“In like manner, you wives, be in subjection to your own husbands, in order that, if any are not obedient to the word, they may be won without a word through the conduct of their wives, because of having been eyewitnesses of your chaste conduct together with deep respect.” – 1 Peter 3:1-2, New World Translation
The above scripture is used repeatedly in Watchtower publications to define the role of a Christian wife who finds herself married to a husband who does not share her faith. The scripture advises women in such a situation that they can win over their husbands “without a word”, or by letting their actions rather than their words give evidence that faith can make one a better person. In no way does it command any wife who faces abuse from her non-believing husband to remain with him regardless, and endure a violent relationship in the blind hope that he will eventually embrace her faith and stop abusing her. And yet, this is precisely how this scripture has repeatedly been applied, albeit mostly through insinuation, over many decades.
Before proceeding further, we may ask ourselves: “Is it right to question or scrutinize the way scriptural counsel is applied by the Governing Body through their publications on these matters?” Please consider the following words of Jesus:
“Indeed, everyone to whom much was given, much will be demanded of him; and the one whom people put in charge of much, they will demand more than usual of him.” – Luke 12:48, New World Translation
The above words of Jesus remind us of the grave responsibility that members of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses have assumed for themselves in issuing ‘spiritual food’ on behalf of the ‘slave class’ to the global brotherhood. Whether they are self-appointed, or have been granted their lofty roles invisibly by God’s holy spirit, is a matter for each of us to decide individually. However they attained their position, they are certainly accountable for the way they exercise it, which would include the material they print in their publications – particularly if any printed advice leads to harm being inflicted on any of their readers. Remember that more than seven million Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world will make important life-altering decisions based on the publications of the Governing Body, which are promoted as containing guidance from God.
With all of the above in mind, please consider the experience quoted in the February 15th, 2012 Study Edition of the Watchtower on page 29, paragraph 12:
“Selma recalls a lesson she learned from the Witness who studied with her. ‘On one particular day,’ says Selma, ‘I didn’t want to have a Bible study. The night before, Steve had hit me as I had tried to prove a point, and I was feeling sad and sorry for myself.[i] After I told the sister what had happened and how I felt, she asked me to read 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. As I did, I began to reason, ‘Steve never does any of these loving things for me.’ But the sister made me think differently by asking, ‘How many of those acts of love do you show toward your husband?’ My answer was, ‘None, for he is so difficult to live with.’ The sister softly said, ‘Selma, who is trying to be a Christian here? You or Steve?’ Realizing that I needed to adjust my thinking, I prayed to Jehovah to help me be more loving toward Steve. Slowly, things started to change.’ After 17 years, Steve accepted the truth.”
The above experience may be real, or it may be fictitious, but regardless, many who have read this account (both inside and outside of the Witness faith) have been saddened and worried by the course of action and attitudes that it seems to either promote or condone, depending on how you read it.
If one were to draw the worst possible conclusions from the experience, one might arrive at the following understanding:
- A wife trying to ‘prove her point’ with her husband might be demonstrating a lack of Christian qualities (particularly those described in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7), and if the husband were to then hit his wife, this may therefore be understandable.
- Feeling sad and sorry for oneself is not a proper way to respond to being beaten by your husband. Instead, you should think about what you can do to show love to him.
- A husband who receives “acts of love” from his wife is less likely to hit her, and it is therefore incumbent upon wives to show more love to their husbands if they do not want to be beaten.
- Any wives who consider it unacceptable for their husbands to beat them for ANY reason need to have their thinking ‘readjusted’.
- Leaving a husband who is violent is not advisable, and wives are expected to show more love to violent husbands in the hope that they will then change their behavior.
The wholly untrue assertions listed above may be the worst possible conclusions that one could conceivably draw from the ‘Selma and Steve’ experience, but nonetheless, they can still be drawn. Some have defended the use of the experience, pointing out that it does not promote spousal abuse but simply comments on what a certain individual experienced. Certainly, nowhere in the above text is Steve commended for hitting his wife; neither does Selma’s mentor directly tell her that Steve is justified in hitting her.
This does not mean, however, that quoting such an experience in the absence of any condemnation of domestic violence was wise or appropriate on the part of the Writing Department of the Governing Body, who will have prepared this material. Many feel that what is NOT said when dealing with such sensitive matters is often as important as what IS. By failing to denounce Steve’s behavior, either directly in the paragraph or through the use of a footnote, the Society have left their words wide open to be interpreted by some as excusing domestic violence. In many cases, this is precisely the conclusion that is being drawn.
