On Sunday afternoons, Sheri Ferber, a 43-year-old mother of three, listens online to Rick Warren's sermons, streamed from the 25,000-member Saddleback Church where she was a devoted member for ten years.
Although Sheri, pictured here, now lives an hour away in Temecula, California, she hangs on the weekly sermons like a woman in exile. It's the closest she gets to church these days.
Ferber is a petite strawberry-blonde with a pretty, round-cheeked face, and a voice that sometimes sounds hesitant. Four years ago, she approached a Saddleback pastor for protection against her husband, who'd violently attacked her while they were driving home from church. Instead of protecting her, Ferber says, the pastor called her husband to warn him that Ferber had been "gossiping about their marriage." Ferber, it seems, had run into Saddleback's teaching that the sanctity of marriage prohibits divorce in all but a few circumstances, and domestic violence is not one of them. Abused wives could separate from their husbands, Teaching Pastor Tom Holladay explained in audio clips once available on the church website, but only with the intent to reconcile through church counseling.
"There's something in me that wishes there was a Bible verse that says if they abuse you in this and such kind of way then you can leave them," said Holladay, but sadly, he concluded, there wasn't. "It's not like you can escape the pain," he said, since the "short-term solution" of divorce leaves the "long-term pain" of a failed marriage. Holladay further qualified that domestic abuse meant regular beatings, not simply a spouse who "grabbed you once."
The clips were removed from the website this spring, in the months after Warren, the casual-Friday face of "new Evangelicals," spoke at President Barack Obama's inauguration. But the underlying problems have not disappeared. Like many conservative churches, particularly fellow Southern Baptist churches, Saddleback teaches a traditional view of gender roles in marriage, where wives submit to husbands' protection and leadership. Supporters say that in many cases this Christian model of marriage, known as "complementarianism," can work out well, for both men and women. But in cases where the husband is prone to hitting, experts warn, the teachings can be disastrous: encouraging the abuser and shaming wives into thinking they can't report the abuse and still be right with God.
Saddleback styles itself as an update to the hidebound American conservative church. Warren is known for his Hawaiian print shirts and approachability. His bestselling book, The Purpose Driven Life, is pitched at upwardly mobile Evangelicals, and Saddleback's "mutual submission" teachings are less authoritarian than strict fundamentalist readings. "The Holy Spirit establishes the husband as the spiritual leader of the home, yet he is not to be domineering," the website explains. "The wife is to be respectful and submissive, but is not to be considered a doormat." As such, Saddleback seems a vanguard of new, upwardly mobile American Evangelicals, who are wealthier, better educated and, a 2006 study proposed, more happily married than the rest of the country.
In general, women in traditional Evangelical marriages report greater levels of satisfaction with their husbands' emotional engagement and domestic help than do more progressive working women, according to W. Bradford Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist and author of Soft Patriarchs and New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands. Men in these marriages, says Wilcox, are less likely than other men to become abusive. But this is only true if they are regular churchgoers. "Born again" men who attend church sporadically are actually among the most likely abusers, just as they are the most likely to be divorced, or not living with their children. For these less committed churchgoers, teaching the same lessons about gender roles and the importance of saving marriages at almost any cost can have dangerous consequences.
Church attendance rates alone don't explain the problem of abuse in Evangelical churches, however. Instead, the fundamental attitudes of the church towards marriage roles can exacerbate the dynamics of abuse. Jocelyn Andersen, author of Woman Submit! Christians and Domestic Violence, was severely battered by her assistant pastor husband. She argues that submission teachings don't create abusers, but allow violent men to justify their abuse as biblical. The real danger, though, is in how the teachings impact devout women, who may conclude they can't leave their marriages and remain committed Christians. Nancy Nason-Clark, a sociologist at the University of New Brunswick who studies religion and violence, says that while domestic violence rates are consistent in and out of church, Christian women stay much longer, and in much more violent situations, than do non-Christians. "When a religious woman is victimized by her partner, she's in some ways more vulnerable--not to the abuse, but to feeling that she should stick it out, and stick to the church for help. She's more likely to blame herself, to think that if she's better, the suffering will end." Barbara Roberts, author of Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion, adds that many churches "inadvertently become enlisted into the agenda of abusers" by promoting reconciliation between victims and unreformed abusers.
