15 March 2023

Understanding Abuse in the Context of Christian Marriage

This article was first published in the Social Issues Bulletin – Issue 52: Spring 2023.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Abuse is not just ‘out there’. It flourishes as a form of hidden evil, within family relationships, in the very heart of our Christian communities. This article is my story, so it pertains to the abuse of women, but it is important to understand that men can also be the victims of abuse (although, rarely, violence) as can children. Following recent changes to legislation, children who witness domestic violence are also now victims of child abuse in their own right.

Understanding abuse

What is abuse?

Abuse occurs when one person seizes, or attempts to exercise, power over another in order to control them. It can take various forms, often with two or more forms of control being employed simultaneously. The aim is to coerce the victim into compliance with the abuser’s will. 

 Emotional abuse can be wide ranging and may relentlessly include some or all of:

  • humiliation about issues such as your appearance, capabilities, parenting, weight, conversation and personality
  • isolation from your family
  • blame for everything that is wrong in their lives
  • accusing you of having affairs
  • forbidding you to leave the home without permission
  • telling you what to wear, who to see and what to say
  • monitoring your social media and phone activity, including using a GPS tracker to monitor where you go.

Financial abuse may include:

  • controlling your money or demanding to know how it is spent
  • forbidding you to work
  • controlling access to food, clothes or transport.

Threats and intimidation may involve:

  • threatening to hurt you or the children
  • a menacing posture that includes shouting and/or swearing at you
  • destroying your possessions, especially those you treasure
  • reading or withholding your letters, or reading your emails
  • threatening to kill themselves if you don’t comply.

Physical abuse includes:

  • slapping
  • choking
  • punching
  • pushing or shoving
  • beating

Sexual abuse

  • pressuring you into having sex
  • making demands on you with which you are uncomfortable
  • demeaning you as a sexual partner

Any, or all, of these factors can combine, sometimes over a period of years, with the abuser shifting between different strategies of coercion and control. This list is not exhaustive – abusers are endlessly creative in finding ways to induce fear. Abuse is not about anger. It is never about anger management. Abusers are skilled in using anger to intimidate – they manage their own anger to great effect.

How can we see it?

The simple answer is, you can’t. Abusers are usually narcissists who, to everyone outside of the home, appear to be good leaders: charming, attentive and articulate. They embed themselves wherever they can hide in plain sight – the only difference between an abusive Christian and any other abuser is simply the context in which they choose to operate. They will always embed themselves in a community where they can take advantage of a narrative to perpetuate abuse, whilst appearing to be pillars of their community. It is why they can go unseen, sometimes for decades. They are also very skilled in ensuring that any physical injuries which they cause aren’t easily visible.

Abused Christian women are often only allowed to take the children to school, and go to church, where they can be constantly monitored. So it might help to be aware of any women who never seem to have their own conversations with their own friends within the church. Are there any ladies in your small groups who never come alone? Are there any women who always seem anxious about getting it wrong, or who become visibly distressed or shaky about common or simple mistakes that nobody else would otherwise notice? Do they often look at their husbands for tacit approval, rather like a young child might look at a parent? Are they always immaculately turned out?

But that said, these are only possible indicators of a distressed person. It may just be that the person concerned is shy or struggles with socialisation.

What can we do about it?

The most helpful thing any church can do is to demonstrate awareness of abusive relationships. In the same way that visible safeguarding protocols are more likely to deter people looking for children to harm, so visible anti-abuse signals can deter abusive men. Unless those being abused are children or protected adults, this isn’t a safeguarding issue, so don’t assume that your safeguarding procedures are enough. Awareness could include the books you make available on the bookstall; open discussions about the issue (particularly in marriage preparation); joining and promoting a Christian organisation such as Restored  (https://www.restored-uk.org/) and making their contact details openly available, and being thoughtful about the language used in preaching – there is more about this in a later section. 

