Why We Need to Talk about Domestic Violence

Gail Wallace


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clothesline project clause

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“Little did she know her reality was a façade,
Made of broken promises and crumbling threats with a rod.”

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month1 and I hadn’t intended to write about it. Aside from helping a friend through a horrible situation years ago, I haven’t had any experience with this, so didn’t think there was much I could say. But I was compelled to write for these reasons:

#1  This is happening in the church

I walked through The Clothesline Project display last night at Azusa Pacific University and was appalled to see that Christian men had often instigated the verbal abuse, sexual assaults, and physical violence women wrote about. I mentioned this on Facebook and within 24 hours received messages from women in my own church who had experienced some of these things. I’m embarrassed to say that I had no idea. How can that be?

I was aware that 1 in 3 women will experience physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner in their lifetime2 (and 1 in 4 men, though it is less violent in nature), but I recently learned that it makes no difference if you are a Christian or not. The next time you sit in church look around and think about that.

If you are surprised by these statistics you are not alone. A 2014 survey of 1000 Protestant pastors sponsored by Sojourners found that 74% underestimate the level of domestic violence in their congregations, and that when they do address it they often do more harm than good.  This must be addressed.

#2  Beliefs have serious (even life-threatening) consequences

While following the Ray Rice/NFL debacle I came across a two minute clip of CBS Sports anchor James Brown challenging men about domestic violence. These particular comments hit home:

“[We need] comprehensive education of men about what healthy, respectful manhood is all about.  And it starts with how we view women. When a guy says, ‘you throw a ball like a girl’ or ‘you’re a sissy,’ it reflects an attitude that devalues women, and attitudes will eventually manifest in some fashion.”

Whether we want to admit it or not, church teaching that places women under men’s authority, simply because of their gender, communicates that women have lesser value. Dallas Willard puts it this way: “the exclusion of women from ‘official’ ministry positions leaves women [and men] with the impression that there is something wrong with them.  

Complicating things further, the survey mentioned above found that 65% of pastors had spoken once or less about domestic violence in the past year. “The majority of pastors do not consider sexual or domestic violence central to larger religious themes” the report states. When the church fails to confront attitudes that devalue women, it becomes part of the problem.

#3  The young woman who wrote this poem

At The Clothesline Project I read the following poem about a young woman’s experience with domestic violence in a “Christian” marriage. As I imagined her bravely reaching up to pin her T-shirt on the line, I made a commitment to learn more and to speak up about this injustice. May her words be a wake-up call to all of us that something has got to change, especially in the church.


Looking backwards in time through the portal of the past,
I see a girl once desperately trying to make it last.

She held onto a shred of hope that was never real,
Defending fake treasure, risking it all so no one would steal.
Little did she know her reality was a façade,
Made of broken promises and crumbling threats with a rod.

Innocent and naïve she would follow him anywhere,
Despite the obvious truth he was never going to care.
That boy was once her hero rescuing her from being alone,
Trying so hard to please him, she ignored what was being shown.

He never loved. He never protected. He never respected.
Getting away with murder because she never detected,
The lack of all the qualities essential to sustain life,
There was never a difference between being his object and being his wife,
When she was met in that final moment with the true depravity of his heart,
All that was left of her was a tiny sliver of a dying part,

She had to let go of the dream of happily ever after,
Crying the tears so she could fully embrace the laughter,
Now she looks ahead and sees all the possibility,
If she never knew captivity, she would never fully enjoy being free.

Grace in abundance is lavished on her soul,
Where he left her empty she is now whole,
That misrepresentation of love will not define,
I know because that redemption story is mine. 


1. Domestic violence is the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another. It includes physical violence, sexual violence, threats, and emotional abuse. The frequency and severity can vary dramatically.

2. Black, M.C., Basile, K.C., Breiding, M.J., Smith, S.G., Walters, M.L., Merrick, M.T., Chen, J., & Stevens, M. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)

The Clothesline Project is a visual display that bears witness to the violence against women.  During the public display, a clothesline is hung with shirts.  Each shirt is decorated to represent a particular woman’s experience, by the survivor herself or by someone who cares about her.

Photo Credit: Women’s Resource Center, Azusa Pacific University

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  • Fantastic post Gail. Complementarianism enables domestic violence, whether intentional or unintentional. With that mindset, whenever domestic abuse is brought to the church’s attention, the solution is to see how the wife can submit better to her husband, rather than trying to stop the husband’s abusive behavior. I do think the overwhelming majority of complementarians are against abuse, but when it comes to the relationship between complementarianism and domestic abuse, I think of it this way: complementarianism is blood in the ocean, and domestic abuse is a shark.

    • Evan, I appreciate the compliment, but I have to say that I have not yet seen any research to support the theory that complementarianism in particular enables domestic violence – and I did look for it! I did see a study showing that the incidence of DV goes down when people go to church weekly – of course, most people don’t attend weekly these days, unfortunately. That said, I did read that women in complementarian/fundamentalist marriages stay longer and wait longer to get help, for the reasons you’ve mentioned. And you are right that when people do go to the church for help, their pastors often don’t know what to do and can make the situation worse by suggesting marriage counseling, etc. Perhaps readers out there can provide more research, as I’m new to this body of literature. At this point I don’t think we can say there is a connection between complementarianism and DV specifically, but certainly attitudes and beliefs about women come into play.

      • Sorry, forgot to mention that this is merely my opinion based on observations of mine. You are right, and there are issues beyond this that contributes to the problem. Another example is people not wanting to believe that something this bad exists this much within the church.

  • Thank you for writing this! I’ve learned a lot in my MFT studies and experience how the idea of “submission to husband” can keep Christian women in relationships and marriages that are abusive. It breaks my heart that women take this to mean they must submit to their partner’s abuse! It makes sense that this belief is why women stay quiet about abuse in the Church, lest they be chastised for not being a good wife. Realizing and owning that both husband and wife are to submit to Christ, hopefully will empower women to know they do not need to submit to their husband’s sin and abusive behavior.

  • Really great post, Gail, Thanks. All too often women are caught in the snare of happily ever after (HEA) and feel that it’s their fault if that’s not the case. There’s no such thing as HEA, but all the ‘princess’ nonsense that’s being touted as ‘women in Christ’ only serves to increase the sense of shame when HEA isn’t their experience. Not only that, as recent news from driscoll followers has shown, some guys just need that opportunity of submission in the name of religion, to excuse their abuse.

    • Thanks, Bev. There are a lot of converging influences that feed into this problem, it seems. Apparently, the last thing we need is more teaching on how men should be more manly!

  • Valerie, thanks for these thoughtful comments. I didn’t even make the connection between porn and trafficking, but that makes so much sense. All of these issues link together and are impacted by our views on women – wish people would wake up to see that a theology that puts one group of people under another has no place in Christian community.

    • Gail, I’ve studied these issues very extensively. I went through a certification course to be able to volunteer for minor girls who have been rescued from sex trafficking. In that course I learned tragic statistics and facts. One fact was the direct link between that and porn. What many don’t realized is that these victims are forcefully used in porn films too. This is why I am so sickened when I read that somewhere between 60-80% (depending on which studies) of men in the church have used porn, and a larger and larger number are actually now addicted, and our young boys and teens are becoming addicted because of the use of smart phones etc. Every time our church has a presentation on sex trafficking I want to someone to get up there and say if you’re looking at porn, YOU are part of the problem! The other sad statistic is that women in the church are now using it too. I simply cannot fathom how any women could degrade herself that way, but then again, it starts with those seeds of patriarchal domination and power. How this must grieve the Holy Spirit.

      • Valerie, thanks for reminding all of us that all of these things are connected – and that it all stems back to our views of women. These things seem to be so deeply ingrained into our culture that people don’t realize how much they are impacted. A reader is interested in the certification course you mentioned – would you please share what the program was when you have a minute? Or maybe a link for more info? Thank you.

        • Sure Gail,

          The certification training I attended was given by Courage Worldwide Inc. based out of the Sacramento, CA area one of the worst cities in our nation for sex trafficking. Jenny Williamson founded this Christian run organization and they have a home here (with hopefully many more on the way) and one in Tanzania for these female minor Sex Trafficking victims to house, counsel, educate, and bring healing to these precious victims. They work closely with Law Enforcement and do provide social Services and therefore are required to have any volunteers go through this training that is certified through the State of CA.
          Here is a link to the information on their training:

          Jenny Williamson and Liz, their first rescued victim who is now graduated from the program and is now on staff (previously was a teacher for the other girls), were featured in a documentary which just premiered with Natalie Grant called “In Plain Sight” that is already receiving much media coverage.
          I’m sure they can refer anyone to similar trainings in other areas. They also have a Facebook Page called Courage Worldwide Inc.

          Thanks for your interest!

  • Thank you so much for this post! I just wrote a post yesterday calling Christians to speak out against domestic and sexual violence, and it’s really encouraging to find this the very next day. Thank you!

    • Thank you! Would love to read your post – please add a link!

  • Thanks Gail for addressing this issue. I have been in the trenches with women who have been abused by their “Christian” husbands by a particular type of domestic abuse. I know of some who were sexually abused as a result of their husband’s addiction to pornography, etc. These women endured much for and didn’t realize they were even being abused because they were so indoctrinated in the teaching that their husband was their leader and they were to submit as a good Christian wife. They are told their body belongs to their husband and therefore they need to satisfy him by not denying him.
    I know of one young woman who was advised by a visiting pastor to go back to her husband (even though he was addicted to porn and engaging in online dating sites) because he was her “high priest”. Another pastor on staff told her that she didn’t have biblical cause for divorce because she didn’t have proof of physical touch. I don’t know but I recall reading that Jesus raised the bar and said if you so much as look at another woman with lust in your eye you have commited adultery.
    What bothers me about our churches is that we all jump on the bandwagon of fighting sex trafficking, and yet we don’t connect that sex trafficking and pornography are the same industry. The statistics on pornography use within the church and clergy are staggering. This epidemic culminates in the ultimate objectification and abuse of woman, but the seed is planted when we demean them by subordinating them to men like we do in the church.
    Jesus was a counterculture radical in the elevated way he treated women. I would like to see our churches act more like Jesus to stop this type of domestic abuse that not only has diseased our culture, but has invaded our churches. This of course requires that we admit we have a problem, and acknowledge where it originates from. Until we make the connection, I fear we will be giving the matter lip service.

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