By RJ Thesman
Cathy sits in her car and counts her cash. She’s just dropped off her kids at school and reminded the principal that no one else can pick up her children. Not even their father.
Especially not their father.
The name “Cathy” is a pseudonym, but her story is real. One in 4 women live in destructive relationships and many of these women sit in church every Sunday, next to the abuser, the father of their children.
The tragedy of domestic violence is well-documented within police departments, counseling offices, and national organizations. But the one place it remains a secret and a source of denial is within the place that’s supposed to be safest—the church.
A Google search reveals various myths about domestic violence, but what myths are signature beliefs within the church?
Myth #1: It doesn’t happen in Christian homes.
As a biblical counselor and life coach, I sat across from weeping women of various denominations. In my research as an author, I read the stats about Christian women who live within destructive relationships. And these are from the women who actually report the abuse.
The struggle is real for women who are verbally, emotionally, and spiritually abused by the men who promised to honor and cherish them. Some of these husbands use the cover of the church to hide their manipulative behaviors.
One of my clients gave me permission to tell her story. She and her husband served as missionaries in the Middle East. Throughout their 40-year marriage, he abused her—even in front of their children.
She had no options for help, because domestic abuse would mean removal from the mission field. She loved the people and the region where they served and believed God wanted her to be a missionary.
Finally, as her children reached adulthood, they begged her to separate from their father—to save her life. She currently lives alone, dealing with the damaging effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), false guilt, and health issues caused by years of trauma.
Myth #2: Submission will solve the problem.
While some pastors provide caring counsel when women come forward, many victims hear the same rote answers when they dare to ask for help. When it comes to domestic violence, pastors often don’t know how to respond to victims.When the church affirms an abusive man’s role as the head of the home, it gives carte blanche to men who need to be in control.A great number of ministry leaders still quote passages such as Ephesians 5:22, First Peter 3:1-6, and Titus 2:3-5 as they remind women to submit, to pray for their husbands, to have quiet spirits, and be obedient.
These practices may work well within healthy relationships. But submission to an abuser gives him license to abuse further.
According to Leslie Vernick, counselor and author of The Emotionally Destructive Relationship, “The main characteristic of an abusive relationship is where the abuser’s desire for power and control is at the root.”
When the church affirms an abusive man’s role as the head of the home, it gives carte blanche to men who need to be in control. It sanctions abusive behaviors and leaves the wife with no options.
Myth #3: It’s the woman’s fault.
This myth follows as a natural segue from Myth #2. If the woman is experiencing abuse, it’s because she isn’t “acting like a Christian wife.” The root of this attitude travels all the way from Genesis 3:12 when Adam shamed Eve, “This woman you gave me, she gave me the fruit to eat.”
The injured women in my office reported comments of shame and blame:
“If you’d just give him more sex….”
“He’s frustrated from work, so he takes it out on you.”
“Can’t you fix yourself up better? You know, he sees attractive women all day at work.”
The situation that topped them all was the woman who finally escaped from the basement where her husband had kept her prisoner. She was afraid to call the police, but trusted her pastor.
When she told him her story, he said, “If you’d lose 30 pounds, he’d like you better.”
This was the same woman who returned to my office several weeks later with a broken jaw.
Myth #4: Domestic abuse isn’t as bad as domestic violence.
Another pastor dismissed a weeping woman with the statement, “I don’t see any bruises or broken bones. You don’t have it so bad.”
Abusive behaviors such as calling her names, shaming her in front of the children, criticizing what she wears, controlling the finances, and forcing her to have sex (yes, it is possible to be raped by your spouse) often lead to more violent behaviors.
Educate yourself on more examples of domestic abuse.
Myth #5: If an abuser is truly sorry—and forgiven—the relationship should be reconciled.
Statistically, victims will return to the destructive relationship seven times before they leave for good.Statistically, victims will return to the destructive relationship seven times before they leave for good.Women like Cathy often believe their husbands’ tears. Yet after years of manipulation and abuse, these women’s brains are numb. If they have been repeatedly hit or shaken, they may have brain damage. They can’t discern the truth.
Church leaders who “require” victims to forgive and reconcile do not fully understand the scope of the trauma.
How can ministry leaders help these women so they don’t become another tragic statistic?
Listen and validate. If a woman is desperate enough to admit the abuse to her pastor, she deserves attention. Listen carefully. Ask pointed questions. Take notes.
Train leaders. Invite counselors and leaders of nonprofits who work with women’s issues to train church leaders. When we’re educated, we can devise a plan of action.
Provide resources. Church libraries should stock resources on domestic abuse, helpful websites, and phone numbers for safe homes.
Check current policies. Does your church have a written no-tolerance policy? Is there an advocate on your team who provides support for women in your church, on your staff, or even the pastor’s wife?
Offer practical help.
- One of the main reasons women stay in abusive relationships is financial. Is there a church member with rental property where a woman like Cathy and her children can stay?
- Are there coaches or counselors on staff who can help Cathy create a plan of action?
- Will the youth pastor and the children’s minister step up to provide emotional support for the children?
- Are the elders willing to confront the husband, to help him address his issues, and work toward his emotional healing?
- Does the church have a benevolence fund to help Cathy pay rent, electric bills, or the cost for counseling?
- Is there a food ministry to provide meals for Cathy and her kids?
- Does anyone own a business that needs an employee? Who can help Cathy find a job?
- Which woman who has lived through domestic abuse will come alongside Cathy and provide emotional support?
Ministry leaders can no longer deny that abuse happens within the church. When we step up and help the Cathys among us, we also influence the next generation. As children watch the church become a force for good, they begin to trust ministry leaders with their own faith walk.
And the community sees the church as the place that practices Christ-like protective love.