Abuse fueled by theology

Stories that lead to change involve risks for the teller. Dr. Ruth Tucker wants her personal story in Black and White Bible: Black and Blue Wife to stimulate change and takes risks to do that. It is an intimate story of abuse at the hands of her evangelical pastor-husband. She tells it as a case study of the hierarchical model of male headship in practice. It is a moving story, worth reading and reflection; its effectiveness as an agent for change remains a question.

Tucker’s abuse happened years ago, but diary entries and vivid details give her story an authenticity that counters the risk of not being believed. The inclusion of other stories reinforces the reality that her story of domestic violence within the Christian community is not a rare one. Honesty and openness about her own role, including complicity in the abuse of a young girl who stayed in their home, removes a possible accusation that she only blames others for what became a dysfunctional household. In contrast she describes her second, healthy marriage, which gives her perspective on her past. It is, as the subtitle says, a “Story of Finding Hope after Domestic Abuse.” Tucker’s story, which cannot be easily dismissed, offers insights that allow one to to understand and improve the response to domestic violence within church communities.

Tucker intentionally links her story to the ongoing debate about whether a paradigm of human relationships based on male headship and female submission or a paradigm based on mutuality between different genders is a closer interpretation of God’s creational intent as revealed in Scripture.

It is a useful case study for two reasons. First, Tucker’s husband explicitly based his actions on his strong belief in male headship. The need for control lead to incidents such as stealing her manuscript when she would not change it to suit his views and beating her for not voting as he thought she should. The story illustrates how vulnerable a well-educated, capable woman can be in a culture that demands submissive obedience and unquestioned control. As she expressed it, “How we interpret the Bible makes a difference. And the stakes were high in my marriage.”

Secondly, Tucker’s story is useful because she cannot be labelled a radical feminist. In fact, most women would disagree with her description of her husband as a good father while he frequently hit her in front of their son. Research clearly shows that witnessing violence at home is very harmful for children. Many readers will also wonder why she stayed for 19 years.

Response to her story in reviews by those who advocate the male headship paradigm is that her husband was a poor example of headship. That is true, but more response is needed to address abuse, the limits of submission and holding abusers accountable. Tucker turned to other leaders, such as the well-known Dr. John Piper, and heard the message that wives should not leave even when suffering physical abuse. There is no discussion of the limits of submission or intervention in “bad cases.” This is a story of the failure of the church to be there for Ruth Tucker, a story that is all too familiar to those who work with victims of domestic violence. Only when she feared for her life and the life of her son did she take the risk of planning an escape. Tucker’s story is a disturbing call to take domestic abuse seriously rather than dismissing it as an isolated bad example of headship.

Tucker’s wider critique of headship/submission and advocacy for mutuality between genders is open to more questions. She randomly weaves Scripture, history, and theology into her personal story. While readers may reasonably disagree with her interpretations of Scripture and history, that does not detract from her story. If it opens up new conversations on these issues, rooted in real-life experience, it is worth the read. 

  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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