In Response to the Unbiblical “Biblical Counsel’ on Marital Abuse

FracCovCoverThis morning, “Crying Out for Justice” posted an excerpt of a podcast on the subject of marital abuse/domestic violence in which the speaker represented a well-known nouthetic counseling organization. Many of the standard minimization and arguments for wives staying in abusive marriages were re-cycled, and Lambert essentially based his position on two New Testament verses (while ignoring the call in Ephesians and elsewhere for husbands to love their wives, or the Levitical protection of married women).

In the comment section, a reader asked,

“Many of us know how terrible this advice is. However, there are those who are being counseled with these twisted interpretations who think that the Bible actually says these things and that Biblical they must stay with an abuser. Can you provide a rebuttal–or a link in the post to a rebuttal–for their benefit so they are not just left with Dr. Lambert’s counsel?”

Yes – and I’d be glad to. Within the next few weeks, Calvary Press will be releasing my latest book, “Fractured Covenants: The Hidden Problem of Marital Abuse in the Church”. One of the chapters I wrote deals with when divorce – always a final and tragic decision, although at times a necessity – is indeed biblical grounds for divorce. While lengthy, I provide a thoroughly-researched and written exegesis of this difficult doctrinal issue.

Having been trained as a nouthetic counselor, I am well-familiar with the proof texts and arguments used to defend a permanence view of marriage even in the face of unrepentant and ongoing abuse. Never was this more clear than when I was going through it myself. As a Christian counselor and writer, I have devoted my ministry to helping women who are trapped in the bondage of abuse (both domestic and spiritual), and opening the eyes of well-meaning ministry colleagues who perpetuate the eisogesis they have been taught.

Chapter 3 – Is Abuse Ever Biblical Grounds for Divorce?

“Domestic abuse is a test case for your theology. Eminent people may have great theology in many areas, but if they don’t get it about domestic abuse and divorce, they are gravely in error (in my humble opinion) and need to sit down and seriously examine their doctrine. Until they do, victims of abuse will continue to be unbelievably hurt by the church. God is not happy about this! I suspect He would like to spit them all out of His mouth for their lukewarmness when it comes to protecting the vulnerable (who are mostly women and children).” – Barbara Roberts, author of Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion

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By the time a Christian woman is even contemplating the horrifying thought that her marriage may be beyond repair, she has endured so much for so long that she has given up hope that anything will ever change. She (and her children) may be in physical danger, and need to get to safety. Her husband may be a habitual adulterer, who shows no signs of repentance. Or, it may be a less physically-dangerous but equally toxic form of torment – years of unrelenting verbal abuse that have driven her to despair.

While a full treatment of when divorce may be biblically-justified is beyond the scope of this book, some discussion of the matter is in order because of the erroneous assertion that many contemporary churches take: namely, that domestic abuse is never grounds for divorce. Abused women who are living with the covenant-breaking spouse are often chided (and even blackmailed with the threat of excommunication) if they do file for divorce, even after they have made repeated attempts to salvage the marriage. This dogmatic stance is a misrepresentation of God’s high view of marriage, and puts the blame for sin squarely on the victim’s shoulders – rather than on the unrepentant abuser, where it belongs. Unpacking what Scripture says about such situations is necessary, in order to shed light on an unfortunate situation many abused Christian women find themselves in.

One excellent book on this subject is Pastor Hugh Vander Lugt’s booklet, God’s Protection of Women: When Abuse is Worse than Divorce. As the senior research editor for RBC (now Our Daily Bread Ministries), Lugt’s 1982 book is a concise, yet exegetically-rich resource which biblically challenges the contention that divorce is never justified by abuse. Far from being a plea to reason based on emotionalism (or even pastoral experience), Lugt effectively shows how a faulty hermeneutic has led many conservative pastors and churches to teach that Matthew 5:32 is the final and definitive word on divorce.

Just as there is sinless anger (Ephesians 4:26), there is also sinless initiation of divorce. God cannot sin, yet He actively initiated disciplinary divorce (Jerimiah 3:8). Until and unless there is fruit of repentance (Matthew 3), and evidence of love (John 8:31ff, cf. v. 42), those who claim to be children of Abraham are not automatically included in the New Covenant (Romans 11). One Boston-area pastor wrote to me, “If a wife seeks the support of church leaders and the husband is unable or unwilling to change his patterns of verbal abuse, I think it is incumbent upon those church leaders to regard him as an unbeliever. That follows the instructions Jesus gave in Matthew 18:15 – 17.  Divorce is then a regrettable but valid option…it is regretful that church elders also very often do not recognize the more vulnerable position the woman is in [with a domineering husband].  Perhaps this is also because of a belief that “headship” in marriage means that a husband’s “authority” rests in his person per se, irrespective of his own obedience to Jesus.  Many others, including myself, view that as highly contested, to say the least. I have already argued that “headship” in marriage is only true authority to the extent that a husband is faithful to Jesus, so that he is not a “head” by virtue of simply being a husband.  The question is, what kind of husband is he being?”

Linguistic Misconceptions

In the thorny endeavor to unpack all of what Scripture has to say about divorce (as well as abandonment and abuse of different kinds and re-marriage), it is dangerous to conclude that one verse contains the full and final answer on the permanence view of marriage. Moses, Jesus and Paul all recognized a range of marital conditions that are worse than divorce. Historically, although women were often treated as property, the Puritans were a notable exception when it came to recognizing the seriousness of marital abuse:

In the spirit of the Reformation, Puritans didn’t see marriage as an indissoluble sacrament but as a civil contract that could be terminated if either party did not fulfill fundamental duties of marriage. Although cruelty was not a recognized ground for divorce in the Puritan era, there are those who thought cruelty to a wife was a type of desertion. [1]

In his discussion of marital abuse, Lugt demonstrates how, even in modern times, women have been overly-subjugated by a misunderstanding of the word “helper” in Genesis 2:18.

There is no sense in which this word connotes a position of inferiority or subordinate status. The word “suitable for” literally means “in front of”, signifying one who stands face to face with another, qualitatively the same, his essential equal, and therefore his “correspondent” (“Hard Sayings of the Bible, pp. 666-7, IVP, Downers Grove, 1996).[2]

Sixteen times in the Bible the Hebrew term ezer kenegdo is used in reference to a person, and fifteen of those are in reference to God as our “warrior helper.” The sixteenth is used in Genesis 2 in reference to woman, that she is man’s “warrior helper” (Ezer means “help” and kenegdo means “partner”).  God created women to be ‘warrior helpers’ to their men.

Another fallacy that many writers have pointed out is that male domination is a “right” inherited from the Fall. However, if we are consistent to the rest of Genesis 3, it was a curse that, like sickness, thorns and discord, should be resisted and fought. With sin, these maladies entered what was previously a perfect and harmonious world, with idyllic relationships. The tendency to dominate, dictate and abuse is a perversion of the Creation order that has no justification in Scripture.

A Bulgarian proverb states: “Better a horrible ending, than a horror without end.” To state that God wills His daughters to stay in destructive, toxic or dangerous relationships (not merely disappointing ones) contradicts everything we see scripturally about His loving and protective character. One abuse survivor, who asked to remain anonymous, put it this way: “I upheld my wedding vow. I’m not someone who would ever leave a marriage or break a promise. I would never knowingly allow violence or abuse to break up my family. I would never knowingly let sin take root in my home. I wouldn’t put my children through the trauma. So I had no choice but to leave my husband.”

Mosaic Law

Even the most weak and vulnerable women in Hebraic society – daughters or wives sold as slaves or concubines – were protected under the Law of Moses. Quite progressive for its time, Exodus 21:7-11 lists the “three foundations of marital duty” – namely, the provision of food, clothing, and ‘marriage rights’ – often interpreted as affection and marital love. (In fact, the Jewish Ketubah lays these out as a contract, not unlike Ephesians 4.) Breaking these conditions is, in fact, a violation of the marriage covenant. But more significantly, it shows the principle of protection that is seen throughout Scripture, from the lesser to the greater: if God would provide protection and care even for a slave, how much more is owed to a free wife?

Exodus 21:11 makes it clear that if the husband fails to fulfill this contractual obligation, he is to “let her go free”. This has been proven conclusively by theologians to mean a formal divorce, the ‘get’. Of course, neither rabbis nor Christian pastors argue that this is the ideal; rather, the Mosaic divorce allowance was given by God for humanitarian means – to protect women from cruelty. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 similarly makes provision for the divorce, protection, and remarriage of non-Israelite prisoners of war.

As Laura Petherbridge writes,

It takes two to get married, and only one to break the vow. Stop placing both spouses under one sin. (This is normally the wife. In twenty-five years I’ve never had one husband tell me his church abandoned him when the wife walked out, but I’ve lost count of the hundreds of women who have wept over the shunning of a church when her husband left.) Just because a sin has occurred don’t assume both have sinned.[3]

Unraveling Malachi 2:16

Scripture reveals an ongoing intent of protection first by Moses, (whose Law Jesus upheld completely during His ministry); then subsequently by the prophet Malachi, whose words were intended to protect women being wrongly divorced by their husbands; and finally by Jesus, in His indictment of the Pharisees. One of the most frequently misquoted verses in the Bible regarding divorce is Malachi 2:16:

“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” (ESV).

In Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion, Barbara Roberts addresses the correct etymology of that passage. The verse is often incorrectly and incompletely translated as “I hate divorce” and used as a catch-all conversation stopper to assert that divorce is never permitted biblically. However, this is not the intention of the passage (written during a time period when male casual divorce was rampant). She writes:

The incorrect translation came about as follows. The word “hates” in Malachi 2:16 is he hates. The Hebrew denotes third person masculine singular = he. The King James version had “For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away.” Many subsequent translations switched the third person “he” to a first person “I” without any grammatical warrant. For example, the 1984 NIV was “ ‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel.” Possibly translators thought the switch was okay because it retained the sense of the KJV — that God feels the hatred [for divorce]. They did not seem to worry that “I hate divorce” was grammatically inaccurate to the original Hebrew.

But modern translations are starting to correctly this mistake. The construction in Hebrew (“he hates… he covers”) shows that the one who feels the hatred is not God, but the divorcing husband. To be faithful to the Hebrew, the verse could be rendered, “If he hates and divorces,” says the Lord God of Israel, “he covers his garment with violence.” It is talking about a husband who hates his wife and divorces her because of his aversion for her. Therefore, Malachi 2:16 is only referring to a specific type of divorce: divorce for aversion, which could be dubbed “hatred divorce”. Divorce for hatred is treacherous divorce: if a man hates his wife and dismisses, he “covers his garment with violence” — his conduct is reprehensible, he has blood on his hands.[4]

Biblical scholar Joe Sprinkle also has pointed out that the context of Malachi 2:16 is a limited one: taken in accordance with the allowances for divorce made elsewhere in Scripture, it is clearly only certain divorces in certain circumstances to which God is opposed. While upholding the sanctity of marriage, we can see how the New Testament teaching on divorce demonstrates how Christ, Moses and Paul’s teachings complement one another.

New Testament Application

Even a superficial reading of the gospels reveals that Jesus demonstrated a concern and caring for women that went beyond the social mores of the First Century. And it is plain that the God of Scripture is a Protector and Defender of the weak and downtrodden. So then, does Matthew 5:31-32 over-ride the provision offered divorced women in Deuteronomy? Did Jesus completely nullify the Mosaic Law of protection with this one verse?

