Divorced women are not finding evangelical churches to be welcoming places.
Despite the fact that many women endured years of trying to make their marriage work even in the presence of their husband’s abuse, infidelity, or substance abuse, when the divorce is finalized, churches often ostracize these women.
As Gretchen Baskerville at the Life Saving Divorce says, more than one million God-honoring divorced women can’t find a safe church.
Last week on Episode 211 of the Bare Marriage podcast, Naghmeh Panahi shared her story of being bullied by Franklin Graham to stay in an abusive marriage. Her story is all too common.
As domestic violence awareness month has just ended, I wanted to share some stories that have come across my social media this month as I’ve been asking women for their experiences with church post-divorce.
I know men also struggle post-divorce, and I also know that men can be treated cruelly in marriage. However, because of gendered teaching in church, women are more likely to be blamed for marriages splitting up when it’s not their fault, and men are more likely to become addicted or cheat than women are, and are more likely to commit marital rape. Men also physically harm their wives exponentially more than the other way around. So while the church also has a problem with how they treat men whose wives have treated them terribly, I’m going to focus on what women have said, because that’s where most of my audience is.
(And check out our domestic violence awareness merchandise that’s available until the end of the week!).
“I was married to an abusive pastor who has a substance abuse problem (along with a few other things). I stopped going to the last church my son and I attended because I was tired of being treated like a fourth class citizen (2nd class would have been an improvement).
I have not actively looked for another church because I find myself having to relive the trauma every time I have to explain that yes, I have a seminary degree, yes, I have a biblical divorce (by even the most legalistic standards), and yes I have about 30 years of church leadership/ministry experience, and be told (again) that I’m disqualified from this, that, or the other despite me sharing my trauma again and again.”
So she’s disqualified from ministry because she left an abusive man who was also a serial cheater. But think of all the men who are currently using porn who are still in leadership. This drives me bananas. How does this have anything to do with God’s justice?
Siding with the Abuser
“A few years ago I went through a break up and divorce (over abuse and infidelity). I was shunned, completely, by our church and my ex husband was given support.
I was a single mum of 4. I lost not only my husband in all that, but my church and my friends also. I had no family support either.
Going through a divorce is so hard and mentally and emotionally exhausting, not to mention the stress of how you are going to provide for your kids, where are you going to live, how are you going to mentally cope. And if you have divorced over abuse or infidelity then all the pain that you need to heal from comes into play so support is crucial.
STOP JUDGING these women!
You only know what you can see, you don’t see what goes on in the home, behind closed doors.”
This is one of the most common things I hear–the church chooses the side of the abuser. Why? Because the church simply wants the marriage to stay together, so they will choose the side of the one who wants the marriage to continue, even if they’re the one who ended it through their betrayal and abuse.
“What the church did wrong:
- allowed my abusive ex to attend church
- spoke “God hates divorce” from the pulpit
- nobody called or checked in on me. Nobody asked to meet to pray with me. Nobody asked how they could help. ALL OF THEM told me they would pray for my husband to come back to the marriage.
- when I asked for help keeping boundaries at church (ex who attends is not supposed to bring his gf around our son; and he did, at church) I was denied any help because “we don’t want to prevent people from hearing the Lord.”
But I was avoided like the plague, because it’s so uncomfortable to approve of a divorce publicly even when they agree divorce needed to happen.”
Not kicking out the ex and the girlfriend effectively re-traumatizes the divorced woman every Sunday. And to do so in the name of “the gospel” when there are countless other churches they could go to? That’s disgusting.
“Not taking sides, is taking a side and it hurts.
Having a way to hear both sides but also identify abuse, infidelity and addiction (specifically narcissistic abuse is difficult)and holding the perpetrator accountable is extremely important. There are a few cases in which both parties are toxic and equally responsible. But in many cases there is a definite perpetrator. And having the church hold the victim and the perpetrators as equal is so damaging. Having a community that held me while I grieved the loss of my marriage and recognized my victimhood would have gone a long way towards helping me heal.
As it was by refusing to take sides I didn’t feel safe enough to express what had really been going on at home, and I was left on the outskirts of the community because I couldn’t be sure how much he shared and with whom. I never felt more alone than I did the first 6 months after my divorce.”
So well said! Even if the church doesn’t explicitly side with the abuser, by not standing with the victim, you’re essentially standing with the perpetrator.
Trying to prevent divorce at all costs
“I am stepping away from church to heal while going through a divorce due to painful things as said by Christian brothers and sisters. Telling me what God would want me to do stops me from hearing and interpreting and I needed to make the decision with God and without influence. Being told Satan is deceiving me was one of the worst things I’ve heard. A friend recently said “don’t be defensive I just want to make sure you are hearing the Lord’s will and not your will.” She wanted me to give her all the scripture I’m using. I don’t think she believes divorce is Biblical.”
“ I would have loved for the pastor/elders to have believed me. My x and I spent a year with the senior pastor in “biblical counseling” and the pastor finally gave up bc my x didn’t do any of his homework. Four years later, I filed for divorce. I was excommunicated and was told that I didn’t love the Lord.”
Shunning Divorced Women
“I was kicked out of church for divorcing, even though the abuse was known. I went to another church with a pastor who advocated for me in many ways, and that was so helpful. But the church people were mostly very stand-offish. In some ways, especially policy-wise, single moms were well cared for. The church sponsored a small group for us, paid for child care while we met and fed us & our kids a meal. But when there was a ladies retreat, while they paid for any single mom to go who couldn’t afford it, they put us in a room by ourselves.
In fact, for any church function, the single moms were always seated as a group, never to mix with the rest of the church. It was uncomfortable at best. There was no personal help or even conversation in church. Just “that group”. Like they thought we were contagious.
I was never invited to a Bible Study group. Only asked to provide child care for the groups.”
Is it any wonder divorced evangelical women are shunning church?
Yes, many still attend, but the evangelical church has a huge divorce gap that isn’t present in other denominations, as sociologist and pastor Ryan Burge shows in this article about divorce from Christianity Today:
Unlike Catholics, black Protestants, or mainline churches, evangelicals flee church post-divorce. And considering that so many of these women especially are at the lowest point in their lives, after escaping abuse; dealing with trauma and their children’s trauma; barely making ends meet; dealing with family courts and the horrible stress of custody issues and continued abuse; healing from betrayal–for the church to abandon them then is beyond cruel.
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When someone divorces for abuse, infidelity, or addiction, they are not the one who ended the marriage. The abuser, the cheater, the addict did.
Yet instead of surrounding the victim with care, we often ostracize them, because we value marriage more than the people in it.
I’ll end with the same thing I said at the close of last week’s podcast: This week, as you go into church, think about the people you know who have just gone through a divorce. Welcome them. Talk to them. Ask them how they are. Invite them for dinner. Offer to help with something. Just be a neighbor!
And if you see them missing from the pews, check in on them–not to find out why they’re not coming to church, but just to make sure they’re okay and to offer to help.
Let’s not abandon our wounded.
What do you think? Have you seen women who divorce leaving your church? What has your experience been? Let’s talk in the comments!