Why Pastors Struggle With Confronting Domestic Violence

Why Pastors Struggle With Confronting Domestic Violence May 5, 2011


BIn response to my post, An Abused Wife Twice Betrayed, a truly disheartening number of women wrote in to relate their own stories of pastors who, in one way or another, advised them to stick with their abusive husbands: to be more submissive, a better sex partner, to pray more, etc.

So I started thinking about the weirdness of so many women having such similar stories, when I personally have never known a single pastor whose moral compass was so thoroughly tweaked that he actually thought it was in any way acceptable for a husband to abuse his wife. I’ve known a lot of pastors. And I have real difficulty believing that any one of them, tacitly or otherwise, would ever condone domestic violence.

And yet here were all these women telling me that’s pretty exactly what happened with their pastor. And I know those women were not lying, or somehow mistaken about what had happened to them. When a person is writing the real raw truth of their lives, their words take on a simple, clarion integrity that even the most accomplished fiction writers struggle to convincingly fake. There could be no doubting the veracity of these women’s stories. Their pastors really had pooh-poohed their fears and concerns, and, Bible in hand, had essentially pushed them back into the swinging arms of their abusive husbands.

Which could only mean that the pastors whom I couldn’t imagine doing such a terrible thing—or at least pastors very much like them—had, in fact, done that terrible thing.

But how? How could these good, loving, well-intentioned men give advice that’s so manifestly, egregiously, cruelly wrong?

And that’s what led me to thinking of the following six reasons they might:

1. Domestic violence is fundamentally unbelievable. Like all true evil, domestic violence is basically incomprehensible. Most people find it simply inconceivable that any man would systematically victimize his own wife and children. The monstrousness of it renders it unimaginable. So I think it’s easy for pastors to, in fact, fail to imagine it. When faced with a woman saying that her husband is abusing her, pastors must sometimes immediately and even instinctively assume that in some fundamental way the woman must be mistaken. He assumes that her perception is suspect; that she’s exaggerating; misunderstanding; rushing to unsupportable conclusions; too upset; too emotional. He hears a woman complaining that her husband is abusing her as he would the same woman complaining that a Sasquatch keeps eating her roses. It’s just sort of … not possible. Must be an ape that escaped from the zoo. Must be a bipedal deer wearing a faux-fur coat. Must be a bear desperate for sweet-smelling breath. Must be anything but a Sasquatch. Nothing else makes sense.

2. Wife abusers are masterful manipulators. I’ve known guys whom I knew were beating their wives, and while I was talking with them I could not for the life of me see it in them. Guys who abuse their wives and children are typically the friendliest, most sincere, open, warm, kind, generous, good-natured people you’d ever want filling your hat with horse crap when you’re not looking. Next to a wife abuser, the most successful car salesman in the world is a groveling blubberer in a confessional booth. Wife abusers are sociopaths. They could talk the stink off a skunk. And guess who’s at the top of the list of people the abuser is determined to fool? Exactly: The family pastor. Who is very much inclined to love and trust people. Most pastors don’t stand a chance against a perpetrator of domestic violence.

3. Pastors think spousal abuse only happens in certain kinds of families. Most people still have the idea that spousal abuse only or primarily happens in certain types of families—in poor families, mainly: in the kinds of families whose members have no particular reason to care one way or another what anyone thinks of them. This stigma has stuck. I used to know a handsome, extremely successful lawyer who regularly beat his beautiful, extremely successful lawyer wife. (He struck her on her back and stomach, where the bruises wouldn’t show.) When she finally began telling others of her suffering, most responded like she was the Queen of England complaining about the blinds in one of the palace sun rooms: a concern, perhaps, but not exactly a crisis. It just didn’t make sense to people that a couple so rich, good-looking, and successful could be involved in the sort of dreadful behavior that most of us have no trouble whatsoever associating with poor white trash. And pastors are just as susceptible as the rest of us are to the unfortunate assumptions of classicism.

4. Pastors haven’t thought enough about the gray area between “submit” and abuse. A lot of pastors hold to the traditional Biblical definition of the proper relation between a husband and wife. (Which would be defined by Paul, at Ephesians 5:22: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”) But I hardly think that from that pastors typically extrapolate that it’s acceptable for husbands to abuse their wives. Most pastors know that the rest of that passage from Ephesians enjoins husbands to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her … .” I think it’s safe to say that pastors get that it’s wrong for a husband to beat or otherwise abuse his wife and kids. But I also think that not enough pastors have spent the time their positions dictate they should thinking about the broad, fuzzy line between biblical submission and repugnant victimization. You start throwing around words like “authority” and “submission,” and you’ve put yourself on one slippery slope straight toward one demoralizing place. Pastors need to face and acknowledge that. They need to take case-by-case responsibility for drawing a clear demarcation line between the kind of “submission” they and the church has traditionally understood as healthy, and the kind of submission everyone knows is unhealthy. In Ephesians, Paul is delineating a principle. Principles divorced from thoughtful, practical application almost necessarily harden into tired, toxic dogma.

5. Pastors believe what they preach. Pastors believe in the power of Christ to heal, to bring new life, to reclaim, to save, to resurrect. They believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to correct and ennoble. They believe in the efficacy of prayer. They believe that through the community of church God radically and permanently transforms people’s lives. They believe in the enduring, righteous strength of marriage and family. A pastor faced with a woman saying she’s being abused at home is about as inclined to advise that woman to leave her husband as a brain surgeon is to advise someone diagnosed with a brain tumor to seek out the healing powers of a shaman. Pastors don’t advise divorce; they don’t recommend the shattering of a family unit. They believe not in dissolution, but resolution. By virtue of their vocation, pastors believe that if a husband and wife will only remain in union, keep attending church, and continue to bring their strife to God, all will be well between them. A pastor advising an abused woman to just stick it out with her husband is actually being quite sweet. He’s also being really stupid and harmful. But it’s sweet, insofar as his advice reflects his love, hope, and belief in God.

