Ten Things Every Church Leader Needs To Know

Morning friends,

We just concluded our CONQUER launch where hundreds of Christian women in destructive marriages raised their hands and said I need help and support. Why is it that the local church is still not addressing these issues or supporting victims?  

This is an article I wrote for a Christian counseling site a few years back. I’m putting it here, hoping you will pass it on to your pastor, counselor, and church leader.

Ten Truths About Marriage 

Every Christian Leader Needs to Know 

Leslie Vernick

It’s time. It’s time for pastors, church leaders, and Christian counselors to speak out against the abuse of power and privilege, and speak out for the oppressed and voiceless, especially when that oppression occurs in marriage. 

Below are ten Biblical truths that Christian leaders must begin to incorporate into ministry if we are to stand up for injustice and against repetitive sin and oppression in marriage.

1.God designed marriage to be a loving and respectful partnership, not a slave/master dictatorship where one person dominates and controls the other. Tim Keller in his recent book on marriage writes, “The Christian teaching [on marriage] does not offer a choice between fulfillment and sacrifice but rather mutual fulfillment through mutual sacrifice.” When one spouse seeks to gain power and control over the other and bullies or intimidates using words, finances, physical force, or even the Scriptures, he or she is not only sinning against their spouse but also against God’s plan for marriage.

2. Every healthy adult relationship requires three essential ingredients to thrive. They are mutuality, reciprocity, and freedom. Mutuality means that each person brings into the relationship honesty, compassion, and respect. Reciprocity involves a give and take, where both people in the relationship share power, and both people in the relationship share responsibility. Lastly, a healthy marriage needs freedom to express one’s thoughts, feelings, and needs without fear as well as the freedom to respectfully challenge someone’s behavior or ideas. When any of these three ingredients are missing we may be in a relationship with someone, but it is often difficult, unhealthy, and sometimes destructive.

3. All marriages experience angst, disagreement, and struggle. When a conflict arises, mature people engage in conversations where they discuss, negotiate a compromise, as well as respect one another’s differences, feelings, and desires. They work on problem-solving, not attacking one another.  

In a destructive marriage, one person pushes and pressures to get his/her own way by ignoring stated or implied boundaries, trying to get a person to back down, or to make him or her feel guilty or afraid so that the person will give in and give them what they want. In a destructive marriage, the victimized spouse is not allowed to be different, have her own thoughts, feelings, desires, or agenda. She is not loved for who she is, but for his idea of who she should be. When she fails to live up to his idealized image, punishment results.

4. When a person is seriously sinned against, Jesus understands it fractures relationships. He provides instructions for relationship repair in Matthew 18. First, we are to go to the person who has sinned against us and speak to them about it. However, when that conversation does not result in repentance, no reconciliation of the relationship can take place, even if one-sided forgiveness is granted. Relationships are damaged by sin and are not repaired without repentance and restitution. Joseph forgave his brothers long before he saw them again when they came looking for food in Egypt, but he did not trust them or reconcile with them until he saw their hearts were changed (Genesis 44,45)

5. When a spouse respectfully speaks up against injustice and oppression in a marriage (or anywhere else for that matter), God is with that person. When a spouse speaks up against the abuse and injustice in her marriage, Christians need to come alongside her, hear her, and provide church support and help. In practicing Matthew 18, she is seeking true reconciliation and is attempting biblical peacemaking. The church must not pressure her to reconcile without any evidence of repentance or to be peace at any price peacekeeper. 

We hear God hates divorce but in the context of Malachi 3, God is actually rebuking an unloving, unfaithful husband, not denouncing a desperate wife. 

In addition, Scripture is clear: God hates haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers (Proverbs 6:17-19). He also hates pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech (Proverbs 8:13) which are often the very characteristics of a destructive marriage. 

6. If the abuser refuses to listen, refuses to repent, or change, the blessings of a close marriage are impossible. Unconditional love does not equal unconditional relationship. God loves humankind unconditionally but does not offer unconditional relationship to everyone. Our sin separates us from God and repeated unacknowledged and unrepentant sin also separates us from one another. Marital intimacy, trust, fellowship, and warmth cannot exist where there is fear, threats, intimidation, bullying, and disrespect of one’s thoughts, feelings, body, or personhood. A marriage with no boundaries or conditions it is not psychologically healthy, nor is it spiritually sound.