A Disturbing Track Record
One of the most disturbing aspects of the use of this experience is that it seems to perpetuate the myth that any abusive husband will change his habits if exposed to the “miraculous effect” of Bible teachings. Some may not see it that way, and think that reacting so strongly to this experience in isolation is an exaggeration. However, many are perhaps unaware that this experience is just one in a long line of similar experiences that have been used by the Society to drill home their interpretation of 1 Peter 3:1-2 over many years. In fact (to my knowledge), the February 15th, 2012 Watchtower magazine features the nineteenth[ii] such experience in 54 years[iii] – namely that of a husband beating his wife; then studying the bible before finally relenting from his violent behavior with all concerned living ‘happily ever after’.
I do not attempt to convey the thought that Watchtower publications consistently give incorrect or outdated advice on this issue. It is noteworthy that one 1994 Awake article urged victims to “seek emotional and physical protection from a competent third party”.[iv] However, it seems that for every article that correctly advises on the subject, there are several that entirely miss the mark and give deeply damaging advice. Take as an example the following 1979 Awake article, which implied that family disputes involving domestic violence are a waste of police time:
“Also, what is home violence doing to the quality of police and hospital emergency-room service that we get? Did you know that in some places more police die in the course of handling domestic violence than in any other avenue of their duty? Responding to family-fight calls eats up a major share of the policeman’s time, time that otherwise could be used protecting the rest of us from public crime and violence.” –May 8th, 1979 Awake
Though printed more than 32 years ago, the above statement is still deeply offensive to many. It has never been retracted, so I can only assume that it still represents the Watch Tower Society’s viewpoint today – despite its absurd implications. One can hardly imagine a battered wife turning up at her local ER, her face black and blue, and being turned away by doctors because the circumstances of her injuries are not considered serious enough (i.e. “Come back when a burglar does that to you, and not your own husband!”).
It would seem that the same hopeless naivety and insensitivity to the plight of abused women has never really departed the Watchtower publications. As the world in general grows increasingly intolerant of such outdated views, the rhetoric of the Governing Body through the Watch Tower Society’s publications grows more and more notably detached from reality. But why is this the case?
A Doctrinal Handicap
To a large extent, the writers of Watchtower publications have their hands tied doctrinally when approaching these issues. That is because Jehovah’s Witnesses do not currently accept domestic abuse as legitimate grounds for a ‘scriptural’ divorce, no matter HOW extreme the abuse may be.[v] True, Witnesses impose no sanctions against a battered wife who succeeds in obtaining a legal separation or divorce from her violent husband. However, she would not be allowed to subsequently remarry without being disfellowshipped from the organization as an adulteress.
Put simply, if a battered Witness wife takes her faith seriously, or wishes to maintain full contact with her believing family (or any children that may have been yielded from the abusive relationship), she is forbidden from having a relationship that is both loving AND intimate with any other man for the rest of her life. She must live out her days as a spinster for no other reason than because she didn’t know that her husband was a wife-beater before she married him.
I personally find it difficult to believe that Jesus had this exact scenario in mind when he said: “if ever a woman, after divorcing her husband, marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:11-12) Nonetheless, the Society takes the view that Jesus meant that a wife should remain married to her husband even if she receives violent treatment regularly– and it is this understanding of this key principle that flavors their approach to 1 Peter 3:1-2. This, in turn, leads to highly impractical and damaging advice being given whenever the issue of domestic violence is touched upon, because the emphasis is placed on protecting the marital bond even at the expense of preserving human life.
If the Governing Body have doctrinally bound themselves to this narrow understanding of Jesus’ words, then that is one thing. Obviously, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion – and it is ultimately for the Christian wife to decide whether the Society’s view of divorce and separation in the context of domestic violence is valid and binding on her personally. What I find totally unacceptable is that the Governing Body should then take things further – making implications through the Society’s publications that might directly lead to abused women being exposed to dangerous or even life-threatening situations.
Certainly, when it comes to applying 1 Peter 3:1-2, the implication is consistently given that by persevering in a violent relationship, a battered wife will somehow succeed in ‘winning over’ her abusive husband, thereby bringing a swift and lasting end to the violence. The answer, it would seem, always lies within. Although this has doubtless been the case in certain instances, it is inconceivable that studying the Bible is a blanket panacea against the scourge of domestic violence that will effectively remedy ANY situation whatsoever. In short, there will always be casualties, and the Society completely fails to consider this when publishing experiences such as the one being discussed.
