Why the Church is Often the Most Dangerous Place for an Domestic Abuse Survivor to Get Help

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The church is sometimes the most dangerous place for a woman to go for help when she is in an emotionally and spiritually abusive marriage. Here’s why.

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Why the Church is Often the Most Dangerous Place for an Domestic Abuse Survivor to Get Help [Transcript]

Hi. This is Natalie Hoffman of Flyingfreenow.com, and you’re listening to the Flying Free Podcast, a support resource for women of faith looking for hope and healing from hidden emotional and spiritual abuse. 

NATALIE: Welcome to Episode 21 of the Flying Free Podcast. Today, I have something a little bit different for you. I wanted to let you know that I’m actually at the tail end of recording my book, “Is It Me? Making Sense of Your Confusing Marriage: A Christian Woman’s Guide to Hidden Emotional and Spiritual Abuse” for Audible. And hopefully that will be available on Audible on Amazon by the end of June 2019. So for today, I am actually going to read a section of my book. This is from chapter 6 called, “The Roles of Others.” In the chapter, I talk about all the different roles that all the different people play in an abusive relationship. It’s not just you and your husband. It’s also your family and friends. It’s the counselors that you see. It’s your church. And actually, that’s the little section that I’m going to read for you today, the part about your church. So here we go. Hopefully this will give you a little taste of what the Audible version is going to sound like. 

I work with women of faith in destructive marriages because I have a high view of women, a high view of Jesus, and a high view of marriage. Intimate partner abuse tells a lie about women, a lie about Jesus, and a lie about marriage. These lies need to be exposed. For the sake of the Gospel, these lies need to stop. 

Where you find the true gospel, you find love, hope, and healing. You find compassion, truth, and humility. Where you find the anti-gospel, you find hate, hopelessness, and destruction. You find apathy, lies, and pride. With Jesus there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1). With Satan there is accusation (Revelation 12:10). Where you see Jesus working, you see good fruit. A bad tree, on the other hand, cannot bear good fruit (Matthew 7:18). 

A large portion of the organized conservative Christian church has bought into Satan’s lies about women (they are less than men), about the Gospel (it is only for the perfect or near-perfect), and about marriage (it is more important than human lives). They spiritualize these lies to make them appear righteous, but these dressed-up lies hide dead men’s bones (Matthew 23:27) and bear nothing but rotten fruit. This rotten fruit is prolific across the years of history and across this planet. Only God knows the full devastation of these lies, but here are just a few over-arching examples of the horrific damage these lies have caused: 

  • Children grow up immersed in the lies and hypocrisy of their parents and the church and throw it off in disgust as they reach young adulthood. 
  • The culture views the church as “that crazy group that eats its own” (actual quote from an unbeliever who grew up in the church and now wants nothing to do with Jesus because he associates Jesus with hateful, judgmental human beings). 
  • Marriages are held in revered esteem regardless of whether they are toxic or healthy. The marriage itself is worshiped while the human lives and souls within the family are disposable.
  • While the Bible teaches that marriage should tell a story of Christ and His bride, the Church—toxic marriages tell a story about Satan and the bride. The enemy accuses and condemns and defeats the child of God. 
  • The lives of women and children are covertly and systematically destroyed from the inside out.
  • The church misses out on a beautiful opportunity to minister to the oppressed and bring glory to God by humbly learning and growing in the love of Jesus Christ. 

Many women of faith in toxic marriages are afraid to tell people at church. They don’t want to embarrass their husbands or be seen as a bad wife who is “tearing down her husband.” However, when they get to a place of utter desolation and desperation, their church is often the first place they turn to for help. Within their churches they have invested their time in ministry, their financial resources, their emotional energy, and their love. They want to believe their church represents the loving body of Christ, and though they are usually fearful, they faithfully trust that if anyone might be able to help them, the church will. If only the church could be trusted to do this. 