If someone in your church discloses abuse, you will need a range of practical steps to offer. These include:

  • believing her
  • telling your church’s Safeguarding Lead if children are witnessing violence in the home
  • having contact information for the national domestic abuse helpline to hand
  • providing safe homes if a woman needs to flee, co-ordinated so that one of those homes is available 24/7
  • setting money aside to help with immediate food, clothing and shelter needs
  • having contact with a solicitor, if a restraint order is needed 
  • providing a pre-paid mobile phone, topping up credit as necessary
  • offering the use of a computer or taking the woman to a library to use a public computer
  • making sure that the person knows how to quickly shut down a website and delete their browsing history if they use a computer at home
  • going with them to their GP, a hospital or the police
  • going with them to any court hearings
  • offering structured childcare and a support network
  • continuing to provide safe homes when respite is needed
  • being careful about physical space – ask before you hug
  • praying specifically – ask her how to pray and check back occasionally to see if those prayer needs have changed.  

Abused women need to hear that abuse is never acceptable. It is not their fault, even though they will have repeatedly been told that they are to blame. Acknowledge that their situation is frightening. Listen and give them time to talk, but don’t push.

What should we not do?

Never ask why she doesn’t leave – the obvious answer to this, of course, is, ‘Why doesn’t he stop?’ We don’t leave for a range of reasons. There are specific issues – fear of losing our security, our homes and/or our children; being judged by family and friends from whom we have long since been isolated; not being believed; inability to financially support ourselves alone; because we believe in the sanctity of marriage and for a long time (sometimes years after the most horrific abuse ends) we still love the person we married, and fear of reprisal. And there are general issues – self-confidence and hope have long gone and our lives are enshrouded in fear and anxiety which knows no object but has become our way of being. 

Above all, whatever you do, never try to persuade a woman to leave. If you do so, you join the chain of coercive control and there is a significant risk of her returning to a dangerous situation if the choice is not entirely hers. It could also put her life in more danger if she makes a risky move that provokes violence. Only she knows her situation and how to plan safely. Only she will know when it is time to go. And when that time comes, be there. One horror is ending, but many other unknown terrors lie ahead.

After she leaves, don’t advise her to seek couples counselling or mediation with a view to rebuilding the marriage. This is very rarely appropriate because this is not simply a matter of a relationship that has gone wrong. It should only ever be led by a skilled professional and should only happen after both people have had time apart and they are both willing, openly, honestly and without any external persuasion, to explore the possibility of reconciliation. It would also depend on the extent and nature of the abuse and the length of time that it has endured. There is a clear path in violent abuse from the first attack, through spiralling violence to death. Abusive men are highly plausible and will agree to anything in order to regain control of their ‘possession’. If you facilitate this because you believe that reconciliation is doctrinally necessary, or is somehow an aspect of demonstrating forgiveness, you could be sending someone back to their death – the rate of genuine repentance in narcissistic abusers is virtually zero. 

Understanding the narratives

To understand the narrative of an abuser, you need to understand how clever they are at using the same language as you, but meaning something quite different. In the context of a Christian marriage, this becomes an issue of spiritual abuse, alongside all the other forms of abuse that victims have to navigate and endure.

In the hands of an abuser, it is common for the Bible, which you see as the precious word of God, to become another, very effective, weapon. Forgiveness is expected as a right. Submission is imposed. Obedience is demanded. Failure to comply is a sin and sinners are worthless. Marriage is a covenant made before God, so it can never be ended except in death. Men are the God-appointed leaders of their homes, so any question is a challenge to his authority and is therefore a challenge to the authority of God. That makes us sinners. Sinners are worthless. And so the cycle continues, with bible verses constantly being corrupted out of context in order to crush us into spiritual obedience.

Those in churches which embrace complementarianism, face another problem because it’s their interpretation of the dominant-male, submissive-female roles which gives the abuser church-sanctioned permission to abuse. While this may be a distortion, it’s important, if you lead a complementarian church, to understand how this can be manipulated and to be thoughtful in how the doctrine is articulated. Take care that your teaching isn’t inadvertently grooming women for abuse or creating a culture in which abusers can flourish.

Everything in the home (and even the church) becomes a spiritual failing which is her fault. If a child misbehaves, it’s because their mother has failed in her spiritual obedience to the head of the house. If anyone gets upset, it’s because of some supposed spiritual failing. If a child lies, they have learnt to lie from a dishonest mother.

