We Have a Problem

women abuseI returned recently from teaching a course in London on the theological ontology of woman in relationship to the biblical divorce texts, with a special interest in the nature of abuse and of ecclesiastical responsibilities in difficult cases. To be sure, my own pastoral experience in the last decade has driven me to appreciate the urgency of these questions. But it is not my experience alone.

For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, there is an enormous elephant in the room of church sessions, presbyteries, and denominations. There is much talk of church planting, missions, doctrinal orthodoxy, and the rosiest versions of a given denominational history. Meanwhile men are harming their wives and calling it an exercise of their headship. Women, in those few times they can, are crying for help. And too often the church says nothing or says the wrong thing, strengthening the arms of the oppressor, and women are destroyed. Men may be told to lighten up and take it easy, but are not held accountable for destructively distorting the privilege of headship. Women, at least those who have enough stamina left to get this far, are being told they aren’t submitting enough or it’s really not that bad. There’s precious little evidence in church leaders of the unflinching prophetic, messianic, and apostolic invective against the oppressor. There are good church leaders doing good work on this front, but it appears they are too few. And in places where they aren’t too few, perhaps they are too quiet.

For the past several years, I’ve received many e-mails and phone calls telling me versions of this alarmingly common story. Surprisingly to me, many of the contacts come from people I’ve never met or heard of. They are ministers pleading for help in dealing with a rogue elder or two, sometimes facing the prospect of a congregational split; sessions unsure of how to handle the misconduct of a presbytery or member; women at their wit’s – and even faith’s – end. And then there are the students who tell me their own dark stories, stories made far darker by the failure of church leaders to protect the vulnerable. Add to this the invariably personal dimension to anyone’s exploration of the topic: we all know someone close to us, and usually in our family, who has a story like this.

Last year I was in a first conversation with a new friend, a seminary professor in the area specializing in pastoral theology. We were in many ways opposites of each other, theologically and ecclesiastically, yet she was clearly a thoughtful and experienced servant who had seen many, many things over the years. After an hour or so of warm fellowship over a quality pint at a popular pub in the area, conversation turned to problems in churches and in pastoral ministry, and a range of hypothetical scenarios as well as some she had dealt with personally. Eventually I proposed – hypothetically and obliquely – a scenario in which an abusive but publicly magnanimous husband might be supported by church leaders and several misled members of the congregation while the wife unravels more and more behind the scenes. I said nothing more than this, and in fact the profile fit several situations I have heard about and seen over the years. This woman leaned in and said, “And I’ll bet they wanted to make him an elder, didn’t they?” She visibly hoped she was wrong, and I said nothing in reply as we shifted to a new hypothetical scenario. But of course, in every one of the examples I could think of, she was right.

The contacts, questions, and requests for help have continued, and the more I learn about the significance of the problem within Scripture itself (as Daniel Block has demonstrated, Judges is the story of this type of devolution), the more it grieves me. In 2014, several evangelical writers published a book-length apology, confessing the church’s public failings on a range of issues. One of them is “Sins Against Women.” None of the authors identifies with a confessional Reformed communion, yet they seem a step ahead.

A sense of proportion is of course in order, and it is easy to overreach. Yet I’m learning I’m not the only one mourning this state of affairs. We seem to rush toward debates over the Mosaic administration, the extent of acceptable activities on the Lord’s Day, the most faithful preaching method, and how much the prophets knew when they spoke at the direction of the Spirit. All interesting and useful questions, certainly. But how many hours of stimulating, edifying, smoke-filled, stout-drenched conversations on back porches among confessional presbyterians – for which we are well known, or ridiculed as the case may be – are spent lamenting the stories of the church’s women and girls? Perhaps my experience is the exception, but I haven’t had many.

Truly, Genesis 3:16 and its mashal principle is the pivot for a long horror story of human relations. That the Spirit reverses this principle in the household of faith must be a paramount feature of the Good News. It’s why the apostles gave the church the so-called haustafeln or household codes in their Epistles (Eph. 5:22-6:9; Col. 3:18-4:1; 1 Pet. 2:18-3:12), in which some tend to be interested, practically, only to the extent that it applies to unruly women and children. But the gospel will sound like good news to the extent that we face up to the bad news. In that spirit, if we attend more closely to this topic we might discover how much we’ve missed along the way.

