The Church on the Power and Control Wheel

Most people familiar with the abuse cycle, known as the Power and Control Wheel, realize how important it has been in helping define the toxic tactics of coercive control.

In the early days of identifying domestic abuse, others involved in advocacy had mistakenly thought it was one-dimensional: violent. The Power and Control Wheel, developed out of work with women in shelters, described the wider dimensions of tactics used in abuse or coercive control.

The Wheel was first devised during the 1980s in Duluth, Minnesota by Dr Eilen Pence Since then, it is a key tool for understanding domestic abuse. Victims said it was the first thing that made sense to them, that described what they were going through.

But some churches are saying 40 years later that they are not aware of the problem, even though 1 in 4 members are affected. Or they are saying they don’t know what to do. Or worse, they say it’s none of their business.

So how did some churches become abusive?

Because of publicity and financial pressures, churches are examining practices that contribute or excuse abuse within its leadership or members. Recently the Southern Baptist Convention came to terms with its collusion with abusers after 20 years of victim testimonies, seminary presidents objections and loss of church revenues. The Catholic Church’s story is widely known. But these two groups are by no means the only religious organizations in which abusers are found.

Because the pastor depends on the good reputation of the church, the church image and financial support are the primary concerns. Damage control measures are used:  turning a blind eye and blaming the sufferer preserve their image and group identity.  Group dynamics find ways to remove threats. Social status yields the money and power that feed collusion with church abusers.

Faith cliches are used to avoid accountability or hide offenses. They collude with the predator and blame the abused, primarily because the majority of abusers are men and victims are women  Churches have put upholding male power over helping the hurting, and all that that stance requires. 

Church policies and practices can enforce HALF (4 of 8) of the tactics in the Power and Control Wheel of coercive control.

  1. Minimization, Denial and Blaming*

A victim coming for help to a church leader or member will encounter Denial.  Statements like “Are you sure you’re not overexaggerating?” indicates  they don’t trust the victim. Or the leader might say the husband is “under the devil’s influence”. So it’s the devil, not the abuser. ( Partner is then responsible to pray him out of it, so if that doesn’t work, church will go on to blaming victim.)

Minimization is communicated in statements such as: “He’s under a lot of stress at work.” “He’s had a hard day.” “But look at all the good he does.” “Every marriage has its ups and downs.” “Oh I can’t ever see him doing that kind of thing.”

Blaming is tried the most: “Have you given him enough sex?” “Are you submitting?” “Just pray more.” “Just have faith.” “Your love can save him.” “But he’s such a good father.” “Do you want the kids to not have a father?”
What did you do to provoke him?” “Renew your mind” (Don’t think about what is happening to you.) “Be ye angry and sin not.” (It must be your fault if you are mistreated.)

2 Isolation

Churches members can unofficially shun the victim or actually tell them to leave if they will not “repent” of “gossip” about their partners. If they don’t “forgive” they are accused of being “bitter” “hard hearted” or worse”.

 “The church is made up of sinners” means the victim is wrong to expect them to be helpful. “No church is perfect” means don’t ask them to correct their harmful practices.. “You can’t trust your feelings.” means trust what we say instead. “God is all you need.” means don’t ask us to practice what we preach. “You don’t have enough faith.” is a way of saying  “look to God, not us.” In other words, you are on your own.

3. Emotional Abuse

While the previous tactics are emotionally harmful, there are others as well, like name calling (“Jezebel” “Whore of Babylon”), labeling (feminist, lesbian, disobedient, rebellious), and demeaning jokes about women as silly, weak, or nonsensical. (“Well, you know how women are. What can you expect?”)

Additionally, short of kicking someone out of the church, ignoring can also be used. Invitations can be withheld, phone calls not answered, or removal from email lists without any explanation. Corruption is very harmful. In corruption the victim is warned not to tell anyone, not to “air dirty laundry”, think of the church’s image, and similar threats. Exploitation involves shaming the victim if they don’t cooperate, expressing expectations that they should not hold the abuser responsible, or guilting them for being a victim.

 4. Male Privilege

Coercive male power has been elevated to doctrine in too many churches. Coercive teachings about biblical manhood and womanhood emphasize submission of wives to husbands as their Lord.  Too many do not allow divorce.

One woman told me she would rather suffer hell here by being abused than

forever be in hell because of divorce.

The doctrine of complementarianism steps around equality by teaching the idea of “offices”: that is, partners are equal but are “ordained” to do different things. The effect is inequality, because gender is the standard for offices.

For a time “Christian discipline” was taught, in which a husband could whip his wife to correct her.

Members in destructive relationships find little if any support from pastors or members. They may have contributed funds and volunteered faithfully for years but find the wall against them is solid. It is a one-way relationship: as long as they are helping the church and adhering to the code of acceptable womanhood, they can belong. But if they assert any needs that conflict with church image (male power), they find themselves alone. This is very painful for a woman of faith and further jeopardizes her ability to escape harm.

This is why women are leaving the church. There is no support for them there. It is too painful to remain. They are finding more of Christ’s love and acceptance outside the church.

Church women can help the church get off the wheel and bring them back.

*Dee Ann Miller has invented the term “DIM” thinking as operating in church collusion in abuse. DIM stands for “Denial, Ignorance and Minimization.” DIM allows money and upholding men in power to operate above concern for victims.

Published by Fessup

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

2 thoughts on “The Church on the Power and Control Wheel

  1. Thank you for making clear what is happening in individual abusive relationships and in organizational handling of these relationships. It is especially difficult when we uphold “God’s” institutions and feel like “sinners” if we question authority. It takes guts and spirituality to look inside and to speak up because of ostracism and criticism used against those who make their voices heard.

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