why would i call a woman out of one oppressive relationship and into another?

i have been thinking a lot about the plight of the abused woman over the course of these past few months. i know so many women—in all shapes, sizes, religious experiences, socioeconomics, education, you-name-it—who have suffered abuse.  not all of it is sexual or physical, although sadly there’s far too much of that going around.   the thing that seems to rise to the surface over and over and over again, though, is emotional abuse.  the pattern among women is more prevalent than any of us would like to think.  smart, beautiful, strong-in-all-kinds-of-other-ways women who somehow have found themselves in relationships with men who control, berate, belittle, and slowly extinguish their hope, purpose, and passion.   i am not saying there’s not any issues going on with the women; a big part of the healing process is for women to discover why they think that’s all they deserve, why they allow it, what paralyzes them, and gain the strength to make the shifts toward greater freedom and health.  these shifts don’t always equal divorce; i have seen a few women do a 180 degree turn in terms of strength and courage and remain married, but i have also seen many other ones end up separated because their partners just weren’t willing to change and they knew if they stayed any longer their hearts would wither and die.  they had the courage to trust God’s heart for them, to leave behind what was familiar (and sometimes safe and comfortable, in a twisted distorted way), to move toward something new.

i was not raised in the church; i was raised in a northern california culture that supported women’s freedoms and full equality in politics and work and life.  but as i grew in my christian faith and adopted the ways of conservative christian culture, i ended up getting that spirit squeezed out of me for many years;  and even though i’d be the little rebel who’d somehow stir the pot in some small way about the women’s issue, on the whole i would submit myself to systems that continually supported keeping women out of leadership, underneath men, in role after role after role where they would be used for what they had to offer but never, ever, given power or the kind of respect they had so clearly earned.

some of the feelings that perpetuate abusive relationships and keep women “in” unhealthy relationships are powerlessness, fear, and dependency. powerlessness.  fear.  dependency.  when i recently read these words in a line up of abusive characteristics i was blind-sided by the how the church institution has also set up so many women to somehow feel powerless, afraid, and dependent.  our heads rattle with irrational, powerless, dependent, scared thoughts like:  “ the crumbs on the table are better than nothing at all”..“if i don’t tow the line, i’m going to mess up my chances to lead something in the future. something’s better than nothing.” …”there aren’t any other opportunities for me anywhere else so i guess i better just stay here and make the most of it.”  “God must be using me here somehow, you know he really wants to teach us these kinds of lessons.”…”they must know what they’re doing, so i better just submit to their authority.” i am not saying there aren’t kernels of truth in any of these statements, but i am saying that i do not think that is God’s heart for his children.

i am tempted to generalize, but instead i will say that systems that don’t allow equal access for women probably have undercurrents of subtle emotional abuse that they themselves might not even be aware of. and the women (and other underrepresented groups who tend to be marginalized in some shape or form) who go there are so used to it that they don’t even think anything of it because it’s just the way it is.  it feels normal. i was like that in a previous ministry job—i was just so happy to be invited to the table that it never occurred to me how truly disparate our pay was, how many side conversations were being had on the golf course where i was never invited, how subtly controlled i was,  how much 100% of the power was held with a small group of men and my fate was completely in their hands.  i had a good friend at the end of my time there who pointed out the emotionally abusive pattern to me, and my eyes began to open.

 

john 8:26 says “if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.”  free indeed.  freedom to me means freedom.  when i  call a woman out of an abusive relationship, reminding her of her worth, her value, her dignity, her purpose, i would not under any circumstance, consider calling her into another “relationship” with a system that will put her beneath them. it’s bad for her soul.

the church—the beautiful, wild bride of Christ–should be a reflection of Jesus. and i don’t care how many scripture passages people want to try to use against me in this moment, i don’t believe that Jesus’ heart would be to call a woman out of one oppressive relationship and right into another. period.  end of story.  i know there are people out there who say “but my church doesn’t believe in women in leadership but they are not oppressive” and i will just say strongly back that i disagree.  part of oppression is restrictive access.  cutting off women’s voices, power, leadership, value and voice is restrictive access.  it is oppression.  and it is not reflective of the kingdom value of freedom & equality.

