As a therapist and advocate who specializes in recovery from abuse, I have been witness to many stories of how survivors of abuse were treated by their church elders and pastors. I can tell you that some church leadership understands the complexities of domestic abuse, but sadly, many more leaders are doing incredible harm to female and male survivors. I do not believe the damage is always intentional, but rather stems from commonly held ideals that are ultimately creating environments where abusers are given “grace-passes” and the victims are left carrying the full responsibility for saving their marriages.
There appears to be significant blind spots within the western evangelical church when it comes to abuse and how leaders are to effectively counsel within the context of toxic marriages and abusive people. I hope to highlight a few of the areas that seem to stumble most church leaders. I am doing this not to bring shame or condemnation to pastors and church staff, but I hope open discussions will continue to occur. Survivors of abuse deserve to receive safe and informed care from their religious leadership. Unfortunately, this is not currently happening in many of our houses of worship in the United States.
Why won’t the church recognize abuse? Magical thinking.
The main issue I have observed is that far too many congregation leaders are teaching a lot about what God can do to change the abuser’s heart and far less instruction on what the abuser must do to be a reflection of Christ’s character to his or her family. The focus is placed on everyone but the abuser. The responsibility of changed behaviors is not where it needs to be, but rather deflected outward and away from the source of pain; the abuser.
Leaders are telling survivors that they must pray more if they want to see their abuser changed, that it is their duty as a wife or husband to remain steadfastly committed like Hosea did to Gomer in the Bible, and that God can change anyone if enough people are praying. Where are the teachings about the abuser repenting and permanently turning away from their harmful lifestyle? Where are the teachings about natural consequences when we mistreat other people? Where are teachings about personal accountability for a changed life? Instead the survivor, and even God, are held out as the only tools of how the abuser will be redeemed and made more Christ-like, even as the abuser does absolutely nothing concrete to be different. It leaves domestic abusers (both male and female) ultimately off the hook and everyone around them left to adjust to their poisonous behaviors.
The idea of wanting change for an abuser, when they themselves put no action towards healing, almost borders on magical thinking.
I recently was in a church lobby and a few people were standing around excitedly talking about a well-known public figure who exhibits abusive behaviors. One person said, “God is going to get a hold of him!” and another said, “He doesn’t know it yet, but God has a great plan for his life.” Of course I had to interject and ask what the abuser might think about God getting a hold of him. I asked what evidence can we see of a changed and repented heart from this particular toxic individual. I shared with them that it concerned me greatly that this small group of people in the lobby wanted salvation and healing for the abuser more than the abuser himself may even want it. At what point have Christians crossed over into dangerous wishful thinking that inhibits their ability to have eyes to see and ears to hear?
There is something very naive and unhealthy about projecting positive character traits on abusers that they do not possess and may have no interest in obtaining. If they did the hard work to become a new creation, then sure, we could join them in celebrating. But to hold out hope for an abuser who shows no lasting signs of change is like hoping we walk out our front door to a brand new sports car but we refuse to show up to work every day. It’s honestly embarrassing that the collective church will not see people for exactly who they are in their current state, hope and pray for more, but not be blinded to what is right in front of them. We will not change an abuser simply by wishing for it to be true. Sanctification is a process and one that the abuser absolutely must be a part of on a daily basis.
Why won’t the church recognize abuse? Power.
Power is a strong driver for people to remain in denial about abuse going on around them. When toxic people have the ability to get us what we want, we are sadly more willing sometimes to look the other way of character traits that might be unsavory. Many times the worst abusers at home are the same individuals who are showing up to church every time the doors are open. They are seen as pillars in the community, or at least useful to the church in some form or fashion. These powerful abusers are given a quiet pass when concerns are raised about their treatment of their families. People say things such as, “I know him, he would never do the things his wife told the pastor.” You can change the gender and the message is still the same when the abuser is a female. Power or the acquisition of something church leadership wants will, and has, caused many to justify abusive behaviors. They often utilize the magical thinking I mentioned above and decide that the abuser will get better with God’s help, even as the abuser shows no signs of authentically seeking God at all.
Why won’t the church recognize abuse? The covenant of marriage is being held in higher regard than the safety of a spouse and children within an abusive marriage.