These are just a few examples, which make it difficult to know how to help a victim in your church without knowing what narratives have been twisted. For some, prayer has become such a potent weapon that just the offer of prayer becomes a trauma trigger. For others, it might be specific bible verses, or maybe church itself has become an unsafe place. The language of church ‘family’ can be a traumatising reminder of the warped wreckage that has engulfed her personal family. Until an abused person is able to trust you and confide in you (and in abuse recovery that may take a long time) it is best to pray personally for trust to grow and for wisdom in what to say spiritually. While that trust is growing, take real care to include her in any practical way that you can – social activities, walks, trips, cooking meals – so that she can remain part of the church community.

It didn’t take me long to realise that the image of our ‘perfect’ Christian family was manufactured for public consumption, because I grew up in a home with an abusive father who was also a church leader, so I knew what that was all about. But it was years before I realised the extent of the narrative twisting. Honesty was supposed to be the cornerstone of our relationship. There are no words to describe the brutal impact of the betrayal when, looking back down the decades of my marriage, I finally understood the depth of his carefully-concealed corruption. My freely given trust and honesty were manipulated and used by a man whose very being was toxic. All my love, trust and faithfulness were smashed up and handed back to me, gift-wrapped in violence.

Understanding divorce

I include this because, for those of us in conservative evangelical churches, teaching on divorce can lead to the church unwittingly abusing those already abused. This isn’t always about the doctrinal view you hold on divorce; it can also be about the way that it is articulated.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told that God hates divorce (and therefore, by extension, God hates me). It should come as no surprise, given that I viewed my marriage as a covenant, that I do, too. The decision was, and remains, overwhelmingly painful. But my choices became divorce or death. The lesser of two evils became a lived reality. It’s important, here, to delineate between a covenant and a civil contract. I took vows before God – that is the covenant, which I did not break. Divorce was the necessary breaking of a civil contract in order to protect myself and secure provision for my future. So be precise in the language you use – God grieves over broken covenants, not negotiated contracts.

Be clear about divorce. It’s never trivial. It’s not a clinical paper exercise. It’s an ugly process that involves having to relive the abuse time after time, with solicitors, in court papers and, for many, in court facing their abuser. It is a gladiatorial process which you have to endure when you are already traumatised and vulnerable. So it really hurts when Christians describe divorce as a ‘marriage wreckers’ charter’. Our marriages were wrecked long before we took refuge in legal proceedings and we didn’t do the wrecking – that was done by men who used God’s words as an abusers’ charter. Yet we are held accountable for the divorce.

The other phrase, which hurts even more, involves deciding if we have been ‘biblically divorced’. After my marriage ended, I had to move. This involved finding a new church, while I was suffering from PTSD and grieving the loss of everything I had known for nearly 40 years, including a loving church fellowship where I had been cared for and supported. When I asked to become a church member, I was introduced to this concept of ‘biblical divorce’. I was interviewed by the pastor, who asked for full disclosure of the nature and extent of the abuse. That triggered a trauma response that left me numb and functionless for weeks. He asked if he could share the details with the elders. I agreed. But without my knowledge or consent, the details were then shared with the whole church. The reason I was given for this abuse was that the church was entitled to know in order for its members to decide if I was ‘biblically divorced’. I was duly given the correct label to wear and permitted entry. I fled. Is it surprising that so many of us abandon church altogether? And many of us who do stay exist in the margins.

Sadly, even though God shows me compassion, not judgement, I still have to be judged before I’m ‘allowed in’ to some Christian organisations beyond my church. Why must I keep reliving the trauma so that you can give me a ‘biblically divorced’ label to stick on myself? Who are you to judge me?

This problem, it seems to me, comes from the practice of deriving rules instead of considering principles. Marriage is a covenant. Covenants get broken. Instead of forming rules to decide who is allowed in and who isn’t, look at how the covenant was broken and who broke it. And instead of applying rules and discipline, extend love and pastoral care to those of us who broke along with our marriages.

Understanding in the church

Diane Langberg, a Christian psychiatrist with extensive experience in supporting abused women right around the world, posted this statement recently on Twitter: ‘Christianity does not look like praying and singing and giving money while ignoring the screams and unspeakable suffering of others.’

Do you hear our screams of pain? 

Some churches don’t want to listen because of a (mistaken) belief that forgiveness and reconciliation can restore every marriage; because it might involve the church in adverse publicity or simply because the abuser is a popular, well-respected man. Either way, anyone who doesn’t want to listen is responsible in part for the conspiracy of abuse that keeps us silent.

