A Tale of Two Churches: Abuse and Protection of the Vulnerable in the PCA

A testimony of a journey through brokenness unto healing.

Foreword by Valerie Hobbs: After my first post about how one PCA church responded to a case of abuse, I received the following story from Lynette English. Her story about two PCA churches echoes Jessica’s in many ways: victim-blaming, serving the status quo, etc. But it is also a story of great hope and is an example of how some in the PCA are living out the very essence of the Gospel. Lynette has asked that her story be published using her real name.

 

The irony of my story is that I am rather well-connected in the PCA and Reformed church communities. I was a young seminary wife at a well-known seminary. In a few of the yearbooks of the late 80’s, you can see our young photos alongside the young photos of people well-known today. Yes, I was married to a seminary graduate, who was called to diaconal ministry and social services for many years. He was a deacon in our local church, and we played the roles of stalwart and contributing members of the church.

However, there was always something “off” in our home life, so we embarked on years of on-and-off marriage counseling of various kinds. The women’s Bible study at my church played a key role in my spiritual walk. As an adult third-culture-kid, I had a few issues of my own, and life with my husband was very difficult. The Lord was leading and teaching me, but there was most definitely a cognitive dissonance between my marriage and the rest of my life. Counselors and advisors were always quick to point out my sin, and I was quick to accept the blame. Some of that was good and needed, but it was a lot like having surgery without anesthesia. I’ve come to learn that spiritual growth can come with kindness and compassion!

I didn’t apply the word abuse to my marriage for a long time. He never hit me, but I didn’t realize that holding me down, blocking my way, kicking in a door, or driving erratically were forms of physical abuse. I didn’t realize that the nature of control is what defines abuse. I read books on marriage, listened to radio broadcasts, and none of them made sense to me. They didn’t describe what I was experiencing, and were unhelpful, except for getting me to take blame for the condition of our marriage. The first book I read that made any sense was Patricia Evans’ The Verbally Abusive Relationship, and then I finally had a definition for what I lived with every day.

There were two points in our marriage where events reached a fever pitch, and the elders of my church became involved. The first time, about 10 years into our marriage, a “task force” was formed and my husband was brought under church discipline for the first time. He was asked to resign as a deacon and was not allowed to receive communion. The elders arranged for him to attend a 33-week program for batterers, as well as counseling for both of us. The abuse was taken seriously, but so were my marriage vows. I was told to “trust the process” and not to “go rogue.” They said they were obligated to follow the Book of Church Order, and they practically promised that discipline would either cause my husband to repent, or he would leave the church, be declared an unbeliever, and excommunicated, at which time I would be free to divorce. Those were the two roads open to me, and one of them was bound to happen if I remained faithful to the process and trusted the Lord. I trusted them through a lot of what I know now was spiritually abusive meetings and confrontations. I suffered greatly.

Like many abusive spouses, my seminary-trained husband shed seminary-trained crocodile tears. The church’s compassion for my husband and the desire to save my marriage superseded church discipline. I was called to a meeting with my associate pastor and the elder task force, and told that my husband really needed grace. Lots of grace. I was to go home, love that man to death, and show him the grace of God by my actions, and he would find that irresistible. He would be forced to change, because my kindness would lead him to repentance. (I know now that this advice was counterproductive and downright dangerous.) When I asked about my children, I was told that if I continued to raise any issues related to my children, as mandated reporters, the church leadership would be forced to report us to the authorities. I imagined that the police and social workers would find me equally at fault for staying in the home with an abusive spouse and would remove my children from my home. I realize now that calling the authorities would have helped me, too, but that wasn’t my thinking at the time, and my husband’s abuse was not directed towards the children, so I just did what they said. I went home, and submitted to my husband. I began to die inside. I gained weight, and became clinically depressed. I did everything they asked, and…. nothing. I felt betrayed and very much alone.

