Shame & Abuse in the Christian Home

Shameletter-given the fact of living in a fallen world there are many unpleasant things people have to deal with, things which cause varying types of pain. Things which must be confronted.

Within the Christian church, one such cause of pain which does not get the attention it needs is the abuse of women within the Christian home.

It is said that in the early eighties churches did not even realize that there was wife abuse within the Christian home; over thirty years later the church still seems to be struggling to bring this issue into the light and there is still the vast need for the church to realize the prevalence and severity of the abuse that occurs within its midst. It is a silence that needs to be broken, both from the side of the individual being abused and from the side of the church’s confrontation of the issue.

This silence is difficult to break, especially for the individual who lives within the midst of this abuse, because “for most couples, religious or not, violence is a strongly guarded secret.” If the church is to minister to those suffering from abuse within the Christian home, it is imperative that those in the church become familiar with what it is that keeps the abused silent in their suffering.

One of the key factors which keeps the abused wife silent is the shame that she struggles with, a shame which is further complicated by teachings that women receive in many churches. By examining these shame dynamics surrounding the abused wife – both the shame that she feels from the abuse and the confused messages that she receives from the church – church leaders can begin to understand and minister to these women. As has been noted by Catherine Kroeger and Nancy Nason-Clark, the “shame and humiliation in which she [the abused wife] has been engaged render it well nigh impossible to speak.” If this silence is to be broken one must first understand the shame and also understand the ways that the church has addressed many of these situation; with this done one may then proceed in the first steps of breaking the silence with much greater understanding of the abused woman.

What Shame Is

It has been stated that if a person has never heard a victim disclose “it is nearly impossible to comprehend the shame, or the fear, or the impact” of abuse. If one is going to understand the shame that the abused wife feels, one must first come into an understanding of what this shame is.

Shame itself is an often nebulous idea; Sandra Wilson describes it as a “strong sense of being uniquely and hopelessly different and less than other human beings.” Shame is often confused with guilt, yet Wilson distinguishes shame from guilt in that while guilt tells the woman that she made a mistake, “shame shouts that I am a mistake.”

In this way the feelings of shame are not merely surface level emotions that the abused wife is dealing with, but are rather deep-seeded dynamics that affect her very identity as a person, as a woman, as a wife, and as a child of God. It is not merely her emotions that she must overcome in order to break her silence, but the entire false identity that has been forced upon her.

This sort of thing does not appear out of nowhere. Indeed, Neil Pembroke explains that shame “arises when the self evaluates itself as flawed, defective, inferior.” The evaluation does not stop there; because she exists in community, shame is not merely the personal evaluation of being inferior, but also exists as the fear that these “sensitive and vulnerable aspects of the self” might be exposed. Yet even unexposed, this shame can and does “burn secretly within.”

It can thus be stated that shame is something that affects the very identity of the woman, something arising from being made to feel as if she is inferior and being complicated by a fear of this being exposed.

Where This Shame Originates

Upon concluding that shame arises when one evaluates oneself as flawed or inferior, it must then be asked where this evaluation comes from. In the case of wife abuse within the Christian home, two primary sources may be identified. The first of these sources originates from the husband, the second from the woman’s interactions with the faith community.

Shame from the Husband

The most direct cause of shame for the abuse wife is her abuser, this is one of the things that makes him an abuser. The evaluation that one is without worth is in large part a reaction to the lies that the wife has been fed by her husband. One aspect of many abusive marriages is “the deliberate humiliation of one’s spouse,” and this shame is one of the “immediate responses to the hurt and humiliation” to which she has been exposed.

This hurt and humiliation comes in a wide variety of forms: she may be belittled, called names, threatened, isolated, disrespected, ignored, embarrassed, or she may be blamed for all the family’s problems; she may be told that she is stupid, fat, ugly, incompetent, or incapable of taking care of herself. While sexual abuse is the most shaming of all the types of abuse, it is important to be aware that abuse can come in this wide variety of flavors, including not just sexual or physical abuse but also verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse.

The result of this is that many abused wives end up feeling so poorly about their own identity that they begin to believe that they actually deserve the abuse they receive, and due to the threats and psychological abuse are often too fearful to attempt to do anything about it.

