The Church’s Response to Abuse

This is a re-post of an article originally written in 2 parts for my newsletters in March of 2013.

Praying in a church

I was amazed to see that no one intervened to help the oppressed. So I myself stepped in to save them with my strong arm.
Isaiah 63:5

The Scriptures never invalidate or minimize the effects someone’s harsh actions and cruel words have on another person’s soul, spirit, and body. A cursory reading through Scripture amply illustrates God’s disdain for mockers, abusers, deceivers, those who misuse their power, oppressors, revilers, ragers, hypocrites, and slanderers.

For example, the psalmist says, “Your tongue cuts like a sharp razor; you’re an expert at telling lies. You love evil more than good and lies more than truth. You love to destroy others with your words, you liar!” (Psalm 52:2-5).

David cries out to God, “Please listen and answer me, for I am overwhelmed by my troubles…My heart pounds in my chest. The terror of death assaults me. Fear and trembling overwhelm me, and I can’t stop shaking…It is not an enemy who taunts me—I could bear that. It is not my foes who so arrogantly insult me— I could have hidden from them. Instead, it is you—my equal, my companion and close friend” (Psalm 55:2,4-5,13).

Sadly, we’ve sometimes failed to validate the destructive consequences of living with a foolish, argumentative, angry, deceitful, contentious, indifferent, hard-hearted, or evil person when the Scriptures are quite clear that the effects are real. The psalmist said, “Their insults have broken my heart and I am in despair” (Psalm 69:20).

I wonder if sometimes we haven’t valued honesty as much as we preach it. When a woman goes to her church leadership and discloses what’s going on at home, she hopes to be supported and protected, but for some women, that’s not her experience. Instead, she’s been scolded, shamed or shunned. She’s been told to bring her husband in for his side of the story. How can she speak honestly with him present if she’s afraid of what will happen when they get home? She’s been told that she needs to be more submissive and try harder to make things work. She’s been told that there is nothing in the Bible called emotional abuse and therefore what she’s experiencing has no validity. She’s been told that God wants her to somehow figure out how to make her marriage work because God hates divorce.

By our words are we telling her we don’t want to get involved or help her? Do we inadvertently encourage her to keep quiet, placate, and pretend? And, if she refuses and gets persistent or demanding in her plea for our help, do we start to label her as aggressive, contentious, rebellious, unsubmissive, deceitful, or unstable?

I think sometimes we’re afraid to get involved because, if we open our eyes to what’s going on in some homes, we’re not sure what to do. We’ve valued the sanctity of marriage over the safety and sanity of the people in it. Therefore, we’ve encouraged women to put up with abusive behavior rather than speak up or stand up and have our biblical categories challenged. Yet, Jesus commended the persistent widow in Luke 18, who kept pestering the judge for legal protection against the injustice she was experiencing.

God has put the church together not only to model a loving family to a broken world, but also to model justice and protection when one of its members is destructive and unrepentant towards another.

Deitrich Bonhoeffer said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

Most of us have watched in horror and sadness the unfolding of events in the small town of Steubenville, Ohio. Just in case you’ve not been watching the news, two high school football players were found guilty this past week of sexually assaulting a young woman who was too intoxicated to give her consent for sexual contact, or even to know what was happening to her. While this was taking place, countless other teens watched, laughed, tweeted and photographed the debauchery.

We’d like to blame what happened on teenage foolishness, adolescent recklessness, the inability of teenagers to understand the consequences of their behavior and the problem of absentee parents. But I wonder how different the evening might have turned out for both the two convicted young men as well as the victim if just one of their friends would have had the courage to speak up and say, “Stop?”

Why were these adolescents so willing to turn a blind eye to the evil right before them? Were all of these teens too drunk to know right from wrong? Or was there something more universal at work?

I don’t think their reluctance stemmed from drunkenness but rather from the fear of man. They were too afraid to stand up against what was happening because they feared the disapproval and censure of the group.

Lest we judge these teens too harshly, history tells us that we aren’t much different even as adults. This past year I read two books describing the mindset of the people and culture in Germany and the United States just prior to World War 2. One was Bonhoeffer, by Eric Metaxas, and the other, In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson.

