Helping women of faith find hope and healing after emotional and spiritual abuse

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Bethlehem Baptist Church Is Not a Safe Church for Women in Emotionally Abusive Relationships

by | Feb 25, 2018 | Advocacy, Articles, Healing from Spiritual Abuse, Waking Up | 49 comments

I recently read World Magazine’s Hidden Violence story, and I knew I needed to step forward and share my experience with Bethlehem Baptist in the Twin Cities (John Piper’s former church).

World’s story covered a deeply rooted problem in the conservative church of America, but toward the end, they quote Jason Meyer (lead pastor at Bethlehem Baptist) and a member of DART (Domestic Abuse Response Team), Kirsten Christianson, at Bethlehem, making it sound like Bethlehem Baptist is on the cutting edge of dealing with DV issues in their own pews.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I have several reasons for sharing my story.

1. Bethlehem is an unsafe environment for domestic abuse victims, but they have postured themselves otherwise (more HERE and HERE). While they do address the most egregious forms of domestic abuse, they actually foster an environment for the more prevalent and covert forms of domestic abuse to flourish.

2. The gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake. When human beings control others using the Word of God, they blaspheme the Name of Jesus (Romans 2:17-24). How many victims and/or their older children won’t step foot in a church anymore because an abusive church shunned them for trying to get to a place of safety? This is not the heart of Jesus. It’s law over love, and it’s a sideways spit in the face of God.

3. I want to inspire and encourage victims to be willing to lose their reputation and the approval of men in exchange for the peace and joy that comes when we live for God, alone. He is our righteous judge. He is our King. We bow to nobody but Jesus Christ. To be burned at the stake for telling the uncomfortable truth is painful, but those fires produce something powerful that the enemy can’t touch. It is this power that is sweeping the world right now, exposing the hidden places where abuse thrives. People are small. God is big. This is where we stand.

Your voice matters, and so does mine.

I believe the root sin of abuse is misogyny: the underlying assumption that men are superior to women. Spiritually abusive churches would deny propagating misogyny, but their words and actions don’t match. The way they treat women, what they teach about “a woman’s place,” and how they handle cases of emotional abuse all reveal this destructive belief system.

This is the attitude I encountered at Bethlehem, and until this attitude is eradicated, Bethlehem Baptist and churches like her will continue to hurt women while jumping in bed with their abusers.

Kirsten Christensen, one of the DART members at Bethlehem says, “Statistically, few abusers will repent, but God hasn’t made us privy to who the select few are. We pursue the hearts of those who abuse until they reject being pursued.

Their new DART initiative gets it wrong right out of the gate.

Seasoned advocates know that you don’t focus on helping an abuser who doesn’t think he’s wrong. That’s a wasted effort. You focus on the helping the victim deprogram from the abuser’s voice. But Bethlehem has mixed its misogynistic theology with bits and pieces of things they’ve heard or been taught about abuse, and they’ve created a toxic cocktail of emotional and spiritual death for victims. They know just enough to make them dangerous.

I’m revealing names because specific people abused their authority in my life without sanction, and they continue to abuse their authority in the lives of others.

A Bit of Background

I grew up in a Christian home and was married in 1993 at the age of 25. In my journal, prior to getting married, I recorded several things that scared me about the man I was going to marry—the main one being that he was unable to take responsibility for his choices and behaviors. I didn’t know at the time that this is the primary characteristic of an abusive individual.

My answer to these red flags was a result of the conservative religious brainwashing I was steeped in: “God wanted me to marry him so I could help him.” Isn’t that what a wife was for? To be a “helper?”

We got married, and all the issues we had when we were dating got worse. Several months into our marriage, I felt a tremendous amount of fear and hopelessness. I didn’t believe in divorce, so I set about trying to get someone on the outside to help my husband see what he was doing to me.

  • Over the course of the next few years, I reached out to our church elders at the time, and they recommended some marriage books to help me be a better wife.
  • I reached out to two different couples for “mentoring” help. They didn’t understand the destructive dynamic I was experiencing, and while they tried to help, they were unsuccessful.
  • An elderly woman mentored me while I was on bed rest one year. She prayed I would be a better wife so my husband could “blossom” into the man he was meant to be.

In all cases, the focus was on me and how I needed to better myself. My husband simply could not be the kind of husband I needed unless I could first be the kind of wife HE needed.

When I tried to bring up the hurtful things he did and said, they told me to “Focus on your own sin. Forgive. Do your duty. This will bring you joy and peace.

But all I felt was anguish and confusion. I became obsessed with solving the unsolvable problem between my husband and me. Meanwhile, every time I tried to get outside help, my husband would behave in sullen, angry, critical, and negative ways. And as our family grew, I watched him treat the kids in the same demeaning way.

At one point, the older kids and I sat down with him and shared our pain. We cried. We begged him to listen and understand. To stop. But he blamed us for “ganging up on him” and made fun of us for weeks after that, cracking sick jokes about it and causing me to feel shame and hopelessness.

Ten years limped along, and my journals were full of my agony. I cried out to God constantly for help. For strength to endure. For humility to take the shaming and blaming that were a regular part of my experience. I apologized and begged forgiveness for every moment I lashed out in pain and anger over what was done and said to me. I lived a life of constant guilt, constant shame, and constant stress, and I had to keep it all a secret in order to “respect and protect” my abusive husband.

Bethlehem Baptist

In 2003 we started going to Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis, MN, and after a few years of involvement, I once again reached out to an elder for help. Bruce Powers met with us several times. I shared some of my journal entries in an attempt to describe the covert abuse that I had been experiencing for years, but my husband would justify every single example with excuses, half truths, outright denial, and blame shifting.

At home, my husband shamed me for “airing our dirty laundry” and “making a big deal out of average miscommunication issues.” It was too painful, and I stopped initiating contact with this elder. Bruce saw me in the church hallway many months later and asked how I was doing. I said “fine” and moved on. I distracted myself from the pain by homeschooling, writing, starting a soap business, and raising nine kids.

But I also spent many nights on my bathroom floor sobbing and wishing I was dead. Nobody could see what I was experiencing. I could not explain it adequately, and I could not define it for myself in a way that would set me free from it.

Sometimes I would skip communion at church, feeling I was unworthy of God’s love. If I was a good Christian, my husband would be happy with me. He would be pleased and satisfied. Since he wasn’t, and since he blamed me for everything, I felt deep inside it was my fault, and I even wondered if I was a “Christian” wannabe. Maybe God had not “chosen” me? I was reminded what a horrible sinner I was at home and at church. Grace was for my husband. Not for me.

Ten more years went by. The night before Easter, 2013, my husband bruised both sides of our 10-year-old’s face in one of his discipline sessions with her in the basement. The next morning when I saw her face, I brought her to him and told him to look at her. He said, “I didn’t do that!” He blamed her and said she did it to herself by bashing her head against his hands over and over.

The whole thing felt surreal. It seemed insane that he could so blatantly deny responsibility with such obvious evidence. I told him he had to leave or I’d tell our small group leaders. He left for a few days, and I told our small group leaders anyway. I also told Sally Michael, a Bethlehem staff member at the time. Nobody knew what to do, which terrified me.

What was right? What was wrong? Was I a bad mom for letting this happen? Was I a bad wife for telling? I felt guilty and conflicted. Nobody helped. Nobody knew how. I should have called the police and filed a report, but I was afraid of being a bad wife. This particular child had some major problems that were hard for me to deal with. What if they took her away? Nobody else thought it was necessary to get “secular help” involved, and I didn’t want to be accused of being dramatic.

So on my own, grasping at straws, I decided to tell my husband he could only come back if he agreed to go to a three-day marriage intensive. I used my own savings from my home business to pay the $7,500 cost of the intensive. An elder and his wife agreed to go with us. My husband seemed to change some of his behaviors for about four weeks after the intensive, but then it was back to the the same bad stuff.

In August of 2013 I wrote a lengthy letter to the men who were part of my husband’s “accountability” prayer group. These men had met with him every Tuesday morning for a few years, and I was hoping they, along with their wives, would come alongside us and help us. Two of those people, Chris and Barb Johnson, responded this way:

From Chris: “As for your letter, I do not plan to read it.  I am all for people confessing their own sins, but I find it very disrespectful to publicize other people’s, particularly when it appears to have been done without their knowledge or consent.

From Barb: “I am no marriage counselor, but I have a hard time fitting this email into Ephesians 5:33 “and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

Another wall of resistance and shame. I reeled with pain and shock. In later months, this same couple would forego their pious scruples to love on my husband and hear his narrative.

Time for ME to change!

It dawned on me that my husband might never change his behaviors, and nobody would ever be able to help us. If I was going to survive, I needed to change something about ME.

In the fall of 2013, I started coaching with Leslie Vernick, author of The Emotionally Destructive Marriage, and I began to read books and educate myself on the subject of emotional abuse. As I gradually woke up and came to accept the reality that I was in an abusive marriage, I grieved but also felt a sense of deep relief. While I could not make the relentless pain of my marriage go away, at least now it finally made sense.

Leslie helped me put my big girl pants on and establish boundaries where I could respond to my husband respectfully, but firmly lay down some perimeters for our relationship. It was at this point I told him I couldn’t have sex with him unless he acknowledged the ways he demeaned me.

