The Christian marriage crisis in Russia

Although marriage counseling is not the center of my work here in Russia, it has always been close to my heart. It was the most rewarding part of my counseling practice in Richmond before moving here, and the way God has helped me grow as a husband is not a small part of my own story. I must have been under the delusion that I was gifted at marriage work, because over the 10 years in private practice in Richmond, only one couple broke up while coming to me. Now in Russia my “track record” is abysmal.

The first couple I worked seriously with started soon after we moved here in 2007. The husband was a leader in our ministry for many years, and despite his incredible gifting and love for God, he was a piece of work in some areas. She was difficult too in her own way, intransigent. When they broke up it was one of the darkest periods of my entire time here. I told God, “If marriages are too hard to save where we apply the best we know of your principles and prayer, then what hope is there for Russia?”

I have personally married two couples here. The second, praise the Lord, were clearly made for each other, and so far after a year and a half, they are in good shape. The first, however, was problematic from before they got engaged, and boy do I second guess myself there. Russian churches can be very strict in terms of church discipline, but when it comes to marriage the culture is amazing. A couple comes to the pastor to ask for his blessing, and he says yes. They announce it the next Sunday, and a few weeks later they have the ceremony. Little to no pre-marital work, much less deal with serious issues.

I have always taken the process very seriously. I give couples a big online test and then spend 8-10 sessions with them to go over it and any potential ramifications. Over the years several young women have given me the honor of being their spiritual father, and so I was in a position to help them avoid some potential catastrophes. In the case of the second couple I married, I certainly worked them over well, especially the guy, as he was the unknown quantity. She was active in our ministry. More on that later.

The spark for writing this post came from another couple I worked with for several months. A delightful pair, he was a pastor, and she the stay-at-home mom of a large family, several of whom they had adopted. They were truly a delightful couple. I did the marriage work and one-on-one work with the husband, and one of my leaders worked with the wife. To make a long story short, she loved it and he hated it. She responded well, learning how to take all her feelings and questions to the Lord and receiving his truth and freedom. Problem was husband was looking for something a little more direct and quick, particularly from her side. We met once with his overseer, who said the whole thing was about her unwillingness to submit.

For the record, I believe in and teach submission, but Paul’s teaching to husbands in Ephesians 5 is 8 long verses about how husbands are to submit in their own ways to the wife. This husband was tolerant of my perspective, as he had had a lot of contact with Westerners over the years, but he once commented, “You know, Lyle, when I look around me, I see that the families who are most peaceful are the ones where the husband is in charge according to the traditional Russian view of it. The ones who are more egalitarian have the most trouble.” That got me thinking pretty hard, but I didn’t know what to do with it. Moreover, he eventually quit on us and started to talk bad about me and my approach.

Until this month. Out of the blue the wife writes me and says, “Mark (not his name) has been talking about you for three days, saying he really needs to speak with you.” I said, “Oh dear, so he wants to give me a piece of his mind?” She answered, “Not at all, quite the opposite. We have several couples in the church in trouble, and he thought of you.” I was blown away, to say the least.

When he contacted me, he said, “We have a number of couples on the verge of divorce, and the Lord seems to have put on my heart your teaching on being an Ephesians husband.” It turns out I had forgotten that while I was working with him I had given him material from my book, “Becoming Mr. Ephesians: You can love your wife as Christ loved the Church.” He didn’t exactly apologize for giving me a hard time or bad mouthing my ministry, but he explained that my teaching planted a seed that later bore fruit. Their marriage is now in a much better place, but what to do with the other couples in the church?

I gave him permission to use my material on an upcoming retreat but suggested that best to just give a small portion to see if they would like more. Here is his summary of what happened there:

“I think this was culture shock for them. When I asked, ‘Where in the Scriptures are husbands commanded to submit to their wives?’ The overseer [the same as mentioned above] countered, ‘In Genesis 3:16 the husband is told to rule over the wife.’ I fired back that this was directed at the wife and given because of the wrong heart of Adam after the fall, there was silence. They have a fear of loving with the Lord’s love that blocks their minds from receiving truth. I think in their heart of hearts they all want to change for the better since they have children, and no one wants to lose their families. But they are all afraid to yield and be vulnerable.”

As to the ones on the verge of divorce, he continued, “They are not open to a restoration process now. The wives want me to fix their husbands, but the husbands don’t see the need and consider the wives’ lack of respect to the the root of crisis that led to their adultery. They only want to know, ‘So then who is going to teach about being an Ephesians wife?’ Only one is half willing to repent. The other two are hardened. I think my own testimony came across to most of them as that of a broken and hen-pecked husband.”

He went on to give the real reason behind it all – culture.

“Most of the brethren are from Western Ukraine. In Ukrainian they say that a husband “тремает” his wife, that is, keeps her, as in like livestock. So for maintaining control to this day physical abuse is informally encouraged. The thing is these wives are from here and only became Christian as adults, so this kind of behavior is intolerable for them. So conflicts turn into catastrophes.”

We ended the conversation each sharing how personally painful it is to see this happen, and Mark confessed, “It’s not easy for me to care for the wounded, as my own wounds are still so fresh. I truly understand their fears but simultaneously feel for their wives – and even more so for their children. That’s the biggest hurt of all!!!”

This is exactly the cultural issue I had dealt with with the first couple I married. He was (is) Ukrainian with a completely different view of roles. This difference didn’t show up on the test, since they both agreed in principle about the leadership of the husband. It only never occurred to her that such could happen in any other context than a completely loving relationship where all the “other side of the equation” would be in force from Ephesians 5. Such a model was not even in his vocabulary, and the result was inevitably a completely selfish outlook on life. Theologically, there is no alternative. Either we are called to lay down our lives for our wives (and others in general), or we will demand they lay down theirs for us. How they miss that Jesus’ example of dying for us is intended to exemplify their love for their wives is baffling, but it shows the extent to which culture can blind us to the truth of Scriptures that would otherwise so easily set us free.

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