6. Pastors simply aren’t trained about domestic violence. A pastor faced with a domestic violence problem is like a football player faced with a curling stone: he kind of knows what to do with it, but not really. What do pastors know about domestic violence? They’re not taught about it in seminary; the subject never comes up at their conferences, retreats, or seminars. Domestic violence is simply not a subject present on the big pastoral radar. So just as a football player told to do something with a curling stone might try to punt, hike, or … well, pass the stone, so a clergyman faced with a domestic violence problem is likely to counsel patience, forbearance, and the discernment of the will of God. Each man is just doing what he knows. And in so doing each, of course, creates pain.

It’s not enough for us to simply desire that our pastors do a better job of handling issues of domestic violence. We must also help them to obtain the training necessary for doing so.


I’m in the final stages of finishing a novel. If you’d like to be kept up on what’s happening with that, sign up for my newsletter. The only thing I’ll use your email address for is to let you know about that novel. Thanks.

I’m the author of Seven Reasons Women Stay in Abusive Relationships, and How to Defeat Each One of Them, which has become a resource utilized by domestic violence centers and counselors across the country.

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  • John, this is a marvelous entry — I especially like your explanation in Item 4, and think your last sentence there is freaking awesome. Item five is also heartbreakingly accurate. My only caveat would be found in this sentence:

    “Guys who abuse their wives and children are always the friendliest, most sincere, open, warm, kind, generous, good-natured people you’d ever want filling your hat with horse crap when you’re not looking,”

    The use of “always” in the foregoing brings to mind that if the abuser is uneducated, hateful, and generally unliked that it’s impossible the abuse was as bad as the wife says it was, because if it were she would have just left already dagnabbit. Because believe me, from the outside looking in, that’s all any logical, reasonable person could think. Abusers aren’t logical though, and their victims aren’t exactly riding that train either.

    I speak from a position of experience there.

    Abusers can be anyone, including outright jerks. It’s harder for the jerky ones to hide, granted, but in a way it makes it worse. My ex eventually treated me so poorly in public that people thought it must be better in private, otherwise why would an intelligent, educated young woman with a supportive family stay with the lout?

    These are the questions I’m still asking myself.

    But yeah… the “always” in that one sentence might be better off as “can be”? Sorry for the presumptuousness. It just… bugs.

    Hushing up now. And thank you for all you do an say on this topic.

  • John, I love this post. I have always had a problem with pastors talking about and giving advice on things which they just don’t know how to handle. Issues like domestic violence and divorce I think being the biggest two issues.

    My aunt and uncle were going through a pretty rough time after my aunt miscarried their child. And, at first they attending marriage counseling with the pastors of our church. After a few months, the pastor began changing his mind, saying that the best thing for my uncle’s career in the church would be to divorce my aunt. A week after finalizing the divorce, they promoted him.

    Now, this is usually backwards from what most pastors say in cases of divorce. Most pastors say pray on it and stay together. But the point is, as you’ve already really pointed out, is that pastors should not give advice in situations that require a trained professional.

    Thanks again for this post, John.

  • My ex-husband and I had a wonderful pastor. He was young, on fire for the Lord, and I’d like to believe honestly thought this wasn’t happening in his congregation. I remember him preaching one Sunday on divorce and remarriage – you know, under what circumstances it is acceptable. I perked up to listen intently to what he had to say. I even took notes. But I didn’t need them. I can tell you verbatim what he said. Pacing back and forth on the platform he spoke about how it was not preferred, but acceptable to divorce for adultery and in the case of abandonment by an unbeliever. Then he put both hands on either side of the pulpit, leaned in and smiled and said, “In cases of abuse it is acceptable to separate, and sometimes even divorce, but sorry ladies, no remarriage. You will have to decide that being alone is better than being abused.” My heart sank. I knew this was what he would say. And it’s why I didn’t go to him when I decided that I had to leave. He didn’t offer up any alternative solutions. He didn’t say what help would be offered. Just that I was stuck. Be alone or be in an abusive marriage. My husband was a deacon at the church, which didn’t help matters either.

  • Yeah. So … let’s see. I’ll put in “typically.” “Can be” would, I’m afraid, necessitate a pretty wholesale reworking of that graph, for which I’m afraid just now I haven’t time. But I do like “typically” very much, and appreciate you suggesting a proper change along those lines.

  • I like” typically” — it is true to the original intent, but leaves a bit of wiggle-room. Perfect.

  • I heard a pastor say much the same thing years ago. I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now, but it breaks my heart that as you were going through such a horrible situation you also had to be pigeonholed by someone you wanted to trust.

    So glad you got out.

  • Thank you. But I bought it hook, line and sinker. It was only when it got the point where I had to decide between my sanity and my marriage that I decided that God would just have to forgive me because I couldn’t take it anymore.

    The thing is I really don’t believe the pastor meant to cause harm. I think he honestly was naive enough to think that sort of thing wasn’t happening in his church. After I left my husband he didn’t contact me. Though I did find out later that after my husband asked me not to go to our church because of the embarrassment, he went and implied at the very least that I was having an affair. Only one deacon from our church ever asked me about it. Everyone else tried to pretend it wasn’t happening.

  • Idon’tknow

    Once again, your post hits it on the head. I can’t begin to tell you what my experience has been like for 20 years. Since meeting other victim-survivors, I have been appalled at what they were told as well. Since I have been active in church life, I know many pastors – and like you, there are many whom I love, trust and respect. It has come as a shock that when it comes to domestic violence, very few are trained but most think they can handle it.

    I desperately sought help for many years. I tried very hard to find the balance between being private about marriage matters and at the same time try to get Godly counsel over seemingly impossible situations. After a while, I accepted that there was no answer. Except that didn’t solve anything – things got worse as the kids began to grow up. It was one thing to put up with it myself; it was another when kids started getting physically and emotionally hurt. I only found out that we were high risk when God graciously allowed us to come across a secular service.

