John Shore Christian Blog and Commentary

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Why Pastors Struggle With Confronting Domestic Violence

In response to An Abused Wife Twice Betrayed, a truly disheartening number of women wrote in to relate their own stories of pastors who, in one way or another, advised them to stick with their abusive husbands: to be more submissive, a better sex partner, to pray more, etc.

So I started thinking about the weirdness of so many women having such similar stories, when I personally have never known a single pastor whose moral compass was so thoroughly tweaked that he actually thought it was in any way acceptable for a husband to abuse his wife.

I've known a lot of pastors. And I have real difficulty believing that any one of them, tacitly or otherwise, would ever condone domestic violence.

And yet here were all these women telling me that's pretty exactly what happened with their pastor. And I know those women were not lying, or somehow mistaken about what had happened to them. When a person is writing the real raw truth of their lives, their words take on a simple, clarion integrity that even the most accomplished fiction writers struggle to convincingly fake. There could be no doubting the veracity of these women's stories. Their pastors really had pooh-poohed their fears and concerns, and, Bible in hand, had essentially pushed them back into the swinging arms of their abusive husbands.

Which could only mean that the pastors whom I couldn't imagine doing such a terrible thing---or at least pastors very much like them---had, in fact, done that terrible thing.

But how? How could these good, loving, well-intentioned men give advice that's so manifestly, egregiously, cruelly wrong?

And that's what led to my wife Catherine and I thinking of the following six reasons they might:

1. Domestic violence is fundamentally unbelievable. Like all true evil, domestic violence is basically incomprehensible. Most people find it simply inconceivable that any man would systematically victimize his own wife and children. The monstrousness of it renders it unimaginable. So I think it's easy for pastors to, in fact, fail to imagine it. When faced with a woman saying that her husband is abusing her, pastors must sometimes immediately and even instinctively assume that in some fundamental way the woman must be mistaken. He assumes that her perception is suspect; that she's exaggerating; misunderstanding; rushing to unsupportable conclusions; too upset; too emotional. He hears a woman complaining that her husband is abusing her as he would the same woman complaining that a Sasquatch keeps eating her roses. It's just sort of ... not possible. Must be an ape that escaped from the zoo. Must be a bipedal deer wearing a faux-fur coat. Must be a bear desperate for sweet-smelling breath. Must be anything but a Sasquatch. Nothing else makes sense.

2. Wife abusers are masterful manipulators. I've known guys whom I knew were beating their wives, and while I was talking with them I could not for the life of me see it in them. Guys who abuse their wives and children are typically the friendliest, most sincere, open, warm, kind, generous, good-natured people you'd ever want filling your hat with horse crap when you're not looking. Next to a wife abuser, the most successful car salesman in the world is a groveling blubberer in a confessional booth. Wife abusers are sociopaths. They could talk the stink off a skunk. And guess who's at the top of the list of people the abuser is determined to fool? Exactly: The family pastor. Who is very much inclined to love and trust people. Most pastors don't stand a chance against a perpetrator of domestic violence.

3. Pastors think spousal abuse only happens in certain kinds of families. Most people still have the idea that spousal abuse only or primarily happens in certain types of families---in poor families, mainly: in the kinds of families whose members have no particular reason to care one way or another what anyone thinks of them. This stigma has stuck. I used to know a handsome, extremely successful lawyer who regularly beat his beautiful, extremely successful lawyer wife. (He struck her on her back and stomach, where the bruises wouldn't show.) When she finally began telling others of her suffering, most responded like she was the Queen of England complaining about the blinds in one of the palace sun rooms: a concern, perhaps, but not exactly a crisis. It just didn't make sense to people that a couple so rich, good-looking, and successful could be involved in the sort of dreadful behavior that most of us have no trouble whatsoever associating with poor white trash. And pastors are just as susceptible as the rest of us are to the unfortunate assumptions of classicism.

4. Pastors haven't thought enough about the gray area between "submit" and abuse. A lot of pastors hold to the traditional Biblical definition of the proper relation between a husband and wife. (Which would be defined by Paul, at Ephesians 5:22: "Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.") But I hardly think that from that pastors typically extrapolate that it's acceptable for husbands to abuse their wives. Most pastors know that the rest of that passage from Ephesians enjoins husbands to "love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her ... ." I think it's safe to say that pastors get that it's wrong for a husband to beat or otherwise abuse his wife and kids. But I also think that not enough pastors have spent the time their positions dictate they should thinking about the broad, fuzzy line between biblical submission and repugnant victimization. You start throwing around words like "authority" and "submission," and you've put yourself on one slippery slope straight toward one demoralizing place. Pastors need to face and acknowledge that. They need to take case-by-case responsibility for drawing a clear demarcation line between the kind of "submission" they and the church has traditionally understood as healthy, and the kind of submission everyone knows is unhealthy. In Ephesians, Paul is delineating a principle. Principles divorced from thoughtful, practical application almost necessarily harden into tired, toxic dogma.

5. Pastors believe what they preach. Pastors believe in the power of Christ to heal, to bring new life, to reclaim, to save, to resurrect. They believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to correct and ennoble. They believe in the efficacy of prayer. They believe that through the community of church God radically and permanently transforms people's lives. They believe in the enduring, righteous strength of marriage and family. A pastor faced with a woman saying she's being abused at home is about as inclined to advise that woman to leave her husband as a brain surgeon is to advise someone diagnosed with a brain tumor to seek out the healing powers of a shaman. Pastors don't advise divorce; they don't recommend the shattering of a family unit. They believe not in dissolution, but resolution. By virtue of their vocation, pastors believe that if a husband and wife will only remain in union, keep attending church, and continue to bring their strife to God, all will be well between them. A pastor advising an abused woman to just stick it out with her husband is actually being quite sweet. He's also being really stupid and harmful. But it's sweet, insofar as his advice reflects his love, hope, and belief in God.

6. Pastors simply aren't trained about domestic violence. A pastor faced with a domestic violence problem is like a football player faced with a curling stone: he kind of knows what to do with it, but not really. What do pastors know about domestic violence? They're not taught about it in seminary; the subject never comes up at their conferences, retreats, or seminars. Domestic violence is simply not a subject present on the big pastoral radar. So just as a football player told to do something with a curling stone might try to punt, hike, or ... well, pass the stone, so a clergyman faced with a domestic violence problem is likely to counsel patience, forbearance, and the discernment of the will of God. Each man is just doing what he knows. And in so doing each, of course, creates pain.

It's not enough for us to simply desire that our pastors do a better job of handling issues of domestic violence. We must also help them to obtain the training necessary for doing so.