18 Reasons Churches Struggle To Support Abuse Victims

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Why do churches struggle to help abuse victims?

I recently was chatting with a group of women in different stages of processing marital abuse. Nearly all of them reported receiving no support from their churches.

It’s a story I’ve heard hundreds of times in the last couple of months (since this happened.) And today, I want to explore why the church does not help abuse victims.

Now, not every local gathering of Christians struggles to support abuse victims. Certainly not every church ignores, shames, and turns away people in need.

Why the church does not support abuse victims - image

In fact, a few women (and they are very few) tell of the excellent care and help they received when they went forward and told the church what was happening.

I’m delighted that some churches take domestic abuse seriously. I am happy that God’s children have received the attention and care they need.That is how the church is supposed to be: A refuge and balm for the hurting.

But most churches are not a balm for the wounded soul. We must do better: We must acknowledge and repent of areas we’ve failed and take steps to do change. 

So “why the church does not help abuse victims” angst burning in so many hearts?

A few reasons come to mind. I also posed the question to our Facebook community and received insightful feedback. Today’s post is a collection of our thoughts.

Let’s dive in.

Why The Church Does Not Help Abuse Victims 

1. Some churches harbor toxic beliefs about women.

For example, many churches believe 

  • Women often exaggerate things.
  • Women are more emotional than men.
  • Women don’t know how to express themselves.
  • Women were created to serve and submit to men.
  • Men are “God-ordained” leaders of home and life.
  • Men are calmer and better at rational thought.

But here’s the truth. “Exaggeration” is not a female trait. Just hang around a bunch of men talking about their lives, accomplishments, sports, capacity, e.t.c, and you’ll know that painting outside the line of reality is actually a character issue. Not a gender issue.

Gender has nothing to do with leadership skill or gift either: Some men are not gifted in leadership at all (and that’s okay.) “Research actually proves women-led organizations are more profitable and more innovative.” Source.

Women were not created to serve men. Both men and women bear God’s image, and both are commanded to submit to one another. (Ephesians 5:21.)

2. Pastors and leaders are not abuse/trauma-aware.

Churches will struggle to support abuse victims when domestic violence and trauma are not part of pastoral or leadership training. And even for those pastors and leaders with a bit of knowledge, ongoing training and willingness is vital.

In 2018, a survey was carried out among one thousand protestant pastors. Half reported they lacked training in how to address sexual and domestic violence. Source

It was also telling that out of those one thousand pastors, only about 18% thought domestic violence was a problem in their congregation. 

Meanwhile, we know that upwards of 30% of women have experienced sexual and physical abuse (World Health Organization), and 1 in 9 men in the U.S. have experienced sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.)

When we add the other forms of abuse – emotional, mental, financial, spiritual etc. – the numbers are much higher. A pastor who believes that domestic abuse is not a problem in his church is either uninformed, in denial or an abuser. (see #4.)

3. Fear of financial fallout from the congregation.

Calling out abuse and consequences of unrepentant sin in marriage might be bad for business—#ChurchAndMoney. 

Generally, Christians avoid discussing abuse, its ravages on the victim, or keeping perpetrators accountable.

Standing with the wounded and holding the rebellious accountable is not a popular move and many churches are unwilling to go there because it’s uncomfortable or “controversial.”

4. The pastor or organization is abusive.

Positions of power and influence are magnets for abusers. It is even more so when trust and faith come in with the position, as it happens with faith leaders.

“There are studies that demonstrate that the faith community is even more vulnerable to abuse than secular environments. The Abel and Harlow study revealed that 93% of sex offenders describe themselves as “religious” and that this category of offender may be the most dangerous. Other studies have found that sexual abusers within faith communities have more victims and younger victims.” Source.

Many churches also have a general discomfort with addressing abusive situations because “it would then bring unwanted attention to their own victimization that they are not yet ready to admit or admit.” Commenter, Facebook 

5. The “a spouse cannot be abused in marriage” fits right into a broader toxic culture of patriarchy.

A significant number of conservative churches do not believe in (among other beliefs that marginalize and oppress women) consent in marriage.

They hold beliefs such as wives owe their husbands sex, all men want sex as a core need. They dis-empower women by elevating the needs and voices of men above those of women. 

They erroneously interpret the “one-flesh” dynamic as erasing of individual agency and freedoms, as opposed to two whole individuals choosing intimacy and unity within safe boundaries and mutuality.

6. Fear of breaking away from the central denominational beliefs.

When the larger denomination does not stand with the oppressed and wounded, the local gathering will likely flow with the denominational beliefs, regardless of individual/local congregation conviction. 

 7. General wariness of data and information as “secular” or “anti-God.”

Some churches any discount information outside of the Bible: They have a strict “let’s use the Bible only” policy to understanding and interpreting Scripture and addressing intricate human problems. 

Unfortunately, their approach often favors the immature, prideful or toxic person. It’s rarely used to encourage equal responsibility, protect the wounded, or uplift the marginalized.

“Many churches do not permit Psychology based counseling. Instead they use Biblical counseling which focuses heavily on saving the marriage and refuses to label the situation as anything other than “we’re all sinners”. Unfortunately the abused spouse, wanting to do the right thing biblicaly, will do all of the work to fix the marriage. This works in favor of the abuser.” Commenter, Facebook.

