This lesser spoken aspect of abuse is a hotly debated issue of domestic violence for those in various religious communities. It is definitely an area where lack of knowledge is hurtful and detrimental to all. And depending upon how it is handled, it can subject the victim or survivor to further abuse. Please note in my discussion below, I refer to Biblical principles, as I am a Christian. If you practice another religion and would like to post some information related to this topic, please feel free to do so in the comments. Keep in mind, however, in line with my beliefs, my one request is that comments should not contain abusive language of any sort.
Courtesy of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, here are tactics of spiritual abuse frequently used by the abuser against his/her victim. The items on the list I dealt with are designated in red text and personal notes following in blue text.
- Abusers cite scripture to justify abusive, dominating or oppressive behavior. He would say things like, “The Bible refers to the man as the woman’s owner.” and explain that justified him doing as he pleased, because I was mere property. He would say, “The Bible doesn’t say anything about respecting a woman. I just have to love you.”
- Abusers deny their partners the freedom to practice the religion of their choice. He would prevent me from having personal study by denying me use of the computers, taking away my Bible(s) and my literature, from meeting with the sisters for my weekly study, from going to the bi-weekly meetings, from conversing and spending time with sisters in the congregation, by attempting and later succeeding (by severe physical force) to prevent me from leaving the house or inviting the sisters over. Methods of denying our right to practice can be isolation, intimidation and threats, taking religious literature, starting arguments, using sleep deprivation, and physical abuse. Kevin progressed to slamming my head into door frames and a combination of sleep deprivation and physical beatings during which he would often use weapons.
- Abusers force their partners to violate their religious beliefs. He would use sleep deprivation and beating to coerce me into consenting to let him have his way with me and then beat me afterwards. Violation of belief: fornication and adultery (I found out that he was married). He would try to force me to steal or try to talk me into letting him hide things in my purse. I protested too loudly for him to get an opportunity. He would regularly push me to lie to others to cover for him… and so much more.
- Abusers shame or belittle their partners for their religious practices. He would tell me that I thought I was better than him, that I was never going to be accepted into the congregation because we were unmarried and he wasn’t going to let me leave, that my changing to make my life in line with Bible principles was causing him to harm me and forcing him to use drugs, that it was causing him to be mistrustful of me. He told me I was too stupid to comment during meetings so I should keep my mouth shut. He also repeatedly told me that I didn’t know what I was talking about.
- Abusers make oppressive demands based on their interpretation of scriptures or other religious teachings (e.g., “the scriptures say that you need to obey me because you are my wife”). Please refer to original comment on how he justified he owned me.
- Abusers instill religious guilt in victims for not doing what they want them to do (e.g., “How can you call yourself religious if you don’t forgive me?”). He used this for when he used my money on drugs, when he tried to fool me that he would go into rehab, etc.
- Abusers’ sense of marital entitlement causes them to justify their sexual demands, including forced sex (i.e., marital rape). We weren’t married, but he still tried to inform me how I was supposed to give him his due. Please see other comments related to coercion above.
- Abusers involve or force children to witness ritual abuse (e.g., sacrificing pets).
- Abusers manipulate others in their religious communities to control and ostracize their partners. He was a pro at feigning friendship, using them as resources, and then blaming me. I was denied the opportunity to get to know or associate with sisters in the congregation because of his actions. Isolated everywhere so I have no one.
So, how should a spouse or significant other treat their partner? Is abuse Biblical standard, or are abusers just using the Scriptures in a warped way to conform them to justification of their actions? Many have said that wives are to be subjected to their husbands as they are their owners, and they are further expected (and pressured) to be obedient. Further statements include comments about the woman’s place being in the home and her being silent. In terms of principle, the scriptures I reference below can be applied to both partners in a marriage. (I will say at this point that all these principles apply to everyone, and NO ONE has a right to treat their partner abusively.)
The first issue I would like to touch on is “the woman’s place” in the marriage. No where in the Bible does is say the woman is inferior to the man. We are actually created by Jehovah as a compliment to the man, and our husbands should treat us in a dignified and honorable manner. (Gen. 2:18, 1 Pet. 3:7). While we are the physically weaker vessel, we are by no means considered to be less worthy than our male counterparts. As we see in Prov. 31:10-31, the desirable traits of a capable wife are many: trustworthy, providing clothing and food for her family, (not only) generous but speaking on behalf of the poor, industrious, and demonstrating love for Jehovah are just some of them. If, as the abuser claims, we are so worthless, would our Father describe us (as it does in Prov. 31:10) as being far more valuable than coral (used as beads in Bible times)? That the husband “lacks nothing of value (Prov. 31:11)?” Even further, would we be assigned such an important familial role if this were the case?