    In my naivety, I began to educate friends and pastors because I wanted their support to leave the relationship. It is like hitting your head against a brick wall. He has been able to freely slander me and hoodwink many people, effectively isolating me and continuing to intimidate and bully me through other means. So there’s another reason why women don’t leave. Because when they leave, they don’t get support. And they can’t survive without support.

  • Suz

    Amazing, as usual. You and Cat really got to the heart of it.

  • Karen

    As always, you hit the nail dead center. Thanks John for your insightful thoughts on the subject. I too have experienced the same response from my pastor when I was still married to my abusing ex-husband – that I should submit to him, be a better Christian, strive to please him more, etc. He even sent me to a Chirstian counselor who made me feel so unworthy and unloved because I brought the ‘sin’ upon myself that I almost committed suicide. I felt I had to make a decision between my church and my life and the lives of my children and I chose life. It took a long time to heal from the whole mess and was still very very angry with God until about 4 years ago. (My abusive marraige took place in the early 80s) I still do not trust the church, religion, and the people who run the establishments, but I have regained my faith and the belief in the teachings of Jesus.

    Interestingly, your comment describing how nice and friendly the abuser is sounds just like my ex-husband. Nobody could believe that he could do the things he did. He was also a smooth, fast talker that could, as you said, talk the stink off of a skunk. And he used religion to back up his reasons for abuse. He could toss around Bible verses to back up his claims quicker than anything. I have to thank him now, because I learned the Bible inside and out in order to protect myself from his Verse-tossing excuses. (Ephesians 5:22 was his favorite verse to throw at me when I wasn’t ‘behaving’ so I was quite please to learn about the rest about how husbands should treat their wives.)

    Anyhow, Thanks again John!

  • When I left my abusing spouse I was told essentially the same thing. Oh I could separate they said, if there was there any chance of reconciliation, we can offer marriage counseling, they said; but they also essentially said “unless he cheated on you with another woman, the church stand is that you are not eligible for remarriage.”

    My ex is a very personable guy, he is immediately liked by all he meets. He’s quite good and successful at his current occupation. It’s at personal relationships he fails miserably at.

    John and Cat are right, pastors are often woefully inept at dealing with such matters. I had another, who was attempting to offer marriage counseling look me dead in the eye and tell me, that to help solve my husband’s problems then I needed to be more sexually available. I looked at him like he had three gigantic talking warts growing out his nose, and refused to take that advice.

    Thanks again John, Cat and everyone for refusing to let this issue die. I believe that an important way to end domestic violence is to continue to do what you guys are doing right now.

  • Mindy

    As per usual, you have done a great job of parsing it out. Except I have to throw in what I hope is the exception that makes the rule, because the abuser in my life *was* a pastor. And I do believe a woman a few years ago made national headlines when she killed her “perfect” preacher husband and ran off with their little girls, right, because she couldn’t take one more day of the abuse?

    I have no doubt that *most* pastors, including the ones you know, are outstanding, kind and compassionate people who would never intentionally endanger any congregant or parishioner, woman or not.

    But they are out there, the ones who really do believe women are “less than.” Who believe that women were put on earth to serve men, and to take whatever punishment her particular man believes she deserves, as well as be the receptacle into which he is to pour all his anger, stress and dysfunction. It is her place. Because he goes out and supports the family, she must take whatever he dishes out. She is being paid, in essence, to do so.

    I hate to sound like a cynical crank on this, but I’ve seen it, LIVED it. And it gets rationalized ten ways to Sunday, but never called what it really is, which is criminal assault and battery. So while the good ones hopefully, eventually, receive more education on this aspect of the lives of their flocks, I hope the other ones, the dangerous ones, are found out and removed from their positions of any kind of power.

  • dani

    Love this article as well as your others.

    I would say all points are valid, but I think most of the time it’s #2. You are correct in writing that most abusers are sociopaths. Leaving and getting help is the hardest thing in the world to get through, let alone when your abuser has your pastor, friends and sometimes family conned that it’s you that is the crazy one. Try leaving, doing the most terrifying thing you have ever had to do in your life without your church, friends or family supporting you. On top of that, many abuse victims live with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. No wonder so many women don’t make it out.

    Then, once you finally get out, you have to deal with the court system. These manipulators go on to con judges, Guardian Ad Litems, attorneys. This is when it really becomes dangerous. All you have to do is pick up the paper to read the horror stories of abusers who get visitation and sometimes even custody. Most abusers see the wife they once controlled as a now “enemy”. They will do anything to maintain that control. They will do anything to win the “war” that is created in their minds. And, it’s amazing to me how many women I have spoken to that have the same experience with the court system. We are told to not even use the word “abuse”. That judges don’t “like” that word. Even if your abuse is documented and/or you have obtained a protective order.

    I guess I have gone off topic, but my point is that there is nothing more dangerous than the manipulation that these abusers use.

  • SugarMags

    Oh. Yes. True. Every word.

    I would like to add that emotional abuse is just as real as physical abuse….in some ways more complicated because there are no visible bruises. I used to pray for a black eye. I even got in his face a couple times and tried to provoke him. It never worked. So in HIS mind, he was strong enough to not do it. In HIS mind, he never crossed “that line” so he was still okay. Besides, he SAID he was sorry. Over and over….and over…..and over…..

    My pastors admitted that they didn’t know how to handle our situation. They promised to pray a lot. They believed me, but they were entirely focused on reconciliation as the goal. They chose to ignore the 18 year history of “repent, repeat”. They also told me that I should not seek help from professionals, because they would lack a biblical view of marriage. They told me that the experienced professionals will all tell me that “he can’t change” because they don’t know the power of God….and to be very cautious with even “Christian” counselors, because many who hang that shingle aren’t giving truly “biblical” counsel.

    They were clueless, they admitted it, while they also told me there was no other avenue of help I could trust. I still wonder that I had the kahunas to get myself safe after all that. I guess that’s the real evidence of the power of God. In me.

  • Domestic abuse IS biblical grounds for divorce. Look at my book and see how I’ve demonstrated it from the scriptures using 1 Cor. 7:15, and how remarriage IS allowed for the victim-survivor.