Shame from the Faith Community

While the abusive husband is the most immediate cause of the shame which the abused wife feels, it is important to note that the relationship does not exist in a vacuum, especially when the family is part of the Christian community.

On the one hand this is important because the fear of exposure is one of the defining aspects of shame, yet it is important for more than just that. It is also important because it is the faith community that defines much of the world that the marriage exists in and what ideals it is expected to live up to. Thus the second source of shame – as noted by Pembroke – stems from judging that one has “fallen short of a cherished ideal.”

This is especially relevant when the ideal that the woman perceives she has fallen short of is a false ideal. While this ideal may also be tied back to the husband – in not being able to live up the standard which he holds his wife to – but it also comes from the husband and wife’s interactions with the faith community; indeed, the husband may have gained the false ideals he holds his wife up to from the faith community.

One of the key ways that the faith community can instill false ideals and other ideas which may foster abuse is in the way that they talk about the wife’s submission to the husband, in the way they make sense of those passages in Scripture that discuss submission. These sex roles are used as measurements of perfection.

In the past, many churches have taken an extreme stance on the issue, such that the wife essentially was felt to be owned by the husband – not in any legal sense, but in his superiority within the family unit. In such faith communities as these when problems arise within the marriage the abused wife is often blamed for not submitting to her husband well enough.

This idea of absolute submission where the husband rules over his wife is one such false ideal which the faith community has been known to communicate.

The woman is then made to feel as if the abuse is somehow the result of a lack of pious submission on her part, a notion which then seeps into the way she understands her own identity.

While the dynamics of submission are one of the most easily critiqued ways that the faith community might mislead the family, this is not the only ideal that they are prone to put forth. A broader ideal that the faith community sets is the pedestal that they place in the intact family on. The failure of this family unit is seen as a personal failure on the part of the wife, focusing on the wife’s responsibility for her husband’s behavior while failing to call the abuser to accountability.

It is for this reason that James and Phyllis Alsdurf note that “Christian women have been told too long that keeping the marriage together is their responsibility.” These women feel that the failure of their family is their own fault and face the fear of rejection at church when attempts to repair the relationship fail.

Because of this abused wives feel pressure from family, society, and the church to ignore or suppress the reality of their situation.

Church leaders, in turn, often take the path of least resistance when dealing with these situations by simply refusing to look at the wounds that are there. In these contexts divorce is seen as failure, which even further limits the options that the abused wife sees as being open to her.

These varying sorts of twisted theology, from false ideas of submission to placing the intact family on a pedestal to placing the responsibility for maintaining the relationship squarely on the shoulders of the wife due to the inability to divorce all have the potential to wreak enormous harm on the already hurting individual.

Shame from the Self

While the shame that the abused wife feels is most directly the result of the husband, it has been observed that this shame does not exist in a vacuum; rather, the faith community also plays a large role in the formation of this shame. Yet not only do these women feel pressure from the faith community, “they also place incredible pressures on themselves.”

This pressure comes in a variety of forms, and while some of it is the result of the woman trying to live up to the false ideals of the church, some of them are more directly personal and tied to the very way they function psychologically as women.

Thus, it can be noted that the sensitivity that women have to the needs of others and the way they “assume responsibility for taking care of others” can often “lead women to listen to voices other than their own.” This psychological dynamic is not necessarily bad in and of itself, but this perceived responsibility affects the moral lens through which women interpret a situation and can thus lead them to assume more responsibility than they should, responsibility for things which are beyond their control.

The way this plays out is perhaps most summarily stated in the idea that “women tend to define themselves in terms of relationships, and they also evaluate themselves morally in terms of their ability to care.” This dynamic plays a large part in the way that the wife views her own identity, her own worth. If her relationship is failing it may likely be seen as a shortcoming in their own ability to care, thus she may view the relationship’s problems on their own moral failings. The result of this is becoming guilt-ridden and seeing her own amount of endurance as representative of her moral strength, perhaps even going so far as to feel that it is their responsibility to save their husbands from themselves.

This dynamic of how women interpret relationship is important because it is more deeply rooted than merely a false ideal set up by the church or the slanderings of her husband. Instead, perhaps it might be argued that the reason why the false ideals of the church and the slanderings of the husband affect the abused wife in such a deep way is because it hits on a dynamic of the woman’s psychology which is already prone to read the problems of the relationship in that way.