Instead, when the hurting woman finally puts herself in the vulnerable position of reaching out for help from her church, she often experiences one of the most egregious, shocking, and damaging phases of her journey: rejection and vilification from her church family. Why? Why does the very institution that claims to represent Jesus Christ in this world not only walk past a woman who has been emotionally and spiritually beaten over the course of decades, but actually kicks her in the back while she is down on her face in fearful supplication, begging for mercy and help? I’ve seen this over and over again. If it hadn’t happened to me, and if I hadn’t heard countless testimonies of the same from women all over the world, I would not have believed it was possible. Even now it is difficult to wrap my brain around this. I used to have a naive view of the organized church, projecting my own passion for unity and peace on them. This is a perfect example of cognitive dissonance. We believe our church is good and loving, but when a revered idol like marriage is threatened, their behavior is shockingly hateful. 

In talking with others about this ironic phenomenon, I’ve come up with some theories for why this is a common experience for emotional and spiritual abuse victims who are just waking up and trying to get to a place of safety. 

One theory is that the leaders in the church have a savior complex. This happens when people have a deep need inside of themselves to find their identity in rescuing others. You would think this would be a prime reason for helping an abuse target who comes forward. And sometimes they will try to help—at first. But here’s the catch: in many conservative Christian churches, the institution of marriage is treated as if it is a living, eternal soul that must be protected at all costs. So it isn’t actually the real living eternal soul they are interested in protecting as much as it is the marriage itself. They are invested in being the savior of the marriage. This presents a serious problem when the victim is looking to get out of the marriage to a place of safety in order to build a new life of peace—free of abuse. As long as she agrees with the church that the ultimate goal is to salvage the abusive marriage, they will help her toward that goal. But only that goal. Because the marriage is what matters to them—not her or her children. 

Often what happens is that the abuse target, being the agreeable and conscientious woman that she is, will go along with the church’s agenda in the hope that perhaps the church can help her abusive husband change. So the secondary goal of the self-appointed church savior is to change the abuser. They have a high view of their ability to convince the abuser of his wayward ways and a low view of the fact that his intimate partner has been praying and trying to do this for decades already. Right from the beginning they’ve put themselves in the position of the wise and all-knowing savior while putting the survivor in the position of failing in her duties to save and change her abuser. 

She might try to send them articles or books or information she has learned in her quest for answers, but they won’t be interested. They believe they already have the answers, and they don’t need to learn anything more, at least not from a woman like her. She might try to offer them her own insights based on years of living with him and studying every nuanced thing about him to try to figure out how to make him happy and solve the puzzle of her painful relationship. But again, they aren’t really interested in her input. In fact, she begins to annoy them after a while. Do you see how this is eerily starting to feel like life with her controlling husband? I point this out again because it is so important to remember what drives this kind of behavior: a misogynistic view of women coupled with a fundamental belief that men should have a power-over position in relation to them. This is the very root of abuse and re-abuse, and it bears repeating. 

In trying to save the abuser from the error of his ways, the church takes on the role of God in his life. This is ignorance at best and arrogance at worst. Always remember that their reason for wanting to change the abuser is to achieve their number one goal: save the marriage. If he changes just enough to convince his emotionally unstable wife, maybe she’ll settle down and get back to the business of servicing him the way good wives should. Of course, the abuser usually responds to the church’s intervention by putting on a big show of how he has started to have a change of heart and now wants to save the marriage. This plays right into the church’s number one priority, so they jump on that (as the abuser knows they will) and then turn to the wife, expecting her to trust his sudden change and get back in bed with him (literally and figuratively speaking), which is exactly what the abuser wants. 

So let’s review the order of priority here. A victim comes forward for help. She needs to be emotionally and spiritually and physically safe. That ought to be the number one priority, but the number one priority of the church is to save the marriage, and the number two priority is to change the abuser in order to achieve the number one priority. So the abuser puts his energy into performing an act for the church, making it appear he has changed so he can regain his control over the woman, and while he is doing this, he is also covertly planting seeds of doubt in everyone’s minds about her, paving the way for the future smear campaign he will need to launch in case his plan doesn’t work, and she leaves him anyway. 

