Abuse Among Christians
Clark Kroeger is adjunct associate professor of classical and ministry
studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. She holds a Ph.D. in
classical studies from the University of Minnesota. Catherine is founder
and former president of Christians for Biblical Equality. The
following article is the introduction to Healing the Hurting Giving Hope and
Help to Abused Women Catherine Clark Kroeger & James R. Beck, Editors.
For Cathie's Testimony
Working Together to Listen and Learn
Catherine Clark Kroeger,
The inner prison door slid shut behind me as I started down the tunnel-like
corridor. In one of the cubicles that lined the wall sat a member of the
Christians for Biblical Equality--a man who had killed his wife and two
children. As president emerita of the organization I had come to tell him
that he was not beyond God's love and care. The terrible tragedy could not
be undone, but he could still experience God's forgiveness, and he could still
know the healing grace of repentance.
He told me that when the realization of that he did sweeps over him, he stuffs a
pillow in his mouth so that others cannot hear him screaming. As I was
leaving, the horror of the ghastly murders flooded over me, and I too wanted to
scream. Clearly, membership in Christians for Biblical Equality had not
been enough to prevent this terrible crime, nor had his long-standing profession
of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Both he and his wife had been
raised in evangelical Christian families and had committed themselves to Christ.
Had the wider Christian community--the churches, pastors, Christian therapists,
and friends--failed them both?
This case is far from unique. In America, three thousand women are slain
by their domestic partners each year, and thousands of others are permanently
injured. Children are abused and murdered at a lower rate than women, but
the blood of these innocents cries out to those who will listen.
Even though abuse happens in Christian homes at nearly the same rate as in
society as a whole, Christians do not recognize it or do not properly address
it. Few pastors have received training in the treatment of domestic abuse,
and in one survey, less than ten percent of Christian therapists, when provided
with cast studies, were able to identify abusive family situations. Often,
abused wives are mistakenly told they are partly to blame for the abuse and that
greater submission or more prayer will solve the problem. Nowhere in the
Bible are wives told to submit to abuse. The Bible does tell us, however,
that the wrongdoing of a Christian is to be corrected by other believers.
For many evangelicals, the uneasiness associated with confronting abuse in
Christian homes springs in part from their perplexity in interpreting certain
biblical passages. If the Bible is our only infallible rule of faith and
practice, then our standards must be consistent with its directives.
Distortion of Scripture can prove dangerous as we go farther than is warranted
by honest exegesis. Evangelicals also long to see families harmoniously
untied. In our zeal to hasten the process, we sidestep the slow and
painful steps that can lead to true transformation and healing.
Churches can make major blunders. I remember another visit that Christians
for Biblical Equality asked me to make. Angela, an emaciated young
missionary, stood in the middle of her mother's living room looking at me with
frightened eyes. Her first words were, "Don't tell me I have to go back to
him." Already crippled with a permanent spine injury caused by her abusive
husband, she cringed at the thought.
The story was a sad one. Angela had endured years of abuse, hiding it from
her family and fabricating excuses for her injuries. At last, she had
become too ill and traumatized to continue in the para-church ministry she
shared with her husband, Peter. Only after her parents brought her and the
children back to their home did she discover that her daughters had been
violated by their father.
At first Peter had stayed half a continent away at the headquarters of the
mission organization they served. Angela's request that he attend a
Christian batterers' group went unheeded even though an excellent facility was
available near the mission's main office. After six months without a
reconciliation, the church that had commissioned and supported Peter and Angela
became aggressively involved, insisting that they both return to the pastor and
Two lines of argument persuaded Angela that she had little choice in the matter.
First, she was told that only in this way would she be doing the will of God,
and Angela wanted desperately to be obedient to her Lord and Savior. It
was made clear to her that any other course of action would be dishonoring and
displeasing to God. Her wounded spirit could not bear the thought of
abandonment by the heavenly friend who had been her only consolation through so
much abuse and degradation.
Second, the church offered to provide her with a place to live and help with
expenses. She would even be given counseling with a Christian therapist,
albeit one who had no previous experience with battered women. With no
other way to provide for her children, Angela was compelled to yield despite her
fears. She was caught in the twofold trap that forces so many women back
into life-threatening situations: religious pressure and financial duress.