The difference here is that while it is not bad in and of itself that the woman’s moral categories work in that way, it is bad when she assumes responsibility for things that are in fact beyond her control and allows those things to then reflect back upon her self-worth and cause her undue shame. The abused wife must take a pivotal step of making the inner choice to begin to “embrace personal autonomy and to refuse the victim role” and in this way realize that while she cannot control the abuser’s behavior, she can control her own and “refuse to function from a victim stance.”

Taking all of this into account, there are various responses that need to be made, responses which include the faith community, the religious leaders, and the individual herself.

Necessary Responses

The shame that the abused wife feels must be confronted if she is ever to regain any semblance of her former self. As Larry Crabb notes “the basic personal need of each personal being is to regard himself as a worthwhile human being.”

This regard is the opposite of shame. Although secular programs may be of much help to the wife who has suffered from abuse, it is within the context of the faith community and of proper religious teaching the process of gaining this regard may begin, and in order for this to happen the faith community and the religious leaders must send the appropriate messages, messages that let her know that she does have the ability to change her circumstances (for this is often something that they do not believe is possible).

From the Faith Community: Regaining the Body of Christ

The faith community is of key importance in the life of the believer, and it should therefore serve a key purpose in the helping and healing of the wife who has suffered abuse, for “God has designed the local church as the primary vehicle through which people are to exercise their significance-providing gifts.” Often the messages are not helpful; indeed, the message they hear most often is “self-heal, self-love, and self-help.”

This false do-it-yourself message must be countered with the fellowship of the body, because without this sort of support “an abused woman may have great difficulty believing that anybody cares.” Indeed, one of the main reasons it is important for the faith community to come alongside the victims of abuse is because every abused woman feels abandoned and afraid.

This process of aid from the faith community begins with them recognizing the truths which surround the abusive relationship, many of which have been outlined above. The first and foremost of these comes in the community acknowledging openly the sinfulness of that state of affairs; thus “one giant step toward rebuilding the shattered self-esteem of Christian battered women would be made if the church acknowledged that wife abuse is a sin.”

Making this first step is perhaps not as hard within mainstream Christianity as it was thirty years ago, but in areas where the misconception still holds power it is a necessary step.

The faith community must aid the wife who has suffered abuse in realizing that she is not alone, that the body of Christ is there to stand with her. As they come alongside her they must do so realizing the difficulty of what is happening in her life, avoiding giving over to the cynicism which assumes she is at fault or that it is not a big deal or naive questioning which can only think to ask why she doesn’t leave, not knowing the fear of leaving or responsibility for staying that she feels.

The church family must understand what it is that the woman feels so that they may dispel the myths that she believes about herself. The church would make a great step to work to remove the stigma of silence surrounding the issue, helping the woman to realize that it is not her fault and that saving her husband is not her responsibility. In this she may not want to shame her husband, yet it must be said that he must take responsibility for his actions and for his sins.

From the Pastor: Regaining Her Identity in Christ

As the faith community changes its false conceptions surrounding domestic abuse in the Christian home, the religious leader is of pivotal importance. It is the religious leader who has perhaps the greatest ability to influence the beliefs of the congregation and of the woman who is suffering from abuse. It is the pastor who is responsible for guiding his flock in what to believe, and “what you believe has a huge connection to how you respond to disgrace, violence, denial, shame, guilt, [etc].” As has been noted by Catherine Kroeger and Nancy Nason-Clark, those who suffer from abuse often report that “simply hearing their pastor or religious leader condemn the abuse they have suffered aids in their healing.”

Perhaps one reason for this is that it affirms for them that their pain is justified, that the things that they feel are not just in their head but that they are real and the church and God hates what is going on just as much as she does.

Apart from correcting false ideas, the pastor also has a direct duty to respond responsibly to the domestic abuse situation. Historically pastors have tended towards wanting to save the marriage at all costs and to go for quick-fixes, yet neither of these is ideal when dealing with an abusive relationship.