The Outside Perspective
It was with these thoughts in mind that I recently contacted Refuge, a prominent domestic abuse charity based in the UK. I was particularly interested in their opinion of the ‘Selma and Steve’ experience, because they are extremely active in campaigning against domestic violence, and providing protection and support for victims. I sent them a copy of the article, and this was their response:
“Despite Refuge’s tireless work in the last 40 years to change negative attitudes about domestic violence, some people still excuse domestic violence by perpetuating the myth that an abused woman is somehow to blame for the violence of her partner. No one can be blamed for another person’s violence or behaviour – he alone is responsible. Domestic violence is rarely a one off incident and it’s not the result of a row going “out of control” – in fact it’s all about power and control, which one person chooses to exercise over another. The only person who can be blamed for the abuse is the perpetrator. Violence and abuse, no matter what form it takes, is unacceptable and is against the law.
If you are experiencing domestic abuse, you’re not alone and there is support out there. In the UK, call the Freephone 24-Hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run in partnership between Refuge and Women’s Aid, on 0808 2000 247, or go online to www.refuge.org.uk for more information. If you’re worried about a friend or family member who may be suffering in silence, go to www.1in4women.com for expert information on how to spot the signs and support someone who’s going through domestic violence.
Domestic violence is a crime. Don’t ignore it.”
It is noteworthy that Refuge, who were consulted prior to publishing this article, have placed great emphasis on urging readers of this website to contact them if they are undergoing domestic abuse – and I would echo such sound advice if you are in this situation. Bear in mind that the Governing Body’s approach seems to be that if Bible principles are applied, there will be no problems whatsoever requiring external support or intervention of any kind from “the world”. In fact, the Governing Body has used the pages of its literature to try and dissuade victims of domestic violence from availing themselves of, for example, the emergency services. It is little wonder that a religious body that issues such ludicrous advice would be the focus of concern from a domestic abuse charity. Unquestionably, it is the over-reliance of the Governing Body on Bible counsel coupled with its narrow-minded interpretation of scripture that is placing married female Jehovah’s Witnesses in peril – thereby making the above appeal all the more warranted.
Moreover, bear in mind that it is incumbent on the Governing Body to exercise their role as shepherds of the flock of God in a way that furnishes “a fine testimony from people on the outside.” (1 Peter 5:2; 1 Tim 3:7) If a prominent charity specializing in combating domestic abuse sees fit to issue the above response to the negative and out-dated approach that is perpetuated by this Watchtower article and others (without having any religious bias to influence their opinion in this matter), how does this reflect on the Governing Body’s claim to such worldwide ministerial prominence, serving as a mouthpiece to God’s spirit-directed organization? How does it reflect on Jehovah’s name?
But there is more to this than simply bruised egos, damaged reputations, and the stumbling of people beyond the Witness faith. There is the very real harm that can be inflicted upon those who passively subject themselves to innumerable beatings and vicious attacks, simply because they feel compelled by the Society’s publications to endure these in the false hope of ‘winning over’ their mate. By insinuating that an abusive husband may embrace the faith of his wife provided she ‘sticks it out’, the Society are putting countless women in harm’s way – in direct breach of their ‘duty of care’ as Christian shepherds. –1 Peter 5:2
The Wives Who Didn’t Win
Do you feel that it is irresponsible on the part of the Governing Body to persist in perpetuating this myth? Is the advice given in the February 15th, 2011 Watchtower a one-size-fits-all antidote to any and all cases of domestic violence? It would seem to indicate as much. We have no way of knowing the true scope of the collateral damage that this approach has inflicted over the years, or the number of women who have been seriously harmed (or worse) by applying such ill-considered advice. All I know is, it must end now before there are any further casualties.
Whilst preparing this article I was contacted by a woman in New England who wishes to remain nameless. She told me that she has been a victim, not only of an abusive husband, but of a mindset within the Witness fraternity that increasingly favors the plight of the violent husband over that of his beaten wife. She had this to say:
“Very soon after our wedding the abuse started. It was a lot of mental, emotional abuse, as well as physical abuse. The typical hair pulling, face punching, body kicking, strangling, etc. He never beat me bad enough to put me in hospital, and I honestly think he and others justified the abuse as ‘not that bad’ as a result.”
What was the reaction of responsible shepherds within her congregation?
“Whenever I reached out for help in this organization, I was told to be a better wife. I was told to apply Christian principles. So I tried. The more I tried to be a submissive Christian wife as suggested, the more of a victim I became. Early in our marriage I had tried to leave him. I was told by my family, who were influenced by those in charge, that it was the wife’s duty to stop the abuse. The elders, who are trained on how to protect the congregation, told me that it was my duty to stop the abuse. There was no scriptural reason for divorce, therefore I had to stay and make it work.”