and in the spirit of social justice that is sweeping through many church systems at the moment, i wish we’d open our eyes to the injustice right here, underneath everyone’s noses, week after week after week after week.  i am always reminded of martin luther king’s powerful words—“injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. i will not call a woman out of an oppressive relationship into another one; the problem i sometimes find is that i don’t have that many places in “the church” that she can actually go.   that, my friends, is a travesty.  the kingdom now. equality now. freedom now.  i think that’s what Jesus was getting at.  and i think lots more people would be drawn to Jesus if they didn’t have to get so tied up in the messed-up system that typically represents him.

no, i will not call a woman out of an oppressive relationship into another one.  but i will call her into the glorious freedom that Christ brings, that she is valuable, beautiful, precious, worthy, free, strong, powerful and has no need—as a child of God—to enter into another relationship that won’t fully recognize it.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

21 Comments

  • And guilt. So many women stay in a relationship that kills their soul (whether it be a marriage or a church) because of guilt. As if stepping into their true soul and gifting is wrong or sinful. Or so they’ve been made to believe.
    I think too many have put up with crumbs for too long.
    Thanks Kathy. Much love.

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  • the kingdom now, equality now, freedom now….reading this line and my head spun off into humming John Mellencamp…
    Your life is now…in this undiscovered moment lift your head up above the clouds..we could shake this world, if you would only show us how..
    do you believe you’re a victim of a great compromise….do you teach your children (daughters) to tell the truth, would you take the high road if you could choose…..
    or something like that, probably the lines are not exactly in correct order.
    Thanks Kathy!

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  • “the beautiful WILD bride of Christ”?! LOVE that! Is that like the bride that lifts up her dress a little bit and you can see that she’s wearing combat boots!! 🙂 You go, girlfriend!

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  • What can i say again…….no more words needed…..Thankx lovely Kathy for sharing your honest heart. ElsX

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  • I am just learning some things about the relationship that I have been in for 32 years. This confirmed a lot of it. I still can not use the word abused. There are no visual scars when you are dealing with emotions. Emotional abuse, especially Passive aggressive abuse is visable to virtually no one but the one being “abused”. No one else sees what it does to you inside. The abuser has no clue and makes you think that you are the one that is messed up. I would agree with Ellen, GUILT is the # one reason I have stayed for all these years.
    My husband would become a lonely bitter man if i left. I just can not bring myself to do that to him when I know what is behind the passive aggression. The life he’s had to bring him to this place. He will not deal with any of that though, it is “water over the dam”period. Hence no more dealing with conflict ever. Doing everything in his power to avoid conflict. Even trying to overly please me just so there will never be a reason for conflict. The bad thing is everyone needs to vent to someone so he ends up venting to other people, things he would never say to my face because of the conflict it would cause. To make things worse we are polar opposites. Nothing in common…………..
    But I stay. Why? because of teh guilt and not being able to admit and use the word “abuse’. Because it is not intentional abuse.
    Thanks Kathy, I appreciate you post and would welcome any comments you may have for me.

    Broken
    Broken

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  • the kingdom now. equality now. freedom now. i think that’s what Jesus was getting at. and i think lots more people would be drawn to Jesus if they didn’t have to get so tied up in the messed-up system that typically represents him.

    Yes and amen!

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  • This was beautiful and inspiring. I don’t think most people inside the system, either men or women, recognize the oppression. It makes me angry with the system. Not the people. But it can be really hard to validate feelings of betrayal and hurt when you know it is not intentional. And when you feel like it’s unbiblical to feel that way. When you are inside it, it’s really hard to identify the hurt as coming from a warped system. I appreciate how you point out that the warped system is representing Christ…and hurting people all at the same time. I wish I could see Christ more clearly, without the brokenness of “his hands and feet on earth.” If people were his ‘plan A’, he must have a plan for our very poor reflection of his character. It breaks my heart…especially knowing that I am no better than “the church”.

