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A Divorced Couple Shares Their Experience with Spiritual Abuse

It was assumed that couples would prioritize having children, the more the better, and homeschooling was seen as better than letting kids go to public school. If couples were having marriage problems, the church leadership’s only advice was for the husbands to love their wives and for the wives to submit to their husbands. Divorce was not an option for any reason.  

Straining at the Framework

When Peter and Katie started attending the church, they had been married for two years and did not yet have children. Their first experience with feeling like outsiders occurred when they ran into another couple from the church at Starbucks. The couple asked them, not whether they had children, but how many kids they had. When Peter and Katie said they did not have any, the couple looked appalled and left without saying anything. Katie says that she and Peter were shocked: “We asked each other, ‘Did that just happen?’”

So married women were expected to stay at home and have kids, and young, unmarried women were expected to pursue that lifestyle as soon as they could. “If you were a young woman and you wanted to go to college, right away, you were straining at the framework, and it would be difficult,” says Peter. 

Katie’s sister (who attended the church for about a year while she was in high school) wanted to go away to college and study graphic design. The church’s leaders pointed her away from that goal and instead encouraged her to focus on being a wife and mother. If she really wanted a job, they said, she could work in the church office stuffing envelopes. Peter says, “They were promoting work that would essentially dovetail nicely into being a stay-at-home mom.”

Katie says that the way leadership spoke to women about their responsibilities as women was harmful. Most people in the church were part of what was essentially a small group. One time Peter and Katie’s group took a trip to the beach and Katie’s friend wore a two-piece swimsuit (not a bikini). Afterward, the female group leader told the woman that she had led every man on the beach astray. If Katie’s friend ever came on a beach trip again, said the leader, she needed to wear a one-piece, preferably with shorts over it. 

Katie says her friend still feels shame when she thinks about that incident of spiritual abuse: “She still has issues. She still remembers feeling like a slut.” The friend continued attending the group, but never went on another beach trip.

When it came to the respective responsibilities of husbands and wives in marriage, “love and submit” was basically all the church had to offer. Katie says their female group leader repeatedly told the women in the group, “You have to be willing to go down with the ship.” That meant, says Katie, “Whatever your husband does, whatever he decides, whatever, you’ve got to be willing to go down with the ship, and I felt like she meant anything.” “She did,” says Peter. 

Spiritual Abuse: Systematic, Involved, Homogenous

Complicating the church’s views on gender roles, marriage, and family was the way the denomination structured how pastors and elders led the congregation. According to Peter and Katie, another way you could see spiritual abuse in the culture is that the church’s leaders were overly involved in people’s lives and the way they led was highly systematized. One example of this, says Katie, was that “young men who wanted to marry someone (which, obviously, the girl was always in the church) had to go to the senior pastor and present their finances and get the blessing from the pastors financially to propose.” This was something Peter’s brother had to do.

During the interview, while they did agree they experienced spiritual abuse at the church, neither Peter nor Katie called their church a cult. But, says Peter, “If it looked cultish, it would be just because they were so systematic about having a common teaching, not letting one pastor or another really develop his own ideas…The pastors are taught very explicitly from higher up, and they had a seminary where if you weren’t completely on board with the message that’s being taught within their seminary, then you weren’t going to be a pastor of any of their churches.”

This uniform approach to church life fed into the potential for spiritual abuse and meant that the culture became, as Peter describes it, “homogenous.” It also meant that church leaders had a one-size-fits-all approach to challenging scenarios.

A highly divisive situation arose at one point when a woman in the congregation was seeking help because she was married to a physically abusive, alcoholic man. Katie says, “She was begging the pastors to give the blessing to leave her husband, and they said, ‘No.’ What they said was she could not divorce him, but that she had to ‘submit’ to her husband by staying married to him, but possibly living in a separate location for a while so that she wouldn’t get beaten.”

The pastor at the time was a gifted teacher, but was young and did not know what to do. Peter doesn’t blame him for not being sure how to handle the situation, saying that he was “stuck between a rock and a hard place.” The woman was coming to him for help, and the Bible, says Peter, “did not give him kind of any clear, helpful guidance for her, unfortunately.” The church did not have any answers either “because they were very systematic” in how they applied the Bible’s teachings. They were, Peter believes, trying to follow what the Bible said about marriage and divorce, and their understanding of those teachings prevented them from helping her. It in fact contributed to spiritual abuse.