A new book by a survivor of domestic violence says churches are failing abused women through a combination of bad advice, faulty theology and a Catch-22 where women are told divorce is not an option and yet held in contempt for staying in the situation and tolerating abuse.
A self-described Bible-believing, evangelical Christian, Andersen told EthicsDaily.com she was raised as a Baptist but now attends an independent evangelical fellowship not affiliated with any denomination. She doesn’t use those labels in her book, however, because it is a problem she says crosses denominational lines.
Andersen says one big reason that men who profess to be Christians beat their wives is the doctrine of wifely submission.
“I believe the way this doctrine is taught and interpreted within many evangelical churches can lead men to believe it is their God-given right to exert authority over their wives,” she said in an e-mail interview. “This logically leads to problems with abuse when they attempt to assert this authority–especially with men who deal with unresolved anger issues,”
“In addition, the blame for the abuse is frequently shifted from the husband to the wife,” Andersen said. “This happens when she is told that she could be provoking the violence or that if she reacts submissively to his abuse, his behavior might change.”
One of the most controversial parts of the book is where Andersen challenges writing and comments of “Focus on the Family” founder James Dobson. She says one respected literary agent turned her down flat for including Dobson’s name in the manuscript. Because of his widespread influence in the evangelical community for more than two decades, however, she felt she could not remove it as a matter of conscience.
Andersen says Dobson has helped to perpetuate an “insidious and persistent myth” that women stay in abusive relationships because they secretly get some sick satisfaction from it.
In a 1984 broadcast of his radio program, she says, Dobson told his listening audience that he had seen situations where the wife wanted to be beaten up. His hypothesis was that the wife achieved a certain moral advantage from being hit. If she pushed her husband into blacking her eye, the world–and God–would view her as a martyr. This way, he said, she could give herself a moral exit from the marriage, because the Bible says marriage is forever.
Dobson’s comments were essentially the same thing he said in a 1983 book against divorce, Love Must Be Tough. It was revised as recently as 1996, without a word changed about domestic violence.
Andersen says Dobson’s advice not only doesn’t help battered women, it makes their situation worse by propagating false and outdated stereotypes that adversely affect churches’ attitudes toward abuse victims.
Andersen says she doesn’t buy into the recently popularized psychiatric theory of “battered woman syndrome,” which has been used to defend women in murder trials but also causes many abuse victims to lose custody of their children.
She turns to theology to answer the question of why battered women stay, proposing what she calls the “Eve Syndrome.” It is based on what the Bible has to say about husbands in wives in Gen. 3:16, “Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”
Andersen says that verse has been quoted for centuries to establish the idea of God-given male supremacy in marriage. She calls that “one of the most tragic misinterpretations of Scripture ever.”
“Christian men and women have accepted almost unchallenged the erroneous idea that when the serpent, Eve and finally Adam were informed of the consequences of their sin, God slipped Adam an unexpected and undeserved bonus,” she writes. “He got to be the boss!”
Andersen contends that Adam was the first abusive husband. Confronted with the consequences of the first couple’s sin, Adam’s response was typical of abusers today. He blamed everyone but himself.
Andersen believes the real meaning of the text is that as the result of their sin, their godly directive to have dominion over the earth as equals would be perverted–Adam in a dysfunctional desire to dominate his wife (“he shall rule over thee”) and Eve in responding to mistreatment not by losing love and desire for her abusive husband but with an even more intense desire for her husband’s love, affection and acceptance (“thy desire shall be to thy husband).”
Andersen says women pick up early on the hypocrisy of telling them on the one hand they cannot leave an abusive husband and on the other blaming them for allowing themselves to be abused. Some leave the church altogether, she says, and others begin to hide the abuse. Either way, they aren’t getting the spiritual and emotional support they desperately need.
When women in trouble do turn to their churches for help, Andersen says, they often receive unbiblical and dangerous counsel. Rather than offering alternatives and resources to battered women, she says, many religious leaders advise women to return to violent homes and to become better wives.
Women discouraged from leaving violent spouses are routinely directed to I Peter 3:1-2, where wives are told their unbelieving husbands might be converted to God by their obedient lifestyle. The problem, Andersen says, is that telling women they can control and change their husband’s behavior through passive submission isn’t conversion but manipulation.
Andersen says God’s answer to oppression and abuse is always the same–deliverance. A woman in an abusive situation should be proactive in changing her situation–not her husband–and in taking steps to ensure her present and future safety.
While she does not always advocate divorce or long separation, Andersen says it needs to be a viable option.
She admits that reasons women don’t flee abusive relationships are complex–like fear, economic problems and social isolation–but one important reason is the most dangerous time for an abused woman is when she attempts to leave her husband. Three quarters of women who are killed by abusive men die while trying to escape.
Andersen says her reason for writing the book was to “help women navigate the minefield of domestic violence” and to save lives. She says it is a sad commentary on churches that instead of being ahead of the curve in responding to domestic violence, secular agencies must instead reach out to educate them.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Order Woman Submit! Christians & Domestic Violence from Amazon.com
Managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, Allen wrote more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure.