'The Bible Doesn't Tell Me So': An interview with Helen Paynter
She knew certain passages would appear. She could imagine the sort of verses that abusers might use to justify their actions and manipulate their partner. But on speaking to survivors, Helen Paynter found that there were even more biblical texts being twisted so far from their meaning than she expected - passages that she never would've guessed could be used in that way.
Helen compiled a list and wrote a book: 'The Bible Doesn't Tell Me So'. We were delighted to interview Helen recently, diving into the content of her book and the inspiration behind it. Here are some highlights from Bekah's conversation with Helen about why her book is so important for counteracting the lies that have been fed to Christian women in particular.
What was the inspiration behind the book?
In 2019, Helen was part of a podcast series called #SheToo, which was about stories of violence against women in the Bible. She later received an email from a listener who had recently left an abuser after decades of marriage. She asked Helen a string of questions, but they all came down to one: ‘Why does the Bible tell me I’ve got to put up with this?’
After Helen explained that, actually, you don’t have to put up with this, the woman replied, ‘I wish I’d known this sooner.’
So Helen set out to write the book that could've changed this woman’s story if she’d read it a decade earlier.
‘There’s probably a whole complex of things that are making it very difficult for you to find safety… but the Bible doesn’t need to be one of them.
The Bible is on your side, it’s not on your abuser’s side.’
— Helen Paynter —
During her research, Helen was shocked and heartbroken by what she discovered as she spoke to survivors. Not only did she learn that domestic abuse is as common inside the church as it is in wider society, but she also discovered ‘a whole load of ways in which the bible is being weaponised.’
What does the Bible say is God’s heart for those who are abused and oppressed?
Helen explains that God's heart for women is woven through both testaments. We discover the value of every person right from the beginning, when men and women are equally made in God's image (Genesis 1:27), and this continues in the way Jesus treats women with dignity and respect, often going against the culture to do so. She notes that Jesus' anger is only recorded a couple of times, but it happens when he sees people being abused or manipulated.
God cares deeply for those who are oppressed and marginalised. More than this, he's a God who has shared our experience of pain. Helen reminds us that Jesus shared so much of what so many victims of domestic abuse experience. During his life he was lied about, physically abused, and eventually stripped naked and shamed.
How do we understand forgiveness in the context of abuse?
Helen highlights that forgiveness doesn’t mean a relationship has to go back to what it was. It doesn’t equate to an abuser coming back into the home. Forgiveness is choosing not to take vengeance, it’s not the same as participating in a civil process. The perpetrator being separated from the person they are harming doesn’t mean that forgiveness cannot take place. Forgiveness does not mean putting yourself in harm’s way again.
‘Forgiveness is a choice not to seek vengeance. It is not a denial that the offence took place. To seek vengeance is to be overcome by the evil that the other person is seeking to draw you into.’
— Helen Paynter —
Towards the end of Helen's book are chapters addressed to survivors, church leaders, and even abusers themselves. What is her message for these groups?
‘In your better moments, you probably don’t want to do this.' Helen speaks powerfully and directly to perpetrators, urging them to take steps to make sure it never happens again, because these moments of regret won't last.
There's a link to the whole interview between Helen and Bekah at the end of this blog, including her full message to perpetrators. She also answers an important question in the Q&A section about why some leaders find it so difficult to speak out about domestic violence.
But we want to leave you with Helen's message of hope for survivors:
'God loves you so very much and you are so very precious. It is never his intention that you should be harmed like this. Know that you do not have to put up with this. Know that God is on your side and not on the side of someone who hurts you.'
Helen Paynter is tutor in biblical studies at Bristol Baptist College, and the director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence.
You can listen now to the #SheToo podcast series.
Read the book
There's so much more to say about the Bible and domestic abuse. We recommend reading Helen's book to delve deeper into topics like divorce and forgiveness.
Right now, we're offering a FREE copy of 'The Bible Doesn't Tell Me So' to anyone who signs up to give regularly.