Snake-handling is a particularly famous example of a Christian belief that is dangerous. Many people have died as a result of it in the last one hundred years some estimates are around seventy deaths. Just one question: How many more deaths will it take for it’s practitioners to altogether quit snake-handing? One? Five? Thirty? Most of us will have the consolation that it’s a small group of people who believe in and carry on snake-handling and tend not to think about it.
But what if there’s a wildly popular Christian teaching that creates a toxic environment that enables abusive people to abuse people with no punishment for doing so? Where the abused people cannot flee without being ordered to return to their abusers to reconcile or being advised to submit more? Where an abuser can have all the power and control over the people they are abusing in all areas of life as well as the support of others to continue exercising that power and control however they see fit? What if there’s no statistics on how widespread it is, but it takes place in almost every single church and some churches have more of them than others?
What if at least one of the three women that are killed each day as a result of domestic violence believed in this wildly popular Christian teaching? Do you think it’s possible that none of the 21 women who were killed in the last week had never heard of this teaching? Or we can put it this way: between the 77% of Americans that identify them as Christians, and the 31% of women who has experienced domestic violence in their lifetime, there must be some degree of overlap: Christian wives who have experienced domestic violence and Christian husbands who are violent.
The problem with this wildly popular teaching is that there is no out for abuse and the only sort of abuse they tend to define is the physical. They don’t have an answer for emotional or verbal abuse or any other form of abuse. It reminds me of a movie about a man who is in charge of a Fortune 500’s finances, specifically, purchasing. He wants out, so he deliberately spends thirty million dollars on junk bonds that lose every cent of their value in a matter of weeks. He didn’t just ruin his own life, but he brought down that company and everyone who worked for it – right down to the janitor who cleaned his office and his personal assistant.That might be an extreme example, but it shows that it is possible to put too much pressure on a person. It’s possible to push them to the breaking point with messages about how terrible they are doing and how useless their best efforts are. It’s possible to put a heavy load on their shoulders and to keep on adding to it until they collapse.
The same thing happens with this teaching – some will live it faithfully and it doesn’t ever go wrong for them because they are both equally invested in it and share the burden. But others are bad stewards who abuse the servants in their care – sort of like this parable:
“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” – Matthew 24:45-51
I don’t think they mean to be people who hurt the people they love – it’s just the unfortunate result from what is being taught and how it’s being taught and how people are being told to respond to it. Some churches take that message and berate the guys for not doing enough and they berate the girls for doing too much and not leaving it all up to the guys. Probably not an apt metaphor, it makes me think about the various times when church ladies like to make my plate up for me at the various potlucks – they always give me double helpings. I know it’s too much. I know it will make me sick to eat it all. I know that they don’t give me a choice and that I have to be polite and that I have to eat everything. This teaching does the same thing. It demands way too much of one person and demands even more of them by demanding that the rest of their family depends solely upon them. There’s a saying, ‘wounded people wound people’. That could very well be the case, and where there is no healing there cannot help but be infection.
So how much damage has to be done before the dark-side of this teaching is shown in broad daylight? How many lives must be lost and families must be destroyed? How many people must suffer wounds, emotional trauma, or hurt the people they love before we find a way to break the cycle? How much more damage must we do before we learn our lesson not to teach that message in all of our churches?
I know many will say: “don’t throw the baby out with the bath-water.” Just because there is a domestic violence problem that is connected to these teachings for a few people does not mean that one must do away with all of the teachings for everyone else. True enough, but there must be an alternative. When this teaching fails a family, then keeping on abiding in it, doing the same thing won’t fix the things that this teaching broke. Some people need permission to ask for help to carry a heavy burden – they can’t go it alone. Some people need to be allowed to speak their mind and have their thoughts carry equal weight. They might think of something that their spouse might not be able to. They need the support of their church to salvage what is left even if that goes in the direction of divorce. Whatever course leads to more fruit of the spirit – love, faithfulness, peace, joy, goodness, gentleness, patience, self-control, and kindness should be the direction that each family ought to endeavor to go in. Even if it doesn’t look like that wildly popular teaching, isn’t it far better to live in a household with the fruit of the Spirit than one that has an atmosphere of oppression, tension, and fear?
Or we can just not. We can let people handle snakes and shake our heads each time someone dies. As a church we can ignore the pleas for help from wives and the confessions of husbands that they can’t help hurting their wives. We can counsel them into leading more humbly or submitting more completely as we have done time and time again. It is, after all, the Christian thing to do.