The Unbiblical (and Common!) Way to Handle Reports of Abuse in the Church In their helpful book on abuse in the church, Jeff Crippen and Anna Wood give an outline of what typically (and sadly!) happens when a victim goes to her pastor for help.  In other words, the following is an outline of how abuse is sometimes swept under the rug in Christian churches.  Why am I posting this?  Basically, I want Christians (especially elders and pastors) to be aware that abuse can and does hide in churches.  I also want to point out this helpful resource for those needing some guidance on the topic of abuse in the church.  (Note: since victims of abuse are often women, the authors use a woman in this example, but they make it clear elsewhere that sometimes men are the victims as well).  I’ve edited a bit for the purpose of this blog:

1) Victim reports abuse to her pastor.
2) Pastor does not believe her claims or thinks they are exaggerated.  After all, he ‘knows’ her husband to be one of the finest Christians he knows, a pillar of the church.
3) Pastor minimizes the severity of the abuse.  His goal is often damage control.
4) Pastor indirectly (or directly!) implies that the victim needs to do better in her role as a wife, mother, and Christian.  He suggests that both the wife and the husband are each to blame 50%.
5) After prayer, the pastor sends the victim back to the home where the abuser is.
6) Pastor believes he has done his job.
7) Victim returns, reporting that nothing changed.  She tried harder and prayed harder, but she still faces abuse.
8) Pastor decides to do some counsel.  He has a ‘little talk’ with the husband, or a meeting with the two of them, which is ineffective and the abuse continues (since the abuser manipulated the facts and controlled the meeting).
9) Time passes, and the victim becomes the guilty party in the eyes of the pastor and church.  She is seen as the one causing the problems, since her husband is a ‘good Christian’ who would never hurt his wife.  She is pressured to follow the Bible by submitting to her husband and ceasing to cause division.
10) More time passes, and the victim separates from or divorces the abuser.  The pastor and church still have a hunch she is in the wrong. Having handled the situation poorly they never called the police or disciplined the husband (though they did threaten to discipline the victim for causing problems!).
11) The final terrible injustice happens when the victim leaves the church, viewed as the guilty party.  The abuser, however, remains in the church and in good standing since he has duped the pastor and the church that he is innocent and the victim is guilty.

I hope readers don’t think this is a made up case study for the classroom.  The authors note that they have seen this scenario played out in real life more than a few times.  And I believe them because I’ve seen it before and/or heard of it before.  Please, don’t take reports of abuse lightly!  Take them seriously – and get this book to help you walk through these tough situations in a wise and biblical manner.  The church needs to be a place of mercy for sure, but justice should stand next to mercy: learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression because the Lord loves justice (Is. 1:17, 61:8)!

Jeff Crippen and Anna Wood, A Cry For Justice, p. 3-4.

rev shane lems
hammond, wi
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)

20 comments on “The Unbiblical (and Common!) Way to Handle Reports of Abuse in the Church

  1. anon says:

    Wow – you just described my past to a “T”.

  2. Betty boone says:

    This so true it happen to my mother and i

  3. Brenda R says:

    Thank you for putting this out there. There are many who need to know and understand what is happening in the church today.

  4. SLIMJIM says:

    Sobering. Every young pastor should read this and think about the scenario. We had a guy who came to our church with this kind of background; in the end he left because he was annoyed that we didn’t believe him that he was innocent but then we see him harsh to his wife all the time. I still wonder about how the wife is doing though…we must tolerate men who speak so spiritually but are a different person with their wife.

  5. Ellie says:

    I wrote a post that mentions how many targets of abuse use “victimese” when they first approach their pastors.

    “Pastors, here’s an ACFJ translator for when a victim comes to you seeking help.

    Concerned = Scared out of our minds
    Grumpy = He’s a tyrant
    Communication problems = Name calling and blaming tirades.
    He’s not getting enough rest = Stays up all night looking at porn.
    Please pray = Please ask if I’m safe. Ask me several times in several ways because I won’t want to say that I’m not.
    Financial problems = He believes he’s entitled to spend on whatever he wants and the rest of us should eat ramen.
    He’s struggling = He’s not a Christian. Please share the gospel with him in a one on one setting (not a sermon that you hope he’ll respond to) and don’t allow him to deflect with a joke.
    He’s worried about his mother = His mother won’t leave us alone and I can’t live like this.
    Anger/temper problems: He’s violent. Please help.”

    I am so pleased to see Pastor Lems writing about this topic here. I am very blessed to be in a church where the pastors take abuse seriously and targets of abuse are safe as we seek help and healing. I hope many more pastors get equipped to help protect targets from their abusers.

  6. kris says:

    Thank God there is a movement among pastors to learn how to properly handle the situation. Most women do not make up abuse but sadly in most churches, when a woman complains of abuse her complaints are minimized (heaven forbid if he is not beating the crap out of her….most churches do not consider emotional/verbal abuse as abuse). She is often sent back home to be a better wife especially if the husband says he is sorry even though saying “I am sorry” does not equal repentance/behavior change. As soon as the man says he is sorry (And he will!!! Narcissists are experts at looking wounded and gaining sympathy), the woman is criticized/judged for considering separation/divorce (because God hates divorce). I could go on, my experience was horrible. God is helping me to forgive and get past my pain. I thank God regularly for the people he put in my life that did show support and point me to the path of healing. :)
    Terms used by this victim in victimese (Boy that list is hitting a nail on the head!) is ‘temper’, ‘likes porn’, ‘he’s struggling’, and ‘I am concerned”….

