This is a chapter from Eryl Davies’ Hidden Evil: A Biblical and Pastoral Response to Domestic Abuse
– A Pastor
This chapter is necessary because no one should imagine that most pastors and church officers are guilty of domestic abuse. That is not true; the vast majority of them have happy marital relationships and are helpful models for their children and young couples in the church to follow. It is important therefore that we keep a balance and not assume that all or many men in church office are abusers.
In this chapter, we read about a U.K. pastor of a large evangelical church who suffered domestic abuse for years yet continued to love his wife, longing for a closer relationship with her. There are several reasons why this pastor, referred to as Dan, is sharing his story here for the first time.
A major reason is to help male victims; their voice is often ignored.
He is also eager to alert church leaders to the fact that men in churches can suffer extensively at the hands of their wives, even though they may be church officers.
Wives too can be devious and ‘controlling’ and in such a way that the public cannot see.
Dan acknowledges that in evangelical churches more women are trapped by controlling men. But he adds that even in complementarian churches like the one he led, abusive behaviour can often be reinforced and tolerated by questionable views on subjects like divorce. He claims it is by no means a one–way street.
Another reason for sharing his experience is his desire for churches to be wise, sensitive, fair and biblically pastoral in approaching such cases. Too often, the husband is not believed, even if he is a pastor who has served the church well. His claims to be the victim fell on deaf ears and the abuser remains a respected, popular member of the church!
His story is told in an interview format below; it is told, however, with considerable sadness, disappointment and honesty. He remains heart–broken over what has happened and needs prayer.
Q: Tell us briefly, Dan about your family background.
A: I’m from a non–Christian family. It was a very stable and happy home with a clear moral framework in which we could talk and share openly about matters troubling us, including relationships and sex. This ought to have stood me in good stead for my own relationships.
Q: When did you become a Christian?
A: I became a Christian, like many others, while studying in University.
Q: What did you do after leaving University?
A: For a period of time I gained experience in business and then I worked for a parachurch ministry before becoming a church pastor.
Q: Did you have a strong sense of call to the pastoral, preaching ministry?
A: I was really persuaded that I wanted to be a pastor by the end of my studies in University. I thought, however, that it was important to have experience of secular work before entering the Christian ministry. I was then invited to be an elder in the church I attended. During this period, I had a continuing desire and clear conviction concerning ministry and this was endorsed by those in the church. The leaders and the congregation confirmed I was suitably gifted for the pastoral/preaching ministry.
Q: How well and for how long had you known your wife before marrying?
A: We had known each other for four years before we married. I would have said that I knew her very well and thought I had a good understanding of her personality, character, struggles, hopes and dreams. Looking back now, I think that was very naïve and that, in reality, nobody is really allowed to know her at all. She has kept part of her life secret and locked for years with no one given access to it. Only later in the marriage did I discover this fact.
Q: Tell us about your church ministry, without identifying its location.
A: I pastored a large church in England for over ten years, a church which was always exciting to be at. We had a brilliant group of elders, young men and women training for ministry and Christian work, church plants happening almost each year, people being converted and baptised almost every month. There were lovely groups of Christian friends who I felt genuinely shared life’s joys and sorrows together. I loved preaching and personal pastoral work and there was much of it to do. I believe I was genuinely appreciated and loved by the church family for my preaching ministry and pastoring work through the week.
Q: During your ministry then, in which there was considerable encouragement and blessing, there was a marital problem that no one else knew about. Is that right?
A: Yes, no one knew about it in the church. I did not tell anyone about it.
Q: The marital problem was one of abuse on the part of your wife. Can you share a little about this please?
A: Of course, though it is not easy. Essentially, the abusive element of the relationship was about the total refusal of intimacy and sex. That may sound silly in a marriage but it was a fact. And this fact led to ‘control’ in many other ways too. My wife controlled our relationship in so many different ways. For example, she insisted on us always holding hands in public in order to demonstrate what a perfect couple we were. That is only one example. But in private it was very different. Constantly she accused me of being obsessed with intimacy in marriage and that I should not expect ‘any of that’. This message was particularly reinforced on occasions like anniversaries and birthdays or other special occasions.
Q: Were you frightened of your wife?
A: No, I wasn’t ever frightened in my marriage. It was much more about being worn down. My wife exercised almost complete ‘control’. One example is that I was expected to say exactly where I was going at all times and when I’d be back. Being even five minutes late may not lead to shouting but I would get told I was letting her down and that I was being inconsiderate and selfish. Money was another area where control was manifest. Although I did our family accounts, I would be in trouble if there was any evidence I’d bought things we did not need. One of my most vivid early marriage memories is being told how wasteful and selfish I was for buying a coffee from McDonalds when I was on my way home after working late. I was very tired and I needed a coffee to help me stay awake while driving home in the car!
Q: Did anyone in the church or the wider family suspect something was wrong in the marriage?