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32, ESV)

Of course not. Just as with all of Scripture, a correct hermeneutic demands we examine context (Literal-Historical and Synthetic Principle of Scriptural interpretation). Jesus was, in the Sermon on the Mount, addressing the Pharisees’ specific excesses and “stretches” in interpreting and teaching the Law of Moses. They had added hundreds of laws onto the original Levitical code, and the abuse of the divorce clause in Deuteronomy 24 was no exception. In reality, divorced women of the First Century were disgraced and had few career prospects outside of prostitution. It is not biblically consistent to say that He was contradicting the conditions Moses had set, but is more consistent with the passage that He was forcing the Pharisees to focus on the condition of their own hearts. Relational sin was the point; the one statement was clearly not intended to be the single and final word on divorce (as Paul later demonstrates).

Later in Matthew 19:3-9, Lugt notes, we in fact see the Pharisees trying to entrap Jesus by confronting Him with the Law of Moses on the same subject. While upholding the sacred ideal of the permanence of marriage, Jesus did not disagree with Moses in allowing divorce.

Commenting on the allowance made for hardness of heart, Dr. Willard notes:

‘No doubt what was foremost in His [Jesus’] mind was the fact that the woman could quite well wind up dead, or brutally abused, if the man could not “dump” her. It is still so today, of course. Such is our “hardness of heart”. Better, then, that a divorce occur than a life be made unbearable. Jesus does nothing to retract this principle…no one regards a divorce as something to be chosen for its own sake…but of course a brutal marriage is not a good thing either, and we must resist any attempt to classify divorce as a special, irredeemable form of wickedness. It is not. It is sometimes the right thing to do, everything considered.[5]

The Mosaic Code and the teachings of Christ on divorce complemented each other. Jesus was forcing the hypocritical religious leaders of the time to examine their own hard hearts in putting women in danger (both by abuse and neglect, and unrighteous divorce), as they were actually ignoring Moses’ rabbinical provision for women. There was no need for Jesus to cite all of these scripturally-valid grounds for divorce, any more than He explained the full Gospel of salvation by faith alone when speaking to the Rich Young Ruler. Context is crucial. During his indictment of the Pharisees, Jesus was not addressing women in distress. He was addressing the self-righteous men who did as they pleased in “putting away” their wives.

Of course, Jesus also didn’t mention the additional circumstances meriting divorce later cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11: “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.”

Note that neither of these chapters (Matthew 19 or 1 Corinthians 7) gives a full litany or examination of all of the circumstances under which a woman might be justified in seeking a divorce from a covenant-breaking husband. Also, as Paul would have been well-acquainted with Mosaic teaching on re-marriage, why the no-remarriage clause? Lugt argues that the context of chapter 7 suggests Paul was answering specific questions raised by the Corinthian believers about celibacy (advocated by some even within marriage), and about marriage itself. He urges wives not to leave, but as a concession states that they are then to remain unmarried. Nowhere do we see the Early Church pressuring divorced women to “reconcile” with their husbands (under any circumstances) or to stay with abusive men. In fact, both the epistles of Peter and Paul speak directly to the men and command caring and love towards “the weaker vessel” – an extremely progressive command in the First Century!

Furthermore, Paul clearly rebukes the church at Corinth for tolerating men who were revilers (1 Corinthians 5:11). They are the ones to be removed from church fellowship; not their victims. Pastor Sam Powell asks a rhetorical question of those who refuse to concede that abuse is, biblically, grounds for divorce:

How can we refuse to allow divorce from a reviler… when the scripture forbids us from even eating with a so-called brother who is a reviler? Doesn’t this involve us in hopeless contradiction? You force his wife and children to live with him. “He didn’t leave any bruises. You aren’t really in danger. You have no grounds for divorce.”

Are you willing to excommunicate the victim for obeying the command of the Lord in this passage? Or is it your contention that she should still continue the intimacy of marriage, but perhaps eat separately? I’m having a hard time understanding this position.

Perhaps this is why the [local] church today has become so corrupted. We have been tolerating corrupt leaven. I say it is time we stop, and start obeying the Lord. You can be a reviler, or you can be a Christian. You can’t be both. In fact, according to this text, a reviler who calls himself a brother is far, far worse than an outright unbeliever. A reviler who is allowed to call himself a brother will corrupt the whole church.[6]

Mako Nagasawa, a former campus director with The Navigators and biblical scholar, explains how the Levitical Code and New Testament application complement each other. He writes,

The important question for Christians is how Jesus and Paul interpreted this Old Testament law of divorce for neglect and abuse. One problem the Church has grappled with for centuries is that Jesus appeared to forbid divorce “for any cause … except sexual immorality” (Matthew 19:3-9). The common interpretation until recently has been that Jesus allowed divorce only for adultery. This has been very difficult to understand pastorally and seems absurdly contradictory of other biblical principles since it appears to condone abuse and abandonment. Even as early as AD 200 the Church Father Origen was puzzled by it. He said that if a wife was trying to poison her husband, or if she deliberately killed their baby, then for her husband “to endure sins of such heinousness which seem to be worse than adultery or fornication, will appear to be irrational.” (Origen, Commentary on Matthew II.14.24)  Nevertheless, Jesus’ teaching appeared plain, so the Church followed it.”

But recent research into Jewish documents show that discussions about Exodus 21:10 – 11 and Deuteronomy 21:1 – 4 were separate discussions.  So the discussion between the Pharisees and Jesus about Deuteronomy 21 were isolated to that text:

“This mystery has been recently solved by research in ancient Jewish documents where we find that the phrase ‘Any Cause’ divorce was a legal term equivalent to the modern no-fault divorce (see the chapter ‘No-fault Divorce’). By means of a legalistic interpretation of the phrase “cause of immorality” in Deuteronomy 24:1, some rabbis allowed divorce for both ‘Immorality’ and ‘Any Cause’. When they asked Jesus what He thought, He confirmed that this phrase referred merely to divorce for adultery (nothing “except sexual immorality”). He totally rejected the newly invented divorce for ‘Any Cause’. The misunderstanding through the centuries has been the belief that Jesus was referring to all grounds for divorce rather than the ‘Any Cause’ divorce specifically.”[7]

But what bearing did this discussion about Deuteronomy 24 have on the criteria given by Exodus 21?  Did Jesus categorically overrule Exodus 21?  No. Jesus actually said nothing about the law of divorce for neglect and abuse in Exodus 21. This was partly because He wasn’t asked about it and partly because it wasn’t a topic of debate like the text in Deuteronomy 24. All rabbis still accepted these biblical grounds of neglect of food, clothing and love and ancient Jewish marriage contracts found in caves near the Dead Sea show that its three requirements were incorporated into Jewish marriage vows. Every couple would promise each other to provide “food, clothing and bed” (a euphemism for sexual intercourse), just as it says in Exodus 21.[8]

The “Separation…but No Divorce” Position

Although in the Greco-Roman context separation constituted a legal divorce, some churches currently claim that they protect women by “allowing for separation for a time,” which they base on 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 without looking at the full context of the letter. They insist that the ultimate goal must be reconciliation (essentially under any circumstances), ignoring the possibility that the woman may choose to remain single or that the man’s sin pattern may justify (and even necessitate) divorce. While well-intentioned, the insistence on only a temporary separation is problematic and rarely solves the root issue. “Crying Out for Justice” blogger “Jeff S.” writes:

The two biggest problems with “you can separate but not divorce” are:

  1. It’s not a biblical solution. How can we be in a “marriage” doing all the things we are called to if we are separated? Yes, there are probably times a separation, mutually decided, can help with healing; but the way it’s advocated for in abuse situations reads more like a technical “married but not married” so everyone can feel good about the way they’ve parsed the law and found a loophole.
  2. Separation with an eye on reconciliation has built in pressure to reconcile, which is very dangerous for someone who has had their boundaries repeatedly violated and likely is not good at setting them up (or keeping them up). The last thing you want to do when someone needs to learn to erect healthy boundaries is to keep asking them when they are going to take them down.

Martin Luther, John Calvin, Origen and a number of other Early Church Fathers upheld that abuse in certain cases could constitute biblical grounds for divorce, and maintained that Jesus did not nullify the Mosaic Laws on divorce and remarriage. It is a relatively modern interpretation held by many Reformed and conservative evangelical pastors that divorce is never allowable in cases of abuse, including verbal. Luther, in particular, was quite adamant that continual conflict, hatred, and cruelty were what drove the believing spouse away, and as the marriage covenant was thus broken, were legitimate causes for divorce.

It is crucial for pastors, counselors and others in Christian ministry to understand God’s original design for marriage, as well as His protection in certain circumstances where divorce is allowed as a concession. Untold amounts of needless guilt and victim-shaming has occurred in the name of “being faithful to the Word”, when the Word really has much to say about cruelty. Marriage is indeed a covenant, and sadly, once the marriage covenant has been thus violated, the abuse survivor is not obligated to stay.

Examining the context and hermeneutic in which certain passages were written is illuminating in dispelling the “abuse is not biblical grounds for divorce” fallacy. This didactic belief serves to keep women in bondage. Marriage was created for people; not the other way around. When marriage becomes an idol for its own sake, and women are coerced into staying in (emotionally, physically, or spiritually) destructive situations to save face for the Church, God’s Word and intent has been misunderstood and misrepresented.

The Lysa TerKeust Travesty

During the writing of this book, well-known Christian author and president of Proverbs 31 Ministries Lysa TerKeurst filed for divorce from her husband after years of his infidelity and substance abuse. In a public statement, she wrote:

My husband, life partner and father of my children, Art TerKeurst, has been repeatedly unfaithful to me with a woman he met online, bringing an end to our marriage of almost 25 years. For the past couple of years, his life has sadly been defined by his affection for this other woman and substance abuse. I don’t share this to harm or embarrass him, but to help explain why I have decided to separate from him and pursue a divorce. God has now revealed to me that I have done all I can do and I must release him to the Savior.

Anyone who knows me and Proverbs 31 Ministries knows how seriously I take marriage. I’ve always encouraged women to fight for their marriages and to do everything possible to save them when they come under threat. So, for the past couple of years I have been in the hardest battle of my life trying to save my marriage…I believe I have the capacity to love Art and to forgive him, but his steadfast refusal to end the infidelity has led me to make the hardest decision of my life. After much prayer and consultation with wise, biblically-minded people, I have decided that Art has abandoned our marriage.[9]

The backlash against Lysa (rather than her adulterous ex-husband) from some leaders in the evangelical community was astounding. Jeff Maples, the editor of “Pulpit & Pen” (a well-known Reformed blog) wrote: “We will be praying for repentance for Lysa TerKeurst to turn from her rebellion against God and walk in righteousness in accordance with His statutes as found in Scripture alone.” Then, in an even worse indictment, a number of Christian media outlets insisted that she step down from ministry and specifically leadership of Proverbs 31, on the grounds that her divorce now disqualified her.

Black Christian News (BCNN1) editors wrote:

No one with any spiritual discernment is going to buy that her husband is the big, evil, bad monster and she’s the sweet, little lamb. Whenever there is a divorce, both parties have issues. Sadly, many Christians have bought into this lie that it is always the man causing the problems in the marriage and that the woman is always innocent. And that is just not the case.