The important point to remember here is that the abuser is almost always the one who wants to save the marriage. Think about it. Abusive men need to maintain control over their targets. It is a private and public affront to him to have his wife slip away, and he is all about image management and control. His agenda to hang onto his victim (“save the marriage”) appeals to the church’s number one priority, which automatically places him on the side of righteousness in their viewpoint. His goal and their goal are the same. Then, when they compare this seemingly noble goal of saving the marriage to the wife’s goal, which is to stop pretending, stop covering up, walk in truth, set healthy boundaries, get away from the abuse, and pursue healing—they side with the abuser. In order to justify their abandonment of the victim, they need to do exactly what her abuser has done for decades—control and shame her. So that’s exactly what they do.

This scenario plays out over and over again in churches all over the world. You need to know this in advance so you won’t be shocked and traumatized when it happens to you. Instead, you will be forewarned and prepared to make the hard decisions that come from being forced to stand alone while your church joins forces with your abusive spouse in demonizing and rejecting you. 

“Can you imagine being on fire and having no one to help put out the fire? Instead of helping to extinguish the flames, they throw gas on the fire by denying its existence and telling you, as you burn alive, that you are not really on fire, and it can’t hurt that bad. Or if they acknowledge any fire, they say you did it to yourself, so you deal with the flames. That’s what this feels like—begging for help and having someone who says they love God throw gasoline on you when you’re already on fire.” —Emotional Abuse Survivor 

Another theory for why the church rejects the victims while helping the abusers is that the church has invested a lot of time, emotional energy, money, prayer, and effort into creating what they believe to be a warm, inviting church atmosphere. When people within the church get messy and have out-of-control problems, the people who have worked hard may have a sense that they’ve failed others and even God. There is a tangled web of confusion and shame around abuse, and it takes time, humility, education, wisdom, skill, and experience to gently untangle the threads and bring hope and healing to victims and their families. I believe the church of Jesus Christ should be the ones leading the way in this area, and I pray God will turn this around one day. But for now, the church is the most dangerous place for a victim to try to find hope and help. 

When a church’s agenda for this process of helping a victim has to end with an intact marriage and a happily-ever-after testimony, the process is doomed right from the beginning. So if the underlying motivation is warm fuzzies and a success story, then taking the time, energy, and humility required to unravel abusive homes is not going to appeal to many churches. If emotional abuse is crazy when it stays hidden within the family, then it borders on totally insane when we bring an ignorant (though perhaps well-meaning) religious community into the mix. The web is larger and more impossible to figure out at that point because now the abuser has a growing number of actors in his drama, and the victim gets to play the role of scapegoat over and over again, experiencing re-abuse that spirals her further down into a pit of total despair and agony. She has two choices at that point: go back to living a lie and suffering under oppression, or divorce her husband and suffer excommunication and religious shunning. This is a dark time in a victim’s life, and it causes some to even see death as the only way out. That’s how vile and harmful the church’s re-abuse is, and it can’t be sugar-coated. 

It is my personal opinion that underlying all of that mess lies a theology rooted in the original sin of trying to be god-like over accepting our human limitations and resting in our Father’s love just as we are. Good works over grace. Control over trust. Pride over humility. People who believe they are flawed and unlovable and need to be perfect in order to win God’s approval tend to lay that burden on others. They see others as flawed and unlovable and in need of being perfect in order to win God’s approval as well. Groups like this are a breeding ground for dysfunction. The gospel holds out a different option—the option to receive the love and acceptance of Jesus regardless of our weakness, sin, and mistakes. Then we can extend that same love to others, believing God is big enough to work in individual lives, and He doesn’t need us to act as Holy Spirits in the lives of others. When a woman comes forward needing help in a healthy, Christ-centered church, she will be loved and accepted right where she is. She will be believed and supported, regardless of what her decision about her future may be. She will be honored as a precious human being with rights to her own life and her own safety. Her boundaries will be respected. She will be directed to skilled, experienced, and licensed therapists to help her recover from trauma so she can be whole again—able to make her own good choices for her life and the lives of her children as well as lovingly serve others in the way she has been lovingly served. She will not be condemned, suspected, silenced, blamed, or excommunicated should she make the painful, last-resort decision to divorce her chronically abusive spouse.

