This article also appears on Spiritual Sounding Board as a guest post.
Although I am known for my more recent research writings on spiritual abuse from a systemic perspective, I have also written and edited on other forms of abuse and violence since the 1980s.
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Contemporary Conservative Christianity
and Questions About Abuse
Contention over abuse and violence in Christian communities has heightened in the era of #metoo and #churchtoo. However, controversies over theology, advocacy, and actions have been with us for a very long time. Recently, comments on abuse made by Paige Patterson, President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, resurfaced and ignited a social media firestorm.
Here is a link to the audiofile of what Paige Patterson said, at a conference marked as held in year 2000. (No other details available at this time other than what is on the archive.org site.) I transcribed it in full, then listened to the entire file again to double check. It’s always possible in transcribing to miss a word, or to mistake what has been said because of audio quality or hearing problems. So, to the best of my ability, the following transcript is word for word, other than “umms” and “uhhs” removed, and quote marks added when it seems clear enough from context that a statement was direct speech.
A “Press release from Paige Patterson” was posted on the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary this morning (April 29, 2018) in response to the social media focus on his comments and narrative shared about abuse.
(Julie Anne Smith of Spiritual Sounding Board posted a separate article with the transcript of this audiofile, with her analysis of it and the press release by Mr. Patterson. Paige Patterson on Domestic Violence: Audio Transcript and Resource Links.)
The last paragraph of Mr Patterson’s press release refers to “Statement on Abuse” from The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (founded 1987). Here’s the link. Statement notes at bottom it was “Adopted by the CBMW Board of Directors March 12, 2018.”
I believe it is important to consider the time frame on CBMW’s Statement on Abuse: It was adopted 30+ years after CBMW’s founding. Perhaps the Council (or individual members) had published/posted statements on abuse prior to this one. However, consider the historical flow and context.
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Some Historical Perspective on Domestic Violence and Ministry
The larger context includes that theologically conservative, evangelical, complementarian, and patriarchal denominations and associations have not addressed abuse issues well (if at all) over the last few decades. This is especially so on how headship/submission aspects of their theologies could foster a spiritual ecosystem in home, church, and community that supports spiritual, psychological, and physical abuse.
I am aware of these concerns because of what I learned over the years from my sister Romae. She began working with survivors of domestic violence in the mid-1970s, when a co-worker/friend of hers needed help to get out of an abusive situation. For the next 35 years, Romae supported and advocated for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, and trained people in child abuse prevention.
We talked together about these kinds of issues and ministries frequently. Over the years, Romae occasionally mentioned how leaders in theologically conservative churches were consistently the most resistant to any input on the issues of assault, violence, and child safety. They either didn’t want to talk about it at all, or wanted to handle all of these “in house,” or would only accept teaching from men and/or those from their own denomination. Meanwhile, she found community groups and mainline churches were typically more open.
As an evangelical Christian herself, Romae found the conservative church’s response disheartening. But she persisted in supporting survivors, advocating change, training wherever there was an opening. I’ve written about some of the many important things I learned from her on this post: Tributes for Two Teachers ~ Domestic Violence Awareness Month 2015. Here is an excerpt:
I listened over the years to her stories, along with those told by people Romae had served and by those she served with. I also heard the stories of my own friends who’d had to deal with domestic violence. This all instilled in me a better understanding of the general dynamics of abuse, a deeper sense of outrage at the damage, and a stronger desire to do something myself to make a constructive difference. It seemed to me that activism with survivors of abuse was exactly the kind of thing Jesus Christ would do in today’s world. And, given how pervasive all sorts of bullying, abuse, and violence are in both Church and community, what a great place to make a Kingdom kind of difference!
Some of my sister’s passion is carried on in what I do to be of help to survivors of toxic systems, malignant leaders, and spiritual abuse. I’m grateful to her for that gift.
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Early Christian Books on Domestic Violence
Romae died in 2010. In preparing to write her eulogy, I came across some intriguing historical information on Christian publishing about the people and the issues closest to her heart. It was a research/resource list on some of the earliest Christian books dealing with domestic violence, published from 1982-1995. Here are items from that list, along with some commentary that focuses on the historical context and how the typical content developed over time.
To my knowledge, the first evangelical book on domestic violence was released in 1982 by Tyndale House Publishers: No Place to Hide: Wife Abuse: Anatomy of a Private Crime, by Esther Lee Olson and Kenneth Petersen. It was one woman’s personal story of spousal abuse, and included how church leaders held her husband accountable for his actions. This was groundbreaking for addressing domestic violence, although – according to Romae – the account was not necessarily the best role model of how to deal with abuse, as the woman went back into the situation after there had been some apparent resolution with her husband, but the narrative ended there, without readers knowing whether his change was real, lasting, both, or neither.
