A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

By ignoring domestic abuse, Christians can stigmatize victims— an example from Dallas Theological Seminary

Raising Children in a Sex-Saturated Society, Part 1 is a video made by Dallas Theological Seminary. It is from their weekly Table Podcast program which “treats key topics related to God, religion, Christianity, and Culture.” It is a public education program that DTS produces for any Christians, not just for DTS seminary students.

As a discussion on how Christians can raise their children in a sex-saturated society — how to help children develop healthy, ethical, biblical attitudes about sex — this video is pretty good for a general audience. However, like many such presentations, it does not even touch on the topic of abuse or mention anything about how abuse might affect the raising of children.

It appears that abuse did not enter the minds of the four people on this panel discussion who are all counselors and/or academics at Dallas Theological Seminary.

Here is an excerpt from the transcript of the video. I’ve bolded the parts that grated on me.

23:50   Darrell Bock:  What do we do when we’re in a situation where we’re dealing with a single parent family, and perhaps, some disfunction in the background that’s impacting what it is that the children see. And who wants to take that [issue up for discussion]? That ball’s on the ground.

Gary Barnes [note – the transcript incorrectly said Darrell Bock was the speaker]: One dimension of that, that I want to start off with is, just the fact that you would be working with a one-parent situation makes it very possible that there’s personal unresolved things for that one parent. And there’s a likelihood for shame and guilt that’s still carried over. And the big message that would be great for kids is to see from your own life how God can redeem any bad situation. . . .

27:28  Debby Wade: And, Darrell, I think so much what keeps us, or keeps someone from sharing is the sexual shame maybe that they still carry. And how important that is to work through that for yourself before introducing the topic to your kids, so you’re not bringing the shame into it.

There are a number of reasons for single parenthood and this panel needed to do a better job of differentiating them. There is domestic abuse, widowhood, and pregnancy outside marriage — which may be intentional or unintentional, and with or without any committed relationship. DTS needed to do a better job of clarifying and classifying the various reasons for single parenthood.

Furthermore,  conversion to Christianity can occur before or after a person becomes a parent. People who suffer domestic abuse or widowhood may have been Christians since before they married and started a family. They may never have committed sexual sin.

I think when these panelists were talking about shame, they were only thinking of where a woman became pregnant out of wedlock, and had shame from that. What a narrow and naive focus. They never mentioned or even seemed to be aware of abuse as a reason for single parenthood. Nor did they mention widowhood as a reason for single parenthood. How blinkered. How prejudiced! How hurtful to ignore those who became single parents without having ever engaged in extra-marital sex!

Thankfully the speakers each softened their statements with qualifiers (‘very possible’, ‘likelihood’, ‘maybe’) to show that they were not necessarily sweeping all single parents into the shame bucket. But despite their qualifiers, I find their statements disappointing. And on behalf of all the victims of abuse I advocate for, I am offended that this panel of four so-called experts & counselors would not mention the fact that many single parents are single parents because they have divorced an abusive spouse and that they bear NO SHAME for that.

  1. Why mention that single parents are likely to have shame and guilt for their past, but not mention the single parents who are survivors of domestic abuse who battle stigma and have to reckon with the false-guilt that Christians lay on them?
  2. Why no mention of the fact that guilt can be false guilt or real guilt, and that it’s essential to differentiate between the two?
  3. Why no indication that false guilt needs to be dissolved and washed away with good doctrinal teaching that shows what notions in a person’s conscience are biblical and what notions are sub-bibical, or plain un-biblical.
  4. Why no mention that when single parenthood is a consequence of abuse, the children might be healthier than they had been in a two-parent household, because if the kids are living with the good (non-abusive) parent, they can recover from the trauma of having lived under the control, deceit and manipulation of the abuser.

It seems to me that his panel discussion casts the grey cloth of shame and guilt over single parents without any thought as to whether or not the single parent may or may not have been responsible for the breakdown of the relationship with the other parent. I believe that the panel’s statements were not sufficiently softened by the few vaguely qualifying words that the speakers have used.

What ought to have been included is an explicit mention of widows and widowers, and an explicit two-part statement about domestic abuse:

  • domestic abuse is one of the big causes of single parenthood, and
  • the guilt for domestic abuse must be attributed solely to the abuser, rather than being vaguely attributed to both abuser and victim, or left hanging in the ether, unstated.

Widows and widowers get reasonable recognition by the church most of the time (though it could be improved). But Christian survivors of domestic abuse are treated as the unmentionables, as if they did not exist. This hurts! It is so unfair. In this day and age, when society has increasing recognition of the issue of domestic abuse, it is abysmal that so many generalist Christian teachings ignore domestic abuse and act as if the victims are non-existent or at least unmentionable. This needs to change!