I’ve noticed that when survivors get divorced and then excommunicated, they often find another church similar to the one they were kicked out of. The new church will embrace and help her. Why is this? Why does a church excommunicate a faithful member while embracing a new woman who shows up already divorced for the exact same reasons? I believe it is, in part, because of the two dynamics I just suggested: the savior complex and the feeling of failure when they couldn’t save a marriage. When a couple gets divorced, it means all of the church’s teaching and effort didn’t work. It wasn’t effective. They interpret the divorce to mean the church failed, and that’s embarrassing. They fear it is contagious. If this couple gets away with divorce, it will set precedence, and everyone will be wanting a divorce for frivolous reasons. Why, some women might even claim abuse just to get divorced and find a new man! But if a woman comes in already divorced, the savior complex kicks into gear, and they can reach out and love on her be

cause she doesn’t represent failure to them. In fact, they can feel good about what an awesome church they are while the church that kicked her out is the one in the wrong. Yes, apart from the radical gospel of Jesus Christ at work in our lives, this is how human nature plays itself out, even in the church. 
And that’s the end of that section, so we’re going to stop for today, but I want to let you know that if you have never visited my website, you can do that right now. It’s flyingfreenow.com. At the top of that website is a place where you can sign up to get on my mailing list, and you will get the first chapter of this book for free just by signing up. Also, if you want to leave a review of the podcast on iTunes, for every ten reviews that are left, I will be putting those names in a drawing and sending the winner a free copy of my book “Is It Me? Making Sense of Your Confusing Marriage.” [This promotion is no longer running.] I hope you’ll join us next week. We’re going to be answering some questions from listeners. And if you are a listener who wants to ask a question, all you have to do is record your question by going to the link in the show notes. You can make a recording of your question, and you can be completely anonymous. I think you get three minutes to make your recording. Ask your question, and then we will include it on one of our future podcasts. I was going to say broadcast, but it’s a podcast. So that’s it! Fly free.

10 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Hi Natalie,
    I have so valued your insight and encouragement over the last year, including your book! Thank you for your transparency and dedication to changing culture. I have a question on church abuse that is a little different from what most of you have experienced. I’ll try to describe as best as possible.

    Throughout my 5 year struggle in an abusive marriage, I was at first open with a few women in my church. They were supportive, although uneducated in knowing how to help me. As time went on and I had to take greater and greater measures, I continued to open up to church leadership to inform them of my decisions. This included separation #1 with restraining order, and separation #2 with filing for divorce. At every point along the way I didn’t “counsel” with them, I had other expert resources for that, but rather informed them of my next steps. This included the pastor and assistant pastor, as well as two women in the women’s ministry. I was very transparent and answered whatever questions they had. In all instances, they supported my decisions and told me to let them know if there was anything they could do to help.

    Throughout this last separation, my wise counsel has been my sister and christian counselor/dv advocate. A little over 3 months ago, at the direction of the Holy Spirit, I broke no contact with my husband and asked him some questions. The HS told me that he would show me his heart (I didn’t think it would be good). As we began talking, I began to see that Jesus had done a complete miracle in my husband. As we dove deep into many conversations, I saw a heart of complete repentance and turning from sin and addiction and a submission to Jesus. I was astonished! We began making steps towards reconciliation, with my husband voluntarily putting agreements and consequences into place to keep me and our children safe should he choose to re-enter a cycle of abuse or addiction. My wise counsel was in full support, with caution as to time showing the fruit of the repentance. The Holy Spirit guided me to take it one day at a time and live in truth.

