Christian Domestic Discipline, “wife spanking,” Christian Patriarchy Movement, Spanking of Adult Children, Denominational Practices and teachings
Two summers ago, I received a phone call from a pastor who shared his growing concern about wife-spanking in his family of churches. Months later, I finally reported on the topic of wife spanking in this article: The Christian Patriarchy Movement’s Dark Secret of Wife Spanking. Wife spanking is often referred to as Christian Domestic Discipline, as if to make it more politically correct. As far as I’m concerned, it should be called assault and reported to authorities immediately. The article was popular with over 600 comments. Since then, the most common search term which brings people to the blog is”wife spanking.” Some of the search phrases make me want to vomit.
I’m issuing a trigger warning for this subject. It is very disturbing to read. Please be careful if you are easily triggered by topics of abuse.
Last week, I received an e-mail from “Lauren,” a victim of domestic violence, “Christian Domestic Discipline” or “wife spanking:”
I found an old post of yours from last year. Thank you for writing and shedding light on another form of domestic abuse that doesn’t get talked about very much. It’s one thing when it is a Ray Rice situation like in the news now. But I think there are probably other women in conservative or controlling “Christian” households where the husband thinks it is OK to spank his wife like just another child in the house.
I was in such a relationship for a while. I grew up in a very conservative, Southern household and was spanked at home until I left. So when my husband spanked me the first time, I was embarrassed, but I thought maybe it was my fault or somehow it was OK.
It was very difficult because it was not like I had a black eye or bruises. It was just always his open hand on my bottom which made me feel like I could never tell someone else or explain it. It took a long time for me to have the strength to leave him.
My head went spinning. Did Lauren and her husband have any connections with the Patriarchy Movement? Or were they connected with teachings similar to an article I wrote, Wife Undermines Her Husband’s Authority in Front of Children, He Disciplines Her?
Update (12/28/15): previously, there were two YouTube videos posted of Dr. Phil’s show posted here. They have since been removed from YouTube. I was able to find the two snippets from the show below:
The husband in the article (and Dr. Phil’s show) also claimed to be a Christian (non-denominational background). He spanked his wife so he could get the “demons out” and to stop the bad behavior which he labeled as narcissism. He demanded that his wife call him “sir.”
Pat Robertson is another known figure in Christiandom who has said some shocking statements about how husbands should treat wives. He responded to a question from a husband about his unruly wife saying the husband could become a Muslim so he could beat his wife. See for yourself. The clip is just over one minute long:
Where are these teachings coming from?
Is it limited to a specific area or denomination?
How can it be prevalent and endorsed in some circles of Christianity and yet called out as abuse in others?
After reading Lauren’s letter and sharing back and forth e-mails, I had so many questions. I wanted to know how did Lauren get from the point where “wife spanking” was considered “normal” to the place where she said, “THIS IS WRONG – it is ABUSE!”
Lauren and I exchanged e-mails (edited slightly for brevity) and Lauren gave me permission to share with you our conversation, in the hopes that it will help other wives and also shed light on this dark secret in Christianity:
BRAVO for you!! I’m so glad you found the strength to leave your abusive marriage. How did you finally put it all together that wife spanking was wrong? Did you find someone to share with?
I know I am a question box but I also know that what you experienced is going on in homes around the country and people just like you are labeling it as “normal” just because of what you described – – because parents are taught that it’s ok to spank children even through adulthood as long as they are under the father’s roof. It makes complete sense that someone raised in this culture would extend it to domestic abuse.
How are you doing now? Did you get support from friends and family after leaving him?
I got support from friends and it was only when I opened up to them that they helped me see it was wrong. I am not estranged from my parents but I did not get their support. Instead, they wanted to know what I had done wrong to “need” to be punished and felt that I had abandoned my wedding vows when I left him. 😦
I think you are exactly right. I got spanked at home until I left to be with my ex when I was 21. Our church pastor growing up would talk about disciplining according to emotional age, not actual age. And I was told that since I was acting immaturely, this was the consequence. I don’t know where the line is, but looking back now I think I can say that spanking even at 14 or 15 was not right and certainly not up to the age I was.
