When Churches Get it Wrong


Lately I’ve been posting comments and questions to my twitter and Facebook accounts about churches and how they help or hinder the abused.

If you ask your church for help with domestic violence, and they tell you to submit, pray harder or be a better wife, they can’t help you.

Often abusers hide in the church as wolves in sheep’s clothing. We need to be as innocent as doves and as shrewd as serpents. Matthew 7:15

One way for a domestic violence victim know whether to seek help from their church? Has the pastor ever preached about it?

I have been surprised at the amount of interest these have attracted, but I shouldn’t be. This issue is the reason I started writing my book, A Journey through Emotional Abuse: from Bondage to Freedom. It is the reason I became a domestic violence advocate, and the reason I became a blogger.

When I was in my emotionally abusive marriage, I felt I could never leave my husband because of my faith. I knew all the verses in the bible that said, “God hates divorce”, and a woman must “submit” to her husband. These verses, and the way my church and I interpreted them kept me in bondage for many, many years.

I did try to seek help from my church though. The first time I went to see one of the many pastors in my large church, I went to see an older beloved pastor. He told me, “I don’t think your husband will change unless you divorce him.” Well, he was right about that. At the time however, I was nowhere near ready to do that. The pastor offered to pray for me. He didn’t offer me any practical advice, and how I needed some practical advice! The phone number to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1−800−799−SAFE(7233)* would have really helped me. A list of some domestic violence books to read* would also have helped me. I would have loved the name of a counselor or crisis center in my area I could have called. Any of these things might have saved me three years of pain.

I am sure this pastor had no knowledge of any of these tools, so he only offered to pray for me, and left me to return to my abuser…and three more years of hell.

Two years later, my husband was much more abusive. I decided to try once more to seek help from my church. This time, I went to one of our senior pastors. This pastor listened to my sad tale of verbal and emotional abuse, which had escalated into physical abuse. He offered to speak to my husband, which he did. It made no difference. My husband became more abusive than before. He was furious I had told the pastor what was happening in our home. From that moment forward, he didn’t speak to me (except to rage at me) until I got a restraining order a year later.

We did communicate . . . by email . . . while in the same house. We slept in the same bed, I cooked his meals, we went to church together, and put on a “happy face” for the world. It was really pathetic.

Also during this time, he woke me in the middle of the night by ripping the covers off me to rage at me, he told me how he wanted me to die, he restrained me, he hit me with a belt leaving bruises, he hit our daughter leaving welts on her arm . . . etc.

What was our pastor doing during this time? He called my husband and I separately a few times over a 2 month period. He asked my husband how things were going. My husband lied and said things were improving. Then he asked me how things were, and I told him the truth. Finally, my husband (during a rage) told me to tell the pastor to stop calling. I was afraid of him, so I obeyed. The pastor . . . stopped calling! I hoped he would understand that things were not better and the reason I was asking him to stop calling was I was in danger. But, he had not been trained in domestic violence, so he didn’t get it.

Fast forward 9 months. My life was an interminable hell. I finally called the National Domestic Violence Hotline. They suggested I read Patricia Evan’s book the Verbally Abusive Relationship. I finally acknowledged to myself I really was being abused. The hotline gave me the number of my local women’s crisis center. I went to the crisis center and met with a DV advocate. Within 6 weeks, I had a lawyer, a restraining order, and I had kicked my husband out of my house.

Guess whom my husband called first? You can probably guess . . . our pastor! Our pastor immediately called me, and told me I had no biblical right to divorce!

I can’t remember a time I’ve been angrier. I kept the conversation short. I told him I came to the church twice for help, and that he personally had known for a year I was being abused, but did nothing to help me. I told him I was now afraid for my life, and I couldn’t live in this hell any longer. I said I didn’t want to discuss it any more, and I had better hang up before I said something I would regret.

The next two years of my life were rough. I had to fight for my kids, my reputation at church, and my sanity . . . but that’s a story for another day.

What’s the point of me telling you this story?

My story is not unusual. Christian women** will often go to their churches for help when they find themselves being abused by their “Christian” husbands. They do this because they want to honor their marriage vows, even though their husbands don’t. They are confused about what the bible says about abuse, because it isn’t obvious. They want and need help.