It was difficult to comprehend how an entire culture including the Christian church closed their eyes to the obvious atrocities that were happening, especially to the Jews. Reading both books helped me to see that it was more appealing to protect and promote allegiance to the country than to care about the individual. By our silence however, we empower the emotional (or political) or sexual bully to continue his sinful behaviors. Jesus was never afraid to speak out about injustice, about oppression, and about hypocritical law keeping those in power. As his church, we must speak out too.

There is a good deal of research on the effects of positive peer pressure. For example, when bullies are confronted by strong men and told, “We don’t act that way around here” or “We don’t treat our women that way,” it yields positive results. How might the young woman in Steubenville have felt the next morning if she woke up at one of her friend’s homes instead of naked in a stranger’s house or if one of her friends had the courage to speak up and gather a group of girls or boys together that would have protected her? How might those two football players felt the next morning when they realized that their friends stopped them from doing the unthinkable?

A number of women have told me that they begged someone in church leadership to speak to their husband about his destructive behaviors. When we do so, we have an opportunity to stand alongside the victim and bear witness to the sinfulness of her husband’s behaviors as well as help the abuser truly repent. Jesus gives us a method of dealing with difficult people and reconciling relationships. It calls for speaking up. It calls for increasing the pressure and accountability on one who will not take responsibility for their wrongdoing. It calls for the church to sanction and distance themselves from someone who refuses to repent in the hopes that as they feel the pain and shame from the group, they will be willing to change. Sadly, most churches do not implement Matthew 18 or other biblical passages with destructive husbands, and therefore a Christian woman is left without the social support and peer pressure that God provided.

Perhaps you are not a church leader or a person of great influence, but you too can speak out and come alongside a hurting woman or mentor a man who is disrespectful and/or abusive toward his wife. No one heals from destructive relationship patterns through counseling alone. People are wounded in relationships and people are healed in relationships, but it takes real people in real community in real relationships. If the church does not, will not, or cannot provide this for broken people, then where will they go?


  1. Jennifer on September 1, 2014 at 3:12 am

    Amen! If society does not address the problem, it will continue. Well said!

  2. Liz on September 1, 2014 at 5:14 am

    Thanks Leslie, thank you for saying it how it is and thank you for the posts that come through at times of doubt.

    It is 3 years since I stood Dow from being on the Ministry team and reigned from church after 30 years in church – and most of the type in leone sort of leadership. I had hoped to heal and be able to move on and find a new place to worship but I’m still stuck. You’re healing in community comment makes sense. I miss my church family so much but I couldn’t cope being on the ministry and leadership team whilst separated from my husband while my Senior Pastor repeatedly preached that if you are walking in the Spirit you won’t have marriage breakdown. Since leaving church I went back home but very little has changed I’m under emotional pressure / ‘abuse’ every day. Two it my adult children still attend the church but I’ve become invisible after 13 years there – 6 on staff. Sorry your post just touched a very raw part of me. Thanks for caring enough to keep writing

    • Liz on September 1, 2014 at 5:16 am

      PS apologies for the typos I wasn’t able to proof it

    • Brenda on September 1, 2014 at 11:35 am

      Liz, It is disturbing what has happened to you within your church. It is also disturbing to me that you have gone back home only to be enduring the same treatment. I pray that you will see that God loves you more than marriage and your safety and sanity are worth more to him than the idolatry of marriage that your former church supports. I hope this makes sense, it is very difficult to reply in this little comment box.

      • Liz on September 4, 2014 at 1:12 pm

        Thanks Brenda xxx

  3. Callie on September 1, 2014 at 8:44 am

    I really appreciate that you mentioned the Jewish people here. I live in Israel and during this last conflict, the thought kept coming to mind that Israel is being abused and the world further abusing her for taking a stand against it. I often hear the two sides argument from believers reguarding the suffering of the Palestinian people. In reality, this is the same pattern that keeps victims in abusive situations. Yes the Palestinians have pain, but the Jews doe not have a document calling for their annihilation, as does Hamas, yet the world turns a blind eye to that. So similar to all that you write about here.

    • Leslie Vernick on September 4, 2014 at 12:37 pm

      Thanks Callie, abuse is abuse whether it’s personal or national or international.

