Dena Johnson Martin Christian Blog and Commentary

True Stories from Abuse Victims

Last week, I shared some ways the church intensifies the pain of divorcees. Today, I want to share quotes from a number of friends who have so kindly given me permission to share their stories.

The pain the church often heaps upon people in their lowest moments is not isolated to one or two people. While some churches and Christians wisely respond appropriately, many others choose to throw shame, guilt, and condemnation when people find themselves in the midst of a divorce. I guarantee that all Christians walking through divorce have enough of that without having to deal with others adding to it.

I pray you listen prayerfully to these stories. I pray you allow God to speak to your heart about how you and your church are responding to divorce. I pray you take a moment to think through the pain these individuals are facing and determine to provide encouragement and support.

From a single mom of eight: The church didn’t validate my grief because of the belief "it takes two" and "we're all sinners." I was told that if I was REALLY committed to making it work, he would have repented. Really? Do you know how hard it is for a mom of 8 children to decide to leave??? The church also shut me down. It was as if letting me talk was somehow, supporting my decision!

I’ve said it so many times: It takes two to make a marriage work, but only one hardened heart to walk away. I promise most Christians do not walk away quickly or easily. If anything, we stay much longer than we should.

From two different former ministers whose wives walked away: I was removed from my ministry position. I’ve had multiple churches refuse to even interview me because of a divorce that happened when I was in my early twenties. The two churches that did interview me asked if either my wife or I had ever been divorced. That ended the interviews.

Both of these individuals understand they needed time to heal. Both have also moved forward and have very happy marriages that have lasted a number of years. Why should a divorce that happened 15, 20, 25 years ago impact their current position in the church? Why should they be disqualified from ministry because their former spouses hardened their hearts and walked away? Why can God forgive our past and remember it no more…but the church cannot?

From a now single mom: I was in an abusive marriage and seeking counsel from the pastor’s wife, who was licensed. She told me if I chose to leave knowing it’s sinful, I may not be forgiven. When I was separated and praying for my marriage and my husband to repent, several people said I was better off without him. Soon after my divorce, a parent was waiting in the nursery for someone to arrive. When he saw it was me, he left with his child.

I’m not sure where the church got this idea that a woman (or man) must stay in an abusive marriage. I don’t know how scripture can be so twisted and manipulated to believe an individual is required to stay in a marriage that is dangerous. The ironic part of this situation is that Moses permitted divorce as a way to protect the women from mistreatment (Deuteronomy 24). How is requiring a woman (or man) to stay in an abusive marriage consistent with the spirit of scripture? How is forcing someone to submit to an individual who is constantly degrading and tearing him/her down an unforgivable sin? Why do we think we must follow the letter of the law (or, in reality, the letter of human interpretations of the law) instead of the spirit of the law? Wasn’t Jesus all about grace?

Sentiments expressed by a number of women contemplating remarriage or remarried: Why do people treat remarriage as the unforgivable sin, and that a second marriage can't be redemptive? The prodigal was welcomed home by his father regardless of what he did. People tell me I must wait for the lord to change my ex and that I shouldn’t have remarried because now I'm sinning against God.

Again, in Deuteronomy 24, Moses allowed divorce so women could remarry. Why? So they had someone to help support them. Oh, you might argue, women are allowed to work today unlike biblical times. But the statistics for single moms are devastating. Single moms are far more likely to live in poverty and be homeless. Their children are more likely to join gangs or be victims of violence. You may think times are drastically different from Bible times, but they aren’t so different. Let’s add 1 Corinthians 7:27-28 into this discussion: If you are married, don’t get a divorce. If you are divorced, don’t try to find a spouse. But if you do marry, you haven’t sinned

From a former minister’s wife whose husband had an affair and left her and her children: People do not know how to deal with the situation so they do nothing. I was so hurt by the absence of any acknowledgement of my situation and grief. I felt abandoned. The pastor spoke to me one time in the early days of the crisis that was our divorce and never heard from him again. I was too wounded to return to the church and no one called or checked on me. Devastating.

From another former minister’s wife: No support from the body. He runs a ministry through the church; after an affair, leaving his own marriage of 22 years, and then he helped break up her marriage (she is 22 years his junior and has a small child). Ironically, he's still running the church ministry, teaching children how to live their lives as Christians.

And yet another former minister’s wife: My ex is now leading a ministry at a new church with the "other woman," now his wife 15 years his junior. She was in our youth group when the affair started. His Christian counselor invited him to this new church....his Christian counselor who we both saw and knows everything that was going on. He refused to end that relationship to save our marriage and his ministry. He hasn’t repented, has only lied his way into new people's lives.

I, too, was a minister’s wife whose husband had an affair. He was able to jump right back into ministry. I know he twisted the facts to make me the bad guy, to make me the one who walked out. I find it quite ironic that the men whose wives walked out were prevented from serving in ministry while the men who had affairs were allowed to continue in ministry. Perhaps we need to exercise some discernment and check the fruit of their lives.

From a remarried mom: When I was divorcing my husband he told the church I had cheated on him. (I didn’t ). The elders (all men) called me in and questioned/cross examined me and wanted me to sign a letter stating I would remain chaste while divorced and go to classes and all kinds of stuff. There were no women in there and I was blindsided about this…. I was so hurt and betrayed. It took me a few years to realize those are just men and not God or the church. A few weeks after that my husband showed up at church sitting in a pew with his arm around his widowed sister-in-law whom he shacked up with the day I kicked him out. We were married for 21 years and he was an alcoholic and verbally abusive and controlling. I didn’t care if the church had reached out to find out what was going on but to attack me like that and act like judge and jury and try to control me was unbelievable. They never even apologized later. I was also going to counseling there and my counselor tried to tell them and they would only believe what my husband said.

I’ve heard similar stories from a number of women, their abusive spouses managed to convince the leaders of their churches of their innocence and turn the entire church against the truly innocent spouse. We as a church must exercise tremendous amounts of discernment. Usually the one who yells the loudest and creates the most sympathy is the one who is the one in the wrong.

And one final story from a newly-remarried friend:  About three months after my divorce was final, a church friend sent me a message: “I knew you guys had divorced and it just made me so sad I couldn’t bring myself to contact you.” That was the catalyst that finally broke my silence. I wrote her a long message with each paragraph starting with the phrase “you didn’t know.” You didn’t know he threw our daughter into a closet when he was mad. You didn’t know that when he wanted to punish me he would disappear for days. You didn’t know he threw a large box of baby wipes at me so hard when our oldest was a baby it put a hole in the wall of her room. You didn’t know he told our son that he hated him and was no longer his dad.

Unless you have been behind closed doors in these marriages, you have no idea the abuse that may be taking place. On the outside, the marriage may be ideal. But behind closed doors, there may be more danger than anyone could ever imagine. Do not judge. Do not assume you know what happened. Do not think it’s a matter of failing to connect of speak one another’s love language. It may be the abused spouse has spent years hiding the truth—from him/herself and from the outside world. The abuser may have so convinced he/she is the cause of all the abuse and he/she doesn’t deserve any better. The victim may not even recognize the abuse until he/she is in a place of safety. You simply don’t know what one has endured behind closed doors.

I think it is time we all stop and ask ourselves how our attitudes toward divorce are creating more harm and pain for those walking through one of the most difficult betrayals on earth. What are we doing to encourage and lift up? How are we showing the love of Christ? How are we drawing the hurting to Christ where they can find the one true source of healing? If we aren’t helping divorcees navigate the pain, we might be contributing to it. That is definitely not the Christ-like attitude.