Yoshi Kasahara, Elder

Yoshi Kasahara, an elder, was meeting with my husband by this time, but it didn’t seem to be helping. In fact, I felt he was actually behaving more entitled than ever. I wondered why until Yoshi gave me a book called Fierce Woman. I realized at that point Yoshi believed my husband was a victim of a “fierce woman” who just wouldn’t back off. If only I would let my husband off the hook (because to press him to take responsibility for his behavior was too hard on him – Yoshi told me in one email I was “beating a dead dog”), if only I would be quieter and more cooperative, more of a gentle spirit, then my husband could become the man of God he needed to be.

Also, Yoshi said it was sinful for me to withhold sex from my husband. That made it even harder for him to be a good husband.

Again, his abuse was my fault. I made him treat me poorly. And I wasn’t allowed to have safe boundaries because I was HIS wife. I belonged to him.

We got together with Yoshi and his wife a couple of times in their home. Both times I tried to give examples of the emotional abuse that was happening, but my husband was able to explain everything away, and the examples, by themselves, seemed unsubstantial and unconvincing. He played the role of a whipped puppy while casting me in the role of the ungrateful nag. (This is emotional abuse in action, by the way!)

I realized I was once again spinning my wheels with the Kasaharas, and I had an insane email exchange with Yoshi in which I extracted myself from any further meetings. Here is an example of Yoshi’s inability to diagnose the chronic emotional abuse I was experiencing.

You have both developed unhealthy communication patterns with each other and it is exacerbating the problems.  I believe that if you learn to develop better communication patterns and approach each other, you will understand each other better and draw close to each other.

(By the way, I am now married to a man who is not abusive, and our communication is just fine. Communication with an abuser is impossible no matter how hard you try.)

During this time, Leslie Vernick was helping me see the importance of standing by the truth and tolerating the disapproval of others. I was beginning to see the importance of letting go of my people-pleasing habits and growing up.

David Livingston, Pastor

In the late winter/early spring of 2014 I tried reaching out to David Livingston, the head pastor of the Bethlehem Baptist south campus, several times by email. Each time he was too busy to respond. He would apologize and give me reasons why he could not respond, and I trusted that he truly cared but was just too busy to help.

Interestingly enough, when I forced my husband to leave in September of 2014, he contacted David Livingston and got a meeting with him within less than a week. He then set up regular meetings with pastor Livingston that went on for several months.

Pastor Livingston never did respond to my request to meet, nor did he ever reach out to meet with me.

Caroline Jones, Member and Bible Counselor

That summer (2014) I heard about a female member of Bethlehem, Caroline Jones, who was getting her biblical counseling degree and looking for clients. I decided to see if she could help me.

Caroline didn’t want to counsel with me if I was thinking of a divorce. She let me know that right up front. Her help was conditional. Since I wasn’t considering divorce, I “got to” counsel with her.  She didn’t believe I was being abused. She told me once that abuse was a strong word to use, implying that it was too strong in my case.

I had emailed some things to my husband, and in an effort to be transparent (something I don’t recommend and deeply regret during my process of getting out – I was far too trusting of human beings), I copied both Caroline and pastor David Livingston so they could monitor our conversation. These emails involved things that were continuing to happen that triggered me, and although I tried to be objective, I let some of my deep frustration show through.

She told me in our next meeting that I was rude to my husband, and it “shocked” her.  I asked her what I had written that was shocking, and she gave me one example where I had been sarcastic, and I said, “Yes, I probably should have kept that out.” (By the way, victims of relentless emotional abuse can get quite sarcastic due to the insanity of their lives. I don’t apologize for that, anymore, nor do I judge victims for it. Seasoned abuse advocates don’t either.)

I couldn’t understand how she could be shocked by some sarcasm seeping into my email when she didn’t seem to mind the 22 years of criticism, silent treatment, and dehumanizing behavior my husband had put me through and was STILL putting me through. It didn’t seem to bother or shock her that my husband wasn’t responding to my emails or making any efforts to get his family back. The cognitive dissonance this creates in a person is profoundly damaging to their brain.

At one point she said, “You’ve gone on and on about this stuff already. Can we move on to something else?” This stunned me, too. I felt I had to be careful about what I said, or she’d get annoyed. The only problem is, the kinds of things my husband did happened repeatedly. If she got irritated just talking about it with me, how did she think it felt to LIVE WITH IT for over two decades?

At one point I said to her, “You need to understand this type of abuse if you want to help those of us experiencing it.

She became defensive and said, “I have taken women who have been beaten to women’s shelters. I know about abuse.” Again though, this implied that being beaten is the serious abuse, but emotional abuse isn’t a big deal. The fact is, emotional abuse is the worst, most prevalent kind of abuse, and it absolutely affects the brains and bodies of the women who suffer under it. The wounds of emotional abuse take years, sometimes a lifetime, to recover from.

After a few months, I discontinued counseling with her. I realized she was not experienced in trauma recovery, nor was she interested in learning. I felt her agenda for me was very different from what I really needed at that time. I chalked it up to her inexperience, and I sent her a respectful “break up” email. She never responded. (Notice the pattern of dishonoring silent treatment throughout my experience with this church?)

Now my husband was telling his friends “Natalie has quit on TWO COUNSELORS in one year!” Implying that I was uncooperative or maybe just looking for a counselor who would agree with me. It was a horrible way to spin it. I was looking for a skilled counselor who understood emotional/verbal abuse and its effects on a woman. I needed practical skills to better handle the crazy conversations I got into with him and to better know how to respond when he used abusive tactics on me.

At that point, I decided to give it a year, pray for a miracle, and then file for divorce if nothing changed. I stopped going to Bethlehem and began visiting a different church. I also found a new counselor who seemed to understand my situation better.

Jason Meyer, Lead Pastor

Then, what I thought was a miracle happened. A woman contacted me, telling me that Jason Meyer, the lead pastor at Bethlehem, along with some other people, wanted to hear my story. At first, I didn’t want to do it. I was terrified to go into that place of vulnerability only to be disbelieved and abandoned again. But I wondered if maybe God wanted me to move into this, and if there was a chance they could help my husband, and we could save our marriage, it would be worth the risk.

In January of 2015, I met with Jason Meyer (lead pastor), Curt Elting-Ballard (head of the elder board), Ken Currie (another pastor), and all their wives, plus Kirsten Christianson, Sara Anderson, and Kirsten Marsh who were all part of a new initiative called DART (domestic abuse response team).

I told them my whole story, and they seemed to believe me. For the first time in my marriage, I felt hope. I floated on cloud nine for the next few months as this team of people sent me encouraging emails, listened to me rant and rave (I was now moving through the anger phase of grief as I watched my marriage and family fall to pieces), and reassure me over and over that they loved me, and they were never going to abandon me.

I allowed myself to be vulnerable. I trusted them with all the weakest parts of me, and I was an open book about my counseling and all the things I was struggling with, even giving them full access to my counselor’s notes on our sessions. (Please don’t ever do this. Hard lesson learned.)

This team of people met with my husband a couple of times and sent me two separate emails with their findings. Here is a quote from one of those emails:

After the meeting, the five of us (Dave, Klaas, Kirsten, Kurt, and myself) were of one accord that there was no repentance – not even anything remotely resembling repentance. We really do not think that [your husband] is a believer. It was good for Klaas and Dave to get a first hand look at how “flat line” [your husband] is and how clueless he acts about his sin and how he demonstrates an almost complete lack of ownership for the breakdown of his marriage.

In April of 2015, Kirsten and Sara went with me to see an attorney.

Klaas Van Zee and David Filzen, Elders

Then, the elders who had been involved (Jason, Ken, and Kurt) turned my case over to two newer elders at the south campus, Klaas Van Zee and David Filzen along with some oversight by pastor Chuck Steddom.

I was uncomfortable with these men right from the beginning. It was a very subtle feeling, but I felt like I was on trial again. Like I had to somehow prove that what I was saying was true. I was told those two men would be working closely with my husband for three months.

The exact words Dave Filzen wrote to me: “This phase of the separation plan is for three months. Klaas and I will be meeting with your husband every three to four weeks to discuss his progress and his homework that he is doing. After three months we will reassess the situation and decide how to proceed from there.

Throughout the three months that followed (June-August), in the email exchanges that took place between myself and these two men, I sensed irritation every time I brought up something my husband was doing that still indicated no changes were taking place. I had been studying my husband for over 20 years, and I knew his tones and facial expressions and the way he turned a phrase. He was my intimate partner, and I knew him better than anyone on this earth. But they didn’t seem to think I had any credibility when it came to analyzing what he was still doing to me and the kids.

It was like they wanted so badly to say my husband was getting better, and my “nit-picking” was standing in the way of their agenda. I just wanted real repentance that came from inside. Not fake repentance just to get the church off his back. I knew that until my husband could see it and acknowledge his behavior, he wouldn’t be able to change it.

Behind the scenes he was still doing all of his covert stuff, not admitting to anything, telling the kids I was crazy, criticizing little things about me, continuing to say “it’s BOTH of us, not just me.” But to them he was “repentant” and “sad and sorry,” and “why couldn’t I see that?”

At the end of that three months, we all agreed to go another three months to November. I did not have to agree to this. I had cooperated with the initial request, and my duty was over. But I was still (insanely) hoping we could make some progress even though I had seen little yet to give me much to hope for. The elders, however, thought he was making progress, and a little more time might do the trick.

