When the church goes off the rails (Abuse series – part 16)

Here are links to this entire series:
Part 1: My story of abuse (Introduction)
Part 2: Seven things you need to know about abusers
Part 3: Dealing with victims of abuse
Part 4: It started with a crossword puzzle
Part 5: Getting help for an abuse victim
Part 6: Taking the next step
Part 7: My church’s initial response to abuse
Part 8: Your marriage counselor may destroy your marriage
Part 9: Cutting off communication
Part 10: How to choose sides in an abusive situation
Part 11: The strangeness of a spring break
Part 12: Filings for divorce and early rumblings at church
Part 13: What are those deacons good for anyway?
Part 14: The “repentance” game
Part 15: Isolation
Part 16: When the church goes off the rails
Part 17: When the church goes off the rails even further
Part 18: Final church problems
Part 19: How to neutralize an abuser
Part 20: The saga concludes
Part 21: Updates
Part 22: The very end

What happened in our former church was sort of a perfect storm due to several things. However, while I am hopeful that most churches would not handle abuse in the same disastrous way, the truth is what happened in our former church was hardly an isolated incident. I am not exaggerating when I say that every time I think a story cannot be topped, I get another email or phone call with a wilder story. Some of them make what happened in our former church to seem quite tame.

Since I am talking about spiritual abuse, let’s get a working definition. Remember that abuse in a nutshell is about control and more precisely, illegitimate control. When I think about spiritual abuse, I think of the illegitimate control of a religious organization over a person or situation. Just as an abuser often camouflages his abuse with professions of “love,” a church can abuse while utilizing the camouflage of spiritual-sounding rhetoric. A church’s illegitimate control is usually dangerous not just because it is illegitimate but also because it is very often grounded on bad extremist theology that further harms the very people that it is claiming to try to help.

I mentioned we had a perfect storm. Here are the main factors that contributed to the spiritual abuse that occurred in our church:

  • We had no pastor at the time.
  • The deacons were inexperienced both in theology and church management and a few of them had been influenced by extremist patriarchal-style ideas on such issues as abuse and divorce. (If you don’t know, patriarchalism is a current fad in conservative Christianity. Some of it is reasonable in nature but the extreme side of it is just strange if not downright evil.)
  • One of the deacons had an axe to grind with me due to some of my political beliefs. He was the head of the deacons and handled himself in a remarkably immature way towards the victim and me largely because of petty personality conflict.
  • The church constitution was vague in how it defined leadership roles in the church between the pastor and deacons, leading the deacons to attempt to grab power they did not really have.
  • There were no checks and balances or even strong individuals to keep the deacons in check. While there were some older more experienced men in the church, they largely lacked the courage to stand up and condemn the tactics the deacons were engaged in.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how the deacons reacted to our request that they help protect the victim from her abuser when she first returned. As I mentioned, their contribution to that situation could be summed in one word: nothing. However, to say they were not doing anything about the situation would be incorrect. They were doing plenty.

First of all, they were meeting or talking about the issue frequently. It was somewhat remarkable to see how much energy they put into trying to gain control of the situation. Meeting after meeting was held. I am not speaking for all of them but their general consensus was that they believed that they had authority over the victim’s choice to divorce. They believed they had the right to ask her to put the divorce on hold until they worked with the abuser and decided if he had truly repented. Even while no support whatsoever was extended to her in practical ways, they began to demand that the victim meet with them so they could lay down the law to her.

Second, they were meeting with the abuser and falling for his faux repentance. He of course shifted the blame to her and they fell for that too to an extent. I would not want to suggest that they saw him as innocent or completely fell for his story. However, they would eventually state she was at fault because her husband wanted to make things right with her but she was refusing to reconcile.

Here is the plan the deacons came up with. I had enough discussions to believe that I can portray it accurately.

  • The victim would pull the divorce out of the court system. (One of the deacons believed that because the Bible says that Christians cannot sue each other, filing for divorce in the courts was unbiblical.)
  • The deacons would take over decision making in regards to the marriage. The victim would suspend the divorce process and agree to follow their guidance on whether a divorce was allowable or not.
  • Both the victim and the abuser would be returning to the church. (By that time, the abuser had long since stopped attending.)
  • The church leadership would establish the terms of the separation itself. For example, they would set a child support level and/or alimony for the abuser to pay and would define visitation schedules and boundaries between the victim and abuser.
  • The church leadership would be responsible for enforcing those terms (such as forcing the abuser to pay support).
  • If the abuser did not follow through with his financial obligations, the church would pay the victim child support and alimony.
  • Marla and I would largely (if not completely) be removed from the situation. The abuser was insistent that we were the problem and that no reconciliation could occur without us being removed.

I want to be fair. I am sure they had good intentions and, at first glance, at least for someone that does not know better, this plan is not completely crazy. In theory, it would be great if a church could handle the logistics of a situation like this.

There are however two big problems with this kind of solution. First of all, where does the idea that a church should have any authority of marriage in that way come from? Not from the Bible. I reject that idea outright. I will concede that throughout history, churches (especially the Catholic church) have believed they have the authority to grant divorces (or annulments). Historical precedent does not make it right however. Giving a church that authority is basically a recipe for disaster. In fact, even a cursory bit of research will lead you to see how that practice has been abused by the church over the centuries.

The second problem with the plan is that it is completely unfeasible to think that a typical church can administer a divorce/separation adequately. We have courts that are not perfect but are qualified to handle the numerous situations that come up. You cannot imagine how complicated things can get. There may be churches large enough to have the expertise to pull it off (if there are lots of lawyers on the membership roll) but a tiny church cannot. Does an average church know how to calculate fair child support and alimony? Of course not. Does an average church really have the ability to protect a victim from an abuser coming on her property? No it does not. Does an average church have the power to force a spouse to truthfully disclose assets? No way.

On top of those problems, this situation was even more complex because of the abuse involved. Those men attempting to take over the situation had no experience and knowledge about abuse and how that dynamic was affecting the situation. They did not understand why the situation could not be treated like a more typical marital conflict. They did not understand how the abuser was manipulating them and did not understand the need for boundaries in the victim’s life and the danger that would be present if she left the safety of the court system. Frankly, not only did they not understand but they had no interest in putting in the time to try to understand.

In short, the plan was naive and I am pulling my punches when I say that. Furthermore, it was a dangerous move that greatly harmed the church. Key families would end up leaving over this situation, freeing the patriarchal deacons to push the church even further in an extremist direction. Looking back, whether intentional or not, it is obvious an agenda was being pushed and it was not a good agenda.

I will give the benefit of the doubt on motives, but regardless, now you know their plan and things are quickly going to come to a head. I will pick up there next time.

Read on: Part 17: When the church goes off the rails even further