Susan M.'s Experience of Domestic Violence in the Assembly

First posted on the Assemblyboard in 2003.

As I read the accounts of Judy's and Rachel's abuse, I became sick to my stomach, as I have witnessed and experienced first-hand the demeaning treatment of women in the Assembly.

I feel that God's Spirit is telling me to tell my story--not to be dramatic, not to shame the memory of my beloved husband Tom, who died in 1990) or to gather sympathy. The truth needs to be told, so that marriages and families may be spared the trauma of living in an abusive cycle, and those that have been broken (spiritually, emotionally, socially, and physically) can receive healing for their wounds. Some are so sick and deceived, they may not even realize yet that they are the walking wounded!! We need to pray.....

My husband Tom was good friends with David Geftakys because they shared a love of surfing and fixing up old cars. David always made a point to spend time with Tom when he and Judy visited Santa Barbara. Tom often went to David for counsel on family matters.

Once Tom and David tracked sand into the house from the beach when they had been surfing all morning. I made a mild comment about having to get a broom again. David said, "You are lucky to even have a husband to sweep up after." In one way these words were prophetic, for Tom passed away six months after we left fellowship and I truly did repent of any complaints I had made about serving my husband prior. But I was bothered by the severity of David's comments.

I do believe that Betty is in competition with most of the Assembly women for the attention of the brothers' admiration and despises the sisters, using them to prepare her juices and do her housework. I never heard her say a kind word about any of the Santa Barbara wives, especially those who were allowed to work or had aspirations to go back to school. In fact, when Tom died, Betty told Melany M. that it was a positive change for me, because I always wanted to be a career woman anyway.

Tom and I had quietly left fellowship in 1989 after he was counseled to quit his job and he disagreed with the brethren. Tom never spoke poorly of the brethren in public, but refused to meet with them to discuss his situation. He knew it would be pointless and cause more damage. In retrospect, I am so thankful to Tom for the way he handled this, as so many others have suffered condemnation and ex-communication for disagreeing with the Leading Brothers of the Assembly.

The fun-loving, compassionate and ethical man I married learned how to be abusive and controlling from the attitudes and behavior propagated by the Geftakys family, especially Betty and David.

Because there was no sound teaching on healthy marriages in the Assembly, but only examples of control, stern looks, public humiliation, and severe consequences, Tom got the idea that is was okay to hit his wife, too, and "she" deserved it for holding a different opinion or for "disobeying."

The abuse started with punching a hole in the closet, slamming doors, barring entrance to the home, threatening to take away the children, hitting inanimate objects--all the while hurling accusations and character assassinations at me when he was frustrated or angry. At first I did not know what to do and sincerely questioned my own motives, words, and behaviors. I was afraid and learned over time to keep my opinions, for the most part, to myself.

When I did not react assertively to the furniture flying, but cowered in the corner, Tom began to get his point across with slaps to my face, pulling my hair, shoving me on the bed, demanding sex even when I was throwing up, and controlling every decision I made, down to what I could order in restaurants or buy at a store.

The abuse escalated when I returned home from my parents' home in the Bay Area, and I had trimmed my long hair without getting his permission first. Tom yanked my wedding ring off of my finger, and said I was not worthy to be called his wife for my rebellious act. He threatened to throw my ring down the toilet and slapped me hard across the face as I cried. With this, I waited until he went to work, gathered my 3 babies and loaded up the car with our clothes and essential belongings. We drove up to San Luis Obispo and stayed in a hotel overnight. I did not contact David Geftakys while in town because I already knew what his response would be.

My parents called Tom in Santa Barbara that evening and pleaded with him to work out our marital problems without violence. I was 5' 7" and 108 pounds--emaciated, exhausted and scared. Tom coaxed me into coming home and for awhile this incident was put behind us. I told Tom I wanted to talk to the Brothers about our marital problems and he forbade me to do so. He said he would kick me out of the house if I breathed a word of the abuse. I obeyed him.