More on all this to come. But the concern today is simple.

We have a problem.

(The post has been edited to ensure privacy.)

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43 Responses to We Have a Problem

  1. Ben Miller says:

    Mark, I couldn’t agree more. I’m doing research on this very topic right now. Have you seen this? http://www.bradhambrick.com/selfcenteredspouse/

  2. I think that this whole problem is complicated in Reformed circles especially by the threat of being called a feminist. It seems that such an accusation can be the end of any discussion, even if the woman in question has a valid concern.

    As you mentioned in the article, too, most Reformed churches will have men in leadership, and, if they are not sensitive to the concerns of the less powerful (women), it can easily become a situation where “might makes right.”

    • I agree. The epithet ‘feminist’ is used to belittle and denounce the many Christian women who try to raise this issue in church circles. I myself have been cut of at the knees in this very way by a woman I thought was a good friend. She writes incisively exposing wickedness in various Christian cults, but she would not or could not accept the value of my writing — because I write about Christian victims of domestic abuse, she saw me as ‘too feminist’.

      I guess I have to be at least grateful that she was honest enough to give me her reason (only after I pushed for it, mind you). Most people I know who give me the cold shoulder for my domestic abuse victim-advocacy do not have the guts or honesty to tell me what they really think of me. They just give me a chilly politeness and sidestep me.

      • Still Reforming says:


        I must confess that reading your comments here and your posts at ACfJ are warming me to the term ‘feminist.’ I still consider myself to be Reformed by theology but searching for the right church home regardless of whether or not its Reformed, in large part due to the domestic abuse I have suffered for two decades and am now in the process of leaving. Because we have a child, the abuse is now exacerbated as he’s seeking greater control over me using her as his tool to do so.

        God bless you for your tireless efforts to speak on behalf of those of us who have little voice in the courts, in our churches, and in our homes. You inspire me!

  3. Ryan says:

    I think a lot of problems in the church could be solved if leadership had more boldness and didn’t worry so much about losing people (who they see as a source of income, at least in part). How many sermons (including those that would deal with marital roles and responsibilities) never get preached because they’re concerned that people won’t like what they hear and stop coming. Churches worry too much about shrinking in size and don’t think as much about slipping backward in regards to maturity in Christ.

  4. Jon Magin says:

    Thank you very much for this article. I found it to speak to an issue that many today do not want to speak about. I am a minister in a Reformed church, and although I have at times heard of cases where this sort of neglect for the care of the women in households has taken place in congregations I assure you that this is not the case in all of them. Neither I or my Session would ever tolerate this sort of abuse and pray that this would be the case for most congregations in and out of Reformed circles.

  5. Amy L Petry says:

    Jon Magin, and anyone else with experience, I’m very interested in what “not tolerating” actually looks like from your perspective as a church leader. What exactly do you do to intervene?

    • I second Amy’s question.
      In particular:
      Do you consider abuse to be only physical, or would you take action against a husband who was emotionally/verbally/psychologically abusing his wife but had never laid a hand on her in anger, and never threatened physical violence?

      Do you allow the victim of abuse to divorce without any censure whatsoever of her for making that choice?

      How to you deal with the abuser? Do you put him out of the church?

  6. Tillery Sims says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I am part of a recovery group for children raised in the homeschool movement. Though not all of us had the same experience many suffered all forms of abuse.
    I have seen many leaders in that movement become attracted to the reformed faith. My first experience with a reformed church was very positive. I have been shocked to discover that for many in my recovery group “reformed” churches were safe places for their abusive fathers.
    It is not just the wives who are suffering. The daughters while not always dealing with physical abuse often suffer educational neglect and are not allowed freedom to leave home until a husband is found for them. They would have no authority to lead and protect them. This leaving of the daughters has been proposed as part of the reason men have “mid-life crisis.”
    It is heartbreaking and utterly disgusting when the reformed faith is used as a tool to further this patriarchal abuse.
    I am so grateful to hear the issue being discussed by others. Thank you.

    • Tillery, I am a home school mom who is working to raise awareness of abuse in home school families – of children and moms. The problem is so much more widespread than the popular home school leaders would care to admit – and probably because many of them are contributing to the problem by teaching patriarchy, subordination, and isolation.