How about one of Kevin’s favorite excuses of his behavior toward me? He often stated when I showed him Eph. 5:21-33 that the Bible says that he has to love me, and I have to respect him; according to him, this means that he didn’t have to treat me with respect. First, this passage makes several references comparing the love a husband should have for his wife to that which Jesus had for the congregation. Would Jesus have verbally destroyed or harangued his disciples and his followers? There are many instances in the Scriptures where even the disciples said inappropriate things, and Jesus always responded with patience and love. Jesus also showed respect and tact by how he handled the conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. (To understand the importance of this, you must know that it was not uncommon for Jews in Bible times to ignore or be unkind to a Samaritan. On top of this, Jesus is acknowledging a Samaritan woman.)
What the verses in Eph. 5:21-33 are really doing is emphasizing a manner of treatment each spouse should show the other by highlighting an attribute for each spouse that would not be typically considered second nature to their gender. There would be no reason for men to be reminded of the importance of respecting their wives, as it is generally normal for men to have no challenges demonstrating respect. In fact, you do not have to have love for someone to respect them. Thus, in verse 28, the husband is exhorted to love his wife as his own body, further stating in verse 29 that “no man ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cherishes it.” Conversely, it should be noted that women are not exhorted in these verses to have love for her husband, because as the half that is charged with rearing children and caring for her husband, we are built by Jehovah to love by second nature. We overflow with the desire and need to nurture, protect, care for, nurse back to health, and strive for our families to be happy. And just as the husband does not require love to show respect, the wife does not require respect to show love. Therefore, she is charged with not only cultivating respect for her husband, but a deep respect (Eph. 5:33). The implications of these exhortations are that both parties act in kindness, mercy, love, and appreciation toward each other. Not malice or lack of consideration.
Other principles (out of many) related to how a spouse should treat the other:
- 1 Cor. 13 How genuine love for your spouse manifests itself. I particularly focus on verses 4-7. The verdict is in: love is kind and patient. Not jealous, possessive, angry, self-seeking, etc. It “rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
- Eph. 4:29-31 Both parties must speak to each other with the intent to encourage, uplift, and support. We are exhorted to turn away from “malicious bitterness, anger, wrath, screaming, and abusive speech, as well as everything injurious.”
- Ecc. 4:1, Gen 21:12 Both parties should demonstrate compassion to each other and take each other’s needs into consideration.
- Gal. 6:7 All your actions have consequences.
- Prov. 16:32 You cannot force someone to respect you. You can only earn it.
- Prov. 29:11 Even when it may be challenging, develop some self-control. And in the event you feel you cannot…..
- Prov. 17:14 Perhaps it isn’t worth going down that road. Walk away and come back to it later when you are both calm.
There are clergy, clerics, and other leaders who may try to push you to stay with your abusive partner because you are married. However, while it is true that the Bible only supports divorce in the case of adultery, it also does not condone abuse or state that an abused spouse cannot separate from the abuser. In the end, it is up to the victim being abused to make that decision (Gal. 6:5). I can say without a doubt that not one of the brothers or sisters in my congregation would have pushed me to stay with Kevin had we been married. If anything, they would have expressed concern for my safety due to the severity of abuse but would not have pushed me to leave if I determined to stay.
I can say that as some of the sisters have heard the more in-depth version of my story, they always seem surprised I endured so much physical abuse before I had reached a point where was incapable of leaving to go the meetings. Some may feel that I jeopardized my life in my attempts to go. However, at this point, all I can think of is Jer. 4:19. Jeremiah had misgivings about the assignment Jehovah gave him to announce the proclamation against Jerusalem. Still, even as he describes his heart pounding in his anguish, he also says, “I cannot keep silent.” Later in Jer. 20:8,9, Jeremiah says, “In my heart it proved to be like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I got tired of holding in, and I was unable to endure it.” And for me, my relationship with Jehovah was important to me, urgently so, that I was willing to endure whatever I needed to nurture it. I dare say that not even if I wanted to could I have stopped myself. So I persevered as long as I could.
For the longest time, I felt immense guilt once he found the combination he needed to keep me in the house so I could not attend my meetings. However, in spite of him, I still studied over the phone with a sister (when he didn’t take the phones with him), and I had literature stashed in odd places around the apartments so I always had something to study should he take away what he saw me reading. I made a promise to myself and Jehovah that when I got out, the first thing I would do was resume my meeting attendance. That is exactly what I did. I left December 14th, 2012 (that is a post all its own!) and my first meeting back was January 6, 2013. Six months and two weeks later, I was baptized. I still feel the guilt re-emerge now and then, but I have to remind myself that I handled the situation the only way I could at the time. And even though I am so unloving to myself that I would withhold mercy, Jehovah has not.
Have you endured spiritual abuse? What did the person who abused you do to try to prevent you from progressing spiritually? How did you handle it? Do you wish you had done something differently? As you answer these questions, look upon yourself and your circumstances with love and mercy and kindness and forgiveness. We all have limitations; never forget this fact.