Domestic Violence in the IFB Church Movement

by Bruce Gerencser

First, let me give readers the definition for domestic violence. The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines domestic violence as:

Domestic violence can be defined as a pattern of behavior in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner.

Abuse is physical, sexual, emotional, economic or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure or wound someone.

Domestic violence can happen to anyone of any race, age, sexual orientation, religion or gender. It can happen to couples who are married, living together or who are dating. Domestic violence affects people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels.

Does the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement have a domestic abuse problem? The short answer is Yes!

The IFB church movement is built on a foundation of emotional and mental manipulation and abuse. We see this in how parents discipline their children and how husbands lord over and control their wives. These behaviors are often modeled by IFB pastors, deacons, and church leaders, as they manipulate, control, and dominate church members.

I know IFB readers are howling, and, perhaps, even cursing, over what I have written here. How dare I suggest that the IFB church movement has an abuse problem. How dare I suggest IFB pastors and church leaders emotionally and mentally manipulate and control people. Child abuse? Domestic violence? Where do such things happen, says the IFB church member. I have never seen it.

emotional_abuse_2And therein lies the problem. The abuse and violence is institutionalized to such a degree that it is considered normal.  People are so used to seeing it that they never consider whether such behavior is appropriate.

IFB church members are used to having their “toes stepped on.” They are used to fire and brimstone, naming names, calling sin sin, sermons. They are used to aggressive behavior from their pastor. It seems quite normal to them.

Those of us who were raised in the IFB church movement understand this. It took us getting away from it to see how manipulate and abusive it was. The waiting rooms of mental health professionals are crowded with people whose mental wellness and self-esteem were ruined by Fundamentalist religion.

For those of us who spent decades in the IFB church, we know that the deep mental and emotional scars left by our time in the IFB church never go away. We learn to come to terms with our past and try to do the best we can going forward. We are marred, even broken, yet, somehow, we find a way to pick up and move forward.

This is why some of us speak so openly about the IFB church movement and its manipulative and abusive tendencies. We don’t want ANYONE to experience what we experienced. When we see someone gravitating towards Fundamentalism we try to warn them like we would warn a person who is driving towards a cliff. Stop! Turn around! But, many don’t…and they often pay a heavy emotional and mental price and some pay a heavy physical price.

Domestic violence in the IFB church movement is widespread. Unfortunately, it is often not seen as domestic violence by those who are in the IFB church movement. Instead, domestic violence is often seen as being true to the Bible or being a faithful follower of Jesus.

To understand domestic violence in the IFB church movement we must first understand the theological underpinnings of the violence. Domestic violence often happens because husbands (it is almost always husbands who perpetrate the domestic violence in the IFB church) want to be obedient to the Bible,  Jesus, and the pastor’s dictates. Remember, in the IFB church, the voice of God sounds an awful lot like the voice of the Pastor.

Here is what many IFB pastors preach to their church members:

  • Christ is the head of the church and the pastor is God’s man in the church.
  • The Bible is an inerrant, inspired text that should be literally interpreted and explicitly obeyed.
  • The husband is the head of home.
  • The wife is to to submit to her husband.
  • The highest calling for a woman is to bear children and be a keeper of the home. Many IFB pastors discourage women from working outside the home and discourage women from getting a college education. (unless they go to college to get an MRS degree)
  • The husband is the authority, the disciplinarian, and the king of the home. God holds him, like he did Adam, responsible for everything that goes on in the home.
  • The Bible sanctions using violence when children disobey. To not spank or whip them means the parent is not willing to obey the teachings of the Pastor and the Bible. The rod of correction is meant to be used to drive the wickedness out of a child’s heart.

Now none of these things, in and of themselves, necessarily lead to domestic abuse. However, add to this the IFB church preoccupation with sin and their portrayal of God as a violent deity who will whip them if they disobey, you have a recipe for not only domestic abuse but also child abuse.

I have watched more than a few IFB church members and pastors beat the hell out their children with a belt, switch, or paddle. I remember hearing of one parent who picked up a 2×4 and beat his two teenage girls with it. Why? They deliberately disobeyed him by riding the church bus home instead of going home with him.

I have admitted my own violent, abusive methods of correcting my three oldest children. (fortunately I abandoned these practices with my three youngest children) My oldest sons routinely got thrashed for disobeying their mother or I. I corrected them this way because I thought that is what God wanted me to do. The books I read said this was the proper way to discipline children, and every big name preacher I heard preach said I was doing right by my kids when I whipped them.