However, the Lord being merciful, I began to wake up. I started walking. I lost weight. I took anti-depressants that helped my mood. I brought my children home from school and took on their education. This connected us with the outside world, and I became friends with people outside of our church circles. I began to discover my value. The Lord began building me up in His strength and in new directions. When my son started college, I worked from home as a research assistant for a physician working on her master’s project in public health at Harvard School of Public Health. This broken lady worked for Harvard and discovered gifts in the working world! This is part of the reason why I say God is ridiculously lavish with me! I have a paper from Harvard, albeit largely unread and probably not that interesting to most people, on my resume. My physician employer became a mentor and encouraged me in my career. I was a later starter, yes, but her support and encouragement has been invaluable. During this time, I also gave testimony to how the Lord saved my marriage, but as I look back now, I had only learned to deflect abuse to live in a more peaceable way. I did not realize the damage I was doing to my family and myself.

About 11 years passed between the first and second elder task forces. My children grew up and left for college. When my daughter entered college, it was obvious that things were not right with her. For the first time in her life, she felt safe enough to begin to share things she’d experienced as a child with a trusted counselor. I was called to her school, and over the course of two days, it all came tumbling out. I learned that her father was triangulating our family, and trying to turn my children against me. I heard my words coming from my daughter’s mouth – how her father made her feel, how he treated her, her experiences with him. For the first time, I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears that it wasn’t me. The cognitive dissonance that veiled my view for so long fell away, and I saw the truth. I was heartbroken for my daughter.

Strange as it may sound, from this point on, it was as if my life were planned by a Lover. Lots of horrible things happened, but God showed me tangibly again and again that He was caring for me and for my children. After speaking with my daughter, it was obvious that I couldn’t remain in my home, and I moved out. Another church task force was formed, and once again, they tried to save my marriage. With new evidence, plus all of the old stuff that never left our lives to begin with, church discipline against my husband was once again put into place. Somehow, he had become a deacon again, and he resigned again. He was not allowed to receive communion. I was under a great deal of pressure to remain married. No one wanted me to live with him, but every step of independence that I took, including full-time employment and obtaining my own apartment, was viewed with suspicion and opposition.

At some point, I became the enemy to “the process.” The elders met without me, consulting with one another, with long breaks between meetings with me. When they met with me, the meetings were authoritative and felt somewhat hostile. I was warned again against “going rogue.” I received no personal, caring, pastoral care. I was given no choices and told to “trust their shepherding.” My husband was asked to undergo psychiatric evaluation, and he received a diagnosis for a personality disorder. Because of my husband’s diagnosis, no one expressed hope that there could be much change in our relationship. I remember one of the elders asking me if I could have enough faith to live with my husband but just live separate lives. Also, because of the diagnosis, church discipline was once again lifted without repentance from my husband. They questioned whether he was even capable of repentance. This is where I believe the church went “off book” again and broke their own rules in the BCO.

I remember feeling like a social pariah. Friends saw me at church and looked away. I lost a lot of friends, I think because they really didn’t know what to say, and there were too many of them for me to approach one on one as the elders had suggested to me. Around this time, I had a conversation with my pastor, asking him for some social protection at church. I thought it might help if he addressed my small group and some of my friends, letting them know the situation, and advising them how they could care for me. As the conversation progressed, I felt like I was a sheep being separated from the rest of the herd as my pastor raised his voice to me, and at one point nearly shouted, “Well, that’s just stupid!” when I expressed my feelings.

That comment broke me. I cried all night long. I remember as the sun came up, thinking that I needed to make myself presentable to go to work. I took ibuprofen and put tea bags on my eyes to reduce the swelling. I’d been awake all night, swallowing the truth that this man was not my pastor. I knew from that point on that I could no longer attend this church. I stopped going on Sundays and just disappeared. It was hard for me to find a church in my sphere of theology where I didn’t know anyone! I just wanted to get away to worship and seek the Lord without a lot of noise.

A co-worker helped me find a small church of about 40 people, where I sat the back pew and cried for the first month I was there. They just took me in, loved me, and let me cry. Their pastor cried with me the first time I told him my story. I became part of the church community and continued on with my life, filing for divorce. “Bouncers” were appointed to watch for my husband during this time, and make sure he didn’t show up unexpectedly. I was protected physically and spiritually.