I know churches where someone can repent of horrendous crimes against people and these individuals will be received within a congregation family but another church member discusses dissolving their marriage because of abuse, and that person will be literally shunned by church leadership and other members. The concept of marriage is held to such a high standard that in some places of worship, it does not matter that evil is being perpetrated within the walls of the family home. Why do some church leaders cling so tightly to the idea of all marriages remaining intact? I think there are two reasons and the first is that sometimes radical things do happen and terrible marriages are restored. Harmful behaviors are addressed and forever changed. Church leaders love those stories of how one of their ministries or their own counsel redeemed a family that looked hopeless. However, not all toxic marriages will go through a 180 shift. Just like not all prayers for a sick person will result in a miraculous and spontaneous healing. Sometimes the body dies and some marriages die as well. Just like the fact that we are not seeing resurrections of bodies at hospitals all over the country, we may not see resurrections of marriages that are abusive when the abuser does not do the hard work to bring lastly healing to his or her family.
The second reason that churches are holding tight to saving marriages, even when one spouse is literally dying within the poisonous environment, is because some church leaders believe that without strong marriages as a foundation, our country is on a collision course with doom. These leaders want to hold onto the concept of the traditional marriage so much that they are literally willing to pretend a marriage is reflecting God’s will even when they know good and well the marriage is a fragile house of cards. As long as it looks good from the outside, right? This sort of thinking perpetuates the fake billboard living that many complain about in regards to modern Christianity.
What can we do when we are worried about the church and its response, or lack of, to abuse in marriages? We first educate ourselves and then we set out to educate our local church leaders. We find books that have been helpful in our journey to understand what abuse looks like in all its forms and we share those books with church leaders. We walk along side a survivor of abuse and tell him or her that we will not spiritually abuse them as well. We will not use Scripture to justify the harm that is being done to them and we will not place the burden of change on the survivor either.
The church should be a sanctuary of hope and healing. Until abuse within Christian marriages is properly handled by all churches in America, we are failing in our calling to carry each other’s burdens and be the hands and feet of a God of justice.
Keep dreaming big!
Bestselling Author of Healing from Hidden Abuse: A Journey Through The Stages of Recovery from Psychological Abuse
I recently spent four days in New York City for a fun girls’ trip. It is an incredible city and one that I am more than happy to visit whenever possible. The city that never sleeps also never disappoints. Each time I have played tourist, the streets of NYC provided numerous life analogies and lessons.
Our 2016 trip was full of different opportunities to be self-reflective. I don’t know if you’re like me but I am almost in a constant state of reflection. As I go about my daily life and run into different moments, I often subconsciously am filtering and filing away experiences. I later return to these little snapshots of time and apply some meaning to them. Examples? There were plenty while in the Big Apple!
The first moment of reflection came as we were flying into LaGuardia airport. We were scheduled to arrive at a specific time so when the plane started to make a clear and what seemed to be a slightly rapid decent, I began to get a little nervous. I enjoy flying and especially love taking off. The feeling of the plane’s wheels lifting off the ground is probably one of my most favorite things in life. Landing? Now that’s a slightly different story. I love landing into my home airport of Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) because it is such a smooth ride back into the Lone Star state. This particular approach into New York City was quite the opposite. It came fast and furious. As I said to the pilot as we exited, “That felt like an aircraft carrier landing.” Boom! The bird is out of the sky. As a matter of fact, we landed 13 minutes before our scheduled arrival so a part of me wonders if the traffic controller called us in early and so out of the sky we came in hot.
One minute I was reading a dumb, brainless magazine with a lot of pictures about reality TV stars and the next we were on the ground ready to start our girls’ tour of the city. There was little mental prep time for our arrival. Has this sort of experience ever happened to you? Where life just showed up and you had to adjust quickly? I am sure it has to all of us. It is usually more than just landing quickly but this served as a good moment to reflect on how well do we adjust to ever changing life situations. Some of us can switch gears quicker than others and it can often be a cause of stress for people.