Christian single parents who are survivors of domestic abuse need Christian experts who affirm and reaffirm their freedom from guilt for the breakdown of the marriage.  

Affirmation and vindication are vital for breaking down all the stigmatizing attitudes against single parents in the Christian community, of which this video by DTS is a mild but nevertheless hurtful example. But the experts at DTS seem to be ignorant of this. And the only reason I’m targeting DTS here is because we’ve had a bit of heat from that seminary because of our Sexual Issues book review post recently. I could probably be writing this kind of post about the generalist teachings from any number of other seminaries and para-church organizations. But DTS caught my attention because of that recent flurry, so I poked around on their website and found this video.

Let us hope that DTS and other organizations will take some lessons from the range of resources and testimonies at this blog. It is time for all counselors, pastors and academics to start including and acknowledging domestic abuse in their generalist presentations. If these people knew they were ignoring a sizable cohort of the church, if they knew they were carelessly or inadvertently besmirching survivors of domestic abuse with inappropriate shame and stigma, would they want to continue doing it?

Some may say that you can’t cover everything in a generalist discussion. Agreed. But that’s not an adequate excuse for the perennial ignoring of domestic abuse victims. I have sat under one pastor who preached exegetically through books of the Bible and whenever his sermon touched on issues that would pertain or have relevance to domestic abuse, he would mention that relevance and cover it adequately, not in a off hand or patronizing manner, nor in a wade-in-up-to-your-thighs manner which would have been off-putting to the rest of the congregation, but with just the right amount of application so that abuse victims in the congregation would feel acknowledged and included and would see how the biblical text applied to their situation. It can be done. It’s not that hard. It’s just that we have seen so few people model it that we can’t imagine what it looks like.

Survivors of domestic abuse need to be recognized, and not in a patronizing way. Although survivors of abuse are unique individuals, they share a great deal in common because of the commonalities in the way abusers behave and the way many churches behave. This means that when a general principle applies to non-abused people, often the inverse of that principle applies to us survivors and our kids. It’s time that the academics and counselors realized this and humbled themselves enough to learn from survivors who have come out of the fog and are able to articulate this well. We can help the so called ‘professional experts’ improve their presentations; we can show them how to not be narrow and naive and inadvertently hurtful — if they would listen and learn from us.  Oh Lord, may it be so!

26 Comments

  1. Brenda R

    Sometimes I think I am being recognized as a survivor and other times not whatsoever. I was forced to be a single mom because of an adulterous, abusive marriage years ago. I find no reason now to have ever felt shame for that, but I did at the time. I felt it was my responsibility to keep the marriage together. I no longer feel this way and go out of my way to make sure that single moms regardless of why they are single moms are not allowing themselves to feel ashamed. What about those single moms who were never married, but were victims of rape or incest. They have done nothing to feel ashamed of but inevitably someone will make them feel as if they did something to initiate the crime against them.

    I am grateful for Pastors like Jeff Crippen and Rev Powell who make sure the topic is addressed.

  2. Anonymous

    Barb – What an intense article. Haven’t had a chance to view the video yet but thank you for “poking around” on the DTS website and exposing once again how many (c)hristian ministries just will not ‘adequately’ address the issue of abuse within (c)hristian groups.
    Brenda R – My heart also goes out to the single moms, too. Some have been very surprised that an elderly woman like me would even stop and talk to them and show that I care by simply asking, “How are you doing?”

    • Brenda R

      Anon, I don’t know how old you are, but women of all ages need encouragement from one another. We all have things to contribute no matter our age. I am sure the younger women you speak to are feeling very blessed by your efforts.

  3. A Friend

    The more one understands abused people and all their struggles then and only then can they start addressing their struggles from the pulpit. I have found a great lack of understanding on these issues. I believe one of the biggest reasons is because the abused person is so fearful of coming forth to talk, doesn’t want to be viewed as a weirdo, is absolutely confused about things anyways so even if they got past their fears they don’t know how to articulate their struggles. Often times pastors lean upon their own understanding and assume it is just a typical marriage with typical problems and recommends a book to read. So if he does this in private counseling how much more from the pulpit. My friend and I had a lot of talks about reading your own mail. I often thought it would be so easy to quickly flip the coin over and address the opposite issue. When you talk about the feministic woman who will not submit then flip the coin over and talk about the abused woman who doesn’t have to stay under and submit to her abuser. One quick comment would alleviate so much confusion for these already completely confused people. My friend’s personality is probably a lot like the other abused women-they are fearful to do anything wrong, they don’t think they are right about anything, they think they are the problem, ect., ect. May God help these down trodden people by opening the eyes of preachers. It is always a breath of fresh air when I meet a preacher who has this insight! May their tribe increase!

