Economic Abuse – often a window into a very dark place
If a man does not provide for his family we should treat him as an unbeliever (1 Tim 5:8). Many behaviours of domestic violence happen behind closed doors or are protected by shame and fear. Yet often financial (or economic) abuse is exposed to bystanders and thus the ecclesia. The sordid details of rape in marriage or emotional abuse (say) may not come to our notice. Even if we suspect they happen, they are concealed by explicit threats (“you tell anyone and I will kill or injure [you, your children, your pets, your family] or implicit threats reinforced from years of “walking on egg-shells”, cowering in the corner in expectation of verbal abuse or worse and looks that could kill.
How to respond when we become aware of economic abuse?
When evidence of financial abuse comes to our notice we have a rare opportunity to engage and sometimes, to intervene. In our response we must remember that even though financial abuse may be the only abuse behaviour we know about, it is usually just one part of a range of domestic abuse behaviours – a pattern of abuse that repeats in an ever-escalating cycle. At all times we should ensure that our response is conscious of what else may be happening and the potential effects on victims of what we do. Victims should always be engaged and their input valued and respected.
How we sometimes respond to economic abuse
From the writer’s experience, however, we are inclined instead to minimize financial abuse, as though it is “just money” and has no impact on the person. It is easy to accept justifications, including spiritual justifications that it is perfectly in line with scriptural statements about a man’s responsibility and prerogative or a wife’s place.
What is the effect of an inappropriate response?
When we act as though financial abuse is the entire problem and not just the tip of the iceberg we enable the “below the waterline” abuse that is much more harmful and dangerous. When we consider the problem “fixed” and “move on” we may be enabling more abuse. If a husband has made commitments to (say) provide his wife access to the join bank accounts, or to provide sufficient resources to repair the bathroom and a more appropriate shopping allowance and we fail to recognize that a deceptive person is as likely to deceive in their commitments (and will use threats and fear to ensure the wife does not disclose this), or that it is convenient for an abuser to do “the easy things” whilst continuing the hidden things of darkness out of sight while reminding the wife should be grateful for what “he has done” we are just wall-papering over terrible cracks that threaten a disaster.
A scriptural perspective
Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 5:8 are a salient reminder of how terrible financial abuse can be, and that fundamentally spiritual shipwreck of the faith. When a Godly marriage is the joint venture that sees both as heirs together of the Grace of Life (1 Pet. 3:7) the joint resources of the marriage are directed to that end. This Godly marriage aims to produce a Godly seed (Malachi 2:15), either literal offspring, an heritage of Yahweh (Psalm 127:3) or spiritual fruit of value to the divine family.
When one spouse spends the family resources on selfish interests or a way of life that doesn’t include the other spouse or the children the marriage is a sham and not one that we can consider God wants to continue in that condition. (Please read that sentence again. Take it in. We believe it reflects the Divine perspective). If a husband denigrates his wife and despises her ability to “manage money” (usually in the face of plenty of evidence of her financial brilliance seen in an ability to manage the needs of the family with the inadequate allowance he provides, and if she decides to leave, her capacity to find a job, manage the finances and survive without him) he is not building her up, nor living with her in an understanding way (1 Pet. 3:7).
How is someone else’s money our business?
In our ecclesias where our common interests are the hope of the Kingdom and we serve God not Mammon, to have an interest in another family’s money matters is frowned upon. There is shame in raising money matters in the ecclesia and in small communities and even larger ones, close family connections are common and the Christadelphian Grapevine is disturbingly effective – to share a money problem with one brother or sister risks much broader exposure.
This situation serves to provide even more fertile ground for financial abuse. This is a type of coercive control where power and control behaviours are used to create an environment of fear and to imprison sisters (usually) in unhealthy and dangerous marriages. It is also seen in other types of abuse such as elder abuse where typically family members are able to use control of money to abuse their elders. (Our focus on this site is domestic violence so most of what we say is focused on that.)
What is financial abuse?
