Here’s my Wesleyan confession: I read the long version of the Westminster Confession (all 190-plus Q&A) for the first time a few weeks ago. I found some surprises. The biggest was that one of the sins considered forbidden by the first commandment is “making men the lords of our faith and conscience.”
Now, we all know that the writers meant “men” to be “humans.” But in our churches and homes, very often we make “humans” be “men.” That is to say, men are given charge of the faith and conscience of their wives, their daughters, the women in Bible studies and small groups and entire congregations.
At the same time, I have been reading some very painful discussion online among Christian women with abusive husbands.
Is it God or Church Shame that Rules Abused Wives?
I ask myself: Is it God who is ruling these women’s faith and conscience, making it so difficult for them to even separate from a man who mistreats them and their children? Or are they ruled by the need to appear proper (and to avoid being shunned) in the Christian church? Are they standing by their man, their vow to God, or their vow before other Christians? And what is the meaning of that vow when one party chooses not to engage in any of its responsibilities? Are these kinds of men supposed to be ruling their wives’ faith and consciences? Are these the kinds of men God intends to have leadership in homes?
Shut Out from Church, Abused Woman Shelters at Bus Station
Then again, I remember an elderly friend who grew up in an abusive home. Her mother was a lay street preacher who had met her husband in The Salvation Army, where they had belonged until her husband’s behavior got them both kicked out. When my friend’s father came home drunk, her mother would gather up the children and get them out of the house before he could begin beating any of them. They would spend the night in a nearby bus station, where they became so well known that the porter would wake them in the morning:
“It’s okay. He’s gone to work now. You can go home.”
My friend asked her mother once why she didn’t leave that violent, dangerous drunk. Her mother answered with tears in her eyes: “I could never leave him not knowing that he will be with Jesus when he dies.”
The mother was long gone to the Lord before the drunk finally became a Christian, with (in their old-fashioned language) “evidence of a changed life.”
That woman’s concern for her alcoholic husband was something quite different from what I heard reported from a Christian women’s conference at a well-known conservative church.
Retired Missionary: ‘Trust and Obey God and Husband’
The speaker, a retired missionary who has outlived two husbands so far (the first killed on the mission field), received questions in writing only. One asked what a wife should do if her husband was abusive.
“Abuse? I don’t understand these accusations of abuse,” she is reported to have said. “We are to trust and obey God, trust and obey our husbands.”
This is so radically different from the answer given by my friend’s mother. What would have happened to the mother and children if she had “trusted and obeyed” her drunk husband? Did the missionary really believe that God’s purposes would best be served by having the woman and children physically battered and broken in the hope of shaming the husband into repenting sooner? Is this what God asks of women married to dangerous men? Or should they run and stay safe as needed, but remain in the marriage and pray? Should they “turn him over to Satan” by leaving him on his own?
I truly don’t know the right answer. But I know that we are wrong when we make any man, including our husbands, to be “the lords of our faith and conscience.”