Gary Thomas’s book “Sacred Marriage” — a review by Avid Reader
Gary Thomas, the author of Sacred Marriage, recently wrote on his blog about how the church needs to protect women from abuse. There was a flood of responses from people. One lady directly confronted him for how, “I endured abuse for way too long because of your teachings.”
Gary responded to her by writing, “I don’t believe anything in Sacred Marriage supports or condones abuse. If you can find a passage that does, please let me know as I’d want to amend it immediately.”
All right—let’s answer that question.
On pages 45-49, Gary quotes from a pamphlet written by Dr. John Barger in which Barger admits abusing his wife but claims a complete transformation. There’s no way to hear his wife’s side of the story because she passed away from cancer.
Dr. Barger writes, “It’s easy to scorn women and most men do. We see women as physically weak, easy to intimidate, bound to the menial tasks of motherhood, emotional, illogical and often petty. Or…..we scorn and hate them for their commanding sexual power over us…..I swaggered through marriage for many years, ruling my wife Susan and seven children with an iron hand while citing Scripture as justification for my privileges and authority…….Years of dominating my wife and children left them habitually resentful and fearful of me yet unwilling to challenge me because of the fury it might produce.” (p. 45-46)
Then he claims to have been changed by watching his wife suffer through a traumatic childbirth and losing their baby. Yet he continues teaching, “Can men withdraw the sword of sorrow that pierces every woman’s heart? I don’t think so. Their problems are generally not the kind that have a solution but rather form the very fabric of their existence.” (p. 47)
Barger has just exonerated all abusers from having to take responsibility and make restitution to their victims for causing most of their spouse’s pain and sorrow.
Then Gary describes the moral of this story: “Dr. Barger’s earnest efforts at renewing his love for his wife and reaching a new plane of understanding worked…..While this story targets males, I suspect the same principle is true for women. That terrifyingly difficult man to love just may be your gateway to learning how to love God. This is a biblical truth.” (p. 48-50)
Why is Gary learning about abuse FROM THE ABUSER? Why does he think that Dr. Barger is qualified to give good counsel and advice to others? Doesn’t Gary realize how many abusers are experienced at lying and faking transformation?
This book gets worse. In the chapter about forgiveness, on pages 172-177, Gary tells a very disturbing story.
Heather is married to a pastor. She notices her husband spending large amounts of time on the computer and wonders why. Gary writes, “She began experiencing gynecological problems and then was diagnosed with a low strain of a sexually transmitted disease.” (p. 172) Heather confronts her husband. He admits to having an affair and says he “might still be in love” with the other woman. She asks him to go to counseling. She forgives him. He continues pastoring.
Heather tells Gary about why she chose to stay in the marriage, saying, “I never felt in my heart that divorce was the right thing to do.” (p. 174)
Gary writes, “This is the key I believe to Heather’s spiritual maturity and growth through this awful ordeal…..though Heather was feeling numb, she learned selflessness by focusing on her concern for her children, the welfare of the church, and even Rennie’s soul. Rather than lashing out in anger at Rennie, she was more broken over the spiritual consequences of his actions than over how those actions offended and affected her.” (p. 175)
What about how those actions affected the church? Our hearts go out to Heather. That was a horrible situation she shouldn’t have had to face. But when a pastor’s own wife can’t trust him, how can the congregation? How could such a man be preaching each week without presenting God’s word through his own sinfully-self-justifying lenses?
Something is really wrong when keeping the pastor in the pulpit is seen as the higher priority than holiness. Wait a minute. Isn’t this whole book about how “God designed marriage to make us holy?” (p. 13) Where is the holiness? And if marriage makes us holy, then what do single people do?
Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) Holiness isn’t about how many hours we pray or verses we can quote. It’s about loving Jesus more than the world so that we turn from the pleasures of the world to follow Christ. Every day that we resist the pull of the world to obey Christ, we are walking in holiness.
Yet on page 108, Gary writes “true holiness is seen over time in our persistence.” Persistence in what? Tolerating evil in the church? Sweeping under the rug how the Pastor is still in love with another woman?
Now I agree with Gary that we all need persistence in our walk with God. But many people have remained faithful to God even while their marriage fell apart. That’s what this book doesn’t understand. And while all of us will experience difficult seasons of life where God tests our hearts, Jesus told us, “ask and you shall receive, THAT YOUR JOY MAY BE FULL!” (John 16:24) God actually cares about BOTH our holiness and happiness.
Now when Gary was confronted over the horrific idea of using this story as a positive example in his book, he refused to listen. Here’s Gary’s actual response on his blog: “I don’t see how telling the true story of a woman whose husband gave her an STD encourages women to stay in an abusive marriage. The facts were what the facts were. The story doesn’t excuse the husband. It just tells what happened. And I still don’t see how that encourages a woman to stay in an abusive marriage….. And keep in mind, just TWO PAGES later, I do say, ‘But sometimes divorce can even be the right choice.’”
