A long time ago, I discovered commenters on a blog/forum called Spiritual Sounding Board who were deeply concerned that disgraced fundagelical leader Doug Phillips might murder his wife so he could keep his role as pastor of his ultraconservative cult and remarry with everyone’s full approval. Over the years, quite a few pastors’ wives have been murdered by their husbands–and for an especially nefarious reason. I’ll show you some of those crimes today, and why they keep happening.
An Uneven EmPHAsis on the Wrong SylLAble.
In Mississippi the only way out of an abusive marriage is to let your spouse murder you.
Comment to an article in The Guardian about that state’s divorce laws, 4/30/16
Generally what these Christians actually oppose is the legal custom of no-fault divorce, which they view as having resulted in tons of perfectly wonderful, devoted, loving Christian husbands getting thrown aside by tingles-chasing, silly, selfish, shallow women. They think that back when divorce absolutely depended upon a husband’s approval to complete, everything was so much better. For whom? Well, for them, for their womenfolk, for any kids the couple had, for everyone. And then evil, wicked, nasty (straw) feminists came along and convinced Christian women that they needed more than kin and kinder,1 and marriages fell apart everywhere–just like when zombies in a movie collapse all together when their creator is killed.
It’s not hard to find Christians declaring stuff like “no-fault divorce is an institutionalized evil that exists in active opposition to the principles of God’s kingdom.” (One would think that cruelty and abuse would operate in active opposition to the principles of “God’s” kingdom. Maybe he’s decided that they are actually quite compatible.)
The Center for Christ and Culture calls no-fault divorce “a national catastrophe.” (No word on the epidemic of wives getting murdered and battered by their husbands, which you’d think would take precedence for such a bombastic title, though maybe he’s one of those Christians who thinks pretty much everything is a national catastrophe.)
Al Mohler sanctimoniously declares, in a manner that suggests that everything he writes begins with a throaty HARRRUMPH!, that no-fault divorce is “the end of marriage.” (Strangely, marriages are still happening–just at a slightly decreased rate due in large part to fundagelicals’ political agendas.)
Mohler is, as usual and like all of his pals, tilting at the wrong windmill. He appears to be way more upset about the end of male-controlled divorce than about the existence of so many dysfunctional marriages within his religion.
The Real Problem Here.
No-fault divorce really is simply an end to male-controlled divorce, and that’s the real problem here. In no-fault divorce, a wife can initiate a divorce without her husband’s permission and without giving any reason at all for wishing to end the marriage. The whole procedure can be finalized without her husband’s approval and indeed even despite his active opposition to that finalization.
These culture-warrior Christians have totally overlooked and ignored the fact that no-fault divorce became a thing precisely because of the abuses and exploitations of the divorce system that men could commit against women to force them to remain in abusive marriages. We see the exact same abuses going on in Orthodox Judaism’s system of forcing women to obtain a get to divorce, and in Christians’ abortive dabbling in covenant marriage. Instead of a reality-based and consent-based system of teachings that addresses avenues of abuse and exploitation, they’ve created a narrative where it’s always women initiating divorces, and always with reasons that are considered nonvirtuous and suspicious. It’s no coincidence that the only solution these Christians are willing to entertain to solve this non-issue is a rollback to the old laws.
Outside of no-fault divorce, as it turns out, most Christians happily concede that there are definitely morally-acceptable times for even the most wackadoodle zealot to initiate divorce proceedings. The most hardcore accept only adultery, while others graciously accept that and/or physical abuse as virtuous reasons (some add abandonment–ain’t they just princes?). So it’s not divorce itself that bugs them but rather what they view as nonvirtuous reasons for seeking it (sound familiar?). Their job, as they see it, is to try to create laws that allow them to police women’s reasons for seeking divorce, because remember, they don’t think that men usually pursue divorces without virtuous reasons. So when you hear Christians huffily clutch their pearls about no-fault divorce, mentally translate that to divorces that men do not control and direct.
(In a broken system, remember, power protects itself. Their whole system revolves around seizing and wielding power, so they’re going to ferociously fight against anything that whittles away that power. Thus, men fight no-fault divorce because it’s a situation in which they cannot override or control a woman’s decision. In the same way, watch how Christian parents fight against any oversight of religious homeschooling or any limitations proposed to the physical abuse or medical neglect they can inflict on their children. In each case, as well, culture warriors are well aware that any failure to maintain their power in these situations will constitute a sort of vote of no confidence against their overreach.)
