At the end of myself…at the feet of Jesus

Matthew 25: 40, And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Clergy Responses to Domestic Violence (via Mending the Soul)

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1. Clergy often tell abused women that they should be more submissive to their abusive husbands.3

Some pastors simply emphasize that abused wives should stay and trust God. For instance, one well known megachurch pastor argues that the Bible unequivocally teaches wives to submit, even to abusive husbands. In the context of women fearing to submit because the husband might take advantage of her, he argues that godly women, like Sarah, should simply trust God: “If there was an abuse, they knew God would take care of the results.”Other clergy imply or assert that the submission mandate essentially strips wives, apparently even abused wives, of their personal rights, but not of their responsibility to submit. For instance, the pastor of the church that for many years has proclaimed it has the largest Sunday School in the world writes that a wife has no rights whatsoever until she submits to her husband, and, furthermore, it is a far greater sin for a woman to fail to submit than for a husband to fail to love his wife.5

Other Christian leaders are even more explicit in telling abused wives they must submit to abuse. The daughter of a famous southern evangelist and minister states that Scripture commands wives to be submissive to abusive husbands, even to evil husbands who beat their children and force their wives to participate in group sex orgies.While these authors’ views may be more extreme than those of most clergy, it is common for pastors to tell abused wives that they must be more submissive. To quantify clergy beliefs about domestic violence and divorce, a questionnaire was sent to more than five thousand Protestant ministers in the United States. A full 27 percent of the clergy who responded said that, if a wife would begin to submit to her abusive husband, God would honor her obedience and the abuse would stop (or God would give her the grace to endure the beatings).7

Sadly, submission does not stop abuse. In fact, it often serves to intensify the abuse, because it gives an abusive husband a greater sense of power and helps him circumvent painful consequences for his evil behavior. For example, a 1986 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey concluded that women who reported their abuse to authorities were far less likely to be reassaulted than the wives who submitted to the abuse and did not contact the authorities. Specifically, the survey found that 41 percent of wives who did not report their abusive husbands to the police were attacked again within six months, whereas only 15 percent of abused wives who reported the abuse to authorities were reassaulted.

2. Clergy rarely condemn domestic violence from the pulpit.

While some clergy say very incorrect and harmful things in response to abuse, they are often silent about what does need to be said, namely, that God hates abuse and that domestic violence is sinful and unacceptable. This message is not only urgent for entire congregations, but it can be particularly empowering for abuse victims. In one study of battered Christian women, when asked what they most needed from the church, abused women indicated two primary needs. They said they needed (1) the church’s recognition that violence against women and children is a problem even in the church and (2) a straightforward condemnation  of domestic violence from the pulpit.According to Rev. Al Miles, who interviewed one hundred fifty-eight clergy  regarding domestic violence, all of them condemned domestic violence, and yet only twenty-five ministers specifically addressed it in their  congregations.10In my own informal polling of hundreds of seminary and college students regarding whether they have ever heard a sermon on domestic violence, I have never had more than 10 percent of the group indicate they had heard such a sermon.

This failure to condemn physical abuse from the pulpit is particularly puzzling in evangelical churches, who by definition believe the Bible is the trustworthy word of God, and God intends it to guide and govern all of life. The condemnation of physical abuse is a dominant theme of Scripture, particularly in the Hebrew prophets. There are hundreds of Scripture passages that condemn abuse and proclaim God’s particular judgment on physical abusers.11 For instance, one of the seven sins God hates is “hands that shed innocent blood” (Prov. 6:17 NIV). The psalmist declares hatred of abuse by noting God’s posture on physical abusers: “those who loves violence his soul hates” (Ps. 11:5). Repeatedly, God declares judgment on abusers, whether they were part of the covenant community (Ezek. 9:9-10) or whether they were pagans (Amos 1:3-15).

3. Clergy often minimize the prevalence and gravity of domestic violence.

While recent research suggests that clergy are becoming considerably more informed regarding domestic violence, clergy consistently underestimate its prevalence, particularly in their own congregations.