Watching this whole thing go down in flames was the most terrifying experience of my entire life. I felt like I was suffocating in a glass bubble that nobody could see but me.

Kirsten Christianson, Head of DART

During that time, Kirsten Christianson and Sara Anderson were “in charge” of helping me, but as the feeling of dejavu continued to increase, I began to panic, big time. I stopped trusting them. I got this email from Kirsten on September 6, 2015:

“I am also concerned that you have [your husband] under a microscope. I am asking you to stop testing [your husband] or interacting in deeper ways than have been set up. I am asking you to please, please wait for Sara’s and my meeting with you. It’s Sunday. I would like to talk to you by phone and not do things over email. It is not helpful. Please trust me. Trust God.”

This was (and is) the HEAD of the DART initiative. Not only is she equating herself with God (to trust her is to trust God), but she doesn’t understand the basics of helping abuse victims. Experienced advocates know that a critical step in helping a survivor is to empower them to make their own decisions. They often second guess themselves because they’ve been controlled for so long by someone else, and they need to see they are grown ups who can decide things for themselves, even if they make mistakes (everyone makes mistakes, but victims are scared to make a mistake and need to learn that it’s okay. That’s how we learn and grow.)

But I was feeling more and more like if I stepped out of line, I would lose their support. This is what life was like with my abusive husband! I had to do everything and be everything he wanted or I was out on my butt. The whole thing triggered a lot of fear in me. Now I was feeling like I had multiple people who were manipulating me using the Bible, guilt, and power-over tactics.

The other thing I’d like to point out here is that when an abuse survivor is trying to assess whether or not her abuser has changed or is just doing what he’s always done—pretending—the last thing she needs is for people who have no clue telling her what’s what and crossing her personal boundaries. That’s just so wrong on so many levels. This is basic “abuse advocate 101” stuff.

Kirsten Marsh, DART member and licensed counselor

Another DART team member, Kirsten Marsh, a trained counselor who should have known better, wrote me the following questions:

More recently it seems like your main focus is on all of [your husband’s] offenses against you, all of the ways he isn’t trying hard enough, or he should know better,”

“Recently as I’ve read your emails it has seemed like you are resisting any suggestions that you have work to do.”

“No Christian can say that there isn’t change to be done in their lives, even when there has been abuse, it simply isn’t possible.”

This email confirmed that my suspicions about where they were coming from were all true. I wrote the following response back:

What evidence do you have that I have been or currently am unwilling to look at my stuff?

Evidence that I am working:

  • Invested thousands of dollars on counseling, books, and classes online and offline. Invested time reading, listening, writing, analyzing.
  • Self-corrected and initiated apologies for my own wrong actions even when others, including my husband, have hurt me and not cared to hear me out.
  • Overlooked other’s offenses and misunderstandings again and again.
  • Been ready, willing, and eager to forgive and love and repair if my husband could just repent.
  • Discarded countless emails after analyzing them and realizing my over-reactions.

Since you don’t know me that well and don’t have regular interactions with me, I’m mystified as to how you can make those kinds of assumptions. This last year has been sheer hell for me on so many levels – it is only the grace of God I’m functioning without drugs at this point. I think I’m going to give myself a break even if nobody else does – and remind myself that I’m doing the best I can under the circumstances – and I don’t have to be cleaned up in order to explain that things are still not well with my husband. Just because I am pointing out that his pathology is still killing me – doesn’t mean I’m not working on my own stuff.”

After this I was told to make a list of my expectations of my husband and then do a Bible study of what God says a husband is responsible for—and see if my expectations and God’s expectations lined up. This implied I had unrealistic expectations of my husband. (I guess to expect honesty, kindness, empathy, respect, personal responsibility, and love were just too much. Thankfully, I’m now married to a man who just IS all those things, naturally. No effort needed. He’s just a good man. Period.)

I always went through every single hoop they gave me. Always. Faithfully. In spite of the snarkiness of her request, In spite of the fact that I was single parenting eight kids, three with special needs, plus running a business to make ends meet, all while full of fear and grief and anger and shame, I did the homework they requested and sent it to the team. Guess what? No response. They showed me no honor or compassion for the time investment I had just put in to “obey” them. It was devastating at the time. I look back now and see how these experiences shaped who I am today. They opened my eyes and helped me establish healthy boundaries with people.

In October of that year, I agreed to let my counselor meet with my husband. Again, I was naive and hoped she might be able to help him. This ended up being a huge disaster the following year, which I will come back to.

I Disengage with the DART Team

That same month I made the decision to disengage with the entire process at Bethlehem. They made it clear that they were frustrated with my feedback. They wanted to believe what they wanted to believe. I was emotionally exhausted, and I just wanted a break so I could focus on the Lord and heal. This is the letter I sent to the DART group on October 7, 2015:

Hi Ladies,

I’ve done a lot of vexing and thinking and praying over the last couple of weeks, and I’ve realized that I need to stop giving feedback to the team. It dawned on me that my feedback is largely unsolicited. [My husband] has the right to live however he wants to, and while I don’t need to agree with what he does or doesn’t do, I need to respect his right to do it. I’ve been desperate for him to understand and change so we could have a normal marriage, but I think God has brought me full circle – back to where I was almost exactly a year ago when I was looking solely to Him alone for strength and guidance. I allowed having a “team” helping me – to get my focus off Him and on to human beings again. It feels good to have people “get it.” But seriously? – Nobody gets it like God does. And that has to be enough for me. The old temptation to seek relief from humans is too strong for me. I really want to grow my CORE strength (Leslie’s acronym), and while it doesn’t feel good or comfortable, it is something I want to develop before I die. Having a counselor like Leslie or Ruth is extremely helpful to keep me on track, and I will continue to see Ruth.

I don’t know what the end goal is for the elders, which is probably why we are at odds. Our goals were maybe different. I believed I was part of the team helping [my husband] (I love him more than all of you put together whether anyone believes it or not, and I hope my saying so isn’t irritating), but now I’m not so sure that is how anyone viewed me, and therefore I felt my input was more chafing than valuable.

I don’t know what will happen with [my husband] and me. I often feel profound, physically painful and heavy sadness for him (you can have anger toward someone and feel like this at the same time – I know because I do) – and I wish I could help him see and change. I wish I could be close to him and make him happy. I wish I felt safe with him and could rest. But I can’t. We each have our own journeys with God – and they are separate from one another.

I believe it is best for this season to be over. Thank you for patiently reading my extensive crap for so many months while you all had your own lives to live – and for praying for me and my husband and our kids. You’ve had a huge impact on my life.

With much affection, Natalie

The only member of the team who responded was Sara (she later left the DART team and Bethlehem). She asked a couple of clarifying questions, I responded, and that was that. Nobody else responded.

This sent a very loud message, and the message was this: “We will love you as long as you collude with us and do what we tell you to do. Oh, and never tell us we are doing anything wrong.

It was eerily like my marriage.

I Decide to File for Divorce

In April 2016, I took all my journals I had recorded for the past 25 years and went to a hotel for two nights. I spent that time reading every single one and writing down all the patterns of behavior I had experienced in my marriage. To see it all laid out like this was shocking to me, and I realized my greatest enemy wasn’t my husband. It was me. I had thrown myself under the bus over and over again in an effort to keep a destructive marriage intact. The Holy Spirit powerfully met me and convicted me of the way I had worshiped my marriage and the approval of others.

When that weekend was over, I fell on my knees weeping and committed the next steps to Jesus. I told Him I was ready. I would file for divorce even though I didn’t want to, and I was scared to death of what would happen to me and my kids. I knew by now the leaders in this church would probably paint me as the one who burned down the house while protecting the actual arsonist hiding in the shadows, but incredibly, I was still giving them the benefit of the doubt.

I sent an email to the elders working with my husband to let them know of my decision. I didn’t have to do this, but I did it out of respect for them since I knew they were still investing time in my husband. I asked them if they had changed their opinion about their original belief that my husband was unrepentant and maybe not even saved.

They wouldn’t answer that question via email. Instead they asked if they could have permission to talk to my counselor. At first I agreed but then changed my mind and denied them permission.

I found out from my counselor later that they DID talk to her, and she actually suggested to my husband (whom she was seeing only by my permission) that I might have borderline personality disorder. Why? Because I let her listen to one of the circular conversations my husband and I had a couple years prior to that in which I ended by crying and threatening to cut myself. (I never did cut myself, but this is how desperate I was getting. Back then I thought maybe if I put a cut in my thigh every time he hurt me or gaslighted me or demeaned me, then I could go to a women’s shelter and get help there. I just needed physical evidence somehow. I used to pray he would hit me hard enough to leave a mark. Sadly, this is how horrible mental abuse can get. The worst part about it is not being believed.)  Also, she had been drinking my husband’s Kool-Aid for a few months by that time.

She later called me and apologized for leading others to believe what she no longer thought was true. (Eventually she saw more of my husband’s pathology and tried to backtrack with the elders, but it was too late. The damage had been done.)

As it turned out, this counselor was not licensed, nor did she have any education that would qualify her to make a diagnosis. She had never even heard of C-PTSD. I had to send her resources to educate her about complex-post traumatic stress disorder, a very common diagnosis for victims of long term intimate emotional abuse. C-PTSD has a couple of the same symptoms of BPD, but unlike BPD which is a personality disorder that can’t be changed, C-PTSD is situational and can be healed with proper treatment. I had EMDR therapy with a real licensed therapist in the summer of 2016, and most of my C-PTSD symptoms subsided.

