Domestic violence is an ugly problem—and it happens both inside and outside the church. We need to speak up if we hope to protect the victims.
Sandra Dickerson Murphy never told her church family about her abusive home situation. But week after week the then-18-year-old mother of two sat on the pew with black eyes and bruises. "No one would ask me about the bruises," she says. "I was hoping that if someone would just ask me, that would open the door and I could tell them what was happening to me at home. But no one did, so I obeyed my husband and I kept quiet."
Today her scars are impossible to ignore. In 1974 her husband pulled out a 12-gauge shotgun and fired it in her face. The blast left her permanently disfigured, but Murphy says she's not unique. "Domestic abuse victims live with inner scars and sores as deep and oozing and disfiguring as any outward wounds we wear," she says.
In the U.S. each year, more than 5 million incidents of "intimate partner violence" occur against adult women, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Another 3 million occur against men, though experts say most abusers are male. Such violence leads to nearly 1,300 deaths annually, the CDC reports.
Christian sociologists believe domestic abuse is just as prevalent among churchgoers. "When pastors say it's not in my backyard, we can say that's not true; we have the data," says Nancy Nason-Clark, Ph.D., a sociology professor at the University of New Brunswick who spent 15 years studying domestic abuse among Christian families in the U.S. and Canada.
In June she launched RAVE, Religion and Violence e-Learning (theraveproject.org), a Web site designed to assist religious leaders in responding to domestic violence. Although more seminaries discuss domestic abuse in their classes and some ministers consider abuse as biblical grounds for divorce, Nason-Clark says her research shows that churches and clergy, for the most part, have "not taken the problem seriously."
"Most pastors that have not been sought out by a domestic abuse victim have never spoke against it from the pulpit or in premarital counseling," she says, "or made it clear they are approachable and really willing to help."
She and Murphy, who has been divorced from her abusive husband for more than 30 years, join a chorus of Christian counselors and sociologists in calling on church leaders to offer domestic abuse victims support and counseling, and to reject any doctrines that condone family violence.
"The rate of abuse in religious homes across North America mirrors [that of] the general populace," says Nason-Clark, co-author of Refuge From Abuse: Healing and Hope for Abused Christian Women. "However, women of faith are more vulnerable when they are abused [because], according to our research, they are less likely to leave, often look first to the church for resources and wait longer to seek help than other women. That is why it is so critical that pastors are trained to respond to this issue."
During her early years as a pastor's wife Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary professor Catherine Clark Kroeger, Ph.D., says she once found herself driving a young woman across icy roads to help her escape an armed and abusive husband threatening murder. But despite the apparent danger, Kroeger says she felt a nagging sense that she might be undermining the sanctity of marriage by helping the woman leave.
"For many evangelicals the uneasiness associated with confronting abuse in Christian homes springs in part from their perplexity in interpreting certain biblical passages," Kroeger says.
After studying Scriptures addressing submission and government in Christian homes, Kroeger came to believe that there is no place for abuse in Christian homes. "Over a hundred times the Bible says that abuse—whether physical, verbal, emotional or sexual—is wrong, and within our church we must have zero tolerance for such conduct," says Kroeger, who has written extensively on domestic violence and the church, including in the book No Place for Abuse, which she co-authored with Nason-Clark.
Today Kroeger leads Peace and Safety in the Christian Home, an organization she co-founded to assist victims of domestic violence and help train Christians who counsel them. "We must proclaim intolerance of domestic abuse from the pulpits, teach it in Bible studies and talk about it in small groups," she says.
Although many ministers say they feel ill-equipped to address domestic violence, Kroeger says abused Christian women typically turn first to their pastors for help. "It takes enormous courage for a woman to admit she is being abused," Kroeger says. "We know that if the first person she turns to does not know how to respond or questions her, and if she is not believed, that woman is much more likely not to disclose the abuse to anyone else."
Janet* says she never considered telling her church family about the punches and shoves that sent her to the emergency room several times and eventually forced her to relocate and get a divorce. "What do you do?" she says. "At the potluck, you say: 'Please pass the salt. Oh, and by the way, my husband beat me again yesterday, and this time I really did think I was going to die'?"
As a child, Monica* did tell her California church and the teachers at her Christian school that her stepfather beat and raped her and occasionally held a gun to her head while playing Russian roulette. But she says they thought she was being imaginative, so they encouraged her to honor her father and mother and not lie.
When she grew up, history began to repeat itself. Monica married an abusive man and at church, she says, "no one believed he did anything and pretty much made me feel it was my fault."
At couples counseling sessions with their pastor, she says she was told her marriage would be better if she were more concerned about what her husband wanted. But when they were alone, she says her husband told her he could kill her and make the church believe it was her fault.
"I wish the church would have at least listened and understood," she says.
"Honoring your father and mother, honoring your spouse gives no grounds to let someone beat ... you. I was led to believe that somehow it was God's will what was happening to me. For a long time I hated God. [I] ... didn't want anything to do with that kind of God."
Now single and raising a daughter on her own, Monica receives counseling through a local women's shelter. She sends her daughter to church but won't attend herself. She takes psychology courses at the local college hoping to someday work with abused children. "A part of me will always be that little child begging to be believed and seeking an open mind, a willing heart ... and some safe place," she says.
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