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.

The Problem with Church Membership Covenants – bad doctrine hurts God’s people

A modern distinction of the Neo-Cal movement, signed “membership covenants” have no basis in Scripture and are one of the hallmarks of a cult. One of the issues I write about in my upcoming book about spiritual abuse, “Broken Toys”, I was happily surprised to see my friend Tim Fall has already done so.

Tim's Blog - Just One Train Wreck After Another

The Old Testament is full of covenants God made with his people: Edenic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic. If those aren’t familiar to you, don’t worry. The point is that God makes covenants – a type of binding promise – with his people.

Today we live under the new and lasting covenant Jesus established. It had been promised in prophecy centuries before.

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:31-32.)

Under this New Covenant, God enables you to know him intimately.

“This is the covenant I will…

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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.]

Turk_official_teasing_Armenian_starved_children_by_showing_bread,_1915_(Collection_of_St._Lazar_Mkhitarian_Congregation).jpg
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!

The Cost of Being a Brother: A Review of “The Voices of Redlands”

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By Marie Notcheva

Reading The Voices of Redlands, an account of spiritual abuse at a California house church, was an emotional experience.  It affected me on a deep level, and even kicked my maternal instinct into high gear. Primarily narrated through the testimony of former church member, John Baldwin, the story follows the systematic intimidation and subsequent excommunication of several people, most notably John’s friend, Ryan Ashton.

The fellowship in question is known as “Monday Nights,” which meets in the Southern California town of Redlands. Comprised by mainly young adults and led by two brothers, Jared and Seth Gustafson, when the group’s teaching became influenced by “Hyper-Grace” theology, Ryan expressed concern. Hyper Grace, as Ryan found out, is a modern incarnation of the ancient heresy antinomianism and soon led his church family into multiple instances of drunkenness, sexual immorality, naked exhibitionism, and other behaviors as explained in multiple testimonies. Ryan’s voice was dismissed and he was accused of “slander” by the Gustafson brothers, as a transcript of one of the secret meetings shows. (Slander, by definition, must be both untrue and malicious in intent. Ryan’s statements were neither.)

The close-knit community was practically a family to Ryan – the individuals he most loved and trusted. Rather than engaging his concern or encouraging him to continue being a Berean, the group’s leadership convened secret meetings and unilaterally decided there would be no discussion of theology; Ryan was to be ‘disciplined’ for his insubordination; and he was even pressured to receive psychiatric counseling—presuming mental illness where none existed was one way the Gustafsons tried to discredit Ryan.

“Matthew 18” being referenced to excommunicate him, Ryan was told “Don’t quote us unless it is uplifting or encouraging” and was censored from publicly sharing anything the group taught.  Given  a contract to sign outlining his three options: 1) obey (apologize for questioning the leadership and keep silent); 2) be excommunicated; or 3) obey and subsequently leave the community. What followed were months of emails and social media messages between the membership; culminating in a ‘trial’ and  Ryan’s subsequent excommunication.  Monday Night’s members were ordered by the Gustafson brothers to “shun” Ryan or face the same consequences if they had any fellowship or communication with him.

All this because Ryan dared to question Jared’s aberrant doctrine.

Turning on a Brother

It is difficult to convey to outsiders the psychological impact a high-control religious group has on its members, and the tremendous emotional harm that can be done when the group turns on another member. Without support from anyone but the few who gave their testimonies in The Voices of Redlands, Ryan naturally spiraled into depression. The cruelty of this ‘shunning’, coupled with defamation of his character and false accusations took a toll on Ryan’s health in other ways—his weight dropped, clumps of his hair fell out, and he suffered tremendous anguish at losing the only family he had known. As a reader I wanted to intervene and protect this young brother somehow; and call off those who would destroy another’s life in the Name of Christ. Watching God work as John Baldwin’s testimony unfolded was instructive and insightful.

Perhaps because Monday Nights was a house-church and not a mega-church under the leadership of a well-known celebrity, this story and the alarm bells rung by Ryan and John Baldwin have been largely unheeded by Southern Californians. Jared Gustafson is fairly well known among many churches there, but what Ryan discovered and how he was treated has been kept a secret. Until now.  What John’s testimony exposes, far more than the teaching of Hyper Grace, is a form of spiritual abuse that is all-too common to authoritarian churches in this country.