No one is condemning you, but you need to admit that you were not perfect in your marriage either, and we urge you to reconcile with your husband. As you stated in your blog post, you ‘always encouraged women to fight for their marriages and to do everything possible to save them when they come under threat.’ We urge you to do the same. As the reason for continuing your ministry, you stated that you were determined “not to let darkness win.” Well, the way you do that is by not letting darkness win over your family by reconciling with your husband and getting your family back together.[10]

Art’s ongoing infidelity, which is a very serious form of abuse, was proven. By all accounts he refused to abandon his affair and return to a monogamous marriage. Although Lysa stated that she had forgiven him many times for the adultery and substance abuse, he continued to return to it and would not give up either vice. She had single-handedly fought for the marriage for a quarter century, and now the very ministry leaders with whom she served God were throwing her under the bus for pursuing a very biblical divorce. Notice the victim-blaming in the editors’ castigation of her – they directly state that since she was not ‘perfect’, she must share in the blame for her ex-husband’s philandering and addiction.

Much like the claim that abuse victims must share in part of the blame for their mistreatment, this extreme patriarchal thinking absurdly places the sole responsibility for saving the marriage on the woman’s shoulders. And Lysa had embraced more of that responsibility than was ever hers to bear – not only by fulfilling her end of the marriage covenant, but also through forgiveness and her long-suffering attempting to gently “win her husband over” and bring him back to the truth. She cannot be blamed for his failure, nor can she be criticized for taking the final step that Scripture instructs spouses to do in such situations. There is a serious problem in the Church when leaders insist that even clear-cut, black-and-white cases of biblical grounds for divorce are sinful…on the part of the victimized spouse.

In the next chapter, we will look at some of the ways scriptures have been misconstrued and have thus conditioned Christian women to accept emotional abuse as “headship” or “spiritual leadership”. We will examine some of the teachings prevalent in conservative evangelicalism, and how they enable patriarchal thinking to grow and ultimately enable abusive men.

[1] Hugh V. Lugt, God’s Protection of Women: When Abuse is Worse than Divorce (Grand Rapids: RBC Ministries, 1982), 4.

[2] IBID, 6.

[3] http://www.ibelieve.com/relationships/this-is-the-reason-god-actually-hates-divorce.html

[4] https://cryingoutforjustice.com/2013/10/24/god-hates-divorce-not-always/ Barbara’s book can be purchased at notunderbondage.com or from any book retailer.

[5] Professor Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 169-70.

[6] https://myonlycomfort.com/2017/06/02/christians-who-revile/

[7] David Instone-Brewer, “Marital Abuse,” BeThinking, 2012. http://www.bethinking.org/bible/bible-scandals/5-marital-abuse

[8] Mako Nagasawa, personal correspondence with author.

[9] http://lysaterkeurst.com/2017/06/rejection-heartache-and-a-faithful-god/

[10] http://blackchristiannews.com/2017/06/lysa-terkeurst-we-love-you-but-you-need-to-resign-from-proverbs-31-ministries/

 

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Pressing On When Faced with Medical Ordeals

(English Translation of article that appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of “Ilira Revista”)

by Marie O’Toole

Ilira1“Elena” has just arrived in the examination room for her chemotherapy treatment. A tiny Bulgarian grandmother of 82, she sets up the bed with the blanket she has brought from home, adjusts the headscarf that covers her bald head, and enthusiastically hands me a plastic bag filled with tomatoes, peppers and fresh basil from her garden. “For you, Marie!” she exclaims, her pleasure obvious at being able to give her interpreter a treat.

Elena has been fighting pancreatic cancer for three years, as aggressively as the tumor that pumps malignant cells into her frail body. However, she refuses to dwell on her physical limitations – or sometimes, even admit that they exist. Last year, her oncologist was astonished that her body was responding so well to treatment, and that she was not complaining of the usual side-effects of chemotherapy: fatigue; nausea; or mouth sores. I could barely conceal my delight at her response: “Don’t you know, Doctor, that Christ heals us? You doctors know your work, but I pray. And Jesus heals my body!”

While Elena’s strong faith anchors her, there is no denying that a serious illness such as cancer is extremely difficult. Her daughter, a woman about my age, tells the full story: there are dark days, some when Elena is barely able to get out of bed, and must rely on pain medication. How does she summon the strength to press on, while waiting for the next treatment that will hopefully shrink the disease – yet make her extremely sick in the meantime? “I have work to do,” she says. “I tend the garden – we have zucchini as well as tomatoes; they are so good for cooking! And I teach my grandchildren Bulgarian,” she says proudly. “I must leave them this gift. If I don’t teach them, who will? My son-in-law is American, and my daughter is always working so much; poor thing. It is very important for the children to know their heritage….the little one can already read the Cyrillic alphabet!” Does she ever get anxious while waiting for test results, which will reveal the progression of her cancer? “Eh!” She waves her hand, in the dismissive gesture so typical of Balkan people of her generation. “It’s not for me to worry about that. I am in God’s hands.”

Joy: the Nature of God, Pumped Through Our Bloodstream

Despite Elena’s admirably positive attitude, it is undeniable that serious illnesses such as cancer are difficult and painful both for patients and the family members who help care for them. pic2 (1)A friend of mine from church, “Altin”, describes the feeling after chemotherapy as “being in a boxing match, and losing”. A fellow Christian and writer, being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer was a shock for Altin and gave him much time to reflect on his life in Christ in the midst of frightening circumstances. He and his wife started a Facebook page, “Ad Alta Simul” (Latin for “To the Summit Together”) to update friends on the progress of his medical treatments as he took step after painful step to fight the cancer. During the worst of his treatments, he wrote:

“Joy is a topic I have thought long and hard on over the past 5 months during this battle with cancer. Can I be joyful in the midst of all of the uncertainty of my future? Is it possible for me to be joyful when experiencing near constant physical and emotional pain?

The Bible certainly indicates that it is possible for me to do so. “Consider it pure joy when you fall into all sorts of trials” (James 1:2). To transpose James for my current situation: Can I consider my cancer as nothing but joy? Joy is nothing less than the nature of God pumped through our bloodstream. It’s a blessed invasion of the Spirit of God deep into my soul. Let me contrast happiness and joy: Happiness is all about the here and now. Joy is rooted in eternity. Happiness is a sound bite that does not last, while joy is like a pleasing chorus that can’t be stopped.

As I reflect on the words of James, I can’t avoid the high bar that he sets for God’s gift of joy. Any lingering confusion between joy and happiness must end with this passage. If I claim to be happy when my life has been turned upside down with cancer, I am either lying, deluding myself, or am downright insane. Happiness and cancer (or any trouble for that matter) simply don’t mix. But according to James, I can rejoice in the same situation. If he is correct, then God’s joy must be made up of material so strong and sturdy that it can withstand the toughest pain and sorrow that this world can thrash upon us. Trials thus emerge as joy’s greatest and toughest proving grounds.”

Far from treating chronic illness as a pleasant gift or simply pretending it doesn’t matter, the Christians I see fight this curse with courage, but humility. As Scripture instructs believers to “carry one another’s burdens, and in this way fulfill the law of Christ”, believers in Christ are humble enough to seek and accept help and practical expressions of love from others when they are most needed. pic3When Altin was diagnosed with cancer, he and his wife were grateful for the much-needed support of friends and church family that came in the form of cards, letters, prepared meals, and assistance with other needs as they arose. After months of grueling treatments to get the disease under control, Altin and his wife hosted a joyful “No More Chemotherapy” party attended by many friends. This marked a milestone of success, but as with many chronic diseases, the battle continues.

Caring for Caregivers

When life is disrupted by serious illness, it is not just the patient who needs support and care – but often his or her spouse or family as well. While Elena speaks sincerely about her steadfast faith in God, it is impossible not to notice the exhaustion on her daughter’s face. Early morning hospital appointments, 24-hour care for a sick parent, child or spouse, and the stress of waiting for conclusive test results are a daily reality for family members. Do you have a family member who has fallen ill? Here are some suggestions to help you in your battle:

·         Learn about your loved one’s diagnosis, and get to know his medical care team. Each member of the medical group will have specific responsibilities, and you will want to become acquainted with each one.

·         Share the responsibilities of caregiving with other people. It will be overwhelming to try and do everything alone; learn to ask for help when you need it.

·         Take care of your own health. You need to get sufficient sleep, eat healthy food and drink enough water in order to have the energy you need to help your sick loved one.

·         Find ways to relax and relieve stress. It is not selfish to make time for yourself – relaxation will help you mentally and physically prepare for each day’s challenges.

·          Try not to take anything personally. Sometimes, your sick loved one may be upset or frustrated, and you may feel unappreciated. Do not forget that your loved one truly appreciates you and all you are doing, even if it is not always said.

·         Let your loved one be in control. You do not have to make all the decisions and plans; whenever possible, let your loved one be in charge of his or her experience with treatment.

Small Gestures that Mean a Lot

“Doviana” cares for her son, a man in his early 30’s, who has had a painful condition creating a large tumor on his hip for several years. While dealing with the challenges of her own chronic illness (Multiple Sclerosis), Doviana and her son take an eternal perspective: “Everyone has an expiration date; some of us are simply more aware of it than others.” Faced with possible amputation, he lives with constant pain but possesses an unshakeable faith. “Physical problems can take you down spiritually faster than anything else,” Doviana says, and points out that many well-meaning people simply don’t know how to approach tragedy. “We have learned patience, and don’t judge people who don’t know how to respond. Most people who ask a chronically-sick person ‘how are you?’ don’t really want to know how they are, but we have learned to give gracious answers, because we realize that [we] may be their first experience with serious illness,” she explains.

Simply knowing that others care and are praying for them – or receiving small but tangible gestures of compassion – often lifts the spirits of patients who are fighting serious or long-term illnesses. Doviana found comfort in meeting with another woman from her church who had cancer, talking about the day-to-day difficulties they each faced, and praying together.

When Illness Leads to Serving Others

In 2006, “Albina” was diagnosed with breast cancer. Fortunately, it was caught early enough to be cured; but the road to recovery was a difficult one. Although initially Albina felt abandoned, the new church she attended let the congregation know (through an email prayer chain) what she was going through and what help she could use. “The results were amazing,” she said. “Cards, meals, phone calls (at least weekly from the pastor). The cards came almost every day, and I still have them. To have a physical item to show that someone was thinking of you and praying for you meant so much.” Because this support from other people was so crucial to Albina during her recovery, she started to reach out to others facing the same ordeal. In 2006, the same year she was diagnosed, she started a ministry called “Haven of Hope”. At her own expense, Albina has been sending encouraging letters, cards and books to people battling cancer for the past 11 years. “I have 3 scrapbooks of notes from people telling me how much it means. [The money] comes from designated offerings and income I get from selling tote bags. The sewing only cost me my time, because the fabric has all been donated,” she said. A small thing like a letter or uplifting booklet can make the day of a frightened cancer patient just a little bit brighter, and give them renewed hope.

When facing a potentially life-threatening illness, life for a patient can revolve around hospital visits, waiting for test results, and medication. Yet a person’s health cannot be measured purely in physical terms, and maintaining one’s emotional and spiritual health is possible even when circumstances are bleak. Working towards personal goals (whether teaching grandchildren; writing a book; gardening tomatoes or encouraging other patients likewise struggling) is important to a chronically-ill patient, as it takes the focus off of his/her disease and helps them focus on a normal life. And there is no replacement for simple human compassion; often expressed in the simplest of ways that cost very little.

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-19)

 

 

White Privilege, Patriarchy, and Reaching the Tuna on the Top Shelf

By Marie O’Toole

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The term ‘white privilege’ has been lighting up the Twittersphere, the blogosphere, and just about every other media-sphere lately. Many of us (white people) – perhaps most –  have not really grasped what it means (or doesn’t mean), nor how it applies to us…or what the connection of ‘privilege’ to ‘power’ is.

