Many women in abusive situations have found they just cannot get the support and help they need from their local church when it comes to confronting an abusive, narcissistic husband. At Agape Moms, we hear countless stories of women who have found that addressing abuse with marriage counselors and/or pastors doesn't didn't always result in a healed relationship, and sometimes, it actually made it worse.
Abuse is Rampant in YOUR Church.
An abusive, narcissistic man hides in plain sight. He serves his church as an usher, a worship leader, a security officer. His wife is a devoted volunteer. His kids are active in youth ministry. They show up on time, well dressed and put together.
But the truth is this sterling reputation is just a cover up for the vicious battleground you'd find in their home. A narcissistic man is usually very good at creating a public image that appears very composed; so well composed that if his wife ever did choose to speak out, people would have a hard time believing her.
How Churches Enable Abuse
The strange thing is that this scenario is NOT unique at all. We often hear of women who have approached pastoral staff or counselors looking for help for an abusive marriage, but were discarded because her story didn't jive with their view of her husband. She is often told that she must be doing something to make him behave that way. That it mustn't be as bad as she thinks. That he's a good guy and that if she just puts in a little more effort, his heart will soften towards her.
And some of this advice is well meaning. After all, women are encouraged in the Bible to display righteous behavior to influence their husbands. But this tactic alone doesn't work when dealing with an entitled man who has a sinful attitude towards his wife. In cases of abuse, nothing she does will change him. In fact, her "good behavior" will actually enable him and make the abuse worse.
Only God can change him.
Abused Women Need Support from the Church
What I'm about to say may shock you: Marriage problems are really NOT problems between a husband and a wife. They just aren't. Marriage problems stem from sin problems that either the husband or the wife (or sometimes both) are dealing with INDIVIDUALLY that spill over into the marriage.
Here's what I mean: God calls men to sacrificially love their wives as Christ loves the Church. When an abuser uses threats, manipulation, and fits of rage to control his wife, he is engaged in sin against her but more importantly, direct rebellion against God. And while narcissists often say they do these things because they are the ones being victimized, the truth is it all comes from a heart that is not submitted to God and His plan for how husbands should lovingly lead their wives. All of these are sin problems, not marriage problems.
For marriage to work as God intended, BOTH parties each have to have a right relationship with God first. If even one spouse is unrepentantly disobedient towards God and is not willing to let God change his/her heart, the relationship will be stunted until the issue is rectified.
So let me ask you something, Church: Why aren't couples always counseled this way?
Couples Counseling is Bad in Cases of Abuse
People helpers not familiar with marital abuse often (maybe even unknowingly) give the impression that the marriage problems are the responsibility of both parties together. They may sit them down on a couch, drag out all the hurts that are supposedly coming between them, and teach them some communication skills before sending them on their way to "work on it."
But traditional marriage counseling is one of the WORST THINGS for a relationship where abuse is present. Why?
Because the source of the abuse lies within the abuser and not the relationship itself, the traditional approach usually only ends up fueling the abuser's unwillingness to take accountability for his behavior as he continues to blame his wife for their problems. Many women report after marriage counseling sessions that the abusive husband seems emboldened, pointing out all the parts of the session that relate to her shortcomings while ignoring is own. He may even argue that the pastor/ counselor actually agrees with him and that if she was more respectful, the marriage would be different (a tactic known as blame shifting).
Changing the Way Churches Counsel Married Couples
So if we now view marriage problems through the lens of an individual's sin problem, what would it look like if we thus counseled spouses individually? What if we then challenged each spouse (READ: separately) to examine their own sinful attitudes as it relates to GOD FIRST, which then spills over to their significant other?
Jesus teaches in Matthew 7:3-5 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye." (ESV)
An individual seeking a right relationship with God first should be able to hear these words and begin to understand the affect their bitterness, unforgiveness, and impatience has on the marriage. A Spirit-led individual will notice how these attitudes are counter to the grace they have received through Christ and will be led to seek realignment with Him by serving his/ her spouse with a new, grace-filled perspective.
And when BOTH spouses are working on this level individually- now we're talking.
However, one who is led by selfish motives won't be able to display this kind of grace to another; it involves a humbling of oneself that narcissists are not capable of unless they allow themselves to be transformed by the Holy Spirit. An abuser will find excuses as to how the spouse has crossed the line and may even suggest that Jesus had limits on what kind of disrespect a man should take.
But the hard hitting truth of the Gospel is no one is exempt.
Church Discipline for Abusive Husbands
Proverbs 24:29 says "Do not say, “I will do to him as he has done to me; I will pay the man back for what he has done.” (ESV) Even in OT times, the concept of grace was in effect. Anyone who makes justification for sin on grounds of being disrespected hasn't spent enough time with God to know what He thinks about that kind of heart posture. A woman in an abusive marriage is counting on her church to press her husband on this issue so he doesn't get away with this line of thinking.
And if an abusive husband isn't swayed to adjust his attitude and actions by the Word of God, an abused woman also needs to be able to rely on her church to enact meaningful discipline on her behalf. More on that in another post.
What has been your experience with pastoral/ marriage counseling and abuse?
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