IT IS TIME TO BEGIN SPEAKING: The Church and Domestic Violence

My thanks to for this excellent article.


By Kimberly B. George

The number of American soldiers killed in Iraq almost equals the number of women who have been killed on American soil by husbands and boyfriends over the same span of time. Since 2003, just over 4000 American soldiers have been killed in the war. Approximately 6000 women have been killed on the homeland (1).

Like the soldiers killed in battle, these deaths have left children without parents, fathers without daughters, brothers without sisters. Children witnessing domestic violence are suffering posttraumatic stress disorders. Many of the boys who witness the violence of their fathers will themselves grow up to physically, emotionally, or verbally abuse their partners.

I long for Christian communities to pay more attention.

* * *

I have often wondered why I have been in the evangelical church pews for 14 years and yet have never heard a sermon preached to unpack the complex reality of domestic violence in our society. Why have I never even heard the very words domestic violence from a pulpit? Why is this traditionally such a silent and unnamed issue in our churches?

Because domestic violence, in its very nature, feeds on our silence, like any kind of abuse. Women in these relationships are often controlled, isolated, and threatened to speak of what is happening to them. The psychological damage is so deep that many have felt stripped of a sense of self, not to mention any kind of financial resources. Women and children fleeing domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness– in fact, some studies have claimed up to 50% of homeless women are fleeing violence in their homes.

Domestic violence is a deep wound in our society that cuts across lines of class, education, religion, race, and socio-economics. Christians are not immune. I know an agency in my own city that routinely serves male pastors and other churchgoers who are coming forward needing help for their abusive patterns in their marriages. The agency offers assistance to Christians who abuse and Christians who are being abused.

But what of the intervention of our churches? First, Christians need to acknowledge and grieve for our historical failure to intervene. John Calvin– a prominent voice in much of our Protestant theology– once exhorted an abused wife, “to bear with patience the cross which God has seen fit to place on her…to please her husband…[and] be faithful whatever happens.” He explained that while he had sympathy for her, he could not advise her to leave her husband. While I think most of our church leaders today would disagree with Calvin if directly asked about the issue, it is not entirely easy to tell. I don’t hear anything from the pulpits on domestic violence. I don’t know what the message is in the silence, for not speaking is itself a strong message. Is this issue just not relevant or important to the Christian church?

If and when domestic violence is addressed from the pulpit, it needs to be done with resources for follow-up that will protect the safety and confidentiality of the victims. Leaving an abuser is statistically the most dangerous time for an abused woman. We need safe houses in our churches; education for our congregants; counselors in our midst; and people with experience navigating the danger of these situations.

But, we do need to begin to speak. We do need to engage our culture with Good News– both for perpetrators and victims. Many of the perpetrators know these patterns of physical, emotional, verbal and sexual violence because they too grew up in a home with such abuse. Men who perpetrate need help and compassion, too. Our society often does not give men what they need to be able to recover well from their own pain and traumatic experiences; nor does it provide very much guidance in emotional development within the context of certain stereotypes of masculinity. The church needs to listen to men, too, in coming to better understand why some men harm women.

We need to hear what it means for men to grow up in a culture where certain emotions are nearly taboo for them; where bravado is more respected than vulnerability; where being a man often means being in control and having authority; where many boys are without good fathers and role models and are simply getting terribly missed. We need to know what the church, the media, and their families are teaching men about being “men” and what has been gained and lost in the internalization of those messages. Men need to consider– together with women– why domestic violence is so widespread in our culture, and begin to speak out loud that the prevalence is not acceptable and change is an urgent need. We all need to ask what drives some men to harm women, and why do many women find themselves unable to leave such relationships? These issues are complex. We can’t assume we have all the answers, but will we start to educate ourselves?

