He directs both the abused and the abuser to read to the end of the chapter. Paul commands husbands to cherish their wives in the same way that Jesus "nourishes and cherishes" the church (Eph. 5:29).
Dr. Jekyll ... Mr. Hyde
According to experts, about half the abuse committed by Christian men is physical or sexual, and the rest is emotional abuse involving mental manipulation. Often this second type of abuse is taken less seriously by the church, trapping many Christian women in an emotional prison.
John was the divorced worship leader in a nondenominational charismatic church in West Virginia. Rebecca, a divorced church member who kept to herself, knew little about John and was surprised when he asked her out. In 1990, one year after their first date, they married.
"I was careful this time," says Rebecca, whose first husband was abusive. "I thought I was safe marrying a Christian."
But the man Rebecca married went through a sudden transformation. "He changed completely on our honeymoon and never changed back," recalls the 32-year-old accountant.
John verbally pummeled her, criticizing everything from her appearance to her basic failure as a human being. The abuse intensified, yet he continued to lead worship, verbally pounding away at his wife between services.
Rebecca sought help from a doctor. He prescribed antidepressants, and she began to believe she was losing her mind.
After two years, Rebecca reported the abuse to her pastor. Still, it was eight months before John was removed as worship leader—even though the church's leaders were aware of the abuse. By then, Rebecca had moved out of their house.
Before their separation, Rebecca had succeeded in getting John into several counseling sessions. But they were counseled together—a practice many experts say is a prescription for failure.
In their case, the experts were right. John became a master of manipulation, ignoring the advice he was given and placing the blame for their problems on her. Such blame-shifting characterizes the central problem in all abusive relationships: the overwhelming need for the abuser to control another human being.
"[The controller] refuses to own up to his own behavior, much less admit that there might be something wrong with it," write Ann Jones and Susan Schechter in When Love Goes Wrong, a secular book on abuse that Rebecca credits with preserving her sanity. It's considered by many, including religious counselors, to be the definitive work on spousal abuse.
In cases of physical violence, Jones and Schechter write, it can be dangerous to counsel husband and wife together because the victim may face worse abuse after she blows the whistle.
One victim's husband beat her mercilessly for telling their counselor about the abuse; the following day the woman killed herself. Because of situations like this, some mental health agencies prohibit the simultaneous counseling of husband and wife in abuse cases.
Suffering in Silence
Thoughts of suicide place Christian women in a dual bind. They're not only shocked that their emotions have plummeted to such depths, they're also afraid that they've permanently damaged their relationship with God.
As a result, many women suffer in silence. One example is Victoria, a 42-year-old woman from Kentucky. A Christian since age 12, Victoria believed God had brought her the man of her dreams when Frank came into her life in 1974. As a new Christian, Frank had renounced his rebellious lifestyle and returned to the fold of his prosperous family. Soon after, he settled down with his bride.
But less than a year after they married, their church embraced the teachings of the shepherding movement, which emphasized the authority of church leaders in both the public and private lives of parishioners.
Overnight, Frank changed from a loving, caring husband into an overbearing tyrant. Whatever his pastor dictated, Frank enforced in his own home.
Victoria was told what to believe, what to read and how to wear her hair. When she questioned the pastor's total control over their lives, Frank branded her as rebellious and unsubmissive.
Within a short time Frank became a leader in the church, which added a new dimension to his need to control. Years of tyranny eventually took their toll, and Victoria reached a point when she simply wanted to die.