For seven years, T and her husband had been active church members with marital problems, and many people had devoted hours of marriage counseling with them. The couple even flew to Missouri to participate in an intensive four-day marriage conciliation program. Now T was saying that after all that effort, things had become worse—and she was now claiming “abuse.”
On Jan. 27, 2015, T—to protect privacy we are using only an initial—emailed leaders of her nondenominational church in western Washington state: “I’m asking for HELP! I’m desperately asking for help.” She said her husband had abused her with threats, lies, blame-shifting, and manipulation throughout 24 years of their marriage. She felt lost, afraid, broken.
For the elders, this email was more perplexing than surprising: For seven years, T and her husband had been active church members with marital problems, and many people had devoted hours of marriage counseling with them. The couple even flew to Missouri to participate in an intensive four-day marriage conciliation program. Now T was saying that after all that effort, things had become worse—and she was now claiming “abuse.”
The elders were facing a challenge that’s increasingly common in churches, though many leaders choose to ignore it. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime. Some say the statistics are even higher for emotional abuse. The elders of this suburban evangelical church have now dealt with at least six cases of claimed domestic abuse in the last 10 years.
To learn more about how churches work through such cases, I visited what had been T’s church—until it excommunicated her. I interviewed elders, listened to five women who had accused their spouses of abuse, verified their stories with the elders, met with two families that had confronted the elders about the way they had handled past abuse cases, read through pages of documents and email exchanges, and conferred with abuse specialists. I found out what the elders themselves had realized: Dealing with domestic abuse charges is ugly and messy, full of hurt and brokenness and sin.
Like many other Christian couples, T and her husband met at church. At the time, she had just left her second marriage. She had a baby son and was unsure about ever marrying again. But, as T tells the story, for three years the man who became her third husband wooed her, telling her all the things many women yearn to hear: You’re beautiful. You’re such a godly woman. You’re everything I want in a wife. I want to take care of you and your son.
When they married in 1991, T thought her new husband was a wonderful, sensitive man who was crazy about her. She says all the lovely words and affection ceased three months into their marriage. One day, she and her husband argued: She says he shut her up by lifting and slamming her onto the ground. The impact snapped her ankle.
Her husband told the elders a different story. He said he did not intentionally break T’s ankle—they were horse-playing, and what happened was an accident. The elders believed him. (I repeatedly sought a meeting with T’s husband to get his side firsthand, but he refused. At his request I emailed him a list of questions. He never answered them.)
T says she kept quiet about the unhappiness inside her home for two decades: “I wanted to look good. I idolized marriage and wanted to appear like I had everything together.” Once she started saying she had been abused for all those years, the elders wondered why she had been silent about her marriage dynamics during so many years of marriage counseling. They say her husband accused T of mentally and emotionally abusing him by criticizing, manipulating, and falsely accusing him. Now the elders were in a bind: Who was telling the truth? Who was abusing whom?
One elder said he and his colleagues were at their “wit’s end,” stuck in a “he-said/she-said situation.” He said he knew the husband as a “kind person with a servant’s heart” and T as a faithful women’s ministry leader for years. The church’s family pastor said the elders were “trying to separate the weeds of so many years of counseling from the sudden abuse claims. It’s like different-colored Play-Doh that’s been mushed together. You can’t separate them.”
T says it took her a long time to use the language of “abuse” because she didn’t know what it was. In 2014 she started reading books about domestic abuse: She says the stories of depressed and distressed women sounded like her own story. Then during a counseling session in Missouri, the counselor suddenly sent her husband out of the room and told her what she had just described was sexual abuse. She burst into tears and couldn’t stop crying. She then sent the email to the elders accusing her husband of abuse. She was hoping the elders would support her.
Soon after she sent that email, two pastors and a pastor’s wife met with T. One pastor (no longer at the church) who had counseled T and her husband said he didn’t believe her because the man he knew wasn’t the man she described. After the meeting, T continued sending emails to the leaders asking for help but received no response. Today the elders say they could have responded to her faster, but they say it wasn’t due to a lack of care. Rather, they felt stymied and unsure how to move forward.
Then T took several actions that alarmed the elders. She moved out of her house and filed for a legal separation without seeking their counsel. She said that was a way to keep her husband financially accountable for all his secret bank accounts, but the elders saw it as sidestepping their pastoral leadership and moving toward divorce—a violation of their church covenant.
The elders asked both husband and wife to take a domestic violence inventory test, a self-reporting tool used to assess accusations of domestic abuse. The husband took it but T refused, an action the elders saw as further noncompliance. They met with the couple a second time and conferred with T’s marriage counselor, who told them he didn’t think she was in any danger.
T saw the elders as not following through—other than two meetings, she didn’t see or hear much from the elders, and she didn’t see any change in her husband. She was alone in a new apartment, struggling to make ends meet, still sending the elders updates about her situation but not hearing back or seeing any action. Feeling abandoned and defeated, she stopped attending church. Again, the elders read that as a lack of submission to them: “It became clear that she was just going to go her own way.”