Being single divorced & formerly abused at church

Article contributed by Connie Smith

I first posted this article in 2013. Since then, there has been some [but still far too little] change in how formerly abused divorced women are viewed and treated in churches, so it is time to re-visit.

My thanks go to Connie Smith for contacting me and having the courage to share her story in hopes that others might be helped.

How single, divorced, and formerly abused women are viewed and treated within their local churches: My Story, By Connie Smith

   I am a formerly abused wife who experienced verbal, emotional, and physical abuse within my marriage. My pastor was aware of the abuse before my husband and I separated, because I had gone to him for help with our situation. After my husband and I finally separated due to physical violence, my pastor told me to drop the restraining order I had been granted and to allow my violent husband back into the house. 

   A few members of my church family were secretly supportive of me after my husband and I separated, but they did not dare let our pastor know of their support as he had made it very clear that the head of the home needed to have his “rightful” and “entitled” place back in our home. 

   I wanted to honor God, but I also wanted to stay alive. I had my husband arrested for his physical violence against me, and then he filed for a divorce, which I agreed to. After that, I tried to put the pieces of my life back together and to remain at my church with the people who I felt were my church family. I had been attending and serving there for all of my Christian life, and my children and I needed our church family’s support and friendship more than we ever had before.

   We did not get it.

   For quite some time after the divorce, I felt as though I had been branded by my “sin” of divorce and was being forced to wear the shameful scarlet letter. Although (to my knowledge) my former husband was not subjected to the same derogatory attitudes from the Christian community as I was.
   Even though I had not committed the sin of adultery, and I was not the one who sought the divorce, I felt a kinship with the woman in the Bible who had been taken in adultery and was condemned to be stoned before Jesus intervened and saved her life. There was no doubt that she had sinned, but where was the man in that situation? He was there, and he had sinned too, but he had not been condemned to death like the woman had been.

   Why not? He had committed adultery too. But, for whatever the reason, his sin had simply been overlooked by the male leadership of his day.

   As a divorced, formerly abused, woman, I found it increasingly difficult to feel welcomed and loved at the church I had called home for eight years. In all the time I had been there, I had never felt pain and rejection such as this. I was hurting. I had experienced a devastating loss. I had loved my husband. The divorce was not my idea, and I fully expected my church family to rally around me and my children with comfort and support. I expected they would weep with me and help me to bear a very heavy burden.

   I have watched as Christians supported those who have lost spouses due to death, but while I was experiencing personal devastation when my marriage ended in divorce, there was no group of caring people gathered around to support me and my children in our loss. Why is it that Christians fail to realize that in divorce an overwhelming loss is suffered, as well as in widowhood? As a psychology major and having gone through divorce myself, I can tell you that divorce is also loss that requires a grieving process.  However, the Christian community rarely accepts it as such. 

     I struggled with wanting to be accepted by my church family but felt condemned by many of them for granting my abuser a divorce and attempting to move on with my life. As I became stronger and more confident that I had done the right thing in leaving my abusive situation and cooperating with the divorce that he sought, I sensed strong attitudes of disapproval coming from my church leadership and from much of my church family. 

   I found myself leaving church services with my “tank empty” so to speak. Instead of being uplifted and encouraged, I felt condemned and discouraged.

   After my divorce, there was no doubt that I was being viewed differently by the leadership of my church than before. And that, in turn, influenced the way my fellow church members viewed me.

   I reached out to a woman in my church who told me that the church leadership was more accepting of her once she changed her “divorced” status by marrying again.            

   Another woman who had divorced an abusive spouse finally gave up and left our church after our pastor directed many degrading comments and jabs at her about being divorced. But I clung to the hope that, for me and my family, things would change for the better.

   After my experience with abuse, divorce, and the resultant decline in the level of respect I received from my church leadership (and from some of the members as well), I felt a desire to reach out and help women who were going through the painful issues of abuse and divorce by starting a support group at a facility associated with my church—both my educational background and personal experience more than qualified me to lead such a group. In a meeting with our all male Board of Directors, I was able to communicate the fact that divorce is just as much a loss as death—sometimes worse—because the lost spouse is still alive.
   I also wanted to help raise awareness of the discrimination directed towards divorced and previously abused women in our church who were still single. I hoped to bring about positive change. I wanted to be a healing link between church leadership and divorced women who had experienced marital abuse.

   I felt I was getting nowhere with the Board members. It was like I was speaking to a brick wall, and it hit me like a ton of bricks, that not only was I considered unfit for leadership at my church because I was divorced, but the mere fact that I was not married was also being held against me!

   They did finally agree to allow me to start the group with the stipulation that I use approved materials. That was a standard, reasonable, request. But I was stunned when I was told that in order to hold the meetings, a married woman had to co-facilitate with me.

   This was outrageous to say the least, especially coming from a denomination that has traditionally ordained women as pastors and leaders. Being married, to my knowledge, had never been a requirement for church leadership—certainly not among the male leadership. It seemed strange to me that the only qualification the Board of Directors was concerned about in the matter of my co-leader, was that she be married.

   It was a sad day, for me, when I felt forced to leave the place that had been my church home for so long. But I felt as if I had been spinning my wheels and there was no more tread left. It was time to go.

   I visited a new church where I was welcomed with open arms.  I felt grateful that there was a church in my city where functional equality between men and women was taught and practiced. No one there condemned me for protecting myself and my children by granting a divorce to an abusive spouse.

   This season is all about Jesus, our Redeemer’s birth, and I want to pass on that same support, that I am now receiving from my new church family, to hurting women where ever you may be. I want to encourage you not to give up on the promises that the Lord has given in his Word, and to remain faithful to His promises that are encased in love.

   Have you experienced the horrors of abuse and then added to that the pain of rejection from brothers and sisters in Christ who were supposed to be there for you in your time of trial? Remember, you are redeemed through the birth of that small baby who was laid in a manger, and his hands are reaching out for you today!  Yes, YOU! 

   If someone has branded you with a scarlet letter, rip it off! Remember it is the scarlet life-blood that totally redeems you. Let no one keep you branded. There is a confidence that comes when we realize that the Lord has redeemed us. We often will not even have to speak, and the nay-Sayers will see that we are changed. Sometimes our silence is stronger and more convicting on their hearts than words could ever be. 

   And remember that whatever has happened to you has happened to Him. Our Lord was abused and rejected. And like him, we were meant for victory. We were made to glorify Him!

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