I returned recently from teaching a course in London on the theological ontology of woman in relationship to the biblical divorce texts, with a special interest in the nature of abuse and of ecclesiastical responsibilities in difficult cases. To be sure, my own pastoral experience in the last decade has driven me to appreciate the urgency of these questions. But it is not my experience alone.
For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, there is an enormous elephant in the room of church sessions, presbyteries, and denominations. There is much talk of church planting, missions, doctrinal orthodoxy, and the rosiest versions of a given denominational history. Meanwhile men are harming their wives and calling it an exercise of their headship. Women, in those few times they can, are crying for help. And too often the church says nothing or says the wrong thing, strengthening the arms of the oppressor, and women are destroyed. Men may be told to lighten up and take it easy, but are not held accountable for destructively distorting the privilege of headship. Women, at least those who have enough stamina left to get this far, are being told they aren’t submitting enough or it’s really not that bad. There’s precious little evidence in church leaders of the unflinching prophetic, messianic, and apostolic invective against the oppressor. There are good church leaders doing good work on this front, but it appears they are too few. And in places where they aren’t too few, perhaps they are too quiet.
For the past several years, I’ve received many e-mails and phone calls telling me versions of this alarmingly common story. Surprisingly to me, many of the contacts come from people I’ve never met or heard of. They are ministers pleading for help in dealing with a rogue elder or two, sometimes facing the prospect of a congregational split; sessions unsure of how to handle the misconduct of a presbytery or member; women at their wit’s – and even faith’s – end. And then there are the students who tell me their own dark stories, stories made far darker by the failure of church leaders to protect the vulnerable. Add to this the invariably personal dimension to anyone’s exploration of the topic: we all know someone close to us, and usually in our family, who has a story like this.
Last year I was in a first conversation with a new friend, a seminary professor in the area specializing in pastoral theology. We were in many ways opposites of each other, theologically and ecclesiastically, yet she was clearly a thoughtful and experienced servant who had seen many, many things over the years. After an hour or so of warm fellowship over a quality pint at a popular pub in the area, conversation turned to problems in churches and in pastoral ministry, and a range of hypothetical scenarios as well as some she had dealt with personally. Eventually I proposed – hypothetically and obliquely – a scenario in which an abusive but publicly magnanimous husband might be supported by church leaders and several misled members of the congregation while the wife unravels more and more behind the scenes. I said nothing more than this, and in fact the profile fit several situations I have heard about and seen over the years. This woman leaned in and said, “And I’ll bet they wanted to make him an elder, didn’t they?” She visibly hoped she was wrong, and I said nothing in reply as we shifted to a new hypothetical scenario. But of course, in every one of the examples I could think of, she was right.
The contacts, questions, and requests for help have continued, and the more I learn about the significance of the problem within Scripture itself (as Daniel Block has demonstrated, Judges is the story of this type of devolution), the more it grieves me. In 2014, several evangelical writers published a book-length apology, confessing the church’s public failings on a range of issues. One of them is “Sins Against Women.” None of the authors identifies with a confessional Reformed communion, yet they seem a step ahead.
A sense of proportion is of course in order, and it is easy to overreach. Yet I’m learning I’m not the only one mourning this state of affairs. We seem to rush toward debates over the Mosaic administration, the extent of acceptable activities on the Lord’s Day, the most faithful preaching method, and how much the prophets knew when they spoke at the direction of the Spirit. All interesting and useful questions, certainly. But how many hours of stimulating, edifying, smoke-filled, stout-drenched conversations on back porches among confessional presbyterians – for which we are well known, or ridiculed as the case may be – are spent lamenting the stories of the church’s women and girls? Perhaps my experience is the exception, but I haven’t had many.
Truly, Genesis 3:16 and its mashal principle is the pivot for a long horror story of human relations. That the Spirit reverses this principle in the household of faith must be a paramount feature of the Good News. It’s why the apostles gave the church the so-called haustafeln or household codes in their Epistles (Eph. 5:22-6:9; Col. 3:18-4:1; 1 Pet. 2:18-3:12), in which some tend to be interested, practically, only to the extent that it applies to unruly women and children. But the gospel will sound like good news to the extent that we face up to the bad news. In that spirit, if we attend more closely to this topic we might discover how much we’ve missed along the way.
More on all this to come. But the concern today is simple.
We have a problem.
(The post has been edited to ensure privacy.)