April 8, 2008




Carol J. Adams, is author of Woman-Battering, a pastoral counseling book, and a teacher at Perkins School of Theology, Texas, where she teaches a course on sexual and domestic violence. She said she is angry at seminaries that graduate pastors untrained in domestic violence issues. The following article comes from seminars she presented to pastors a few years ago. (To view photo illustration click on: )

One pastor attempted to speak with a woman he knew was experiencing domestic violence, but she “didn’t want to talk about” her marriage problems. She is now divorced.

Another pastor had a woman approach him about her abusive relationship. He made arrangements for her to go to a local woman’s shelter, but she returned to her husband instead. “I was almost feeling kind of guilty. Could I have done more?” the pastor wondered. “But I left the door open and will help her find a safe place if she needs it.”

A third pastor realizes people involved in domestic violence are experiencing a spiritual crisis. “Sometimes people come to church asking how domestic violence relates to their marriage vows, and wanting to know what to do about it. But I’ve never dealt directly with a parishioner.”

“Pastors instinct is to do couples counseling,” Carol J. Adams stated. “They are trained to do so. But in domestic violence this is a big no-no. The pastor is trained to be reconciling, a method often enabling violence to continue.

“Battering is the batterer’s responsibility. Couples counseling implies she is responsible too. It endangers her. It is not a safe place. If she tells the truth, she gets hurt; is she lies, she doesn’t get help.”

Pastors who advise a battered spouse to remain in an abusive relationship unwittingly put her and her children in danger. Pastors sometimes make the assumption that a marriage should be kept together “no matter what the cost.” At other times they remove the focus from it being his responsibility for his actions to how she provoked him to batter.

Sometimes they trivialize or minimize what has occurred. And some pastors try to “case manage” her life for her by taking over all the decision making; again making the assumption that this marriage should be kept together “no matter what the cost.”

Each and every of the above actions endanger women. Every 9 seconds a woman is battered by her spouse or companion; each day four U. S. women die. 75% of these deaths occur at the time the woman leaves the relationship.

“When Jesus had the opportunity to stop or prevent suffering, he did. Often, the suffering were women,” said Adams.

While both religious and secular people understand divorce as a breaking of the marriage vows, where domestic violence is an issue it is the violence, not the divorce, which destroys the marriage covenant.

“The violence, that’s the real sin,” said Adams. “A loving God does not want anyone to die of love and commitment.”

Adams has “mantras” that include that safety is a priority. Domestic violence is a chronic problem with crisis moments. “The crisis is the battery incident, the chronic problem is the control and behavior issues.”

Domestic violence is about control, a pattern of behavior involving violence, control, and subtle forms of abuse. “It is not conflict run amok, but an issue of power and control. Even the ‘nice’ phase is a tactic to get women to comply,” said Adams, who acknowledges we live in a society that accepts on a deep subconscious level that women are the property of men.

For the controlling partner, the victim will always do something wrong, and the “something wrong” doesn’t matter, only the control does.

“My bottom line is safety first,” Adams emphatically restated.

There are three steps in pastoral dealings with domestic violence. First, the pastor must process information received from the couple. “Talk with each partner individually. Focus on behavior, not on personality characteristics,” said Adams.

Second, use a practical approach of measuring safety. “The minute she says she’s battered, refer her to a shelter.” Pastors cannot provide safety, but secular agencies, particularly women’s shelters, are designed to do this. Pastors need to work with the secular world, where the local Woman’s Shelter can give safety the church cannot provide.

Doing these two things frees the pastor to approach the involved parties on theological issues. “Clergy get in trouble because they give a theological response when the practical is needed,” said Adams.

Third, churches can become a part of a cooperative community that states “Battering is wrong and you have to stop.” All appropriate secular resources should be involved in domestic violence situations, said Adams.

“To err on the side of disbelief of the woman is to err on the side of danger,” stated Adams. “This is not a matter of choosing sides but of meeting needs.”

Battered women need to plan for safety and to have the backing of a community that holds her abuser accountable, because she cannot.

The batterer needs to stop his violence. Battering continues through intermittent rewards. Therefore, the perpetrator needs consistent aversive consequences of his behavior. They have broken the law and the law must be invoked. Pastors can remove church rewards by making him accountable instead of supporting the batterer.

Both partners need a just relationship and a restoration of family relationships if possible. If this not possible, they need to mourn of the loss of the relationship.
Pastors should be aware that expecting action might result in defining the battered woman’s struggle for survival as inaction. “I was so frustrated with her decision to return to the abusive relationship,” one pastor said. Adams replied that leaving or achieving safety is a long-term process. (The typical battered spouse leaves an average of seven times before finally not returning.)