    And yeah, I wish there were more places to go once you wake up.

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  • Kathy

    Wow great Blog. I just deleted a reply that didn’t fit the bill. You nailed me and my marriage. I have lived in a world where I felt the leaders in the traditional church body were the authority on how things were to be.
    Growing up in a very traditional family and in a very traditional Dutch Reformed Church setting. My father was a decon and on the leadership team of a big church of over 500 people.
    My wife approached me a month ago as said after 25 years of marriage and five children she no longer wants to be married. I think this blog is right on in our issues. I admitted to her and to you I am one of the abusers. I’m not proud of that fact but for years I was following leadership for my selfish ways.

    My challenge to you is helping men in our relationships see the abuse. I write that and think ya she will think I’m dumb and not admitting what I have done. Well I have admitted to the abuse I have done and in in the process of change. I think sometimes it’s so imbeded it’s like learning to walk again. We get set in our patterns of life and choke the life out of our marriage. Kind of like FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. Tevia (Sp) lost his daughter and missed some very valuable parts of his daughters and wifes life by holding to the traditional views men put on marriage. I hurt for him in that film. Thank God he wanted to see his daughter in America.
    My wife reads your blogs on a regular basis and you speak to her broken heart. I don’t think all abuser understand there depth of abuse. I think you are opening a door for that restoration to happen.
    Thanks again for expressing our view of this issue. I think you are giving freedom to many who read your words. My fear is that you might be missing an opportunity to be a wounded healer who restores marriages

    Blessings

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  • ellen – i am so glad you added this one. guilt. yes, it is so paralyzing. i think that is the plight for so many of us, to shed the confines of unhealthy guilt & walk in freedom. thanks as always for sharing, i hope we can hang out soon!

    donna – thanks for being the world’s best blog encourager. you keep me in!

    mary – i haven’t heard that song but what great words…

    tammy – 🙂

    els – love & hope to you from across the ocean…

    cheri – oh thank you for your incredible honesty and for sharing your pain. it is very brave to say these things out loud. there are so many questions that are too hard to do in blog comments, email might be best. but i will say this to you and to any woman in a confusing situation that doesn’t necessarily include physical abuse. the place to start is to begin to find a safe and honest place to process the truth of your experience and for you to focus on your own healing first. no big moves, no radical shifts out of nowhere, just an honest and intentional and brave seeking of God’s heart and healing for what’s going on with you as a start. good support from other people and an infusion of strength and wisdom always seems to be the best first ingredients. i will have you on my heart…

    tom – 🙂

    blue orchid – oh so many beautiful thoughts you shared in that one paragraph. i especially liked this: “If people were his ‘plan A’, he must have a plan for our very poor reflection of his character.” yeah, that’s the wildest part. he uses all of us–the good, the bad, the ugly. i am sure over time i have unintentionally done my share of church damage for people, too. i think that God’s focus on using people is part of the crazy redemption story. and that the trickiest part for all of us is to not close our hearts toward people or God and somehow stay in to keep learning the truth about God, ourselves, people. that doesn’t mean, though, staying in unsafe and bad relationships that continually destroy our soul and our faith. to me,that can’t be God’s heart for us. so much to continue to ponder, thanks as always for sharing….

    tipper – oh, like cheri, so hard to talk about in blog comments, but i need to say i am so thankful for your incredible honesty. it is so painful and hard to hear the reality of your current situation, and i will pray for healing and redemption in your marriage. i always believe it is possible and it starts with the kind of humility that you are expressing here. a lot like i was expressing to cheri, i think it’s so important to find some safe places to focus on what’s going on inside of you and find strength and discernment and courage to keep hacking at change. please know that my heart is always, always, always, for restoration of a marriage if it is possible. if 2 people start honestly working their crap and get in safe community and seek God’s change for unhealthy patterns, so much is possible. i have seen many restored marriages, but they usually require a brutal amount of work and a measure of humility and change that isn’t for the faint hearted. i will have you close in my hearts. again, thanks for your courage to say out loud the things that you just did.