A month or two later Tom and I were at a Goleta Beach outreach for the 4th of July and it was very hot. Everyone was in short-sleeved tops and shorts except for me. I was wearing pants and a long-sleeved top. Why? Because Tom had repeatedly socked my upper arm that morning and I had black and blue bruises all over one side of my body. I debated whether or not to show another married sister, but decided against it.

After all, the few conversations I had with them about my concerns on the controlling and abusive behavior of the men was met with denial and admonitions such as, "Well, you shouldn't talk back. Pride goeth before a fall. You always were too independent. In what ways have you displeased Tom?" etc.

I never told anyone about this but just brought it to the Lord, asking for his forgiveness for anything I might have done to incite Tom's anger. I was lonely, depressed, and frightened, and most of all, sick with guilt and fear inside that I could never be a good enough person to gain his favor.

The last straw was when we were living in a Brothers' House and Tom pushed me violently onto the bed, (and it was unprovoked behavior). It was a Saturday night and the house was quiet because everyone was preparing for Sunday worship. I knew George and Betty were staying over at Wes and Becky Cohen's home, so I called over there in desperation while Tom was out of our bedroom. I reported the abusive behavior to her, and Betty's reply was, "Well, what did you do to make him so mad?" Then she quoted Proverbs 18:17 to me that says, "The first to plead his case seems just, until another comes and examines him." She told me to get down on my hands and knees and apologize to Tom for my lack of submission. I was devastated by this counsel.

As a couple we disagreed with many of the legalistic practices of the Assembly, which caused Tom and I to move out of this Brother's House and live by ourselves. We began attending another local Baptist church on alternate Sundays. Over the course of a few months, Tom and I sought marital counseling, as we were now making friends with healthy couples and families. The last time Tom tried to strike me I threatened to call the police, the brethren, his boss, and everyone under the sun. The physical abuse stopped then, but the scars remained. There were rumors after Tom died that God took him because we left fellowship and the "protection of the camp."

I am thankful to say that the last year of his life and our marriage was the happiest--we began to heal from the negative teaching and behavior of the brethren, and I have long since forgiven my husband for his violent acts. I know that he loved me, but was misguided in his attempt to have a perfect Assembly family.

But now I say to the men who have cruelly and egotistically controlled their wives and the vulnerable single sisters in fellowship--shame on you! The Lord Jesus never treated women this way. He honored and cherished them. Dogs have been treated better than Assembly wives.

Note: I have spent the last seven years of my career as a Vice President of Human Resources and haven't seen near the abuse and shameful behavior from "worldly" men and women as I did from supposed holy and devout men in the Assembly.

And to you women who have turned your hearts, ears, and eyes from the pain of your sisters in fellowship--shame on you! Our bruises, pulled hair, nightmares and bloody faces might as well have been inflicted by you! How dare you cover your own insecurity by judging us as being less godly and submissive than yourselves.

Oh, may God bring miraculous healing as we open our hearts to admit wrongdoing, seek forgiveness, change our wicked opinions and ways, and love one another as Christ our Husband loves His Bride.

I do have a couple of points to add....

First, the rumors that Tom died because he left fellowship are grievous to me because the morning of his death, he was having his quiet time, going to work as usual, and treating the children and I very lovingly. Was everything just "fixed" when we left fellowship? No, it was not. But we were on our way to recovery as a family. God does take evil and turn it into good for His glory!

The fear of judgment for leaving fellowship and the use of Tom's death in promoting this is deplorable to me. It was a subtle rumor, but one that struck at the hearts of every family in fellowship at the time. We had no life insurance and had a new mortgage. The help the Leading Brothers offered was for me to move back in with the brethren--who would guide me in raising my children as a single parent. No thank you!

Second, I've struggled with a very strong fear that if I ever publicly denounced the Assembly's oppressive practices, or brought to light the spousal abuse as an ex-member, my story would be minimized, my character questioned, and no one would believe me. At the very least, I would be criticized for making Tom look bad, and that was something I did not want to do, for my kids' sakes, especially. At the very extreme, I would not only lose my inheritance for leaving fellowship and taking "the easy way out," I would be punished by God in this lifetime. It was a horrible mental agony to wrestle with whether or not his death and my new circumstances were a result of our disobedience to God via the Leading Brothers, (despite our peace from God about leaving fellowship.) This is baggage that no one, whether they are sick or dying, should have to bear. This is spiritual abuse.