    • Ellie

      What a blessing you are to your friend! Thank you for sharing. I have friends I call when I need to get perspective, when I need to know what normal looks like because I know my compass is off. God is faithful to show me, to send friends and resources my way to help me sort this out. Your support is very valuable.

  4. Misunderstood

    Amen! There is such a need for balance in EVERYTHING- including messages. I used to take every word from the the pulpit and try to apply it to myself and probably added “years” of more confusion to my already foggy brain full of cobwebs. I never heard a message prefaced with to whom the message was intended for..just lumping everyone into the same boat and to add insult to injury many times the pastor would say “and don’t think you’re the exception”. So I would take tons of notes and read all the books to be a better wife that my husband said I needed to be, so he would finally be happy. That invisible bar kept getting higher and higher and my attempts to be what he wanted me to be we’re dashed over and over. Of course this helped my husband feel very cozy under this kind of preaching.
    I have a very understanding and insightful friend and I can remember her trying to get me to understand a lot of the messages were not my mail so don’t even open it. But then that would just leave feeling guilty thinking I couldn’t just dismiss these things because that would make me the “exception”. Ohhhh the back and forth confusion that caused!!
    I am coming out of the fog and gaining clarity daily but oh the dangers of “throwing blankets “over situations and the confusion that ensues when there’s not a “flip side” given.
    For example when the pastor is addressing true genuine whiners by stating “quit sucking your thumb and get on with serving God”, that leaves a person who is hurting and has had sexual abuse, rape, neglect, marriage to an evil man for 20 years feeling really bad and weird and wondering why can’t I just shake this off and be happy. I just listened to Pastor Sam Powell’s message on evil men and have started Jeff Crippens series on the Psychology of Sin. The understanding they have really helps clear the confusion and gives hope to the hurting. I am praying for my pastor and I know he must first be willing to learn before he will understand. Thanks for being an advocate for the misunderstood!

    • Ellie

      I totally relate to what you said here. This is where it helps to have input from people who can offer a healthy perspective.

      One Sunday my pastor preached about greed. X had just been fuming and accusing me of stealing from him. I was so worried that perhaps I was being greedy. After the service, I asked the pastor about my situation, fully prepared to repent for my greed. He told me to STOP IT! He assured me that X is being greedy, not me, that I hadn’t stolen anything and I have nothing to repent of. It has taken me time to be able to sort through the enemy’s accusations vs. the Holy Spirit’s conviction. It seems to me that when I hear “how could you do that, Ellie? How could you be so stupid? You’re never gonna get anything right…” that’s the enemy. The Holy Spirit gently asks, “Why did you do that?” It’s not an audible voice that I hear, just this thought, “Why are you doing that?” or “What are you doing?” and I will have a self justifying answer and then I hear, “Really Ellie?” and I know that I was lying to myself. It’s generally something I’m doing, maybe even a “good” thing, but for the wrong reason, that’s where I’ve been getting true conviction from the Holy Spirit. God continually sorts my motives because He will not share His glory with another. He wants me to trust Him, not my own strength.

      Listening to Jeff’s sermons helped me immensely. Faith comes by hearing. I have listened to so many hours of sermons in the last 2 years, probably a few months’ worth if I were to total up all the hours of sermons I’ve listened to, and having that new input going in my brain has been a powerful defogger for me.

    • Brenda R

      “quit sucking your thumb and get on with serving God”,

      I don’t think that quote should ever come out of any Shepherd’s mouth. To me that in itself is abusive. That is right there with, “pick yourself up with your own boot straps”. It is telling a person that they don’t have any problems, this is life and stop being a baby. People need to feel loved and safe. Neither of those things is within the quotes of that statement. How sad it is that we have anyone in the pulpit calling himself a Shepherd with those words in the message.

    • I used to take every word from the the pulpit and try to apply it to myself and probably added “years” of more confusion to my already foggy brain full of cobwebs. I never heard a message prefaced with to whom the message was intended for..just lumping everyone into the same boat and to add insult to injury many times the pastor would say “and don’t think you’re the exception”. … I am coming out of the fog and gaining clarity daily but oh the dangers of “throwing blankets “over situations and the confusion that ensues when there’s not a “flip side” given.

      Boy do I identify with that! Thankfully, I’m no longer stuck there, but I was tangled in that net for years and years.

