How churches support domestic violence, and what you can do about it

How churches support domestic violence, and what you can do about it May 4, 2015

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As I wrote about in my last post, “Bible-believing” Pastors and the Enabling of Domestic Violence (and have written about elsewhere*), the Christian church has a great deal to answer for when it comes to the perpetuation of domestic violence.

Why that’s true is no mystery. If you institutionalize the teaching that God has decreed that wives should submit to their husbands, then a lot of husbands are going to feel as if they have God’s authorization to beat their wives. And, believing it their duty to practice “sacrificial obedience” (not to mention because they don’t want to go to hell for being “rebellious” Christians), a lot of wives are going to silently suffer those beatings.

Complementarianism (the view that the “created order” of roles for men and women—men to be leaders, women to support them—complement each other, see) is a heinous notion. It’s an ornate sheath of a word hiding a sword made to cut women down; it’s brutish, ignorant, shamelessly sexist chauvinism disguised to look like reasonable Christian philosophy. A linchpin tenet of Catholicism** and many conservative Protestant Christian denominations (including, of course, the 46,000 church, 16 million-strong Southern Baptist Convention), complementarianism is a means for men to do what men have always done: use the Bible to get and keep all the power they can. (To learn more about the pernicious toxicity of complementarianism, see Rachel Held Evans’ exemplary work on this issue.)

(And, yes, as inevitably as a KKK leader will decry the idea that he’s a racist, defenders of complementarianism will protest that there’s nothing sexist or misogynistic about the idea that, as it’s put on the Basic Beliefs page of the Southern Baptist Convention’s website, “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.” Because who but a soft-headed, Bible-hating liberal would see that as a basis for the systematic oppression of women?)

To state the obvious: There is nothing whatsoever inherently wrong, misguided, or backwards with a husband working out of the house while his wife stays at home to raise their children. What is, however, terribly wrong is the idea that God has ordained that all husbands and wives should live that way. Choosing to be a housewife and mother is an honor. Having been inculcated to believe that you have no choice in the matter is a crime.

And yet the ruinous idea that God has predetermined for every female that she spend her life being an obedient wife and dutiful mother is one that millions of Christians are taught from the pulpit every Sunday. And if you don’t think that leads to churches coddling and protecting perpetrators of domestic violence while simultaneously heaping shame and scorn upon its victims, then you’re either excusably young or inexcusably thoughtless.

So what are we, Christians who outright reject the manifestly inane notion that women are inherently less qualified to lead home, church, and state, to do? How are we to address the appalling reality that in the name of our religion—our God, our Bible, our Jesus—young girls are daily and explicitly being taught that God wants them to be happy never aspiring to be anything different from “helpmeets” to their husbands—and that, if they ever fail to subserviently enough fulfill that role, they deserve to get beaten?

We must, after all, do something. Domestic violence is our problem. If someone who looks just like me is driving my car all around town and running people over with it, I personally (not to mention, of course, the people being run over) have a problem, whether I want it or not.

If you are a Christian, then you have a very clear moral obligation to make sure that your church is a place which, rather than ignore it, is helping to solve the problem of domestic violence.

And good news! There’s a way for you to do that!

Check out this treatment of scripture as it relates to the whole idea of complementarianism:

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 12.07.22 PM

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 12.08.21 PM

The above is from Restored, an international Christian alliance working to transform relationships and end violence against women. The organization puts out a splendid free publication called Ending Domestic Abuse: A Pack for Churches. You can download it here.

The pack includes this Charter for Churches, which, by displaying, “the local church will be making a public statement about its condemnation of domestic violence and its availability to offer information, care and support to those who are victims.”
churchdoc

A few stats that should motivate anyone to help end domestic violence:

  • Globally, women between the age of 15-44 are more likely to be maimed or die as a result of male violence than through cancer, malaria, traffic accidents or war combined. (UN 2007)
  • On average there will have been 35 assaults before a victim of domestic abuse calls the police. (Amnesty International)
  • Women who are victims of domestic violence are three times more likely to be injured when pregnant. (Refuge 2007)
  • The number of American troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2012 was 6,488. The number of American women who were murdered by current or ex male partners during that same time (according to the FBI) was 11,766.

Download Ending Domestic Abuse: A Pack for Churches. (And show Restored some love: their FB page is here; they Tweet at @Rest0red.) Make it, and the information it contains, an ongoing part of the life of your church. Share it with your pastor and your church’s small groups. Arrange for your church to hold classes or symposiums on the problem of domestic violence. Invite someone knowledgable on the matter to speak at your church. As a church, reach out to a local organization that aids victims of domestic violence; help your church to become part of their mission.