In retrospect, I wish I had spoken up about all these things earlier, and if I had been aware of Judy's situation (and maybe others), I would have responded immediately and not hesitated to come to their aid.

It is very sad that lives that had become so enmeshed--living together, spending long hours in meetings together, spending every holiday together--could not be more transparent. We were hiding dark secrets behind our "Are you rejoicing today?" masks. The church is for sick sinners, and Christ is our doctor and healer.

When will Christians stop killing their wounded and show the true testimony of grace and mercy towards the victimized?? Only then will the world find us honest, genuine, sincere, and an attractive choice among many alternatives.

I am praising God for all of you who love the Lord, who are either in the Assembly or not and are seeking God's direction for your lives, marriages and families. GOD IS FAITHFUL!!

Several brothers from the Santa Barbara Assembly have called me to apologize because they said they didn't notice anything was wrong while Tom and I were in fellowship. (i.e., they were unaware of the physical abuse). My reply was gracious to them, because I suffered in silence while examining myself (as I was instructed to via Betty's counsel), and I did not specifically go to them with my complaints--they didn't know the dynamics in my home and did not witness what was going on. I can honestly say that I have no hard feelings toward any of them personally.

But, had they seen my bruises and confronted Tom, I am not confident that the outcome would have been positive for me or our marriage, for the following reasons:

  1. I may have been blamed by the Brothers and/or Tom for being a bad wife and deserving to be harshly disciplined. It is one thing to disagree with your spouse about your relationship patterns. But it is quite another thing to let the dirty laundry out of the closet and risk being ganged up on by people who spoke as God's authority over you and your family.
  2. The universal prescription for these types of personal problems was more Bible reading, shallow admonitions to just trust the Lord and to obey the advice of the leaders. (No matter that some of them giving the advice had unhealthy marriages and dysfunctional situations themselves--or childrearing issues--or they weren't even married and didn't even have their own kids! - But of course, they were authorities on the subject because they had been trained by George and Betty as their "surrogate children", etc.)
  3. "Brother, get your home in order or you can't be a doorkeeper... " Throughout the years I heard Leading Brothers brag about how they had put their wives in their places, or they were condescending when they spoke of the women, "Oh, you know, sisters are more emotional and more easily deceived.... remember Eve. You've got to be strong and lay down the law. Sister, you need to be completely obedient. Your resistance shows a rebellious spirit. When you married, you gave up that right to (fill in the blank)."
  4. The prohibition against seeing psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health counselors outside the fellowship not only prevented common sense and legal rights from entering the picture, but the hurting couple was left to their own attempts to fix the problem (with the counsel of the leadership prescribing the solution).
  5. The code of silence makes it unsafe for both men and women to tell the truth. All churches and organizations have this dilemma (it is human nature to avoid embarrassment and to downplay our wrong actions), but the way people are confronted in the Assembly made it especially hard to "come clean." Would you be kicked out? Publicly ostracized? Have privileges taken away? Lose your chance to move up the leadership ladder? Have to endure more lectures about how bad a Christian you were, how you weren't overcoming, how you weren't capable of making decisions for yourself, etc.? And if you were a wife, would you have to do your "consequences" and your husband's if he told you to, even if he was in the wrong? No wonder both men and women were afraid to speak up; the culture of the Assembly propagated this insidious problem.

The issue of how far to get involved in one another's lives, especially when relationships seem to exhibit unhealthy symptoms, is a complex and difficult one. We could start by "speaking the truth in love". There are many other Bible verses that would give us wisdom and boundaries to follow.  

What is clear is that the leadership's practice of playing Holy Spirit in other's lives is in direct opposition to the way Jesus exposed and treated sins.

