Miriam—not her real name—is a faithful Christian. But her pastor wonders why he hasn’t seen her at church lately. The ugly truth is that Miriam is a victim of spousal abuse.
As Denise George writes in her book, What Women Wish Pastors Knew, Miriam’s husband “controls her every move through intimidating manipulation. He holds tight the financial purse strings, and often threatens her with divorce. . . . He keeps her isolated from friends and family . . . monitors her phone calls, and usually keeps her from attending church worship and other church activities.”
Miriam’s husband tells her she is stupid and worthless, and accuses her of cheating on him. Miriam has become “so beaten down emotionally” that she “endures his profanity and demeaning insults.”
Shocking as it may seem, domestic abuse is about as common in Christian homes as it is anywhere else. But too often, churches ignore the problem. Most pastors haven’t been trained to deal with it and have no idea how to help or protect abused women—especially when the husband appears outwardly charming, easy-going, and pious.
Authorities on domestic abuse define abuse as “a pattern of coercive control directed toward the victim.” It may involve anything from verbal abuse and threats, to hitting, kicking, and choking. It might involve cutting off access to food, stalking, and sexual coercion. Abused women live in constant fear, and they are often too ashamed to tell anyone about it.
But in recent years, religious groups have begun speaking out on their behalf. For instance, an online group called RAVE (Religion and Violence E-learning) spent 15 years gathering statistics from some 500 religious leaders about domestic abuse. Among their findings: Pastors believe that one in five couples in their congregation has a violent relationship. Eighty-three percent say they have counseled at least one abused woman.
And yet most pastors have never preached a sermon condemning domestic violence. Most have little or no contact with local shelters and those who run them.
The women who sit in our pews deserve better. Pastors must learn how to help victims and hold abusive husbands accountable. And because the safety of abused spouses is an immediate priority, they ought to learn the locations of the nearest shelters and, better still, organize their own programs and shelters.
An expert on domestic abuse in Christian homes, Catherine Clark Kroeger, adjunct associate professor at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, explains why. It’s because churches can achieve “a rate of success far beyond that of their secular counterparts.”
Kroeger defines success as “no more battering. No more arrests for assault and battery.” And many couples have found, through Christian resources, that their marriages can be saved as men “come to love and cherish their wives.”
Does your church offer a biblical perspective on domestic violence? If you’ve never heard a sermon on the subject, bring it up with your pastor. Visit our website, BreakPoint.org, for Christian resources on domestic abuse.
The Bible tells us to rescue the oppressed, the needy, and the downtrodden—to do justice and righteousness to those who suffer. We disobey God when we ignore the women in our own ranks, many of whom suffer alone.