Why the Church Rejects Emotional Abuse Victims (and What You Can and Can’t Do About It!)
“When threatened, entire systems will deny the truth and alienate a victim or truth-teller rather than face the fact that there is a cancerous lump metastasizing and destroying the system from within.” —Diane Langberg
I’ve talked to countless women who have hauled themselves out of abusive relationships only to be re-abused at the hands of their adult children, their churches, and others who have reasons for wanting them to stay married regardless of how their minds, spirits, and bodies were being shredded to pieces by their abusive partners.
Is it any wonder that most women stay silent? These are women who highly value their relationships. Why risk losing everything they’ve held dear? This is one of the worst ways hidden emotional abuse hurts women—through the re-abuse done by those on the outside looking in.
I asked my community of abuse survivors to share some of the things their Christian community told them when they disclosed years of emotional abuse. Here’s what they told me:
- “All couples fight.”
- “You are not in God’s will.”
- “You need to give him more sex.”
- “You’re not praying hard enough.”
- “Do what he wants you to do—whatever makes him happy.”
- “You made a vow. You have to keep it.”
- “All marriages are hard.”
- “If you leave, you don’t love your children.”
- “Are you keeping the house clean enough? Do you cook him good dinners?”
- “You had too many babies, so that’s why he abuses you.”
- “Back away from your relationship with Jesus. It intimidates your husband. You must decrease so he can increase.”
- “IF these things are really going on in your house (and that is a big IF) then it’s your responsibility to get him the help he needs.”
- “You are a slave to Christ and your husband. There is no greater love than to die for your husband. Treat him as if he were God. He stands in the place of God for you.”
- “Compliment him more. He is discouraged and just needs to be affirmed by someone who thinks he is good looking.”
- “Quit focusing on the bad stuff. Focus on the WINS!”
- “Your personality is too strong. You need to be meek in order to let him shine.” (This woman said she tried to be less intelligent, not have opinions, submit, and not use her sense of humor. Basically, become a non-person.)
- “He’s not complicated, but you are. You need counseling.”
- “You don’t know how good you have it. Be thankful he isn’t worse.”
- “The only right you have is to die to yourself.”
- “Your husband had an affair with your sister? You need to initiate sex, then. Because love covers a multitude of sins.”
- “Jesus is pleased with your suffering.”
- “If your husband is addicted to porn and sleeps with other men and women, it’s because you are frigid and unimaginative. Work on that.”
- “Just because your husband recently cheated on you, and you are nine months pregnant, doesn’t give you the right to refuse him sex.”
- “Remember the reasons you married him.”
- “Your quest for the truth is damaging your marriage. Stop making him feel bad.”
- “You’re blowing things out of proportion.”
- “You obviously haven’t obeyed him perfectly.”
- “Because of Eve, you owe him obedience and loyalty no matter what.”
- “Stop expecting a Hollywood romance.”
- “When he gets home from having an affair, smile at him.”
- “Christian marriage is hell. Accept it.”
- “It’s just his sin nature. Give him grace.”
- “Stop complaining before something worse happens.”
- “He’s not abusive enough for you to divorce him. We can tell.”
- “Grow a thicker skin.”
- “Forgive without limit. Respect him.”
- “You are having problems because you let him have your body before marriage.”
- “Study Hosea who married a prostitute and stayed no matter what.”
- “Buy a sexy nightie, and he’ll stop sleeping around.”
- After attempted murder and a sexual assault, her pastor told her “your situation is a 3 out of 10. Let him move back home or you’ll be held accountable before God for putting a nail in the coffin of your marriage.”
- “Repent of your bitterness.”
- “Churches are exempt from protective orders, so your husband can be here.”
- “Win him without a word.”
- “You are obviously mentally ill.”
- “He’s not hitting you. What’s the big deal?”
- “The word ‘abuse’ is not in the Bible.”
- “A man would never treat his wife like this unless she were doing something wrong.”
- “If you don’t stay, you have no faith.”
- “You aren’t a Christian.”
- “God will kill your child if you leave.”
- “You don’t know what your name is. You are ______’s wife. You have no name.”
- “It is your biblical duty before God to suffer within your marriage.”
Why the Church Rejects Emotional Abuse Victims
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:
- Half the church (the female half) is maligned and disempowered in spreading the Gospel.
- 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.