Do all of these things—and do them with double energy if you’re a man. We need men to speak up on this issue; we need men to come together and forthrightly insist that (as we have it in the fifth tenet of the What We Believe statement of Unfundamentalist Christians) God does not want any woman automatically “submitting” to her husband or to anyone else.

By empowering your church to become active in the fight to eradicate domestic violence, you may never know whom exactly among your congregants you’re helping or even saving. But you can bet your Bible it’s someone, and that it’s probably more than one person. At the very least you can be positive that you are greatly pleasing God by helping to undo the damage done to women in God’s name, by making sure that every person is safe, valued equally, and receiving the love and respect that is God’s true desire for each and every one of us.


Christian Leaders: For God’s Sake, Stop Empowering Wife Abusers;  An Abused Wife Twice Betrayed: Once by Her Husband and Again by Her Pastor;  Pastor: “He should have killed you. At least you’d have died a virgin.”; Why Pastors Struggle With Confronting Domestic Violence; and 6 truths about “forgiving” sexual abuse and forgiveness.

** In “Complementarity of Man and Women,” his opening address to the November 2014 Humanum Conference, Pope Francis strongly reaffirmed the tenet of complementarianism, calling it “the root of marriage and family,” and “not just a good thing, but also beautiful.” Read the full text of his speech.

If a loved one is hurting you, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7223)


I’m the author of 7 Reasons Women Stay in Abusive Relationships, and How to Defeat Each One of Them.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Michelle M

    John, thank you for calling a spade a spade.

  • You’re welcome. Thanks for the comment.

  • Lori Wells Mang

    When my best friend was about 16 her mother married a fundamentalist “Christian” who was a complete control freak. One morning about 5 months after they were married, he attacked her and nearly choked her to death. My mother, who was also a fundamentalist, told her to leave. Instead, my friends mother went to a “Christian” counselor who told her to stay. Fast forward 35 years later. This poor woman is now in her 70’s and living out in the middle of nowhere barricaded in a house by her husband who has convinced her that we are in the tribulation and that the government is out to kill them. She is not allowed out of the house EVER. Only my friend is allowed in and is monitored. My friend dares not call social services because they have a suicide pact if descended on by the government.

  • Good lord. And all day long I hear from fundamentalists railing at me for exaggerating the extremity of the situations engendered by fundamentalism. What a horrible story.

  • paganheart

    One of my aunts on my dad’s side used to tell the story of how my paternal grandmother once asked her church pastor what to do about her husband (my grandfather), who came home roaring drunk and beat her almost every week. The pastor told her to go home and pray that Jesus would make her a better wife. That was more than 80 years ago, and sadly, it would seem that little has changed in the church (in conservative, fundie-type churches anyway; I was raised Southern Baptist.) I saw that same dysfunctional pattern get repeated several times in my extended family, and even found myself in that trap with my first serious relationship. I fell for the wrong guy and endured plenty of verbal abuse and a couple of black eyes before I woke up to what was happening and got out. My abuser was handsome, charming, well-off, the son of a church deacon, and even my own family couldn’t understand why I would want to break up with a boy who was “such a catch!” Fortunately he did not come after me when I left; he just moved on to another girl (who I tried to warn, to no avail….)

    It took a lot of time and a lot of therapy to get past the myths and lies I had been told, in church and elsewhere, about relationships (and a lot of other things…). Fortunately in the midst of all that I was blessed and lucky to meet my dear hubby, who is very much a “Decent Human Being.” 🙂 We’ve been married 21 years now, and I am grateful for him every day. Heck I want to print that graphic out and give it to every mom and dad I know who have a sons and tell them “This is how you need to raise your boys!!”

  • Oh yes! Testify my sister! I have witnessed a very strong woman beaten down to a submissive, very tolerantly abused person in just a short amount of time. That woman was my mother and she later died from some of the complications of that abuse… The idea that anyone can OWN anybody is dehuminization at its worst. It denies the humanness of the victim and strips humane from the perpentrator…

  • I hear that too. Fundevangelicals are in total denial about this. If I mention one case or another, it is always, “Well, see! They are (Mormons, or Churches of Christ, or they don’t believe the Word — something along those lines) and true Christians don’t do that…”

  • Yes! I second what Michelle says!

  • Brandon Roberts

    unfortunately yeah. which is a shame cause that passage isn’t meant to support domestic abuse it actually tells husbands to treat their wives as they would the church

  • What a heartwrenching story. How I wish no one had to live in such fear.