  7. soldiergirl says:

    Amen and Amen to “uncovering the truth” about the horrific blindness in the church, that is continuing to cause so many women and their families to suffer, without reprieve, mercilessly at the hands of these deceptive, cunning and convincing abusers..
    It is not only young pastors that are wrongly judging the victim spouse, but the middle aged and older pastors as well.
    Sadly, all 11 stages that pastor Lem outlined in this book review are absolutely true for me as well.
    Each time I wanted help getting out, the church would not listen or help.
    Instead I was wrongly accused and labeled, and ultimately shunned..
    Now 35 years later I am witnessing the secondary devastating affects on how all these forced years of covert abuse has affected my children as they transcend into adulthood with twisted notions about life and relationships.
    This is the undoing fruit of the covert abuser.
    Any pastor that wants to understand and correct the injustice of covert marital abuse which permeates the professing church today, should pick up this book and take it to heart.

  8. Barbara says:

    I know this is true, this happened to me. He still looks so good in the eyes of his church. They basically told me to shut up, sit down and be a good girl. I left but I have to send my 10 y.o. daughter to him. I know her grown sisters and they all dislike their dad and don’t trust him, and it hurts that I cannot remove my child from his influence. I keep praying for a miracle, as I have a desire to remarry the most precious, tender man, who loves and cherishes my daughters and I, but it would be too difficult to move back to my hometown, and either battle her dad or send her back and forth, or worse, lose custody, because he’d fight tooth and nail and I’ve already lost so much. I could use prayer for a miracle. I still believe.

    • Brenda R says:

      I am praying for that miracle. I am praying for that kind, tender man to show up in my life. You are blessed. Find a way. God, help her find the way. ((((HUGS))))

      • Barbara says:

        Thank you, Brenda. It was a miracle to reunite with this man (the first boy in my life who loved me), and yet, he can’t leave his hometown (career and family) and I can’t leave here. But since I know it was God Who reunited us, I have to believe He can make a way. I also pray for you that you find that man He has for you. It can happen. I’m 51, no spring chick. I’d love to give you a spiritual hug today. (((Brenda R.)))

        • Brenda R says:

          Thank you so much Barbara. You can’t imagine how much that means to me. I am 57, no spring chicken and going down the top of that hill seems to be going faster. ((((Barbarb))))

        • Brenda R says:

          Sorry ((((Barbara)))) They need to have a 10 minute edit on these blogs. If Market Watch can have them………

  9. Scarlett says:

    There seems to be a lack of true spiritual discernment in many pastors and churches. The Holy Spirit will “make the hidden things manifest” and bring the hidden things to light if there is proper supernatural discernment operating. The Holy Spirit can and will reveal what goes on behind closed doors in abusive situations if Christians are spiritually sensitive and discerning. .

    I would leave such a church where there is only a form of godliness but denies the power thereof.

  10. EnoughAlready says:

    Yes, yes, and yes.
    “Please ask if we are safe.”
    “God hates divorce (and you).”
    When he threatened to kill me, I invited his spiritual leader into the conversation. He had a `little talk’ with us, and didn’t seem to give a damn.

    We left, finally, and STBX got our friends and God in the divorce. So be it. The price of peace. Worth it.

    • Brenda R says:

      A man who threatened to kill you had a spiritual leader? Was the leader a misogynist or a jihadist or some other form of woman hater? God hates the sin that causes the divorce, not you. He hates that you were not safe with your own husband. ((((HUGS))))

      • EnoughAlready says:

        Thank you for making me smile, and for shining a light into that bizarre little corner of darkness. His was a priest, old, probably tired of people not handling their stuff.

        Yep. My crime? Failed to jump off the couch to carry in the groceries he’d bought. This was after my having taken the kids to the sitter in the morning, gone to the university where I was finishing up my last class of my degree program, then picked up the kids and brought them home, and sat down about five-ten minutes before he got home. I was eating (for the first time that day), and my youngest was a baby, still nursing.

        You know my husband. He’s the one who helps set out chairs, hangs around after mass talking to people, serves at the pancake breakfast and cleans up afterwards. Sits stoically, bravely alone during the service because I “stole his children and turned them against him”, “didn’t back him up when he tried to discipline them”, etc. You know me. I’m the one who sat beside him silently with tears unacknowledged by anyone pouring down my cheeks, and then never came back.

        Opening this subject up and looking at it made me realize that I’m carrying a lot of bitterness towards those I turned to for help, a different kind of bitterness than I feel towards him. I’m pretty cynical now.

  11. P. says:

    I’m living it, married to a covert narcissist/charming abuser. Pastors have only enabled him. They have been no source of help to me. It’s a lot easier to blame the woman as the Pharisees did than to muster boldness to confront the man, sacrifice the friendship and take a financial hit with reduced revenue for the “church.” The true church rebukes sin. A hireling glosses over it and is most concerned with his preservation plus having intact marriages that look good, from the outside, even though at the heart the behavior is sinful. I see this as a silent epidemic in the church. Pastors choose not to challenge these men; too unpredictable, too messy. Its safer to just play the patriarchal card; she should submit. They won’t talk about porn either. I have confronted these men and they don’t want to hear it, (they deal with their own anger and controlling). How could they confront someone else when they (often) have the same sin? I’m not going back to these social clubs with a veneer of Christianity until real change occurs. There isn’t equipping where equipping needs to occur. God will spew them out.

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