Statistics are beginning to indicate that domestic violence in some Christian communities is on par with secular communities (2). Even more startling, is that the research is finding that Christian women stay in these abusive relationships longer, which is particularly frightening, because as those who study DV know, abuse only gets worse over time. Because “until death do us part is taken very seriously” in Christian culture, it can be very difficult to get out of abusive marriages. Furthermore, there might be not be safe places in churches for the abuse to be disclosed– especially when the abuser has a high position of power within his church.

* * *

It is ironic to me that in the church at large we are talking a lot about gender issues, but we are someone missing this one. It seems it is popular to sideline the realities of domestic violence for a host of matters considered more pressing. Because the Women’s Movement of the 70’s has disrupted may timeless notions of masculinity and femininity– effecting social and political change with surprising momentum–the church finds itself in a unique historical moment to re-define and discuss gender roles in the family and church. The church tends to enter the controversy of gender from two entrenched camps. Complementarians believe men and women are equal, but argue for hierarchy in marriage; egalitarians tends to argue for principles of mutual submission. Often, there is little common ground or creative attempts to hear one another. The tragedy is that while the evangelical church is engaged in heated matches on gender roles¬, the world is waiting by. While the church is arguing its gender battles, we are in danger of becoming scandalously irrelevant. We don’t hear the cries of those who are hurting over the sounds of our proof texts. We don’t recognize that there are conversations we are not having– and people’s lives are at stake because of it.

The church has a prophetic role within both local and global contexts to speak out against harmful structures of gender and power. On a global scale, domestic violence is the leading cause of death and disability for women aged 16-44 (2). This statistic ought to stop us, grieve us, and provoke us– and we must be more curious about the world in which we live and how we take part in unaddressed harm. Regardless of our theological differences, we need to ask: How do all of us nurture– or do not nurture– the voices of women in our communities? How would nurturing the voices of women help the church in both preventing domestic violence and fostering a proactive approach to teaching healthy relationships? Likewise, what is happening in our culture at large that masculinity is so often equated with aggression and dominance, and passivity and submission is equated with femininity? How are these stereotypes affecting how men and women live into relationship with one another, even within Christian marriages? As followers of Christ, can we consider for a moment where the logs are in our own eyes and communities? Addressing widespread statistics of domestic violence must start with our own hearts and we must step out of silence.

We can and will continue to hold different positions on how the Bible defines gender and gender roles. But we must have new conversations, ask new questions, and find new unity to come together so we so we no longer are sidelining domestic violence. The greatest tragedy in the church’s sin of omission on this issue is that we have a Gospel that speaks directly to the restoration of men and women. We have our first Story, when both men and women were given the image of God to hold in them and between them. Christians are not upholding the image of God in women if we are not addressing the widespread problem of domestic violence. It is time to start educating ourselves, break the silence on these issues, and provide help for men and women who will be stepping forward.

(Note to those needing help in the U.S.: Help in your area can be found by researching the web, but please remember abusers can track your search history on a personal computer. You can also call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY at 1-800-787-3224. It is open 24 hours a day and 365 days a year.)

1. The statistics on the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq come from the Associated Press. The numbers on DV come from several sources that are tracking the patterns of homicides in the last decade. The U.S Department of Justice reports that about 1200 women have been killed per year in intimate partner violence in the last several years. The American Institute On Domestic Violence also claims about 1200 woman on average are killed every year by intimate partners. It is important to note that men also suffer from intimate partner violence, though the numbers are much lower and the injuries are usually not as serious, though homicides do in fact occur.

2. Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe 2002, Recommendation 1582 on Domestic Violence against women.

3. See James Alsdurf and Phyllis Alsdurf, Battered Into Submission: The Tragedy of Wife Abuse in the Christian Home (Downers Grove, Il: Intervarsity Press, 1989); and Calvin College Social Research Center, “A Survey of Abuse in the Christian Reformed Church,” Grand Rapids: Calvin College, 1990.

Kimberly B. George is a writer and teacher in Seattle, WA. She is currently writing a book on issues related to gender and Christian faith. She blogs, and can be reached at

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