Rather than trying to save the marriage at all costs, the pastor needs to be willing to recognize when a marriage is beyond repair and when a woman needs to get out for her own safety. The pastor should realize that many times “letting go, not hanging on, is the difficult issue.” For the pastor who seeks to be faithful to the Scriptures this requires wrestling with the Biblical warrants for divorce, which are typically seen as nothing more than either abandonment or infidelity.

Bradshaw helps in this dilemma by defining ‘abandonment’ in such a way as to include all forms of abuse. Alsdurf similarly helps further by explaining how if the faith community were to understand fidelity as implying more than simply sexual faithfulness but also encompassing “the honoring of one’s partner in a life-giving way” then “marital violence becomes a manifestation of infidelity.” Kroeger his perhaps most helpful here when she notes how in seeking divorce it is not the wife that has failed her marriage; rather “husbands who abuse their wives have already broken the sacred covenant of marriage,” abandoning them emotionally, and thus “the wife’s declaration of divorce merely makes public what has already been done by the abuser.”

It is quite possible that the man will not change, and in such circumstances the woman needs the hope that she is not doomed to live a life of shame and torment, that there is indeed a way out.

A final way in which the pastor can aid the wife who has suffered abuse is by providing her with a proper theology through which to interpret her experience. Thus the pastor can help her reflect on the nature of God, on her need of God, and on God’s ability to meet her need. Most importantly, he can help her in regaining her identity in Christ, so that she may be no longer bogged down by the shame of her experience but can gain life anew. She must know that she has gained victory in Christ and been cleansed through him, able to come to the Father in a Christ-centered confidence. Rather than see her shame, God sees her “as complete and perfect.”

Thus, “Christ’s victory gives us back our identity and restores our meaning.” It is this identity – found in Christ – which will be pivotal in overcoming the shame which the abused wife has acquired, of defeating the lies which she has been fed by her husband, the world, and by Satan. When she is able to stop believing the lies the first hurdle is overcome.

From Herself: Breaking the Shame

Pride is often a counterpart to shame, and it is this pride which in part contributes to the silence of the abused wife. Pride doesn’t want that which it perceives to be the truth to be exposed.

This is one reason why exposing that what the abused wife believes about herself as not being the truth is important. Yet as was noted above, the common message that abused wives get is often “do it yourself,” which is a command that is not merely external but also plays off of the internal environment of the wife; as Nason-Clark and Kroeger point out, “most of us have a strong streak of independence: we want to do it by myself.”

She must realize that she cannot do it by herself, indeed, bringing this knowledge to people is one of the chief benefits which God brings out of trials; through trials God lets his people know that they cannot do it on their own, but that they need to rest upon him.

As was noted above, it is important for the abused wife to be clear about her limits, about what she is and is not responsible for in the relationship. While she is not responsible for those things that are beyond her control, she must accept responsibility for those things that she can do. After-all the “gift of the Spirit includes self-control, not control of others or events.” Being soaked in a proper fellowship of the body and in right teaching will help in allowing her to break the fear of shame which serves to keep her in silence.

What to do…

It is imperative that Christians not be poorly informed about the nature and prevalence of the abuse that is present in churches, in their churches.

As long as the church is quiet in while women are being abused it is failing in its ministry. It is important to remember in this analysis that women are not generic, each is facing their own individual circumstances with a unique set of contributing factors; what has been outlined is not a strict rule, but a general idea of what women in abusive relationships face.

The women who face these situations need to be equipped with the tools required to overcome their shame and break their silence, and the groundwork for this is something that the faith community and the Christian leader can do before they are even aware that any particular woman is being abused.

By fostering an environment in which abuse is condemned, which exonerates the woman of responsibility for things beyond her control and which minimizes the undeserved shame that the woman will face upon coming forward (although this shame may not be able to be completely eliminated), the church can move well on its way to being able to effectively help wives who face abuse within Christian homes and elsewhere.

Without these things it will be near impossible for the woman to find a positive solution. If men and women are faithfully taught of the realities of abuse within the church many of factors contributing to abuse may be put to rest before they are able to find root; a key step is naming the sin of abuse and bringing it out of the dark corner which the church has banished it to. If the faith community and the pastor are doing the jobs that they are supposed to do then the woman will be able to grab ahold of these realities, even if no-one is initially aware of her abuse.

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