The Church’s Response to Emotional Abuse
Author: Leslie Vernick
I was amazed to see that no one intervened to help the oppressed. So I myself stepped in to save them with my strong arm.
Don lumbered into my office, shoulders stooped. He was the pastor of a mid-sized congregation in my area. He referred clients to me in the past. He stopped by to talk over whether or not he should resign as pastor from his church.
“Last Sunday was a horrible day. I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” he said. “After church I went home and spent the rest of the day in bed. My wife is really worried about me.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“Each week I spend hours preparing my sermon, I do the best I can, but Steve had to give me his two cents as usual. It’s so demoralizing. Sometimes I feel like I can’t do anything right. Two days ago he called me on the carpet because I didn’t run the elder’s meeting efficiently. Last week it was something else. I’ve put up with his criticism, his sarcasm and undermining me for years. I don’t know how much more I can take. Steve has a lot of power in the church. He’s beginning to tell others he’s unhappy with my performance. My elders are starting to take sides. I’d rather quit than be fired.”
“Steve is really getting to you isn’t he?” I said.
“I try not to let his words eat at me, but they still do. When I’m preaching if I see his disapproving look, I start to shake inside and then I can’t think. My words get all mixed up in my head and even I know I’m not preaching well. Maybe it’s time I resign.”
“Have you tried talking with him and telling him how his negativity is impacting you?”
“I have but it does no good. He gets defensive and turns it back on me. I’m the problem, not him. He’s not going to change.”
“Have you talked with your elders about his behaviors?” I asked.
“Are you kidding? He’s a big financial contributor in the church. He’s always helping out around here and has his fingers in everything. They would never stand up to him even if some of them were on my side. The church would have too much to lose.”
I don’t know a pastor in ministry that hasn’t encountered someone like Steve in his congregation nor felt the inner turmoil people like Steve bring to a pastor’s heart. Steve’s words and actions caused Don to question his calling from God. They made his stomach churn, his body shake, his confidence waver, and his mind get fuzzy. Don never lived with Steve but the toxic impact Steve had on him caused Don considerable distress. It’s not easy to shake off the negative effects destructive people have on us, even if we tell ourselves not to let them get to us.
If Don told his story to a colleague in ministry, I have no doubt he or she would be sympathetic to Don’s plight. They’ve been there. They know how it feels. Then why as pastors and counselors are we slow to validate the emotional pain a woman feels when she is married to a man like Steve? Why do we not believe her when she says he has a public persona and a private persona and they are very different? Why can we not see the stress and hardship of an emotionally destructive marriage when we have tasted its bile within ministry?
The Scriptures never invalidate or minimize the effects someone’s harsh actions and cruel words have on another person’s soul, spirit, and body. A cursory reading through Scripture amply illustrates God’s disdain for mockers, abusers, deceivers, those who misuse their power, oppressors, revilers, ragers, hypocrites, and slanderers. The psalmist says, “Your tongue cuts like a sharp razor; you’re an expert at telling lies. You love evil more than good and lies more than truth. You love to destroy others with your words, you liar!” (Psalm 52:2-5). David cries out to God, “Please listen and answer me, for I am overwhelmed by my troubles… ..My heart pounds in my chest. The terror of death assaults me. Fear and trembling overwhelm me, and I can’t stop shaking. ….It is not an enemy who taunts me—I could bear that. It is not my foes who so arrogantly insult me— I could have hidden from them. Instead, it is you—my equal, my companion and close friend” (Psalm 55:2,4,5,13).
Sadly we’ve sometimes failed to validate the destructive consequences of living with a foolish, argumentative, angry, deceitful, contentious, indifferent, hard-hearted, or evil person when the Scriptures are quite clear that the effects are real. The psalmist said, “Their insults have broken my heart and I am in despair” (Psalm 69:20).
I wonder if we haven’t valued honesty as much as we preach it. When a woman goes to her church leadership and discloses what’s going on at home, she hopes to be supported and protected but for some women, that’s not her experience. Instead, she’s been she’s been scolded, shamed or shunned. She’s been told to bring her husband in for his side of the story. But how can she speak honestly with him present if she’s afraid of what will happen when they get home? She’s been told that she needs to be more submissive and try harder to make things work. She’s been told that there is nothing in the Bible called emotional abuse and therefore what she’s experiencing has no validity. She’s been told that God wants her to somehow figure out how to make her marriage work because God hates divorce.
By our words are we telling her we don’t want to get involved or help her? Do we inadvertently encourage her to keep quiet, placate, and pretend? And, if she refuses and gets persistent or demanding in her plea for our help, do we start to label her aggressive, contentious, rebellious, unsubmissive, deceitful, or unstable?
I think sometimes we’re afraid to get involved because if we open our eyes to what’s going on in some homes we’re not sure what to do. We’ve valued the sanctity of marriage over the safety and sanity of the people in it. Therefore we’ve encouraged women to put up with abusive behavior rather than speak up or stand up and have our biblical categories challenged. Yet, Jesus commended the persistent widow in Luke 18, who kept pestering the judge for legal protection against the injustice she was experiencing.
God has put the church together not only to model a loving family to a broken world, but also to model justice and protection when one of its members is destructive and unrepentant toward another.
Deitrich Bonhoeffer said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Posted on April 30, 2013