In the audio clips, Holladay took care to explain that enduring abuse is not part of biblical submission. But the church does teach, he told me, "that with Jesus' help, all marriages can be reconciled. Why should we be in business if we don't believe that?"
Ferber was introduced to her ex-husband, Mark Bradley, by his mother, Charlotte Huntington, a Saddleback choir staffer who became Ferber's spiritual mentor. Bradley wasn't a Saddleback member, but attended the nearby Life Church, a Pentecostal body where he was active in the music ministry. At first, they talked late into the night, reading Scripture and composing their own Christian lyrics. Within four years they married. Right before their wedding, Bradley told Ferber to say goodbye to her choir fellows, as he'd asked her to quit. She saw the prospect of submitting to her husband as a bittersweet "graduation" to a new phase of life.
Ten months into the marriage, they were driving along a winding road from Saddleback to Life Church. Bradley had had a conflict with a Saddleback member who'd worked on his car. Ferber had paid Bradley's debt, and in the car she asked him about the money. Suddenly, she says, he became violent, jabbing her temple with his finger, telling her to "shut the f--- up," and then stopped the car and bashed her head against the passenger window until she threw a cup of water at him.
In the following weeks, Ferber confided the abuse to an older couple she knew from choir. Following proper protocol at Saddleback, the couple pulled in Tom Atkins, Ferber's small group leader and a friend of Huntington's. When Ferber began to tell Atkins what happened, she says, he raised a hand and told her, "Stop talking." Soon after, Bradley called her, giggling, and said, "I hear from Tom you've been running your mouth." He reported that Atkins had told him: "Mark, I ran into your wife the other day. I stopped her from gossiping about your marriage."
In an e-mail, Atkins stressed that he couldn't comment on Ferber's allegations because of pastoral confidentiality obligations. In a phone interview, Tom Holladay and another church pastor, Bob Baker, head of Saddleback's pastoral care ministry, said they were similarly bound by confidentiality, but acknowledged that Ferber's claims about Atkins would run counter to church policy if true. "If you're asking if that's the right response," said Holladay, "it would be inconsistent with how we do things." Neither Bradley nor Huntington responded to interview requests.
Ferber confesses that initially, she conspired with the church in minimizing the abuse, and trying to reconcile with her husband. As a core member of Saddleback, Ferber had absorbed the church's message that divorce was almost never an option. She called the church prayer line, and was told that she and her husband should attend church marriage counseling, at first under Atkins and his wife, then under a lay couple in the marriage ministry.
In the counseling sessions, Ferber was stopped whenever she tried to discuss the assault, she says, and told that she should learn to "sweeten her words," and not make Bradley feel "backed into a corner." Although they were no longer living together, sometimes she let him stay the night. Wives, she believed, had a duty to share their bodies with their husbands. One night, Bradley asked if he could come over and she said "No." He called her back and demanded she read him a biblical passage, 1 Corinthians 7:4: "The wife's body does not belong to her alone, but also to her husband." Bradley filed for divorce the next day. Soon after, Ferber discovered she was pregnant.
The prospect of a baby spurred Ferber to self-defense, and, 11 months after the attack, she filed a police report. Months later, Bradley was convicted of two felony counts of assault and received 60 days of jail time, fines, three years of formal probation and a one-mile restraining order.
Ferber describes what followed at Saddleback as a slow freeze. Unlike other expectant mothers, she received little church support. Bradley, not formerly a church member, began singing at the front of the choir. Ferber reminded Bob Baker that she had a restraining order against Bradley and asked how to handle Bradley's sudden prominence in the church, but she never got a satisfying answer. Baker told me that Saddleback policy is to divide church access between both parties of a restraining order, but give the victim priority. But Ferber claims that Saddleback barred her from Sunday morning services and the several weeknights that her ministry groups met.
For four years, Ferber pled her case with various Saddleback staffers. But "every door that would seem to open would slam shut," she told me. Eventually, she left Orange County, but hears from former church fellows that her ex-husband is now an official worship leader. (Saddleback confirms him only as a member of the music ministry. During our discussion, Holladay did not speak specifically about Bradley but said generally that domestic violence would "obviously" be grounds for dismissal for a Saddleback ministry member.) Though neither Holladay nor Baker would get into details, Holladay gently dismissed Ferber's story. "People begin to feel things after what happened," he says."I don't think I can sit here and call her a liar. I don't know what she's been through and is going through. As a church, our goal is healing. It might make her feel good to see her story in a newspaper. It might make her feel bad--depending on how you report it. It doesn't sound untrue to me, but you're obviously hearing one side of the story, and it sounds like someone's added a layer of hurt. We don't want to go down roads that would hurt this person more."