While Gary does say that on page 115, he spends most of the book teaching this:
“Divorce represents our inability to hold to Jesus’ command. It’s giving up on what Jesus calls us to do.” (p. 42)
“You’ll never find that joy by doing something that offends Jesus—such as instigating a divorce or an affair.” (p. 101)
“If we have an eternal outlook, preparing for eternity by sticking with a difficult marriage makes much more sense than destroying a family to gain quick and easy relief. Most divorces are marked by the actions of someone running from, at most, a few difficult decades—and for this relief, people are throwing away glory and honor that last for eternity. It’s a horrible trade!” (p. 110)
“If you don’t believe in Heaven, divorce can make a lot of sense. Once Heaven becomes part of the equation, the cost of divorce—God’s wrath and anger, jeopardizing the future with a selfish attitude—becomes much too high.” (p. 114)
“We have reached high to make a strong point. Divorce by definition is a failure—of love, forgiveness and patience, or at the very least is the result of poor judgment in choosing a difficult partner in the first place.” (p. 114)
“I have affirmed a high ideal in part to encourage people mired in a difficult marriage to hang in there.” (p. 115)
“If your marriage is tough, get down on your knees and thank God that he has given you an opportunity for unparalleled spiritual growth. You’ve had the prime potential to excel in Christian character and growth.” (p. 129)
“If we view the marriage relationship as an opportunity to excel in love, it doesn’t matter how difficult the person is whom we are called to love; it doesn’t matter even whether that love is ever returned.” (p. 266)
“All of us experience certain things about our spouses that may be difficult for us to accept. I’ve known men who were married to alcoholics and women who were married to demanding tyrants who showed little appreciation or respect.” (p. 149)
Notice that Gary just implied that people are to “accept” being married to the “demanding tyrant.” Feel the pressure? That’s a heavy burden of guilt which Gary tries to justify by taking Scripture out of context.
On pages 108-111, he quotes Romans 2:8. Let’s look at that verse in context.
Romans 2:6-8 (CEV) “God will reward or punish every person for what that person has done. Some people, by always continuing to do good, live for God’s glory, for honor, and for life that has no end. God will give them life forever. But other people are selfish. They refuse to follow truth and, instead, follow evil. God will give them his punishment and anger.”
Gary quotes Romans 2:8 from the NIV, “But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.”
Then he takes Romans 2:8 out of context to teach that filing for divorce is “self-seeking” that brings “God’s wrath and judgment” on you. He writes, “When you divorce your spouse, you have no idea what the future holds for him or her. The situation can, and often does, lead to chaos, because odds are that at least one spouse will need care in the not too distant future. Certainly such neglect qualifies as the “self-seeking” that Paul says naturally results in God’s “wrath and anger.” (p. 112-113)
“What is more self-seeking than to ignore what is best for your children—an intact, peaceable home—and to dump a marriage because you’re tired of your spouse even though doing so may seriously diminish your ministry of reconciliation discussed in chapter 2?” (p. 111)
Why does Gary assume that the spouse that leaves is the self-seeking one? What about the self-seeking nature of the abusive spouse? All these quotes drown out the truth of Gary’s words that “sometimes divorce can even be the right choice.” That throw-away line of his means almost zero when weighted against all the unfair blame, false guilt and coercion that Gary heaps onto victims of abuse.
That’s what I was thinking when reading page 152 of this book where Gary wrote, “A difficult marriage doesn’t pronounce a death sentence on a meaningful life.”
Sometimes it does. For some people, divorce is the only option for escaping a horrific situation. An example is the Drew Peterson case. Stacy Peterson was Drew Peterson’s wife #4. She had asked their pastor, Neil Schori, to meet her at Starbucks for a counseling session about her difficult marriage. During that session, she confided in him that she was thinking about filing for divorce because she believed Drew had murdered wife #3—Kathleen Savio. That was the last time the pastor saw her alive. Shortly thereafter, she disappeared and has never been found. When Drew Peterson was arrested for the murder of wife #3, and while wife #4 was still missing, Drew was engaged to marry wife #5.
Now before Drew became violent, how would Gary Thomas have responded if any of Drew’s wives had approached him for advice on their “difficult marriage?” Would he have told them that the difficulty of living with Drew was God’s way of making them holy?
Stacy’s death was a tragic loss. So was Kathleen Savio’s. Yet how many more women will suffer before the church finally realizes that “to do justice and judgment is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice?” (Proverbs 21:3)
The case of Drew Peterson might be an extreme example but domestic abuse doesn’t have to be physical violence to qualify as abuse. Victims can suffer extreme oppression even when the abuser never lays a finger on them. Telling victims that this oppression is “God’s way of making them holy,” ignores the evil nature of abuse. It’s PURE EVIL. It’s the willful sin of the perpetrator that brings God’s wrath and judgment on the abuser.
God cares about justice for the oppressed. While this book keeps pressuring people to grin and bear it, God expects the church “to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke.” (Isaiah 58:6b)
Avid Reader’s review of Sacred Marriage was first published on Amazon — click here if you want to vote or comment on it over at Amazon.