7. One person in a difficult/destructive marriage can make the relationship less toxic by not reacting sinfully to mistreatment, not retaliating, and not repaying evil for evil, but one person in a difficult marriage cannot make a bad marriage a good marriage all by herself. It takes both partners working together. Sometimes Biblical counselors place an inordinately heavy burden on one spouse to somehow maintain fellowship and intimacy in a relationship while they are repeatedly being sinned against. It’s not possible, nor Biblical. 

8. If the couple desires biblical change, as Christian people helpers, we must not heal their marital wounds superficially by pushing reconciliation or promising peace when there is no true peace (Jeremiah 6:14).

A Biblical peacemaker knows there is no quick fix to these difficult situations and walk this couple through the counseling stages of safety, sanity, and stability until they reach security. There is no mutual counseling possible without first establishing some history of safety, not only physically, but emotionally, spiritually, and financially. 

9. When trust in a marriage is broken (through deceit, infidelity, abuse, or unfaithfulness in various ways), the marriage is seriously damaged. The gift of consequences can be a painful but potent reminder that the wrong-doer will not reap the benefits of a good marriage when he continues to sow discord, sin, and selfishness. Consequences may include legal ramifications, church discipline, and/or loss of a relationship through a separation when warranted.

Chronic abuse, chronic addiction, and chronic adultery are not marriage problems. They cause marriage problems that break safety and trust. However, if the individual who has broken safety and trust does not do his own work and repent and change these sinful actions and attitudes, marital trust and safety cannot be restored. Click To Tweet

10. Church and pastoral support and accountability are critical for someone to heal from a destructive relationship pattern. Secrets destroy. An atmosphere of loving accountability and support along with zero tolerance for manipulation, abuse, or power and control over another individual, is the optimal environment for personal healing as well as relationship repair to take place.

The Meaning of Marriage, Tim and Kathy Keller
The gift of consequences is discussed in my book, How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong, Waterbrook. 2001  

Friends, if you could sit down and have a heart to heart talk with your church leaders and they would value your voice, what would you want them to know?

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  1. Barbara B on September 23, 2020 at 11:55 am

    FIrst of all I love how Leslie worded the question, adding “and they would value your voice.” That little phrase is a good place to start in a heart to heart talk with church leaders. Suppressing the voice of the wife is not a good long term strategy for building strong marriages and fighting divorce. I would also want to point out the damage they cause by pushing their personal applications of scripture. Sometimes they make it sound like everyone has to follow head/submit passages exactly the same way. My pet peeve is when they say, “The husband makes the final decision.” This is another way the wife’s voice ends up being suppressed. They make it seem like the Bible says the husband can do this, but in fact the Bible never says that! It just says the husband is the head of the wife.

  2. Kristi Holl on September 23, 2020 at 12:30 pm

    Most powerful and clear presentation of the facts—all without “drama”—that I have read in ages. Such a fantastic response to anyone confused in this type of marriage about whether or not there is abuse AND the answer to why s/he has no warmth for the spouse and cringes at so-called intimacy. Really destroys the false guilt that plagues many of us. Thank you!

  3. Marian on September 23, 2020 at 1:58 pm

    I wish that all church leaders would read Leslie’s book and access her resources. This was my biggest issue with my church leaders is that I felt I had no value. My volunteer services were “paused” as they felt I should take the time to work on my marriage. I was also told that because we are married his problem is my problem. Even though they personally had evidence of his behaviour;
    sometimes “church” is too worried about image rather the people in it. I’m so grateful to find a community that understands and helps us. Don’t they realize that I wanted my marriage of 45 years to work too? I now realized I stayed way too long. Joined Conquer and thankful for the resources and support. God is good!

  4. Lisa on September 24, 2020 at 1:56 am

    The choice of pastors and church leaders to “stay neutral” is what is most crushing. Having Desperately asked for help only to have a neutral response or a “you can do all things through Christ” response when I have said that I just can’t bear up against this another day is spiritually irresponsible. Staying neutral in cases like this is not neutral at all but enables and facilitates the continuation of the abuse. “All it takes for evil to win is for good men to do nothing” Nothing is neutral. To say “we of course are not going to pick sides” is saying “we Of course will not see if there is sin occurring here and side against it”. Peace at all costs and staying neutral further buries one and further lifts the other. I wish that pastors had the guts to confront and not condone through attempts at neutrality.