      I write at http://www.watchtheshepherd.blogspot.com.

  7. Matthew Werner says:

    I’ve been pastor of a [denominational] church for 18 years. On several occasions women in the church have told elders they are being abused and the Session has intervened immediately–once even calling the sheriff to arrest a man at church, on Sunday. We unequivocally take the wife’s word and experience has proved this to be the right judgment 100% of the time. In addition, we have, when necessary, provided safe houses, paid for counselling, and urged mature women in the church to rally round (since abused women have often been isolated by their husbands).

    But our experience has been that the wife usually ends up leaving the church, perhaps even lashing out as she goes. I’ve noticed a of couple reasons. Sometimes she associates her particular church with her shame and pain and once the emotional high of the abuse revelation passes, and regular life settles in, it becomes unbearble. And sometimes, when she regains her voice and sense of self, she over-reacts against the stifling “spiritual leadership” of her husband by throwing off all spritual leadership. And related to this, I’ve seen teenage children, who were made to go to church by dad–when he’s gone–pressure mom not to go and she gives in.

    Just be forewarned, even if you do the right thing in these hard situations, you may be heartbroken by all parties.

    • Matthew, your comment is very interesting.

      I am pleased to hear that in your church you by-default believe the woman’s allegations. That is the right approach to take, in my view. For those who doubt me, or who want tips for how to evaluate the claims of a man who is claiming that he is being abused by his wife, please read this post at the blog I co-lead with Ps Jeff Crippen.

      There ARE some genuine male victims of domestic abuse, but there are many more male abusers who claim to be victims of their wives. Discerning between the two sorts is not that hard, when you know the key indicators and red flags.

      You said: “our experience has been that the wife usually ends up leaving the church, perhaps even lashing out as she goes.”
      I am wondering how much you and your church know about trauma and the long term effects of trauma. Victims of domestic abuse are usually so traumatized by the abuser that (to survive) they have somewhat numbed their emotions. They have had to spend all their energies just walking on eggshells while they live with the abuser. Once they separate, this numbing wears off and the emotions that have been suppressed come to the surface. It’s not fun, believe me (I’m a survivor of domestic abuse). While all that is happening, the woman may still be dealing with financial and legal abuse from her husband (or ex husband, if she has been divorced him) and she may well have to send the kids on visitation to him regularly which just re-traumatizes her and them every time it happens.

      Many people think that now she is no longe rliving with the abuser, the abuse has stopped. But it very often hasn’t stopped, it’s just changed in tactics and form somewhat.

      And if bystander Christians say the wrong thing to the victim/survivor, it hurts her like crazy! So many bystanders say things that unwittingly cast partial blame on the victim, or pressure her to reconcile with the abuser, or demean her for the responses she is having to the trauma she has suffered. I’m wondering whether some of the women you have seen who left your church ‘lashing out’ were in fact women who not being understood by the congregation, and were suffering from many hurtful things said by well-meaning people in the church.

      Here is one hurtful thing that well-meaning people often say to victims of domestic abuse: Why Didn’t You Leave?
      And here is a list of the many many reasons why victims don’t leave. . .

    • Mary says:

      Matthew, it is encouraging to know that there are churches which take the wife’s word unequivocally, since I have found the reverse to be true in my experience. My question is, how often have you found true repentance in the husband, which demonstrates itself over time with real fruits and lasting change?

  8. Jeff Crippen says:

    Many thanks Mark. This is the very issue we have spent the last three years calling to the attention of pastors and denominations and Christians in general. We literally hear these very same scenarios of injustice in our reformed, evangelical, conservative churches every single day. Yep. Every day. Victims find our website or our books and the tell us their stories. Right now the Reformed fellowship of churches I am a member of is embroiled in a divisive doctrinal controversy over, I must say, a secondary or even tertiary point of our confession of faith, and all the while I know of instances of abuse in our churches. If you would like a copy of my book (hope I’m not sounding self-promoting here, the offer is meant to help) I would be happy to send you A Cry For Justice: How the Evil of Domestic Abuse Hides in Your Church (Calvary Press, 2012), email me at swordtrowel@gmail.com with a mailing address and I will get one on its way. Blessings in Christ.