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  • Excellent post. This is something that is incredibly troubling to me, when I think of what freedom in Christ brings, and how women will often not find that in a church. The subjugation and muzzling of women that occurs in our churches is an absolute dishonor to the God that we serve, and, I believe, contributes to a number of people rejecting Christ. As you say, it is so very bad for the soul.

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  • GREAT POST!!! and very timely – my wife was sharing the other day the Church where she went to for the morning service the Pastor was demanding people stay in oppressive relationships because this is the right thing to do – I know of many single mums who were a little upset by these comments.

    All I can say is – BONDAGE!!! and the yokes many church leaders are placing on their people must break the heart of our Father.

    Carolyn and Ellen is spot on!!! Guilt what a way to manipulate people, eh?

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  • Beautiful post, Kathy.

    Another thing to consider: The dynamic of abusive relationships (and you hint at this earlier in your post) is such that both abuser and the abused are affected. The baseline of what is normal and good for both parties is skewed. As a result, the abused partner may well engage in problematic behaviors.

    Because the abused partner may have also engaged in bad behavior, s/he may be unwilling to leave because of guilt. And if s/he does leave, but joins or is a part of a faith community that doesn’t understand the dynamics of abuse, s/he may find him/herself being pushed into returning, or cast as the “guilty” party.

    I think it important that people learn to be consistently present for the abused and to not waver in this consistent presence, even when the abused has perhaps engaged in troubling behavior themselves.

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  • Wow! All I can say is thanks, I just discovered your blog today. This post really spoke to my heart about the church I have been going to and my reason for recently “taking a break”. Guilt and the idea that at least they’ll let me do this, kept me there. I never put together the idea that leadership roles and patriarchy w/in the church could be viewed as emotionally abuse. Lots to ponder and pray on… Your rant was great, I am totally inspired.

    peace

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  • carolyn – thanks for taking time to comment. yes, it all makes less and less sense to me over time, how the one place that should have the most freedom can tend to have the least…

    mark – oh don’t get me going on that one! the damage done to abused women via “the church” is so painful. this is why a lot of abused women advocate agencies have so much trouble with “christians” because they have seen the damage done. i have more than my share of painful stories of things said to women who were in truly horrible situations by their pastors & leaders. yes, bondage is the word!

    lainie – i am so with you. there are 2 sides to this equation and it is very confusing. kind of like what mark said, there are so many who minimize or don’t understand and push women back (it’s so interesting to me, all of the connections between a relationship with a person & a relationship with “the church”). i think real change happens when both sides work toward greater health–but that’s usually the least likely situation, isn’t it? and yes, constant presence. TONS of time, long haul, and a reminder that getting healthier, stronger, free-er and changing those damaging behaviors of allowing continued abuse is so possible. great thoughts, so much to consider & talk about….

    michelle – glad you stopped by. how’d you hear about the carnival? i appreciate you taking time to say hi and let me know a bit about what you were wrestling with. you are definitely not alone, even though sometimes it can feel that way. peace & hope to you.

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  • Just found your blog. I am 30, a Christian, and was raised in the church, and am “taking a break” from church.

    I think that the inequality between men and women in the Church is not just about who is allowed to fill certain positions of leadership. Sometimes I feel that the entire dialogue and teaching in church regarding God, our Christian walk, etc. is slanted towards particularly “male” views.

    This year, on Mother’s Day Sunday, our pastor talked about how valuable mothers are. The way he chose to do this was to bring in statistics on the current economic situation, and to juxtapose them with stats on the declining birth rate. With a few quotes from various economists to back him up, he triumphantly concluded that “we” need women to “have more babies” because it’s good for the economy. His entire talk only reinforced the idea that men are responsible for “important” things such as money, economy, politics, etc. and women take care of the other fluffy things. To show that a mother is valuable, he had to link her to money/economy.