Various research studies reveal that physical and sexual abuse rates are not appreciably lower among the churched than the unchurched, but are shockingly high. For instance, in  1989, the Christian Reformed Church commissioned a research study to determine prevalence of abuse in its denomination. The findings were based on adults’ self-reports of previous abuse. Given what we know about abuse victims’ tendency  to deny and minimize abuse, these prevalence findings are undoubtedly lower than actual abuse rates experienced. In this study, 12 percent of the respondents reported having experienced  physical abuse or neglect; 13 percent reported having been sexually abused; 19 percent reported having been emotionally abused (seeking to control another person through words, threats, and fear); and 2 8 percent reported having experienced at least one of the three types of abuse.12 In terms of lifetime abuse rates, various studies show that 22 -33 percent of American women will be assaulted by an intimate partner in their lifetimes.13 And domestic violence is not only a problem for adult married couples. A recent study of adolescents found that 13 percent of teenage girls in a relationship admit to being physically hit or injured; nearly one in five teenage girls who have been in a relationship said a boyfriend threatened violence or self-harm if they broke up; one in three teens reports knowing a friend or a peer who has been hit, punched, kicked, slapped, or physically injured by a partner.14 And yet clergy, especially conservative clergy, almost always assert that abuse rates are lower in Christian families than in society at large. For instance, in one study of Canadian clergy, the clergy estimated that one in four couples in Canada had experienced domestic violence (research in Canada reveals that 25-33 percent of Canadian couples had experienced domestic violence), and yet, they believed, with no supporting evidence, that only one in six couples in their own congregation had experienced domestic violence.15 Other studies of clergy, including Jewish and Muslim clergy, report very similar findings-clergy believe that domestic violence is a problem, but not in their religious group.16 Not only do clergy often minimize the prevalence of domestic violence, they often minimize its gravity. This is particularly true for male clergy, most of whom have no experiential understanding of the fear and helplessness that women feel from abusive male partners who are much more powerful physically and often socially. Sadly, I have heard clergy respond to reports of physical abuse by stating, “All couples have their arguments. What’s the big deal?”; “Many women exaggerate about their husbands’ anger”; “All he did was give her a little bruise”; etc. In fact, domestic violence is very damaging and is a very “big deal.” For instance, the Surgeon General has reported that domestic violence accounts for more adult female emergency room visits than traffic accidents, muggings, and rapes combined, and is the greatest single cause of injury to American women.17 The U.S. Department of Justice reports that approximately one-third of murdered women are killed by an intimate (husband, ex-husband, or boyfriend), and most victims of intimate partner homicide are killed by their husbands.18 Domestic violence is prevalent, and it is extremely damaging.

4. Clergy are often so concerned to preserve marriage that they advise against separating, let alone divorcing from an abusive husband. This is largely the result of naiveté regarding the challenge of getting abusive men truly to change their behavior.

To quantify clergy beliefs about domestic violence, a questionnaire was sent to more than five thousand Protestant ministers in the United States.19 Four-fifths of the clergy who responded indicated that they had confronted domestic violence in their ministries and had counseled a wife abused by her husband. In spite of the fact that most of these clergy had some experience with wife abuse and had seen some of the damage it causes, 27 percent said that, if a wife would begin to submit to her abusive husband, God would honor her obedience, and the abuse would stop (or God would give her the grace to endure the beatings); almost one-fifth indicated that no amount of violence from an abusive husband would justify a wife leaving, and only 2 percent of the pastors said they would support divorce due to domestic violence. To illustrate common clergy naiveté regarding abusive men and clergy insistence on the sanctity of marriage in spite of violence, one battered wife shared that, after her husband beat her: I went to my minister then and his reaction was ‘What’s your husband’s favorite food?’ and I said ‘Pork chops and scallop potatoes.’ ‘What’s his favorite dress?’ I told him and he said ‘I want you to go home and put on that dress and make him pork chops and scallop potatoes and honor your marriage vows.’20 Another battered woman said that when she told her pastor that her husband was beating her, he completely minimized the damage she was experiencing as well as her husband’s entrenched patterns of violence by patronizingly stating to her, “Let’s talk to him, we’ll get this straightened out because I want you two together, you’re such a lovely couple.”21 Similarly, another woman who attempted to report that her husband had been beating her severely was told by her minister: “Go home. He’s probably calmed down now. And come in for counseling . . . you married him, you made a commitment, so you have to work this out. Pray more. Submit more.”22 Unfortunately, while these women tried to follow the well-meaning but misguided advice of their ministers, the beatings continued.

5. Clergy often state or imply that the woman is partially responsible for the abuse.

For instance, one well-known Christian physician and author suggests that, in a “severely troubled marriage,” the wife is responsible to mollify an abusive husband: “You have to be perfect in your behavior toward your partner . . . and you must be very sensitive to avoid anything that will set your partner off.”23 In one study of one hundred eighty-seven battered women, one-hundred sixteen were found to be religious, and sixty-three of the women went to clergy for help. Ninety-six percent of these battered women had experienced one or more incidents of severe physical abuse at least once during the relationship, and 34 percent of the victims had attempted suicide.24 In spite of the extreme, even lifethreatening, damage these women had experienced from their abusive husbands, twenty-five of the religious victims who went to their ministers reported that the pastor focused on their behavior, and what they should change. The ministers said things such as “Wear him out with sex,” “Cook more appetizing meals,” “Try harder not to provoke him,” and “Don’t talk.” Another abused woman recounted what happened when she went to her pastor for help: He put the guilt on my shoulders. . . . He blamed me for not submitting to my husband and said that my husband would change because he had asked for forgiveness. But after counseling I realized he would never change; he was more abusive than ever. In a sense that pastor was on my husband’s side. I was showing little faith, he said. This minister even knew that my husband was making sexual advances to my daughter.25 Research on domestic violence in fact reveals that the woman’s behavior actually has little bearing on the abuse.26 That is, abusive men ultimately do not abuse because of what their wives do or do not do; they abuse because of complex internal pathologies beyond the wife’s control or responsibility.27

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