  4. Brenda on September 1, 2014 at 11:29 am

    Leslie, This was a well written and much needed post. You are right! The teens involved in this horrible mess if not stopped now will be the same as adults. They will think it is ok to abuse someone simply because they can. Others will never open their mouths or stand up for anyone. This type of scenario only seems to be more common. The number of people that I run into that get no help from their churches while abuse is allowed to fester is enormous. No where in scripture do I see that a wife is responsible for the abuse that goes on in the home. To be told if you try harder or were a good Christian there would be no breakdowns in your marriage. That is so ridiculous, it leaves me speechless. Do they really think we wanted a breakdown in our relationships so deep that it cannot be repaired? This is not what we signed up for. It is not what God intended for the marriage to be. It is unbelievable that some would be told that you have to stay in your marriage even though the abuse is that bad. If he kills you, it is God’s will, What can man do to you. David showed what we should do when man is trying to take your life–LEAVE.

  5. Laura on September 1, 2014 at 1:50 pm

    Fortunately the church leaders I appealed to for help were supportive in encouraging me to remove myself from an abusive situation, but unfortunately despite that support and the realization that I should remove myself from the situation meaning the climbing out of an abusive situation, the unfoldings and particulars, to find safety were extremely difficult. To achieve freedom from such circumstances don’t always come in a quick and simple fashion. You may be instantly awakened to an emotional clarity in regard to abuse but the ascent and release from such circumstances can be wrought with a barage of possibly daunting roadblocks. The strongest and only truly loyal ally I had then and now was my God. Stay close to God, use prayer, meditation and faith with every step. I sadly admit yet gladly realize many steps I took to find safety were temporarily blocked because I neglected to seek God’s guidance first. I occasionally still make daily mistakes in my life journey because I have neglected to look to God before I take steps to find living freedom. In my case I foolishly went reactively to my abusers family thinking they’d understand and help, before I asked God to help me open my eyes. In retrospect, what a fool I was to disregard correlations that I saw between them and the abuser himself. This sadly kept me from escape because negative reactions and responses stemmed from, “blood being thicker than water” and “ apples not falling far from tree”. In the end the blood Jesus shed for me on the cross and God’s teachings using an apple came clearer. My dependence upon the Lord the great “ I AM ” is my only salvations.

    God’s Blessings to each and every person faced with these struggles. May you first escape in the arms of the Lord! And take rest and refuge in a place where no other stronghold can harm you. AMEN!


  6. Susan on September 1, 2014 at 5:29 pm

    I so appreciate this post and look forward to reading the comments that appear in response to your insights. I would like to see more coverage of emotional abuse that is specifically “spiritual abuse”. As a separated wife from a 26 yr marriage with a pastor/Christian leader, I have experienced this coercion, bullying and manipulation in a way that is similar to all emotional abuse, but then a bit different as well. While all this occurred in my private life, and that of my children (another point that church leadership fails to address–the whole family unit, not just the wife is affected), my husband continued to be respected, even adored as a gifted communicator. No one would believe me…that his personality shifts so quickly to rage and control when behind closed doors. I think part of my healing is drawing close to Jesus, closer than ever, realizing that he and my husband were not in sync. That in fact, Jesus weeps over his blindness and weeps over my suffering. And weeps over a Church and a church that allows this type of “pastor worship” to continue. It’s an aspect I would like to see addressed. And I think a timely one considering one of the leading Church ministries of the day has been outed this past week in a letter from 7 on the staff as having the “most abusive and coersive ministry culture”. I have to believe it affects not only the wife, the children but the entire congregation as well–and the “big C” Church as a result.

  7. Stephanie on September 2, 2014 at 1:46 am

    so sad. It all makes sense now why so many marriages fall apart and then they marry someone else in the church and it is accepted!! It never settled well with me. More supriseinly I myself fell for it. Because I have been in very stressed marriage for over 15 years and thought surely God doesn’t approve of this marriage and will forgive me if I remarry! Wow!!! So glad to have found your ministry Leslie and some others! Thank you for standing up for healthy marriages!! Wish I could afford you on-line classes 🙁 may God Bless you richly!

