Here at Key Ministry, we write about childhood trauma from time to time. The impact can be seen in behaviors and struggles in Sunday school and other children’s ministry settings. I’ve noticed many readers assume we’re focused on adoption and foster care whenever I address the topic – perhaps because I’m an adoptive mom – but research indicates that kids in all sorts of families experience trauma. Sadly, living in a fallen world sometimes means a traumatic world.
Churches need to be aware and awake to this prior to and outside of adoption and foster care. Sometimes abuse occurs at home. Sometimes the abuser is a parent. Sometimes the child is spared physical abuse, but the trauma of witnessing an abused parent is traumatic as well. Sometimes removal from the household – to a kinship placement or foster care or adoption – occurs, but not always.
And sometimes those families are sitting in your church every Sunday, with bruises you don’t see or perhaps ones you notice but overlook. It’s easy to tell ourselves it doesn’t happen in our families. But it does.
That’s why I was intrigued upon seeing Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife by Ruth A. Tucker. Tucker is both a survivor and a scholar, making for a unique story. The book mixes the personal and the theological, serving as both a wife’s narrative of enduring domestic abuse by a pastor husband and a theology professor’s analysis of the biblical, theological, historical, and contemporary issues surrounding abuse in the church.
Be prepared: Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife will make any reader uncomfortable at times. For starters, she provides details of horrific encounters before eventually leaving her husband. Her descriptions aren’t graphic but they are (rightfully) unsettling. Second, her commitment to tell the full story leads her to include troubling details. A foster child in their home was assaulted by her husband, for example, and rather than reporting the crime to the proper authorities or seeking out therapeutic supports for the girl’s recovery, she simply had the child moved out of their home. I’m still struggling with that part of the story, to be honest. Finally, for those holding a complementarian view of marriage, she weaves together both experience and theology to lay out both her practical and biblical concerns with that perspective. The book has value for both complementarian and egalitarian readers, though, suggesting caution for the former in making sure extremes are avoided so abuse can be prevented and offering solid biblical arguments in support of the views of the latter. (In other words, I think you’ll find benefit here regardless of your theological perspective on gender roles in marriage.)
She challenges respected Christian leaders – including John Piper, Russell Moore, Bruce Ware, and Matt Chandler - in their theological stances on women in the church, but she does so with grace. Often personal anecdotes – like times spent in conversation with the Pipers – humanize the views of even though with whom she disagrees. I found her style both challenging and conversational. More than telling the reader what to believe, she raises questions for us to come to our own conclusions.
Overall, I found her story to be powerful. One paragraph was particularly haunting for me, and I think it serves as a stark lesson for church leaders. Years after her divorce, she crossed paths once again with Mr. Miles, the founder and president of the Christian school where she and her ex-husband had taught when their son was only four. Once Mr. Miles had come upon her walking home late one night and scolded her for violating the rule for both students and faculty: no walking alone after dark. He made sure she got home safety and, by this reunion, didn’t remember the incident anymore. She writes,
“I tried to jog his memory of that night, but he had forgotten. But I didn’t let the matter go. I chided him for assuming I would be safe behind locked doors. I told him I had walked that long block hundreds of times and that I had never even once been attacked in the neighborhood. It was inside that house, not outside, where I was assaulted.” (emphasis hers)
Tucker isn’t alone in her experience, sadly. According to the American Psychological Association, more than one in three women and more than one in four men in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. It’s not just adults, either; one in five female high school students reports being physically and/or sexually abused by a dating partner. Furthermore, women with disabilities have a 40 percent greater risk of intimate partner violence, especially severe violence, than women without disabilities.
And how aware are we in the church? According to a Lifeway study from 2014, pastors grossly underestimate the prevalence of domestic violence in their congregations. When asked, “17% estimate 11%-20% of their congregations have been victims of sexual or domestic violence, 21% estimate the number at 6%-10%, and fully 37% of pastors estimate less than 5% of their congregation have been victims of sexual or domestic violence.” As a likely result of their lack of certainty about the magnitude of this problem, two out of three (65%) pastors talk about domestic violence one time a year or less. Twenty-two percent say the topic comes up once a year. Thirty-three percent of pastors say they speak about it “rarely.” And one in 10 are silent, never speaking to their congregations about this topic.
Let us not be so concerned about abuse outside of our churches that we fail to see it within. The problem is real. Stories like Tucker’s aren’t anomalies. Lord, open our eyes that we may see and care for those in great need amongst us.
Key Ministry encourages our readers to check out the resources we've developed to help pastors, church leaders, volunteers and families to better understand the nature of trauma in children and teens, Jolene Philo's series on PTSD in children, and series on other mental health-related topics, including series on the impact of ADHD, anxiety and Asperger's Disorder on spiritual development in kids, depression in children and teens, pediatric bipolar disorder, and ten strategies for promoting mental health inclusion at church.