Understanding Domestic Violence in the Church
Elisabeth Klein agrees; she was in an abusive marriage that ended in divorce several years ago, and she now runs a ministry for women who are in difficult marriages or going through divorces. While Klein’s church was supportive of her when she shared about the abuse in her marriage, she said many women have reached out to her to say their churches and pastors are not. Pastors tend to treat marriage as an unbreakable bond, even when a spouse is being abused. Thus, women are often encouraged to stay in dangerous situations.
Klein has reported some examples of the advice church leaders give to women looking to the church for help in abusive relationships: the women she speaks to have been told they don’t have enough faith, or that they need to love their husband no matter what, or that “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”
At a minimum, church leaders need to work on empathizing with women who say they are in difficult relationships, she said, rather than making “stay married” the primary message.
“I don’t think God is up there saying to pastors . . . ‘I’m so glad I put you in the pastor role so you could keep women in marriages that were hurting them,’” she said. “I can’t possibly understand what it is like for someone going through breast cancer, yet I would never in a million years presume to tell her how she should treat it. You can still show compassion and not understand where the person is coming from.”
In order to stop domestic violence from turning deadly on church property (and beyond), church staff—especially pastors—need to better understand the realities of domestic violence and recognize it when they come across it, Chinn said.
“There are so many pastors and counselors who themselves are not educated on the real dangers of domestic abuse,” he said. “They view it as a spiritual and temporary problem. It may be spiritual, but it’s not temporary.”
Even before pastors are alerted to abusive relationships, they can create environments that discourage abuse. Crippen suggests that pastors read about the issue and preach on it regularly—or, if they feel unqualified to do so, have a guest preacher teach on the subject.
“Don't think you have to wait to see signs of physical abuse, because it is often absent,” he said. “The best thing for any church to do is to assume that there is at least one abused woman in their midst. The evil is far more prevalent than most want to admit.” (While both men and women are victims of domestic violence, women are more likely to be victims of severe violence, and 7 out of every 10 victims killed by an intimate partner in 2007 were women, according to the 2014 Sojourners report cited above.)