When “Discipline” Becomes Abuse

“Church discipline” are biblical buzzwords that become   weapons in the hands of  some religious groups. Many people might be aware of church discipline cases going awry—as was the case in The Village Church case (a Calvinistic/Reformed congregation), which resulted in its pastor, Matt Chandler, apologizing for their misguided attempt to ‘discipline’ Karen Hinckley for divorcing her pedophile husband.  The Voices of Redlands demonstrates that coercive group-think is not limited to conservative churches. Monday Nights is at the other end of the spectrum, influenced by Bethel Church’s charismatic leanings and two brothers at its center. The Gustafsons have such a magnetic hold over their friends that no one in Monday Nights has an issue with their Instagram posts of nude pool party photos. How the brothers manipulated their friends and other local churches to treat Ryan is only the tip of the iceberg.

In the middle of John’s testimony, Ryan himself provides commentary on “the bystander effect” which is common in abusive situations. The bystander effect is a diffusion of responsibility which leads to collective apathy when an individual is being harmed. Most of the people in this fellowship and their families were swayed not only by Jared’s erroneous teaching, but also forced to disassociate themselves from Ryan. All dissent was censored, and threats of being disfellowshipped were imposed from the Gustafsons. This, perhaps, is the part that bothered me the most: even those who knew him turned the other way when Ryan was thrown under the bus by Jared and Seth.  Their charges against Ryan were not true, as John’s testimony makes clear.

In his interlude “The Anatomy of Spiritual Abuse” on page 66, Ryan writes:

“One of the hallmarks of abusive situations is the many layers of protection and enablement that exist for the abuser…..Circling the wagons in self-protection and stifling dissent are what toxic communities do, not the Body of Christ. Underscoring its insidious nature, whereas physical and emotional abuse is intentional because it is only manipulative, spiritual abuse can be unintentional through distorted biblical beliefs.”

It was these beliefs, and not the individuals, that Ryan confronted. He stood his ground personally, and then publicly, firmly rejecting the antinomian teaching the Gustafsons embraced, expressed concern for young believers being led astray – but was never truly heard by anyone. Instead, Ryan’s character was attacked and all of his relationships were terminated by the Gustafsons. The emotional effect of this was extremely traumatic, as John saw his friend deteriorate. Ryan wrote how even those parents and adults he reached out to marginalized him – “deeming emotions to be unChristian, anger at injustice to be sinful, and even the act of speaking out as gossip” (p. 68). Having been on the receiving end of such treatment in a high-control authoritarian church, I can understand in a small part his sense of betrayal and frustration. I was relentlessly pressured, and threatened with excommunication, for leaving an abusive marriage, thus this observation really resonated with me:

“Victims are often demonized and labeled the aggressor when resisting abuse, while cavalier justifications for inaction allow many Christians to walk past the wounded guilt-free and without offering help, besides maybe flinging a Scripture verse from afar with an air of sanctified indifference…. Jesus bore the Roman whip, yet today the Body of Christ bears lacerations from abusers who revel in the impunity from passive bystanders (p. 68-69).”

One couple involved in Ryan’s life even encouraged him to listen to Bill Gothard’s “Basic Life Principles” to address his “bitterness”. Another couple pressured him to go through The Landmark Forum, a cultic victim-shaming conference that brainwashes people into believing they are responsible for their own relationships falling apart. In these and many ways, the adult Christians in Redlands have dropped the ball in protecting their own children and tried to silence Ryan and John multiple times when all they wanted to do was warn people about what the Gustafsons are influencing Monday Nights to become.