All of that to say, the rumor that I had BPD spread. Everyone who actually had known me for most of my  life thought this was ludicrous. But the leaders at Bethlehem didn’t know me outside of what they had heard from my abusive husband and other dysfunctional people, and nobody cared to check their facts because it played so well into their narrative of who I was so they could justify their treatment of me. So BPD it was. (Just a little side note, it’s actually common for abusers and their flying monkeys to “diagnose” their target with BPD.)

Klaas and Kirsten

The elders refused to answer my email question (of course) and instead kept requesting that I meet with them in person. So on May 5, 2016 I agreed to meet with Klaas and Kirsten. My sister came along as a witness.

Immediately after the meeting (which I ended up cutting short because it was abusive), my sister and I went to a restaurant and wrote down everything we could remember. Here is what we wrote:

Klaas asked “what were you asking in your email?

Natalie: “I was wondering if you believed anything had changed since Jason sent the email about my husband last April.”

Klaas: “Do you mean if [your husband] has changed or if we have changed our perception?”

Natalie: “Both”

Klaas: “I talked to Jason and he said if he were to rephrase that email a year later after working with [your husband] we would say there are two sinners in the room. [Your husband] has sins of omission and you have sins of commission. You each have a narrative and neither one is willing to look outside of your own narrative.”

Natalie: “So if I was to move outside of my narrative, what would that look like?”

Klaas: (hemmed and hawed and made some comment about how he doesn’t read my blog and then he leaned back and said “You don’t know God.” and “God is absent from your narrative.

Natalie: “God is the CENTER of my narrative.”

Klaas: Said something after that we can’t remember. I think we were so stunned this was coming out of someone’s mouth.

Natalie: “I need to write this down, actually I’d like to record this.”

Kirsten literally jumped up and lunged across the table, startling both my sister and me, and she said loudly “I’m not comfortable with that!

Natalie: “why not?”

Kirsten: “No! You are not allowed to record anything”.

Natalie: “There must be a reason. Do you have something to hide?”

No answer.

Natalie: “if you won’t let me record it then the meeting is over.”

Kirsten: “the meeting is over then.”

As we collected our things, Kirsten said “you are making some really sad decisions.

Natalie: “God will be the judge of that.”

Kirsten: “yes he will.”

As we were walking out Kirsten said in a patronizing tone dripping with controlled anger, “so sad.

Klaas also said somewhere in there that my husband claimed I was the abuser. I asked if they believed him. They didn’t give a direct answer. I think that’s when he started on the “narrative” idea. Even though we talked about it immediately after leaving, my sister and I were so stunned that we had a hard time remembering the order of things. But other than a very tiny amount of small talk at the beginning, this was the conversation.

Months later, I would spend an entire EMDR session unpacking this single traumatic incident.

The DART team tried to get me to meet with them again.  Instead, I sent them one last vulnerable, pleading letter.

May 20, 2016

Thank you for your willingness to continue reaching out. It has been a struggle to respond for many reasons, and I have written and rewritten this in an attempt to say what I am scared to say, but what I feel I must say. The biggest hurdle for me has been that Klaas called my testimony a “narrative.” He also said “you don’t know God” and “God is absent from your narrative.” How does a person respond to that assertion? I realized in that horrible moment that you believe false things, and my word carries no credibility with you anymore. To share anything more of my “narrative” would be futile, and it would only further hurt me. Judgment has been passed, the conversation has been circumvented, and I’ve been placed in a powerless, hopeless position again.

I suspected that meeting was going to be hurtful, and I was advised by several people not to go. I defended you. I wanted so badly to believe that you sincerely wanted to answer the questions I sent in my email. That what I had felt in my gut wasn’t true. But my naivete and denial kicked in again. What I never saw coming was that Bethlehem was going to go for the only thing I’ve been promised by God that I can keep through this horror – and that is God, Himself. He is my life. It would have been kinder to take a knife and gut me than to sit back, look me in the eye, and tell me God is not part of my “narrative.” It was a lie from hell that struck a hard blow to my heart and still sends my heart racing every time I think of it. I went home and curled up in bed wide awake all night. I couldn’t even cry, the pain was so horrific. It permeated every cell in my body. I could only lay there, shaking, for hours. And then I got up and took care of 7 hurting children by myself. Criticism, confusion, negativity, accusations, and lies. That is the toxic, shaming environment I am accustomed to living and breathing in. And my desperate attempts to find relief for myself and my kids are met with deeper, more painful attacks. God gave me a strong, first-born personality, but the years of this have taken their toll, and I now am weakened with panic attacks, depression, anxiety, and complex- PTSD.

But that doesn’t mean God is not part of my narrative.

I am scared to death of you. All of you. I shake when I think of my husband and Bethlehem. My heart pounds, my head spins, and my stomach aches. I have an enemy I cannot define or name. Nobody sees the deception swirling around my family. I take a swing and miss. I point something out and people say, “What? Where?” Since that night I have spent large chunks of time crying off and on each day. My life has been shattering in a million pieces over the course of this past year, and my church tells me I don’t know God and He is not part of my “narrative.” I can hardly wrap my brain around that. Klaas also told me my husband says I am the abuser. The horrible thing isn’t that my husband would say this. Of course he says that. The horrible thing is that you must believe it. What kind of a fool have I been to trust you? For allowing myself to let the grief and anger out? To be ugly and messy and fall apart in front of you? For believing that you meant it when you said it was okay. That you “got it.” That you loved me. That you had my back. Every time I think of it, I want to crawl in a hole and die of shame and hopelessness.

God, in His gentleness to my heart, reminded me that Satan flips everything upside down. So if I want to know the truth about my situation, all I have to do is flip what Klaas said upside right. In that case, the truth is that I belong to God. I am His beloved child. He knows me and I know Him. He sees me. He knows exactly what goes on here and why. I don’t just have a narrative I made up in my head. I am a woman telling the truth of what I have lived through and continue to live through the best I can. A truth that could get me burned at the stake where lies would keep me safe and “loved.” A false love that I no longer want. I’m ready to die. I’m ready to lose everything. But I can’t go back.

God gave me this after that traumatizing meeting:

“All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the prosperity of your children.  In righteousness you shall be established; you shall be far from oppression, for you shall not fear; and from terror, for it shall not come near you. If anyone stirs up strife, it is not from me; whoever stirs up strife with you shall fall because of you. No weapon that is fashioned against you shall prosper, and you shall confute every tongue that rises against you in judgment. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord and their vindication from me, says the Lord.” Isaiah 54:13-15,17 (NRSV)

Can it be true? Oh please, God, let it be so! It is hard for me to believe this right now, but He reminds me that it wouldn’t be faith if it were easy to see and believe. I love Him, and I belong to Him, regardless of what people say. You haven’t spoken to me or heard me in months. When I backed out last fall because I sensed a waning support and could see this was going the way it always does, nobody reached out to reassure me or comfort me. There was zero compassion or desire to understand or connect. That only confirmed what my gut was telling me. Why do you think you have a platform to speak into my life at this point? I didn’t ask for your opinion about me. I asked for your opinion about [my husband] because he is the one you’ve been “helping” and meeting with. I wanted so badly to believe that you wanted to meet with me to sincerely answer my question, but it only took five minutes for you to shred my heart apart. Why are you hurting me?

I didn’t have to send out an email and let you know I was filing for divorce. I did that because I was still hoping I could be wrong. Maybe someone did care. I didn’t want to assume they didn’t, even though it had been months since anyone had talked to me. When a woman tells the people who promised to support her that she is getting a divorce, that is the same thing as telling them “My life is falling apart. I’m losing everything. I’m a real person in real pain. Please help! Please care! Oh God, doesn’t anyone care?!”

Crickets. I got crickets. Oh, the profound pain of that. Abandonment is the story of my life. It is such a struggle to believe I am worth anything when everyone I ever dare to let in ends up running the other direction. Unless I give them something to keep them wanting to stay. What if I have nothing to give anymore?

The other horrible memory that sticks out in my sister’s mind and in mine is that when I reached for my phone and stated that the rest of the conversation would need to be recorded, you (Kirsten) literally rose from your seat and physically lunged across the table at me as you demanded “NO! You will NOT record this meeting!” You startled my sister. Why is it that Bethlehem and my husband insist that our conversations not be recorded? Why doesn’t [my husband] want that accountability? Why don’t you want that accountability? What could possibly be wrong with having our words on record? I’m so grateful I brought my sister as a witness to what you did to me that night, because I must no longer trust the things that are being said about me or my situation.