    Also, “God Hates Divorce” is an untenable slogan that’s been based on a mistranslation of Malachi 2:16

    To learn more check out http://www.notunderbondage.com

    Sorry, John, if I seem to be pushing my site here, but I just want to help set victims free from false guilt and bondage.

  • Barbara,

    I read your book and want to thank you for your work in this field. I’m sorry you had to endure abuse to produce it. I was/am involved in a church that doesn’t apply church discipline the way you describe in your book. I’ve been there 20 years and have yet to see anyone disciplined other than asking one to resign as a deacon who was convicted of embezzlement at the financial institution where he was the president. It is my experience, because I did go to the pastor of another church, that a lot of pastors are ill equipped to deal with domestic abuse.

  • Hope

    Barbara, You are spot on.

    I have had the privilege of having great men of God as pastors. I have looked to them and submitted myself to serving under their ministry. There was no reason why I would not have trusted their counsel with my issues in marriage. To their credit, they tried. But they lacked insight and lacked insight that they lacked insight. Eventually, God shouted in my ear and I left the craziness.

    They are still being manipulated by him. They are still trying to help me, but being neutral and “not taking sides” doesn’t help. Either of us. He is still free to commit violence; I am still without support.

    After experiencing this crisis in my church life, I have come to the conclusion that not only are pastors easily manipulated by abusers so that they don’t SEE domestic violence when it is staring them in the face, once they do see it, they are afraid of opening up a can of worms. If they begin to “get it” about domestic violence, they will recognize it in many families. Some of these families have people that are dominant in the life of the church. They may be big givers, or key lay leaders, or fulltime staff or members of the church board. What DO you do when you open that can of worms?

  • Sheri

    Trying to find words to convey my thoughts…and this says it best!

    Having lived it I found such difficulty trying to understand why my pastor and his staff could be so “cold” and for so long, with so many attempt to understand. Your well thought out points are the only thing that makes any sense.

    Thank you…this is a healing balm.

  • this is good. I’m gonna add this to the post.

  • Jeannie

    I am still kinda dealing with this one. There’s a part of me that thinks in spite of years of abuse, that he didn’t actually have sex with another woman so I have no Biblical grounds for divorce. Even when I “cheat” a little and say, well, he did look at porn all the time and occasionally naked women in strip joints and bars, I know I am “cheating”.

    At a deep level my lingering fundamental conscience will not allow me to even think about dating, so I guess that means I am alone from now on. At least until I can sort this out. I don’t really care right now. I am up to my eyeballs with responsibilities as as single mom and my health isn’t very good right now. And, to be honest, I don’t think I am brave enough to take up with another guy.

  • Laurie

    Glad you referenced Lundy Bancroft. When my friend was going through a divorce I kept bugging her to read it. And she later told me that I was very annoying. She was at a Friend of the Court (FOC) mediation meeting where the male mediator had a copy of Bancoft sitting front and center on his desk. This counselor was the first person to calmly see through and rebut all of her exhusband’s smoke screens and blame shifts. She went right home and read the book and has promised me that she will never doubt me again when I suggest a book. Anyone involved with the topic of domestic abuse will have a lot of questions answered in Bancroft’s book “Why Does He Do That? Insides the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men”.

  • Ally

    #5 was the case with me. I went to visit a pastor behind my abusive husband’s back, because I was raised in the church (we did not attend). After two visits, I determined god was a ridiculous notion and that pastor was off his rocker. When I explained that my sexually and verbally abusive husband told me I must bear children with him or else he would make my life (more of) a living hell, the pastor insisted I must trust god to protect my future children, and that while I may leave my abuser if things got bad, I shouldn’t divorce him. That would be putting an end to the recovery of our sacred marriage. It went on and on like this. I looked him in the eye and said very plainly, “I would rather suffer an eternity in hell than submit my children to an abuser like this man. If divorce is the unforgivable sin, so be it.” And I walked out of his office.

    Often times I think they don’t know how to separate out what is the most important law to follow (love others like yourself) vs. what are laws that at times have to be broken in order to exist.

  • Strong


    You are right on target with your comment that domestic violence is really “criminal assault and battery”. It is! If an abuser beat another woman the way he beat his wife, he’d immediately be arrested and scorned by society. But, beat your wife, and somehow it’s her fault.

  • Lore

    He didn’t have sex with another woman *that you know of.*

  • Strong

    John, you continually amaze me with your insight and candor. I am so blessed that God led me to your blog months ago. I was trying to see how Christianity, divorce and abuse were going to blend. I had read so much, but nothing good, until I found your “7 Reasons Women Stay in Abusive Relationships”. I finally had an ally – with a Christian perspective, yet!

    My issues have not been so much with my pastors, but with the church members in general. They want to stay in contact with my abuser, to “help him because he is lost.” I have seen people bend over backwards to help him (while he manipulates them) and not care one bit about my daughter or me. I see that as perpetrating, condoning and enabling evil.

    I had a church member (an Elder, no less) who had been a close friend of my husband and me, come up to me at a public event a few weeks after I had left my husband. He said, “I have a question for you and your daughter.” He then looked at my daughter and me very seriously and said, “Do you love your husband? Do you love your father?” I got in his face and explained what we had endured. That my daughter, though not physically hurt herself, had endured incredible emotional abuse and witnessed things no child should have to see. Then I explained that he had beaten me throughout our 30+ years together. His reply: “So. My dad beat my mom. At 5 years old I would call my grandmother because my dad was beating my mom. My dad was an alcoholic and would beat her when he was drunk.”

    My reply: “I WISH I could blame my beatings on alcohol, but, I can’t! My beatings came from a man who professed to be a Christian!”

    It was at that moment I realized how insignificant a woman’s life is to some men. And how they would rather “save face” by not allowing the community to know that that kind of evil exists in their congregation.

    When I read your “7 Reasons” I loved the part “It’s wonderful to know who your friends are.” It’s true. I have cut many fake people from my world.

    I had another Elder say, “It is just so unbelievable. We just never witnessed it, so it’s hard for us to process it.” This goes with your #1 reason.