    • Aly on September 24, 2020 at 8:42 pm

      Wow.. you are so clear and I agree- we need courageous church leaders and Christians in general!
      Your examples ring so very familiar to the Christian Sound bite phrases.

  5. kdelikat2015 on September 24, 2020 at 11:53 am

    This is so well stated! Thank you!

    I wish every Pastor and church elder would read both Leslie’s book (either the destructive marriage or relationship if not both) and Tim Keller’s recent book. The church has fallen into a trap in their teaching/counseling on this and needs to re-visit what the Bible REALLY says as a whole – not just in one phrase (usually taken out of context).

  6. Sherry on September 24, 2020 at 1:09 pm

    Amazing article! Thank you for posting it!
    I’m free now from my 32 year destructive marriage. Sadly I tried for 10 years to heal my marriage. I went to 2 churches looking for help but I was considered the problem. I understood churches were trying to save Christian marriages not Christians. Sometimes divorce is truly a blessing from God.

    • Free on September 26, 2020 at 8:53 pm

      Sherry, can you tell me how your life has changed? How long ago did you leave the destructive relationship? I would like to hear more about people’s journey out of abuse. I have found it takes many years to heal and get out of denial after such a long time in a destructive relationship.

      • Sherry on September 27, 2020 at 12:14 am

        Free, it’s actually will be 3 years tomorrow that I left. It’s been amazing and hard. The first year I spent vacationing! I don’t know how I afforded it but looking back on it that seems like that’s all I did. My ex ruined every vacation by being difficult or wanting to leave early. And I reconnected with my extended family. The second year I bought my own home and decorated it with things like matching drapes and bedspreads. Sounds stupid but I never was allowed to do that before. This year I took online classes through a local ministry that also offered prayer counseling working through lifelong issues. My marriage was really a symptom of childhood issues that never had been resolved.
        But now I’m ill with a rare condition that probably had been brewing for a long time so most of my emotional energy is in getting well.
        But I’m amazed at how God rescued me. Before I could escape God had to help me get out of the victim mindset through counseling and reading everything I could about emotional abuse and destructive marriages. I learned to detach emotionally long before I left physically.

        • Free on September 27, 2020 at 4:54 am

          Thank you for your reply.

          I too, detached emotionally, long before I left physically.

          It sounds like you have been living life to its fullest in your three years of freedom! I hope your health improves and you get to enjoy many more years of safety.

  7. Leanne on September 26, 2020 at 11:23 am

    I have a question, what is the scriptural back up to the phrase “ the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.“ When I say this to my husband(we’re separated) and remind him of changes I need to see before I could trust him or feel safe around him again, he says this isn’t A biblical statement. He has a habit of twisting scripture.

    • kristi2holl on September 26, 2020 at 11:38 am

      For what it’s worth here, I don’t use the “best predictor” statement anymore for that exact reason, although it is certainly true. Instead, I sound like a stuck record that both the Old Testament and New Testament are clear that you reap what you sow. I distrusted mine in two areas (financial and personal), and when I got hammered for investing my inheritance with a Christian investment company instead of letting him have it to invest, I reminded him that we had fought for ten years over his unwillingness to budget or even live paycheck to paycheck. He just spent it faster than he earned it. I said I didn’t trust him in the area of financial responsibility, and he was reaping what he sowed by years of acting irresponsibly. In the personal area, it was the same thing. I cited a good number of instances of lying (big ones!) and said he was reaping what he sowed in my distrust.

      I also pointed out that it worked in a positive way too: that if he started making consistently responsible, trustworthy choices that OVER TIME he might be able to rebuild trust. I made no promises. But they don’t lose our trust over one or two incidents–usually it’s YEARS of events–and they can’t expect to rebuild it quickly either. [Then he hammers home that I am unforgiving, revengeful, don’t understand grace, etc. But I just reiterate my sowing and reaping stance.] And I don’t give a timeline. I quite honestly say that I don’t know when–or if–he can regain my trust. It’s not a threat. I really don’t know if it’s possible for me.

      • Moon Beam on September 26, 2020 at 1:09 pm

        Well said, Kristi.i am curious, what is your relationship status at the moment?

        I learned that despite years of consequences, professional counseling, anger management classes, accountability groups, marriage enrichment and finally legal action. My destructive spouse couldn’t change the way he thought. He had many, many opportunities to learn, grow and change. He just didn’t want to change and liked the power and control he felt. Without his abusive behaviors, he felt unable to function as a human being. He had an under developed sense of self and was/ is deeply disturbed.