      I have a theory about lots of preachers (NB: not all preachers):—
      They appear to be preaching mostly to men and mostly to proud, hypocritical, fleshly men (dare I say that some of them are mostly preaching to themselves?). Because that’s who their sermons are addressed to, they speak harshly like a male coach would speak to a team of male footballers — hammering them, mocking them, pummeling them with exhortations — which is the right way to preach to a proud person who thinks he does not need Christ, but quite the wrong way to preach to a bruised reed and who already knows her great need for Christ.

      When I hear preaching like this, it sickens me, and I find it hard to get anything from the sermon at all. I come away feeling despair for the church and anger towards the preacher, but I know that it would be useless to try to give him feedback on his preaching because no matter how gently, respectfully and courteously I phrased it, he wouldn’t listen.

      • Marah

        Oh gosh, I’m just now recovering from a pastor like that! We were part of a wildly successful church plant, and this pastor had a lot in common with Mark Driscoll (and in fact greatly admired him). For the three years we were part of that church I shrank farther and farther away from God. We finally left because I couldn’t take it anymore, and within two yrs the church collapsed, with quite a few people hurt by this pastor.

        Then we were actually part of another group with this guy seeking to start a new church. He had matured and changed a lot, but I still felt as though the underlying message was always what miserable worms we all were. Others felt good about this “glorify God” approach, but it just made me dread God, doubt his love and compassion, and wither inside.

        When I (again) said enough was enough, the kids and I ended up in an AWESOME church. I have received nothing but care, honest concern for my family as individuals, and incredible teaching about the true, deeply scriptural nature of God. I’ve been revived there, and am relearning to rejoice and *really* trust the Lord.

      • Brenda R

        Marah, That is Good News. Blessings to you and thanksgiving on finding a good church.

      • Brenda R

        Barb, I have gotten more assertive about questioning things my pastor says and giving him feedback on certain sermons. Sometimes it is a big high 5 other times it is “what did you mean by that?” I did get him to agree to listen to Leslie Vernicks webinar through RBC ministries last week RE: Pastors counseling on destructive marriages, along with Ps Chris Moll. I haven’t had feedback on that so far. I have a booklet from RBC called God’s Protection of Women: When Abuse is Worse than Divorce, that Leslie recommended a few weeks ago that I plan to give him today. RBC also puts out Our Daily Bread, which is always in the entry of the church. I didn’t get a response from my email where I told him about “Give Her Wings” and suggested that a planting of that organization would be a good thing for our area.
        He is listening, even if he doesn’t always want to hear it, just like, I listen to his sermons even though I don’t always want to hear it and instead of leaving feeling filled up with the Spirit, I leave feeling like I could have gotten more out of a tele evangelist.

      • Misunderstood

        Barbara – It is so comforting for me to know that you can identify with that confusing way of thinking my brain does and you said you are no longer stuck there. I know it’s a lot of untangling and like I said, some clarity has come…but those ruts! Ugh! I just ordered ” The Woman Who Changed Her Brain” (sounded very interesting) and I constantly have to stay focused and replace those forever lies with the wobbley truths that I am seeing more now that the fog is lifting. It is a huge undertaking to rewire ones way of thinking for 40 yrs…but I have hope from others on this blog and I know The Lord makes the impossible, possible.

      • M, I think you’ll be interested in this post I wrote 🙂
        Neuroplasticity, learning disabilities and domestic abuse

  5. Robert Simpson

    Barbara,
    Re: “Some may say that you can’t cover everything in a generalist discussion. Agreed. But that’s not an adequate excuse for the perennial ignoring of domestic abuse victims.”

    I looked at the list of recent Table podcasts and it includes a full session about spousal abuse, http://www.dts.edu/thetable/play/christian-response-to-abusive-relationships/ . So, this program is not perennially ignoring the issue.

    • It’s true the DTS Table Podcast series does have a session about spousal abuse, so they do not perennially avoid that subject. But that does not invalidate anything I said the particular podcast I was critiquing in this post. And if I have time I’m going to write a post about their Spousal Abuse podcast as well.

      • Anonymous

        Barbara – Praying that you will find time to “… write a post about their Spousal Abuse podcast as well.”
        I know your time is limited, however, the contribution ACFJ makes by reviewing and critiquing other’s resources is of great value; causes us to reflect more deeply on what is often thrown at us as sound Biblical teaching.

