And almost certainly the way it still is in many of the pig-pen splinters of Armstrongism even to this day.
I have every reason in the world to hate religion. And after 20 years of only talking about this subject with very very few people I thought it was high time to face myself a little and open the door to my experience to those who have been abused in the face of religion, and if I can, to ferret out as to why I still love religion itself, why I study it, and why I feel that beauty can be found in matters of faith. Above all, I hope that my personal experience will help victims of abuse, particularly victims of spiritual, physical and mental abuse in conservative Christian churches. A recent study found that abuse in conservative Christian churches is five times higher than in secular society because it is not reported...
I grew up in the Worldwide Church of God during the period 1979-1992. Worldwide is a non-denominational church that used to be fairly restrictive, very conservative, and, I suspect, like many conservative non-denominational churches had a dirty secret that nobody talked about – spousal abuse. Spousal abuse is a difficult subject to talk about anyway, but when you add religion to it, it becomes a prison like no other for the faithful who are abused. For the woman who is faithful, abuse becomes a matter of faith and submission a religious maze that is impossible to navigate through. And by the time an abused woman navigates it, she uses precious time that she could have been using getting help.
My mother was severely beaten for the entire time we belonged to Worldwide. My father claimed he was beating her in order to “get her under submission” to him because the church taught that men were head of the households under Jesus Christ. My dad would try to explain to me while he was beating her that he was “saving” her soul for God by “beating Satan out of her.” He was always careful to not touch her face. He left bruises where they could be covered up. And lest you think my dad was somehow justified for beating her, he would also call her a whore. He called her a bitch. He called her every filthy name under the sun while he beat her. He even beat her with the Bible, beat her with a book that is supposed to be holy. He beat her so hard he broke the binding on one of his Bibles. He abused her psychologically, and the mental headgames that went on was like walking through a minefield.
You never knew what would set my dad off. Ever. My mother tried to get help. She appealed to the pastor. The pastor made more trips to our house than he made to the grocery store. And the result was not in my mother’s favor. The pastor told my dad that my dad was in the right. He told my dad in front of my mother that my dad, as head of the household under Jesus Christ had the right, even the duty to “do whatever it took” to get my mother to submit. Over and over for 15 years my mother heard that tired litany, not just from one pastor, but from three and four pastors. And she tried. She stopped talking about anything controversial. She stopped offering opinions. She stopped drawing, because drawing annoyed my dad, because pursing anything she was personally interested in took time away from him. She stopped being a person and became what she would nervously jokingly term “a puppet.” When my dad was around she did exactly what he told her to do and said exactly what she thought he wanted to hear. The difficulty was in my house, saying “pass the salt” could start World War 3.
The violence escalated to the point where there came a day that my dad nearly killed her. He picked her up and threw her under the kitchen table and he threw her so hard she slid across the kitchen and hit her head on the kitchen sink cupboard doors hard enough to render her unconscious. I lived in fear for years, and suffer from anxiety today, which I take medication for. I lived in my room, with books, because I couldn’t bear to see that evil played out, and because I felt so powerless to stop it.
We’d go to church and be all happy and normal and the abuse was effectively–hidden. But not really. Worldwide broke up in 1996, and people I used to go to church with came forward and confessed they knew “something bad” was going on, but didn’t know what to do about it. I also heard stories of horrors going on that nothing was ever done about – spousal rape being near the top of the list. Again, nothing was done, because in most Christian churches “rape” doesn’t exist if you’re married. In the 80’s, spousal abuse was just starting to be widely publicized.
My mother never called a crisis counselor. She never sought outside help. The reason why was because Worldwide told everybody that psychology was bunk, and if you trusted psychology, then you weren’t trusting God. Marriage counseling was only for pastors, and seeking outside professional counseling was taken as a lack of faith not only in the pastorate, but worse, in God. How many countless abused women hid their abuse like my mother did, never daring to seek outside help, because they feared what God would think of their lack of faith?
Never mind that the pastorate was woefully undertrained in issues of abuse, even in marriage counselling. The pastorate of Worldwide never went to a secular college; Worldwide had their own college to train ministers and ministers’ wives, and I can assure you that Abuse 101 was never a course you could take. It got to the point where our pastor didn’t know what to do anymore. And so by his poor counseling, which effectively okayed the abuse anyway, and by turning his back on us, and this elephant in the room that nobody talked about, he allowed a great evil to perpetrate itself for years on end.
And the worst part was watching my mother punish herself. If she could be more submissive, the abuse would stop–or so she thought. She prayed more, she submitted herself to the point of subjugating who she was until she no longer knew who she was. For her the abuse was a matter of faith. If she had enough faith, she reasoned, God would stop the abuse. And of course, this never happened. I prayed too. I prayed to God to make the violence stop. And he never did stop it. And so the abuse was looked at by our family as a test of faith. Suffering makes a person more holy according to Christian tradition, and this was the very thing that enabled the abuse to continue and escalate.
The pastor eventually lost his job due to escalating complaints about him from others in the congregation. I consider the loss of his job well deserved karma. He was never a man of God, and should never have been a man of God. He was a one man dictator, and he hurt a lot of people because of the way he wielded power. He got to decide everything, from what we wore to what we ate, what we participated in outside of church.
For my part, I was never allowed to participate in school activities because most of them were on Friday night and Saturdays, and Friday night to Saturday night was the Sabbath. It was that way for all the youth in our church. Girls were told their great goal in life should not be education, or self improvement, but to be married. The pinnacle for girls was to be married to a minister, so many girls went to Ambassador College to get, a lot of us joked, their MRS. degree. Women were second class citizens in that church, and I notice in conservative churches that women are second class citizens in those churches too. The focus on Quiverfull, the conservative church in which women function as baby machines is only one example of spiritual abuse that goes on in conservative Christian churches today, which is finally starting to get attention by the media.
You may want to check out the full account. Incredibly, this is the church that published screeds of material on building happy marriages and families.