Divorce, Abuse, and Shame

Updated: May 20

Dwell Community Church is responsible for condoning abuse within marriage by idolizing a strict, legalistic interpretation of marriage and divorce within the church. In a position not unpopular among fundamentalist Christian groups, Dwell Community Church holds that "righteous" divorce may only occur in cases of sexual immorality (specifically adultery) or physical abandonment by either spouse, with separation for any other reason being an indication of rebellion against God and a source of deep shame for the spouse who seeks to end a destructive marriage. This leaves spouses who suffer from a wide array of extremely detrimental marriage situations trapped in an unhealthy and untenable situation, forced to choose between their love for God and the psychological, emotional, or physical safety of themselves and their children. In a gross violation of spiritual leadership and authority, Dwell Community Church piles insult upon injury by shaming spouses within their community for wanting a divorce while they are regularly subjected to marital abuse in the home. The thin veneer of intellectualism in the church's teachings on marriage and divorce belies a critical lack of understanding of scripture and a complete failure to comprehend the scope and extent of damage caused in toxic relationships. As God protects and sustains his people, so was the marriage covenant designed to protect and sustain spouses, rather than trap individuals in an endless cycle of abuse.

Dwell Community Church seems to struggle enormously when it comes to moral and emotional concepts that cannot be readily categorized into their black-and-white, dichotomous system of adjudication, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the recognition and definition of abuse, particularly within marriage. This is interesting for a church that prides itself on an intimate and personal relationship with an unseen, non-physical God, and claims that the surest way to demonstrate the reality of God to the non-believer is through the emotional testimony of love exhibited by the saved. The most powerful arguments for God are those made in the non-physical realm, manifested as the internal power of transformative grace. And yet, senior church leadership seems to believe that the only way to truly damage people is in the physical realm. Consider the following statement from church elders in a recent position paper on marriage and divorce:

 

At the same time, our culture has continued to broaden the definitions of both abuse and victimhood. We are seeing increasing claims from members that a spouse’s verbal or emotional abuse should be grounds for divorce — even that it’s equivalent to physical violence.


Ryan Lowery and James Rochford, Elders of Dwell Community Church

 

This statement is at once arrogant as well as disturbing as it indicates that church leadership does not understand the nature of abuse nor consider that verbal and emotional abuse can be just as damaging as abuse which has a physical component. Of course, this is obviously in conflict with the current scientific consensus, and abuse victims of all types will recognize the shared anxiety, fear, and isolation that pervades all areas of life and requires years of professional intervention to reach a place of comfort or stability. Even in cases of physical and sexual abuse, the pervasive repercussions are typically emotional and psychological in nature. That church leadership feels empowered to provide spiritual guidance to those suffering from the effects of abuse without even a basic understanding of the issue is both deeply irresponsible and a fundamental misuse of spiritual authority.


Perhaps more concerning is that Dwell Community Church does not even recognize life-threatening physical abuse as a "righteous" reason for divorce, though they appear to allow divorce in extreme cases while still refusing to identify it as moral. Overall, the official church position on divorce and remarriage is woefully inadequate, suffering from a rampant intellectual legalism which misses the spirit of biblical marriage and grace entirely. In this case it is difficult to determine the greater evil: the bastardization of our loving and gracious God as a tyrant who demands submission and suffering or the willingness to heap insult upon injury by condoning abuse within marriage while shaming a spouse who seeks to be free of it. Numerous allegations have been made against Dwell Community Church with regard to the handling of abusive marriages and pastoral counseling. Here is just one devastating story from a former member shared on the website Xenos Is A Cult:

 

During our marriage (we married at Xenos in 2006, after dating 4 years – engaged for over 3.5 years) my ex was identified as a tyrant by our HC leader, called a bully by a pastoral counselor, told he “lords over his family” and had a critical spirit towards his wife (by a professional counselor). If I didn't agree with him, I was called disrespectful. He controlled our finances to the point I wasn’t given password access to the family accounts, or utilities. He had computers locked down with passwords, so I could never see what he was doing online – though I suspect strongly porn was involved. He wanted to dictate the activities I was involved in, the friends I had . . .