    At this point, my husband began attending church with me again, a changed man. I informed my pastors that we were on the path to reconciliation. Their response was to praise Jesus. I had a long conversation with each of the two women in the women’s ministry. They had several questions which I answered and advice which I assured them I would take into consideration. They said they were so thankful and joyful to hear of what God was doing in our lives and agreed with me that time would be the litmus test.

    My husband emailed the pastor and requested suggestions on a mentor as well as a marriage mentor for us as a couple. There was no followup to that request other than to say he would give it some consideration. We continued to attend church, and bible studies.

    Then about a month in, I get a call from the assistant pastor. He informs me that there are “women in leadership” who are greatly concerned about my decisions and want the pastors to step in. He would not name who he was talking about. When I informed him that I had been walking through this process with my “wise counsel” and that I had conversations with two of the women in leadership who nodded and said “yes we support you and are so thankful to hear what God is doing”, he told me that those conversations were insufficient and that they needed additional opportunity to express their opinions. I asked him why these women had not contacted me – my phone is on, my door is open at any time. He had no response.He tells me I have a blind spot and that I have gone about this completely wrong. He further outlines that we need to sit down and build a re-integration plan and requests that my husband not attend church for the next 3 weeks until we can do so. It makes everyone too uncomfortable and no one is at peace with the situation. And yet, no one even five weeks later has called or texted to address this with me I let him know that respectfully, I am not in agreement with any of this, and rather than a spirit of restoration, I feel that they are coming at this from a perspective of punishment and condemnation. .

    At the same time I received the call from the assistant pastor, my husband received a call from the head pastor who launches into the discussion saying “we have been dealing with this drama for two years now and enough is enough.” My husband interrupts and says he will not continue the conversation without me present. We later call the assistant pastor together and he reiterates to my husband what he told me on the phone.

    Four weeks later my husband receives a call from the assistant pastor after we text to try to find out what the next steps are. The assistant pastor informs my husband that both the pastors and the women in leadership are requiring that I give a full apology for the “way I handled things” (I can only assume this means the discussion or inviting my husband back to church) and that I give these women additional opportunity to voice their concerns (again, I do not have the identities of these women, nor has anyone attempted to contact me to discuss anything). In addition to that the pastors want to have a 90 minute discussion with my husband and I where I will give my apology, provide better explanation of my decisions and the history of our marriage, as well as put together a reintegration plan and a plan to rebuild trust (they’re not just talking about my husband rebuilding trust, but me rebuilding trust with them).

    At no point in this process has there been any acknowledgement of my wisdom and grace over the last 5 years, nor any mention of supporting and coming alongside my husband and I in the process of restoration. It has been completely about me “getting it all wrong” and needing to provide an apology to leadership.

    Sorry for this being so long. I am completely dumbfounded as to how to proceed. I have searched my heart and asked to Lord to reveal to me any area of sin, and I find myself coming up completely blameless. In every step of this journey I have obeyed the Holy Spirit and sought wise counsel. Both in separating and reconciling. I find no reason to provide an apology and quite frankly am questioning the wisdom of walking into a 90 minute discussion where my voice may not be heard and further abuse done to my heart. I will be talking with my wise counsel asap on this but based on all I’ve read of your experience with the church in your journey, I thought you would have some beautifully wise counsel as well. Bless you Natalie.

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      Do you and your husband feel that church is a safe place where you can make mistakes, grow, and thrive? If not – find a church that offers that. There are a bazillion churches out there. You need to find one that is safe for you. I’m sorry this has happened to you. Very painful.