Many churches long to listen, but don’t know what to do. And to those churches I would say take on board the content of this article, and also think about the following.

Be thoughtful about the language you use – and this applies to many traumatised people, including any fostered or adopted children in your church community. Punishment for sin is a concept which we all understand, right? But for abused people, who have been told (in the case of children for all of their short lives) that they deserve the abuse because they’re bad, this can reinforce what they’ve been made to believe – that the abuse is God’s punishment of them.

We embrace hospitality as a spiritual practice. What might this mean to a woman with no home, or for whom ‘home’ is her only place of safe refuge? Or a woman who has been told for so many years that her cooking is inedible that she could never invite anyone for a meal?

Be careful how you talk about forgiveness to an abuse survivor. That must come in her own time, after she has come to terms with what has happened to her and God has led her gently to the point of being able to forgive.

If you are preaching on anything which you know might be a trigger, let her know in advance. This includes preaching about family, marriage or sexual abuse. Know who the people are on the margins of your church and find actions beyond words to let them know that they are loved and supported. Keep in touch with anyone who isn’t able to come to church – this might seem counterintuitive to you, but for an abused woman, crowded spaces, people who all seem to know what they’re doing, and the need to sit still for periods of time can be beyond them. If we go to church to be honest before God, we cannot leave our pain locked in the box marked ‘Do Not Touch’ where it hides while we get on with our daily lives. So there is always a fear that the pain will spill out of its box and flow out of control in public. We need to know we are safe before we risk a trauma relapse in public.

I have been part of conservative evangelicalism all my life. I have heard plenty of sermons on male leadership qualities, the role of women as submissive, obedient helpers of their husbands and the reasons why a woman can’t teach or lead. I have never once, in all of those years, heard anyone say that God won’t hear the prayers of any man who does not honour his wife and treat her as an equal partner (1 Peter 3:7) or that a husband should love and cherish his wife as Christ does the church, even to the point of death.

Allow for interpretation of the Bible. Of course, a church must have a central set of doctrines on which its leaders agree, for the sake of order in the church. But if you aren’t willing to discuss differences, then you are responding in just the way an abuser does – telling his victim that there is only one way to believe and you are its gatekeeper. Do you listen and consider views? Or do you shut down discussion because it feels like a threat to your leadership? At the next church, as very much a last-ditch hope that evangelicalism would step up, I invited the minister and his wife for dinner. Raw from my previous experience, I wanted to know what the church’s position was on divorce. I grilled them more thoroughly than the food I offered. I still go to that church.

Please employ a female worker who is trained in walking alongside victims of domestic abuse and those in trauma recovery. Read the books listed at the end of this article. Appoint an elder to understand and oversee trauma care. 

Understanding trauma

Anyone in your church who has experienced trauma will need help and support, sometimes for many years. This is a big topic and one which encompasses not only domestic abuse, but also victims of violent crime, trafficking, modern slavery, forced marriage and childhood neglect and abuse. In our contemporary society, it’s quite likely that pastors will meet people who are victims of some kind of abuse that has left them traumatised, so it’s important that churches understand the issue and know how to help, including knowing when to engage a professional counsellor.

Personal testimony

I end with a personal testimony. My life has been defined by abuse, first at the hands of a Christian father and then for decades at the hands of a Christian husband. I didn’t know what it was to be loved unconditionally by another human until I became a mother. But the promises of God are true and faithful. When I sing the hymn ‘In Christ Alone’ I always think of two things. The first is the line, ‘Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me’ because I’m free now, literally, of his sin of abuse, of the grip of his hand around my throat. But much more than that, I stand.

Here, in the love and power of Christ, I stand.

Further Reading

Natalie Collins, Out of Control: Couples, conflict and the capacity for change (SPCK, 2019)

Eryl Davies, Hidden Evil: A biblical and pastoral response to domestic abuse (Christian Focus, 2019)

Helen Thorne, Walking With Domestic Abuse Sufferers (IVP, 2018)

Helen Paynter, The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So, why you don’t have to submit to domestic abuse and coercive control (BRF, 2020)

Esther Sweetman (ed.), Restored: A handbook for female Christian survivors of domestic abuse (Restored, 2019)

This article was submitted by an independent, bona fide contributor, who, for safety and privacy reasons, has asked to remain anonymous. We are happy to agree to this request.


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