Brenda Branson, co-author of Violence Among Us--Ministry to Families in Crisis, calls Ferber's story "sadly typical." When Branson sought help over her youth minister husband's violence, one pastor told her not to make prayer requests about her marital troubles, and another told her to go home, "cook him his very favorite meal," and be more quiet and understanding. "I did cook his favorite meal, and try to be very sensitive," Branson says. "That happened to be the night my husband picked up a chair and hit me with it."
Some conservative churches push submission teachings to an uncomfortable degree. In 2008, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Bruce Ware said that when male headship is challenged by women seeking to "have their way, instead of submitting to their husbands," husbands may "respond to that threat to their authority" by becoming abusive. James Dobson argued in his marital therapy book, Love Must Be Tough, that abused women shouldn't divorce but separate and try to change their husbands' behavior. He also warned against women who bait men into abuse to gain the "prize" of bruises to display. In 2007, popular Pentecostal televangelist Juanita Bynum was badly beaten by her estranged pastor husband, Bishop Thomas W. Weeks III, during an attempted reconciliation meeting at an Atlanta hotel. Bynum made domestic violence a priority of her ministry after the attack, and was subsequently condemned as "an angry, out-of-control woman" by conservative radio preacher Jesse Lee Peterson.
Ferber now lives with her three children, including her and Bradley's son, now four, whom Bradley has never come to meet. She struggles to make ends selling natural health products from her home, and has neither filed for child support nor joined another church--a phenomenon Branson says is common among devout women whose stories are doubted. "They are truly people without a country," she says.
Ferber had originally come to Saddleback seeking healing from an unstable childhood. "I leaned my entire weight on the church," she says. "What a family it was to me." Ironically, the family that stuck by her wasn't Saddleback, but Bradley's Life Church, which responded swiftly to the abuse by pulling Bradley from leadership and later accompanying Ferber to court: something Ferber attributes to the difference between Baptist and Pentecostal approaches to women's roles in the church.
Since her divorce, Ferber has become friends with Bradley's first wife, Angela Jackson, a 40-year-old mother of four who works in Atlanta as both a realtor and teacher. Jackson suffered far more sustained abuse during her marriage to Bradley than had Ferber, though few in her church believed her. When she visited a doctor after Bradley beat her around the face, x-rays showed her head had become completely lopsided from the blows. The two women hope to create a ministry to teach churches to respond to domestic violence better than did theirs. Yet on Sunday afternoons, both listen online to the sermons of the churches they've left.
Saddleback is now launching a revamped 30-week domestic violence program for victims. Saddleback's new policy is to advise unilateral legal separation in any unsafe spousal abuse cases and police intervention, so that, Baker says, "victims [are put] in the position where they have to get help." Marriage counseling is no longer the first option, and a program for abusers is anticipated by year's end.
It's unclear how much of this approach is new since Ferber sought help, or since Saddleback was criticized for Tom Holladay's divorce teachings, but Holladay is clearly responding to public reproofs when he apologizes for "phrases that make it sound like abuse is [only] repeated beatings. We don't believe that." But the church hasn't changed its emphasis on reconciling all marriages as a first priority. And it hasn't much changed its attitude towards victims, either. In January, Ferber called Saddleback again, and was directed to Bob Baker, who offered to discuss her "making amends" with the church, meaning essentially, she could apologize.
When we first spoke, Ferber asked if I was a Christian. When I told her I wasn't, it gave her great pause, as she considered the negative impact of discussing church problems with outsiders. "To a degree, this is a family matter," she said. "And I'm not trying to air our dirty laundry. Pastor Rick handed me my life and I'm forever grateful for what he taught me. But for them to reject me like that, when I did nothing wrong...They couldn't stop the abuse, but they could have helped me. When they say 'get over it,' you have to know what the 'it' is: for me, it wasn't the abuse from my husband, it was the abuse from the church."
Source: Double X