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.]

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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!

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”. 

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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.

The Culture of Abuse in Christian Slavic Marriages

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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).

God Has No ‘Foster Children’

SevFoster Childreneral years ago, I read a book called “Three Little Words,” a memoir of a girl’s horrific childhood in the foster care system. Eventually she was adopted, as a teen, by a loving family. (This wasn’t something I read for pleasure – it was on my daughter’s public school summer reading list, and I was screening it.) While the material was inappropriate for 13-year-olds, it was a painfully raw and all-too-accurate glimpse of what some foster children experience.

Being shuffled through countless homes of indifferent or abusive foster parents obviously scars children. They come to see themselves as unloved, and presumably unlovable. Even the fortunate ones who are adopted face problems – they cannot trust adults, believe that they are loved, or understand what a permanent place in a family means. Many adoptions are actually disrupted when youngsters lash out and display belligerent behavior. Growing up in foster care means existing in constant limbo. Natural parents who don’t come through and foster parents who aren’t “for keeps” breed a deep-seated insecurity. Foster children often expect to be rejected – even after adoption.

Ashley Rhodes-Courter, the author of this particular memoir, describes an incident of teenage rebellion some time after her adoption had been finalized. When confronted by her parents, her first thought was that the adoption was over. She had long since steeled her heart against loving or being loved by anyone, and spent the first several years of her family life waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop. She anticipated another rejection and ultimate return to the group home. Against her expectations and previous life experience, her parents assured her that she was irrevocably their daughter, and that it was high time to drop the “poor orphan” act. (They then punished her for her infraction).

That was the turning point for Ashley. Finally, she was able to begin building trust in her mother and father, knowing that no matter how “bad” she was, there was nothing she could do to make them reject her.

An awful lot of Christians are walking around with a “foster child” mentality, it seems to me. This is a mindset I’ve encountered in counseling, and it’s something I have fallen prey to myself at times. What we need to internalize is this: we are adopted sons and daughters of God, co-heirs with Christ, and have a permanent place in the family (Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5; and John 8:35, respectively). Why is this so hard to believe? My answer, and it’s a fairly simplistic one, is because it takes humility to see this.

We did nothing to earn our status as His children; it was all of His grace…completely, freely, and lavishly bestowed on the unlovely delinquents we were when He found us. Pride wants us to earn our keep; to do something that will merit God’s approval. This is the carnal nature that prompted the Prodigal Son’s request to be made a hired servant. Humility, on the other hand, rejoices in the fact that we are fully known, completely loved, and sealed with the spirit of adoption (Romans 8:15). We can cry “Abba, Father” no matter how distant we may feel from God, because He has set His love on us for Christ’s sake (Romans 1:5) and called us His own (Isaiah 43:1; 1 John 3:2). In fact, He loves us even as He loves His only begotten Son, Jesus (John 16:27).

By human standards, this is a difficult concept to grasp. Repeated rejection by human authority figures (and especially by parents) can pervert one’s view of a benevolent God. Nevertheless, the One Who has redeemed our unworthy selves loves us unconditionally, and has made our identity secure. Legal adoption is a binding covenant. John 1:12-13 illustrates this clearly:

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

We have assurance that God really is as good as He says He is. He will never reject any who come to Him (John 6:37).

For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ” Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15).

Foster children are literally slaves to fear. They live in constant anticipation of the next infraction – or whim of the legal system – to be the end of whatever tenuous family situation they are in. How does this sad mindset play itself out in a child of God?

Shame.

Guilt over failure and indwelling sin drives the insecure Christian away from the Cross, rather than towards it. He or she cannot face a God who is still perceived as a righteous Judge rather than a loving Father. God is both, of course; but what the fearful believer fails to grasp practically is that His righteous judgment has already been poured out on Christ, and there is no longer condemnation (Romans 8:1). She fails to realize that her sin was already foreseen by God, has been forgiven, and is no longer held against her. As Jerry Bridges writes,

…He is, as it were, coming alongside me saying, “We are going to work on that sin, but meanwhile I want you to know that I no longer count it against you.” God is no longer my Judge; He is now my Heavenly Father, who loves me with a self-generated, infinite love, even in the face of my sin.

Pride.

While on the surface shame and pride may seem at odds with each other, actually they work in tandem. When a Christian sees herself as a foster child of God, she will seek to avoid Him when plagued with guilt – at least until she can “get her act together” enough to approach Him. However, it is actually the height of arrogance to believe that there is ever a time when we are more acceptable to God than another. Putting merit in our own works-righteousness or penance actually demeans the centrality of the Cross. C. J. Mahaney writes,

Paul called himself “the worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:16). He wasn’t paralyzed by condemnation. He was exalting God’s grace by recognizing his own unworthiness and sin as he marveled at the mercy of God.

Fear of Man and People-Pleasing.

A child of God who does not realize her true identity is constantly anxious about where she stands with God. Desperately trying to earn the favor of her Father, which she doesn’t recognize she already has, she tries to impress others or appear more spiritual. For example, I had one bulimic counselee tell me she wanted to “redeem [herself] in God’s eyes by becoming a nutritionist, and hopefully help others.”

I confess that I have fallen prey to this mindset myself, when I make idols out of goals or “splendid vices” (George Whitefield’s term for spiritual activity done with wrong motives). Getting my book, “Redeemed from the Pit” published is very important to me, and now that it is becoming a reality I have been preoccupied with obtaining endorsements from well-known authors in the biblical counseling field. When they like my work, I somehow feel God approves of my endeavor. When they decline or suggest revisions, I despair – their opinion of my writing overshadows pleasing God. It becomes too easy to forget that my work is ultimately all for His glory, anyway. Although I would never say so out loud, being thought well of by “celebrity Christians” can eclipse the truth – that God neither thinks more nor less of me based on man’s opinions; and I have nothing whatsoever to commend myself to Him in the first place. He loves me with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3) simply because I am His daughter.

This tendency to think God sees us as others do takes many different forms, but the root is the same – doubting the reality and immutability of God’s personal and tender love.

The Solution

Let’s think about this logically: An omniscient God knew from eternity past exactly what you would be like, He saw every sin and dark thought that would enter your mind, yet He set His love on you anyway by electing you as His child. He called you out of darkness, then transferred you to the Kingdom of His beloved Son (Colossians 1:13). Jesus Himself is not ashamed to call you His brother or sister (Hebrews 2:11), so on what grounds would He decide to kick you out of His family? What, exactly, would you have to do to “disrupt” your heavenly adoption, and get sent back from whence you came?

It’s time, as the Courter parents so bluntly put it, to “drop the poor orphan act” and realize we’re God’s for good. And that’s Good News. Intimacy cannot grow apart from relationship, and the entire New Covenant proclaims that our relationship as children is irrevocable. We didn’t do anything to earn it in the first place – we were all broken and flawed when God called us – so what makes us think we can lose His parental bond? Fellowship may be broken, just as in human families – but God promises to forgive and restore each and every time we humble ourselves to seek Him (1 John 1:9). Craven fear and cringing supplication have no place in the life of a child of God. Repentance is a gift freely offered to all who will accept it and return to God on His terms…no running, hiding, and fear of the boom lowering anymore. The writer of Hebrews poetically banished any possibility of seeing ourselves as foster children when he wrote:

“Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)