It took such a long time because that line had been blurred from growing up and then being married. I didn’t see it as abuse. It was not like he was drunk and beating me with his fists. It was confusing because it felt no different than when I was at home. I would commit some offense that my parents/husband thought was wrong, I was told I was going to be punished, I would end up over a lap and afterward would be told to pray.
I am doing much better now and am very glad to be removed from all that. Not only him, but the church and the people there.
Yes, that makes a lot of sense – it was a normal progression for you. You went from your father as protector/provider/authority to your husband as protector/provider/authority. It’s a logical progression.
[I then asked Lauren if she’d be willing to share her story anonymously.]
I think I would be OK with that, especially if anonymous. I imagine the biggest thing other women might be experiencing is that embarrassment, demoralizing, and feeling very disempowered. Especially in situations where the woman feels something is wrong but might not think of herself as “abused.” My husband was only two years older (but he is close to 6 feet tall and heavily muscled and I am around 5 feet tall and under 100 lbs). Yet I was expected to call him “sir” at all times and I was often addressed as “young lady” or “little girl,” which was a constant put-down that made me feel small and powerless.
Even the words used I think make some women question whether it is wrong or not. It’s not called “beatings” or “abuse,” which is what it is. Calling it just a “spanking” in some ways covers up what is going on, I think. I know for a long time I did not consider myself a battered or abused wife.
He wasn’t hitting me with closed fists or objects. It ranged anywhere from a swat or two over my clothing up to him pulling down my pants for episodes that left me bawling. But he never swore, or acted out of control. So I deluded myself to thinking that I wasn’t like those women in shelter’s scared for their lives. While he never threatened my life physically and I still think he would never have that in him, the fact is that the abuse did threaten my “life” in terms of making me feel very alone and afraid not very good inside.
The size difference between you and he is considerable and would be very threatening. From what you describe, it sounds like he had a sense of entitlement over you – you were an object to be owned rather than a cherished wife to be treasured and loved.
Was your church part of a particular denomination? Were you homeschooled or was homeschooling prominent in your church? Did you hear of anyone else going through the same thing? How about at your own home growing up, was your mother spanked? Did you meet your ex-husband at church or was he from outside the church?
The thing is that he never raged. At times he could be very sweet and charming. But over it all was always this sense of control and “he was the man.” My wedding vows included a vow to obey and he would often remind me that God commanded wives to submit and obey their husbands as they were supposed to do towards Christ. The thing is I never felt “threatened.” Just utterly powerless. I never truly “fought back” as if I was fighting for my life. But often I would struggle or try to escape but he was big and strong enough to hold me in place and then would tell me I was getting more for disobeying and struggling.
Our church was non-denominational but was charismatic and evangelical. It was not required (since I know lots of kids in my youth groups were in regular schools) but home-schooling was definitely pushed. I was home-schooled and was raised to not even think about college. I don’t know how wide-spread the practice was, but I remember my parents had no problem threatening me with discipline where other people from our church were within earshot and don’t remember ever hearing any kind of shock or outrage from anyone else.
I don’t know if my Mom was ever spanked. I never heard or suspected anything growing up. Until I moved out, both her and my father spanked me, although he did most of it.
We met through church but I don’t know what his family background was. His mother had passed away long ago and his father died shortly after our wedding and I never got to talk to him much. Our church also pushed heavily this idea of “modesty” even at young levels. Church youth group leaders would tell young ladies that “modest is hottest” and make it clear that exposing any kind of skin somehow made a woman “loose” or “of a certain kind.” My parents had total veto power over what I could wear.
Until I left the house, with being petite along with their ideas of modesty, I still wore little girl style underpants. Comfortable, but very childish, very full coverage stuff. I remember being mortified our wedding night and wanted to find something sexy that would make me feel good (and I thought he would like, too). I bought some lingerie (nothing really scandalous) and wore a pair one night. He told me I was never to wear such “slutty” clothing and made me throw them all away (after beating my bottom).
Ok, so this is more widespread than I suspected if it’s crossing over into charismatic churches. What was your parents’ response about the spanking? Were they surprised by it?