First, to define what the term is not: when someone speaks of a pervasive ‘white privilege’, it is neither an indictment nor a blanket accusation of all whites being racist. It is not ‘reverse prejudice’, nor a guilt-trip imposed by disenfranchised minorities against what they perceive as a counter-culture. What is meant by the term (as I’ve recently come to understand) is that the very fact of being a non-minority affords us the luxury of being ambivalent to common (although often subtle) struggles or injustices minorities face. It has nothing to do with affirmative action, Louis Farrakhan, or quota laws. It has more to do with day-to-day snubs, covert racism, and just plain weirdness that non-whites encounter in daily life. Because we whites* are not subject to exactly the same types of slights and problems, we’re more or less unaware that they even exist. (I dislike the term “micro-aggressions”, because it calls to mind spoiled college kids whining about not having fat-free soy lattes in the dining hall, but you may use it to discuss white privilege if you like. To me the term “micro-agression” sounds petty, and it’s really not pettiness we’re describing here.)

Having grown up in progressive New England, from personal experience I can’t recall ever personally witnessing an incident of overt racism. (Which isn’t to say it doesn’t exist; just that I’ve never seen it). Friends who have lived down South, however, tell a different story. In explaining white privilege, Lori Lakin Hutcherson, a very articulate writer, told of the time her family moved into an upper-middle-class (predominantly white) neighborhood, and their swimming pool became the target of rock-throwing. Excelling academically in high school, she attended Harvard University – and experienced surprised looks and comments from many people who would never have reacted in such a way to a white student matriculating to Harvard. Jemar Tisby, president of the Reformed African American Network and PhD student from Mississippi, describes being out for ice cream with friends and being circled by the police – presumably because they were all black. There was no reason for law enforcement to be there, and they wouldn’t have been there at all had the ice cream-imbibers been white. A white group out for a snack would never even think of the police casing them. Yet for minority males, it is often standard operating procedure.

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‘American Privilege’ or ‘Tallness Privilege’ as an Allegory

A very illuminating explanation of ‘white privilege’ was posted on Quora by Omar Ismail, a stand-up comic of Middle Eastern descent, in which he compared being white to being tall. There are some inherent advantages, and no one is blaming you, but denial or defensiveness is pointless.

Neither I nor anyone in my immediate family has a racist bone in our body, so I can sincerely say that I am ‘colorblind’ and have always believed that achievement is based on merit alone – and nowhere in the world are academic and professional achievements more equal opportunity than here in the United States. But the more I learn about the subtlety and complexity of the issue, the more I think of ‘white privilege’ as being somewhat akin to what I experience when traveling, as an American, in Europe (well, Eastern Europe anyway). When people realize I am an American, their countenances often change. They are suddenly more interested – as if my life experience and humanity is somehow more valuable because I am from the US. (I am not, of course, talking about Paris – where those in the ‘hospitality industry’ are notorious for being douche-waffles to Americans). And yes; we all know that there are scams and muggings and people/organizations ready to take advantage of Americans abroad, but that is not what I’m talking about here. I’m trying to describe the overly-attentive attitude of the average Joe on the street.

When I am in a hotel or visiting a friend, for example, locals immediately warm up to me and want to know about my family, job and life in America. They compliment pictures of my children; ply me with chocolate and coffee; and seem delighted that I enjoy their country. It’s not that I would get a ‘special price’ on a room, or preferential seating in a restaurant, but the general treatment is such that if I were a Turkish or Liberian or Chinese woman, I know that I would not receive the same level of interest. I intuitively know that if I were to complain about something (which I wouldn’t), the problem would be fixed much more quickly. It is subtle, but such is ‘American privilege’. It is something I neither court nor exploit, but it exists.

Privilege Equals Power

The important thing to realize in the discussion about ‘white privilege’ is that no one is asking anyone to feel individual or collective guilt. No one is looking for tokenism; and no one wants to be condescended or pandered to. The minorities who articulate this hidden reality ask simply that more melanin-challenged folks accept that there are, inherently, perks to being white in the sense that we will not experience the same type of race-based bias which they often do. And by accepting this, we may develop two things:

  • A realization that being part of a majority group (or culturally more entitled, however unofficially) axiomatically yields power, to some degree;

 

  • Acknowledging this inherent power can foster either a sense of empathy for those outside the dominant group, or a sense of entitlement that breeds contempt.

The Golden Rule of Power

A saying goes, “He who has the gold makes the rules”, and nowhere is this truer than in politics. But it is also true in a metaphorical sense, because society functions according to a set of unwritten rules. When someone is seen as “other”, he or she may try unsuccessfully to break into a circle only to be excluded due to factors beyond his or her control. For example, the affirmative action policies in education that were first implemented in the 1970’s and ‘80’s have served to level the playing field for everyone in terms of obtaining a quality education (in theory, at least. There are countless communities in such abject poverty that affirmative action only serves to promote….integrated poverty). But even taking the rosiest possible view of equal educational opportunities, minority kids and teens are more often bullied on school busses and hear racist remarks than their white counterparts. This is a power-play at the earliest level.

Recently, I was talking with my friend Amos (go read his blog too!) about this privilege-power dynamic, and how those in privilege (speaking broadly here) tend not to even realize the inherent power it serves them, because we are oblivious to how ‘the other side’ experiences it. He compared it to a woman experiencing sexism or harassment in the workplace (which I would offer is a much rarer occurrence nowadays than racially-based covert aggression). Men cannot understand the vulnerability and “dirtiness” a woman feels when being oogled by a stranger; and in fact, a male bystander probably wouldn’t even notice it if the encounter doesn’t become verbal. That, by nature, is power: being so insulated from such experience that one doesn’t even have to consider it happening to them.

In The 48 Laws of Power, a cynical and matter-of-fact analysis of how power (and subsequently ruthlessness and hubris) is built, author Robert Greene states “Preach the Need for Change, but Never Reform too much at Once” as law # 45. Many demagogue leaders, followers of the majority, and even pastors do exactly this – pay lip-service to a sociological problem; vow to change it; and do “a whole lot of nothing”. It might negatively impact them (or at least their popularity among followers) to upset the apple cart, so it is easier and more beneficial to maintain the status quo.

And if it hasn’t happened to me, it must not really be happening, right?

Conditioned to Believe: When the Voiceless are Further Silenced

Let’s all keep quiet; keep our heads in the sand; and pretend no one is in a more vulnerable position than us or even being victimized. This same power dynamic has led to a culture of silence regarding oppression (both racial and sexist) in patriarchal authoritarian churches. As I wrote about in my soon-to-be-released book, Fractured Covenants: The Hidden Problem of Marital Abuse in the Church, the authority structure in such religious groups puts and keeps the “right” people in power; while silencing all others – especially dissenters. Women not only have the deck stacked against them (Ephesians 5:22 is typically used as a catch-all conversation stopper), but interestingly, it is often other women who are the loudest proponents of their own oppression. Women such as Lori Alexander, Debi Pearl and others work tirelessly to keep women in bondage to man-made rules, confining them to the house, and often trapped in abusive marriages. In fact, I found it both interesting and ironic that during my own ordeal of being harassed and slandered by the leader of the high-control religious group I left, it was predominantly the men who contacted me to express empathy and support. Both current and former male members of the religious group, as well as male colleagues in the biblical counseling world, were horrified by the leaders’ victimization of me and were nothing but compassionate; and while many women were as well (especially those who had known me for years), they were less vocal. And the two most vitriolic, hateful attacks I received for speaking out about the spiritual abuse were from other women. Both of whom had been in abusive marriages years prior, and divorced.priv3

I have a theory as to why this is. Women in the evangelical subculture have such a limited voice and sphere of influence that they will compete for ‘power’ any way they can (I have seen this happen among jealous ladies’ bible study leaders), and one of the main ways they can garner respect (and therefore a form of psychological ‘power’) is by backing up whatever prominent male Christian leaders espouse. I have sat in on workshops at biblical counseling conferences that, in essence, conditioned women to enable emotional abuse from their husbands. Many of these ladies take complementarian teaching to extremes their male counterparts would never dare. They become sycophants servant-leaders to Scripture-twisters powerful male church leaders who keep their sisters oppressed.

It’s a classic, dysfunctional case of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” I am not the first woman to notice this: No Longer Quivering author Vykie Garrison has described how women in the Patriarchy movement actually believe that they are “choosing” a life of servitude and inequality, and in a Stockholm syndrome-like way, are actually “joyful” about it. Godly men, who are aware both of their inherent power and how it has been abused, strive for mutual respect and honor among the sexes.

‘Denial’ is Not Just a River in Egypt

So what has this to do with ‘white privilege’, unchecked power, and how it (overtly or covertly) oppresses the more vulnerable group? One common denominator is that denial of the problem exacerbates it. The harder the pushback, the stronger the defensive attitude of the prevailing party. A national example of this is the resurgence of ‘white nationalism’ under the current administration. The KKK and white supremacist movements (small as they may be) do not exist in a vacuum. When there is mass push-back to what a large group is experiencing, and that push-back is rooted in denial (and even the absurd counter-claim that the minority group is actually receiving greater dividends or privilege than the majority), contempt is bred. Rather than attempting to walk in another’s shoes, see and empathize with their very valid and objective experiences, denial creates straw-man arguments and stirs up even more contention.

Privilege exists among the elite, and you need not be wealthy to be ‘elite’. Privilege carries with it inherent power in its own sub-culture, whether it be an upper-class ‘white’ neighborhood, a homogeneous corporate environment, or a church where women are allowed no voice. When you are a member of the ‘in’ group – the upper-hand majority, in whatever context that may be – simply realizing and acknowledging the relative strength of your position (rather than denying there are certain benefits to your status) helps guard against an imbalance of power. Closing our eyes and pretending that there is no difference in access to the “top shelf” is the opposite of empathy. The (Anglo-Saxon) concept of noblesse oblige, written about during the Renaissance by Machiavelli, demands that those born into a more privileged position in society help those who weren’t to reach the tuna on the top shelf.

priv2There is plenty of tuna for everyone, and no one need have a monopoly on the tuna. Tuna seekers, regardless of race or gender, should not be shamed into silence – either for speaking out against tuna-hoarders, or for asking for assistance in reaching those high-up cans. Listen to those who struggle for tuna. Empathize with their experience, even if it is not your own and you have no frame of reference. And as we learn to empathize with those who have had different challenges than us since birth, may it make us more compassionate rather than defensive.

 *(I do think that to some extent, however, we should narrow the term ‘white privilege’ to ‘native-born American white privilege’. Caucasian immigrants – especially ones with heavy accents – deal with many of the same problems that US-born people of color do, but that is the subject for another blog post. Probably a LENGTHY one.)

Surviving and Thriving – Jen Grice Provides Encouragement for the Journey (Review)

Grice_coverby Marie O’Toole

After turning in the first draft of my own manuscript to the publisher, I was very pleased to review Christian author, speaker and homeschooling mom Jen Grice’s excellent book, “You Can Survive Divorce: Hope, Healing and Encouragement for Your Journey”.

So much of what is offered to abused and/or divorced Christian women is anything but hopeful; impedes healing by fostering shame; and even if well-intentioned, is often discouraging.

Far from accepting labels that divorced Christians are “damaged goods”, like any good Christian counselor, Grice starts off by offering the reader hope. She starts by comparing the pain of a failed marriage to Joseph’s story in Genesis 37. She emphasizes that what was a brutally painful and life-changing ordeal can be used by God for good, and to enable her to not only survive but thrive and minister to others in similar situation

In first chapter, she points out that the platitude “Time heals all wounds” is a fallacy – many women are still holding onto wounds and unable to heal, even years (or decades) after their divorces.