I have been open about my “fight” to be heard. My anger at the years of lies and injustice. I thought it was clear that I spent the first 16 years of my marriage taking the shame and blame for every nuanced thing that went wrong. I’m the one who took all the responsibility, groveling and begging for forgiveness to keep the peace. I’m the one who gave up my voice and my boundaries and lost myself in hopes of making [my husband] happy and pleasing all the Religious People in my life. I have always felt the weight of my sin, and I have always worked hard to keep short accounts in my relationships, to the point of being used by many people in my life over the years. I believed I was made to be used by people and then discarded. I wasn’t worth anything but to be a scapegoat for anyone I cared about. This was how I could “share in Christ’s sufferings.” In my sick way of understanding, I even welcomed it! It never dawned on me that Christ was the only Scapegoat any of us ever needed. This is the part of my “narrative” I walked alone in silence. Nobody saw this. There is only my word for it. And God will reveal the whole of it in eternity. But the only way out of my scapegoating role is to set boundaries and then prepare to walk through a hurricane of shit. An impossible task, from a human standpoint. And I thought you understood that and were going to help me, finally. Last year I was learning that God loved all of me. The good and the bad. No matter how messy and how hard things got. I didn’t have to be perfect to earn His love and acceptance. So I really tried resting in that, and I thought we were on the same page, you and me. I thought I was safe with you. I thought God was using you to show me what real love was. I thought God was going to use the Body of Christ to bring healing. What a devastating blow to be betrayed in this final way. I am not sinless, not by a long shot, but when it comes to the failure of this marriage, I am blameless. I have done everything and more that a human can possibly do to make it work and save it. I have a clean conscience before God.

Kirsten, you accused me of making “sad decisions” as I walked out of that office. It felt like a final stab in the back. But the sad decisions were already made by a lot of other people. Decisions to lie. Decisions to manipulate. Decisions to be proud. Decisions to ignore. Decisions to spiritually abuse others who are powerless and gullible. I didn’t make those decisions. But those decisions have been used by the devil to do a destructive work in many lives and on many levels.

I am anguished to have to withdraw my membership from Bethlehem effective now, and I can not agree to meeting with anyone from Bethlehem again. I am committing myself to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That is the God of my narrative. The God of Truth. One day I believe He will vindicate me. If not on this earth, then in heaven. If you care at all for my children, please pray for their hearts. Also, my dad has Aggressive B Cell Lymphoma with three mutations. It doesn’t look good. I have lost so much, and I am in tremendous, overwhelming pain. Please stop hurting me.

Natalie

I sent that email to everyone who had been in on our case from the beginning including lead pastor, Jason Meyer, head of elder board Curt Elting-Ballard, pastor Ken Currie, and all their wives.

NOT ONE PERSON RESPONDED.

Then, 11 days later, I did get an email from Kirsten Christianson: May 31, 2016. Here is an excerpt:

There is one point that I will own. When you told Sara and me you no longer needed us, I should have continued to check in with you. At the time, I was blindsided. I had been feeling increasingly inadequate in our relationship and I felt like you were firing us.

So bottom line? It was my fault because I “fired” them. It was exactly like something my husband would say to excuse his bad behaviors by turning it around and making his behavior my fault somehow. I was dumbfounded. I was questioning the emotional and spiritual maturity level of everyone involved. Their lack of discernment, lack of humility, lack of love, and lack of wisdom was on a level I could hardly wrap my brain around. I decided to cut off all contact.

My response:

Dear Kirsten,

Thank you for your response. I am no longer a member of Bethlehem, and I’m looking for a church that will be a good place for me to worship without the memories associated with the traumas I’ve lived through. I’m hopeful you will understand how important that is for my healing during this difficult time. I told you about my decision to pursue the legal dissolution of the marriage that my husband ended by his abuse because of your past involvement with our issues. At this point, there is no need to continue meeting. I appreciate your concern, but I need to move on with my life, and I don’t think any more meetings will be necessary or helpful.

I do appreciate your prayers for our family.

Natalie

I began to see that they only had as much control as I gave them. And since they could not be trusted, why was I giving them so much power in my life? No more.

They did not accept my letter of resignation from membership. They explain why in this excerpt from an email Chuck Steddom sent me in October of 2017. TWO YEARS after I had left Bethlehem and removed my membership.

“Although you asked for your membership to be removed, that that is not how membership works. According to our constitution, admission to membership and dismissal from membership must be by congregational approval…. Our hope would be to see you follow a path that honors God while also taking seriously the marital issues that have led to the divorce we understand you’ve been pursuing.”

There it was. He admitted their constitution trumps everything else. But they took it a step further. I found out later from the elders of the new church I was then attending that the Bethlehem elders had gone to my new church elders to warn them about me and my “unrepentant sin.”

At this time I was single parenting 8 kids still at home. One had a recent Autism diagnosis, and I was taking him to therapy, evaluations, and Dr. appointments, filling out acres of paperwork, and doing parent training. By myself. I had another child with severe mental health issues who was regularly spending hours screaming, hitting, biting, kicking, and following me around. I was taking her to weekly therapy, filling out MORE acres of paperwork, and reading books to try to figure out how to deal with that. My “normal” kids still had Dr. appointments, therapy, school projects, sickness, activities, etc..

And I worked from home to pay for all of it.

Instead of compassion and comfort, I was shunned by my former church friends. One woman who I thought had been a dear friend refused to let her 16 yo old daughter come over to our home to spend time with my 16 yo old daughter. (Is it any wonder the world hates the Church?)

I found out later that my oldest daughter reached out to Jason Meyer during this time, and he told her he couldn’t help. Another daughter told some of the elders at camp that her dad had abused her, and they gathered around her, promising to help her. When camp was over, they never contacted her again.

In their emails they would say they loved our family and were praying for us. But behind our backs they were spreading their propaganda to our new church in hopes of getting THAT church to shun us, too. One of the former DART members overheard this group of elders in the parking lot of church laughing about how my husband was stalking me. This is the character of the men leading Bethlehem. I don’t care what words they use from the pulpit. These are the words they use in parking lots. These are the activities of frauds.

Is this the kind of behavior you’d expect to see from a church who boasts about being on the cutting edge of dealing with domestic abuse?

In October of 2016, Bethlehem Baptist held a quarterly business meeting and brought my case up before several hundred members. By this time, they had their story all mapped out within their belief system regarding men, women, and marriage. My husband was the victim of an overbearing , rebellious, unforgiving, bitter wife. And now this vixen was divorcing him because she couldn’t get her own selfish way.

I had an insider who attended that meeting and took notes. Here’s what he wrote down and sent to me:

“First Ken Currie gave an explanation of the process we are in, it was the standard – go to the person who is sinning individually, go to them with 2 or 3 others and then tell the Church. If they don’t repent then you treat them like a Gentile and ex-communicate them.

Bruce Powers then shared the following, and read a statement. (He went fast so again this is the best I could do.)

“We take this seriously.”

“We have the last couple years working with Natalie and _____, and something about being involved longer (I think, sorry). They are currently separated and Natalie has filed for divorce.”

“Their marriage has many issues. But no grounds for divorce.”

“We don’t believe we can grant her request to be removed from membership but we feel we must ex-communicate.”

“Pray that the Lord would persuade Natalie to reconcile and change Natalie’s mind.”

“Natalie accused ____ of being abusive and truly feels she has been abused. But we do not feel she has. So we are asking everyone to pray.” (Sorry that last sentence is a summary more words were used but that was the point.)

Bruce then shared a Timeline:

March 2015 – Several elders listened to Natalie’s story and wanted to believe Natalie.

April 2015 – Jason, Kurt, Klaas, Dave, and Kirsten listen to ____’s story. Klaas and Dave take over the case.

May 2015 – Meet with ____ and Nate by the end of the May implement separation plan is put in place.

May to August meet with _____ and Natalie. Natalie is resistant and stops seeing a counselor.

Sept 2015 – Natalie wants to meet with ____ to ask him further questions. Klaas and Dave say no at this time. Natalie goes ahead and asks ___ numerous question that ___ is not prepared to answer.

Oct 2015 – Natalie withdraws from the care of the Dart team and states ___ can still work on his stuff but she is done with her participation.

Oct – Summer 2016 Klaas continue to meets with ____.

April 2016 – Natalie asks Klaas and Dave for final thoughts as she plans to proceed with divorcing ____.

May 2016 – Klaas and Kirsten meet with Natalie. Meeting lasts 12 minutes as Natalie leaves meeting because she cannot record the meeting.

Attempts are made to reconcile Natalie requests to be removed from membership.

Bruce then had some additional thoughts:

“I hope you get a flavor of how this situation has gone.”

He then made a point to highlight that this is not how we are going to deal with abuse. “If you are feeling abused you should come and share it with the elders as every situation is different and we want to help.” (I openly scoffed at this and clearly upset the woman in front of me.)

“But there was no evidence of abuse.”

“We will listen!”

“Male headship is not an excuse for abuse. Every case is different”.

“A year and a half of dealing with this as an abuse case we cannot support her divorce.”

The elders held an open Q&A that this insider attended. He told me later that his concerns were not addressed, and it was more of an image management meeting than an honest grappling with the facts. He said Kirsten Christianson was openly defensive and agitated. This insider and his wife, both respected members of Bethlehem, ended up leaving the church after experiencing some of what I, myself, went through with the leaders there. There were several others who left Bethlehem as well.

In the meantime, my divorce was moving along, and the final hearing was set for the end of November, 2016. Two months prior to the scheduled hearing, Tom, a boy I grew up with, began messaging with me periodically on Facebook. There was a unique connection between us. Over the course of the next two months, Tom and I began talking a lot on the phone and meeting once a week for a walk in a nearby park. A week before the final hearing was scheduled, my husband changed his mind about the agreement and decided to try and get 50% custody of the kids. In the meantime, Tom and I had decided to move ahead with our friendship once the divorce was over, thinking it would be soon.

