Don’t be a martyr, but do suffer in your marriage to an angry husband (and other “Biblical counseling”)

Yesterday I applied Caroline Newheiser’s lecture “Living with an Angry Husband” (link) to the wife of Devin Patrick Kelley, the man who shot and killed 26 people in a Texas church on November 5, 2017. It is a lecture that sounds a very uncertain call to the church, with contradictory counsel. Through the whole time I listened to it, I kept taking off my glasses to rub my aching temples. You can read that Part One commentary here (link).

Today I want to make some observations from that same lecture about what “Biblical counselors” (actually nouthetic “admonishing” counselors) will say about submission, fear, and suffering in a marriage to an angry husband.

Caution: I received feedback that yesterday’s post was very difficult for some people to read, because of the counsel I was analyzing. Today’s post will be similar.

Submission in a marriage to an angry husband

Two thirds of the way into her talk—after 40 minutes of an hour-long lecture—Caroline Newheiser addresses the problem of wrong teachings about submission (41:25), which she calls “misunderstandings.” I’ve heard that a well-respected teacher of women has said, “Submission is, when your husband wants to do wrong, you let him get away with it.” This is not, thankfully, what Caroline Newheiser is espousing.

But I’m not sure exactly what she is saying. She says the wife shouldn’t “follow him into sin,” but the submissive wife may be left wondering, “What is ‘following him into sin,’ exactly? Is it ‘following him into sin’ when he strips off my clothes in front of the children and drags me into the bedroom? Is it ‘following him into sin’ when he commands me to lick his feet and I do it?”

The only example Caroline gives of “not following him into sin” is when he tells his wife not to go to church, she should do it anyway. (43:35) And what then? Will she be punished when she gets home, for disobedience? Will she be locked in her room and denied food for three days? Will the children be terrorized, to punish her for going to church? No answer is forthcoming.

But in the group of women Caroline is speaking to and for, a far more common problem, in fact, perhaps one of the biggest problems, is that the angry husband will actually order his wife to go to church—with him—while he puts on the show of being the godly “leader of his family.” But this problem of hypocrisy, though it gets a bare mention in one section, isn’t ever really tackled as the huge issue it is in the church of Jesus Christ. 

Again, as I did yesterday, I want to emphasize that the examples Caroline uses are examples of violent and dangerous men, not men who are simply frustrated or aggravated. As another example of misunderstanding of “submission,” Caroline says that a woman may think (42:45), “Am I taking revenge if I say he twists my arm when he gets mad, pushes me up against the bed, and throws me down?” Caroline adds, “Women who’ve been in this mindset have been told that they are unsubmissive if they tell anyone [about the abuse].”

The solution she offers is for the church to get involved, which I plan to address next time, but which (spoiler alert) falls woefully short.

Fear in a marriage to an angry husband

At minute 44, Caroline explains that the wife of an angry husband lives with great fear of a man who is “screaming, yelling, throwing things, belittling her, and calling her names.” She observes that this fear can affect the wives physically, causing them to end up in the doctor’s office because of the fear, with ulcers or other illnesses. (She commendably urged her listeners to check on women with unusual bruising, but I wish she had said something similar about women with lots of other kinds of physical problems.)

She observes that fear can lead to irrational behavior (I would say behavior that appears irrational to others) because the wife is “crazy fearful and can’t think straight.” Yes, I’ve heard from many women that it was hard to think clearly in their marriages because of the crazy-making and the fear.

But then Caroline springboards off of this to say, “So fear can lead to sin because you’re not trusting God.”

Wait, what?

Did you hear that?

What?

It is astonishing to me to accuse these women of sin because of their fear of a man who could hurt them or their children, or kill them.

Ha ha. I just realized I was pressing on my temples again.

At minute 47 Caroline begins to list some of the many very legitimate fears the wife of an angry husband may have. When her listeners finish hearing these last few minutes, they might actually have an idea of just how dire is the situaton of many women in their churches. She describe the fears . . .

  • that people won’t believe her because her husband is a really, really good deceiver [my note: This is where she mentions the hypocrisy. This is a fear grounded in reality because it really happens because even though “at home he’s a maniac” [47:53] many hypocrites are really super good at their hypocrisy].
  • that the church leader she speaks to who didn’t believe her will then tell her husband [again, a fear grounded in reality because it really happens] who will then punish her unspeakably.
  • that in counseling the husband will manipulate and control and “take charge of that meeting, turning the sin on her.”

Whoa! Wait a minute!

Is that couples’ counseling I see there?

It sounds like Caroline Newheiser is simply assuming couples’ counseling will be part of the natural order of things in cases of domestic abuse (a term she never uses, even though that’s what she’s describing throughout), and all she recommends is that a woman be present in the counseling session because “we’ve got instincts.” But not necessarily, because I know about abusers charming women counselors too, and in couples’ counseling, the abused wife is not free to speak truth, no matter who else is there. This was never addressed.