The woman could finally no longer tolerate the situation, and found the courage to leave the abusive relationship. Though not baptized (or liable for disfellowshipping), she was shunned by all of her former friends and family members. She summarizes her experience in this way:
“This advice, this ‘loving counsel’ that comes from the men in charge, not only created a domestic violence victim, it kept the abuse going. It blamed me, the victim, for it happening in the first place. It punished me for escaping and surviving.”
I would like to think that this woman, whom I greatly admire for coming forward, is the only one to have experienced such an ordeal. However, the more I look into this troubling subject, the more I am astonished by how much damage is being done by the Watch Tower Society’s stance on (what I believe should be) such a straightforward issue.
Indeed, on the website www.silentlambs.org there is a page under the heading “Battered Lambs” containing firsthand experiences from both women and children who have been abused by those within the Witness faith. At least 12 of the experiences related are of women whose husbands beat or otherwise abused them with little or no support or intervention from their local elders. I am sure there are many, many more of our sisters who are currently in abusive relationships but do not have the courage or opportunity to come forward without risking further harm.
If the Governing Body has any regard for the welfare of the many married sisters within the organization (or those married women who are studying with Jehovah’s Witnesses), not to mention its external reputation with domestic abuse charities such as Refuge, it will abandon its practice of using these ‘experiences’ to encourage women to remain in abusive relationships for the sole purpose of potentially converting their husbands, or observing the organization’s doctrinal standpoint on divorce.
It is not my intention to unfairly criticize the Governing Body or the Watch Tower Society over this issue. I have done my utmost to write fairly (and not unduly hindered by emotion) on what is an extremely sensitive subject, in a way that reflects both sides of the argument. I do not pretend to have all the answers as to how the Society can balance its views on the sanctity of marriage with the need to protect vulnerable women. However, I do know that to encourage women to remain in a situation that could result in them being beaten or worse is profoundly irresponsible, and in breach of the Governing Body’s duty of care as shepherds.
I would therefore urge the Writing Department of the Governing Body to (1) publish a full retraction concerning the offensive experience contained in the February 15th, 2012 Watchtower, including a full apology for any offence caused to victims of domestic abuse, (2) remind all publishers that domestic abuse of any kind is wrong and that abused wives should not have to endure violence for any reason, and (3) undertake never to publish any similar experiences or material giving advice of this nature in the future – either directly or by insinuation.
If the Governing Body is truly humble, discreet and sincere regarding its responsibilities, it must ensure that the measures proposed above are implemented – not just to preserve its own ‘image’, but also to protect the lives of the many vulnerable women towards whom it owes a duty of care.
[i] It has been noted that translations of this Watchtower article into other languages have lessened the severity of the account by avoiding words that directly convey ‘hitting’, or an act of violence on the part of Steve. It is not clear why this is the case. It may be that some of the Society’s translators were acting under their own initiative to make the paragraph more acceptable. Whilst it is pleasing to know that individuals reading the article in those languages may therefore be slower to connect the experience with the issues of domestic abuse, this does not excuse the way the experience was related in the original English source material.
[ii] The nineteen articles referred to are: w58 7/1 p. 400; w69 12/15 p. 740; g70 12/8 p. 10; g74 1/8 p. 11; w76 5/15 pp. 292-293; w82 7/15 p. 7; w86 8/1 p. 21; w90 8/15 p. 21; yb90 p. 64; yb93 pp. 179-180; w94 4/15 pp. 27-29; yb94 p. 145; w96 5/1 pp. 22-23; g97 4/22 p. 31; w99 1/1 p. 3; yb99 p. 60; w04 8/15 p. 10; w07 4/15 p. 6; w12 2/15 p. 29 – although there may conceivably be more that describe similar scenarios. In each of the foregoing references, an initially violent husband improves his behaviour thanks to his wife’s example and/or the husband eventually embraces the wife’s faith to varying degrees. Key: w = The Watchtower, g = Awake!, yb = Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
[iii] Watchtower publications older than 1950 were not available to the author at the time of writing this article, although the Watchtower magazine has been in print in some form or other since 1879.
[iv] See the February 8th, 1993 edition of the Awake, page 12 – in the article entitled “An End to Domestic Violence”.
[v] See w75 5/1 pp. 286-288, a Questions From Readers article relating to the question: “My husband sometimes beats me. Should I get a legal separation or divorce because of it?”