Not one leader from my church contacted me, and few friends followed up to see how I was doing. I felt as if there was a collective turning of their backs to me. I grieved. I was a member there for 25 years, and I’d done everything they asked until I couldn’t do it anymore. I felt betrayed and ashamed. For a time I fasted from communion and prayed that God would somehow fix this broken relationship. It was beyond my ability to make peace.

After about a year and a half, I was asked through trusted friends to meet with a group of three elders from my former church. They were tracking down women like me that they felt were wronged by the church. They asked to listen to my story. Two of them wept openly, and they apologized for how I was treated. They tried to pave the way for me to return, but I could tell they were running into roadblocks, and they decided it was better for the peace of the church that I be removed from the church roll. My pastor had the last word, and he wrote a letter commending me into the care of my little church in a somewhat “it’s for the best” condescending sort of way. This is where I became “collateral damage” and I was let go to keep the peace. I thought this was the end of my relationship with them.

Sadly, my little church closed, so my children invited me to their church, another PCA church, but a distance from my own, and in a different presbytery. I said, No Way! However, I was persuaded, and against my better judgment, I went again before a group of PCA elders to tell them my story, but with completely opposite results!!! I was welcomed “unequivocally, and without reservation” into church membership, and they explained why they disagreed with my first church and why I had biblical grounds for divorce. They banned my ex-husband from the church property, unless invited for baptisms and weddings of our family, of which there have been a few.

About two years passed, and one Sunday morning, my pastor took me aside to tell me that he received a call from my former pastor. He explained that my former pastor had learned that I was a member and that he was upset that my new church took me into membership without consulting him. My former church wanted to start a dialogue between the church Sessions about me. My new pastor refused, stating that I was no longer a member of my former church when I joined and had been to another church in between. He felt no obligation to consult with them. He told me that at this point, his only goal in the conversation was to keep the peace between the churches. He said he got a taste of what I must have experienced, and it only solidified my story. When my pastor told the Session about the conversation, I’m told they unanimously agreed that my former pastor had no standing with them, and they stood by their original decision. I was safe.

I’m still safe. I moved closer to my children and grandchildren, so I live about 45 minutes from where I work and “play.” Most of my friends and community are still in my daily world, but I live farther away so I don’t have to run into those with whom I have disagreements or strained relationships on my personal time. It’s also a smaller town/edge of the country peaceful place. The view from my window is farmland. My counselor thought this was genius, but it wasn’t planned by me! The Lord brought it all to pass, miraculously! I own my home, which I love. I love my job, and the people I work with. My children and I have a close relationship, and I have 5 grandchildren so far. The Lord sustained me, so I’ve lived in such a way that my life is a testimony to his grace and mercy, and it’s hard for people to put me together with abuse and divorce. I know that there are many who sympathize with my story, yet few are willing to speak. I sympathize, because I’ve been reluctant to speak publicly until now.

In no way do I want to throw my former church under the bus. Is it not true that the same pastor who held my cold, clammy hand while he prayed for me in the hospital emergency room is the same pastor who called my feelings “stupid?” Aren’t we all a mixed bag of excellent skills and miserable weakness? My story is only told to illustrate a point. I hold onto the hope that one day all will be made right, and my former church and I will worship the Lord together throughout eternity. I know I won’t be standing there based on my own righteousness! I believe that our denomination could take time to examine how it treats women like me. Can’t we align our practices alongside Psalm 10: 17, 18, “O Lord, You have heard the desire of the humble; You will strengthen their heart, You will incline Your ear to vindicate the orphan and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth will no longer cause terror.”

I’m still healing. I’ve come a long way. All Glory to God, and may he use my story as he wills.

Dr. Valerie Hobbs, Ph.D. is a Fellow in Christianity and Language, Greystone Theological Institute and a Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics, University of Sheffield.



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