Survivors of domestic violence often receive little support from their churches.
That’s a common thread in conversations I have had over the last several years with survivors who claim a faith-based background. I believe that it is imperative that churches understand the intricacies of domestic violence.
Some survivors were not believed at all. Many explained that the advice they were given was to stay, pray, forgive and submit. They were told that the abuse would stop if they just prayed harder and submitted more.
Others were told that marriage is for sanctification, and that God would be glorified in their suffering. Divorce was described as evil, yet the abuse was not. In some cases, church leaders even colluded with the abuser to minimize or deny the abuse.
Telling someone that the abuse will end through submission puts the blame on the victim. It assumes the victim is causing the abuse.
Telling the victim to pray assumes that the survivor hasn’t already been praying about the abuse. Some pray for decades, and the abuse continues.
These platitudes are what some call “doormat theology,” which exists when survivors are told that they must turn the other cheek, forgive and forget, endure suffering patiently, overcome evil with good, and be silently submissive at all times. However, doormat theology doesn’t end the abuse.
Many survivors state that the more they submitted, the more violent the relationship became. It was as if the church’s teaching on submission at all costs, coupled with the lack of condemnation from the church regarding abuse, provided permission for the abuse to continue.
Abuse presents in various forms. Domestic abuse includes much more than black eyes, broken bones and bruises – although it can be that as well.
Although some marriages quickly turn from alluring to alarming, it is more often a gradual shift in which one spouse uses a pattern of behavior to exert power and control over the other.
It includes rage, aggressive behavior, threats of harm or death, sleep deprivation, isolation from friends and family, possessiveness, property damage, verbal tirades, and even sexual assault.
The relationship doesn’t have to be physically violent all the time because occasional injury, combined with a threat of continued harm, is enough to keep the victim under subjection.
Other forms of toxic behavior can also be used to exert control, including verbal and emotional abuse, financial control, manipulation, or stalking through surveillance apps installed on a cell phone.
Abuse is generally exerted in secret. The abuser presents a very different image to the world than the one that is lived out at home with the spouse and children. The person who appears charming to the congregation on a Sunday morning becomes a very different person when no one is watching.
The family is required to keep that secret to keep up appearances. Threats of harm may keep the victim from going to the pastor; and many survivors find that if they do seek pastoral assistance, the response is less than helpful.
Many pastors have not been trained in handling cases of abuse, so they may not understand the nature of abuse, how to support those who are being abused, or know that couples counseling is contraindicated when abuse is present.
In a 2018 study, 80% of pastors did not feel equipped to handle counseling with those experiencing domestic abuse.
Despite spiritual abuse by the abuser, and unhelpful responses from clergy members, many survivors still credit their faith for sustaining them in the worst of times.
Platitudes and false promises by church leaders to the victim have a hollow ring when not followed up with tangible assistance, so one’s relationship with God often becomes the only lifeline that provides any hope.
Most churches proclaim the good news of the gospel, but there is no good news for the spouse trapped in abuse. When this person is further wounded by the church, the ability to trust that institution fades away.
In a 2017 Lifeway study, 98% of Protestant pastors said that victims of abuse would find their church to be a safe haven. The survivors I have spoken to say otherwise.
Congregants would like their clergy to be more educated about domestic violence and to acknowledge it from the pulpit, and yet 66% of pastors responded that they speak about domestic violence once a year or less in sermons or large group messages based on a 2014 Lifeway study.
Make no mistake: Domestic violence creates trauma in the lives of those victimized.
Trauma shatters perceived safety. It alters a person’s sense of worth and meaning in life. The soul becomes weary from constant verbal, emotional and physical turmoil.
Survivors need to know that hope is not altogether lost. They need to be able to see their pastor as a resource and the church as a place of safety.
Pastors, I urge you to believe victims and survivors of abuse when they speak out in courage to share their stories, and please obtain additional education about the types and tactics of abuse.
Churches can partner with local family violence shelters to create plans of action for helping those who are victimized. Age-appropriate conversations about healthy versus toxic relationships are important at all age levels, and sermons can speak out against abuse and provide comfort for the oppressed.
We are all created in the image of God; everyone has value.
Everyone deserves to live a life free of abuse – whether that is verbal, emotional, spiritual or physical.
Allowing abuse does not glorify God’s creation. It does not promote a message of God’s love for humanity.
Let’s work together to eliminate abuse and protect those who are harmed by it.
Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series focused on engaging the emerging generations of faith leaders. If you know anyone who might be interested, encourage them to submit an article for consideration to firstname.lastname@example.org.