        I am not mentally ill and do not have a personality disorder. The unequal yoke and enabling of evil to prevail just didn’t make sense when I was finally free from it, I didn’t return.

      • Leanne on September 27, 2020 at 9:50 am

        Thank You for your reply Kristi. That is a really good Bible verse to use which means the same thing. He misuses scripture and twists it all the time. I’m very positive that he has a mental illness possibly bipolar. And I have been telling him often during our separation that I don’t trust him anymore and certain changes he would have to make before I could. But it takes time to rebuild trust. But he thinks that if I love God then I would trust him immediately and reconcile the relationship. It’s very true that trust needs to be rebuilt over time based on his actions, not him Trying to force me to.

    • Barbara B on September 27, 2020 at 2:51 pm

      The entire second chapter of 2 Peter talks about false teachers, people who twist scripture and are untrustworthy. Verse 22 says, “It has happened to them according to the true proverb, ‘A dog returns to its own vomit,’ and, ‘A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire.'” Both of these Proverbs are quotes from the OT, so it’s in both the OT and the NT that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior UNLESS there is genuine repentance.

  8. Autumn on September 26, 2020 at 1:30 pm

    What I would like pastors to know is to refer out. Unless they have trauma counseling experience, don’t attempt to counsel people is destructive marriages. You will just harm the victim. Notify authorities with the slightest suspicion of abuse and learn your state’s definition of abuse. (For example in my home state blocking an exit is entrapment, even if the exit is your bedroom door.) The laws in a community are designed to protect people of all faiths.

    If your church is interested in starting a ministry to those entrapped in destructive relationships, wonderful! There are many Christian organizations that would love to have you come along side them and train up partners in their work to rescue the oppressed. Small group leaders are needed to facilitate programs and accountability groups for offenders as well.

  9. Free on September 26, 2020 at 1:40 pm

    I would recommend Wade Mullen’s report of his doctoral research. Google him and watch the you tube. “How to Stop Spiritual Abuse ” Nov. 25, 2019. This was the most profoundly helpful presentation I watched this year.

    Christian women stay in abusive relationships longer than any other group of women. The church can help us by being informed about the problem and to have current resources to give to a woman when she is brave enough to speak about it. Act quickly and strategically, realizing that you are most likely dealing with a wolf in sheep’s clothing as their partner.

  10. Lori on September 29, 2020 at 9:54 pm

    I believe inaction, indecision, passivity and appeasement are not how God intended for any of us to respond to control, judgment or abuse of leadership or knowledge. Discipline and correction work if we submit to the loving authority of God and to the wisdom of others who we trust are grounded in God’s Word and guided by the Holy Spirit. If not, there cannot be reconciliation or restoration for any relationship. Love, discipline and correction, for ourselves and others, are a necessary part of all the roles we take on in life, because if we want to change the way everyone thinks, that change starts with us.

  11. Kathy Wilkinson on October 16, 2020 at 3:35 am

    Our sin does not separate us from God if we have placed our faith in Jesus Christ’s finished work. God will discipline us as a loving Father but never separate Himself from us.

  12. Denise Bussiere on November 19, 2020 at 3:55 pm

    I totally agree with this…but what if people think the abuser has changed but they are still lying to and blaming their abused spouse for breaking up the marriage…when in reality they did not what to take the appropriate steps. They have taken steps but none that has resulted in dealing with why they did what they did…but only blaming their spouse.
    My husband blames me for so called cutting him off intimately, and indicates that this is when he starting being angry…saying his anger was from frustration. Reality is that boundaries where set because he refused to listen to anything I said refuses to treat me as a person. He was angry, demeaning, blaming way before this time mentioned. But he is determined to stand his ground and say he was frustrated because he was cut off…boundaries were set that he did not want to adhere to.

    Others in the church believe he has changed and feel that I am unforgiving because I do not see or accept that he has changed.

    I am still afraid of him…knowing that returning to him would only bring more abuse my way… there is no trust.

    How can I deal with this?

    • Marian on November 20, 2020 at 2:17 pm

      Does it matter what others think? I was fooled by that and ultimately landed up separating permanently. Everyone’s situation is different but some basic things are the same. Change is difficult and unless they are really convicted they need to change its only superficial to get them what they want. If you’re being prayerful and doing your own work, trust your gut.

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