An Ugly Secret

A woman I’ll call “Marleen” went to her pastor for help. “My husband is abusing me,” she told him. “Last week he knocked me down and kicked me. He broke one of my ribs.”

Marleen’s pastor was sympathetic. He prayed with Marleen—and then he sent her home. “Try to be more submissive,” he advised. “After all, your husband is your spiritual head.”

Two weeks later, Marleen was dead—killed by an abusive husband. Her church could not believe it. Marleen’s husband was a Sunday school teacher and a deacon. How could he have done such a thing?

Tragically, studies reveal that spousal abuse is just as common within the evangelical churches as anywhere else. This means that about 25 percent of Christian homes witness abuse of some kind.

These numbers may shock you—and they certainly shocked me—so you may be wondering if the studies were done by secular researchers hostile to the church. I can assure you, sadly, they were not.

Denise George, a gifted writer and the wife of theologian Timothy George, has published a new book called What Women Wish Pastors Knew. “Spouse abuse shocks us,” George writes. “We just cannot believe that a church deacon or member goes home after worship . . . and beats his wife.” Tragically, however, George notes, some of these men justify their violence “by citing biblical passages.”

Well, obviously they’re misinterpreting Scripture. In Ephesians 5:22, husbands are told to love their wives as Christ loved the church; beating wives black-and-blue hardly constitutes Christian love. First Peter tells husbands to live with their wives considerately. And the Bible makes it clear that the church has no business closing its eyes to violent men. In 1 Timothy 3:3, the church is told that when it comes to choosing leaders, they must find men who are “not violent but gentle,” sober, and temperate.

The amount of domestic abuse in Christian homes is horrifying, and the church ought to be doing something about it—not leaving the problem to secular agencies. But this is one mission field where the church is largely missing in action. And sometimes pastors, albeit with good intentions, do more harm than good.

George sites a survey in which nearly 6,000 pastors were asked how they would counsel women who came to them for help with domestic violence. Twenty-six percent would counsel them the same way Marleen’s pastor did: to continue to “submit” to her husband, no matter what. Twenty-five percent told wives the abuse was their own fault—for failing to submit in the first place. Astonishingly, 50 percent said women should be willing to “tolerate some level of violence” because it is better than divorce.

Advice like this, George warns, often puts women “in grave danger”—and in some cases, can be a death warrant.

Pastors need to acknowledge that domestic abuse in the church is a problem, and learn how to counsel women wisely.

Stay tuned for more on this subject—one the church has not said enough about.

Obviously, Christians must uphold the sanctity of marriage. But we should never ignore the dangers of violent spouses—men who use the Bible to justify abusing, and even killing, their wives.

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  • suz slu

    Pastors need to learn to refer these women to TRAINED PROFESSIONALS, secular or not. Would you go to your pastor for medical treatment? Do you worry that your doctor is “secular”?? Would you let a pastor extract a tooth? How about letting your pastor do your taxes or invest your money. We use many other trained professionals in our daily lives,,,why do we think that a pastor can give us counseling??

    My husband is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and his pet peeve is “faith-based” /church counseling centers. Most of the time, such counselors have absolutely no training and they are not at all regulated by any agency. Going to such a person for any kind of counseling is short-sighted at best; but churches who offer this kind of “ministry” are not responding to the “mission field”,,,they are putting people in danger. While this article just cites the extreme, there’s probably bad advice offered in a huge percentage of cases.

    If the pastor really cares about the person, he will refer her to someone who knows how to handle the situation.

  • dennisofraleigh

    Catholics may not appreciate the perspective from which Chuck Colson is writing as Catholic priests routinely refer parishioners facing such troubles to outside professionals, either at the local Catholic Charities office or elsewhere. They know better than to try to handle such situations on their own.

    On the other hand, anyone who has ever belonged to a strict non-Catholic evangelical or fundamentalist “Bible” congregation with a pastor who claims to “know” the “Biblical” answer to just about anything (I belonged to a church like that for many years) can easily persuade their members (if he can justify it with a quote from the Bible) that they just need to follow this or that “Biblical” formula to deal with everything from abusive spouses to gambling addictions and not bother with “outside” experts.
    After all (they reason) those outside “experts” received their education at “worldly” universities where secular humanism, and not “Biblical” teaching, was the basis of their knowledge. The Denise George survey was obviously sent to pastors like those I have described, prone to misinterpret scripture passages, much to the detriment of their congregants.

  • Lucky Mom of 7

    I had a priest tell me, “Pray for him.” Grrrrreat counsel. NOT.

    I also had a leader in the Catholic community tell me that maybe I needed to endure some abuse, that it might be good for me, that it was better than divorce.

    My husband is recovering, by the way. I’ve been very fortunate. I would have left him if I had had the money and wasn’t facing leaving a newborn in daycare. Most women who are in abusive relationships need to run and not look back. It’s not so easy with children involved. Priests and leaders in the Church need to learn that the first priority is getting the woman in a safe place. Pastors need training from people who have experience. Philosophical and religious applications don’t make a lot of sense in abusive situations.