“Where could I turn with all of the hemorrhaging pain? Who would heal me?” was a question she often struggled with herself.

Grice does not deny the unique pain that ending a destructive relationship causes. Insightfully she states:

“We cannot bypass the process by using the world’s comforts. That only delays the process and often sets us back, because we add more pain we have to then face, once we finally deal with it. Grief is just put on hold when trying to “move on” while still healing. Not only does taking baggage into a new relationship hurt the relationship, but after that rebound relationship ends, the already hurting heart is hurting ten times more.”

Going straight to the source of healing and restoration, she compares the visceral pain to the woman with a bleeding disorder in Matthew 9:20-22 who desperately sought out Jesus. Time is not a healer, and healing will not be a “one-time thing”, she cautions the reader.

Grice also gives practical advice regarding new relationships:

“Many jump into dating too quickly without healing and dealing with their own issues first. I’ve seen countless women remarry only to divorce a second time shortly thereafter. This is because unhealthy people are drawn to unhealthy people. If you were in an unhealthy relationship in the past, the chances of getting into another unhealthy relationship are much higher. We gravitate toward what we know to be “normal……and if He allowed you to escape from oppression the first time, He doesn’t want to see you go back to that same situation again. Trust Him to guide you into this new chapter of life.”

Grice candidly shares a little of her own hardship and acknowledges: “I had felt for too long that if my husband was able to reject me in such a cruel way, multiple times, I was just that unlovable. I was tired of feeling worthless and unaccepted.” This is a common emotional struggle women in abusive marriages experience. “While married, I would often feel bad for even breathing, not understanding that my Maker, who saw me as His masterpiece, had loved me since before I even started breathing.”

Grice reminds the reader of the continual, unconditional love God has for His daughters – even when they don’t feel it. He changes the identity we put on ourselves, by making us truly know how accepted in the beloved we are.

Re-iterating the cliché-sounding “God loves you” for a woman going through the pain of divorce is crucial to her healing, because subconsciously the pain and rejection common to our marital experience makes us question (on an emotional if not intellectual level) God’s personal love for us. Trusting God to want to heal us cannot happen without a deep-rooted assurance of His love, which sounds too good to be true during such a brutal season. Grice puts it this way:

“During my lowest points, I understood “God loves you,” but I didn’t feel that in my heart. My heart was filled with words said to me and about me, throughout my entire life, which sought to tear me down. The words left scars that turned into voices that told me I wasn’t worthy. They were words I believed about myself.”

After the crisis she was in made her tell God she was “done” with Christianity, Grice felt the Holy Spirit intercede on her behalf:

“Just then I started feeling a lot of love and compassion I had never felt before. I had been a confessing Christian for over fifteen years, but it was in that moment that I finally felt I was loved and accepted. It felt as if my daddy was looking down on me, chuckling, saying, “I know you didn’t mean that! I still love you so much, my child.”

Beloved Daughters of the King

Emphasizing that God sees past our pain and into our hearts, Grice transitions to what it really means to be daughters of the King and how that should shape our identities, rather than focusing on the hurtful labels others have put on us (and we have come to believe about ourselves) or the hardships of our circumstances. While it is difficult to focus on the Cross when worried about health insurance and paying the bills, remembering that earth is not our home and God has numbered the hairs of our heads should calm our hearts, as it did Grice’s during the early stages of her divorce and subsequent healing.

In Chapter 3, Grice writes about appropriate self-care (and cautions against numbing the pain rather than working on the healing).

“Self-care had never been in my vocabulary. I was told I was selfish for wanting to do things for myself…..But all the psychological abuse I had endured, plus the stress and feeling totally overwhelmed, had taken its toll on my body. Putting everyone else first was killing me from the inside out, and I knew I would die if I didn’t start seeing myself as equally important as everyone else.”

She discusses others’ expectation that we should heal on a certain time-table, and feeling rushed through grief. These expectations often lead to a temptation to self-medicate with drugs, alcohol or food (rather than walk through the grief process with God). Self-care, rather than self-hatred, enables us to love others and to serve God. Drawing these truths together, Grice effectively demonstrates how the reader may walk through a life-altering situation back into an effective life that glorifies God and edifies others (which she refers to as “producing ripe fruit”).

Dealing with toxic people by remaining calm is important way of keeping one’s stress level low, as is spending time with God, which impacts health and other relationships. Self-education on abuse issues or other aspects of healing is another practical suggestion Grice makes, as is setting healthy boundaries and closing social circles to ensure healthy, edifying relationships are in place.

Survival Strategies

The early days after a divorce are mere survival – doing the bare minimum to get by, numb, before crashing into bed to do it all over again the next day. Extreme exhaustion and the pain of grief controls one’s life in this stage. “Now is the time to get your household in order,” Grice advises, “before the kids get used to pushing over mom and manipulating the situation…Be consistent and intentional in how you’re working through the issues and reclaiming your home and your family.”

While not denying your feelings or exhaustion, this is imperative to “making progress each day toward the goals of healing your life and your home, while giving yourself grace as you move from merely surviving to enduring, and then to thriving.” Grice recommends continuing to eat as a family, pray, read the Bible together, and to call family meetings to establish ground rules for the new home situation as ways of maintaining order, normalcy, and continuing to rely on God during this difficult season. Each child should contribute in age-appropriate ways to the smooth running of the new household, which enables them to also feel a sense of responsibility and stability.

Creating (and sticking to) a budget is an important consideration for all single mothers, and as Dave Ramsey suggests, establishing an “emergency fund” should be the first step. Most newly-divorced mothers find that they now have no support system, including from their churches (which they have often had to leave). The Christian support group, DivorceCare (which I was also a part of), is a very helpful resource for newly-single mothers finding their way. Sacrifices, as well as government assistance, may be in order. As fathers will often have more means to provide the children with “treats” during this time, Grice admonishes guilt-plagued mothers to avoid competing for the children’s acceptance but rather to stand their ground on financial matters.

Helping the Children

While relying on support and making practical strides towards order and financial independence, Grice spends considerable time considering how to help the children of divorce suffering behind the scenes. This is a very important consideration, often overlooked in resources geared towards struggling women. While acknowledging that parents are not responsible for the choices adult children of divorce make, Grice reminds the reader that God loves our children even more than we do, and to seek Him in the day-to-day parenting choices we make to help our children through their unresolved trauma and pain.

“If you want to heal and grow as a family, and help your children to move on to be healthier adults, then you need to seek God to help you be the best parent you can be while working on your own emotional healing and growth.”

Often unable to identify their own feelings, younger children may regress in their development and older ones act out, unconsciously feeling guilt that they were part of the reason for abuse and/or divorce, or blaming the innocent parent for the separation. (Divorce Care for Kids, offered in many churches, helps provide a safe community for children to identify and articulate their feelings). Creating a safe haven in the new home where children are safe to vent and are protected from “triggers” (including violent media; unhelpful practices or new boyfriends/girlfriends) is part of the healing process for children, and re-building trust through honesty and communication (without tearing down the other parent) is crucial. Teaching our children to have healthy boundaries in all of their own relationships is part of preventing the cycle from replaying out in the next generation.

Accepting the path before her for a newly-single woman means not only embracing God’s future for her, but also trusting that God will “parent” her children in the ways she cannot control even after she has done her best to lead them.

Being Stuck in the Desert

“I heard a pastor once say (paraphrasing), “God closed the Red Sea not only to save the Israelites from the Egyptians who were chasing them, but also so that they had no passage back to their oppressors.” God knew they would think it easier to go back. Many separated or divorced women feel that as well because of guilt and shame. They get stuck in the desert because they’re unable to see God’s plan or purpose, even for their divorce.”

Understanding God’s heart for the oppressed and those cast aside leads to the trust necessary to let Him bring us out of the desert, and into the new life He has prepared for us – not merely to survive; but to thrive in His service. The “Red Sea” door has been closed; notwithstanding the judgement of others, a woman in such circumstances must learn to trust and lean on God alone for her vindication and direction. Wasting nothing, God puts the pieces of shattered lives back together so that His daughters who have been through this painful desert may be a witness and source of strength to their sisters walking the same path. “Giving the past purpose is part of your healing,” Grice writes. “Divorce doesn’t define who you are in Christ. And those who walk in the light will never walk in darkness again.”

Grice’s words to women in destructive marriages or who have been through divorce speak life and healing. It is refreshing to see a Christian author speak so candidly about the raw pain one experiences at the tearing of a “one flesh” union, regardless of circumstances; yet she refuses to leave it there. Drawing on her own experiences and those of other women she has counseled, Grice infuses the reader with hope and an unwavering commitment to the Word of God. She continuously leads the reader back into the arms of the Father she may have felt abandoned her, reminding her that her strength comes from Him alone – not the opinions of others; false identities she has applied to herself; another man; or any other ‘empty cistern’ that may give her temporary relief.

Both in this book and on her blog, jengrice.com, Grice uses Scriptural principles to guide hurting women to re-claim their identity in Christ, no matter how long they have been in the desert. She guides against bitterness, gives helpful practical advice, and gently exhorts the reader with Scripture passages to strengthen her on this hard journey. Renewing an unwavering trust in the God Who loves her is the key to renewing strength, reclaiming joy, and thriving in ministry for a Christian woman post-divorce. This book is a valuable resource not only for these women, but also for counselors and families of divorced women in order to learn better how to love them as Christ does. It is a privilege to review and recommend it.

Dad’s $0.02 on the Armenian Genocide (Guest Post)

armenian_genocide_intent_to_destroyA couple of years ago, on the 20th anniversary of the Serbian massacre in Srebrenica, Bosnia, I wrote about the Bosnian Genocide of 1992 – 1995 when a quarter of a million Bosniaks were wiped out, tortured and imprisoned in concentration camps. (Another 200,000 fled or were unaccounted for). In the middle of Europe. At the end of the 20th century.

What astonished me then, as well as now, was how few people in general (and Americans in particular) seemed to remember the horrible tragedy, a mere 20 years after it happened. Equally few remembered Kosovo. The same year the world commemorated the 70th year liberation of Auschwitz with the famous cry “Never Again”, we were already forgetting much more recent history.

It DID happen again. And again.

Before the Jewish Holocaust, there was the Armenian Genocide. Hitler famously used people’s collective short attention spans when he scoffed “Who today remembers the Armenians?” in preparation for his “Final Solution”.

Yesterday, my father (who is a World War II expert historian and has once before achieved near rock-star status among the readers of this blog) wrote me a letter about the Armenian Genocide, which was recently portrayed in a movie starring Christian Bale, “The Promise”. (Since we couldn’t see it in the theatre, we saw “The Zookeeper’s Wife” instead – an excellent family film that follows the Nazi invasion of Poland and a family that rescued over 300 Jews.) I would have like to be able to review “The Promise”, but as it highlighted a tragic part of history (still denied by the Turkish government), I decided to share his letter instead.

At one Armenian center after another, throughout the Ottoman Empire, on a certain daye (and the dates show  sequence), the public crier went through the streets announcing that every male Armenian must present himself forewith at the government Government building….The men presented themselves in their working clothes, leaving their shops and work-roos open, their plows on the fields, their cattle on the mountainside. When they arrived, they were thrown without explanation into prison, kept in batches, roped man to man along some southerly or southeasterly road. They had not long to ponder over their plight for they were halted and massacred at the first lonely place off the road.