“Biblical counseling is a specific field and method of counseling that rejects secular research and psychology and focuses only on the Bible. Emotional problems and relational problems are viewed through the lens of sin or lack of faith. Depression is seen as a lack of faith, rather than potentially a biological condition” Sheila Gregoire.

8. Desire to protect the institution of marriage.

In general, Christians tend to protect the marriage institution, often, at all costs. Churches often see things from the perspective of the perpetrator, not the the victim. As a result, most abuse victims do not feel seen or heard.

Yet Christ died to save people, not institutions.

When churches fail to see abuse as a desecration of the image God had in mind for marriage and instead, tries to save that image when the people in that image are dying, it is contributes to the death of God’s children.

For more on this topic, listen to this podcast where licensed professional counselor Liza Young and I discuss, “What Do I Do With My Dead Or Destructive Marriage?”

If you feel tired, trapped, defeated, and hopeless and hope things will get better or need affirmation for the next step, the episode is for you. 

Why the church does not help abuse victims

9. Belief that faith can save all marriages.

While it’s true that Christ can save relationships, churches fail to grasp how human free will plays into that “saving.” 

Christ can’t save what both spouses are unwilling to devote to Him. (Chronically harmful people are unwilling to truly surrender and do whatever it takes to get healthy, whole and safe.) It takes two to save a marriage. 

Especially in destructive and abusive relationships, churches should prioritize the safety of the individual over the saving of the institution. Marriage is not more important than people, and when we have to choose, churches need to choose people first.

10. A false belief that abuse and trauma stats are exaggerated.

Some churches believe that things are not as bad as people say they are. Some go as far as thinking “innocent men” are being accused of wrongdoing and “angry women are causing trouble for good men.”

But the truth is that women are more likely to be disbelieved than innocent men to be accused of wrongdoing. 

Statistics show that upwards of 95% of accusations are true. Source.

11. Helping abuse victims is messy, difficult work.

Many churches “fear if they get involved that things may get messy and therefore not wanting to “rock the boat” for themselves and/or the church.” Facebook, Commenter

12. Lack of proper pastoral training which would help pastors study and apply the word of God correctly.

This is especially true in cultures with lower education rates and where pastors do not have any training, just a passion for serving God. 

Of course, pastoral training is no guarantee that churches will be safer.

But as someone who grew up in a community with very low education rates and witnessed the misreading and misapplication of Scripture and the harm caused by both, I am convinced that foundational training and education is a critical first for anyone desiring to be in a position of influence or leadership.

Abuse in Church: Why We Struggle

More insights from our Facebook community on why the church does not help abuse victims.

13. Lack of compassion for the sheep.

Some churches lack courage and genuine compassion for the sheep. Instead, they prize their comfort over getting involved in helpful ways.

They lack “hatred for sin and it’s consequences and are leary of calling abuse, abuse.”

14. Labeling victims.

Churches “inaccurately call the speaking of truth the source of division, as opposed to calling the abuse the cause of division.”

This further re-abuses the victims and discourages others in the congregation from coming forward.

15. Not wanting to take sides.

This goes hand in hand with #11. “Some churches try so hard to be neutral that they ignore the abuse altogether.”

16. Wrong beliefs around accountability and sin.

When a church believes that “enough prayer will bring redemption” and “makes no accommodation for an individual ability to reject the conviction of the Holy Spirit,” it becomes unsafe for those who need protection from abusive, oppressive people.

The belief that all marriage problems are 50/50 and therefore if there is abuse happening it must be at least 50% the abused spouse’s fault is destructive.”

“Perpetrators are often more apparently believable than the victim. Their story may feel more convincing and well-delivered, and churches tend to equate forgiveness with an immediate obligation for reconciliation and reinstatement, especially when the abuser is charming or holds an influential position. As a result, abusers often return to positions of power where they can abuse again and again.” Coach and Trainer, Sarah McDugal.

17. A lack of understanding of the impact of long term abuse.

And thus, a lot of superficial approaches to care/interest. 

18. Abuser compassion

Christianity is a hope-based way of life. It’s soaked in compassion. While both are powerful beliefs, we run into error when we don’t hold them in context.

Many churches will empathize with an abuser who shows pea-sized remorse while ostracizing their victim, buckling under the weight of burdens and wounds. 

Some churches will have “compassion” for the abuser “because the abuser might have some trauma in their own past” and go lightly on the abuse they are currently causing.” 

They fail to recognize that you can have sympathy for someone’s past pain and hold them accountable for current behavior.

Why churches struggle to support domestic abuse victims

Why The Church Does Not Help Abuse Victims: Join the Movement!

Do you want to do better? Change starts in the pews! Do you long for a safer, healthier Christian community for all? You can join the movement!

Let’s stop helping people stay married. Let’s help people stay healthily married and support those who need to exit marriages that are death traps for their souls, spirits, and bodies.

Apostle Paul wrote

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. 2 Corinthians 7:10-11

There’s hope for our churches. We can be healthy, safe spaces for those who need safety and shelter. We can hold perpetrators accountable.

Check out the following organizations and consider talking/emailing your church, pastor or marriage ministry leader about them. Ask your church about its guidelines and approach to reporting and supporting victims of domestic violence.

Organizations Offering Abuse Training For Churches.

Help For Individuals in Oppressive, Difficult and Abusive Marriages (And Their Helpers)

Question: What would be the 19th reason the church does not help abuse victims? What else can you add to the list? Let’s talk in the Comments

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