Because of his behavior – with no rage, just an expectancy of needing to control you, it makes me think this was normal within his background or upbringing. Did you tell him why you were leaving? What was his response? Was your church aware of what was going on? I’m wondering what their thoughts were on it? Are you officially divorced now?
The modesty issue and him not wanting you to get any kind of lingerie shows a real distorted view of sexuality. I can’t remember if you said how long you were married. Do you have any children? I’m just so pleased to know that you were able to break free. Are you able to support yourself okay? Did you go straight from home to marriage without any schooling?
Thank you so much for answering all of these questions and your willingness to share your story publicly. I know it will be very, very enlightening to many people. The church needs to know this is going on.
Thankfully my friend helped me move and helped me get set up and even helped me secure a job. She was there every step of the way.
We had no children (thankfully) and we are fully divorced. When I left he was convinced that it was because of my friend and being led astray and away from God. He did not stalk me or anything but vowed to constantly pray for me to come to my senses and return.
My parents were a little surprised at first but I think they see spanking as not the same as abuse. They told me that I needed to do a better job of obeying and not being disrespectful or difficult and told me I needed to pray more to be a better wife. When I left him, they did not abandon me but at the same time were not fully supportive and told me they were praying for us to work it out. I love them but our relationship is often strained.
I am in my early 30s and this past 4th of July I was there and we had a bit of an argument. They threatened to spank me if I didn’t back down and I have no doubt it wasn’t an idle threat.
Conclusion (from Julie Anne)
Part of me wishes this practice of wife spanking was limited to just one denomination so it could be easier to expose, but it is clear from the above examples that we cannot. In the above examples, we see non-denominational, charismatic/evangelical, Reformed Presbyterian denominations represented.
The abuse comes in different forms. In Dr. Phil’s example, we see a bully who used rage and anger as he spanked/assaulted his wife. He did it in front of his children as they watched and cried, saying that mommies get spanked for bad behavior, too.
In Lauren’s situation, she described her husband as calm and never in anger, yet he referred to her in demeaning terms, “little girl,” as a father would say to a child. However, his “spanking” was always controlled which must have made it all the more confusing to Lauren.
Spanking of Children through Adulthood and Transfer of Headship
In my former church, we were taught by our pastor that civil laws regarding adulthood did not apply when it came to disciplining children in our homes. We were told that it was biblical to spank our teenagers, even ones who were over legal adulthood. This same pastor also told husbands to get control of their wives. Even without saying the word “spanking,” it would be easy for a husband sitting in a pew to take that kind of teaching and think that a pastor was giving his stamp of approval for wife spanking to get her under control.
We need to consider the importance of the correlation of spanking of children through adulthood and also the transfer of headship from father to new husband when a young lady gets married. It seems that both of these components make it much more likely for a woman to be the victim of domestic violence/wife spanking.
It’s important to note that Lauren was spanked as a child through adulthood. The last paragraph of Lauren’s e-mail revealed her parents sided with Lauren’s husband and believed her to be disobedient to her husband. They did not see his authority as abusive, but appropriate. Apparently in their world, girls do not grow up . . . ever. No wonder Lauren was so confused in her marriage. It’s quite amazing that she had the strength to leave.
This post has been very difficult for me emotionally. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit. I had another thought about the “transfer of headship” in marriage. It seems the only difference between the role of a father and the role of new husband is that the new husband gets sexual privileges and now has someone to cook and clean for him, and bear children. I see no other difference in how these wives are treated compared to how they were treated as daughters. These abused wives are treated as children or objects to be owned.
We need to be aware of the existence of this atrocity in our churches and be bold in calling it out when we see it. It is insidious that this practice has continued in the name of God and Christianity. Young boys in these homes will likely learn this behavior of entitlement over women and repeat it. Young girls will also learn from the behavior and may find themselves with abusive men because of familiarity. In an abusive home, children do not have a sense of a normal healthy marriage, so this modeling of abusive behavior could affect generations.
When we protect and defend abused wives, we are also protecting and defending their children and future generations.
I’m very grateful to Lauren for her e-mail and being willing to shed more light into this abusive practice so that we can have more understanding of what she and many others are going through. May we all work to protect women and expose this shameful sin and crime in our churches.