Caroline should have said that couples’ counseling is never to take place in cases of “angry [cruel] husbands”, and she should have explained why. This didn’t happen.

Continuing with the fears as described by Caroline . . .

  • that the church leaders will listen politely to her but won’t take any action at all.
  • the future, that she won’t be able to provide for herself and her children without her husband’s income.
  • her reputation, because she can’t fix her marriage, she doesn’t want to be labelled as divorced, she feels the need to keep the facade of “happy family.”
  • the effects on her children, living in “this screaming yelling household,” or living in a one-parent household, or having to bounce back and forth between households in which one is abusive.
  • blame and guilt that she should have done something to make the marriage work, which is false guilt . . . except for when she’s really guilty of provoking him.

That last little jab there serves to counteract the previous helpful statement.

Caroline lists many absolutely legitimate fears that the woman will face. In the part I’ll be looking at next time, she talks about how the church and counselors should help, so I don’t want to leave you thinking that she lists fears without offering any solution. But at the end of her talk about fear, I still felt the ringing accusation that no matter how bad the abuse is, if you’re afraid, that means you’re in sin or somehow “leading to” sin.

On the contrary, though, some of the bravest women I know are the women who came out of abusive homes. They had to face their fears—all of them legitimate fears of real things, not imagined things, but things that could really happen—and do almost impossibly hard things, often because their love for their children was greater than their fears. Even in spite of their fears, they did trust God as they moved forward. I would never accuse them of sin for being afraid in a situation such as this.

One more topic for today . . .

Suffering in a marriage to an angry husband

In the same place where Caroline said the wife should respond gently when the husband is slamming things around in a rage, which I referred to yesterday, she also says (30:00) that the wife should be “not quarrelsome or nagging, but patiently enduring.”

Well, of course to me that sounds like the suffering mentality that is so common in domestic abuse counseling. So judge at my surprise when ten minutes later (40:28) she says, “Some of these ladies have adopted the idea that they are called to suffer in this life.”

I wonder where they got that.

Then to my extreme surprise, she gently mocks the women who are being abused! ‘I’m a martyr. I’m just going to stay married no matter what.’”

You are mocking a woman who is married to a dangerous man, of whom she is living in fear?

You’re mocking her for saying she’s going to “stay married no matter what” when (spoiler alert!) that’s what you yourself are going to tell her at the end of the lecture?

I don’t understand.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Caroline’s other listeners are as confused as I was when she then said, “She may need to understand suffering, but the martyr thing? Not acceptable to God. Not if we love our brothers.”

But Caroline didn’t explain what the “martyr thing” was or how to help a woman avoid it.

I don’t understand.

But it wasn’t over yet. Another 20 minutes later at the end of the lecture, when Caroline (spoiler alert) tells the women not to think of divorce, she says (59:40), “As we think about our Savior, He was abused, was He not? Screamed at, misunderstood, accused of being of the devil. . . . He understood what it was like to be in this situation.”

Then she says counselors should give these women Hebrews 4:14 as a comforting Scripture.

So . . . let me see . . . a woman who lives in fear of her life and her children’s lives is not to live as a martyr but is to suffer like Jesus (who was in fact a martyr) so she won’t dissolve a marriage whose covenant has already been broken by an angry husband.

Got it. I think.

Oh, ha ha. I’m taking off my glasses and rubbing my pounding head again.

Alternative views to this uncertain sound

About submission in an abusive marriage . . . I recommend reading the several posts I’ve written on “rights.” There are also helpful words about submission to be found here.

About fear in an abusive marriage . . . I recommend this post from A Cry for Justice.

About suffering in an abusive marriage . . . I recommend three of my posts: “In which I have a small argument with a Puritan about suffering,” and “Does God crush you like a rose to make perfume?” and “Do you pray for God to ‘break’ you?”

If you’ve read helpful posts about any of these topics that present the topics from a Biblical viewpoint (the kind of Biblical viewpoint that puts the responsibility for abuse at the feet of the abuser), please feel free to link to them in the comments. 

Ultimately, we hold to the truth that our God and Savior cares for the oppressed and hates wickedness. We know that He values your life more than any marriage. And we know that those who put their trust in Him will not be ashamed. 

*****

Part Three of this commentary series is now published here.

16 thoughts on “Don’t be a martyr, but do suffer in your marriage to an angry husband (and other “Biblical counseling”)

  1. The monster that this counseling has created seems too big to tackle. With many coming forward, like yourself, which I am so very thankful for, and yet the monster lurks bigger than life. The monster being the lie that has permeated our culture. For all that have climbed out, so many still alone, still barely breathing, still barely making it financially and physically…..clinging to the end of the rope of truth that “they know what happened”. Still judged, mocked and sitting in church alone….. Those still in it, thier minds twisted up as they try to grab a ray of confidence to move forward but the monster always there to throw a memory of one of the lines from the above counselor’s teaching…… All because it is not taught differently. It is not shouted out from the pulpit how wrong it is and the wives and children are not welcomed and embraced, let alone held and nurtured until they can fly strong in Christ’s freedom. Shame!

