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Published Date: July 27, 2016

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When the Church Silences Survivors

I remember how embarrassed I was the day I walked into work with a black eye. I dreaded the questions, knowing I would have to reveal my lost battle with lawn equipment, and worrying that someone might wrongly suspect my husband of abuse. I turned on the office lights, sat down at my desk, and interacted with people all day.

No one said anything about my black eye.

No one, until my boss privately asked about my injury. I told him the whole story of my wrestling match with a weed eater. 

I was relieved that the day’s conversations did not revolve around my black eye, but by evening, it really had me thinking. What if I had been beaten? What would it be like live in fear, to be one of the 5.4 million women in the U.S. who are battered each year?[1]

I have recently begun to see that abuse is much broader than I’d previously believed. I now realize that I narrowly escaped an abusive relationship during college, and missed some serious red flags at the time. My boyfriend always wanted to be with me, to know where I was, and who I was talking to. He once pulled me with him across a busy street with oncoming traffic, and had on one occasion pushed my face down toward a lit gas stove top.

Rather than immediately ending the relationship, I stayed. I was supposed to be nice. I was supposed to please him, not hurt his feelings. I was a woman, and I was supposed to defer to him.  

Why would a well-educated, confident woman fall in line with that kind of thinking? Why would she tolerate such behavior?

In my case, it was because of church doctrine. It was subtle, but it was there nonetheless. 

Mutual submission was not taught in my church culture growing up. Some believed it, some didn’t, but it was never a sermon topic. Women’s groups were focused on pleasing husbands and being good wives.

Additionally, the dangers of abuse were never addressed in the church community. In the fairy tale world of my church, the world many churches still live in, abusive relationships simply did not exist. Men would never abuse their “biblical” power over women, because they were godly men! If a woman was abused, she had clearly done something wrong. And she needed to be the one to make it right.

A reccent heartbreaking and now very public case of a pastor abusing his wife illustrates this well. Mr. Abedini, a pastor, was held in Iranian prison for nearly four years while his wife worked tirelessly for his release. Upon his release and return to the US, he was exposed as an abusive husband. Though he pled guilty to domestic assault in 2007, he denied knowing about the conviction and publicly placed the full blame for his fractured marriage on his wife.

The response of the mainstream church? Welcome him home and give him a platform. Question the integrity of his wife. Question why she remained silent for so long. Question why she worked so hard for his release. Question how he could possibly be abusive to her from an Iranian prison. Question, question, question the wife. Give the abusive husband a microphone. 

What would Jesus do?

Would Jesus tolerate domestic violence and tell its victims to pray harder, be more submissive, and just take it for one more night, as some complementarian leaders have recommended? Or would he call out the abuser and lead the victim to safety?

Jesus had no problem taking abusers to task. He reprimanded powerful people, people who were tightly woven into the religious and government structures of the day. It was one of the reasons they killed him.

Today, when victims call out their abusers, something similar happens. They aren’t always physically killed, but their relationships and reputations suffer. And usually, the religious elite circle the wagons and defend their chosen ones regardless of the accusations or evidence.

Are we truly demonstrating the love of Christ when we allow abusers to continue in their manipulation, lies, and violence? 

When the body of Christ silences victims to “protect the name of Christ,” there is a serious problem. When the church supports and enables abusers through ignorance, silence, or a willing blindness to the facts, there is a serious problem. The church fails when it protects reputations instead of victims. This truly maligns the name of Christ.  

What of Christians who are left believing complementarianism is “God’s way,” and are enduring abuse? 

We the church have a responsibility to break this damaging theology. The first step is to educate ourselves on abuse. We must learn to recognize the signs, and call it what it is. We must expose flawed theology that leaves women vulnerable to abuse and their abusers unaccountable. It is also vital that we learn to support victims in a way that helps them heal. Above all, we should assert that abuse victims are not obliged to stay where their souls and lives are in danger.      

Complementarian teachings left me vulnerable to an abusive relationship. I thank God for a father whose values helped pull my heart away from male headship theology. I thank God for a husband who encourages me to reach my full potential, and who has never once raised his hand to me.

The body of Christ must stamp out destructive theology that leaves women at the mercy of abusive men. We must walk into healing alongside tattered and battered souls. We must teach the upcoming generation what freedom in Christ means: We are free from hierarchical role-playing. We are free to be loved and valued as daughters of the creator. We are free to walk away from abuse.


[1] Statistics from National Intimate Partner Sexual Violence Survey 2010 (Full report)