The Healing Power of Forgiveness

Rather than give up, Ryan has relentlessly sought to reconcile with Monday Nights. For three years, he has tried to explain why he was so concerned, and also why Monday Nights’ reactionary defense of the heresy (and shunning of Jared’s detractors) was wrong. Ryan’s was naturally angry and upset with the injustice, but standing his ground, what is astonishing (and speaks well of Ryan’s character) is that his genuine love for these people remains and is the catalyst for this book. He truly does want reconciliation, and has not “written off” Monday Nights at all, despite the unimaginable pain the ‘shunning’ and slander caused him. John Baldwin’s love seeps through the pages, as he and the others testifying through  “The Voices of Redlands” demonstrate in page after page of how many times they tried to get through to their friends, but were disbelieved, dismissed, lied about, and ultimately shunned also. John and Ryan even delayed the book launch for several months when it appeared the leaders of Monday Nights would engage them in conversation. After months of stonewalling, and prayer on the part of the editorial team, the book and website was finally released to warn Redlands and the Church world about how Hyper Grace and spiritual abuse can change even the most sincere and loving of groups into what Monday Nights has become today.

Still, Ryan burns with a love and desire to forgive and reconcile with his abusers. There is not even a hint of bitterness, as many would label those who expose abuse and falsehood. As Ryan himself states:

“My hands are open to whatever is ahead. I have nothing to protect since it was already taken from me. I have no aim in this endeavor besides seeing this situation resolved and healed. I have been at the brink of despair and much worse, yet the fact I remain alive and writing to you all means Jesus already won that battle. All other trials are nothing in comparison. We love Monday Nights and pray for them. I am sincerely grateful to be a brother to them, and to all of you. I am still learning how to be a better brother; how to be tender, speak graciously, and respond with hope. I am here—hands open, heart open, ears open—not to be abused again but to demonstrate my love and the true grace of God.”

The Voices of Redlands  by the end is less an expose of a particular church or errant doctrine than it is a call to action for us all. When standing up for truth is seen as unloving; when victims are coerced into apologizing to their abusers; when sincere believers blindly follow their leaders spinning their version of a story at the expense of an individual, there is a serious problem in the Body. It is to our collective detriment the Christians in Redlands haven’t done more to intervene in Monday Nights, since injustice there is an injustice everywhere. As John, Ryan, and the others make clear, we are all connected, and our indifference to spiritual abuse as a church culture needs to be confronted.

Spiritual abuse takes many forms and is hard to define. John and Ryan take pains to describe it, so even those not directly involved in similar situations can discern it. “The bystander effect” has unknowingly lulled too many Christians into paralysis. It is never the wrong time to stand up and defend one of our own. Telling this painful story took enormous courage for these Voices of Redlands.  I am grateful to John Baldwin and the eight other witnesses for telling the truth about what is happening in Redlands. Ryan Ashton is just one of the many Christians who has been blacklisted and blackmailed into silence, yet he chose to not only speak up, but pursue reconciliation with his abusers. His quest deserves to be read, and this wake-up call needs to be heeded.

“The Voices of Redlands” is available as a free download here.

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”. 

sonila2

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)

protection

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.

The Culture of Abuse in Christian Slavic Marriages

slavic-marriages

Last weekend, my daughter and I attended a three-day Christian Slavic women’s retreat. Predictably, discussion turned to Lyuba Savenok, who was brutally murdered by her husband Yeveginy in May 2016 after years of verbal and physical torment. Both Lyuba and her husband were active members of their Minnesota church, to whom Lyuba had reported the abuse before filing a restraining order. What makes the Savenoks’ story so tragic is not just the shocking nature of the crime, but rather how familiar her situation was to many women married to Slavic men.

“Honestly, with all my awareness of domestic abuse in Christian homes, I’m still taken aback at the number of Slavic women dealing with this,” said “Irina.” “So many of our sisters don’t know where to turn. They’ve been burned by negative experiences of seeking help in their churches.”

It is estimated that one in four Christian couples will experience at least one incident of physical abuse in their marriage, although spousal abuse of all forms tends to be under-reported among the Slavic community. The women discussing this problem cited embarrassment, hopelessness that their husbands will change, and victim-blaming as reasons. While violence (sometimes related to alcohol abuse) remains high among the general population in Slavic countries (particularly in Russia, Poland, and the Ukraine), one would assume the problem to be much lower among professing Christians. Sadly, this is not the case.