      • Not Too Late

        I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your critique of the podcast. Sure, having a session about spousal abuse is to be commended, but it doesn’t make this particular panel discussion more palatable to domestic abuse survivors. It may seem petty to some, especially as most speakers/authors do not seem to realize what they are doing when they “miss the mark” in lumping all single women into one big category of people carrying shame and guilt over past sexual sin. In all probability they don’t mean to do so, but failing to make it clear is not only careless, it reinforces stereotypes in church. That’s just the last thing DV survivors need.

    • Ellie

      I watched the video. I’ll post my thoughts and comments later. Thanks for posting the link. I appreciate it.

  6. Sarah

    Love this, it is right on. Just about every teaching I hear is so unbalanced. I usually have to bring in my own balanced comments just to make it through. I now notice the way after each hard point, a follow up guilt sentence comes up. It’s like a dance to them to get people in line. Very sad that they are not equipped to do some research.

    I have a big question that I am dealing with and would like everyone’s input:

    I often get phone calls/emails/personal comments with people who have had a few minutes with my ex abuser. They can be friends, family or a person we both have to deal with such as an accountant. They either want me to “know something” good my ex did or want to show me the amazing character that my ex has. They are very sincere but the tone behind their words always feel like an agenda. I want to educate them about the conning that abusers do because I want to be part of the solution not part of the problem. However, I have succeeded in not convincing anybody and it feels like all they do is either defend him, themselves, etc. I don’t know how to respond to these comments. I can ignore them, I can have a good come back or I can educate. So far I am at a loss as to what to do. I just end up upset by the conversation and I don’t want to be there. Same response when I write letters to authors etc.
    Ideas?
    thank you!

    • Ellie

      People who don’t want to understand, won’t. I have about driven myself mad trying to explain things. I have a post about that coming up. Prayer is the first line of defense. After that, I post things on fb, links to helpful articles etc. I never name ex as an abuser, but his allies still get aggravated with me. Their choice. At some point, you will get more immune to caring about their opinions.

    • A short concise reply is often the best. Trying to educate them is usually too time consuming and discouraging.
      Here are some suggestions for when someone tells you how nice your husband is or what a nice thing he did.
      Say to them: “That’s your view. But it’s not my view.”
      Or “Yes, but you do not know what he can be like to me behind closed doors.”
      Or “Have you heard about how domestic abusers are very manipulative?”
      Or “Did you know that abusers often try to recruit allies from among the victim’s friends, after the victim has left the marriage?”
      Or “Please don’t praise my ex to me. You only see one side of him.”

  7. Sarah

    Thank you, Ellie and Barbara. That’s what I needed. If we can’t educate them… who do we educate?

    • If we can’t educate them… who do we educate?

      That’s a reasonable question. I think that there’s a spectrum of people.

      Some we can educatate now, they are usually the ones who have had the lightbulb come on (or at least flicker on) because domestic abuse has touched them in some personal way, through a relative or close friend.

      With some, we can post short but pertinent questions, like some of the examples I gave above, which might provoke those people to open their minds a crack, at least they might start wondering whether the really do understand domestic abuse as well as they thought the did. With some of them, they may be educable later, but it takes the Spirit of God to be working in them too, I think. Not that we should just leave it all to God. We can ask the searching questions to get them to see the inconsistencies in their belief systems.

      Others are much harder to reach. They can be obdurate because they are themselves abusers, or because they are victims who are still deeply in the fog and can’t face the pain of their memories and what it would mean to stare reality in the face. Some are holding us at a distance because they simply don’t want to or believe they can’t face being triggered any more.

      But there’s a great swathe of people who just don’t want to think very hard; they are not necessarily abuse survivors themselves, but they like their theology lite and they have been brainwashed by so many false teachers and by people in Christendom who pass on all the platitudes about how to deal with abuse. The tickle my ears syndrome comes into this, too.

      For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. 2 Tim. 4:2-4

      I think as survivors and advocates, we harbour our energies best and wield our swords most efficiently by doing a test-probe/poke (so to speak) with a person who doesn’t get it, to see how they respond. We question them, or say something brief and see how they respond. The quality of their response tells us quite a lot about the degree to which they may be educable at this point in time. And we listen to ourselves, being aware of how much energy, time, and attention we want to expend on this person at this time. We don’t want to burn ourselves out or expose ourselves to needless abuse or hostility. And most important, we listen to the Spirit, who I find often guides us as to when and where to say things or NOT say things. 🙂

      • Anonymous

        Barb – I needed this reminder so as not to “burn out or expose myself to needless abuse and hostility”. This is a very delicate path … Thank you very much for the ‘sound advice’ from 2 Tim. 4:2-4

  8. Sarah

    thank you Barb, well said

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