The next book on the subject was released four years later. In the Name of Submission: A Painful Look at Wife Battering, by Kay Marshall Strom (Multnomah Press, 1986). It was reprinted in an edition from Wipf & Stock in 2008; this link has a “see inside” feature. Here is the Amazon link to the reprint edition; it contains some reader reviews.
I participated in many Christian writers conferences in the mid-1980s through late 1990s, even taught at some. I had the opportunity at a Christian writers conference in the mid-1990s to talk with Ken Petersen about this particular book. As best I can recall, he mentioned how long it took to write the book and then get it published (and Ken was a top editor at Tyndale at the time). It was the first of its kind for Christian audiences, and there really wasn’t anything else to go by at the time to evaluate it. So, it was long on story and short on solutions. But it was at least a start, even if flawed in that way.
I also met Kay Marshall Strom at another writers conference in the 1990s, and had a chance to thank her for her work. As best I can recall that conversation, she mentioned how challenging it was to get the material together in a way that balanced the framework of phases in a personal story with theological principles and practical counseling and ministry suggestions. (This was the era of the “recovery movement,” and this threefold narrative-theology-ministry format was becoming more common for Christian books on personal problems and self-help issues.)
Here are some of the other very early books on domestic violence:
Keeping the Faith: Guidance for Christian Women Facing Abuse, by Marie Fortune (HarperOne, 1995; earlier edition released in 1987). Marie M. Fortune was one of the earliest Christian writers on domestic violence, sexual assault, and clergy sexual misconduct. You’ll see her books referenced frequently in bibliographies on abuse and violence. Other noted titles:
Sexual Violence: The Sin Revisited (original edition entitled, Sexual Violence: The Unmentionable Sin, Pilgrim Press, 1983; revised edition, Pilgrim Press, 2005).
Is Nothing Sacred?: The Story of a Pastor, the Women He Sexually Abused, and the Congregation He Nearly Destroyed (Harper San Francisco, 1992; United Church Press, 1999; Wipf & Stock, 2008).
Marie Fortune’s trainings and publications in these areas started in the 1980s and were foundational for teaching and ministry. Romae had all of her books – often multiple copies, so she could loan them out.
He Hits! Hope for Battered Women, by Janet Jonathan (Star Books, 1989). By this time, there was a small set of books for survivors, advocates, and ministers, and it covered personal, theological, and practical. “Janet Jonathan” (a pseudonym) saw one area as a significant gap: engaging the emotions of survivors in ways that brought beauty and hope. As an artist and poet, these were important to her, and so she produced He Hits! Her series of poems brings out her susceptibilities, fears, anger, and hopes during various phases in her relationship with her husband. These include their courtship, marriage, early warning signs of his abusive nature, his attacks (including kicking her in the stomach when she was pregnant), their divorce, and thereafter. I edited the volume for her, and there is an intriguing story behind the title is in the post I mentioned earlier: Tributes for Two Teachers ~ Domestic Violence Awareness Month 2015.
Battered into Submission: The Tragedy of Wife Abuse in the Christian Home, by James and Phyllis Alsdurf (InterVarsity Press, 1989/US; Highland Books, 1990/UK). Wipf & Stock reprint, 1998, with “see inside” feature. A few observations. First, the 1980s and ’90s were still an era when Christian publishers were mostly independent entities, not part of some international media conglomerate as so many are now. Also, they saw their work as equipping people for ministry, not merely making money. So, each tended to publish books they believed were important additions to ministry resources even when they knew these would not be commercially viable. It was a financial risk to publish on something like domestic violence. Many such books went out of print after one printing run or maybe even a reprinting. Thankfully, at least some eventually were reprinted, as was this one.
Christian Men Who Hate Women: Healing Hurting Relationships, by Margaret Rinck (Zondervan, 1990). I remember this book as becoming important in Christian recovery ministry circles as one of the earliest in looking at misogyny – which I don’t recall as being a common term used in recovery ministry work until the mid-1990s.
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Some Final Thoughts
Because of my sister Romae’s ministry and all I learned from her, and from her friends and mine, I have something worth sharing. So, I speak up on these issues on occasion, mostly when it seems a providential moment to offer some timely information and practical suggestions. This is one of those moments.
This current controversy is not about up-to-the-moment minutiae. It’s about a long-standing problem being revisited because members inside and outside our spiritual family continue being hurt by it. It’s about starting to grasp our history for empathy and theology and ministry – whether we’ve been on board with survivors all along, or just recently have become more aware, or aren’t there yet.
My perspective is that of an observer-historian-futurist far more than being an exegete-theologian. I will leave to others the in-depth analysis of doctrinal issues interwoven with experiences of grooming, abuse, and violence. Recent years have seen debate on the negative impact from certain theologies, especially soft complementarianism to hard-core patriarchy. I expect that will continue. I hope that the dire need for relational empathy and concrete acts of compassion do not get crowded out by abstractions and arguments about doctrinal nuances. We are all called by Christ to administer grace and healing to those wounded on the roadways in the Kingdom.