A: No. Anybody looking at our relationship from outside would have thought, because I’m physically bigger and much more extrovert, that, if anyone, I was the person in charge of our relationship. But at home it was not like that at all. I wasn’t frightened. It was just a sense that life would be made unbearable through being ignored and an emotional withdrawal if I upset her at all, even in the most trivial way.
Q: Your wife’s public image in the church was one of respect and popularity. Was she involved in teaching individuals or groups in the church?
A: Yes, she was respected and admired. By the time I was leading a large and growing church, I had to sit through marriage preparation classes where my wife would tell women how they needed to take notice of 1 Corinthians 7 and not deprive their husbands. Then I would go to bed knowing that even a touch would result in a rebuke.
Q: Was your wife aware of what she was doing to you? Did she apologise?
A: My wife never apologised! Perhaps the area that shows this most clearly is what happened after an argument or a disagreement. Whoever was at fault and whatever the fault was – and marital arguments are usually a bit on both sides! – I would be always ignored until I apologised, even though I may not have been at fault. I didn’t realise it until after I had left the relationship but what this led to was my feeling continually anxious that I hadn’t apologised enough for every little thing and feeling always on edge about it.
Q: Did you consider leaving your wife early on?
A: For the first few years, I really did not want to leave my wife because I loved her and cared for her. I also thought it would be morally wrong to leave her. I was also genuinely hopeful for change and prayed to this end. Then working for the church, I was busy and the emotional reward of the work helped to fill the vacuum which I felt at home.
Q: Can I press you concerning the lack of intimacy in your marriage? This must have been a huge disappointment but my interest is in seeing the link with domestic abuse.
A: I do not want to answer the question in great detail for obvious reasons. Needless to say, on our wedding day, I was in love and excited about being with my loved one until death parted us. I anticipated a close intimate relationship. After a couple of months, however, I was repeatedly told that I was ruining things and was obsessed by having a normal marital relationship. I was accused of being unreasonable. I was at fault, she kept telling me. If I say that the marriage was not consummated for nearly five years, you will understand how she controlled this aspect of our marital relationship but her control of our relationship extended to all other areas too. Feeling desperate at times, I had thoughts of annulling the marriage but I could not do it. And the reason was simply this: I really loved my wife. We had known fun times together but the relationship was becoming more difficult.
Q: What steps did you take to improve the relationship?
A: As the months went by, I stopped indicating that I’d like to kiss or cuddle her because I knew that she would say it was all my fault that she did not want to kiss me or be intimate with me. ‘If you were nicer to me’, ‘if you bought me more flowers’ or ‘if you weren’t…’ The excuses were numerous and it was always my fault. Verbal abuse alongside constant accusations against me and rejection became regular features in the relationship. Eventually, during one argument, my wife disclosed the fact that she had been sexually abused as a child by a relative. I understood more then about her response to me and was sympathetic. When I suggested counselling or other help, she refused and claimed she did not have a problem with her past. The problem was with me!
Q: Did your wife change her mind about seeing a counsellor?
A: Yes, because there was another problem. My wife wanted us to have children. That is tricky especially if you are not in a real marital relationship and intercourse is prohibited. Eventually this provided some motivation for her to go to a qualified counsellor which later enabled us to conceive. I had hoped that this might be the beginning of a change, enabling her to think it may be desirable to have a normal relationship. That did not happen.
Q: What did happen then?
A: Once our first child was born it all got so much worse. I think husbands may sometimes feel ignored to some degree after the birth of a child as mothers, rightly and necessarily, give their time and energies to the baby. I understand that. But given how unloved, controlled and ignored I was already feeling, this only compounded it. There was also a strong sense on my part that all my wife had ever wanted was the image of a perfect Christian family and not really me at all. I felt she now had what she’d always wanted–and it was not me!
Q: Can you give other examples of ‘control’ and abuse?
A: For example, the control exercised by my wife meant that I even had to be watched washing my hands when I came in from outside. I was also told where to sit at meal time. These were just a few of the examples of the control she exercised. I would not even get a kiss on the lips unless I was physically leaving the house and therefore couldn’t ‘demand any of that.’ I was always at fault. It was impossible to do or say anything right – at any time. I talked about telling someone how she talked to and about me and what was happening in our relationship. Her answer was calculating: ‘No one would believe you’. Soon after the birth of our second child, I wanted to end the abusive relationship but I could not do it. Leaving a mother with a baby would have been cruel. Over the next seven years, however, I was gripped by fear, partly because of the things I was told by my wife that made me believe that no one would want me or believe my story.
Q: Did you tell your wife you thought of leaving her?
A: Yes, I did. After ten years, for the first time I talked to her about leaving. I explained that I was not happy and I knew she was not happy either. If we could not change things so that we actually had a marriage rather than a house–share with children we needed to stop this charade. Sometime later, I told my wife that unless she came to counselling and faced up to the issues involved that I would be leaving. Positively, she agreed to come to the counselling sessions. That was great, so I thought. Encouragingly, during many sessions she told the counsellor how sorry she was for all that had happened which had been her fault. She seemed genuinely repentant and I sensed there was hope for us. Sadly, however, there was no change at home. It was the same as ever with rejection, manipulation, control, verbal abuse and coldness.