The pew-warmers, however, don’t often apply Christianity’s teachings to themselves. Divorce is not only common in fundagelical-dominated cultures, it’s pervasive.
Thanks to a variety of social factors within fundagelicalism, among them a lack of education, low socioeconomic status, and age at marriage (but also including their lopsided and unfair views of spouse’s roles within marriage and a serious affection for the idea of One True Love), one could well call fundagelicals themselves the greatest threat there is to their own vision of marriage. Divorce rates for fundagelical laypeople are simply astronomical–and there seems to be very little that leaders can do to convince them to divorce only for whatever they teach as the only acceptable and virtuous reasons.
A Misdirected War.
That said, there is one group within fundagelicalism that is usually bound very tightly by those teachings: the leaders themselves, despite divorcing right along with their flocks. The flocks have definitely noticed–it was a common topic of discussion on sites I visited. One site even puts the rate of divorce among pastors at about 38% of respondents to a survey they say they ran, while 77% of their respondents said they didn’t feel like they had good marriages.
The stakes for leaders are dizzyingly high. A divorcing pastor may discover himself out of a job, at least in the strictest groups. Bible.org tells us that because divorce “casts a shadow over the pastor’s leadership in his home,” that it necessarily likewise “casts a shadow over his leadership in the church.” Similarly, Grace to You declares that it is “an abomination” for pastors to continue leading their churches despite committing what that author considered to be “sexual sin,” and elsewhere they explicitly declare that yes, divorce is a dealbreaker in church leaders at all levels.
This consensus opinion sounds similar to what my own onetime denomination taught on the topic. When I fled from my abusive then-husband Biff, I apparently torched his chances of becoming a pastor–not because he was abusive, but because we’d broken up. He told me they’d taken away his lay-preaching license because I’d left him. Now, I don’t know if this was a literal license or a card or what, nor if he really did lose his permission to preach, nor even if that really was their stated reason if that’s the case (he was also quite a liar, completely at ease with inventing or exaggerating stuff to get his way), but I do know that there weren’t any divorced pastors or preachers in our denomination that I can remember. If what Biff said is true, then they didn’t care about the terrible things he’d done to me–only about whether or not he’d kept his household in order, and by that they meant not divorced and his wife in line.2
One also notes that in the book Where Have All the Good Men Gone?, written by a Christian woman to address the burning problem of singleness in fundagelicalism in particular, we see that one objection Christian men raise to marriage is that they have “a very real fear of divorce.” The author discovered that their concern centers around not only their social status post-divorce as eligible bachelors, but also their finances. For an example of just how hypocritical and shrill toxic Christian men can get on this topic, see this archived blog post.
I conclude that just as how Christians’ anti-abortion culture war is really more about Christian leaders’ ache to regain their former control of American culture and politics, it may well be that their ultimate objection to no-fault divorce doesn’t derive much at all from some deep dedication to following the Bible’s demands to the letter.
Instructions Unclear: Got (Something) Caught in Ceiling Fan.
It’s pretty sad to consider that a marriage’s longevity, literally, is the only metric that matters to toxic Christians, and that their stated solution to the problem of divorce is not to fix the troubling aspects of their teachings that lead to troubled marriages and thus to divorce, but instead to find a way to force women to remain in them no matter what.
As with everything in broken systems, however, it’s even more sad to see how Christian leaders are gaming this toxic teaching.
What would you reasonably expect to see in a system that considers all but a few reasons for divorce to be grounds for firing a minister and ostracizing him, which considers women to be damned near fungible resources and turns them into second-class citizens whose raised cries of abuse are typically ignored or punished?
Why, I’d expect to see “a culture of life” wherein it becomes easier to simply murder one’s wife than to obtain a divorce from her.
Over and over again, we discover that rather a lot of conservative Christian pastors’ wives seem to end up murdered or at risk of being murdered. Of course, it’s not just happening in ministry. Edgar Steele of Idaho, once an attorney for the Aryan Nations, failed in his attempt to murder his wife through a hitman; the motive was listed as wanting her insurance money and wanting to pursue a new relationship with a woman from Ukraine. But we’re concentrating on ministers at the moment because divorce has some extra repercussions for ministers that laypeople simply don’t face (except in the most extreme groups).
A Response to an Untenable Social Stance.
Lambchop posted a bizarre headline on a previous post about Stephen Allwine, an ultraconservative Church of God pastor who murdered his wife out of stated fears of “being shunned” if he pursued divorce or if his affairs came to light. WereBear then rattled off what is only part of a long list of pastors who’ve been caught doing something similar.