  • Pavitrasarala

    In regard to what Pope Francis had to say on this, as a fellow Catholic friend once remarked, just because the Pope declares his views at the breakfast table, doesn’t mean it’s official Church teaching or that Catholics have to agree with it. On that note, I definitely don’t agree, and certainly many a Marriage Encounter retreat has reiterated what the Church has stated about marriage since Vatican II, that it IS a covenant in which husband and wife mutually submit to one another. Believe me, if that wasn’t true, I wouldn’t have had priests and nuns congratulate me for getting out of a former union to a sociopath many years ago.

  • Pavitrasarala

    Exactly. Paul states that nearly in the same breath… and I pointed that out to my ex-husband when he tried pulling the “wives should be submissive” line. He hemmed and hawed his way out of the argument… and then never discussed Scripture with me again 🙂

  • Mary Puthawala

    Wow, you do a beautiful job of pointing out the hazards of domestic abuse. it is a terrible problem, and not only women should be shown ways recognize and escape, but men too.

    That said, I’m having troubling with your linkage of Christianity, especially Catholicism, with domestic abuse. What you’re taking from text is common, but is a misrepresentation. I was raised Catholic, and raised my six children as a stay at home mom. Now I’m getting my masters in Theology. I hope that in the future you might be persuaded to either leave religion out of your arguments for domestic abuse (you have so many wonderful and helpful points) or else ask someone qualified about your theories on theology before you assume you know what the Bible is talking about. It can be so much more complex than many take out of a quick reading. Would that be possible?

  • Mary: With respect, it doesn’t take a theologian to grasp the relationship between “Women should be subservient to their husbands” (which, in the final analysis, is what complementarianism necessarily–not to mention literally–boils down to) and lots of men feeling that God sanctions the beating of “disobedient” wives. This is a religious issue; religious fundamentalism is the very fire that fuels so much of the abuse of Christian women. As for Catholicism, I can’t help it that the Pope is (as deeply as I appreciate the man!) an adamant complementarian. That’s something you’d have to take up with him. I’m only referring to the fact of what he so prominently said: Men were created by God to rule, and women to serve men. I agree with you: that is a tragically toxic, infinitely damaging, and perniciously immature understanding of the Bible.

  • Elyse Frances Enger

    When a man make the choice to beat his wife, he is making a horrendous choice which usually leads to jail and karma coming back to bite him in the ass. And this choice also shows his true character, and reminds us that this man is not to be trusted around women!

  • Mary Puthawala

    Hey John, thanks for your response. The concept of the complementarity between men and women was introduced by a series of “Wednesday Audiences” by St. Pope John Paul II, starting in September of 1979. I am currently reading these talks. Complementarity means the different ways, physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual, that men and women are different, and how when they come together to complete each other. That’s it. As for Collossians 3:18, my version of the Bible (New Jerusalem) says, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as you should be in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be sharp with them.” Later, Colossians 3:25 says, “Anyone who does wrong will be repaid in kind. For there is no favoritism.” Can you please point out where it is ok for husbands to beat their wives in that?

    As for Pope Francis, I’m sure that as a writer you’ve had to reference many times. Can you please reference where he says that men are to rule, and women were created to serve men? I’ve never heard that. In fact, just this morning (during his Wednesday audience) he said, “Husbands, you must love your wives as Christ loves his Church. It’s something serious and not a joke.”

    Finally, another wise man (Abp Fulton Sheen) said that there are not a hundred people who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly believe the Catholic Church to be. Please let me know if I can explain anything further to you, if you’d be open to that. Sometimes breaking through preconceived ideas, especially if they’re as strongly held as yours seems to be, can be quite difficult. Good luck!

  • Mary: Again, if you cannot see the cause and effect relationship between, “Wives, be subject to your husbands,” and wife abuse, I … have no idea what else to say. (And might I suggest you see if your school offers a course in Avoiding Condescension?)

  • Mary Puthawala

    Hey John, I apologize if my answer was at all condescending. My object was to have a respectful discussion based on facts. I am sorry if I was not able to do that effectively. As to the meaning of the terms “subject,” as in “subject to,” and “abuse,” I can only refer you to the dictionary. What people read into any give term is completely individual, as I’m sure you know, as a writer.

    My offer to discuss theology with you remains. And thank you for raising the subject of domestic abuse and working so hard to bring it out into the open. Your work is badly needed, and not only by wives.

  • Andy

    When people use phrases like “true Christians”, I can already tell I’m probably not going to give any credence to whatever comes after that.