  8. Donna on September 3, 2014 at 4:42 pm

    Reading this post just makes me sigh. A deep sigh that hurts in the deepest parts. It is for the pain that so many women in the church carry for being demonized for speaking the truth about their marriages. There are so many victims out there, myself included.
    There are books that speak of shooting the woounded in our churches, and I think women who seek help for their marriages and are rebuffed, fall into this category. When we are faced with statements like: “If you would just respect your husband, everything would be alright”, orDon’t you think you are making a big deal out of this?”, or “your husband is a good man and works so hard to provide for your family…”. These are words that just kill the already wounded spirit. It’s enough to make you want to tyrn your back on the church. And, in some ways, I have. I don’t trust church leaders anymore. I will choose my words carefully from hereon out and keep my girlfriends close. I however, have not given up on God. He is the one that hears the cry of my heart and soothes my spirit day by day. But, I wish, oh , I wish, that the church would have the eyes of God on this issue and not shoot their wounded. The sanctity of marriage is not more important than the sanity and health of those involved in that marriage. Amen!

  9. Rey on September 13, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    Everyone has marriage problems to one extent or another. We could help each other every week by being real with each other instead of just putting on the masks with our fellow believers so that we can share hope, experience, accountability and that we are not the only one’s going through this. But followup question to the article: How do you 1. help in a practical way besides listening and 2. help, especially in serious situations, without becoming “monkey in the middle” and appearing to take sides?

    • Leslie Vernick on September 15, 2014 at 10:13 pm

      I wish people would be more “real”- that would help a lot.

      Practically – you can listen, you can pray, you can validate (That was wrong, or you didn’t deserve to be abused, etc), you can offer tangible help – resources in the community, a book, pay for a consultation with a counselor or lawyer, drive with her to a shelter to see if she might stay there, etc.

      Help without taking sides is not possible in issues of abuse and serious marital problems. Neutral is not really neutral. When we’re silent, it implies that we tacitly agree with the abusers side of things since we’re not taking sides or speaking out. Let’s put it in terms we can all relate to. When we’re trying to stay neutral around a bully, the victim thinks we don’t care and the bully things what he’s doing is not that bad. Neither which are true. Therefore we must speak out against this kind of sin in relationships. That doesn’t mean we love one more than we love the other but that in order for the marriage to be healed, we must tell the truth.

      • @SpeakOut4Others on July 25, 2016 at 12:22 pm

        Thank you for this. There is a huge church in Murrysville, PA that believed my abuser when I came forward. How ironic that you post about the Steubenville rape case, my sister was friend’s with this girl. Very sad. I learned that moving from that area to this one is no better. I was horrified that the ppl I trusted and who were there to protect me hurt me way more than I’d ever imagine. It caused me to turn from the church for 6 months until I found a private bible study group who not only helped me out of my abusive relationship but also helped my faith in God return. God IS NOT the church.

      • Jessica on October 2, 2016 at 12:25 am

        Wow. This is so helpful – particularly about the “not taking sides.” Thank you so much for your work. You are filling a critical hole in the Church. I am incredibly grateful for your book and website. You (along with a phenomenal Christian therapist and wonderful friends/family) have given me the clarity and strength I needed to separate from my husband of 13+ years just three weeks ago. I have theee young children, so it was incredibly difficult to take such a huge step, but your book and my therapist helped me understand that I was enabling the long-term “severe emotional abuse.”

        I will be forever grateful for you. Please be in prayer for me and my family – as we hope for healing and reconciliation, but wanting to move forward in wisdom and with caution, understanding that healing and reconciliation on the free will of my husband to truly repent.

      • Jessica on October 2, 2016 at 12:28 am

        Wow. This is so helpful – particularly about the “not taking sides.” Thank you so much for your work. You are filling a critical hole in the Church. I am incredibly grateful for your book and website. You (along with a phenomenal Christian therapist and wonderful friends/family) have given me the clarity and strength I needed to separate from my husband of 13+ years just three weeks ago. I have theee young children, so it was incredibly difficult to take such a huge step, but your book and my therapist helped me understand that I was enabling the long-term “severe emotional abuse.”

        I will be forever grateful for you. Please be in prayer for me and my family – as we hope for healing and reconciliation, but wanting to move forward in wisdom and with caution, understanding that healing and reconciliation are largely dependent on the free will of my husband to truly repent.

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