Domestic abuse occurs among Christians and non-Christians at nearly the same rate. How can we make the church a place of refuge for battered women?
Five years into her second abusive marriage, Maggie* and her new husband surrendered their lives to Jesus Christ. Their spiritual commitment gave Maggie hope that her tumultuous marriage could be saved.
But when the physical abuse continued, Maggie sought help from their pastor. She told him about the terrors of living with a man who once had her pinned against a wall and choked her until she heard something snap in her neck.
Her evangelical pastor’s counsel: Go home, pray and submit.
“If your husband kills you,” he concluded, “it will be for the glory of God.”
Maggie survived both her husband’s merciless torment and her pastor’s chilling advice. But like many battered women, she found her place of refuge not in the church, but in the world—at a women’s shelter in Texas.
“Domestic violence is a major problem in America and in the church,” says pastor and marriage counselor Jimmy Evans of Amarillo, Texas. “But the church has not treated it like a serious problem.”
Statistics underscore its seriousness. According to a joint study by the National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 2 million women are physically assaulted by a current or former spouse each year in the United States. With the average number of annual assaults per victim estimated to be 3.1, the total number of assaults per year is 6 million.
In addition, one-third of all women who seek medical care have suffered domestic violence. It’s said to be the No. 1 crime in America and the least-reported.
The most shameful statistic: Many of its victims—and perpetrators—are Christians.
Maggie, whose experience led her to work with other domestic violence victims, said that half the women who sought help at the shelter where she worked were Christians. Trapped between their theology and the reality of their situations, they often withheld vital information from the staff.
“They were afraid to take advice from the world. They were very protective of their husbands,” says Maggie, who became the shelter’s liaison to Christian women.
Don Sapaugh, former president of Rapha Treatment Centers in Dallas, says reluctance to share information is especially characteristic of pastors’ wives who suffer some form of abuse. “They don’t know where to turn,” he says.
Many of the calls to Rapha’s confidential ministers’ hotline are from women who are being abused by their minister husbands. But some are from pastors who want to confess they’ve been abusing their wives.
Is There Safety in the Church?
Christians, whether they’re ministers or laypersons, say good counsel is hard to find. Maggie, who is now a missionary married to a “wonderful Christian man,” sometimes questions whether she was right in leaving her abusive ex-husband. The counsel of her pastor, who later admitted his error, continues to haunt her.
The type of non-help Maggie received is not unusual, Evans says. “Pastors simply don’t know how to counsel an abused woman,” he says.
At least one study seems to confirm Evans’ opinion. In a survey of battered women who had successfully escaped their abusers, the victims ranked clergy last in helpfulness.
Why aren’t women finding more safety in their churches? At least part of the problem, experts say, can be traced to misinterpretations of scriptures about marriage.
The Bible passage most often used to “justify” abusive behavior is Ephesians 5:22-24: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.”
Sapaugh says this passage is terribly mishandled. And some pastors, he says, “set up man-made criteria for what is and what isn’t submission, and end up throwing spousal abuse in the middle of it. I’m confident that’s not the intent of Scripture.”
Evans agrees. Biblical submission, he says, does not include physical violence or the violation of personal sovereignty. “The Bible doesn’t ever lend itself to somebody being abused,” he says. “The Scriptures tell us to defend the defenseless” (see Prov. 31:9; Is. 1:17).