Are Church Women Afraid To Help Members in Domestic Abuse?

a fearful woman having claustrophobia in a cardboard box

Recently the inability of too many church leaders to respond to the 1 in 4 church women in destructive relationships has been revealed.

Women are leaving the church because they find no support for them when they are in dire need.

Those who do seek help find an amazing and ridiculous array of excuses not to help them.

Recently one woman in a dangerous marriage was at her extremity. She told her pastor she was losing her sanity. His response was, ”Maybe it’s God’s will for you not to be sane.”

Instead we know the Bible verse: “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and love, and of a sound  mind.” KJV, 2 Timothy 1:7.

So we see it really doesn’t matter what the Bible says. Verses will be commanded or ignored based on the primary goal: keeping a woman under the control of a man, sometimes by force but certainly with church collusion.

A man’s inability to understand a woman’s plight might not be a new issue. But I want to know why so many church women are part of this collusion. They seem to fear supporting a church sister in distress. The Women’s Aid Society doesn’t touch her with a 10-foot pole. No bake sales will be held to help her escape.

When I was married to an abusive pastor, the silent shunning of the other church women was deafening. Gone were the concern for missions, the foundational teachings to have compassion, to free the oppressed, to do to the least of these as to Christ. And 25 years of service exerted no leverage.

Instead it seems more worldly fears were in charge. Would the distressed woman become a single woman who might come after my husband? Do church women have more faith in upholding men’s power than in Christ’s doctrine of dignity?  Is social status from being married the priority and the abused spouse the enemy?

Or is it the acceptance of the toxic doctrine that any trouble is always the woman’s fault? And the subsequent duty to keep quiet and be as unobtrusive as possible? Fear of guilt by association?

I want to know and understand. Because I found some women of faith outside my church who helped me. That’s why I know there are two kinds of church women: those afraid to speak up and those who helped. Those who helped had marriages of partnership, not patriarchy.

Does the way church women respond to women being abused reflect their own married relationships and beliefs about their worth?  

The first church woman who helped me took us into her home. She didn’t ask her husband if we could stay that night. In fact she took us in twice. She didn’t ask then either. Their partnership included an agreement to help others who came to them.

Another church woman helped by watching my children without charge. She did not get any backlash from her husband. Doing what you can when you can was part of their understanding of following Christ’s example.

If a home is destroyed by fire, the church may help. If there is a death in the family, the church may help. Does a need have to be “socially acceptable” for the church to be involved? Jesus didn’t think so.

A church leader told me that contributing to the women’s shelter is enough. That they shouldn’t get involved. But when the Bible and faith concepts are misused to abuse in the home, that is the church’s responsibility. They do need to send a strong message that this is not what Jesus taught. Because the idea that women must submit to husbands no matter what is quoted even among non-Christian abusers. The church influences and undergirds culture.

 Helpful women of faith understand that the spouse at this level of violation is not part of marital relationships. It does not occur because there is a simple misunderstanding that responds to marital counseling.

When this level of abuse occurs – sustained verbal and emotional abuse, mental pressure or coercion, even without physical violence, these church women understand the behavior is occurring within a marriage but is not part of a marriage. The marriage does not cause it; it is the setting. One member is using the marriage as an arena to control the other for power through guilt, shame, intimidation and fear. The legal or religious status of a marriage works against a victim escaping.

This behavior occurs in other settings. But in no case is it “caused” by the other person. The misuse of Scriptures and faith by an abuser is deliberate. The church may be  upholding abusers by promoting unequal relationships.

When that happens, more prayer, Bible study, pastoral counseling, exhortations to forgive, turn the other cheek or other platitudes are inappropriate and re-traumatizing.

The question will be why she stays, not what can we do to help her.

Currently it seems more denominational and independent agencies are active in advocacy and education for church leaders. Faith Trust Institute has been training church leaders and members since 1976. Still so many do not know this organization.

Churches have known about domestic abuse for over 30 years. They have ignored the consistent evidence that 1 in 4 members are abused. Or when brought to their attention, groups like the Southern Baptist Convention have used the committee-study-recommend-ignore pattern of dealing with it. Or if a church leader is the abuser, move them to another church.

The primary barrier to addressing Christians in abusive relationships is the church climate itself. Since women do the majority of the functional work in the church, I am calling on them to lead in the transformation of this church culture. Judgmental and condemning approaches to suffering spouses must be removed.

The assumption that an abused spouse is to blame, that it is a matter of sin that can be overcome by the usual remedies of church, and that the victim is somehow “less than the kind of people who belong to our church” must be overcome. Ministry to suffering members may be the gift that brings the church back to its original purpose: manifesting God’s love. The Good Samaritan bound the wounded man’s hurts, paid for his care, and restored his dignity. He did not tell him he had to repent, try harder, pray more, attend Bible study, tithe, forgive or live with and give his attacker more sex.

Imagine this story if the victim by the side of the road had been a woman. She would have immediately been assumed to be a prostitute, deserving of the abuse, and unclean for anyone to help. Apparently, we have not grown beyond this view in the church today.

Where fearful church women should show compassion, they are instead colluding: heaping scorn, disdain and judgment for those suffering from a partner’s cruelty.

Whether church women are fearful to assist their suffering sisters because of their own relationships, the desire for social status, or a reluctance to displease the leadership, the result is the same. They blame the victim and pander to the abuser.

If it’s faith, it’s faith in fear. Women of faith can do better.

Published by Fessup

A 30-year veteran educator and counselor, published author, lifelong student of religion and women's issues, educator with divinebalance.org, mother, and lover of Far Side humor.

2 thoughts on “Are Church Women Afraid To Help Members in Domestic Abuse?

  1. Even “educated” women in the Bible and/or other religious studies can become victims of manipulations. Thank you for your book Redemption from Biblical Battering. I smiled that you are also a fan of the “far side” cartoons and I believe that humor is a great defense weapon!

  2. Thank you and I also appreciate your incite that “church influence undergrids culture”. I also was glad you put in examples of how church members helped you and how they can help victimized women. I wish there were a book similar to yours for women in Moslem cultures, but it probably would be banned. i am grateful we have freedom of the press.

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