Little did we know it would be another year before I would be free. We talked about backing off indefinitely, but by that time we had a very strong friendship that was growing deeper every week. We believed it was God-given, and we decided to continue to meet once a week until the divorce was over. As our friendship grew to love, we began to plan a future together. By the time the divorce was final the following year (it took 19 months total) we were ready to get married. I didn’t have a home to live in or any health insurance, so it didn’t make sense to wait just so other people could feel comfortable. By that time I really didn’t care what fickle humans thought anyway.

We were married the day after the divorce was final, and we’ve been pinching ourselves with happiness ever since. He has never been married before, and my marriage had been so dysfunctional that our gratefulness for what we have together is profound.

God took care of me. I gave up my idol of having a healthy marriage with the belief that I would never be married again, and God gave me the gift of a healthy marriage. Not only that, but He gave me the hand’s-on-training to be able to do what I do full time now—work with women of faith in destructive relationships. I wouldn’t trade anything that happened for the world.

These are the verses God gave to me when I was praying about my relationship with Tom and how awkward I felt about getting married so soon after having been divorced.

“How can you say, “We are wise! We have the law of the Lord”?
The truth is, those who teach it have used their writings to make it say what it does not really mean.
Your wise men will be put to shame. They will be dumbfounded and be brought to judgment.
Since they have rejected the word of the Lord, what wisdom do they really have?
So I will give their wives to other men and their fields to new owners.
For from the least important to the most important of them, all of them are greedy for dishonest gain.
Prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. They offer only superficial help for the hurt my dear people have suffered.
They say, “Everything will be all right!” But everything is not all right!
Are they ashamed because they have done such disgusting things? No, they are not at all ashamed!

They do not even know how to blush! So they will die just like others have died.
They will be brought to ruin when I punish them, says the Lord. (Jeremiah 8:8-12)”

Here is what I would say to Bethlehem and other churches like them who say they want to help abuse survivors. I say this out of my personal experience, my education on this subject, and my exposure to hundreds of victims and their stories of domestic abuse and subsequent church abuse.

  • To make a commitment to someone and then to ignore them is hateful. Don’t reach out unless you are equipped to follow through.
  • Don’t believe every juicy bit of gossip you hear. Check it out. Show women the same respect of checking “both sides” that you show men.
  • Assume that the person who is crying out for help is the one who needs the help. Not the one who presents you with a good story in his “defense.”
  • Don’t have an agenda. Allow the Holy Spirit to lead each of His own children as He sees fit. To put human lives in the horrible position of choosing to obey God or YOU is reprehensible. You are not God.
  • Be willing to learn. Survivors are perceptive and experienced in the nuances of abuse though they may not understand the definitions or be able to articulate things clearly at first. Your best teachers will be the victims you help. Show them honor as your sisters in Christ.
  • Understand the stages of grief and healing that an abuse survivor has to go through. Get good at recognizing which stage the person is currently at, and be willing to patiently walk through each stage with them without pressuring them to move along.
  • Don’t view victims (women in particular) as your projects. They are human beings with life experience, also made in the image of God.
  • Don’t take over the control of a victim’s life. Empower them to take control of their own life. Respect their decisions even when you may not agree with them. Everyone gets to make their own mistakes and walk their journey with God, and nobody deserves to be treated with contempt or disrespect by others.
  • Be willing to learn from all experts in this field. Not just the ones you personally like. And not just from men (a dead giveaway that your theology itself is abusive). You may not agree 100% with everyone, but you can learn many things from everyone. Different things.
  • Be humble. Don’t think you already know it all. Seasoned abuse advocates are always reading the latest literature on the subject. There is so much to learn, and new research and insight is coming out all the time. Just because you had an “expert” come in and do a seminar for a couple of days doesn’t mean you are now the experts.
  • View your ministry as God’s ministry – not yours. Let Him run the show. He is wiser than you are.
  • Read, read, read. There is always more to learn. Anyone in this field without personal experience needs to be constantly learning. Learn from those who have experience. This takes humility.
  • Respect the safety and boundaries of your victims. If they want everything in writing, understand and care about why—and offer them that courtesy and safety. Because, unless you’ve got something to hide, why not?
  • Be accountable to the larger abuse advocate community. Work WITH them, not against them.

Oppression, injustice, cruelty, and abuse are not of God. Those who are righteous will not be oppressive or abusive.” Diane Langberg, PhD

Bethlehem Baptist excommunicated me in October, 2017.

May God shine a light in EVERY dark corner where abuse hides, and may He set His daughters free.

49 Comments

  1. Chris Wood

    MUCH HEARTFELT THANKS NATALIE. My bride and
    i share a similar story to you and your new husband. She lived in an emotionally abusive marriage for thirty years that supported and condoned his behaviour. He and the Church have left an amazing woman and her equally amazing kids with a great deal of wounds to deal with. It is my hope that through and God’s lone and you his instrument their healing can occur . When we first began dating we listened to an audiobook version of the Emotionally Destructive Marriage. In time my wife found Flying Free and we will often listen to your pod casts together. As a Christian man I am both saddened and disgusted by the behaviour of these abusing men and the actions of the right wing church that condones this abuse. Thank you for offering your story as a beacon of light and hope.. Without a doubt God is with you and inspires you

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    While our lives are different, so many parts of what happened to you and the players involved directly mirror my experience with Bethlehem Baptist Church & DART. It’s horrifying to learn that you also had to go through this. Thank you for sharing and I pray that others like you and I may find healing after going through such a nightmare. May God bless you and keep you.

    Reply
  3. Cee Jay Kay

    The worst thing I ever did was encourage my husband to become involved in a Fundamental Baptist Church. I was NOT raised Baptist, but our lives were a train wreck, and I knew something had to change. He embraced this new religion with every fiber of his being. He was raised semi-sort of Catholic but never went to church while growing up. I tried my best to fit myself into the dutiful little wife who always put the needs of her husband first. He was allowed to throw barbs at me all the time, and I was just supposed to take it because the wife defers to the husband.

    After eight years of this, and him deciding he didn’t want to go to that church anymore, the abuse still continued. And it continued in the name of God.

    My husband has a personality disorder with narcissistic tendencies, which is ripe for the kind of pontificating that goes on in these types of churches. After 38 years of marriage, I filed for divorce in September of 2019. I have a very vitriolic view of organized religion. I was not only abused by my husband from association with church, I was emotionally and psychologically abused by leaders of various churches.

    Those days are done. I’ll do church my way.

    Reply
  4. Anna

    Bethlehem Baptist elders and members shed light on the destructive patterns of control, power, and manipulation in my marriage when many others overlooked it. It has been a place of refuge and unbelievable support throughout my divorce process.

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      And yet they have victimized so many others. They agreed with you. But if they didn’t – you would have been victimized. For your sake, I’m glad they agreed with you, but spiritually healthy churches don’t just love and support people that collude with them. They aren’t just safe for some people and not for others. Give it time, and you will uncover the pathology behind their seemingly safe behavior.

      Reply
  5. Kirstie

    May you always have the utmost support. Thank you so much for sharing your story. That is a church staff straight from the pits of Hell. I am amazed beyond words how you dealt with so much. Mahalo and onipa’a: You’ve stood strong.

    Reply
  6. Michelle

    I do not HAVE WORDS to tell you how utterly disgusted and shocked I am at the treatment — horrific abuse! — you suffered at the hands of this “church”!!!

    I am furious for you! I cannot even wrap my brain around it. God has seen you through, and you are one strong, classy lady! It so resonated with me when you said in speaking about abandonment and people running away from you, “Unless I give them something to keep them wanting to stay.” So true! Exhausting to be on the hampster wheel of approval, appeasement, and earning love. Sick!

    Thanks so much for being vulnerable for the benefit of others. I’ve been following you on and off since your early Visionary Womanhood blog when I was drinking the kool-aid too. ; ) I was impressed with you then (probably for the wrong reasons – large family, homeschooling, “godly wife”), and I am BLOWN AWAY at who you have become. Nothing short of heroic! To God be the glory! So many quiverfull ladies lost their faith and became bitter. So understandable, but also so sad.

    So glad you are happily married and doing well. Is there anywhere on your blog where you talk about how your children are doing now, and also your family of origin — in other words, if anything in your raising predisposed you for a marriage like your first one?

    God bless you Natalie!

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      Thank you – it’s always fun to hear from VW readers! Lol. I don’t really talk about my kids publicly, although I share some things on a high level within my membership community which is private. I’ve lost my family of origin, and I’ve been waking up to see all the crud there as well. Yes. I can see how my FOO, along with the way I was wired (emotional, sensitive, leader, justice-seeker – all of which were shameful things to be in my FOO) made me a scapegoat for emotional abuse, verbal abuse, sometimes physical abuse, and the silent treatment, etc.. And I LOVED them and wanted so badly to be loved in return for who I was. I didn’t see how bad it was until I started studying this dynamic several years ago. I was a people-pleaser and associated God with my earthly “authority.” A Bill Gothard construct I grew up with. Yes, this and so many other beliefs were woven into the fabric of my life that I couldn’t figure out the problem let alone how to solve it. I desperately wanted to. Now I know I’m not alone – there are probably millions of us out there. I will spend the rest of my life on this front – alongside many other loving, empathic, warrior sisters. Why? Because you hit the nail on the head when you brought up the point that people are losing their faith in Jesus because of this kind of treatment in the church and in “Christian” families. It’s not the doubters who blaspheme God with their pain and doubt. It’s the “Christian” haters and judgers who do this all in the name of God.