  • andrew

    I think the author of this article is way off the mark. Having attended a range of churches from conservative to charismatic I can not say I have seen this taught. I also reject that believing that automatically makes a person think beating their partner is acceptable. That has never been taught in any church I have attended and I grew up when it was ok to beat your kids up. It is nothing but an assumption by the author and if anyone claims the bible justifies it then they are misreading.

    Should churches take a stand? Of course. Have some churches been doing this for a long time? Yes.

  • andrew

    Sorry John but no Mary was not being condescending. I think you have just reacted to her explaining what it actually means and her polite request for you to provide evidence of your claim. A perfectly reasonable request which you have declined to respond to. That does damage your credibility.

  • andrew

    Mormons are not a christian denomination. When you say Churches of Christ do you mean the denomination Churches of Christ or the cult Church of Christ? I got confused by that in the past.
    I would agree that true christians would not do that. The church has plenty of people in it who are not christian. Simply going to church does not make you a christian. The church however is supposed to correct those who claim to be a christian and they do a very poor job of that.

  • Just because you’ve never heard this stand in the churches you’ve attended, or you’ve personally interpreted what was being taught differently, does not mean that It isn’t a stark reality for millions of Christian women, who’ve not only heard such things, but have been the recipients of such teaching…I’m one of them. I too have attended a range of churches, and not only was the “women must submit” implied, it was encouraged. Women in many denominations, including the largest one in the US, deny women equality in the church, prohibiting them from positions of authority, they teach that a woman’s godly role is as wife and mother, and that her husband is to be her authority.

    These little bits of misoginy are taught in churches all over the US. http://www.bible.ca/marriage/submission-independent-of-culture.htm

    and this:

    http://www.jesus-is-savior.com/Evils%20in%20America/Feminism/everything.htm

    I’ve not heard much about churches taking a stand against the epidemic of domestic violence in the church or in our nation. The ones who are taking stands tend to be individuals, or secular groups. The only local rape/domestic crises center in my county is not faith based. It serves a county of 260,000 people with an average of 32% of all reported assaults being domestic related.

    Nationally, the statistics are sobering. If churches are indeed talking about it, then frankly, they are doing a shitty job. The better reality, is that its not being discussed near enough, which is why I am forever grateful for John’s dedication.
    Some national statistics. Read and grieve with me. http://www.thehotline.org/resources/statistics/

    The only large faith based organization that I am aware of is this one http://www.netgrace.org/ They are more focused on child abuse than abuse against women, although they did recently get some positive press in their investigation of Bob Jones University. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/2014/02/are-you-listening-bob-jones-university/ Their findings revealed what has long been known under the surface, there is a big problem on that campus, and on the mentality towards women. http://www.wyff4.com/news/final-report-on-sexual-abuse-response-at-bob-jones-university-to-be-released-thursday/30158484.

  • The Mormon church is unorthodox in comparison to other protestant denominations, like the southern Baptists, but they still fall under the quite diverse Christian umbrella, whether one wants to accept it or not.

  • Michelle M

    Andrew, I suspect you are not aware of what women go through when they are being abused in their home and they are in a conservative church. Of COURSE the church will SAY they don’t approve of abuse. For heaven’s sake. Of course the pastor is going to give sermons on how husbands must love their wives. Talk means nothing.

    When women come forward with stories of being abused, and these are conversations that are happening in the pastor’s office, Andrew, not where you are hearing them, she is told to pray more, think of the children, stop being bitter, yes, Mary, we don’t approve of the way your husband is treating you (we’re not neanderthals, after all) but you need to submit more because divorce is a sin, and how about a few sessions of marital counseling with the untrained pastor? That oughta fix it so we can wash our hands of this ugly situation. We really don’t want to hear about how you are being emotionally abused because your husband is our friend and it makes us uncomfortable. At the end of the day, most churches will not put the rubber stamp of approval on her divorcing him because of their believe that the “sin” of divorce is worse than the sin of murder. And divorce is what MUST happen when there is persistent abuse. Period. The woman is then left with two choices: divorce her abuser or lose her immediate family and church family. Andrew, can you even wrap your mind around that?

    The churches we’re talking about here are giving tacit approval of abuse by not allowing women to divorce abusive husbands.

  • This! This! a thousand times This!!

  • Thank you Andrew for demonstrating my point…

  • Michelle M

    Sheesh. I’m sorry, but I can’t be civil in the face of such condescension.

    Sit down, Mary. Being in a master’s program does not automatically make you or anyone else an expert or “qualified,” especially in an area like theology, which is not an exact science and is the MOST subjective topic one could study.

    You are proving what we are all trying to scream here: there IS a connection between certain religious beliefs and domestic violence, and much of the church still has it’s head in the sand about it. This is proven by the fact that this master’s program you are currently in clearly does not touch on this at all.