– Viscount Bryce, “The Treatment of Armenians”, 1916

“Marie –

Even though we’re not seeing “The Promise” today, I’ve written down a few observations about the Armenian Genocide 1915 – 1921, which cost 1 ¾ million Armenians, of both sexes and all ages, their lives.

Although Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were under the rule of the Ottoman (Turkish) Sultanate, from the time of the fall of Constantinople in mid-15th century they and the Jewish population had been not only tolerated by the Muslim government but often their administrative talents had been recognized and appreciated. A number held posts of importance in the Ottoman Empire’s governmental bureaucracy, without their Christian religion being an impediment in any way.

So too it was in Moorish Spain – El Andulus; today’s Andalusia, where the Muslim government scrupulously respected the freedom of religion of the Christian and Jewish communities (“millets”) recognized, along with Muslims, as “Peoples of the Book”.

I don’t fully understand, in light of the above, just why the Armenian Genocide took place when and where it did. Perhaps the fact that the Ottoman Turks allied with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in WWI, AND the part of historic Armenia, north of Ararat, was coming under Russian-Leninist influence in 1917-1919 had something to do with it. [Even in 1946-47, Stalin made threats against Turkey hinting at a possible invasion. The Turkish reply? In effect: “Come if you dare, but be prepared to pay a terribly high price.”  “Uncle Joe” Stalin backed down.]

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Turkish official tormenting starving Armenian children with bread

A book on the Armenian Genocide: The Slaughterhouse Province (“Vilayets” in Turkish) came out, I think about 25 years ago. Available from Worcester Public Library – the main one downtown. Its impact in part, and its credibility derive from the fact that the U.S. Consul to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morganthau, Sr. and his Armenian “manservant” left the country with a number of photos of murdered Armenians – men, women and children – by the hundreds, especially in northeastern Turkey, around Lake Van. Morganthau, of course, had diplomatic immunity, which enabled him to avoid any kind of luggage search when the two men exited Turkey.

Dr. Deranian, a friend of mine, now deceased, gave me the enclosed photocopy – sorry about the rather poor reproductive quality! He urged me, years ago, to become better informed about the Armenian tragedy. I regretfully assured him that my hands were completely full with my years of “total immersion” in the Holocaust. I think he understood.

Final note: Abe S., (“Uncle Abe” to you three kids) was one of the lucky ones – his parents escaped to Smyrna (now Izmir) on the Ionian Coast where he was born in 1923, then coming to NYC as a small child.

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY!!

~ Dad”

Spreading Your Wings – Even When They’re Broken

Spreading Your Wings – Even When They’re Broken

By Marie O’Toole (formerly Notcheva)

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We are so thankful to Marie for writing a guest post just for our ministry! We have long since supported and respected Marie for all she has endured. Marie is the author of “Redeemed from the Pit” and “Plugged In: Proclaiming Christ in the Internet Age”. She is also a trained counselor, who is now focusing her ministry on helping emotionally abused women. She is currently writing a third book – on abuse women endure, and the Church’s failure to address it.

 

 

Fourteen months ago today, I stepped into the kitchen of my new home – a two-bedroom apartment – to find that my landlady had left me a case of rice pilaf, hot cocoa and eggnog mix, a bottle of steak sauce, and tins of chocolate cookies for my children. It was, by far, the kindest gesture any Christian made towards me during the painful month of my divorce.

My landlady, a woman approximately twenty years my senior, understood first-hand the stigma of being a divorced Christian woman. Happily married now to a loving man, Cheryl had also gone through the pain of betrayal and subsequent difficulty that comes with suddenly finding oneself a single mom.

Paying it Forward

I realize I am far, far more fortunate than the women helped by Give Her Wings. This is why I support their ministry, not only financially but also by speaking up for abused women and writing about the secondary abuse we often face from our churches. Where the Church has largely failed to help women who have had to escape abusive situations, ministries like Give Her Wings and secular programs have stood in the gap. Fortunately, I have never faced homelessness. I have two degrees; a rewarding and well-paying career as an interpreter, and my children are well beyond the age where they would need childcare. Following months of intimidation attempts by my ex-husband, I was able to hire a lawyer and am now receiving child support. The other “mamas” are not so lucky – I am painfully aware that Give Her Wings is often the only resource standing between them and abject poverty.

During the journey of the last year, however, what I’ve come to appreciate is that moral support and encouragement from other Christians is even more important to “getting back on my feet” than a steady paycheck. And by “feet”, I mean my spiritual groundings. The worst part of emotional abuse is that after time, you start to actually believe you deserve it. Even when we finally wake up, and realize that the abuser is the one with the problem (and not us), the struggle to leave is compounded by those who enable the abuser (and shame the victim, trying to paint her as the villain for standing up to the abuse). All too often, abused women’s churches are guilty of this. Secondary abuse by clergy is insidious, because we have been conditioned to believe these men speak for God. The all-too-common practice of trying to convince women to ‘reconcile’ with unrepentant abusers is a horrible sin, which only compounds the woman’s pain.

When you have left an abusive marriage, it is vitally important to get connected to a loving, Gospel-preaching faith community. Telling women that ‘abuse is never grounds for divorce’ is not biblical, nor is shunning or excommunicating them when they leave. Once the marriage covenant has been broken by abuse, women need godly counsel and compassion that will help restore their identity as daughters of the King. There are many good churches that will do that. Even if you have been hurt by a church, there are others that will help heal your wounds. My current pastor and many people in my church have done just that, and it has been vital both to my healing and to restoring my trust in Christians again.

Coffee and Compassion

Last year, my former pastor harassed me (mainly by email) for 10 straight months following my divorce. The harassment turned to blackmail three weeks before Christmas, when I was threatened with defamation if I refused to repent of the ‘sin’ of leaving my abuser (this was four months after I resigned membership from his church). Exhausted by the 50-60 hour weeks I was working in order to survive, and worn down by the pastor’s constant gas-lighting, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Without his knowing the details of my situation, my new pastor emailed me one morning simply to ask how I was (no one at my former church had ever done that). Alarmed by my answer, he and his wife arranged to meet me at Panera Bread that very afternoon…..where he let me cry and shared the Gospel with me for three straight hours. Two women in the church, around my mother’s age, subsequently ‘adopted’ me. They would often invite me over for coffee in weeks following. At Christmas, I learned that someone had anonymously donated a ‘love offering’ to me so that I could buy my children Christmas gifts.

Throughout the whole ordeal, I was surrounded by strong, Christian friends who lifted me up at my lowest points. Most of them are members of other churches, but all are strong believers. Yet the dichotomy was striking in how one church’s leadership took the stance that I was the one in sin, simply for standing up for myself; whilst another church emulated Christ’s role as a Protector and Defender of the innocent. It would have been impossible to hold onto my faith in God if I had not been embraced by His children in this way. Spiritual abuse can be the most damaging type of all, because it skews your view of God. If an institution claiming to act in His Name is systematically tormenting the weakest and most vulnerable members of His Body, the sheep will be so beaten down that eventually they will leave. In His mercy, Christ has provided true shepherds – like my current pastor – who continuously reveal Him to the hurting. Relentlessly, he takes me back to Scripture to show me how we are all a part of “His Story” and partakers of His grace.

Remembering Our True Identity

One of the most important things my pastor has taught me is simply a “refresher course” on what I’ve often counseled women myself: finding my identity in Christ; and not in the opinion of others. After 11 years serving and fellowshipping at Heritage Bible Chapel, I saw the side-long glances and heard the gossip started by women I had previously considered friends. None of them knew the real story, but at least a dozen women in that church had known (or suspected) I was in an abusive marriage. For months after I left, my former pastor continued to spin his version of the story, even going so far as to Facebook-message friends of mine invitations to have “conversations” about me with him. It seemed the torment would never end.

Yet Pastor David and my other spiritual mentors continuously reminded me that Jesus Himself was unjustly slandered, and to continue to focus on His opinion of me….not that of others. It is a hard lesson to learn, but nothing else will bring us the inner peace and lasting joy in Christ that we so desperately need in trials. He also counseled me to forgive my prior church leadership, who are simply deceived in their hearts. Like Paul massacring early Christians, they actually believe that what they are doing is an act of service to God.

The journey is long, and unexpected roadblocks often come up. The most difficult struggles are not always financial, but rather spiritual. Surviving after divorce, even absent spiritual abuse, is incredibly difficult. No one can do this alone and thrive. There are many who will try to break your wings; do not let them. Seek out instead those who will help you heal, and enable you to soar again on wings of eagles. If you are depressed, get help. Give Her Wings can help you find a safe, Bible-preaching church in your area, and is starting to compile a directory of trained counselors (including myself) equipped to help you. There are many soldiers in this battle, and you are not alone!

A Letter from My Father

dad_letterToday is December 18th. So much has happened in the past week, regarding my former church situation and the legal (not to mention ecclesiastical) implications of their actions and communications with me.

I have refrained from sharing anything on my personal blog about the debacle thus far, although those close to me are well aware of the situation and the relentless bullying of the past 10 months from the lead pastor, Tim Cochrell, which turned to criminal harassment after I legally resigned my membership on September 28, 2016. The Wartburg Watch has done a fine job of re-capping the situation here and here, and the Boston Globe will be picking up the story later this week. (Interestingly, many former members who have been bullied out of HBC – as well as current members who know about my situation and disagree with leadership’s position – have contacted me in writing to express their support.)

On Thanksgiving, my Dad slipped me a letter which was the best articulation of reality that I have seen to date. I feel compelled to share it.

Marie:

Mom showed me a text message [he meant e-mail] yesterday from Pastor Tim to you. On the surface, at least, it read like a tender, compassionate and empathetic “we feel your pain” communication. Reading between the lines, however, PT and his co-pastor and the chapel’s membership, are operating as a self-appointed “kangaroo court”, trying to bind you with golden cords. They are insistently telling you, as pointedly as they dare, how you should conduct yourself; especially PT’s clear implication that you are not willing to bend…he’s trying to lovingly urge “reasonableness” on your part, which in fact means submission to these self-appointed “well-wishers” and caving in to their “loving” demands that you submit to your (ex) husband as a dutiful Slavic wife. BULLFEATHERS!

When Martin Luther was threatened with heresy for criticizing the pope, the sale of indulgences, and other practices enumerated in his 95 theses of protest in 1519; his determination, as expressed in his defiant words: HERE I STAND!…GOD HELPING ME, I CAN DO NO OTHER!!

Stand your ground, Marie.

And that pretty much says it all. Well, not ALL. What’s hilariously ironic is that my father is a practicing Irish Catholic.

Quoting Martin Luther.

To one of those pesky sola-Scriptura types (namely, me).

Ok, that’s funny…..in a vindicating sort of way.

They say “When you’re right; you’re right.”

True, but it’s ever so much more meaningful to have the informed support of family….the ones who were there, and saw, and heard, and observed, and discerned….from the very beginning.

#EndAbuseNow #FightingBack

“Give Her Wings” Giving Hope to Marginalized Mamas

by Marie Notcheva

ghw“Give Her Wings” is a Christian organization very dear to my heart, which began in 2013 by two women wanting to reach out to another woman in need. Run by Dr. David B Cox (DMin, MDiv), his wife Megan (MAR in Pastoral Counseling), Carrie Miller, Tammy Thomas and Laura Dee, “Give Her Wings” exists solely to help women who have had to leave abusive situations. While they offer prayer support for the single mothers they help, and are compiling a directory of trained, Christian counselors willing to minister to them, (hence my involvement with the ministry), their primary focus is on practical help (food; rent; basic necessities) for these women and their children.

