She came to my attention through painful circumstances. A shy, timid woman, Mary1 was as skittish as a cat with strangers. She appeared out of nowhere one Sabbath morning, slipped into the corner of the back pew in our church, and vanished before the benediction. Each Sabbath I’d keep my eye on her while preaching, until one day I concluded my sermon by walking to the back of the church. I met her, secured her contact information, and began months of carefully cultivating a relationship of trust.
One Sabbath she didn’t show up, so I called on her and was shocked by her response. Her fragile confidence had been shattered when a pious parishioner confronted her about wearing pants to church. She was told that her mode of dress was a breach of sacred decorum. Mary was crushed.
What the parishioner didn’t know was that each week Mary took refuge from domestic violence in our church when her drunken husband had fallen asleep. She wore pants and high-necked, long-sleeved sweaters to hide the bruises from the kicks and punches of her abusive husband.
Our silence and our sometime callous attitude are detrimental to those who need and seek our compassion when it comes to the secret sin of intimate and domestic violence. Studies by a variety of social service and mental health agencies, in cooperation with family violence initiatives, indicate that nationwide there’s very little difference between incidents of violence in Christian and non-Christian households. It’s well known that religion is not a deterrent to violence in Christian homes; and Seventh-day Adventists are not immune. I commend the General Conference Women’s Ministries Department for implementing the worldwide ENDITNOW campaign, and taking the boldest stand the Seventh-day Adventist Church has ever taken regarding violence against women and girls.
In “The Role of Religious Institutions in Responding to the Domestic Violence Crisis,” Katherine Hancock Ragsdale said: “The church has helped to create and uphold a social climate that allows such violence. It has also contributed to the work of ending the violence. The ambiguity of the role of religious institutions is not, however, an excuse for failing to address, head-on, the ways in which they are implicated in this sin. . . . The church’s complicity in the problem of domestic violence is manifest in both its theology and its pastoral practice.”2
Perhaps because of a lack of mental health training, many pastors and leaders continue to counsel abused spouses and children just to pray for their abusers and keep silence. In this kind of atmosphere victims are made to feel ashamed, sometimes blamed, and always told to avoid taking action that would bring public notoriety to the church.
In addition, our Church Manual asserts that “Scripture recognizes adultery and fornication (Matt. 5:32) and abandonment by an unbelieving partner (1 Cor. 7:10-15) as grounds for divorce.” Are we to interpret “adultery” as inclusive of sexual misconduct and domestic violence? For no mention is made there, or in the Minister’s Handbook, regarding the prevalent and pervasive acts of intimate and domestic violence such as spousal, child, sexual, verbal, physical, and spiritual abuse—not to mention rape and other such behaviors as grounds for divorce.
Perhaps we should take another look at Paul’s statement: “But if her husband dies, she is released from that law” (Rom. 7:3). Could it be that the apostle was not referring exclusively to physical death, but also spiritual death in line with Jesus’ statement “Let the [spiritually] dead bury their own [physically] dead” (Luke 9:60)? It is difficult to believe that anyone but a spiritually dead person would perpetrate the devastating abuses in Christian homes that damage the abused person’s view of God and lead to substance abuse, eating disorders, suicide attempts, and often permanent loss of self-image.
It took awhile, but I was able to share God’s grace with Mary. After months of Bible studies and counseling videos about domestic violence, Mary not only gave her heart to Christ, who restored her self-image, but was able to extricate herself from the destructive relationship. She now volunteers at a shelter for battered women.
1 Not her real name.
2 Albany Law Review 58, no. 4 (1995): 1152.
Hyveth Williams is a professor of homiletics at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. This article was published April 19, 2012.