Pastors can work toward the prevention of domestic violence by preaching on what love is, educating youth, and incorporating anti-violence statements in wedding vows. The church can model safety through its members. How the church deals with domestic violence as Christians is critical.

Because a pastor is trained to be reconciling (an approach enabling the continuance of violence), he finds it difficult responding in the confrontational manner essential in stopping a batterer’s controlling behavior.

“Battering is the batterers responsibility,” Adams emphasized. “Domestic violence is about control. It is a pattern of behavior involving violence, control and subtle forms of abuse. It is not conflict run amok, but an issue of power and control. Even the ‘nice’ phase is a tactic to get women to comply.”

Adams acknowledges we live in a society that accepts, on a deep subconscious level, that women are the property of men. For the controlling party, the victim will always do something wrong, and it isn’t the “something wrong” that matters. Only the control does. What matters to the batterer is the level of control he has over his chosen victim.

Both religious and secular populations understand divorce as breaking marriage vows. In the presence of domestic violence, however, the violence, not the divorce, destroys the marriage covenant. “The violence, that’s the real sin,” said Adams. “A loving God does not want anyone to die of love and commitment.”

“When Jesus had the opportunity to stop or prevent suffering, he did. Often, the suffering were women.”

It is not a matter of choosing sides, but of meeting needs. Batterers need to stop; battered women need a plan for safety and the support of a community that holds her abuser accountable, because she cannot. Both need a just relationship, and a restoration of family relationships if possible. If not possible, they need to mourn the loss of the relationship.

Churches can become a part of a cooperative ministry that says battering is wrong and it has to stop. In making a decision, to err on the side of safety is better than to err on the side of danger. However, there are cautions. Read what might be considered a controversial post:

Preach Christian Principles to an Abuse Victim????

CAROLYN’S COMPOSITIONS has two categories with posts on abusive families:




I do hope these are helpful for you.

Carolyn C. Holland has facilitated several groups for adults abused as children. She also wrote a grant for and administered a Pennsylvania Children’s Trust Fund program aimed at decreasing child abuse by healing parents who were themselves abused. She is also a pastor’s wife.

To read another post on child abuse and domestic violence, click on THE WELL-ADJUSTED CHILD.

Thank you for visiting my site. Add it to your favorites and revisit regularly. Carolyn C. Holland.


  1. This is a very valuable article. Thank you for writing it!

    Comment by Hannah — April 21, 2008 @ 12:12 am | Reply

  2. Patricia Evans has three books on this issue. The Verbally Abusive Relationship is the first one. The below was received at a Moravian Conference in Winston-Salem.

    Christian Myths about Sexual and Domestic Abuse
    By Mary Potter Engel, Ph.D.
    United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities

    1. Sexual and domestic abuse do not occur in nice Christian families.
    Statistics show that sexual and domestic abuses occur as frequently in religious households as in non-religious households.

    2. Sexual and domestic abuses occur in “those other” denominations, not in the Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, (etc.) faiths.
    All Christian denominations are affected by sexual and domestic abuse. To deny this is to try to find yet one more way to avoid the injustice and shift the responsibility.

    3. Theology is irrelevant to sexual and domestic abuse.
    There are some reports that members of more rigid Christian groups are at higher risk of abuse. While we have no reliable data on this as yet, it is the case that a theology that is more hierarchical and patriarchal than egalitarian is one, among many other factors, that can increase the likelihood of the abuse of women and children.

    4. The power of God alone will change the situation.
    By “turning it all over to God,” the individual avoids the help that God sends to us through the hands and hearts of other human beings, whether they be social workers, ministers, friends, other family members or counselors. In other words, it is a fallacy to assume that God works WITHOUT any effort on the part of human beings. We are created to be responsible selves, and thus we are human beings. We are created to be responsible selves, and thus we are obligated to use the gifts for healing that God places before us in this life.

    5. Accepting Jesus as his or her personal savior will solve the problems of the abuser.
    Domestic and sexual abuse are rarely one time events. Often they are patterns of behavior that are very difficult to overcome. A flash conversion experience will not cure a person of deeply ingrained patterns immediately. Therefore, it is necessary to make use of whatever legal, psychological and pastoral aids and service s that are available to assist the perpetrator in his or her recovery toward wholeness.

    6. Redemption comes only through suffering.
    Personal suffering can be an occasion for our own growth, but it is never the cause of growth. In other words, suffering is not necessarily redemptive. It embitters some persons rather than urging them towards growth. WE can be redeemed in our suffering but we are never redeemed because of our suffering. God does not require any one or any groups of persons to pay a demanding price in order to purchase redemption. God grants wholeness and healing as free gifts of peace.