    Regarding your #2 reason: Abusers love the spin. Mine told Elders that he “shouldn’t have done it…but here’s why I did it.” And these Elders still are part of his life! Yet, they never contacted me or my daughter to make sure we were ok.

    My pastor actually asked me what I wanted the church to do. I told him that because I had the restraining order against my husband that he should not be allowed back on church property. He said, “Done.” Unfortunately, that was ALL the pastor did for me or my daughter. He wasn’t concerned if we were safe, or had food, or shelter. (Non-Christians took my daughter and me in when my husband got out of jail. Only one church member (after we were safe) offered to take us in. The church family knew we were destitute, too. That was most shocking to me, the lack of care and support from people I had nurtured, fed and always been there for.

    I sought counsel from a good friend who is a pastor in another area but also in my denomination. He was wonderful. He said he takes each case on its own merits. He looks at each couple as individuals and if, spiritually, they would be better off without the other, then he recommends divorce. He told me, “Divorce and remarriage is not the unpardonable sin.” Absolutely the most comforting words I heard in the first days after leaving my husband.

    I finally have been declared divorced without any input from him. He thought he could ignore it and it wouldn’t happen. Wrong. I did it without him. And it felt great! Now, I am preparing to leave the only place I have ever lived. I will finish my BA, get a teaching credential and start MY life. I have never been so empowered.

    Thank you and Cat for caring about us when those who should care won’t.

  • Anny R

    Great insight! I wished you had mentioned another type of abuse: financial control, silent treatment (passive-aggressive), the “look” to have everyone abide by their rules, put-downs and name calling etc…. Being ignored for days or weeks on end is as damaging as being spat at or shoved and pushed. I have sat 2 years in Family Violence Programs (secular) and while I am always into restoration, forgiveness, love and hope, I have learned that people die emotionally and perhaps physically when submitted to this damaging treatment. Older couples lose their appetite for life for that very reason quite often, because they do not separate! I am weighing the options for the past 5 years myself as the pain staying is worse than the pain leaving.

    You have also left out another category of abusive people: many pastors themselves are rude to their spouses and treat their kids worse – especially if they rebel against their values!

    Thanks for taking a stand. It is spot on and much needed to be exposed. Only by exposing problems will solutions be found!

  • Don Rappe

    A lot of conflict of interest showing in this story. Leave the church out and it sounds like an employer advising an employee to divorce.

  • Don Rappe

    There is a lot of conflict of interest showing in this story. Leave the church out and it sounds like an employer advising an employee to divorce.

  • Don Rappe

    mea culpa, technical problem I guess.

  • Don Rappe

    I have a hunch clergy are as likely as lawyers or others to be abusers.

  • Don Rappe

    This is a good example of the omnipotence of God. I believe in fleeing from ministers and churches who recommend against getting professional advice. This is one way to sort out the false prophets.

  • Don Rappe

    Two Bible verses I would like clergy to meditate on:

    “For freedom, Christ has made us free,”

    “The written code kills, but the spirit gives life.”

  • DR

    I am brought to tears by the comments from the amazing women who’ve found their way through these scenarios. The validation we often need from a man – and the church – are two of the most powerful forces available to us as women. That some of you fought against those two dependencies that actually so often validate who we are at our core, stood against them and walked away from them? It’s amazing. I’ve done some of that work on my own but nothing to this degree.

    A wise friend once told me, simply: “Let this resurfacing strength rise within you.” Let it rise, amazing women. Thank you for showing us who God truly intended to make when He designed “woman”.

  • Yes, most churches don’t practice biblical discipline properly especially when it comes to domestic abuse. It’s atrocious how badly they get it wrong at times. I was truly fortunate, after leaving the church where my ex was still in good standing, to find a church which did get it right.

    In my book I advise the use of bibical discipline to determine whether a so-called-Christian abuser should be treated as an unbeliever. Some people have commented that this is poor advice, because churches almost never employ biblical discipline correctly. However, I am constrained by what it says in the Bible. The Bible advises (commands?) us to use biblical discipline (Matt. 18:15-17). Can true Christians ignore this precept? More to the point, can churches ignore it? They should not. If they do, they risk the wrath of God.

    What should a victim of abuse do if the church she’s in fails to employ biblical discipline correctly against the perpetrator? The victim can seek other sources of wise counsel from wise Christians (if she can find them) who DO understand domestic abuse. Perhaps there is a Christian counsellor who ‘gets it’ about abuse. Perhaps there is another church that she can approach which can take some action, even if it’s only to make the formal decision that the church which maintains her abuser in good standing has done the wrong thing, and is so to speak a ‘non-church’ because it is not following the Bible.

    In practice, the most common outcome I hear is what you’ve experienced yourself: God shouts or whispers in the ear of the victim and she leaves the church and its craziness. If the perpetrator has won key allies in a church by getting them to take a neutral stance, the victim has very little hope of being fully believed.

    And yeah, it takes courageous leadership to really see domestic abuse and take a strong stand on behalf of all the victims, because it’ll be opening so many cans of worms.

    But where the church leaders lack insight, does the Bible tell us to hand the responsibility over to specialist (usually secular) professionals, and let the church leadership off the hook? No, I don’t believe so. The Church Universal needs to face this issue and grasp it with heart, mind and will. Anything short of that is falling short of following Christ, the champion of the unprotected and the vulnerable.

    Remember all those passages about looking after the fatherless and the widows? ‘Widow’ in Gk and Hebrew means ‘woman bereft of a husband’. Any woman without a husband protecting her and caring for her. So DV victims are widows by this definition.

  • Ninetailedfox

    I guess I will frequent HuffPo less and less. Let’s just say they arent as liberal as they claim to be. Well, John Shore, theres a great book I read years ago, back when I was exploring, its called Ten Things I learned wrong from a Conservative Church, by John Killinger.

    I think that you are starting to see why more and more people deconvert from christianity, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Emotional, Physical and mental abuse are all too common among churches, and im sure even home churches (the home church across the street is a born again type).