The Church’s Denial of the Problem

“Our Eastern European culture here in America and overseas has given men the authority to verbally, physically, emotionally, and sexually abuse their spouses and daughters,” writes Ukranian-American pastor Paul Muzichuk. “The position women have been cornered into is one of domination, scorn, and weakness; they are simply expected to be ‘good moms’ in the home. Even men in key Christian leadership positions have not seen the wrong in treating women as second class people. When I asked one older Ukrainian man his thoughts on emotional abuse in Slavic families, he smirked and said ‘that doesn’t happen because we are holy people’….[but] his father verbally and emotionally abused his mother by calling her worthless names, telling her to do as he commanded—all in the name of ministry and God.”1

“The Church sometimes enables abuse among our men,” Irina acknowledges.  “Pastors simply don’t know how to deal with abuse; victims are [often] told they just need to ‘submit according to the Bible.’ They may even hear things like ‘This is your cross to bear’. Russian ladies don’t want to speak up; their own families might blame them. They tell her she is not trying “hard enough” to be a good Christian wife. Their pastors do not understand how [Slavic husbands] look down on their women, so how can they help?” Another woman added, “My friend was being bullied and yelled at daily. Her husband would blame her for things that weren’t her fault; then he hit her. When she [told] her pastor, he didn’t even speak to her husband. But when she called social services, they opened an investigation immediately. Ironically, the state protected her. Her church didn’t. Now she is ashamed to go to church.”

Understanding Cultural Influence

Several of the women who spoke about this “open secret” lamented American pastors’ failure to grasp the nature of misogyny in the Slavic-American subculture. Effective biblical counsel is not possible when a counselor lacks insight into the true nature of a problem. “I think one reason American pastors just don’t get it is, by and large, gender-equality exists in the US,” said “Elena.” “American men don’t generally yell at their wives or control them like children … if they did, they’d be in big trouble! The concept of women being equal simply does not exist in our countries. So when a [Slavic] woman talks to her pastor about her mistreatment, he does not understand how ugly it is. In a way [Slavic] culture justifies it, and considers it normal. They have no idea what some of our sisters are going through.”

This domineering attitude has been “imported” into immigrant communities from Eastern Europe, and counselors need to understand it. Recently, I was contacted by a YMCA domestic violence specialist seeking a counselor for a battered Albanian woman – a common occurrence. (Albania, while not a Slavic country, shares many cultural characteristics with its Eastern neighbors. Women are more oppressed in Albania than in any other European country).

While in Tirana this summer, I spoke with ACBC counselor Blair Alvidrez, who mentioned the hostile, aggressive tone Albanian men often use with their wives. “When you confront them, they try to excuse it: ‘that’s just how we are; that’s how I talk!’ It’s very hard to change that cultural attitude; to make them realize that this speech is abusive, and ungodly.” An Albanian pastor admitted that while God can change anyone’s heart, it’s rare to see a turnaround in men who have learned such communication patterns from birth.

Abuse for its own sake is not the abuser’s goal; control is. Abusive men seek to gain the control they feel entitled to. Even in immigrant congregations themselves, domestic abuse is often ignored.

Biblical Confrontation

As biblical counseling instructor Donn Arms says, “Scripture informs what we do; not culture.” In that spirit, it is time for all forms of torment – physical and verbal; isolation and intimidation; stonewalling and screaming; control and humiliation – to be called what they are: sin. What are some things these Slavic Christian women desperately want their pastors to know?

  • They are not exaggerating. Believe them. If the abuse has escalated to physical violence, involve the authorities. They need protection; as Lyuba did. Do not distort Ephesians 5:22 and 1 Peter 3:1-6 to heap more guilt upon the abused woman.
  • When a woman tells you that her husband will not change, do not chide her “lack of faith.” Rather, respect that she has much more insight into her husband’s state of mind and cultural mores than you do. Until they see the sin in their attitude and renew their minds, abuse will continue. Philippians 2:5 and 4:5 need to be internalized and lived out, and a few months of biblical counseling will not undo a lifetime of cultural conditioning.
  • Angry outbursts and demeaning lectures/accusations are not considered abusive by many Slavic Christian men, although verbal abuse can be incredibly destructive. Understanding the craving for control can help unmask what drives the behavior.

Recommended Reading: “The Shameful Secret of ‘Christian’ Domestic Abuse”

Endnote:

1. Paul Muzichuk, “Abuse of Slavic-American Women,” http://paulmuzichuk.blogspot.com/2013/05/abuse-of-slavic-american-women.html (May 8, 2013).