If I Were an Abuser, What Church Would I Want to Attend?

I pondered this question on my long flight home: Where would I want to go to church if I were an abuser?

It was then that we began to unpack what the term domestic violence included, what we had imagined the term to mean, and what it really meant.  The definitions seemed to be eye-opening and I appreciated those that were willing to open up to an understanding of violence that moved from the image of black eyes and broken bones to the following: Domestic violence is a pattern of behaviors used by one person to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate partner. 


I recently presented training on Domestic Violence for over 100 pastors.  They paid to attend and they stayed for 6.5 hours. It was what this woman’s heart dreamed of.  Faith leaders taking time to think through issues of power and control, safety and accountability.

I left deeply concerned.

Rather than feeling as if I had made headway in helping ‘the church’ think through ways to help a victim in an abusive marriage or perpetrator looking to repent, or remain using abusive tactics, the focus of the training pivoted when one of the pastors asked, “What do you do when a woman lies?” The question deserved curiosity. We all know that by virtue of gender, all women are not sugar and spice and everything nice, so I asked him if he could give me an example.

“Yes”, he exclaimed and stood to his feet.  “A woman came to my office to tell me she was being beaten by her husband.” He hiked up his pants to ensure his shirt was neatly tucked into his jeans, displaying a large belt buckle that seemed to bring him great pleasure.  He looked down at it briefly, looping his thumbs into his belt and then filled us in as to what his response to her had been. With a bit of flair, he announced, “Now, I’m a minister of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. I don’t tolerate abuse in my church. So I went over to confront her husband and he told me he had NEVER beaten her.  He might backhand her from time to time, but he had never beaten her.” He looked directly at me and shaking his head back and forth said, “So what do you do when a woman lies?”

Before I could catch my breath, a rumbled response moved throughout the room, “Yeah, what do you do about that?” “Yeah, what do you do about that?’ Yeah, what do you do about that?”

In my broken humanity, I considered stepping forward and backhanding him, but knowing the learning from that was not what I ultimately wanted, reconsidered.

Sitting down to work through the question with these men, I thought to myself, “If I were abusive and loved Jesus, I’d want to go to these men’s churches”. No one offered anything to the conversation along the lines of, “Are you saying backhanding your wife is okay?” or “What is your definition, Pastor, of beating?”, or “How do you address domestic violence safely?”, or “What do I do when someone in my congregation thinks it’s okay to backhand his wife from time to time?”

Instead, they looked to me with what appeared to be eager and open hearts, ready to receive what I had to offer — in response to the question, “What do you do when a woman lies?”

I had been in the room with them for less than 30 minutes and had six more hours to go.  You can imagine the horror and fear I elicited in that room as I thanked the pastor for his question and invited everyone to turn to the other men at their tables of 6 and share the following with each other:

  • Tell of a time in your life when you have been backhanded or hit by someone who said they love you.
  • What was the impact of this experience on you?
  • How do you feel about the person who backhanded you or hit you now?
  • If you have come to a place of forgiveness, what has that process been like?

I wrote the questions on the whiteboard and turned to the sea of men before me.  They were resistant and nervous, but I just smiled as warmly as I could and said we would report back with each other in about 10 minutes, and went and got a cup of coffee.

I was paid handsomely for that training, and I earned every cent of it.  There were two other women present in the room that day. One was a pastor’s wife who had come to sit in the back of the room so I wasn’t the only woman present.  The other was a local television reporter. It was big news, she said, that pastors would gather on a topic like domestic violence and she deemed the turnout newsworthy.  She said she had to leave the room at one point because she lost her objectivity and couldn’t stop laughing when I gave them that exercise. She hugged me at the end of my presentation.  She was the only one.

Many thanked me, and the evaluations were mostly good with the most common comment being that 6.5 hours was not long enough.  But I was spent.

I pondered this question on my long flight home: Where would I want to go to church if I were an abuser?  The idea had never crossed my mind before that day, but I began to think through my own story, the stories of many survivors and perpetrators who had related their own experiences in church and reflected on my experience of the day.

If I was male:

  • I would definitely pick a church that believed in male headship.  That way, I could be reasonably assured that if I went to my pastor, he would be male and I wouldn’t have “women-folk with issues” to deal with.
  • I would maybe attend a church where I sensed suggestive sexual behavior was acceptable.  I would probably perk up to hear it from the pulpit, for example, a pastor making sideways comments about women’s appearances while pretending that at the same time that he wasn’t noticing them. “You ladies are looking mm-good today.  Good thing I’m a happily married man and not easily tempted.”
  • A church with rigid rules about gender roles would be a fairly safe bet.  If my wife ever confided to someone what was happening at home, I could be fairly certain I could justify my behavior and blame actions on her.  After all, Eve was responsible for Adam’s sin.
  • A church where the pastor was naive.  I would be safe there as I could easily convince him that abuse like she was describing, would never happen. I would explain that she easily makes up things because she was abused as a child, and that unfortunately has caused her to have a distorted reality, and that I sadly am learning with God’s help to accept that experience.
  • A church with yelling.  Hopefully, it would desensitize my family to the type of language I use and normalize the way I act.

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