My next moment for reflection came as my friend and I tried to check into our hotel. I had been in charge of this reservation and even though I am 100% sure the computer screen said “two double beds” when I booked it, the confirmation said “double bed.” Singular. Not double. We did not realize this issue with the reservation until we opened the door to our proposed room and saw one bed. Surely they just made a mistake and gave us the wrong room so we schlepped our luggage back downstairs to the lobby. Once back down there they informed us that our reservation said one bed, they were completely sold out, and did not believe the single bed mistake was actually theirs to own. I, on the other hand, felt very strongly that I travel enough and am a perfectionist enough to know that I did not book the wrong room.
This moment provided an immediate reflection of joy and excitement. What? Joy and excitement? Yes! You see, I had not really wanted to stay at that particular hotel and once I saw it in person, I was sure I didn’t want to stay there. This goof allowed me the freedom to say “adios” to the one bed hotel and high-tail it further uptown to the beautiful accommodations that I had stayed at before on a previous visit. Sure, there were issues of billing and getting my refund from the one bed dump, but I was in New York City with my best girlfriend and I wasn’t going to fret over it right then! The need to switch hotels upon our arrival to the city reminded me that sometimes things don’t work out for very good reasons and just going with the flow of life is for our benefit. As I laid my head on my pillow that night and in the hotel I felt very comfortable, I was so happy that the other reservation fell through.
The third moment I want to share with you happened while on the couture floor of Bergdorf Goodman. One of the things I enjoy the most about visiting NYC is the history of the fashion industry that flourishes in the region. I love walking along 5th Avenue and Madison and seeing the beautiful designer stores full of incredibly detailed designs and fabrics. These gorgeous items are way out of my budget and never coming home with me, but I can still get giddy and excited to visit these historical designer houses that have made heavy footprints in women’s fashion and culture.
During this trip, my friend and I walked through the incredible Bergdorf Goodman store. Even though it was painfully apparent by my casual vacation clothing that I was a tourist and not going to be trying on any items, each and every staff member was exceptionally gracious and welcoming. Immediately upon arriving to another designer’s area of the store, I happily announced to the sales person, “just looking around!” I didn’t want to pretend to be something I am not and a couture shopper at Bergdorf Goodman is what I am not. I am happily okay with that too. As I walked from designer to designer, I reflected on the fact that there are often times when we feel out of place in a particular environment and our attitude makes all the difference in our enjoyment level of the experience. Could I have felt sloppy and low-brow while walking around very high-end fashion that I can’t afford? Sure. But what point would there be in degrading myself in my inner dialogue? Instead I accepted myself as I am and enjoyed the beautiful items that will never be mine to own. Were other ladies shopping and taking Bergdorf bags home with them? Yes. Did it bring out jealousy in me? Not at all. I only needed to walk up the street towards Central Park to be reminded that some people are wondering where their next meal is coming from. Unfortunately, in our country you can see people plunking down thousands of dollars in department stores and others do not have any place indoors to sleep at night. Honestly, the spectrum is a little too wide for my taste. As I walked among the couture dresses and watched other women buying, I did not succumb to envy because I know my place in the world and am happy with it. I have the means to book a getaway with a friend but not enough for high fashion. I am okay with my perch on the tree of life.
As we maneuver through our daily lives, we should be aware of the different moments that can lead us to a quiet inner dialogue. What life reflection moments have you had recently? I hope you are gentle with yourself during these little spaces in time.
This political election has divided many friends and family members. Just to get a break from the heated rhetoric, people have had to unfriend their own parents or siblings on social media. Friendships have been severed and tension is present in the workplace. No time in recent history has a more divided ideology been present in our culture. We simply do not agree with the “other side” and cannot wrap our thoughts around how the opposing viewpoint can come to the conclusions that they have recently. Now, welcome to the holidays where we are expected to come out from behind our computer or phone screens and interact with people that we previously withdrew from out in cyberspace. Face to face, in the same physical space for hours or even days at a time. Heaven help us! I know many of you are nervous about it and with good reason, honestly.
If you find yourself dreading getting together with your family members who see life very differently than you do, let’s talk about some of your options and a few coping skills that might help.
