“He was the king of the castle and I was the humble servant. He said if only I would align with that, he wouldn’t have to scream and call me a b----. His reasoning, he said, was the Bible.”
One in four women has been the victim of spousal abuse, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. While many believe these numbers to be higher by those who do not claim to practice a faith, former U.S. gymnast and lawyer Rachael Denhollander’s research shows otherwise. “Around 90% of abusers self-identify as religious or very religious,” she states. This means that on any given Sunday in a congregation of 100 people, it is likely there are 25 women who have been or are currently experiencing some form of intimate partner abuse, and in many cases are worshiping next to their abuser.
Though the reasons are deep and complex (and outside the scope of this writing) as to why the church seems to be as much of a hotbed for abuse as the “world,” my training and research continue to lead me back to frustrating patterns of negligence (and in many cases more abuse) by church leaders and the inadequacy of the church in general, to offer help to women in need.
One night I impetuously wrote about my frustrations on social media. One post is all it took for the messages to begin pouring in. Women I knew. Churches I had attended. Their pain was heard in every word, and the reflection of an institution that bears the name of Christ was hard to recognize through their stories that sounded anything like Jesus—this One who came to protect, restore, and heal. Below is just a sampling of the messages I received. Names have been changed to protect their identities, as some are still in the midst of volatile situations.
Married to a veteran suffering from PTSD, Beth and her two young daughters lived in a home where guns and knives were pointed at them regularly and new holes in the walls were not uncommon. Because her husband’s military service was held in high esteem, she was coached by fellow Christians to hold him responsible for his actions but not to resort to divorce. To further “encourage” her, churchgoers told stories of other women in the church who had also endured hard times in their marriages. Their marriages were fine now, they said, so hers would be too. The day the violence turned toward their baby daughter was the last day they shared a home as a family, but did it have to go that far?
How does it happen, in a case such as Jennifer’s, that admittance of a rape she endured when she was 4 years old was an invitation to her pastor for sexual advances? After silently suffering for years, she assumed pre-marital counseling was a safe place to finally reveal her abuse and begin the process of healing prior to beginning her new marriage. But after becoming intoxicated one evening, the pastor in whom she had confided sent a lurid message describing the kind of lingerie she would look good wearing. It was yet another opportunity to feel shame over an advance she must have invited, so she stayed quiet— even on her wedding day as he performed the ceremony.
How do we explain Christy’s unanswered cries for help after she endured 6 years of abuse from her pastor-husband? The elder board at their church responded that her marital issues were none of their business. Desperate for help, she reached out to another church across town, but her calls were not returned. Meanwhile, her husband kept his pulpit and gained custody of their daughter, using the same charisma he displayed in the pulpit to earn him favor in the courtroom, too.
And what do we do with Amy’s story? Barely 5 months into the marriage, her new husband (the son of a minister) began asserting his “biblical authority” over her, demanding she not attend prayer meetings unless he was invited, too. His emotional, verbal, and physical fits of rage escalated to the point where she feared for her life. Yet the counsel from her pastor and other wives was the same: “Your place is in the home and you need to return to it.” Instead, she chose to file for divorce and was consequently asked to step down from her place in prayer ministry. As a final blow, her husband was taken under the wing of church leadership because HE was the broken one—which, she supposed, made her the expendable one.
Unfortunately, these types of stories are not isolated; a simple internet search will confirm that. There are many proactive steps we can take in the church that will no doubt make things better, such as properly training pastors and leaders on how to recognize abuse; speaking out strongly from the pulpit on matters of abuse; listening to and believing victims while getting them the help they need; educating the church body on the proper ways to help and not harm, and giving women the platform to tell their stories so that the church body becomes aware of and active in this fight.
However, none of these will bring lasting change unless the systems of the Church change. In situations such as those above, where do parishioners in your church go to report misconduct by clergy or other leaders? When calls go unreturned by pastors, is it clear who else can be called? How is information disseminated regarding where your church stands on important issues and proper ways to help those in need? When harmful advice is given, how and to whom does one report this? Is there a trusted group of males and females who is charged with providing impartial accountability for pastors and leaders?
In Matthew 13, the disciples asked Jesus why He told stories. Jesus explained that they reveal the true condition of the hearts of those who hear, which is determined by whether people can truly hear and what they then do in response.
And this is my hope, that by reading a small sampling of the stories shared with me, that we actively hear them, repent, and change the systems that perpetuate abuse both in our homes and our churches. Dear Church, to do anything else is to ignore Christ Himself. We must respond.
Stacey March lives in Culpeper, Virginia, with her husband and three children. She holds a Master of Human Services Counseling & Executive Leadership from Liberty University and a Master of Music from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Connect with Stacey on Facebook and Instagram @stacey_march3