    I believe males and females are equals, one is not superior to another. I also believe animals and trees are important, which is another reason of several Im not christian.

    Theres a fellow that frequents your site, Adorable hero or Shadsie, hope you can convince him to email me?

  • Ninetailedfox

    If the truth shall set you free, why are you a slave to Jesus? Jesus SLaves!

  • Ninetailedfox

    I think that a lot of christian husbands think of their spouses as property, rather than equals, that is a part of the problem. When the church itself intervenes that just compounds the problems.

  • NS

    2– Huge. All I have to say is that until we come to a place where the victim’s voice is valued, we will not have justice.

    6– This is a problem. It is also fixable! Hooray, a problem that can be solved! There are plenty of training sessions, courses, classes and books available for pastors who want to support those who have been abused. And it is often only a matter of a couple of members saying “We’d like you to go to this training, we think it will help our community.” Compassionate leaders are willing to learn.

  • Sara

    Anny, you nailed it for me.

    We were the perfect couple, my pastor husband and our 2 children and me. Except that the emotional and spiritual abuse drove me to the brink of suicide and alienated me from our oldest child who has perpetuated the abuse.

    Financial control (check), passive-aggressive (check), verbal putdowns (check), insults, and worst of all encouraging our kids to insult me too …after 20 years of that, I firmly believed that I was worthless, and had no right to take up space here on earth. Literally on the brink of suicide – I had figured out how to do it so that the insurance would pay out for the kids – God sent me to online friends who nagged me into counseling. Horrors, SECULAR counseling!….we had already been to pastors who looked at me quizzically, “why aren’t you pleasing your husband?”

    Thank God for my friends who rescued me. They supported me through my recovery for the next 6 years as I gathered self-esteem and regained my health. When I filed for divorce, the men in choir ostrasized me, taking my husband’s part. I had the strength to call them on it openly and make them realize how unfair they were. My husband’s subsequent actions changed the tide and I was “forgiven”. He was spiraling into an internet porn addiction that eventually ruined him.

    After the divorce, I went to the men of the church, asking for a mentor for my 9 yr old son. No one answered my plea, until my gay friend stepped forward and took my son under his wing. He has sponsored and mentored my son for the past 9 yrs and done a marvelous job.

    Other gay friends provided moral and monetary support, medical care and just loved me as I found my way. No one in my church or birth family offered that level of help.

    Thankfully, my ex and I are on good terms now. He’s not a bad man, nor an evil one. We were both too young, and too misled by a conservative, fundamentalist patriarchal-based church. It was a recipe for disaster and I’m so grateful that we were able to grow past it.

  • DR

    Your comments are dismissive to Christianity as a whole and while it’s clear you have your story and you’re entitled to it? I find how you’re handling your criticism of John’s actual faith on his blog really disrespectful. I’m sure you’re not aware of it so I thought I’d bring it to your attention. Respect is really important when we’re discussing what people put their faith into – both yours and mine. Please consider being more respectful, I don’t care if you respect Jesus or the Bible or anything, really. But consider respecting the people here.

  • Meredith

    I’m a pastor. A woman. A person’s whose former vocation included working with victims of sexual assault, which is a big part of the reason I felt a call to ministry. Because I know how important it is to connect with a trustworthy pastor and how destructive poor pastoral care can be, I’ve connected with local SA victims services in my current community. So that’s my background for my thoughts.

    1. Domestic violence is fundamentally unbelievable. You’re being very kind and generous with this reason. Too much so. The truth is, any pastor who has been serving for more than a couple years has been with people in all sorts of pain. We are with people as they struggle with miscarriage, infertility, family dysfunction, estrangements, suicide, divorce, addictions, infidelity, embezzlement, abuse people suffered as children, bankruptcy, etc. While, yes, to have one spouse share that the other is abusing her (or occasionally him), is troubling, particularly if the pastor knows the other party and had not a clue, that had not a clue experience is not unusual. However, pastors, more than most, are keenly aware that everyone is carrying around pain, just because you can’t ‘see’ it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It most certainly is.

    2. Wife abusers are masterful manipulators. Good point. Though most pastors who’ve been in the vocation for a while has experienced master manipulators within the congregation, most likely having been ‘bitten’ in the process. We grow a bit less naive and a bit more savvy about questioning the appearance of perfection. Which isn’t to say we can’t be fooled.

    3. Pastors think spousal abuse only happens in certain kinds of families. Again, with what I shared in point 1, we accompany people in all kinds of pain in their lives. We know that these types of pain and brokenness no know economic boundaries.

    4. Pastors haven’t thought enough about the gray area between “submit” and abuse. I had a rather visceral reaction to this one. Because for a lot of pastors, including myself, the language of submission is nothing but cringe worthy.I don’t want to be divisive, but pastors that are into Ephesians 5:22 – or at least it’s first half, are usually from particular denominations.

    5. Pastors believe what they preach. Pastors believe in the power of Christ to heal, to bring new life, to reclaim, to save, to resurrect. They believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to correct and ennoble. They believe in the efficacy of prayer. They believe that through the community of church God radically and permanently transforms people’s lives. They believe in the enduring, righteous strength of marriage and family.

    This is all true, but that doesn’t mean that the rest follows. A truer parallel would be that if I have a parishioner with a brain tumor, I’ll pray for healing and tell them to work with the best surgeon they can find. Similarly, I’d pray for healing in an abusive relationship, though not in the sense of forgive and forget or as another poster tagged it, abuse/repent/return/repeat. I’d pray with her (or him, though I’ll keep using the feminine pronoun here on out) for healing because usually, no matter how broken a marriage is, an individual is in pain at the end of what she believed would be forever and ever, amen. But then I’d help get her the other professionals she’d need to be safe and to keep her children safe.

    While I’m never, “Whoo-hoo! Divorce! Yes!”, I also don’t think marriage trumps all. The verse that I lift up in such situations is John 10:10b – “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Abuse is not life giving, and it is not what Christ wants for anyone. Christ wants abundant life, graceful, joyful life.

