Submit, woman!

Biblical battered wives give us more reason to wonder, "WTF, Saddleback?"

By Amy Benfer

Published February 3, 2009 2:28PM (EST)

Last week in Broadsheet, Katie Rolnick wrote on Kathryn Joyce's article on the so-called patriarchy movement that urges evangelical Christian women to, as Rolnick wrote, "reclaim (or rather submit to) traditional gender roles as described in the Bible." The idea of "noble submission to authority" as expressed by the wishes of one's husband doesn’t exactly jibe with feminist values. But when the husband to whom one humbly submits is also given to expressing his authority through violent fits of rage, things get downright dangerous.

"Biblical Battered Wife Syndrome" is the subject of Joyce’s Alternet article this week (her book "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement" comes out this month). She starts off by giving us more reasons to look askance at Rick Warren’s Saddleback church (click here to see the proposed meaning of the verb "to saddleback," as defined by the winning entry in Dan Savage's contest last week). Joyce is careful to point out that Saddleback's teachings -- which are actually considered too liberal on some issues by some members of the Southern Baptist Convention -- "certainly don't make an explicit argument for submitting to violence." But according to Joyce's reporting, church leaders believe that a literal interpretation of the Bible permits divorce only in cases of adultery or abandonment -- and never for abuse.

Instead, Saddleback’s teaching pastor Tom Holladay says that abuse should be dealt with through a "temporary separation" followed by counseling with the aim of swift reconciliation (after which, presumably, a woman will once again happily submit to the husband who beat her). But even separation is only justified with a spouse who is in the "habit of beating you regularly," not merely when one who has only "grabbed you once." In other words, stick around until he really hurts you.

"How many beatings would take place to qualify as regularly," asks Jocelyn Andersen, the author of "Woman Submit! Christians and Domestic Violence," who was once held hostage by her husband, an associate pastor in their church, for 20 hours after he fractured her skull. Some fundamentalist writers, like Debi Pearl, author of "Created to Be His Help Meet," actually condone abuse. She writes: "When God puts you in subjection to a man whom he knows is going to cause you to suffer, it is with the understanding that you are obeying God by enduring the wrongful suffering." How Christ-like.

Saddleback's teachings on abuse are much cagier. Rather than explicitly condoning or condemning abuse, Holladay counsels against divorce:

"It's not like you can escape the pain," Holladay explains. "You think you are -- there's an immediate release when you get the divorce." But the pain abused wives escape through divorce will just be traded for pain down the line as they have to negotiate shared parenting duties with their exes, or encounter "old issues" with a new spouse -- a seeming charge that the abused spouse’s "issues" contributed to the abuse. "I'd always rather choose a short-term pain and find God's solution for a long-term gain, than find a short-term solution that’s going to involve a long-term pain in my life," Holladay says.

So getting the crap beat out of you is seen as being less painful than negotiating for visitation through your lawyer (assuming that one’s spouse isn’t abusing the children as well)? Andersen faults Saddleback and other mainstream evangelical leaders -- including John McArthur, James Dobson and Minirth and Meier -- for telling women to "leave while the heat is on," but only with the intention of returning to the marriage when the violence has cooled. "Everyone with a lick of sense knows that, in a violent marriage, the heat is never really off," Andersen says. "Everything can be fine one minute, and the next minute you're dead."

But what's really fascinating about this piece is that Joyce finds evangelical women who are fighting back on their own terms: "not with secular or feminist domestic violence tactics, but with new theological arguments arguing for abused wives' rights within a biblically literalist, and in some cases even complementarian, framework."

The women Joyce interviews -- all of whom were abused -- reject the idea that it is their wifely duty to stay with an abusive husband, but still believe it is their role to submit to "male authority" in the wider role of the church. And while Saddleback, for example, proffers a sort of "helplessness before Biblical mandates," claiming to be unable to pinpoint an exact quote where God says it's OK to leave the guy who beats you, these women have dug into the Bible and come back with what they claim are divine blessings to DTMFA.

"A Bible-believing Christian woman needs a biblical argument for leaving a dangerous marriage because she loves God and wants to obey the Bible," says Barbara Roberts, author of "Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion." "Her scriptural dilemma can only be solved by applying and properly interpreting more scripture to counterbalance and correct her unbalanced emphases and misunderstandings."

What’s more, this new scholarship may give women an argument when confronted with the condescension of pastors who wish to forgive them for the "sin" of divorcing their abusive husband. There's undoubtedly a perverse kind of rebellion to a woman writer creating new liberation theology within a framework of female submission, an activity that sounds very much like the kind of thing church leaders and intellectuals do. Let's hope that Rick Warren takes some time out to give it a read.

Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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