male example, and I guess she did not, but an example like that was not necessary to make the point she is making.

    I agree that secular counselors are generally not preferred, but church elders are more like a board of directors, thus not trained for judging or counseling.  I don’t get where you are going with judging vs counseling?  But for more serious marriage issues there are excellent Professional Christian Marriage Counselors who base their counseling on the wisdom of the Bible.         

  • Hans's picture
    Posted: Tue, 05/22/2018 04:13 am

    The one good thing about Ed's comment here is that it perfectly illustrates why it is that churches tend to be such hostile environments for victims of domestic violence.

  • Nate Solberg
    Posted: Mon, 06/04/2018 02:39 am

    Narissara, brings up a great point abount Narcissistic Personality Disorder and the distorted thinking patterns associated with it. Ironically, I found NPD, along with other personality disorders from the Cluster A, B, and C classifications could be at play in my marriage, after I went through psychological testing at the recommendation of my wife and counselor we were seeing at the time. I tested "normal" and found possible reasoning as to why after 16 years of marriage and five different counseling professionals to deal with my issues, my wife refused to go when I pressed to address her negative behaviors.

    I agree with T. Yates on Leslie Verenick"s, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage, as being a good resource. They have a good assessment a person can fill out. I contacted them about the man being on the receiving end and how their resources were strictly aimed towards women. They admitted my observations were accurate and to essentially do a mental gender correction with any of their resources. That does get old after awhile.

    In regard to E. Walkwitz's comment. I will say there are many pastors out there who may understand the Bible, but they don't understand the complexity of the relationship issues in front of them. It's critical that Pastors be willing to refer people to mental health professionals that have a solid Christian foundation. As I was told by a Pastor, when I asked him to get involved in a Matthew 18 model, "I don't know a lot about this kind of stuff, I'll be sure to pray for you." Uhhh, thanks. I contacted a church elder for help. "If your wife is unwilling to meet for reconciliation, I'm not going to get involved and I'm not going to insist the pastor get involved in addressing these sin issues that you are claiming."  Uhhh, thanks. 

    I followed Stan & Kimberly Wagner's advice, authors of, Men Who Love Fierce Women. I would respectfully confront my wife asking her on what basis she was making a claim or threat. I would never get a response, other than her deflecting the question, or deny that she even made the comment. The more I did this, the worse it got. She filed, I signed. 

    I was told by a rock solid Christ follower, and one who has witnessed my marriage, and spousal interactions for 12 years, "I don't believe in divorce. I don't think God wants divorce. You've tried to go through the Biblical steps. Maybe God might have a bigger plan for you, that can not be fulfilled by being married to one whose heart is hardened." 

    Uhhh, thanks. Really... I mean it.

  • Judy Farrington
    Posted: Mon, 08/06/2018 01:32 am

    Thank you, Sylvia, for your courage in tackling tough issues. I appreciate your writing. Keep up the good work.