- Abusive marriages tell a lie about God, and the name of God is blasphemed in the world.
- 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 because 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.
What Can an Emotional Abuse Victim Do (or not do) When Her Church Rejects Her?
What You CAN’T Do
- You can’t control the environment or beliefs of a particular church or set of churches.
- You can’t control the attitudes and beliefs and behavior of church leaders and the ones who follow them.
- You can’t control what people choose to believe about you as a person or the choices you’ve had to make for your life and the lives of your children.
- You can’t change people’s minds.
- You can’t make people believe your story.
- You can’t be anyone’s savior.
- You can’t change an abusive church into a safe church.
This means it’s not in your best interest to argue or attempt to convince them. Say your piece, and let the chips fall where they may. Their reaction and response says nothing about you. But it will give you a tremendous amount of helpful information about them.
What you CAN Do
- You can share your experience.
- You can choose to stay in or leave a church.
- You can answer honest questions.
- You can refuse to answer questions designed to bait or trap you.
- You can choose to heal apart from that particular religious community.
- You can find new Christian friends who act more like Jesus.
- You can heal from spiritual control and abuse.
A large part of this article has been taken from chapter six from my book, Is It Me? Making Sense of Your Confusing Marriage: A Christian Woman’s Guide to Hidden Emotional and Spiritual Abuse. You can now get my book in paperback, Kindle, and Audible versions on Amazon.
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Thanks very much for this article.
I feel so relieved reading this article because I couldn’t understand why the church leaders fail to see the abuser’s toxic ways.
I’m a Nigerian living in the UK, and I attended a church where the leaders were predominantly Nigerians, and your article describes their behaviours.
I have now been separated from my husband for close to 5 years. Periodically, they hoover around to persuade me to move back with him. Even if I tell them the abuse has gotten worse, they still try to preach that God’s will is that I return to the abuser and reunite with him for the children’s sake. Like he could kill me, and they would still say it’s God’s will.
I just want to say thank you a million times, and I pray that a lot of Christian women going through abuse or escaping abuse will find your website.
This really hit the nail on the head for my own situation. I had gone to a marriage councilor through the church. Told what my ex was doing wasn’t intentional and therefor not abuse. My Bishop is sweeping everything under a rug, the stake president is good friends with my ex’s family. Despite their rules about excommunicating abusers on the spot or at least taking away their priesthood rights AFTER a church trial. Nothing was done, not even a trial. I am now the outcast, all but 4 people completely ignore me.
Church members and leaders are now actively trying to turn my young children against me. I have confirmed that people at the church and my ex have been telling my young children at their visits there that ‘I broke apart our perfect family.’ The primary lessons are explaining to my children how no matter what, GOD will keep us as a family in the eternity and that their father and I will always be married.
I wish church would leave my young children out of this. They too were victims for years.
Thank you very much for having this chapter online. It helps to know I’m not the only one living through this. It’s upsetting yet it also urges me on to fight my church and go to the very top if I have to rectify this.
The church in general has adopted an extremely low bar for marriage: how long you stay together. (I used to buy in to this too.) I think this is a reaction to when divorces became easier for women to file, and the church decided that preserving marriages was something it had to do. If church leaders had been wise, they would have looked to understand WHY women file for divorce and they might have found the underlying issues of selfishness and pride in the husbands. Men don’t get challenged enough in the church to be like Jesus in how they treat other people. They aren’t taught how to find healing for their own wounds, and so they pass the pain on to their wives and children. They are taught to be in charge and to “lead” without understanding how to serve.
Does anyone know of a place that abused men can go?
I was told by my 3 “pastors” that emotional and mental abuse aren’t real. I don’t know where to turn or go…
I recommend shrink4men.com
Your pastors are wrong.
I was told by male church leaders to “just submit to your husband’s leadership, even if it’s bad leadership.” I was also told,”you are really articulate, you must be a real fighter in the ring at home”….. One elder refused to meet with me separately from my husband/abuser bc he didn’t want me to say things behind my husband’s back. That same elder refused to talk to me directly, and only communicated with me thru his wife.
Just wanted to say that this sometimes happens in reverse. A husband can be mentally/emotionally abused and no one will believe it. Christian women will automatically side with the woman while the men theologically berate the man for not being the head, etc. There is little or no understanding of mental health, and no discernment of deeper issues, only Bible verses. The man is criticized for not having faith or not being the kind of man God honors.