  9. Robin says:

    I had no idea that this was a problem so far flung. years ago my daughter and her husband, who was physically abusing her, went in for pastoral counseling and she was told, well you knew you were marrying a (insert last name) . they divorced not long after. he quickly remarried another woman in the church and was made an elder

  10. Valerie Hobbs says:

    Carolyn Deemer, you are precisely right about the use of the word feminist. I am wrapping up a research project which examines the use of that word in Reformed circles, how it “otherizes” women and acts as a battering ram. I am grateful for Mark’s work and attention to this very real and serious issue.

  11. Also, Dr Garcia, if you would like a copy of my book which addresses the Biblical teaching on divorce with particular focus on domestic abuse, just email me at barbara@notunderbondage.com. I give away review copies to people like you, and I give away copies to needy survivors of domestic abuse.

    My book is titled Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion. You can read reviews of it here:

  12. thepersistantwidow says:

    Thank you addressing this important issue. When I brought the problem of domestic abuse in my household to the pastor the problem escalated. The church made matters much worse through their intervention. I have written my story as a series of posts here: http://cryingoutforjustice.com/2015/02/02/abuse-in-a-pca-church-part-1-of-persistent-widows-story/ You may find it interesting.

  13. Victor Hughes says:

    Thank you so much for this article. From not having an inkling that within our churches we harbour abusers, I have moved on a steep learning curve in the past few years to realise that we not only harbour these non violent individuals but that our church culture and, in cases, misapplied teaching, supports them in their quest for “winning” and dominating. This abuse is pernicious and it destroys women. This is surely “the silent killer of christian marriages” as the title of one article I read recently argues.

    • Victor, I encourage you to stay on this learning curve. We need more pastors who are like you — who are willing to open their minds to the problem of domestic abuse in the church which they were previously blind to. If you haven’t already done so, I recommend you read Jeff Crippen’s book. It is the best primer in the topic.

  14. Yes, certainly, and thank you. Now, as one ordinarily incapable of such simple technological tweaks, let me give it a try and see what happens…

  15. Bobbie Van Til says:

    Sadly, the problem worsens when elders believe that only they are called to counsel victims, even when they are ignorant of the tactics of an abuser and are either too proud or too aloof to become educated about abuse. My best friend, who was abused for nearly 40 years by her husband who was an elder in a Reformed church, was told that Christian counseling was a sin, and that the “marriage problem” needed to be handled by the elders. Thank you, Mr. Garcia for posting your article. I pray that church leaders in your denomination and others will both recognize that the evil of abuse indeed exists in the church, and realize that often times they enable and encourage it.

  16. Shane Anderson says:

    I read this article and the others following, with my heart saying over and over “Amen!” Only to find that many also saying “Amen!” in the comments have in the last week spend much energy in a public exposing what they believe to be a systematic assault on our sisters by many in our presbytery. . . Wow. So I’m one of these dangerous, uncaring men who unknowing have fostered abuse? Even though I have spent great energy, in my own callings, fighting abuse and other kinds of denigration (of women and children) for many years. . . And my pastor, caring, wise, and infinitely willing to be offended rather than offend is spoken of as a monster…

    My mind can hardly process where we now are in our little church and presbytery. How people’s harsh judgements of us are now being spread throughout the world over. How little they know of our constant labors in the exact matters over which they are expressing so much concern!

    How are men who aren’t patriarchalists or feminists, just Christians wanting to express the grace of Christ, supposed to answer public accusations without being accused of farther oppressing victims?

    • Thank you, sir, and sincerely. You haven’t said otherwise, of course, but just to state explicitly what the posts already indicate, I’m writing in general terms about a general topic of longstanding concern to the Church, and not with a view to any particular situation either in my own experience or anyone else’s. In fact, I write with an eye toward what others have experienced and expressed by way of concern rather than any specific scenario. Predictably, observations will apply to concrete questions or situations in a way that varies from reader to reader, but I hope that this general pastoral-theological and educational mode is a more widely helpful mode for writing about this. Thank you again.

      • Shane Anderson says:

        Well–it is certainly timely and, so far, a very helpful and needed biblical exploration. Thank you for these articles.