Q: Why did you not leave your wife earlier?
A: As I look back, I do wonder a lot about this. Obviously, I really loved this woman who was my wife. Then once the children were born I had responsibilities and a love for them too. They were my children and important to us both. Another reason is because I just got used to this being my life, and I threw my energies into my church, my friends and my children. Nearer the end, it was mostly because I was afraid that if I left I would lose my family, my home, my job and my friends.
Q: What pushed you in the end to leave your wife?
A: As the pastor of a large church, I was in a controlling and abusive marriage for as long as 17 years. It was a long period and I struggled hard over these years to improve the marital relationship, seeking by God’s grace to cope with the abuse. It was hard. After all the efforts, prayer, the many counselling sessions it was obvious that my wife refused to change and become less controlling. The decision was a painful one to make but I felt in the end there was no choice and I was being driven out.
Q: Can you share some of the ways the Lord sustained and helped you during this long period of marriage and after leaving your wife?
A: Sometimes I have felt that I could not go on physically and contemplated suicide. God in his grace stopped me acting on those thoughts. More often I have felt I can’t continue spiritually and that there is… no hope. But somehow, I can’t run away from the Lord, and the grace and kindness of Christ has always brought me back to a faith that often feels fragile but is, nevertheless, astonishingly comforting. When it all feels too much I just remind myself that I know Jesus loves me. The last sermons I preached at my church were on Job, and there was providence in spending time seeing how darkness doesn’t preclude faith.
Q: What happened when you left?
A: When I left, all my fears came true. I lost my home and almost all my assets. I lost three quarters of my time with my children. My church fired me. All my sermons were erased from the internet. The church leaders wrote to me and told me I had behaved wickedly. My wife remains active in the same church. I am glad she is cared for by the church. I really am glad of that. However, this only compounds the sense of injustice I experience and it reinforces the impression to those who do not know the facts that it is all my fault.
Q: Are you inferring that the church leaders did not listen to your story and check it out?
A: I do understand that when a husband and pastor leaves the family home it is a fairly natural conclusion to draw that this is principally his responsibility. So I’m not too cross about the people who don’t know the details assuming that, though I think a wider realisation that life is complex and things aren’t always what they appear would be helpful. I don’t think the church leaders were prejudiced as such, it was just easier for them to make it my fault as it avoided confrontation and meant they did not ever have to challenge my wife. And despite the fact that as a leader I had encouraged others on numerous occasions to think through the subject of divorce biblically and to study it in depth and had taught it in sermons, it seemed none of my fellow leaders had really grappled with it or, if they had, regarded it as just people trying to find excuses rather than serious attempts to grapple with the biblical text.
Q: Are you able to share your disappointment in the way in which the church treated you and your claim regarding domestic abuse?
A: One of the things I feel most sad about was the way Christians viewed me leaving the family. There was also quite a lot of spreading of ‘news’ (gossip) about me by leaders in the church to other people and to other church leaders. They were inclined to just believe and repeat things my ex–wife said without taking any trouble to question or check them with me. That was disappointing.
When I sat with a church elder I’d worked with for 15 years and told him what happened, he told me that ‘every marriage has its burdens’. Others said ‘you know your children will be damaged…’ and ‘if you can’t make your marriage work what chance is there for mine?’ Despite the fact that the church leaders know the story, my ex–wife remains a church member and nobody has challenged her behaviour.
Q: Did you recognise during your marriage, that you were in an abusive relationship?
A: Only one person, a very senior Christian leader, had the courage to tell me that my marriage had been abusive. To be honest, it has taken me two years since leaving my wife to be able to say that he was right. I now see that the woman who had been so awfully abused herself in childhood by a relative abused me in turn.
Q: This may sound a silly question, but are you in a difficult position now?
A: Yes. I don’t regret leaving my wife as such though that makes me sad. Some of the consequences of leaving especially around the children and friendships make me sad. I’m not good at being alone and feel very lonely quite often. I don’t think I can ever be a pastor again, even though I’d love to but in the eyes of some I’d always lack the required character. But it was an impossible, controlling and abusive relationship for which I am being punished by Christians.
I’ve been following all the news over the past months about Harvey Weinstein and other well known men who abuse women. I realise that what I experienced in church was exactly what many of those women experienced; the fear that it would be me and not my abuser who would have to suffer loss of employment and being publicly shamed if I told the truth. Worst of all, the experience of just not being believed.
Q: Thank you Dan for sharing your sad experience. There is obviously a lot more you could share but would you like to add briefly some final words?
A: Yes, I would. Please pray for me. I am only slowly recovering from an abusive marriage with all its consequences. It is not easy at all but my trust is in the Lord. If sharing my own experience here can help one or more persons avoid the situation I’ve been placed in then I will be encouraged.