April 10, 2012

Preach Christian Principles to an Abuse Victim????



     Recent statistics confirm former research that one in three (or four) women will experience abuse, even  sexual assault, in their lifetime— many being victims of child sexual abuse.  Studies also confirm that one in four women are victims of domestic violence.

Church congregations include many of these women, who come bearing the effects of their traumatic, destructive, life experiences. Often, dare I say mostly, the pastor is unaware of their congregant’s experiences, their secrets.  And the pastor, rightly, preaches his message according to Biblical principles.

Below are five situations that are common in church congregations:

  • Becky was raped by her father when she was eight years old.
  • Judy was molested by the church organist when she was nine.
  • Mary’s teenage brother played doctor with her at age five.
  • Alice is adopted. Her biological mother gave birth to her out of wedlock.
  • Barb escaped a physically and emotionally abusive husband through divorce.

What are the messages that these women hear preached, not only from the pulpit, but throughout the church? Typically they emphasize the following:

  • to remain sexually pure until marriage—sex is only to be between  wedded husband and wife.
  • that the offspring of a sinful relationship, a relationship between two unwedded persons, is a bastard, illegitimate  (there is actually an adoption website named bastard)
  • that marriage vows state ‘til death you do part


(to read about Spiritual Obstacles to Leaving Abuse click on )


     From the perspective of the congregant, whether a teenager or an adult, the traditional message only increases their shame, guilt, blame, and self-disgust over behaviors that they could not control. The congregants come to understand that they are damaged goods, blemished sheep.

The congregant didn’t choose these behaviors. To have the basic Christian teachings presented to them week after week only heaps more layers of guilt, shame, and blame on them.

Some ask themselves Why stay pure ‘til marriage? My purity was taken away from me. They become sexually active because of this, and because they were taught that participating in a sexual act is the way to show love.

Others try to atone for their dirty deeds by becoming, sometime excessively, servants of the church.

How do they reconcile the pastor’s message with their experience?

Adoptees question what the pastor’s message that only bad girls give birth out of wedlock means to them. After all, they are the product of a birth out of wedlock. If their biological mother was bad they can wonder about themselves.


     When a woman and/or her children are being physically, sexually, and/or emotionally abused is it just for the pastor to preach to them that divorce is untenable, that in order to make a marriage work they should be a better wife so the abuse will stop? As can be seen by many situations that end in disaster, staying in a marriage can be life threatening. Leaving can be a courageous move, and equally as dangerous.


     Thus, the pastor faces a dilemma: How can he preach Christian principles and not do further harm to these congregants?

An understanding of childhood abuse and domestic violence is essential. Pastors well-grounded in the dynamics involved in violent situations are prepared to accomplish preaching their message without creating further harm.

For the victim of childhood sexual assault the pastor can add a clear addendum to his message: If, as a child, you suffered from the deeds of a perpetrator it was not your choice. Therefore, you are not responsible for the choice, and remain pure.

For the adoptee, the message can include the addendum: you are not responsible for your parent’s choices. Your slate was clean at birth. You are loved by God.

For the wife who leaves a battering spouse, the question can be: Who broke the marriage vows? The answer here is: You did not break the marriage vows by leaving. He broke the marriage vows by battering you.


     This is only an introduction, food for thought, for pastors concerned about their congregation members.


     Pastors, perhaps you have other ideas, other approaches, to being able to preach the church message without further endangering vulnerable, guiltless, people in the congregation.

Those of you whom perpetrators have made vulnerable, you too may have ideas for the pastors.

I invite you to respond to the thoughts mentioned in this post. Use the comment box below for your input.




Laughter Heals Dry Bones

Hope for Victims of Domestic Violence

The Church Role in Child Abuse Issues


  1. Well, I’m Catholic and we (in and around Boston) have not only had our share of preaching about abuse, many clergy here actually DID the abuse. Your article leaves out the men who were victims of sexual abuse before the age of 18. There is a wonderful foundation called “1in6” that helps men come to terms with what they suffered. I’ve known many clergy of many denominations. They are very very aware of the hurt that their parishes have suffered. Catholics have confession, and sometimes people confess sins that others committed against them as though it were their own. It’s very hard, especially on men who almost never tell an adult when the abuse is going on. So, your sample size is much too small, that’s my first major comment.

