Who could ignore the harrowing plight of imprisoned pastor Saeed Abedini? As thousands upon thousands have committed to pray for the release of Saeed while Iranian guards tortured and tormented him for planting house churches in Iran, another kind of abuse and torture has lingered below the surface of Abedini's story.
Just last month Saeed's wife, Naghmeh, who has lead the fight to advocate for his release, revealed that she will suspend her advocacy in order to heal for a season and to seek the Lord's direction. According to her email to supporters, Nagmeh had been regularly abused by Saeed: physically, verbally, and sexually. Even when separated over thousands of miles, he continued to abuse her verbally.
Evangelicals can't run fast enough to fight for the release of a pastor from Iran, but we can't seem to muster much of a response to the abuse of women in our midst. The widespread plight of women living in abusive households remains under the radar while a single male pastor's torture occupies the bulk of our attention.
According to Focus Ministries, a Christian ministry to victims of domestic violence, one in four Christian women experience domestic violence – a number that is corroborated by a former detective. An estimated 6 million women are in abusive relationships throughout the United States.
Why are evangelicals more likely to pray for and advocate for an imprisoned pastor on the other side of the world while generally neglecting the women who are imprisoned in their own homes in our neighbourhoods? The four reasons that follow are far from comprehensive but may provide a helpful starting point for change.
The Easy Narrative vs the Complex Narrative
Let's address the most obvious reason for the selective action of evangelicals: the narrative. An easily verified news story about an imprisoned pastor in Iran is much easier to communicate and rally behind than allegations that a husband has been abusing his wife.
Mind you, only two per cent to eight per cent of abuse reports are false, according to some of the most rigorous studies (here and here). So while we have very good reasons to trust that the abuse, if anything, goes underreported (estimates range from 40 per cent to 60 per cent), Christians may struggle to determine a next step for collective action if they aren't sure about how to verify charges of abuse.
Even if the charges of spousal abuse are verified, it's still much easier to engage in social media activism than to dig into the long, slow work of education and advocacy for the victims of abuse.
Failure to Understand Abusive Relationships
Abusers don't just attack the body. They also batter the minds of their victims, convincing them that they are worthless and that they don't have any other option. Threats of additional violence prompt many women to keep silent.
According to Dr Christy Sim, who is also an abuse survivor, victims often need at least six attempts to leave an abusive relationship. Abusers thrive by leading a double life, showing that things are OK on the outside while maintaining control in secret. Evangelicals may not realise the urgency and depths of this issue because they assume abused women will take the initiative about their abusers. (See also Dr Sim's Chapter on Divorce in Talking Taboo)
Flawed Applicaiton of Gender Roles
Many potentially fruitful conversations have been derailed because of assertions that conservative theology on gender roles, such as complementarian theology and patriarchy, are the direct causes of abuse. That isn't necessarily the case, even if a strong case can be made for dismantling gender hierarchies.
Rather, patriarchy and views of male headship create an environment where abusers are more likely to receive the support of church leaders and the abused (and their families) to be blamed for negligence rather than addressing the abuser.
Evangelicals who hold to strict gender roles where a wife is expected to submit to the husband aren't inevitably abusive per se. However, they must grapple with the possibility that this hierarchy can provide manipulative abusers with the key tools they need. In addition, some pastors have asserted that wives should remain in abusive marriages in order to win over their husbands.
Flawed Understanding of Divorce in Relation to Abuse
Evangelicals are also unlikely to advocate for the rights of abused women because some want to preserve a marriage no matter the circumstances. Roughly 30 per cent of Protestants believe that divorce is a sin, and a LifeWay poll even found that 28 per cent of Protestant pastors believe divorce is a sin even in the case of abuse. This is founded on a faulty understanding of Jesus' teachings on divorce.
It won't serve us well to simply drop the teachings of Jesus on divorce into today's context. At the time of Jesus, women had few rights, and Jewish men were permitted to divorce their wives for the slightest infraction, simply stating in public that they are now divorced. Women were then left destitute with few options to support themselves.
Where would these women live? How would they earn money? How would they arrange to have another marriage?
These concerns, that are quite foreign to us, were at the forefront of Jesus' teaching (see Matthew 19:1-9). When he limited divorce to marital unfaithfulness, he was intending to primarily limit the men, not the women. Jesus didn't provide a timeless template. He was providing a culturally recognisable protection for women. The clear implications of Jesus' teaching on marriage in his context are that the safety and well-being of women is a top priority because a divorced woman in his day was highly vulnerable.
On Advocating for All
This isn't a call to make our prayers and advocacy an either/or matter between a persecuted pastor and women in abusive relationships. Most days we're already living in this either/or mindset, and the majority of Christians have chosen to make a battered pastor on the other side of the world a higher priority than millions of battered women in our midst. We need space to advocate for both, and we'll only do that if we face the reasons behind our inconsistencies.