If the only prayer and effort made on my behalf was to exhort me to conform to the "Assembly's standard", I do not feel individually respected, "heard" or for that matter, loved.

One of the greatest opportunities we have through this website is to be reconciled to one another and to Christ. It takes tremendous courage and humility to avoid the prescribing judgments so characteristic of Christian groups and give room for the real Holy Spirit to move, correct, and heal in the individual's life.

Editor's note: For more information on domestic violence, see Domestic Violence: Excerpts from The Domestic Violence Sourcebook, and Couple Counseling in Domestic Violence.

Comments from readers

March 15, Dave Sable: I remember meeting Tom and Susan and they were a clean-cut, cheerful, “top of a wedding cake” type of couple. I had no idea.

In reflection, I can see why the Assembly in general and the SLO Assembly in particular would be a perfect climate to grow spousal abuse.

Many of us were attracted to the Assembly and didn’t see through its inappropriate practices because we already had baggage in our lives. In some cases this baggage was unresolved anger issues ready to boil over.

Men moving towards leadership were encouraged to manage their wives. Part of this management involved the consequence system. I remember a particular couple’s meetings where Danny and Kimber Edwards were set forth as a model couple. They gave testimony as to how Danny would give Kimber consequences for such items as back-talking or not following through with what she was told to do. Though the consequences were relatively minor (run a half hour errand, for instance), this was certainly the entry-drug for worse manifestations of heavy-handed control.

The tying of position in the Assembly system to successfully having your family in submission added pressure to the man that could push an unstable man over the top. If the man happened to be a good manager of his family or had a wife who fell easily into the submissive/martyr role, the couple may be able to produce the desired external behavior without much problem. On the other hand, if the man was already unstable with emotional baggage and the wife demonstrated a natural reaction to the demeaning mold she was being placed into, then the man’s sense of losing control and privilege could create panic, precipitating harsher and more-violent behavior.

The fact that male domination over his wife was encouraged, and the fact that David Geftakys had a vested interest in promoting such behavior, removed the natural checks that a healthy community should provide. As Susan observed in her years as VP of Human Resources, even non-Christians would intervene if they caught wind that a friend was beating his wife.

In closing, an anecdote:

On our second anniversary (as of writing we have been married twenty years), my wife and I were driving to the Knott’s Berry Farm restaurant for breakfast. Our infant son was in the back seat. By this time, the mom-trainers had converged upon my wife to instruct her how to be meeting-ready.

In the typical animal-training approach, her assignment was to ten times a day tell our son to “come”. The infant was to come lest he be swatted and made to repeat the exercise until he got it right. I was to enforce her doing this ten times a day. To me, it was a simple, objective, check-list task. To my wife, it was an inappropriate external intrusion that bothered her to the core.

On the way to breakfast, I asked her, “Did you do ‘come’ ten times yesterday?” (A simple “yes” or “no” was all I was after). Her response was an evasive, side-stepping, justification. I tried to zero in again – did she do it or not? Or at least how many times did she do it? Her reaction was like a fearful animal being zeroed in on by a predator.

The more I tried to nail her down, the more she reacted (not to me, I later realized, but to the whole process of intrusion in her natural mothering intuition). Before long, we were yelling at each other and saying nasty things. By the time we got to Knott’s, she stormed out of the car and I drove around the parking lot with my infant son thinking, “This isn’t working”.

Over the years, we processed this situation and we learned healthier ways of raising our kids and relating to one another. But if I had been a more competitive type of person, I could have easily reasoned, “If I am going to be used by God in the Assembly, I am going to have to work harder and win in this situation, no matter what it takes.”

I think it is more my weakness than virtue that caused me not to take that position. But if I had, I shudder to think of where it would have led and what state my wife and kids would be in today.

--Dave Sable
outdeep at bellsouth dot net

Read more on marriage:

• Domestic and Family Violence on 'The Gospel Coalition' website
• Mature Husbands and Fathers  » »
• A Real Marriage: Excerpt from Families Where Grace Is In Place by Jeff Van Vonderen  » »
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