      Reply
      • Michelle

        Amen! ❤️

        Reply
  7. Cccc

    Hi, Natalie. I can relate to your story on so many levels, but the only one I will address is church abuse. I had the same experience as far as people from my previous church trying to get me kicked out of my new church. Thankfully, my new pastor (at that time) told them off. Bethlehem church, by everything you told, is a cult. I too escaped a cult. Where in the Bible does it say members of the body of Christ have to have paper membership, or gain approval to be a part of it by any leadership other than God? Everytime a church pushes membership I leave. According to the Bible I already am a member of His church because I follow Him, am saved and am being sanctified daily. Where in the Bible does it say you can’t leave a church without everyone else’s approval? That is nothing short of a cult. I had a very similar experience. It was scary. The body of believers IS His church, not a politically organized building of people who claim His Name yet do not obey His Word, but push their own agendas and slander anyone who they think get in their way. Thankfully I am much stronger today and do not feel a need to sign any membership papers at any church. After my experiences, I sadly don’t trust any of them. Church for me is anywhere where two or three believers are gathered together, because there He is in the midst of them.

    Reply
  8. S

    Thank you so much for sharing this! My story is similar. Unfortunately it happens in many other churches, way too often. Maybe as we who have suffered such abuse, and it is abuse — as we shine our light by sharing our stories, maybe this horror will finally stop. If I can help one woman by telling my story, my suffering will have been worth it. May God continue to bless you and keep lifting up your voice!

    Reply
  9. Brynne

    You are so incredibly brave. Thank you for speaking the truth!

    Reply
  10. Patrick Growe

    Natalie,
    I had a very similar experience with Bethlehem and with some of the Same people at the church. My wife was the abuser. The church helped to destroy my hopes of restoring my marriage and I was treated so badly. Thank you for your story.
    Patrick Growe

    Reply
  11. Priscilla

    I’m so sorry for your pain, though I know God is using it to shine light in the darkest corners. Praying for the church – God’s people – to pray for insight and to humbly be teachable b/c this topic can be so tricky. Many well-meaning Pastors have missed it big time, but worse, many self righteous/legalistic/proud Christian leaders have put a heavy yoke on the oppressed not much different than the pharisees in their day.

    May God continue to bless you, yours, and the work of your hands. We are having a conference on this very topic in Raleigh, NC – “Justice to Light” Oct 12/13. http://www.calledtopeace.org You can tune in!!! 🙂

    Shine LIGHT! Warmly, Priscilla

    Reply
  12. Ted Kijeski

    Regarding your friends who left Bethlehem as a result of your situation, did they inform the elders that this was the reason? If so, did the elders accept their resignations, or were they, too, excommunicated?

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      I don’t know. I have not kept in close contact with anyone since I left.

      Reply
  13. Cynthia Fox

    I would add one more important thought for church leaders…prayer is most important for the benefit of the victim….but not the “God save her from her sin” type of prayer, but the “God, reveal your love to her, that she would feel it deep in her bones”, kind of prayer. With no agenda of conviction of perceived sins or fault. Let God lead them on the needs of BOTH involved in that marriage.
    God bless your ministry to the wounded, the beloved of God.
    Cynthia

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      I love that – YES!!! These women are desperately wondering if God loves them because of the abuse. It’s one of the most wicked results of re-abuse by their churches, to be once again cast aside as an “untouchable” and left believing that if their husband and their church can’t even love them, surely God could not love them either.

      Women who are reading this – your husband and your church may abandon you, but Jesus is not like them. He will never EVER let anyone pluck you from His Hand. He is the Good Shepherd, and you are His precious lamb.

      Reply
  14. VENICE LISTON

    wow , wow , wow thank you for sharing this so helps me and i know many others ..

    Reply
  15. Todd Wilhelm

    Thank you for sharing your life with us Natalie. I am sorry for what you have been through, but thankful things are finally better for you. I am grateful you are now able to competently help others find hope and health.

    The treatment you received at the hands of the leaders from Bethlehem Baptist is no surprise to me. John Piper was given the title of Pastor Emeritus of Bethlehem Baptist; this man spoke at C.J. Mahaney’s church and gave him his full endorsement. Many urged him not to do this as C.J. Mahaney covered-up the sexual abuse of children in his church and denomination. Piper remains a solid Mahaney supporter to this day.

    No doubt you have also seen the YouTube video where Piper says wives should endure physical abuse for a time.

    I see where Bethlehem Baptist and Sovereign Grace (Mahaney’s denomination) have churches in close proximity in Burnsville now. (I used to live there!)

    Reply
    • dayna

      What is this video titled where John Piper says this?

      Reply
      • Cloudie S

        I’m not sure if this is the video he’s referring to, but JP does say that in this one:

        https://youtu.be/3OkUPc2NLrM

        If the YouTube link doesn’t work, the title of the video is “John Piper: Should a Wome Submit to Abuse?”

        His snicker at the very beginning of the video is absolutely sickening.

        Reply
  16. C

    Natalie you are amazing, inspiring and the world needs you! Please keep your voice being heard. Thank you

    Reply
  17. Nancy

    Well spoken Natalie! You have an amazing gift to express feelings, have walked through the fire and survived and found Tom, your partner for the rest of your lives! I’ve never married and at this point probably won’t ever, but what you and Tom have now sounds amazing! Good for you, you are strong, resilient, and a survivor! XO

    Reply
  18. Crystal Evans

    I read every single word of your excommunication experience. It
    Parallels so much of my own. Husband was officially excommunicated this month. . I too with wanting to be transparent shared my conclusion that I must be the brave one to initiate the Divorce. Mind you, he had abandoned and abused us and fits the not taking responsibility and no signs of repentance not even fake repentance. They said is is wicked and proud. I though must “suffer well. Takek up my daily cross. Submit to his position of authority. Not to fear what is fearful. “And so on. They belittled me when I would pursue peace as it is up to me. They didn’t want to discuss fleeing from a fool. If I didn’t have your voice being part of my experience and your extremely helpful directions tonexperts. Leslie Vernick, Patrick Doyle, Cry for Justice, Focus Ministries. I would still be suffering. It took 2 relationships to ge to the terribly common 20 yr statistic that my strengths allowed me to swallow up Emotional Verbal abuse . I am feverently growing up and like your experience I withdrew from church memebership the day I gave him the papers. They will look into it no later than the next quarterly meeting. That way I believe there is time to pray for my soul and the sad mistake
    I am responsible for and they will surely be excommunicating me as well. God however doesnt give a hoot about that. Truth sets us free. Thank you my dearest Natalie from your neighbor near Desmoimes Iowa .
    May God continue to bless you and guide you. Amen. I am so incredibly thankful our paths crossed and I had acsess to your Yountube. Videos and hard to swallow articles warning me about the prevelance of spiritual abuse in conservative Christian circles. I am not flying but am already encountering woman I can lead to helpful resources and I recognize them because I am them . Your a blessing and needed at this time in our world.

    Reply
  19. Jennifer

    Wow! Thank you for sharing your story! I am a survivor and now leading a group at my church. I’m going to share this with the other leaders. You are part of a much needed change in God’s church! May He bless you.

    Reply
  20. Liz Sherrell

    Natalie, I was asked to leave my church in the early seventies. It was shocking, painful, and traumatic. Had been there 3 years in good standing l. Gotten counseling from the pastor, walked into my prayer support group and stated that my prayer request was for me and my two kids to get through all this. The pastor announced I was no longer welcome there . Really? Natalie,you are a brave and good woman, keep fighting.

    Reply
  21. LuLu

    I live in a Baptist-operated seniors building (mostly women), so I understand church misogyny. Administrator is abusive; tenants are afraid. Many other issues. Similar to Bethlehem, the church we’re affiliated with is a member of Plan to Protect, which provides “the HIGHEST STANDARD of abuse prevention and protection to organizations servicing the vulnerable sector!” Our staff do not show the love of God & likely cause many tenants to turn from Jesus Christ. I am NOT saying that all Baptists or all Baptist churches are abusive.

    I also experienced misogyny from church “family” when I fled my 19-yr marriage to a Psychopath. They took his side, even though I had a restraining order & fled to a women’s shelter. Rather than believe his outlandish lies, they could have listened to my side of the story.

    Another thing I’d say to Bethlehem & similar churches: – “Stop saying, ‘God hates divorce.’ Start saying, ‘God hates abuse.’” Abused women separate & divorce as a last resort – because our spouses refuse to stop abusing us. The abusers are responsible for the separation/divorce. Besides “God hates divorce” is taken out of context.

    Reply
  22. Tina

    Thank you, Natalie! Thank you for telling it as you experienced it, and the truth about emotional abuse. I wish your writings existed years ago when I was going through the same. God brought both of us through to the other side of abuse—praise the Lord! God bless you and continue to take care of you and your children. I’m thrilled you have a healthy and wonderful marriage now. He is a good good Father. Ephesians 3:20 all the way!

