By the Numbers: The Silent Epidemic of Domestic Abuse In Christian Churches

Domestic abuse is an insidious, silent epidemic in the Christian community. Sadly, 37% of pastors surveyed say they believe that domestic and sexual violence does NOT occur in their congregations. 

With nearly 1 in 3 American women suffering domestic abuse at some point in their lifetimes, it’s not likely that nearly 40% of churches are completely free of this issue. 

The greater likelihood is that these churches either don’t know how to identify cases of abuse, or do not have the kind of culture in which victims are encouraged to come forward to seek help and healing. In the meantime, victims and their children are terrorized by the effects of intimate partner abuse as they struggle without guidance and support from a spiritual community.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but identifying the fact that there is a problem is the first step.

What the Statistics Show About Churches and Domestic Abuse Awareness

Lifeway Research conducted a study of 1000 Protestant pastors in the summer of 2018. A staggering 54% percent of pastors surveyed said that they are either NOT trained at all, or insufficiently trained, to handle domestic violence issues. 

The good news is that 96% of pastors believe they should do something about abuse if they know about it (and we pray that number will become 100%). Unfortunately, since more than half of pastors surveyed feel they are not adequately trained in this area, the advice they give often can make the problem worse.

For example:

    • 70% of pastors surveyed have either recommended or provided marriage counseling to the couple.

      This is an extremely dangerous practice and is actually illegal in some states when there is a case of known abuse. The prevailing literature on this subject warns against couples counseling for abusive situations. Abuse requires individual counseling for those involved, not couples’ counseling.

    • Only 40% did any kind of safety assessment for the victim.

      Safety is of paramount concern in these situations and must be the first line of treatment for any suspected cases of abuse. An abused person is most in danger at the point of separating from the abuser. Furthermore, victims cannot be relied upon to know whether or not they are in danger- not only does abuse hamper the abused person’s ability to fully perceive what is happening, victims have been groomed to minimize the abuse and don’t report what is happening out of fear of retaliation.

    • 8% of pastors have told the victim to work at the marriage to stop the abuse

      .Abuse is not a marriage problem. Abuse is an individual’s problem, stemming from the abuser’s own unresolved heart issues and traumas. Some may also be dealing with the effects of mental illness (such as narcissistic personality disorder). Abusers use control and deception as a method to manage their thoughts and emotions. The victim cannot change the abuser simply by being “good.”

    • 9% of pastors believe domestic abuse should be resolved within the home instead of seeking outside help.

      An abuser is often so blinded by the need to control that they don’t believe that their attitudes and behaviors are sinful. As such, they do not believe they need to be held accountable. Abusers require outside intervention and consequences, and the abused are ind desperate need of support, protection, and reassurance.

    • 11% of pastors don’t know how to counsel a victim of domestic abuse at all.

      These are devastating facts. The Word of God provides us all we need for life and godliness, and is clear that God hates abuse. The truth has the power to set the oppressed free, in ways that counseling cannot. Yes, counseling is an important tool, but as the Body of Christ, we MUST equip ourselves to both identify abuse and provide protection and refuge for the abused. 

Abuse as Heresy 

Many churches in America offer materials and support in the hopes of supporting strong marriages. PlusONE Parents is absolutely a proponent of strong, God-honoring marriages and families. However, we cannot have strong marriage ministries if we do not also have a proper understanding of what a biblical marriage is and isn’t when it comes to abuse.

 Paul calls marriage a “great mystery” as it is “an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one.” (Ephesians 5:32 NLT) In the metaphor of marriage, husbands represent Jesus Christ, who humbly sacrificed Himself fully for the good of His bride, the Church. Likewise, wives are the embodiment of the church, responding in awe and humility towards her Protector. To outsiders, a marriage should be a clear depiction of mutual devotion in which God’s love for His people is displayed and acted out.

Abuse in marriage is tantamount to heresy because it wrongly portrays the relationship between God and His people.

Jesus does not use manipulation, physical violence, and terror to command the allegiance of His beloved. So when a spouse uses such tactics to control the other spouse, they promulgate an evil perversion of the metaphor of marriage. This distortion infects not only the spouse, but also the children, and the greater community.

And as believers, we are called to be vigilant in purging evil from within the Body of Christ. 

The Church is a place of refuge for the oppressed and downtrodden—which includes victims of domestic violence. But if we do no nothing to root out the sins of abuse in our midst, then we are accomplices to the destruction of these families, which in turn ultimately destabilizes the church community as a whole.

And we can’t wait for victims to come forward—like Jesus, we have to go find them.

As a follow up to this post, we’ve created a list of five SUPER simple ways churches can proactively address domestic violence. Victims and church leaders alike can be encouraged to know that the Church already has everything it needs to engage in the fight.

Have you had difficulty getting domestic abuse support from your faith community? Please contact us or share a comment—your stories help us advocate for other victims in need.

Michelle Donnelly

Michelle Donnelly is the President and CEO of PlusONE Parents, a ministry devoted to helping single parents overcome overwhelming situations to rebuild God-empowered lives and raise up a new generation. A mother of three, Michelle is also the host of The Christian Single Moms Podcast and author of Seen: Hope & Healing for Single Moms as well as Safe Haven: A Devotional for the Abused and Abandoned.

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