My father, Rev. Bob Owens, is a retired PC-USA pastor and is Pastor Emeritus of First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu. We have been speaking out about domestic violence (DV) in the church since 1988 when my estranged husband David attacked us both after I filed for divorce due to his unrelenting, increasing psychological and emotional abuse and threats of violence. David was sentenced to prison for attempted murder and kidnapping but continued to stalk me from behind bars for years. Dad and I were taken by surprise in more ways than one. The physical violence was unexpected since I had not been physically abused. We were ignorant about the realities and dynamics of domestic violence at that time. You can see our story in a brief on-line documentary, Part 1 of a four-part TV series by Radio Bible Class, the Day of Discovery program, entitled “When Love Hurts”.
For a detailed description of our experience and the training I provide today for pastors and churches, please see the following magazine articles. (Other videos and interviews may be accessed on my website (domesticviolenceexpert.org.) Also, on my YouTube channel you will find a short film, “For God’s Sake” and interview segments on the topic of DV and the church, as well as a sermon about DV by Dad (audio).
Rev. Bob’s current blog, Gathering Up Life’s Lessons, may be accessed on-line. He is a brilliant Biblical scholar and man of God who will be 88 years old in 2018. He no longer trains with me but writes frequently about the abuse of women and related Biblical topics and concerns.
In 1989 we founded an Interfaith Coalition against Domestic Violence and began training pastors and faith leaders, after I completed my support group, co-facilitated another one and was trained by expert and author, Rev Marie Fortune. I left my work in special education to concentrate on domestic violence victim advocacy, systems advocacy and program development. I lobbied for better laws and developed a community based crisis team to respond to victims in emergency rooms and medical settings. A domestic violence ministry was formed at our large church, and a 2-story house was purchased as a church-operated confidential transitional shelter for battered women and their children.
Over the last 30 years, Dad and I have met thousands of battered Christian women and concerned Christian leaders who want to make a difference. Dad continued his full-time work in the pulpit in various churches (including in California, the U.K. and N.C.). He retired at 62 but continued preaching well into his 80’s. At the same time, I provided hundreds of trainings and international conference presentations secular and faith-based organizations, both nationally and internationally. I have been on the National training Team of Rev Marie Fortune’s Faithtrust Institute for decades, and have provided numerous national leadership trainings for United Methodist Women, United Methodist Men, interfaith organizations, etc.
Unfortunately, most of the stories we have heard from DV survivors over the years are about having gone to pastors or church leadership who were not trained to understand domestic violence, and who therefore mischaracterized it as marital conflict, a communication problem, the results of a wife’s “poor boundaries” or her “rebellion against her husband’s authority”. Victims have described not being believed, receiving unhelpful advice and even being abused more severely as a result of following the instructions of church leaders. Many times they were also abused by those in the church - punished, ridiculed, accused of lying, blamed for causing the abuse by “provoking” their husband, labeled as crazy or “a Jezebel”, ostracized or disfellowshipped, excommunicated or otherwise forced to leave their home congregation. Pastors have testified against them as character witnesses on behalf of their abusive husbands in criminal and family court, and a great number of them have lost permanent custody of their children to their abusers. Some have never seen their children again.
Tragically, as a result of this spiritual abuse, many of them lost their faith and left the church altogether. Additionally, a number of Christian women have been killed because they were instructed by church leaders that divorce was not an option for them, that God required them to submit to their husband's headship, that suffering was their cross to bear, and/or that they must forgive their husbands, despite his refusal to repent and stop his violence.
In 2018 dad and I began working on a book about our experiences and those of many Christian survivors. Today when I train on this subject, I explain the dynamics of domestic violence, the behaviors and beliefs of abusers, and the impact it has on the family. DV is defined as a sin that not only violates man’s criminal law, but Gods’ law as well. When a wife is abused by her husband, it is a violation of the very Christian covenant of marriage. Wives do not violate God’s law by leaving a marriage in which they are violated and terrorized; rather the abusive husbands have broken the marriage covenant by choosing to disobey the scripture that instructs them to “love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself up for it” (Eph. 5:25)
In training faith leaders, I also discusses the reasons well-meaning church leaders may mischaracterize or misunderstand domestic violence, and the ways in which the scriptures have frequently been misused, twisted or taken out of context to suggest that wives must tolerate and endure abuse. I emphasize that when Christians value mutuality and Biblical equality in marriage (with husbands and wives "submitting to each other out of reverence for Christ" per Eph 5:21) there is no place for abuse. The historical context of a scripture that is often truncated and quoted to battered woman by pastors, "God hates divorce . . " (Micah 2:16) is discussed. Most Christians are unaware that the passage was directed at men alone (women did not have the right to divorce) and was during a time when Jewish men were abandoning their Jewish wives for foreign brides to create new political and national alliances. This made their wives destitute, homeless, childless, penniless, of bad reputation and without the necessary protections of a man in that ancient society. Divorce itself in that context was a form of terrible abuse perpetrated by husbands, and so was condemned in the remainder of the verse which is often left out," . . . and covering oneself with violence".
Additionally, I discuss the profound physical and mental suffering of battered wives, explaining that it is not a choice they have made. It is not a volitional and redemptive form suffering (their “cross to bear”) as was Jesus's, when He willingly went to the cross to redeem us. I address the frequent mandate that victims must forgive their abusers and discuss the Biblical prerequisite of repentance vs "forgive and forget" (“cheap grace"). I cover ways that pastors and helpers can best help both Christian victims and their abusers, and discuss interventions that can be unintentionally dangerous and harmful.
Often, a panel of Christian survivors join me and participate by sharing their experiences. They put a face on the problem in a broader way. I also cover the many wonderful resources available for assisting in education and intervention efforts with the church, including ones that are free of cost - books, Bible studies, videos, websites, etc. Other information provided includes where to find relevant denominational protocols and statements (both protestant and Roman Catholic) that may be used as models by churches interested in implementing a plan to address domestic violence.
If you are interested in training of this type I would be happy to discuss it with you. I am also happy to provide you with information that may be helpful, such as a handout reflecting a book chapter wrote entitled, “What I Wish pastors had Known When I was Looking for Help”, guidelines for pastors when addressing victims and perpetrators in their church and a list of excellent Christian resources on domestic violence.