  • Mary Puthawala

    Hi Michele, I have to say that I find your reply extraordinary. Besides working for my master now (I never claimed to be an expert), I have been a profession writer for the last 15 years. I have worked for magazines with a national publication, and I have helped write reference books. I have to be able to defend each and every word I write, as well as site an expert or other source material for every single article.

    The title of this article makes claims about Christian churches supporting domestic violence, and the Catholic Church was singled out in the article. John has been citing the concept of complementarity as if that is a source of vile misogyny, when in fact it is the exact opposite. John has stated that our Pope “most definitively” made statements that John has not or can not reference. And somehow I am being condescending?

    That said, I understand that some people have taken some precious and beautiful words out of the Bible, taken then into their figurative garage, and hammered them into a weapon to beat someone else with. Every part of this is wrong, wrong, wrong. But not only is a very real person being hurt, but these beautiful words and concepts are also being abused. That is not the fault of the words. It is the fault of the person who is doing the violence.

    I understand that John does not welcome my comments, and it seems that you do not either. I understand that. It can be very uncomfortable when someone asks you to reference what you claim to be true and unbiased.

    But so can it be wrong to allow misleading information to go unchallenged when I am in the position to challenge them, even when the author had no intention of being misleading. I have already said that John’s work on domestic violence is to be applauded. However, it does not make him a credible source on theology, and him saying he doesn’t need to be a credible source of theology does not excuse him.

    I think I’ve said everything I can to explain my point. If John wants me off his page, I’m happy to go. Perhaps in the future he refrain from citing religion, especially in such a negative context, when he cannot defend his claims.

  • Mary Puthawala

    Thank you, Andrew!

  • andrew

    Sorry Michelle but no matter how you put it the teaching of submissiveness (even if done wrong) does not give permission for people to beat their wife. That is nothing but the authors personal opinion and he has presented zero evidence of a connection. He assumes that must follow. It doesn’t.
    I also find it interesting that because I dared to express a different opinion you have made many assumptions about me. Well guess what keep it up and then wonder why men won’t step in and help. Or perhaps ask that guy who took a selfie to send to his kids and before he even got home had a post going viral on facebook about him being a pedophile. Despite him going to the police and happily handing over his phone for them to inspect still no apology. never mind he is being threatened in the street and his kids are being targeted at school. Yep jump to conclusions all you like Michelle!
    Do I doubt that some churches advise against divorce? no not at all and never said there were not churches who do that. However most do not. The claim in this article is that every single church does. So put your evidence up or accept that the claim is wrong. People don’t need the church’s permission to divorce or even to leave without divorce. Of course leaving is not that simple and there are many reasons to stay. But simply deciding people are ignorant is not the way to go like you have. While I do not claim to have a full understanding my wife said I have a very good understanding. Part of that comes from line of work I used to be in.
    I personally do not know any untrained pastors but perhaps there are some in your country

  • Michelle M

    No, the teaching of submissiveness does not give anyone permission to beat their wife. I agree with you there. But there are men who twist it and take it as permission to do so behind closed doors. And there are church leaders, when faced with an abusive marriage in their church, tell the woman to be more submissive as some sort of cure for domestic violence.

    And there are plenty of other ways to abuse someone besides beating them.

    Outside of that, I’m going to have to say goodbye to you, andrew, because I’m not a fan of personal attacks and passive aggressiveness.

  • Michelle M

    Your third paragraph looks like you finally started to see the light, but then the light went away. I truly hope your future studies include domestic violence and how abusers (abusive husbands and religious leaders of all stripes) use theology to justify their behavior. Good luck to you.

  • John, welcome back! (I just noticed you started posting again.)
    I hope you had a great break and your book was productive.

    Well spoken – I agree that complementarianism leads to many women feeling like they must submit to abuse.

    However, I’ve recently heard a number of allegations of domestic abuse in the progressive and emergent christian movements. Some are even suggesting it’s just as widespread. And while Rachel Held Evans’ work on complementarianism is excellent, she appears to have a blind spot when it comes to her own communities. Which is a shame, because she was previously an excellent advocate for abuse survivors outside her movements. Maybe she’s still learning. I just don’t know.

    What is someone supposed to do?
    Can we blame internalised patriarchy?
    Or is that a form of the “no true Scotsman” argument?
    I’ve tried thinking about it a lot. I just can’t even work it out.

  • Tim! Good to see/hear from you. Thanks for all the Tweety love you’ve been showing me, too.

  • I’m good at pressing buttons 🙂