    Reply
  23. Ginger

    Wow. I hardly know what to say. I don’t know how you survived. I’ve been married for 31 years and am still in the middle of it. Last fall I finally “thought” I drew the line and made the decision to divorce, but I waited because my son was getting married, and I didn’t want to put a blight on that. A time that should have been so joyous was emotionally excruciating. I tried to hide it. The week after the wedding, my husband had surgery, and again there was something to make me feel that I couldn’t leave. He is still in therapy to recover. One of the hardest things about my situation has been that ours is a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde cycle. There’s no rhyme or reason to the length of either. So, there can be a fairly “long” cycle of not bad times (months??). But Mr. Hyde has always returned. Now, he insists that is all over, but I have no idea how long to wait…I am always on the lookout for the next cycle. I don’t know if I can ever trust again. But I can’t seem to DO anything. I want to fly, but I have feet of lead. Thank you for all you are doing to help those of us who are still in it.

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      I know exactly what you are talking about. When the time is right – you’ll know. I promise.

      Reply
  24. PC

    Holy smokes! You seem pretty amazing.

    I grew up in an Evangelical patriarchal church and learned unhealthy ways to view marriage. It definitely hurt our marriage for over a decade. I finally got out and learned to treat my wife as an equal instead of a second-class person. I’m still learning and I have further to go.

    We ran into some issues in our church community group where an abusive man yelled at me and my wife and he admitted to a sexual felony. The pastors made him apologize and meet with me for a few weeks regarding the yelling and saying hurtful things to us. During those meetings it became obvious that he wasn’t repentant and he walked-back on his apology. Yet, the pastors determined he was “cured” and I needed to say we were reconciled and send him off to another group with our blessing. We said “no” and the pastors and members came down on us with sanctions and false accusations against us. I’m learning that this is the common MO of abusive organizations. The man who committed the felony is now a youth pastor and his new church is just as bad.

    Reply
  25. Carrie

    Wow @ I share a very similar story! Including being lanes with BPD! Thank you for your transparency! And putting into words what so many of us feel!

    Reply
  26. Jenny N

    Wow, Natalie. Thanks for sharing your story. It’s amazing how long you were asking for help and no one in your church was really able to help you. They just hurt over and over again even more! I can relate to so much of what you wrote. One of Leslie’s V’s books opened my eyes to the fact that I was in an emotionally and psychologically abusive marriage right from the beginning, including before we even got engaged. The book “How to Spot a Dangerous Man….” says that there are always red flags in the beginning of the relationship. You had them. I had them. So many other women I’ve met and read about had them. But for many reasons we either ignore them, don’t realize they are red flags or we think we can “help them” like you said. I won’t ever go to a pastor or anyone else in authority in a church for help again. My EX-pastor along with my ex-husband brought me to the brink of suicide with all their lies, gaslighting, blame shifting and mind games. But they are “godly Christian men”. Gag. Never again.

    Reply
  27. Loree

    God bless you. Keep up your wonderful work in the Lord Jesus Christ. I have been thru what you have been thru and more, as have my children – it’s frightening. The “Church” has, and is failing at so many levels. Does not God’s word say “…shall we not fear God rather than man ?” The church’s agenda has become, for the most part, about the corporation they truly are – keep the “stockholders” happy and the funds coming in. Soon we will “…worship in Spirit and Truth in temples not made with hands.” God bless you

    Reply
  28. Kim

    Natalie:

    I am in shock after reading your story. I knew that the church was uninformed in terms of abuse, but this seems evil. I am so very sorry for all of the pain that you not only endured as a victim in your own home, but also at the hands of the church.

    It’s interesting to me that when I finally had my aha moment and realized that the confusion I had experienced for 27 years was called emotional/verbal abuse, God told me to not go to a Christian counselor for help. It is so sad that as women of faith, our church family is not there for us when we need them the most.

    Thank you for sharing your heart. I will continue to read your articles. And strangely enough, I may be writing a blog soon too. There’s a long story behind that sentence but just know that your blog has really inspired me and I’m so grateful that other women can turn to you as a source of inspiration and truth. I’m praying for you. And I will most likely quote some of your content (but will hopefully speak privately with you about that so I do it correctly!)

    Again, I’m so grateful to you, your heart and how God is using you in a mighty way! I am so sad that I have felt this connection to you only b/c of abuse that we share and yet I am so very grateful for this connection. Keep preaching!

    Reply
  29. Rebecca Farris

    Girl! I knew our stories were similar but I had no idea how closely — and even at the same time!

    I was a little nervous to read because I thought it might be triggering, but instead, I cried at the realization of how much God does care of us — loves us! Oh, girl, we are so fortunate.

    Question: Knowing what you know now, and forgive me if you’ve already written about this, what would you do different pertaining to getting the church involved — or would you?

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      I did write a blog post that touched on this a bit: https://flyingfreenow.com/three-things-differently-leaving-emotionally-abusive-marriage/

      And I just started a series called “Lessons from the Ladder.” I will definitely be sharing my thoughts on church involvement in one of those articles. If I had to do it all over again, I would never sign a membership commitment. My allegiance will always and only be to Jesus Christ. I no longer believe church membership commitments are even biblical. (Check out the book Fraudulent Authority by Wade Burleson.) I would also never rely on church people or church leaders to “help.” I would have gone immediately to a licensed counselor with experience and education along the lines of trauma recovery, emotional abuse, narcissistic abuse recovery, C-PTSD – that kind of thing. I hung on to both my marriage and my church’s approval because I was scared and insecure on my own. I had been raised to believe my “authority” made all the decisions for me. The only time I really flew on my own was when I was in college. I look to that time period as being when I really came into my own and began to develop who I was as an adult. But then I regressed after getting involved in another patriarchal church with a legalistic, controlling agenda – got married there and you know the rest. God just needed to wake me up and grow me up. I’m so glad He did! I’m halfway to 100 – better late than never. 🙂

      Reply
  30. Ruthie Rose

    Wow. Same song, different verse. So many similarities,. Same treatment from churches, one a Baptist church and one a nondenominational church proclaiming it was on the cutting edge knowledge of domestic abuse. My ex had a gun on me. How can the church say it was my fault. Yet they did.

    My ex made and makes no attempt to contact his boys. It’s as though he had no family. That messes with me. You mentioned this phrase “cognitive dissonance “. What does it mean?

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      When two opposite “realities” exist side by side. Example: your spouse says he loves you after he tells you what a loser you are. An example from your life – your husband threatens you with a gun, and your church says if you’d only cooperate, you’d have a great marriage. I’m sorry you went through that. Churches are some of the most abusive institutions on earth.

      Reply
  31. Susanne

    Amazingly so much the same, as my story, been 43 years in this marriage, 6 kids. Finally out!the lies and twist from the church kept me longer, but God showed me, and I started to stand up. Where does it say that a woman agrees to be under her husband’s ” authority”?
    It begins the prison sentence, she is then sopposed to stay in by feeding this evil. Stunning…

    Reply
  32. C

    I am so sorry – big big hug I am so happy that you are using your tremendous growth to help others! Thank you – I will be stealing “Also, she had been drinking my husband’s Kool-Aid for a few months by that time”. Kool Aid is a perfect word for the sweet intoxicating words abuses use. Thank you for all you do!

    Reply
  33. Sandra Froese

    What a journey Natalie!!!

    God is amazing in this mess. He will not let His daughters ( and sons because my Mom is a covert and physical abuser to my father) fall.

    Though we may stumble, the Lord will uphold them with His righteous right hand. Psalm 37:24

    Thank you for your determination to fight, to learn, to teach and counsel others who are in the trenches coming in or going out.

    Reply
  34. Erin Vreeland

    This is a startling and beautifully written account…I can relate to so much that Natalie has expressed. My ex husband worked so hard at playing the victim, and telling anyone who would listen that I was some deeply defective sociopath. What is so painful about reading this is knowing how Natalie had to struggle to meet her children’s needs without any assistance from her church. At a time when she most needed help, she was bullied, ignored, shamed, and degraded. I agree wholeheartedly with her that misogyny is a vital cornerstone to contemporary Christianity. It’s making the practice of faith nearly impossible.

    Reply
  35. Trish Wagler

    Your story of God’s faithfulness amidst the abuse is amazing. Thank you for sharing this. Love you Sister!

    Reply
  36. Dawn

    Wow! You have walked through hell, and God has brought you out into light and wholeness. I thank God that you have been willing to share your story, your experience, your training, and your help with all of us who struggle and suffer in similar circumstances. You are a strong, compassionate person. May God continue to bring fruit through your life, give you continued peace and blessing, and prosper you, your family, and all you do on behalf of abuse victims.

    Reply
  37. Shannon Joy Wilson

    Words can not express how much reading this has encouraged me to no end. I am in the midst of some bad counselling in a new church and this has given me hope that I can stand strong in the Lord and seek his justice in my situation. I fallow you on Facebook and email. I will probably reread the last bit on how to stand firm and continue to read and educate. I am also on Leslie Vernick’s Conquer Facebook page and fallow her videos as well. Pray for me as I am still in my marriage and the battle of the church is still ahead.

    Reply
  38. Susan Kathrein

    WOW. While I did not attend that specific church, it is though you wrote my life out in print.
    To be believed for how we are treated when we have given a spouse all we are and everything is what hurts the most.
    I too chose divorce after 36 years of marriage, however, it took my 3 more years to actually file. It has been over a year since it was final.
    Unlike you, I have no desire to ever be married again.

    Reply

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