Sadly, most pastors have not been adequately trained about domestic violence. One statistic says that seminaries spend as little as three hours teaching pastors what to do in cases of domestic violence. Given that one out of every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, (and this statistic is the same within the Christian church***), three hours of training is woefully lacking.

The average person does not understand the dynamics of domestic violence. They don’t understand it gets worse over time. They often think it “takes two” to make an argument. Pastors often think if a wife will just “submit”, all will be well. Going to a pastor for counsel who has such erroneous beliefs is worse than seeking no counsel at all.

It can be deadly for an abuse victim.

In Matthew 10:16, Jesus tells his disciples,

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves . . .”

Our pastors, and the church in general, needs to realize that abusers hide in our congregations like wolves among the sheep. Therefore, we need to be as innocent as doves, but as shrewd as snakes. We need to learn how to recognize the wolves, and learn how to prevent them from devouring the innocent sheep among us.

I have created a Domestic Violence Guide for Churches. This guide teaches church leaders about the dynamics of DV and educates them on how to help those who experience it. Click here to preview it.

In my next blog, I will talk about ways churches can help abuse victims who come to them for help. Until then, may the Lord bless you all,


* For a list of Domestic Violence Hotlines around the world, and Domestic Violence books to read, go to my Get Help page.

**The same principles apply if the abuser is the wife and the abused is the husband, although in this case, the husband is not being asked to “submit” to his abusive wife.

***  “. . .religion is not a deterrent…there is just as much abuse (spousal, child, and sexual) in Christian homes as in non-Christian homes”, according to the Christian Coalition against Domestic Abuse. 


This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Danica Gale says:

    So sad! My story is SOOOO similar. I too sought advice from a christian marital counselor who didn’t understand. On top of it, he didn’t have separate sessions for each of us and I was afraid to tell him in front of my husband how he was treating me and some of the stories that went on for fear that I would be punished when I got home. Thanks for sharing!! Glad you’re out and safe now.

  2. Yes, I have blogged about my time with a Christian counselor as well. Very similar situation. He was not trained in DV either. Had both my husband and me in there together. I DID tell the truth, and paid for it with more abuse from my husband later at home.

    I hope you are also out safely Danica! Thanks so much for sharing!!

  3. H. N. says:

    I went to our pastor for some counselling after my husband choked me. I couldn’t breathe well for weeks and had trouble speaking for 4 days. The most that pastor did was tell me how much we’re all in need of grace and forgiveness and thank God for the cross. That was it. I don’t know what I expected but it set the tone for years to come. I thought it was my tongue that caused that situation so I became more and more guarded in what I said. There was never anymore physical violence toward me like that, just punching walls on occasion and breaking things, but the emotional abuse continued. It’s a tricky thing to call something emotional abuse and figure out how to get help for it. It’s hard for me to decipher what is the emotional abuse. My husband is the nicest most generous man I know and the abuse mostly takes neglect form. I have gotten stronger and healthier and have learned about setting boundaries so I no longer feel that I am abused but he does still try the same patterns. The church system served to set him into narcissistic patterns. He is having a very hard time getting out of them because it was so ingrained in us that all of our difficulties were my lack of submission. I think the biggest thing that helped me was the realization that God loved me no matter what happened, that His words of hating divorce and not tearing my marriage asunder were all true even if I was divorced. I am not divorced now nor am I abused as I was though I haven’t entirely taken divorce off the table. I’m giving myself space and time to develop as a person and see how he develops before making that decision. My children and I are safe and have learned how to thrive in spite of the neglect so I feel I have time to make that decision once I am more able to financially stand without his support. It’s a daily decision and evaluation process. Heaven help the people (especially church people) who say ignorant stuff about marital abuse in front of me now!

    • I am thrilled that the abuse in your marriage has actually improved. This is rarely the case. Learning to set boundaries was probably the best thing you could have done for your marriage. At the same time, I am saddened your pastor was not supportive of you. I know how painful that can be, having experienced it myself. I invite you to read my book, A Journey through Emotional Abuse. In the book, I describe how to detect emotional abuse, how to safely stand up to it, what the bible says about abuse, marriage, and divorce, and how to create a safety plan for yourself. I believe a safety plan is important for any abuse victim, no matter if s/he is planning to stay or leave. Congratulations for becoming so strong, and realizing God’s love for you. I pray you will continue to feel His presence and His love as you seek to do His will in this difficult situation. Blessings to you.

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