Here are some examples
Secrecy within the marriage about family finances
Rationing of resources even when there is plenty available
Failing to spend money on important things like food, medicines, repairs to the home
Providing an inadequate allowance for the household size at the same time as committing to major financial expenditure for gifts for others, overseas holidays or motor vehicles (for instance)
Use of resources for personal expenses and pleasure rather than the family’s
Creating fear using financial triggers including verbal abuse and apparent anger for spending that doesn’t meet his “criteria”; transferring funds out of accounts so it is not there for routine spending or anticipated expenses like the rent, the mortgage or the car registration
Threatening that if she were to leave him he would make sure she had nothing and she would be incapable of providing for herself and/or the children
Saying that she isn’t capable of managing money which is why she doesn’t need to be involved in financial decisions
Using financial transactions to track and stalk someone’s activity, requiring them to justify what they spent where and with whom
Making accusations that unexpected expenses are her problem
Taking all the money she may earn and not allowing her access except as rationed/allowance to his “budget”
Restricting or limiting women from working outside of the home in order to become a “biblical” woman, mother, wife, or homemaker; sabotaging work opportunities; foregoing or sabotaging educational pursuits OR
Requiring a woman to work outside the home
Restricting a woman from opening a bank account in her own name, being financial independent or having access to a motor vehicle
Being deceptive about what money is owned or earned and where it is – no joint accounts, no jointly owned property, no access to investment accounts etc
Using a wife’s ignorance of financial details to threaten using lies and deception
The role of spiritual justifications
You will note that some of these include the use of spiritual justifications. Using biblical gender roles as an excuse must never be acceptable and must be called out for the wrong teaching it is. Making a spiritual excuse that it is his scriptural prerogative and she should trust a man’s authority is a misuse of scripture that avoids the responsibilities of the husband to his wife. Withholding funds for basic needs such as food, clothing, or medical care under the guise of trusting God or enforcing a punishment is hypocritical – God is a father that gives goods gifts to his children, and even the Lord in Matt. 7:11 says, “you who are evil” do this. It is a given that all men should do this.
What characterizes healthy relationships?
We must recognize that it is a valid choice for a woman to decide to be a stay-at-home wife or mother, but this must be her personal decision and free of coercion. Coercion has no part in marriage. From the outside, this may appear to be a mutual decision and common practice amongst us, but on the inside it can be a cover for financial abuse.
Healthy relationships include transparency, mutual decisions, allowance for autonomy, and the encouragement of educational and financial flourishing for each partner. If there is no trust in the handling of money one way or another this points to a lack of trust in the marriage and perhaps much more challenging issues.
We enable financial abuse and associated oppression including emotional and physical violence when we minimize financial abuse.
Is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? (1 Corinthians 6:5)
So what can ecclesias do? Ecclesias are called on to judge (1 Corinthians 5:13), even in the things of money. Ecclesias should be willing to support a sister looking to obtain financial independence from her husband. It may be the only type of abuse she is willing to disclose or reference but it is a legitimate request in its own right and ecclesias ought to recognize that it is their responsibility to agree to judge in the matter (if asked). Of course the offer can be made, but there may also be many reasons why a sister doesn’t trust the ecclesia and we should accept this. It could be because of perceptions of bias or prejudice. It could be because of incompetence. These are things ecclesias can address by using brothers or sisters with appropriate skills removed form the circle of friends and influence – enlisting the help of people from other meetings, or from far away (say).
An approach to ecclesial judgement
From our understanding that the economic abuse is the tip of the iceberg in all likelihood, we also recognise that power and control behaviours are known for manipulation and gas-lighting. We should expect that people using these behaviours are not straight forward and that they are likely to be deceptive. We can be as wise as serpents by ensuring that we set up the process for success by having the person using financial abuse to agree upfront and in writing to:
Provide “full and frank disclosure” of all related finances and assets as one would need to do in a family court (say). To provide ecclesial “justice” that is not founded on the same facts as the law of the land given by the Father for our good and the punishment of evildoers (Romans 15) is not to do justice at all. It is to perpetuate an injustice;
Accept the outcome of the ecclesias judgement without debate or challenge;
Accept the competence of the people involved to judge, including that they will do their best to judge as the laws of the land would do;
Accept that all communication is through the people doing the judgement on behalf of the ecclesia (so that they can ensure that they are not enabling further abuse by communicating threats or other abuse to the abused)
Agree to sign legally binding settlement incorporating the judgement made (in Australian Family Law, “consent orders” for presentation to a court for court endorsement and to ensure the abused has the protection of the court if the settlement/orders is not acted on);
Ensure that the family and spouse is provided for during the process, however long that takes.