  17. Thank you for writing this, Mark. I write about domestic violence in Christian homes, especially in the home schooling movement. I have found from my research and personal observations that abused women are often told by church leaders to stay, submit, and be sweet. Here is one of my articles which addresses that: http://watchtheshepherd.blogspot.com/2014/12/the-bad-boy-and-angel.html

  18. I cannot thank you enough for being a voice on this matter. Years ago, I attended a church that was founded because on the belief that no other churches in our town truly taught the truth of Scripture adequately. Ironically, year down the road, when a woman close to me was abused by her husband in every category one could think of and had removed herself from her home for safety reasons, she was encouraged during counseling session number ONES with the pastor, an elder, and his wife to go back. (And by the way, the first counseling session was joint, when they knew she was being abused.). A really bad situation became worse when the elders were questioned by a few people (including myself) on the ridiculousness of their counsel before God and this woman. The elders maintained their position: “We have done nothing wrong.” When I offered materials and a collection of Scripture I had gathered on the issue, the pastor said, “I’m sorry, I don’t have time to read your papers.” When word began to get out that they sent the abused woman back home after counseling the firs session, others began to have reactions of shock, so in order to save face, the elder’s wife who had also been involved in the counseling began to tell people that the abused woman “had exaggerated.” I could go on and on with more sordid details related to the spiritual abuse of this woman and at least two others that suffered at the hands of grossly misapplied Scripture of these elders who were involved (and all the others supported them), but the point I want to make is that you are absolutely correct; there IS an elephant in the room and I’ve said many times that we can’t keep sweeping him under the church rug forever. God is using you, a man (and I believe it is key that this issue is exposed by true MEN of faith in order for even just some of the stiff-necked men (and women, sadly) to finally listen). Thank you for being a voice for truth and righteousness. May God bless you!

  19. Jeff Crippen says:

    Leslie, you said – “We seem to rush toward debates over the Mosaic administration, the extent of acceptable activities on the Lord’s Day, the most faithful preaching method, and how much the prophets knew when they spoke at the direction of the Spirit. All interesting and useful questions, certainly. But how many hours of stimulating, edifying, smoke-filled, stout-drenched conversations on back porches among confessional presbyterians – for which we are well known, or ridiculed as the case may be – are spent lamenting the stories of the church’s women and girls? Perhaps my experience is the exception, but I haven’t had many.”

    I have been battling this very thing in our own fellowship of churches – Reformed Baptists. General Assemblies pick the kinds of topics you list here and deliver all kinds of lectures on them. Pastors debate this detail and that nuance of theology and what some historic Baptist figure intended. Right now controversy is raging on what the small phrase “without passions” means in the Reformed confessions. Myself and our elders at our church are, well, disgusted with this. Christ is more concerned with mercy. His eye is on the widow and orphan and oppressed. He rebuked the Ephesian church (Revelation 2) for losing its first love, though diligently dealing with false teaching. Your words here are dead on target.

  20. MeganC says:

    We actually began a non-profit ministry, two years ago, to help women who have escaped abusive relationships and are ostracized or abused by their churches. I don’t know why we cannot get people to see what is happening and what is happening. I have also written a book to help women who have been abused in every way. Our vision is to show women that they are still loved by Jesus and don’t HAVE to be destroyed, as most of us involved in the ministry held onto our threads of faith, despite what our families, husbands and churches did to us when we needed them.

  21. Joy Forrest says:

    Thank you so much for this article! You are so right, there IS a giant elephant in the room. It amazes me otherwise intelligent and loving pastors can be so blind when it comes to abuse. Unfortunately, in evangelical circles, the concept of submission causes further harm. Women are told to submit in all things unless he asks her to sin. Basically, this does nothing but encourage sinful motives on the part of the abuser. I would love to see more conservative churches start thinking about the moral and spiritual implications of their misdirected emphasis on wifely submission.


  22. Recovering says:

    YES!!! We DO have a problem!!! Bless you, Mark, for writing so boldly!!! I believe it is a very good thing, also, to have an article like this written by a man! The picture that you posted with the article is heartbreaking–and I have personally been in that position repeatedly. Both literally, at the hands of my husband, and figuratively at the hands of church leaders and ‘friends’. The way the abused are silenced rather than helped and cared for is quite shameful. Sadly, the secular culture has been more helpful to abuse victims than the Christian community. I hope I get to see that change in my lifetime……

  23. Wars of Grace says:

    Beautifully written, Truthful Post. Looking forward to more on the topic.

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