    However, I know that you’re also right that there are pastors who with faithful hearts, particularly if the abusive partner is that master manipulator, who will encourage the abused to give him one more try.

    6. Pastors simply aren’t trained about domestic violence. This is very, very true. I happen to well trained – but that’s because my training came from my previous vocation. More training, sensitivity, and awareness is needed. Desperately. Until victims no longer have these experiences of being harmed a second time by those they should be able to trust to be the shepherd who will protect them, not offer them back to their abuser.

    But better training doesn’t fix or explain all of it. While I appreciate your desire to see the best in pastors and put the best face on it, in my opinion, there are a some who are misogynists and never should have been pastors at all.

    A couple other thoughts. In your post, there seems to be an assumption that pastors are men. Which I know you know isn’t true. I’m not sure if you think only male pastors are vulnerable to this kind of foolishness or if it’s the assumption that traditions where only men are allowed to be pastors are the ones where this is the biggest issue. I think there’s some truth in the latter. While I’m sure we’ve got some doozies for pastor, I do think that those denominations where women can’t be pastors, where women aren’t able to have the same voice as men because of how they interpret scripture, are far more likely to hold up and value scripture about wives submitting to husbands and therefor more likely to hold a marriage vow in greater regard than a woman’s right to live free of fear and abuse.

  • Diana A.

    I love this. Thank you for posting it.

  • SugarMags

    Yes, I know of a pastor who abused his wife also. Kept her up all night sometimes, harassing her. Spent the rest of his time on internet porn. The abused wife looked back, after leaving and marrying someone else who was also abusive, and thought maybe she should have stayed…maybe it wasn’t so bad. And on those grounds, that woman’s sister counseled me to stay with my abuser. Twisted.

  • SugarMags

    Me too. All of it.

  • SugarMags

    Barbara, I read your book. I have it. I recommend it highly. It is one of the only books out there that deals with this subject from a biblical standpoint, and it helped me to know that I was not wrong, not in sin (no more than I am any other time of day…), and not outside of God’s grace. It was especially helpful to see that even emotional abuse is still abuse. Another book I loved was by David Instone-Brewer. I can’t remember which title I read, but here’s a blog post about two of them: http://whenchristiansdivorce.com/book-reviews/every-pastor-should-read-this/ — Instone-Brewer uncovered the whole truth about the legal ramifications of the teachings of Paul about divorce, as they were understood by 1st century Christians, and how those meanings were lost in history. Fascinating. And he didn’t even “discover” this to prove a point…he uncovered it by coincidence when researching something else. Highly recommended.

  • SugarMags

    Jeannie, keep your heart open to God’s leading. If he got you out, maybe he does have a future planned for you that is peaceful and not alone. He led me to an amazing man, and I can’t be more grateful. Heal your body, heal your heart, and keep yourself open. You are FREE. That is what God wants for you, that is why he saved you! It took me a long time to get there, too. But I saw God’s fingerprints all over it, every step. Read the books recommended above, and you’ll see that most of the church is wrong in how they even interpret the biblical teachings about marriage and divorce. They have a good reason to be wrong, but that doesn’t make them right. God is full of far more grace than you realize. Hugs!!! 🙂

  • Don Rappe

    I agree with you. I thought John might be going kind of easy on the pastors, but, you have the standing to say so. And you are right, I think, to warn people against those churches where women are considered unfit to lead because they are women. This writes misogyny into dogma.

  • Don Rappe

    That is a little trollish, don’t you think?

  • Hope

    Yes, it’s amazing how twisted people’s logic can be. A good friend of mine tried to persuade me to stay, based on her friend’s experience. This friend had gone through abuse for 40 years, lost her kids to mental institutions due to the abuse, but didn’t leave out of loyalty and faithfulness to her husband. Her husband got cancer and a few weeks before he died, he apparently had a change of heart, and apologized to his wife. They spent the last few weeks of their lives enjoying each other’s company, something they would not have been able to do if she had left.

    I really didn’t know what to think when she told me that, except that she obviously thought that unless I also was committed to 40 years of abuse, I would miss out on my miracle!

  • I have no opinion about many posts but I do have some facts. I am a Roman Catholic with a wonderful male pastor with a heart for the poor and poor in spirit. He has allowed myself and some colleagues to begin a domestic violence ministry within our church and even paid for several members to go through ICDVP training at our local shelter. We are a bilingual parish and he supports some hispanic women in doing work in education and empowerment who are also local shelter staff.

    He himself has taken formation in this area with other DV priests and law enforcement. True Christians answer the call and God equips them. I think we should stopp complaining and educate the clergy as we must educate school staff and others who care for people rather than make blanket statements about shortfalls within religious institutions. That goes no where but in to darkness.

  • Hope

    There’s a difference between being a coerced slave to an oppressive master, and a bondslave to a great Lord. The latter is voluntary.

  • Kay

    “Wife abusers are masterful manipulators. I’ve known guys whom I knew were beating their wives, and while I was talking with them I could not for the life of me see it in them. Guys who abuse their wives and children are typically the friendliest, most sincere, open, warm, kind, generous, good-natured people you’d ever want filling your hat with horse crap when you’re not looking. Next to a wife abuser, the most successful car salesman in the world is a groveling blubberer in a confessional booth. Wife abusers are sociopaths. They could talk the stink off a skunk.”

    This sounds exactly like the guy I considered my best friend for several years. He seemed so gentle, kind, funny, open….I’d go to him for spiritual advice….He also told me so many stories about how his wife was abusing him and the children, but he stayed because he loved her and wanted to keep the family together and influence her to change through love etc. I believed him, and I still do, because I have witnessed her abuse, been subjected to it, and know somebody else who also was subjected to it. But I had no idea what he himself was capable of.

    A year ago, he choked his eldest daughter until she passed out. All he got was probation. I just found out about it recently, because his wife’s abuse was finally too much for me and I had to get away from that, so I hadn’t been in touch with him for months. I have to keep going over the details of the case again and again to get it through my head that yes, this guy I respected did indeed do this evil act. That is indeed his mugshot on the website of the local newspaper.