Isn’t that “putting asunder” the marriage?
Sometimes people become concerned that financial separation is tantamount to divorce and the ecclesia is thus “putting asunder” a marriage. This is clearly not the case. It may well be that beside financial separation there is also a literal separation and it may well be followed by divorce. But how should we look at it? On the principle of Luke 16
“He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.”
we could deduct that if a marriage is to be unsustainable because there has been a separation of that which is least how can it ever sustain an outcome that the parties would be heirs together of that which is greatest? Conversely, perhaps removing the angst and problem in the relationship about that which is least may well open up a marriage to address the bigger issues of developing a joint venture to see the whole family inherit eternal life.
Alternatively, if the marriage is a sham it may be irreconcilable and not a marriage that God desires to see perpetuated. He hates violence in marriage and there is no place for the mistreatment of either spouse. If there remains a sense of entitlement on the part of the abuser that this is his right, his position, his conditions and his business, it is hard to see that the grace of God has affected his heart or that this sense of entitlement wouldn’t see the echo of those plaintive cries “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?”
What about when the ecclesia can’t or won’t judge?
As mentioned earlier, there are occasions where the parties in the marriage don’t trust the ecclesia to judge, or the ecclesia cannot be led to recognize it needs to, or one or other party just will not submit to the ecclesia’s judgement for whatever reason. Does Pauls’ injunction that we should not go to law, brother against brother apply in this situation?
This question is addressed at more length in another blog article, but we put it to you that Christ was not suggesting that we should protect the wicked from the decision of the law so that under our very noses an injustice could be delivered from one of our members to another. If one of our members had a thief steal their money and called the police to help, and the police prosecuted the thief for the return of the stolen money most of us would not object on the basis that the law is there for our good. If our child was abducted I think every sane person would call on the authorities to help. We are discussing a situation where a brother is stealing (yes – stealing) what belongs to high wife (say). Half of all they have is hers in most Western countries today (in general). He might have the property in his name, or have ferreted it away someone out of sight, but the situation remains. If a sister chooses to call on the help of external mediators and then when that has failed, the authorities (including through the courts) we should support her, ensure that we do not undermine this God-provided vehicle and accept what the court decides to do. We should encourage the parties to go about it without duress and to “settle quickly whilst thou art in the way” so as to minimize the further oppression of the family resources needs being spent on lawyers and consultants rather than perhaps the children or more fruitful enterprise.
Economic abuse is a difficult matter for families and ecclesias to deal with. It is complex and challenging, but if we are to reflect the values of our Lord to care for the fatherless and widows and to relieve oppression, we must not turn our back on it, but be willing to put ourselves out for those in need and support them in their distress.
We must be wary of narratives that are nothing more than spiritual justifications and that sometimes enable more abuse and consign victims to lifetimes of misery. We must balance the values of our Lord and his clear direct teaching with these narratives, even when we think they are scripturally based – they may not be scripturally balanced.
Ensure that abusers are held accountable for providing financial resources and when unable to do that,
provide financial resources so that the effect of his oppressive threats is minimised
Confront any spiritual justifications that are used publicly or that she is willing to disclose
Ensure that she knows that it is wrong – not just because we are saying it is wrong, but because scripture says it is wrong
On request, to establish an independent panel to judge between them to avoid them needing to go to court
Support a sister going to court (particularly having made attempts to have him agree to a just financial settlement, or have them agree to an ecclesially-brokered judgement in the matter)
Engage with domestic violence counselling services which often have financial advisors
Contact law enforcement when needed (if she is willing but always if she is in immediate danger)
Be wary that we don’t use communication about financial matters in a context where there is no contact as an alternate channel for abuse, where we are employed as enablers of the abuse