    Next, I do believe that there is a great deal of sensitivity to the subject of sex abuse in our diocese and region. As I say, we had and still suffer from the effects of the clergy sex abuse scandal. We also know that marriage is forever, but legal separation and even civil divorce is often necessary for health and safety. I know a woman who left and divorced her husband because she discovered that he had molested their children. She thought she was out of communion. In almost 20 years, she had NEVER SPOKEN TO A PRIEST OR OTHER CLERGY ABOUT THE SITUATION. There is the problem. People assume that they know what the priest or clergyman will say. It’s so important for clergy to first tell their congregants that they are loving and try, with every ounce of strength, to be the ears, hands, and voice of Jesus for them. It’s so sad to hear of people who stay away from the sacramental life because they did the right thing and they somehow assume that the church will reject them for it. They are mistaken and it is a tragic situation.

    Comment by Suzanne — July 30, 2012 @ 9:10 pm | Reply

    • Thank you, Suzanne, for your insightful comments. I haven’t heard of “1in6” but will check it out.
      Your comment that people never talk to the clergy about their situation is on target. Unfortunately, many clergy are not trained in, nor do they have an understanding of, child abuse, including child sexual abuse.
      The world can be a tragic place. As we are seeing.
      Carolyn Cornell Holland

      Comment by carolyncholland — July 30, 2012 @ 10:44 pm | Reply

  2. Carolyn, I saw your call for comments on Upper Room today and I applaud your courage in speaking out about this. I think as Christians we all walk a very fine line between wanting to speak the truth, yet wanting to be sensitive to those who have been wounded, especially those who had no part in creating the circumstances surrounding their situation (such as adopted children). In the case of those who were adopted, I have appreciated occasionally hearing an emphasis on the gratitude and respect the adoptive parents often feel toward the biological mother who was willing to bear and give up her child. I think we need to acknowledge the many cases where the biological mother and/or father make the heroic decision to give birth to a child they know they will be unable to keep. And even when the biological mother was irresponsible, we can still focus on gratitude that the child was born and found a “forever family” to love and cherish him or her. Of course it goes without saying that church families can welcome and support all children who come into our fellowship, with or without parents being members or even being present. In this way, we can help to bridge the gap many of these children undoubtedly feel between themselves and the other members who may appear to them to have “perfect” lives. As a side issue, I wish I saw more churches reaching out to the many “hard to place” children who are in group homes or foster care; much has been written about the gap in support these children experience when they turn 18 and are legally adults, still unready to face the world all alone as many of them end up doing.

    Where domestic violence is concerned, I also want to mention that sometimes (perhaps often) the relationship is so dysfunctional that there is confusion in the victim as to whether the abuse has been mutual or one-sided. I think abusive behavior provokes negative emotions (and sometimes maladaptive actions) in the victim, which creates an underlying feeling of guilt and shame in the victim that hinders healing for both parties. In other words, it’s very, very difficult to untangle where and when the situation crossed the line between normal conflict and abusive mistreatment. Most of what I hear in our churches regarding abuse is very general and thus open to different interpretations from different people. It might be useful in our Bible classes and other gatherings to draw some very bold and specific lines; for example: “Nothing your spouse does can ever be an excuse to hit or phsyically coerce them.” or “It is NEVER helpful or productive to shout at your spouse or children.” Most of us have been guilty of yelling at our spouse or kids at one point or another, and usually we feel as if they provoked this behavior in us. We may even argue (as I have done with respect to my children) “they don’t listen to me until I raise my voice.” Yet most of us know deep inside that we are actually reacting in anger and not controlling our actions for the best interest of the children. In terms of prevention, we need to be very clear about stopping unhelpful behaviors in the earliest stages, before they get out of hand.

    On top of this, I have observed that many Christians seem to feel a co-dependent style need to control the behaviors of others “for their own good.” This can hinder our efforts to help people if we feel like we must do or say only the “right” things, or if we feel responsible for how they receive our offers to help. It’s so important to develop some humility about our own failings before we seek to correct others; I plead guilty to being as needful of humility as anyone I know.

    All this to say, churches and Christians are walking in a complex and often dangerous minefield when we try to reach out to troubled families, but this does not mean we are to withdraw in fear (as it would be easy to do) and content ourselves with preaching in the abstract against various sins and temptations. There are no easy answers and it calls for a lot of prayer. I believe if we sincerely ask God to guide us in such situations and acknowledge (to him and to the people we are trying to help) that we need guidance to act in wisdom, God will come alongside us and work in us and in the people we seek to help. “What is impossible with people is possible with God.”

    Comment by Julia — February 23, 2013 @ 3:08 pm | Reply

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