    If a group of women were discussing the value of mothers, I think they might recognize that this work is inherently valuable, in its own right, without needing to be linked (even validly) to an “important” thing like money.

    I wonder if the “male” perspective actually shapes much more than only our “leadership team”- perhaps also our ideas of God, ourselves as believers, etc. etc. etc.

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  • I walked away from an abusive system, and like you said it is a travesty because I have no where to walk to.

    I am bored.

    I have amazing leadership abilities. I preach, teach, lead creative reflective services, I am prophetic, I am a problem solver, I am wild, I am a woman of prayer, I am hopeful, I am a fighter for justice, I am a great listener, I am a disciple-maker, I am loving, I am a reflection of Christ…and I am totally homeless.

    The moment of walking away was so invigorating. Rediscovering God and realizing that He did not agree with that abuse and in fact longed to set me free from it was beautiful and powerful and devastating. I was ruined and rebuilt. And now, now I am bored. Now, I am lonely. I walked away from the table where abuse was handed down and felt holy freedom–now I feel like I sit in lawn chair with no table and waste gifts He has given to me. That invigorating feeling was fleeting and led to doubt about whether it was the right move or not–even though I know all the way down to my bones that it was.

    Yeah, “travesty” pretty much sums it up.

    Kindra

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  • jane – thanks so much for taking time to comment & share such powerful words. i think the slant toward one perspective is so strong that often no one realizes how “off balance” it really is. i always say “isn’t it interesting that we’ve accepted that 100% of the time in many churches we never hear from 50% of the population?” hmmm. i have done a lot of exercises in pushing people to expanding image of God behind just male imagery. what tends to always come up is the fear of focusing on the feminine because they are worried that’s all it will become, which of course i would never want either. i believe in the fullness of God. what’s so interesting about that comment, though, is how there doesn’t seem to be a big problem only focusing on the masculine side. that’s just second nature so anything outside of that feels uncomfortable for some. yes, i am with you, the lenses we are being taught through greatly influence us. thanks again for stopping by and participating in the conversation here.

    kindra – oh these are the moments when i want to stand up and scream. thank you so much for your honesty, and i am sorry that the boredom and loneliness is your current experience. that is just wrong. and sad. my hope for you is that something shifts and you find a new spot to use your gifts that you would have never expected. as you wait and wonder, may you know you are not alone.

    jeff – thanks 🙂

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  • Great post!

    We tend to stay in abusive relationships because the abusers have convinced us that we have no options. But that is often not the case.

    If I have a job I hate, but feel that I cannot give up the paycheck, I can keep the job for now, but make a serious effort to find another job. Once I have other options, I can act on those. Perhaps, just perhaps, I might tell my current employer what must change if I am to stay.

    Similarly, whether it be a church group that oppresses women, or a an oppressive/abusive relationship with another individual, we usually have other options. Once we have identified those options, we may need to walk away from the abusive/oppressive situation, or, if we have hope that the abuser/oppressor is willing to change, we may choose to offer them that option (if doing so will not endanger us).

    Rather than current church practice being based on Scripture, Scriptural interpretation is almost always based on current church practice. Churches that oppress women claim to be basing their actions on Scripture, but many of us maintain that they are in fact basing their interpretation of Scripture on not only church practice, but also on what is happening in their own homes.

    If we stay in individual relationships or relationships with groups where we are oppressed or abused, the oppressor/abuser is in control. We need to identify our options, demand that the oppressor/abuser change (if this is safe and we want to maintain a relationship), and be prepared to walk if they don’t change. If we walk, we must tell them why (if it is safe to do so).

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  • sam – thanks for stopping by and taking time to share such great thoughts. yes, it feels like we don’t have choices but we do. they may be harder or uncomfortable or scary, but there are choices. such powerful words you shared here!

    Reply

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