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Broken Promises and the Will to Thrive
Content warning: Intimate partner violence and abuse of institutional authority
Last fall, I had the good fortune to take GSWS 317 “Bread Riots to Riot Girls: Gender, Resistance, and Protest in Historical Perspective”, a course with Dr. Mary Shearman. One of our readings resonated with me deeply: “Christian Soldiers for Theocracy” by Russ Bellant. The article explains the history of the Promise Keepers, a movement for men to take back their perceived God-given authoritarian role as head of the house and enforce female subservience to ensure “survival of our culture” (2). The article begins by introducing the Vineyard Church and its focus on doing battle with the forces of evil through spiritual warfare. Bill McCartney, a man who attended the church, was prophesied over (a practice not uncommon in this church) that he would become a leader of men's conferences. McCartney’s Promise Keepers eventually held rallies with hundreds of thousand attendees but also continues to focus on small men's accountability groups. I appreciated this article for offering insight on this men's movement but felt an important section was left out. What was it like being a woman living in this subculture?
For better or worse, I can give insight into this. I lived through the history of the article from my young adult years in the Vineyard Church in the late 1980s and early 1990s to being involved in churches heavily influenced by the Promise Keepers movement to this day. I am living its consequences in my life and my children’s lives daily. As I imagine women with this background are largely underrepresented within SFU’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (GSWS) program, I thought it might be appreciated by some in this academic field to understand my experience.
I grew up as a child of the 1970s. Few moms in my neighbourhood worked outside of the home and my mom was the only one I knew who had a career as a psychiatric nurse. She became very suspicious when I began attending a church in our community called the Vineyard. I explained its legitimacy to her: it had to be okay because it met at our high school auditorium. My teenage brain could not comprehend that our school would fail to vet an organization meeting in its facilities. Our church was filled with young people from the local high schools as well as many young adults who had met the pastors in a local bible school shortly before the church plant formation. You had to look hard to find someone with grey hair. The music was loud and fun; we were led to believe we were part of something really big.
I remember distinctly when an older woman was going to be giving a sermon one Sunday. The pastor explained that she was given permission to teach even though she was a woman because she was under his authority. I didn’t understand what I had just heard...women didn’t have the same rights as men? I must have misunderstood this, I convinced myself. It was about this time that I began hearing teaching that “women will act like women when men start acting like men”. I believe this was my first glimpse of the Promise Keepers movement.
Soon thereafter the older (20 something) women, looking so fulfilled with babies in arms, began lending out to younger women copies of the book The Way Home by Mary Pride. In the book, the author argues, in a way that the17-year-old new Christian me could not see as faulty logic, that to be a true Christian woman one needs to fully submit to her husband. She shouldn’t practice birth control and she should aim instead for a quiver full of offspring. A woman should practice homeschooling, home birthing, home churching, home eldercare, and home business operation. Immediately after graduating from high school, I began university but squandered my opportunities there knowing that the first chance I got I would opt into “the highest joy of being a God fearing wife and mother”.
This rigid belief system in submission in marriage doomed me in the first year of my first marriage. The physical abuse I experienced was frightening. But I submitted and I prayed. Even when my then husband detoured from driving us to church one Sunday morning and drove instead to Annacis Island to kill me. I remember clearly that morning on the highway, he pulled out his scuba knife from under the driver's seat and coldly explained to me that the industrial park we were in was abandoned and nobody would hear me scream. He didn’t have to be concerned about my reaction. I sat quietly and said goodbye to my life. After all, I had accepted the vow “till death do us part”. Looking back, I think my submission made him lose his nerve. Soon thereafter he moved on to another woman. His act of adultery was my Biblical freedom.
I married a second time and lived hoping this time around I would do better; that I would be a Proverbs 31 woman and be godly enough so that this marriage would last. I was pregnant four times in 5 years. I attempted home births and I homeschooled. It was never enough. There was always this undercurrent pulling at me to keep up with the religiosity of other people. It was this constant feeling that I had to determine whether my spiritual practices in daily life were measuring up to those of the other women in the church: “ Do you homeschool? Great, but do you teach your children the theory of evolution or stick with creation science alone? Do you allow your kids to go to the pool? Do they wear one-piece bathing suits or something more modest? Did you and your family watch the latest Promise Keepers DVD? Do you participate in daily family prayer time?” Don’t get me started on Halloween and Harry Potter (I failed miserably as I loved both)!
And then there were the men's retreats and events. Some were put on by Promise Keepers and others were put on by other Christian groups with similar agendas. The organizers wisely advertised to the wives to get their husbands to attend. Much like the mother teaching her daughter in My Big Fat Greek Wedding that the husband is the head, but the wife is the neck and the neck moves the head. Crazy in hindsight though. Wives browbeating their husbands to step it up and attend events so that these women could eventually, as Bellant puts it in his article, “submit absolutely to their husbands” (1). And with the right amount of play (golf, ATVing, waterskiing, etc.) the men would willingly participate in the teaching sessions.
Last year I received a front row seat to see how the Promise Keepers movement has affected Christian culture for women. My second husband, my husband of 20 years and the father of my children, left me for another woman.
First the women around me were disbelieving. “No Tracy,” they said, “ you must have misunderstood. After all, he went to the right men's events. He wouldn't run off with another woman.” Once these women saw that I wasn’t delusional, that this was really happening, the judgements started. Their judgement of me! Clearly, I hadn’t been following my faith with enough reverence or enthusiasm. I think the other women were consoling themselves because as long as they were doing all the right stuff, this wouldn’t happen to them. Some of this judgement was subtle such as more than one woman asking me “Have you read The Power of a Praying Wife by Stormy Ottoman?” Translation: if you had prayed hard enough, this would not have happened. Some of it was more overt. I was told that I was not allowed to ask anyone in my church “family” for help or prayer with the exception of the two church elders or their wives (as women were not allowed to be in positions of authority). I clearly was not perceived as having enough Christian judgement to speak on my own behalf.
But the pièce de resistance was when one of the church elders took it upon himself to contact my husband to tell him that he was not welcome to come back to worship with his congregation until he abandoned his girlfriend and began rebuilding his marriage with me. This elder was aware of the abuse I had suffered for some 20 years. I wanted to throw up. I was physically ill that the church elder hadn’t even considered that I did not want my unfaithful, abusive husband back. That this elder’s need for a fairytale happy ending trumped my safety, wellbeing, and wishes.
So here I am. Living between two worlds. I drive my son to church but do not regularly attend myself anymore as I don’t feel welcome by a significant segment of parishioners. I will not submit or grovel to my church for help, so I received no help for the first year (although that has changed very recently with a change of pastor and a few wonderful women who have my back). I homeschool my son and have to juggle doing that while going to SFU for my own studies so that I can get back on my feet. All this while also working as a dishwasher in the evenings at least until my ex is forced to pay support.
I believe that I was sold something unnecessary through this complicated web of belief systems. I know now that I am capable of leading my family and that I will lead us through this turbulent time. Every time I step off the bus and walk into one of the SFU campuses, I smile at how privileged I am to get a second chance to take control of my life.
SFU Health and Counselling http://www.sfu.ca/students/health/
SFU Sexual Violence Support and Prevention Office https://www.sfu.ca/sexual-violence.html
Battered Women’s Support Services https://www.bwss.org