In our last series of counseling sessions with Katie Downs, she said if married to my ex, she'd be in counseling too because of how controlling he was. At our last session, I asked her how long I was expected to live like this and her . . . answer floored me. “Jesus endured suffering at the hands of his abusers until His death. It's not about how you are loved, but how you love others that matters.” I remember looking at her, and just saying “Well, I’m not Jesus.” She followed up by asking if I had given up. I merely cried because she just didn’t get it … no one was willing to admit it, or accept what was happening. No matter how many times I went for help in our relationship, nearly 14 yrs together … I was told I was divisive. I was disrespectful. I was a bad mom. I wasn’t desirable or attractive.


Just prior to this final counseling session, I had a conversation with Doug Patch on how I needed prayer for the marriage. He had been an instructor for my ex and I in a class, and knew his character. From that conversation, he went to our home church leader and advised that if I left my marriage, filed for divorce, under grounds not approved by the church, I would be asked to leave fellowship. I remember when my leader, GF, shared this with me … I was in disbelief. Again, people who knew the abusive nature of my marriage were telling me I either had to stay with this man and remain with my church family, or leave the abuse and lose my church family.

 

This story is a clear example of not just religious overreach but concrete religious abuse by Dwell Community Church. To threaten an abused spouse with excommunication is a gross violation of not only biblical principles but basic human ethics. The scope here is enormous and cannot be overstated. Not only was this woman subjected to years of abuse by her former husband, she was systematically and routinely shamed by her church for failing to meet an impossible standard. With no possibility for resolution, Dwell Community Church forces individuals into a dead end where they must choose to lose everything or continue to submit to abuse. The God of our fathers did not sacrifice his only Son so that an abused woman would suffer at the hands of a faithless husband, who neither protects nor sustains, in an indissoluble earthly marriage. To preach otherwise is to twist the indelible marriage covenant of God and the church into a repressive slavery incongruent with the grace and love of God himself.


No doubt, pastoral counseling is nuanced and involves significant judgment and experience. However, spouses who desire to adhere to a particular faith tradition should be honored as autonomous, responsible parties in navigating the question of divorce and what precisely constitutes “too far” in any particular situation. Pastoral counselors should be discouraged from doing anything other than advising spouses of the elements of the marriage covenant which are biblically clear: marriage is a special covenantal agreement reflecting the indissoluble bond between God and his people which has been bought and paid for by the blood of Christ. It is characterized by faithfulness, grace, and forgiveness as a relationship which honors, protects, and sustains. Where either spouse, in accordance with individual conscience, finds these agreements irreparably breached, the decision should be respected by pastoral staff rather than demonized or trivialized. Leadership at Dwell Community Church seems to have a very low opinion of its flock and their ability to use individual conscience and prayerful reflection before God to navigate difficult spiritual decisions.


From Creation to Sinai to the Cross, the call of the marriage covenant has always been to protect and sustain, as God protects and sustains his people. The intention has never been to trap individuals in a painful and detrimental situation based on a legalistic adherence to arbitrary standards. In order to honor the true covenant of marriage, we have an obligation to recognize concessions for spouses who face serious harm under deeply flawed human marriages, and those concessions should be based upon the most fulsome understanding of harm that the modern era can provide us with. In a marriage that affords neither protection nor sustenance to either spouse, with little hope of such conditions being realized in the future, we are of the opinion that a divorce is justified under the spirit of biblical principles, that grace is sufficient, and that such decision may be guided by the individual heart devoted to God. Moreover, we believe that every individual should have a right to experience the benefits of a marriage where both parties strive to mirror the new relationship between God and his people that has been bought and paid for by Christ’s blood. To call Christian spouses to remain in dangerous and psychologically damaging marriages is to misunderstand the grace of God and the true meaning of an indissoluble covenant meant to faithfully protect and sustain.


To read a full rebuttal to the Dwell Community Church position paper on Divorce and Remarriage, follow the link below:

Divorce and Remarriage - with commentary
.pdf
Download PDF • 610KB


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