      Reply
      • Avatar

        Thank you for your reply. Previously, I would have said yes, it is a safe place. This is what is preached from the pulpit, and during my struggle through this situation, I felt loved and accepted (if not really helped). I guess the ability to make mistakes was never tested. I have been here for 7 years now and I’m in positions of leadership. Seeing what I’m seeing now is leading me to seriously question if what is taught (redemption, reconciliation, right relationship, the miracle working power of God) is actually put into practice. I’m scared to find out the truth and I’m scared to get hurt again.

        Reply
        • Natalie Hoffman

          It’s hard to face these hurtful things, but you will be able to move forward toward something better after you’ve processed and grieved. Unfortunately, this experience is a common one. 🙁

          Reply
  2. Avatar

    Hi, Natalie.
    Not sure if you have addressed this issue already, but do you have theological perspective on the interpretation of Jesus turning tables
    Over in his anger? I’ve heard this story used to justify anger a lot and wondered if there is some clarify or more wholistic perspective on how to manage anger as Christians. If Jesus is having a tantrum and acting in rage, how is it not okay for us to have those moments?

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      The Bible is pretty clear that God is an emotional God and has created us to be emotional beings just like Him. Anger isn’t a sin. It’s an emotion that comes as a natural outcome of hurt or injustice of some kind. It’s part of our bodies. What we do with an emotion can be constructive or destructive. Anger over abuse shows the heart of God is alive and well inside you. A lack of anger over abuse should raise a red flag and cause one to ask themselves – why? Why the apathy? That anger is driven by love for people. God created us to love and be loved, and abuse destroys all of that. It’s satanic. But that anger needs to be focused on helping others get out. On sheltering them. Supporting them. Speaking out against abuse. Etc. When Jesus drove out the money changers, He was demonstrating the heart of God for human beings who were being used and abused by the system. Christians are the ones who have indoctrinated themselves into the idea that anger is bad – and experiencing anger means there is something wrong with you. Actually, the exact opposite is true. Anger means you are functioning properly.

      Reply
  3. Avatar

    Sadly, this sounds like you wrote exactly what I experienced! Praying as I try to heal I can forgive and move on. Thankfully Jesus is my first love and the one I depend on for total fullfillment but the pain of the betrayal is real.

    Reply
  4. Avatar

    I am continually blessed by your insight and support. I am so grateful that you started this ministry. God is using your unique talents combined with your own experiences to help me to be set free and heal in the midst of my own unspeakable suffering. This was just what I needed today. Thank you Natalie.

    Reply
  5. Avatar

    Awesome word! So true, I wish it were not, but it is. The church has to wake up in this area. The religious ideals must die so the the grace and truth of Christ will live fully through us.

    I was told to wait for my abusive, adulterous ex-husband to come back to me. I was told I should never re-marry or I would be in adultery. I was told I would never have a place in ministry again because of my divorce. I read an article by a “divorce recovery” pastoral team that I needed to repent for my divorce. I had not filed. But still, I needed to repent from the sin of divorce. After I re-married a post on Facebook came out that my new marriage was sinful and I needed to repent. I was told I could not adopt a child by a Christian adoption agency because of my divorce.

    But, GOD …. …… …..

    I am in ministry again, I lead worship, I write songs reflecting the grace and healing found in Christ Jesus. I speak words of life and truth. I am re-married, almost 16 years, to a man who daily demonstrates the love of Jesus Christ to me. I am ready to publish my first book. a recovery devotional for people who have experienced verbal and emotional abuse. I am in an authentic church that endeavors to see as the Lord sees, truthfully, with compassion. Instead of children, I adopted two dogs and a cat from rescues. It’s ok, my three adult children need all the love I can pour into them. They’ve been through hell and back.

    Here’s my life lesson through it all: God is greater. I believe He is shining a light on this darkness and exposing it and healing the people impacted by its sinister battery. He has a plan to get His bride on track with His heart. He’s executing it through people like you. Praise God for Flying Free!

    Thank you for your wisdom, counsel and admonishment.

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      This is SO ENCOURAGING!! Thank you for sharing your own Flying Free story!!

      Reply

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