This is a hugely needed ministry, as many single mothers are financially vulnerable and may not be able to receive state assistance. The team writes,

Oftentimes, when a woman leaves an abusive marriage, she narrowly escapes with little more than her children and the clothes on her back. Give Her Wings desires to do all they can to help specific mothers who are living in very poor conditions presently.  We want to give these brave ladies a chance to get on their feet . . . to breathe . .. to heal their broken wings and fly free again. The families we support are hurting financially, emotionally, and psychologically. We want to be able to come alongside these precious families and show them that they are not forgotten — not by us and (most importantly) not by God!

This non-profit does not just dole out cash, but rather follows a strict vetting process. Some of the volunteers are called upon to meet personally with women seeking help (referred to as “mamas”) and their children for an interview. They are required to present financial information, and also have to meet the following criteria:

  • Mother and children have little to no child support.
  • Mother and children have little to no parental/family support.
  • Mother and children have little to no church support.

WHOA.

Although I (as a newly-single mother myself) know what it is to worry about money, and wanting to do more for my children, it is extremely hard to imagine this level of hardship.Even without either alimony or child support, I still feel blessed. With the benefit of higher education; a good career; and a joint custody situation where I never have to worry about my children’s material needs (at either residence), I am far more fortunate than these women. (My kids are also older – many of the mamas “Give Her Wings” assists have much younger children, which makes full-time employment difficult if not impossible). I also happen to live in Massachusetts, which has a strong social benefits program (should I ever need it); and supportive family who live locally (should I ever need help). Many, many women are not so fortunate. They face a choice: stay in an abusive (and sometimes dangerous) situation; or poverty. On the approximately $1500/month “Give Her Wings” has coming in from donors, 15-20 single mothers and approximately 40 children are being helped.

Standing in the Gap: Forgotten by the Church

Many of these single-mom families have written testimonies, grateful that a para-church organization exists to reach out to them in their need. In August, one woman cried tears of joy when she was given a microwave – and “Give Her Wings” enabled her to take her children to see their very first movie in a theatre. However, the deep needs are not only material: they are also spiritual wounds. In many cases, the Church has turned its collective back on these women – not only denying the practical help they need when they don’t have money to buy groceries or clothes for their children; but even chastising them for fleeing their ex-husbands. “Divorce” is a taboo word in the Church, and no matter how legitimate the reason, single moms are all too often branded with an invisible “scarlet D”. Like the Samaritan left half-dead by the roadside, single mothers in poverty are frequently ignored, stigmatized, and sometimes even blamed in their plight. They have literally been abandoned by everyone they depended on – and often may feel abandoned by God Himself.

A huge part of “Give Her Wings” is the blog Megan runs, which ministers hope and healing to these hurting women. Megan, herself an abuse survivor, writes extensively about her experiences (such as her first Christmas as a single mom); the prevalence of spiritual abuse; gives updates on the “mamas’” situations; and other topics geared towards helping struggling single moms find hope and encouragement in their circumstances. As a trained Christian counselor, she is able to pour words of life into the hearts of others who are suffering in exactly the same way she has. “They do not speak for God,” she reassures women further hurt by their churches, and pulls no punches:

It is easier to forgive someone because they are wicked and everyone knows it…But, what about the people with “Christians” platforms who have hurt you in the name of Jesus? What about the people who use their platforms to hurt you? What about the men who claim to be special-called-by-God-ministers who have hurt you . . . in the name of Jesus?

A very helpful resource listed on the “Give Her Wings” website is Megan’s own book, “Give Her Wings: Hope and Healing After Abuse”. This is given to each of the “mamas” that the organization assists, and I personally have found it very helpful. Speaking Gospel truth into the lives of the down-trodden, especially those humiliated by abuse (or told that they are ‘in sin’ for fleeing their abusers) is a critical part of helping them get back on their feet. Speaking from experience, I can say that staying close to God is just as important as paying the rent in the months following a separation or divorce, and a strong, compassionate Christian support system is vital to healing.

Specifically at Christmas, “Give Her Wings” ramps up its fundraising efforts in order to provide Christmas gifts for the approximately 40 or so children they serve. Much like “Angel Tree”, these children are provided with gifts through the organization, which is completely funded by donations. Rather than the children of prisoners, these grateful recipients are the children of divorced mothers.

It is heartbreaking reading some of the comments from the women – “It’s hard to think of ‘wants’ when [the children] are cold,” said one. This should not be happening in 21st century America, but it is.

If you wish to make a donation to this life-changing ministry, please visit their site and read their Mission, Blog and testimonies from “mamas”. Especially at Christmas, remember the widows and orphans…..and single moms, struggling desperately to make ends meet.

The Journey of Sonila Potter

This article first appeared in Albanian, in the magazine “Ilira Revista” under the title “Rrugëtimi i Sonila Potter”. 

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By Marie Notcheva

Twelve-year-old Sonila wanted ice cream.

Quietly, she slipped her hands into the pockets of her daddy’s old coat, looking for a bit of money to buy some. What she found instead intrigued her: a metal necklace, with a man attached to a cross. Perplexed, she went to her mother, who was cooking dinner. “What is this, mama? Who is this man?”

Her mother turned from the stove, a look of fear in her eyes. “Where did you find this?” she asked. Sonila’s mother Liliana had good reason to be fearful in 1989: the family had hidden Sonila’s father’s Greek Orthodox background, for fear of punishment under the Hoxha-Alia regime. “Put that back, Sonila! It’s a contraband item,” Liliana warned. “Later, my mother explained to me in secret that the cross portrays Jesus Christ, and that He died for our sins. She told me, ‘If you pray to Him, Jesus will hear you,’” Sonila recalls. “She strictly forbade me to tell anyone about him, because we could all get arrested.”

A Mother’s Quiet Example

Although Sonila had a child’s faith and wanted to know more about this God Who loved her, it wasn’t until she was 15 in 1991 that she was able to hear the Gospel and understand the Person and work of Jesus Christ. “I would pray as a child, when my parents told me about God, but I didn’t have a knowledge of sin,” she says. “In 1991, after the changes started, missionaries were handing out the translated Gospel of Luke at a church in Tirana, and I took one. I was so hungry to read it! There was a prayer in back, and it was as if my eyes were finally opened,” she says. “As I prayed, those words were coming straight out of my heart. Finally, I had understanding and I cried as I confessed my sin to this God I could finally know. I literally felt God’s love wrapped around me.”

Now free to attend church, with her parents’ encouragement, Sonila attended one of the first evangelical churches planted in Tirana. Despite the difficulties of life in the early 1990’s, both Sonila and her brother Genti became followers of Christ in part thanks to their parents’ courage and faith. “My mother was the best counselor for me,” Sonila says. “At the end of her life, when she was suffering from cancer, she told me ‘Don’t cry for me, Sonila. I’m going to see my Shepherd.” It was an example the young woman never forgot, and her mother’s legacy inspired a deep love for God and others in Sonila.

By age 20, she had a passion for missionary work and longed to see the Gospel brought to unreached people groups in Asia and around the world. “By age 20, I barely spoke any English, and I didn’t have much money. I thought, ‘How can God use me, an Albanian girl without English?’ So I prayed that He would simply send someone else,” she recalls. “But God had other plans. That same year (1998) He opened a door for me to serve him in a Christian Youth Hostel in Amsterdam, Holland. I was able to reach out to guests with the Gospel, and misonila1nister to their emotional needs.” At a Christian conference she attended with an American friend, the two decided to be missionaries and served for two months in the Philippines with YWAM (Youth With A Mission). Soon after, Sonila had short-term missionary opportunities in ten different Asian countries, where she served children, teens and young mothers living in extreme poverty.

Study to Show Yourself Approved…

As Sonila’s passion for serving God grew, so did her desire for learning. “The Lord sent me to Bible school in Germany for more training, and a deeper knowledge of His Word,” she says with amazement. With increased proficiency in English by this time, she was able to volunteer as a Wycliffe Bible translator and at Capernwray Bible School in England. “While I was serving in Asia, I developed a concern and compassion for people, but I lacked a broad [doctrinal] knowledge,” she says. “I thought of studying psychology to become a therapist, thinking this was a good way to help people. Fortunately, however, the Bible school offered biblical counseling courses. I read online about the difference between counsel that is biblical, and what psychology is based on…and I really felt tsonila4hat God protected me from going down that road.” Sonila completed a Bachelor’s degree in biblical counseling, and later went on to earn a second degree under Wayne Johnston, the President of the Biblical Counseling and Discipleship Association by doing online courses and studying independently.

Coming to America – the Challenges and Opportunities

In 2006, the man who would become Sonila’s husband was serving in the United States army in Afganistan. Sonila, living in England, “met” Emmett Potter in an online Christian community. Two weeks after their first conversation, Emmett and Sonila met in London. A friendship already in the making, Emmett gave her creationist Kent Hovind DVDs to watch just before she returned home to Albania.

“We stayed in touch for a few months, then Emmett traveled to Tirana for three days and met my family,” Sonila says. “Each time he had vacation time he came to Albania, and we married in November 2007. It took eight months for me to get a visa, but once I arrived in Michigan (USA), we had a second wedding ceremony.” The couple lived for six months in Michigan before moving to Massachusetts, where they have lived for the last seven years. Living out one’s Christian faith in the United States is not easy, and the couple, who now has three small children, has faced challenges.

“In Albania, there is a much greater sense of community; when you have friends as guests in your home, they are almost family,” Sonila explains. “Here, that is missing. There is a coldness, a feeling of detachment – especially here in Massachusetts. The church says it is a family, but people come and go….you rarely see them a second time. There is nothing like that true sense of friendship; of being invested in each other’s lives, like we have in the Balkans. We have been here for so many years, but cannot really feel like part of a church ‘family,’” she says.

Raising children in the knowledge of the Lord is another matter. Christian school is expensive in the United States, and Sonila acknowledges there is peer pressure all around to compromise her family’s convictions. “We do not celebrate Halloween, nor do we teach our children to believe in Santa Claus,” Sonila explains. “The holidays are to glorify Jesus and Him only. Others do not always understand or respect our decision in this regard.” Currently pursuing a Master’s degree in religious education, Sonila has even taught in a Christian school where her convictions have been challenged.

No Compromise Christianity

“I love reading the Puritans,” says the Albanian woman who has a library filled with English-language commentaries. “The writing of Thomas Watson and Thomas Brook are my favorites, and Richard Baxter’s “The Cure for Melancholy” is one we use often in biblical counseling. Today, they preach a ‘soft gospel’. In the past, these great men talked about sin,” she says. “Charles Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers, was not afraid to warn people about evil.” Sonila cites the aversion many American pastors have towards preaching about sin as one of the reasons compromise and moral laxity is such a problem in some American churches.

Nevertheless, it was through coming first to England and later to the United States that God opened many more doors of opportunity for Sonila Potter to serve Him. Nowhere do greater opportunities for theological study exist, which Sonila now uses in her ministry as a biblical counselor. She is able now to minister to other women in two languages, which is a valuable asset (there are 16,000 Albanians living in her state of Massachusetts, and few, if any, Albanian evangelical churches). And by the grace of God, this mother of three is freely able to raise her children in the love and knowledge of God – without having to hide symbols of their faith in coat pockets.ilira_christmas_16

God’s Protection of Women: When Abuse is Worse than Divorce (Review)

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by Marie Notcheva

For several months now, I have wanted to review Pastor Herb Vander Lugt’s booklet, “God’s Protection of Women: When Abuse is Worse than Divorce”. As the senior research editor for RBC (now Our Daily Bread Ministries), Lugt’s 1982 book is a concise, yet exegetically-rich resource biblically challenging the view that divorce is never justified by abuse. Far from being a plea to reason based on emotionalism (or even pastoral experience), Lugt effectively shows how a faulty hermeneutic has led many conservative pastors and churches to teach that Matthew 5:32 is the final and definitive word on divorce.