#1: Just Don’t Go
You do have the right to say that given the tension that is already present because of this election, you are simply going to sit this holiday out. Your relatives might not like that decision but as an adult who has complete domain over themselves, you get to choose where and when you engage with people. This is especially true if these family members have been abusive or very ugly to you about your beliefs. There are consequences for being unkind to people and maybe you choosing to not join them is the feedback they need to hear.
#2 Set Boundaries Ahead of Time
If you decide that going is the best option for you, then maybe consider a family group text or email letting everyone know that you are looking forward to seeing them and under no circumstances do you plan to stay if anyone brings up the election. Weren’t we supposed to stay away from discussions of politics and religion anyways with people? This year has taken that etiquette suggestion and put it on steroids.
#3 Simple Answers
You have decided to go to the festivities, sent your group warning to talk about anything but the election (and religion), and someone decides to ignore your boundaries. What do you do? You could immediately put your fork down, stand up, and walk out but that’s a bit dramatic for most people. Let’s at least try to defuse and redirect before you grab your coat and head home. Simple replies such as the following might be helpful:
“My text (or email) was very clear. I am not talking about this. Thanks.”
“There are many opinions on this topic.”
“We will have to wait and see what happens.”
“Did you know the Cowboys are 9-1?” (that might only work in Texas but you could reply with a very random fact that shows you are not going to take the bait to get into a political argument.)
The absolute worst thing would be to start talking about the popular vote or protests or God’s specific opinion about America’s election. Back away, back away, back away.
#4 Don’t Drink Too Much and Don’t Stay Too Long
Get in, get out, and don’t get drunk. That’s actually really good advice for many of life’s situation but especially around the holidays in the middle of the social climate we have now. If you find yourself wondering how this holiday will go, then don’t stay too long and wear out your welcome. Quality and not quantity will be your friend. Maybe by Christmas tempers will have cooled and you can plan for a longer visit. Right now for Thanksgiving, let’s not add any new wounds. It might feel odd being a bit more formal and emotionally distant with your family, but I assure you it is a much better option than allowing emotions to spill over and letting it get out of hand.
I wish you well as we head into this holiday week and don’t forget self-care if your plans include extended periods of time with family who might want to drag you into discussions you do not want to have. My hope is that most people are more obnoxious while hiding behind their social media accounts and will soften as everyone sits down around the table to give thanks. If that doesn’t happen, know that you have the power and right to leave any environment that is not safe for you.
Happy almost Thanksgiving. I am thankful for each of you!
When a close friend shares with you that the pastor made uninvited sexual advances towards her and you argue that the pastor is a godly man and wouldn’t do such a thing, you just don’t care enough about protecting people against abuse in a religious community.
When you see bruises on your sister’s arm and know that her husband has a history of physically hurting her and you choose to not ask her about the bruises, you just don’t care enough to make things messy within the family.
When your young child tells you that the female babysitter is making him do things that are “scary” and you ignore his words because it’s more convenient for you to keep using the same sitter, you just don’t care enough to protect your child from harm.
When you see a co-worker being lied about and their career damaged because of the toxic behaviors of others, you just don’t care enough about workplace abuse to be part of the solution to stopping it.
When you know a friend plays psychologically abusive mind games with his girlfriend and is obviously causing her intense emotional distress, you just don’t care enough to stand up to the abuser and tell him you see the games he plays.
When you watch several family members scapegoat another member to the point of causing anxiety for the person, you just don’t care enough to be an ally to the abused individual because you don’t want to be targeted too.
When you know your friend’s wife chronically belittles and berates him to the point of causing him to be depressed, you just don’t care enough to tell him that he deserves to be treated better.
When you look the other way to abuse, exploitation, and discrimination you simply just don’t care enough.
Will you care enough when the tide of life shifts and you are the target?
Will someone else care enough about you and intervene?
What have you recently done to show that you are willing to stand in the gap for another person?
Or what have you done to send the message that you just don’t care?
What are you willing to do to stop abuse in all its forms?
Your answers to these questions will help shape the type of communities we all reside within.
Survivors, know that many of us do care. Many of us work tirelessly to loudly ring the warning bell that abusers walk among us. Many of us love you as sisters and brothers. Many of us believe that bad things did happen and were covered up by people who should have stood up for you. Many of us are you, a survivor, too.