Kroeger says couples counseling often emboldens an abusive spouse. "Couples counseling in these instances only arms the abuser with ammunition to act out after the sessions and fuels the violence, putting the wife in more danger than before," she says. "Some couples don't even make it across the parking lot to the car before he is ranting, pushing and punching her [because of] what she said about him."
The Rev. Al Miles, author of Domestic Violence: What Every Pastor Needs to Know, agrees. "Perpetrators of domestic abuse, most of whom are male, are master manipulators," says Miles, who has served as hospital chaplain for more than 25 years.
"They can convince even experts in the field that their claims of contrition, remorse and repentance are genuine. In reality, most often these claims are simply a part of a perpetrator's slick scheme, in order to continue to get what he wants when he wants it."
Most abusers come from abusive backgrounds, says John Kie Vining, a bishop in the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) and director of the denomination's Family Ministries department. Some have suffered a brain injury or another kind of trauma, he says. Others are simply immature and unwilling to take responsibility for their behavior.
But many churchgoing abusers also think the Bible justifies their actions. Vining says whenever headship and authority are interpreted to mean domination or control, "there is a misunderstanding theologically, and that gets acted out with the spouse."
Miles agrees. "The Greek text for certain words like 'headship' define 'leader,' as in the leader of a Christian home, as 'servant,'" Miles says. "When the Scriptures give credence to a man 'ruling' his children and his wife, clearly the Scriptures are referring to mutuality."
Author of When Home Is Where the Hurt Is: A Ministry Intervention Guide for Trauma Victims, Vining says he has seen some ministers worsen domestic abuse situations because of faulty theology. "I've had [ministers] who've said to the abused wife: 'You stay in that home, you take his punishment, and you do that as a way to glorify Jesus or to serve the Lord,'" he says.
"That piece of advice, not only is it dangerous, it is not scriptural in the least. What you find in Scripture throughout the Old Testament is a progressive elevation of the status of women and children. And nowhere in the New Testament do you find [license] to abuse other people."
Miles says it is unwise for pastors not to seek out professional help with domestic abuse cases. "When I walk into emergency and operating rooms to have prayer and offer spiritual care, I never pick up a scalpel and start doing the surgery myself. The patient would surely end up dead," he says.
"It is just as dangerous when pastors take on the roles of counselors in abuse situations when they have no training in that area. Professionals need to do that.
"Clearly in these matters spiritual care is vital. However, pastors are well-intentioned but woefully undertrained in this arena and need to call on the shelters and the professional counselors and others trained in abuse matters."
Hope for the Hurting
Miles and others familiar with characteristics of abusers say the need to control forms the crux of violent behavior, and that leads many abusers to hold high positions in their professions—and in the church.
While serving as an assistant to her pastor's wife, Terri* saw the bruises that makeup never quite covered up and heard the harsh tones the pastor used when he thought no one was listening.
But when her own husband threatened to kill her, Terri still turned to her pastor for counsel. He told her she was lucky to have a husband and family and that she should go home and thank God for them. "He was so busy dibbling in things he shouldn't have been doing," Terri says today.
Those "things," a prosecuting attorney later argued, involved sexually assaulting several young women in the church, including Terri's daughter. "Of course, the church people turned against me because they believed in their pastor," she says. "He had us kicked out of the church when I confronted him about what my daughter told me he did to her."
Although Terri was told Christians shouldn't sue, she pressed charges against the minister, and he is currently in prison. She has since divorced her husband and found a new church home, where she receives counseling.
Kendra*, a former pastor's wife, says her husband abused her for much of their 16-year marriage. Even on Sundays, after preaching sermons about love and mercy, he would come home to beat and berate her.
She says he eventually filed for divorce, saying God told him to leave her. Then he begged her to take him back. When she refused she says he came to their home with two loaded guns and a knife. He was arrested and convicted, but after his release from prison he returned to the pulpit.
Now, 16 years later, Kendra works with domestic abuse victims through a public-benefit organization she founded. She has a burden for pastors' wives in abusive marriages but helps women of all backgrounds address domestic violence and the related issues of homelessness, grief and loss, drug and alcohol abuse, and child custody and legal matters, as well as job training and money management.