    And then I remember some things he’s told me over the years that support the fact that he is, indeed, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. That all along it was right in front of me that he was quite capable of physical violence, but I ignored it because he was just too cool, too good-natured, too spiritual, too religious. How could someone who could talk for hours about the Mysteries of the Orthodox Church–call me up one day and tell me he’s planning to assault the woman who just evicted his family? How could someone who kept giving in to his abusive wife to keep the peace, and claimed that respecting your wife meant letting her be right and get her way–tell me he’s in charge of his household and I should read in Ephesians about how I should submit to my husband? How could someone who greatly loved his children and wanted to protect them and was a great father–choke his daughter for not listening to him?

    None of it adds up until I think of him as a narcissist, capable of putting on a huge act that fools everyone–a narcissist married to a narcissist with a personality disorder, carrying on the misery to the next generation. And yet he presumed to tell me that my husband and I were spoiling our son, and give me marital and childrearing advice.

    I especially don’t want to hear about “submitting” after my own experiences with an abusive ex. He insisted that a wife is supposed to obey her husband. Whenever I hear how women should obey their husbands, it feels like some sort of rebuke of me for what this ex subjected me to. It wasn’t physical, but it was verbal and emotional, and at one point he did hint that it could turn physical one day.

    A friend of mine from college is now a pastor. Before going to seminary, he worked at a domestic violence shelter. So he does actually have experience dealing with this, so there’s good news there.

    As for my ex-friend, he wanted to be a priest (our denomination has married priests), which worried me because he shouldn’t be giving advice to others. But my priest tells me this will not happen with this choking incident on his record.

  • Kay

    Oh, yeah, I also found out that he beat up this poor girl once when she was little. He had mentioned a couple of times that he had “abused” the children before, but wasn’t doing that anymore. But I had no idea what he meant by “abused,” and well–his criminal conviction belies his claim that he no longer did it…..

  • There is a Apostle in Kaiserslautern, Germany – an American ex-GI that has a church in this city for the past 17 years. He has been married twice and divorced from each. This man is now embroiled in scandal of pastor abuse. He has used his role as a spiritual leader to sleep with many women. Can you elaborate on the possible causes.


  • Thank you for writing this. I have spoken to countless women who have shared their intimate stories of abuse with me, most of them Christians who approached their pastors for advice. Each story ended the same way. Either the pastor said, “stay and work it out” or didn’t acknowledge it as abuse. What is it going to take to get pastors and lay leaders to recognize that one in three women is abused and church leadership needs to do something about it. My journey will not end until they take a stand with us who want to remove the blindfold from women who are being abused and from those who don’t believe it is happening.

    Amanda, Founder & Ex. Director of The Little Black Dress Society

  • Allie

    This is a really smart article. I think most of it also applies to other kinds of abuse. Many good pastors also have problems dealing with child sexual abuse, both within the family and within the church, for many of the same reasons. I saw this with my foster daughter’s situation – her father was a bank president, a very handsome, upstanding, friendly person, in public. Surely his daughter was hysterical and making things up to cause trouble. The courts, the church, the rest of his relatives, and their neighbors continued to believe his version of the story even after she presented herself at an ER and his semen was found inside her. Can you imagine the trouble victims face when they don’t have such obvious physical evidence?

  • Man, that is awful.

  • BarbaraR

    I might add another reason: I don’t think most pastors have the cojones to actually counsel an abused spouse to leave the abuser because of potential fallout within the church. If it gets around – and it will – that a pastor actually suggested separation/divorce, the pastor will face a great upheaval from parishioners and probably their superiors for going counter to what they’ve been trained to believe.

  • Terri

    Some good things in here. I just have a hard time with the idea that they’re just doing what they know because they haven’t had the proper training. Complete jerks know it’s not right to abuse people. If someone can be a pastor and not realize that if they’re in a position to help halt abuse, they should do it, they should not be pastoring. Not abusing people is basic.

  • Callie Ge

    You hear it all the time, from friends, relatives, hospital staff, strangers, even counselors and clergy,” I DON’T WANT TO GET INVOLVED, It is none of my business” what they are really saying is,” I don’t want that crazy violent bastard setting his sights on me for interfering I might get hit.”
    That was my first port of call after the first time my husband beat the crap out of me,3 weeks after we got married, he wanted me to go to His family priest, I went to My Reverend, His first question , “Who hit you”, The black eye, split lip & bruises were obvious, I said My Husband, HE Said ,” well you Must have said something to make him angry” (yeah I did, I said NO to an outrageous order to do something I believed was wrong) anything else he may have said was drowned out by my heels clacking on the tiles as I left his office. We went to His family priest who wanted to book us in for twice a week Marriage counselling, Ok so I went and in 5 sessions not once did he mention the healing bruises on my face or the violence that had occurred. That was my last encounter with any organized religion.
    It took me 10 years to get out of my horrible violent marriage, my ex nearly killed me, Twice! even the police are no help, Imagine the person who has just beaten you within an inch of your life, is out of jail and back on the door step at 6.30 am the next morning, “His name is on the lease so he has just as much right to be there as you do, here is a stupid piece of paper that says he is not allowed to hit you anymore”, the last time was the last straw , I packed HIS bags and tossed him out on the street, (with my neighbors football playing BF and 4 of his friends to help)I had given up hope of it ever being any different, that was the catalyst and all his self serving tear & apologies, I told him to shove them up his arse. My ex stalked me for almost a year after we separated, in breach of his bail and protection a order, every time I called the police, “er we can’t do anything unless we catch him in the act” *pffttt. I had my husband charged with assault and battery 3 times during our marriage, he would stop hitting me while he was on good behaviour bonds because he did not want to go to jail. The Only good piece of advice I was ever given I did not take, When I was in the clerk of the courts office to sign some papers after the last assault case had been heard the police officer at the counter said to me, “If I was you, I would take my kids and disappear to another state” in hind sight , I should have taken that advice.