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*Note – Trigger Warning regarding domestic violence

This week, I read a Washington Post article about Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary who had a recording surface in which he stated his beliefs on abuse in marriage.

Patterson stated that a woman should “ask God to intervene” through prayer. He mentioned “You have to do what you can in the home to be submissive in every way that you can and to elevate him.” Paterson also said that he has encouraged women to leave in the worst cases – but only temporarily – because divorce is against God’s will. He released a statement on his previous recording, still not confirming that a woman abused by her husband should permanently leave him.

What Patterson fails to see is that maybe God is intervening in this relationship by calling the abused individual to leave. Sometimes, a woman will give everything she has to be submissive and build her husband’s ego – which Patterson stated she should do. What he doesn’t realize is that her husband will probably still find one tiny thing wrong and take her to task for her imperfection. Praying away abuse does not work but praying for strength to find a healthy life is what is needed in times like this.

What Patterson also does not realize is that abuse often escalates. It may start as emotional manipulation and eventually move to pushing and, later, hitting. When an abuser kills their spouse, it’s often after much time of emotional and physical abuse.

Patterson is far from the only clergy who encourages a wife to stay with her husband during abuse. When going on social media and the internet, many stories surface on the times women have been told by their pastors to stay with their husbands and try harder.

But what about divorce? Doesn’t Malachi 2 state that God hates divorce?

Yes, but does anyone really like divorce? Two people are separating their lives from one another, and no one wants to experience this pain and grief. Yet realizing that the circumstances of the relationship may be unknown to us is crucial. Divorce needs to be placed in the correct context.

In the Hebrew scriptures, the word for divorce meant to abandon or toss out. It was used in texts such as when Abraham expelled Hagar and Ishmael, leaving them vulnerable and without resources. Women didn’t have the same agency during Biblical times as we do today, so these women needed to be married or associated with a man in order to survive. This is not the same as needing to leave a relationship in order to escape abuse. When being abused, women often need to leave in order to survive. Like Abraham and Hagar, abandoning someone who will then experience poverty through divorce is unethical. But abandoning someone in order to find safety is another circumstance altogether.

Women of faith do not deserve being told by their Christian leaders that they must stay in an abusive relationship just because Biblical texts state that divorce is wrong. Women of faith must understand that each of these texts were written in various contexts. The New Testament epistles mentioned that women shall submit to their husbands. However, in Genesis 1, women and men are both created in the image of God. As leaders in the Christian faith, we are called by God to promote a message that all people have dignity and encourage others to make healthy decisions for themselves.

Around this time twenty years ago I left an emotionally abusive relationship. I was exhausted being told over and over that I wasn’t good enough and being blamed for non-issues. The experience made a lasting impact on me. While we were not married, I could see how someone being emotionally abused in a marriage would need to remove themselves from their abuser’s presence. There should not be blame on a woman (or any gender) who leaves a relationship to protect their body, mind and soul. God values each of us and longs for us to love ourselves as God loves us.

Just like God hates it when people leave their significant others destitute in a breakup or divorce, God hates when people manipulate and abuse the ones with whom they are in a relationship. All of us reflect the image of God, and if our significant others do not respect this, then we need to find a new path in our lives.

If you or a friend need additional information on domestic violence or abusive relationships, go to http://www.thehotline.org/ or call 1-800-799-7233.

Originally posted on the SONKA UCC blog.