Is it any surprise then…with Bible-sanctioned violence against children and a violent God who uses violence to chastise disobedient IFB church members, that violent behavior spills over into the relationship between the husband and his submissive wife?

I can’t say that I know of very many instances where a husband physically beat his wife. It happened, but not very often. I know of a few pastor’s wives who were physically abused by their pastor husband. The pastor was the man of God in the pulpit, but at home he was a violent, disciplinarian who ruled over his wife and children with a rod of iron.

Most of the abuse I saw was more of the mental and emotional type. If the woman wasn’t submissive enough or didn’t put out sexually, she would hear about it. If she dared to have ambition, want to work outside the home, or go to college, she would be put in her place and reminded of God’s divine order for the home.

I have often said, I don’t know how ANY woman stays in the IFB church. Well, I do know. Women are afraid. They fear disobeying God, their husband, and their pastor. They fear God will chastise them if they dare step outside the role God has ordained for them.  And so they stay and suffer the abuse.

Again, theology plays a big part in this. Many IFB pastors think that there are no grounds for divorce or that there is only one ground for divorce, adultery. Having  a husband that is abusive, especially if it is emotional or mental abuse, is not grounds for divorce.

Let me give an illustration of how this is perpetuated from the pulpit:

Years ago the church I was pastoring joined together with other  IFB churches to hold a joint revival meeting. The speaker was Bill Rice III. (I am almost certain it was Bill Rice but it could have been Pete Rice) (associated with the Bill Rice Ranch) One night Bill Rice preached on  the subject of marriage and divorce. Rice did not believe there were any grounds for divorce. He said that even if a husband was beating on his wife, the wife should stay in the marriage. Perhaps she would win her husband to Jesus by her willingness to stay in the marriage. (and intimated that saved husbands don’t beat their wives)

By the time of this meeting my views had already begun to change and I pulled our church out of the meetings. I was incensed that Rice was advocating a woman endure her husband beating on her, implying that God wanted her to do so.

As my wife and I moved beyond the IFB church movement, we had to relearn what it meant to have a healthy marital and family relationship. Ultimately, it took getting away from Christianity altogether for us to find wholeness.

I am not suggesting that every husband in the IFB church movement is abusive or that every father abuses his children when he disciplines them. I am suggesting that IFB theology encourages manipulation, violence and abuse, especially of the mental and emotional variety.

Personally, I don’t think the IFB church movement is good for anyone. The extreme Fundamentalism found in the movement is emotionally and mentally harmful and people are better off finding other Christians sects to be a part of; sects that don’t view women as being inferior and don’t see children as chattel. I am of the opinion that the best thing that can happen is the IFB church movement dies a quick death. (It is dying but it is dying slowly. I am all for smothering the movement in its bed)

Over the years, I have watched a number of women break free from domestic violence. They decided their own personal self-worth and happiness was more important than obedience to God, the Bible, the pastor, and their husband. Most often, gaining their freedom required them divorcing their husband.

Let me head off someone who might suggest that the reason there is domestic abuse and child abuse in the IFB church movement is because they misinterpret the Bible, I don’t think this is the case at all.

I think they are being consistent with their beliefs and they accept the Bible as written. After all, the Bible does command a father to beat his children with a rod. The Bible does command the wife to be submissive to her husband and to be a keeper of the home. And let’s face it, the Bible is a written record of the violence God pours out and will yet pour out on all those who do not worship or obey him.

The good news is, many Christians ignore or explain away vast parts of the Bible. They know beating kids is wrong. They know demanding a wife submit to her husband and only aspire to be a keeper of the home and having children is demeaning . They wisely reject such things.

Do you have a story to tell about domestic violence? What did you experience growing up in the IFB church? What went on in your IFB home when the doors were closed? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

(Editor’s note: If you’re suffering from domestic violence there is help. Just a few options are Ending Violent Encounters (EVE) and most communities have local domestic violence resources like EVE or SAFE available to anyone in an abusive situation. For international help please visit HelpGuide.org)

Comments open below

Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network member, Bruce Gerencser blogs at The Way Forward.

Bruce Gerencser spent 25 years pastoring Independent Fundamental Baptist, Southern Baptist, and Christian Union churches in Ohio, Michigan, and Texas. Bruce attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. He is a writer and operates The Way Forward blog. Bruce lives in NW Ohio with his wife of 32 years. They have 6 children, and five grandchildren.

NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce

 

About Suzanne Calulu
  • texcee

    I grew up in a Southern Baptist home and church, but from what I experienced, that’s not far off from IFB. Discipline at home was routinely administered by a belt or (if my dad was really angry) with a razor strap. I was on the receiving end of a good bit of that wrath. Unfortunately, I was born with a stubborn, rebellious streak that kept my parents and me at constant odds. We were in church every time the doors opened and I was roundly considered by my peers to be a religious freak because of it, which pretty much made me an outsider all during school. I really, really tried to be a good Christian but one of the things that grated on my self-esteem was the subordinate position of women in the church. Another thing was how contradictory I was finding what I was being taught in church as opposed to what I actually read in the Bible and my own studies. I felt betrayed and finally just stopped attending at all, much to my mother’s horror. To her, I had rejected Jesus and was therefore going to hell. I couldn’t convince her that what I had rejected was the hypocritical religion I’d been surrounded with my entire life. I have self-identified as an agnostic for the past 20+ years, sometimes straying over the line into atheism. I’m not ready to say there isn’t a god, but I’m pretty sure he/she/it is not the homocidal maniac presented in the Old Testament.

  • Shiloruh

    Briefly, My father isnt an IFB minister, he is an Episcopal priest. Episcopalians are considered mostly on the liberal end of Christianity. Even so, my father was a drunk, sociopathic, sadistic terror at home and a charismatic influential priest at work. He seduced women and girls of the church under the guise of counseling. He beat my mother and when she left he turned on all of us girl children, until one by one we all left home, too early and unprotected. All in all a disaster.
    He has since retired but still acts as a priest once in a while, as visiting minister at different congragations.
    I am ok these days, and left all religion behind long ago, but not before exploring many different flavors of God, gods and goddesses. I just wanted to point out that while I do believe fundementalism is particulalry problematic, all postions of “spiritual power” attract evil do-ers.
    May all find peace.

  • ssohara

    I totally respect your views and I appreciate your post.

    My personal viewpoint – I became a Christian when I was 20. I believe the Bible is the word of God, but I also believe you need the Spirit to understand and interpret it, and that each person is responsible for doing that for him or herself. The whole point of faith is to have a personal relationship with God. So I don’t consider myself religious, I consider myself a person of faith. I know God loves me and wants the best for me, and I know He delights in me. I want that personal relationship with Him.

    I interpret many passages differently than fundamentalists, probably because my parents were Hindu and I studied a lot of different religions before I became a Christian. So, for example, where it talks about wives submitting to husbands – right above that passage, in Ephesians, it talks about all Christians submitting to each other. So I assume that just like we all submit to each other, so wives also submit to their husbands, and husbands submit to their wives, but in addition, husbands are called on to actively love their wives. I personally think that men are physically stronger in general, and so they use their physical strength for the benefit of their loved ones. Women are emotionally stronger, and use their greater emotional strength and flexibility for the benefit of their loved ones. In each case, we’re supposed to take care of each other.

    The way all this works out in an actual marriage – it will be different from couple to couple. For some couples, a “traditional” marriage is what works. For others, it won’t. Each couple has to figure it out for themselves, and there is a real problem with outsiders butting in and saying “it has to be this way” – what works for you may not work for anyone else! Aside from things like learning how to listen to your spouse and communicate, or how each person needs to be less selfish, etc. But specific stuff like “he manages the finances” or “she does laundry” – what if she’s better at managing the money and he is better with the kids or housework?

    Christ also talks about how we should love God with all our hearts, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Well, we can’t love someone else unless we learn to love ourselves. Part of that is also creating healthy boundaries. I used to think loving someone meant being involved. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized sometimes the best way you can love someone is to leave them alone!

    Christ also talks about, when he visits Mary and Martha, Mary chose the better route when she sat at his feet (like a disciple, a spiritual student) vs. being like Martha, a housewife. Yet the patriarchy doesn’t talk about that, do they? they seem to pick and choose…

    Anyway, my relationship with God is precious to me. This is probably considered a blasphemy among fundies, but I think of God as being both male and female. It says that He created man and woman in His image – I think the Godhead encompasses all that is male AND female. I do tend to call God “Dad”, though. Christ is male, but I think the Spirit is female. I’ve read a few things that imply the Hebrew word for Spirit implies female, and it makes sense to me.
    I’m not trying to convert anyone, just sharing my views. I think it’s good to be able to honestly share without feeling any pressure that someone else has to agree.


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