It was after 10 pm in Athens when the phone rang. My husband and I were looking forward to our weekly call with our daughter. It was morning in California and she had already sent her husband off to work, fed the baby, and was getting ready to take our grandson to his preschool class. We loved the updates and a chance to hear their voices. Obviously this was before Skype and FaceTime calling! At the end of the call, she asked a seemingly disconnected question, feigning a casualness that wasn’t typical of our firstborn. “So, Mom and Dad, how much longer before you retire from missions?” We laughed and responded that we were still going strong.
We served for ten years in Athens. During that time, our daughters went to college in California and our older daughter married a young man she met at a Campus Crusade for Christ meeting her freshman year. He had grown up Southern Baptist, but they later attended an Assembly of God church together. We were happy to know she was dating a Christian young man. When we met him on our next stateside visit, he seemed warm and she seemed happy. Her younger sister expressed some concerns, so we checked in with our daughter. She explained that he had grown up in a broken home and hadn’t had the same benefits she had. We accepted her explanations. However, we would later learn that making excuses is often one of the first clues in identifying an abusive relationship.
It was the week after that conversation about retirement that my daughter broke her silence about her abusive marriage. October 12, 2003. The date is set in my memory. I wasn’t entirely blind. I’d been in her home in August and sensed her unhappiness, but she remained silent. When I left, I asked her to promise to see a counselor to help with the depression.
We were sitting on the patio with some friends, recounting a successful send-off of another mission team. The phone rang and it was our daughter. She told us that her counselor had given her homework—she had to break the silence. Our world turned upside down when she (only slightly) opened the door to her reality—and his threat that had kept her silent. If she left, he claimed, it would ruin our mission career. Without our knowledge, we had become a part of her prison.
We immediately asked her to leave and, of course, we assured her that it would not ruin our work. We learned several things in the next few phone calls, which turned into daily communication.
a. We learned that we could not bring our daughter and her children to stay with us temporarily as it could be represented as international kidnapping by the father’s attorney.
b. We learned that for a stay-at-home mom, creating an exit plan is challenging. As head of the home, our daughter’s husband had asked her to put her nursing career on hold to be a full-time mom, a more biblical model from his hierarchical perspective.
c. We learned that they had gone for counseling, where she was advised to be more submissive and to be a better wife in the bedroom. Her husband quoted Scripture to support his headship and his husbandly rights.
d. We learned that our daughter had done an excellent job of keeping the abuse a secret, so there was very little evidence to construct a paper trail for use in custody issues.
e. We learned that she had mastered walking on eggshells. We respected her desire not to make him angry at that point—she decided not to press charges or force him to pay child support, because of her fears of his response.
f. We learned that she was angry with God, because he did not stop what was happening, even when she prayed for help.
And so, 6,500 miles away, we began the journey alongside our daughter to extract her from a violent marriage. She revealed details of the abuse in stages and I’m sure there are things she has still not shared to protect us. We flew home for two or three weeks at a time to support her in whatever she needed, while we transitioned to stateside work. We moved her. We bought furniture for her apartment, because she wanted the children to feel comfortable in the house when they were with their father under the shared custody plan. We went to court with her. We shared her frustration when the courts substituted a mandated anger management course with a church program that supported his preferred family headship model.
We also listened as she wept in anger when people at their Southern Baptist church did not reach out to her, but judged her and printed her name in the bulletin on behalf of her praying husband’s desire for her to return. We listened when she attended a nearby Assemblies of God church where, after a few weeks, people moved from praying with her to flinging “shoulds” at her like hot arrows. You should pray more. You should go to women’s Bible study. You should get counseling. You should discipline your children. I learned that the church is not a safe haven for many women escaping violent marriages. As the children grew older, I learned that it was not merely Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), it was Family Violence (FV). Her children were impacted as well.
Through our journey, I learned that our churches must be educated and encouraged to break patterns of silence and examine biblical misinterpretations that contribute to the continuing abuse and vulnerability of women. Silence in our churches also contributes to the vulnerability of the children in those homes to further violence and exploitation.
My workshop examines the impact of church responses to victims of family violence. It highlights the impact of domestic violence on children and explores the validity of counsel that supports staying in the marriage for the sake of the children. It also considers how patriarchal systems in church culture effectively silence women, requiring forgiveness without repentance and viewing divorce as nearly unforgiveable. Finally, it also explores the role Christians can serve in altering patterns of abuse and silence in Christian families.
This article references Sandra Morgan’s workshop at CBE’s 2015 international conference titled, “Abuse in Marriages.” Watch it here.