    For women in the church, the revolutionary theology of the cross of Christ, a witness to his active choice to take a stand against the injustice in the world, has been distorted into a reactionary theology of suffering, a justification for the passive and unprotesting acceptance of their own unjust victimization.

    7. God teaches us, trains us, through suffering, therefore it is to be accepted as a gift.
    The belief that God has a divine plan, purpose or reason for the ills that one must suffer during her or his life may bring comfort ot some victims by giving them a sense of control of their reality. (If they cannot control what happens to them, they can at least control the interpretation of it.) In other words, this theological belief may be part of the survival mechanism of the victim and should be dealt with sensitively and gently. The aim, however, would be to lead victims and survivors to see that there are acts of violence that have systemic roots, (i.e. caused by an unjust system in society) and that impinges upon their individual lives rather than that of others in a random way, (I.e. the acts are irrational and they personally are not singled out for some divine purpose).

    8. Suffering is a punishment for past sins.
    Many women feel that they are beaten or raped or otherwise abused as a punishment for previous sins (usually previous sexual activity). They need to know that being sexually active is not in itself sinful and therefore requires no punishment. They also need to know that they do not deserve the treatment they are receiving; that they are unwitting and involuntary victims of an explosive system; and that it is the perpetrator, because of his abuse of his force or authority, who carries the full responsibility for his action toward her.

    9. Suffering is a divine vocation.
    Women will occasionally argue that it is their “mission” or vocation to save their husbands by their example of patient forbearance. While each one of us is given a divine vocation, no one of us is called to save another human being. That is as presumptuous as it is impossible. It is the work of God to save.

    10. Suffering presents us with opportunities to show compassion and love in our suffering with the victims of abuse.
    According to Mother Theresa, God is present in suffering human beings and we are to take the suffering of others as opportunities to do works of compassion and love. This is an individualistic and passive approach that accepts the whole system of injustice and does not work to change that system or to understand the social causes of the problem of exploitation of women and children. We do not need to accept unjust suffering in order to show compassion and love. In fact, acts of social justice that aim at restructuring the entire patriarchal system so that there will be no more victims can be fine works of compassion and love.

    11. Suffering gives victims a “moral edge” or moral superiority.
    This is basically a romantic view of suffering that treats victims of abuse as one-dimensional creatures, as victims alone, rather than seeing them as the incredibility strong and resilient survivors that they often are. Our own need to romanticize suffering can blind us to the great strength and dignity that are present in the lives of survivors as well as to the full horror of the harm that has been done to them.

    12. The suffering of women and children is random.
    In his popular book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Kushner presents suffering as a random event. While I think this view is helpful to counter the suffering as punishment and to help us understand the suffering we experience with terminal diseases and other “natural” physical ills, I do not think it is helpful for the victims of sexual and domestic abuse. The suffering in our society of women, children, and elders, like that of Jews, lesbians, gays and people of color is rnot totally random. Rather, it is a necessary consequence of a sexist and exploitative patriarchal system that dehumanizes women, trains them to be willing victims, and blames them when they cry for help.

    13. The suffering of individual women is a result of choices they have made.
    While the suffering of women as a group is not random, the suffering of a particular woman is. What this means is that there may be no final explanation for why a certain abuse happened to this woman, and not to her sister or friend. In other words, we must be extremely careful not to blame for the suffering that she experiences individually because of the exploitative system that exists in our society.

    Reprinted with permission from Marry Potter Engel, Ph.D. in Creating Peace: Encourage to Change (Family Peacemaking Materials for Clergy, Lay Leaders, Staff & Laity)
    Anoka County Faith Community Peace Initiative 2000, Anoka County , Minnesota .

    Comment by Charlotte Fairchild — August 28, 2008 @ 11:26 am | Reply

  3. I am writing a paper for a group of Theologians on :Pastoral response to victims of Domestic violence and Injustice, in Nigeria. It is purely academic research. I found found your paper on : A Pastor’s Role in Domestic Violence useful but there are no references. I shall be grateful if you can send me some more useful materials. I am a lecturer at the Catholic Institute of West Africa, Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
    God bless you for the good work you are doing.
    If you don’t mind, I’ll be delighted to have some research references.

    Comment by Newsletter sample and a host of otheres — December 10, 2011 @ 1:03 pm | Reply

  4. I found your article helpful. Thanks

    Comment by Newsletter sample and a host of otheres — December 10, 2011 @ 1:06 pm | Reply

  5. what other comment?

    Comment by Newsletter sample and a host of otheres — December 10, 2011 @ 1:10 pm | Reply

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