    Thank you for your daring strength to stand and cry from your post!

    • There is much darkness, I know, Listening, but there are also rays of light. For that I’m thankful, and I pray that as those who were victimized and those who want to help the victimized read what I and others write, the truth will shine more and more.

  2. I doubt that Caroline has done much studying of the classics. Yet so much of her advice reminds me of this sickening narrative poem I studied in Chaucer as a college sophomore.

    Patient Griselda.
    A wealthy marquis marries a peasant girl on the condition that she obey him without question. This involves letting him murder both her children (or so he lets her think) and walking home to her father wearing nothing but her undies. That poem made me livid. I found myself hating Griselda even more than her odious husband.

    Caroline’s advice comes straight from the Dark Ages.

    • Well, believe it or not, Caroline is actually one of the much more gentle of the “Biblical [nouthetic/admonishing] counselors.” Some would say the wife should obey without question no matter what, but I believe Caroline wouldn’t say that. She says the wife should get help from the church, who (in Caroline’s lecture) is all poised to help appropriately, and then the husband will become the kind man he’s supposed to be, apparently. That’s what I’ll be talking about in my next post.

      The poem is shocking, for sure, but I just want to make sure Caroline isn’t misrepresented. Even with all her contradictory statements that enable abusers, I feel sure she wouldn’t go that far. If you haven’t listened to the lecture yet, you might want to listen to it and see what you think.

      • I think the gentleness and more balanced approach by Caroline actually makes her teaching MORE dangerous. For a wife who already has this type of counseling deeply ingrained in her mind, Caroline’s approach will nail it down further, and the wife may not reject the lies since after all Caroline sounds to loving and reasonable. And she does validate real dangers and fears faced by these abused women, so that makes the fog even thicker.

  3. One again, as I read this, my heart is pounding with righteous anger toward Caroline. The woman is seriously confused. She doesn’t even know what she believes or why. She is failing at her effort to walk the thin line between a wife’s legitimate right to protect herself and her children and the church’s dogma that insists on preserving toxic, ungodly marriages.

    And as far as suffering to glorify God, I would like to encourage the readers here to take a gander at an article that my husband I researched together that clearly reveals from a biblical perspective that suffering for the sake of suffering does not glorify God.

    (Check out “Suffering Love: A Redemptive Force or an Enabling One?” http://www.hurtbylove.com/?s=Suffering+Love).

    In short, there are several incidents in the gospels where Jesus removed Himself from the presence of those who sought to do Him harm. The only time He subjected Himself to the full measure of righteous suffering was for a redemptive purpose, not so that wickedness could triumph.

    I trust this deeper understanding will replace Caroline’s horrifically unbalanced teaching with a powerful dose of life-giving truth.

    “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” John 8:32

  4. Oh boy what a tangled muddle. It reminds me of someone trying to sound more educated and enlightened about an issue than they really are. She sounds confused at best or trying to sound like she gets the realities of abuse but is still of the stay, suffer and suck it up buttercup crowd. I don’t blame you for rubbing your head so much.

  5. Because there is unavoidable suffering in some people’s life, it has been made to be an ideal model for everyone. Just bit your lips and bear it. It’s just as cruel as the extreme prosperity teaching, where all suffering is seen as weakness of faith.
    I love Joni Eareckson Tada and her music & books are inspirational. Sadly her life testimony is twisted by some teachers as an example for ‘sanctifying via suffering’. (Her marriage thank God is a wonderfully happy one, and her husband had shared how the Lord taught him to truly stand by his wife, encourage her and enjoy being a support for her, instead of running to all those men’s retreats looking for ‘prayer partners’. LOL!)

    • I think it’s because the Bible talks about suffering (suffering for the faith) and in the past, like in the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, suffering was seen as a way to sort of “burn off sin,” which is why people would impose suffering on themselves, such as flagellation. Though the modern evangelical church doesn’t go that far, I’ve seen what seems to be pretty suspiciously similar thinking—that suffering, rather than Jesus Christ, will complete your sanctification. (I’ve written about that in some of my other blog posts about suffering.)

    • Ken and Joni face daily challenges. But none of them are Joni’s fault or character issues. If your spouse is paralyzed or otherwise disabled those are “trials” Christian spouses should work through.

      • Absolutely. and they have been very honest about their struggles and frustrations. I believe their marriage is an inspiration to many, not because she’s in a wheelchair, but because both have been willing to grow in order to truly serve and love one another.

        The danger I have seen is because she (or anyone else) often speaks about her physical sufferings and how that has made her more dependent on the Lord and his grace, the idea of suffering / weakness has made into something that it’s not, and has begun to include aspects that are dangerous. Suffering abuse in the hands of mean people is not something anyone should be expected to tolerate in the name of character training.

I welcome your thoughts (and of course, please feel free to use a screen name)