That is very true, and it’s heartbreaking; however, this particular website is geared toward and focused on helping women.
I finally separated from my husband 8 months ago. I originally thought that if he could just ‘get some help’ then things would work out. I thought that I might just be one of the ‘lucky ones’, he began attending church, volunteering weekly with the church’s outreach program, telling me he feels bad for what he has done and that he wants to get better so that we can be together. He has even chosen to continue financial support. I saw these as positive signs. Although, I still see a lot of red flags, I also see where he has been trying. I thought for sure that with him now becoming a part of a church and having mentors from this church that in time the red flags would dwindle down (after being with him for close to 30 years, I didn’t /don’t expect a complete change overnight.) I have now found out that his mentors and pastors have been telling him that because I won’t give him a timeline of when I will come home(I can’t put a timeline on my healing)that I am just using him and that he should only give me support for one more month and that I am on my own. It’s not about the money, it’s the fact that they are telling him that I am using him that has me so upset, hurt, shocked, etc. I’m so grateful that my relationship is firmly rooted in Jesus and not some church, but this still hurts.
All he did was get the church to join him in his abuse of you. All you are to them is someone to use. If you will not be useful to them, they will withdraw love and support. That’s an abusive church. Many of us have had to not only leave our abusers, but also get away from our abusive church. It hurts like crazy to be betrayed like that. My heart goes out to you. But one day, you will look back on this time and be happy you are FREE in Jesus. He is nothing like your abuser or your church. (((HUGS)))
I was getting angrier and angrier, reading that list. I heard, internalized, and lived out nearly every one of those lies. My life was unnecesarily miserable for so many wasted years. (No more!! I’m flying free! AMEN!)
“You don’t know what your name is. You are ______’s wife. You have no name.” ◄Handmaid’s Tale, anyone? Oh my word!!!
When I so much as hinted at my marriage troubles, I was chastized for gossiping and disrespect. That was enough to shut me down entirely and keep my mouth buttoned. When I divorced my husband, I simply left that church altogether. Many of them never knew where I went. I told no one my plans. I think I was lucky in that regard. I never once thought the church would support me. Didn’t expect it to. And by then, I didn’t want their support or approval. They were part of the problem. Why would I want to stay there?! They enabled my abusive husband. But it did hurt to lose what I considered my “church family.”
I found a church that was diametrically opposed to my original one—the church that was whispered about in disapproving tones because the worship was an unseemly “production.” Turns out that unconventional church was EXACTLY what I needed to heal from my spiritual abuse.
I’m SO glad you found a church that has actually contributed to your healing rather than tearing you down. Rejection by church is traumatic. Oh, and I love the Handmaid’s Tale. 🙂
Great post and explanation! I wrote about my experience here https://fablifenow.com/letter-to-the-church-that-stood-by-my-abusive-husband/, but your post explains very good reasons why they did what they did. This boggled my mind for the longest time because all I could feel was the pain of abandonment and lack of care from people I loved. I especially liked your can and can’t lists. I did choose to heal apart from my religious community and God sent me many more friends that act more like Jesus! Thank you for writing. I look forward to checking out your podcast and reading more.
I actually think I found a church who doesn’t do this, at least not with me. I started going to the church by myself (and eerily discovered in the bulletin that my sister in law and her husband went there! Turns out she gets my issues with him fully as she has experienced crap with him.) I spoke with the pastor and there was no condemnation. I have told him about the divorce, and he has not said a word about it. I did also hear him do a sermon about toxic people and if you must, extricate them from your lives (he included a spouse in that sermon.) Do I think they are completely in the know about all things toxic people? No. But I have not gotten any flack from them. Now granted, I am not deeply knitted in the church. I have a very overwhelming life right now, and I can’t do all of the church activities. I also am usually on the way to the gym afterwards, so I can’t stay long. But I could have had the pastor try to get involved. He didn’t. So that was a shock. Meanwhile, my ex husband from years before did so much of what you talk about. He pastored a church in a small town and was a Christian in name only. He got a church to tell me to go back now that he was doing an anger management (insert eyeroll here) course. A mutual couple friend of ours called me to tell me I was sinning. I mean, they bought his lies hook, line and sinker. They were people in the church. But I did have another couple who was elderly tell me later that they often wondered if he hit me.