As a former pastor of mine used to say, “Be careful about basing a doctrine on one verse.” Nowhere is this more obvious than in the thorny endeavor to unpack all of what Scripture has to say about divorce (as well as abuse of different kinds; abandonment; and re-marriage). Wisely, Lugt begins with the assertion that “Moses, Jesus and Paul all recognized a range of marital conditions that are worse than divorce”. (P. 3). He then re-caps historical anthropology of women being treated as property, pausing on the Puritans who were a notable exception:

“In the spirit of the Reformation, Puritans didn’t see marriage as an indissoluble sacrament but as a civil contract that could be terminated if either party did not fulfill fundamental duties of marriage. Although cruelty was not a recognized ground for divorce in the Puritan era, there are those who thought cruelty to a wife was a type of desertion.” (p. 4).

Lugt then proceeds to demonstrate how, even in modern times, women have been overly-subjugated by a misunderstanding of the word “helper” in Genesis 2:18.

“There is no sense in which this word connotes a position of inferiority or subordinate status. The word “suitable for” literally means “in front of”, signifying one who stands face to face with another, qualitatively the same, his essential equal, and therefore his “correspondent” (“Hard Sayings of the Bible, pp. 666-7, IVP, Downers Grove, 1996).”

Before delving into the second section of the booklet, “Protection of Women under the Law of Moses,” Lugt then highlights the fallacy that male domination is a “right” inherited from the Fall — consistent with the rest of Genesis 3, it was a “curse” that, like sickness, thorns and discord, should be resisted and fought.

Mosaic Law

Even the most weak and vulnerable women in Hebraic society — daughters sold as slaves, wives or concubines were protected under the Law of Moses. Quite progressive for its time, Exodus 21:7-11 lists the “three foundations of marital duty” — namely, the provision of food, clothing, and ‘marriage rights’ – often interpreted as affection and marital love. (In fact, the Jewish Ketubah lays these out as a contract, not very much unlike Ephesians 4.)

Breaking these conditions is, in fact, a violation of the marriage covenant. But more significantly, it shows the principle of protection that is seen throughout Scripture, from the lesser to the greater: if God would provide protection and care even for a slave, how much more is owed to a free wife? Verse 11 makes it clear that if the husband fails to fulfill this contractual obligation, he is to “let her go free”. This has been proven conclusively by theologians to mean a formal divorce, the get. Of course, neither rabbis nor Lugt in this apologetic argues that this is the ideal; rather, the Mosaic divorce allowance was given by God for humanitarian means – to protect women from cruelty. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 similarly makes provision for the divorce, protection and remarriage of non-Israelite prisoners of war.

A slightly more obscure passage Lugt addresses in the Mosaic code is Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which he points out would cause a man to think twice before deciding to divorce his wife at will (he was now prohibited from re-marrying her). Worthy of note is that the vague term “uncleanness” in verse 1 does not refer to adultery, which would have carried the death penalty. He was, however, precluded from re-marrying her, which underlines the permanence of the divorce and foreshadows Jesus’ warning in Matthew 19:8 against divorcing one’s wife “for any and every reason”. Divorce was a concession; a last-resort, and not something to be carried out lightly.

“The same law that offers penalties for murder, theft, perjury, and adultery also provides consequences when the purpose and covenant of marriage are broken by contempt and abuse.”(p. 12).

Unraveling Malachi 2:16

After demonstrating the similar intent of protection of both Jesus and Moses, (whose Law Jesus upheld completely during His ministry), Lugt turns toward the most oft-misquoted verse in the Bible regarding divorce: Malachi 2:16 (which he quotes from the New King James Version:

“For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce,
For it covers one’s garment with violence,”Says the Lord of hosts.” 

Compare this rendering with the more accurate, word-for-word translation of the English Standard Version:

“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” (ESV).

While Lugt correctly noted that the prophet was dealing with “treacherous” divorces — men who didn’t care about their wives, and abused their power to abandon them to a live of poverty and disgrace — what he failed to do was address the etymology of that verse. As Barbara Roberts (author ofNot Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion”) has pointed out, the verse is often incorrectly and incompletely translated as “I hate divorce” and used as a catch-all conversation stopper to assert that divorce is never permitted biblically. However, this is neither the correct interpretation nor intention of the passage (written during a time period when male casual divorce was rampant). She writes:

“The incorrect translation came about as follows. The word “hates” in Malachi 2:16 is he hates. The Hebrew denotes third person masculine singular = he. The King James version had For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away. Many subsequent translations switched the third person “he” to a first person “I” without any grammatical warrant. For example, the 1984 NIV was “ ‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel.” Possibly translators thought the switch was okay because it retained the sense of the KJV — that God feels the hatred [for divorce]. They did not seem to worry that “I hate divorce” was grammatically inaccurate to the original Hebrew.

But modern translations are starting to correct this mistake. The construction in Hebrew (“he hates… he covers”) shows that the one who feels the hatred is not God, but the divorcing husband. To be faithful to the Hebrew, the verse could be rendered, “If he hates and divorces,” says the Lord God of Israel, “he covers his garment with violence.” It is talking about a husband who hates his wife and divorces her because of his aversion for her. Therefore, Malachi 2:16 is only referring to a specific type of divorce: divorce for aversion, which could be dubbed “hatred divorce”. Divorce for hatred is treacherous divorce: if a man hates his wife and dismisses, he “covers his garment with violence” — his conduct is reprehensible, he has blood on his hands.[1]

Apart from this omission, Lugt’s treatment of Old Testament divorce laws’ protection and provision for women was solid. He correctly points out (quoting biblical scholar Joe Sprinkle) that the context of Malachi 2:16 is a limited one: taken in accordance with the allowances for divorce made elsewhere in Scripture, it is clearly only certain divorces in certain circumstances to which God is opposed. While upholding the sanctity of marriage, Lugt next turns to the New Testament teaching on divorce to demonstrate how Christ, Moses and Paul’s teachings complement one another.

New Testament Application

The reader doesn’t need to be convinced that Jesus demonstrated a concern and caring for women that went beyond the social mores of the First Century. Nor is it hard to see that the God of Scripture is a Protector and Defender of the weak and downtrodden.  Lugt asks then the rhetorical questions, “Does Matthew 5:31-32 over-ride the provision offered divorced women in Deuteronomy? Was Jesus, by this one statement, disagreeing with Moses?

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32, ESV)

Of course not. Just as with all of Scripture, a correct hermeneutic demands we examine context (Literal-Historical and Synthetic Principle of Scriptural interpretation.) Jesus was, in the Sermon on the Mount, addressing the Pharisees’ specific excesses and “stretches” in interpreting and teaching the Law of Moses. They had added hundreds of laws onto the original Levitical code, and the abuse of the divorce clause in Deuteronomy 24 was no exception. In reality, divorced women of the First Century were disgraced and had few career prospects outside of prostitution. It is not biblically consistent to say that He was contradicting the conditions Moses had set, but is more consistent with the passage that He was forcing the Pharisees to focus on the condition of their own hearts. Relational sin was the point; the one statement was clearly not intended to be the single and final word on divorce (as Paul later demonstrates).

Later in Matthew 19:3-9, Lugt notes, we in fact see the Pharisees trying to entrap Jesus by confronting Him with the Law of Moses on the same subject. While upholding the sacred ideal of the permanence of marriage, Jesus did not disagree with Moses in allowing divorce.

“Commenting on the allowance made for hardness of heart, Dr. Willard notes: ‘No doubt what was foremost in His [Jesus’] mind was the fact that the woman could quite well wind up dead, or brutally abused, if the man could not “dump” her. It is still so today, of course. Such is our “hardness of heart”. Better, then, that a divorce occur than a life be made unbearable. Jesus does nothing to retract this principle….no one regards a divorce as something to be chosen for its own sake…but of course a brutal marriage is not a good thing either, and we must resist any attempt to classify divorce as a special, irredeemable form of wickedness. It is not. It is sometimes the right thing to do, everything considered.” Professor Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, HarperCollins, 1997. pp. 169-70.

Lugt begins his conclusion by demonstrating again how the Mosaic Code and the teachings of Christ on divorce complemented each other. He argues that Jesus was forcing the hypocritical religious leaders of the time to examine their own hard hearts in putting women in danger           (both by abuse and neglect, and unrighteous divorce), as they were actually ignoring Moses’ rabbinical provision for women. Moses had given the Elders of Israel “a legal basis to free a woman from the neglect, contempt, and abuse of a cruel husband” (p. 21). There was no need for Jesus to cite all of these scripturally-valid grounds for divorce, any more than He explained the full Gospel of salvation by faith alone when speaking to the Rich Young Ruler. As Lugt points out, context is crucial. He was not addressing women in distress; He was addressing the self-righteous men who did as they pleased in “putting away” their wives.

Of course, Jesus also didn’t mention the additional circumstances meriting divorce later cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11:

“To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.”

 

Giving these instructions on the basis of Christ’s authority, why is there no mention of the fornication clause? It is evident here that the woman can obtain a divorce (under civil law; for unspecified reasons). And why the no-remarriage clause, Lugt asks, when Paul would have been well-acquainted with Mosaic teaching on remarriage? Lugt argues that the context of chapter 7 suggests Paul was answering specific questions raised by the Corinthian believers about celibacy (advocated by some even within marriage), and about marriage itself. He urges wives not to leave, but as a concession states that they are then to remain unmarried (which brings up another set of questions about divorced Christians re-marrying within the Church, which Lugt doesn’t address). Nor does Lugt address the fact that the New Testament uses the same word for “divorce” as for “separation” – the distinction made by the modern-day church is absent in the pages of Scripture. Nowhere do we see the Early Church pressuring divorced women to “reconcile” with their husbands, under any circumstances.

Conclusion

Lugt’s short book is a helpful resource for pastors, counselors and Christians in abusive or contentious marriages in order to understand God’s original design for marriage; as well as His protection in certain circumstances where divorce is allowed as a concession. Abuse is unequivocally one of these conditions. Actually examining the context and hermeneutic in which certain passages were written is illuminating in dispelling the “abuse is not biblical grounds for divorce” fallacy that exists in some churches, and serves to keep women in bondage. Lugt writes:

“Many…in trying to return to the ideal of marital love and permanence have not seen the wisdom God Himself showed in circumstances of marital abuse….divorce reflects a serious and costly departure from God’s original design. But the solution to the problem is not found in misrepresenting the heart of the law or in ignoring the plight of abused or unloved wives. Neither can we rightly maintain that sexual unfaithfulness or the desertion of an unbelieving mate are the only grounds for a divorce.”  (p. 26).

The brevity of Lugt’s book did not address every possible question that arises from the question of Christian divorce (such as remarriage), and while his exposition of Malachi 2:16 was somewhat lacking, overall “God’s Protection of Women” is an excellently-written and much-needed treatment of an issue that has caused much confusion and additional pain to abused women. It deserves a place in every biblical counselor’s library.

[1] https://cryingoutforjustice.com/2013/10/24/god-hates-divorce-not-always/ Barbara’s book can be purchased at notunderbondage.com or from any book retailer.