The pastor's wife told her, "Angela, even if this does not lead to
reconciliation, you will be able to stand before the Lord and say, 'I gave it my
Initially, Peter won the support of the church members with his charm,
persuasive tactics, and feigned repentance. He was considered the high
priest of the home, and it was Angela's duty to submit. Despite being
forewarned that couple counseling was not a proper technique in cases of abuse,
the pastor insisted that both Angela and Peter take part in joint counseling
sessions every Sunday afternoon at his house. During these sessions, Peter
found was to avoid admitting his responsibility. He used phrases such as,
"I had anger, rage." Never did he say, "I did terrible things to her. I am
As the congregation became increasingly aware that Angela truly had been abused,
Peter was obliged to make a public confession, one that was forced by the
circumstances. There were no other signs of repentance, and Peter resented
having to go through such an exercise. Yet, Angela was still the one who
was held responsible for the marital crisis. For the most part, Peter was
artful enough to dodge the demands for accountability that were being made on
The pastor's wife later reported to the mission organization under which the
couple had labored:
I confronted Peter. Whenever anything went wrong this past year, he
blamed Angela. Except for the one time he made the public confession
in church, he blamed everyone else for his problems. He lost his jobs
because his bosses were unfair; he couldn't go to our church because of
Angela; the girls didn't want to visit him because Angela turned them
against him; he didn't have any money because he and Angela were separated .
. . He has called Angela on the phone and verbally abused her
for all that has happened. He came uninvited into her house one night
when bringing the children home. He would not leave until he said what
he wanted to say. We have told him over and over again not to go in
the house unless invited. The girls will not go with him now as a
result of all this.
Angela could not understand how the church could be so hard on her and so
lenient with Peter. Finally, she wrote a letter to the church leaders.
In part she said,
I feel I have done my best, but I have not had the support I needed from
you, the leaders. I feel church discipline was not there when my
husband needed to be confronted on many issues.
I was asked one and one half years ago to come here at your request in hope
of reconciliation. But Peter continued his abusive ways to me and the
children, and himself. Because of the situation, I suggested separate
counseling, but you did not listen. Marriage counseling was not the
answer, so I asked Mark [the therapist] to become my mediator and to hold
back everyone to give me time to pray and to think.
It became apparent that Peter has a drinking problem, and it was decided
that he needed to get help for his substance abuse through a drug and
alcohol program. He never completely followed through with the
counseling for substance abuse. He quit going, and nobody ever got in
contact to see how he was progressing at the rehab. Again, Peter was
running the show. Perhaps if the church would have followed up on
Peter's progress, they would have found out that he had quit the program and
still continued to drink. Maybe you could have helped him or
disciplined him then if you would have gotten involved. I had asked
the leaders, "Do you know Peter is still drinking? “Yes," was the
reply. "Are you going to confront him? Your response was that he
has a spiritual problem. I know that, but what are you going to do?
Angela was left with the knowledge that the church has excommunicated Peter
not because he had abused his wife and children but because of his drinking.
Several church members admitted that in their well-meaning efforts they had
abused Angela more than had her husband.
In retrospect, the pastor's wife reported:
If I had to do it over again, I would do what one of her counselors
recommended. We should have sent Peter to a physical abusers' group.
The problem was that the closest one was an hour's drive away. There
is now one in this city. I am convinced that going through a program
with a group of men with the same problems would have done far more than we
Angela continues to live in the community and to participate in the life of
the church. She leads a Bible study for abused wives and seeks to bring
healing to troubled situations. The haunted expression is gone from her
face. She has gained weight and is a beautiful woman. Peter has
asked what he must do to win her back, and she was able to spell out, clearly
and firmly, what would be necessary.
She knows that the church cares deeply for her and her children. Members
of the church have apologized to her for their ignorance and mishandling of a
very delicate matter. Others, including the pastor and therapist, have
expressed deep regret for their bungled efforts and have vowed that if they are
confronted with a similar situation in the future, they will handle it
Through a sad experience, these church members learned that it is necessary to
address the abuser directly, to hold him accountable, to mentor and monitor him,
and to show zero tolerance for his behavior. They now realize that a
forced confession brings only resentment from the husband and more hardship for
the family. They know they did not utilize the help that was available
from resources outside the church. They have learned that the Bible's
directive of stern discipline for an offender is the most effective remedy.
(Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Thess. 3:14-15; 1 Tim. 5:20; Titus 3:2-11;
These Christians have learned that blaming the victim only intensifies her
suffering. Support, on the other hand, can help to rebuild lives and to
sustain the family's faith in the God of love and justice. This is a
church that is ready to serve another family caught in the terrible web of
Angela believes that both abuser and victim can be transformed and that a
community of faith can do much to help. God is in the business of healing.
That is the message of the book, Healing the Hurting.
In 1994, Christians for Biblical Equality held a conference on Women, Abuse and
the Bible. We sent out calls for papers and proposals flooded in from
theologians, biblical scholars, pastors, therapists, social workers,
sociologists, psychologists, survivors and even an offender. Although we
ran three concurrent series of presentations, we still could not make room for
all the papers and all the concerns that were raised. We knew that the
material must be made available to Christian communities around the world.
The first set of papers, dealing largely with theological and theoretical
issues, we published as Women, Abuse and the Bible and is available in both
American and British editions. But theory alone cannot solve the problem
This second collection of essays is intended as a sequel that moves our concern
forward to basic application and moral imperative. We present here the
more practical papers--papers that provide insights into the souls of
frightened, hurting people and point to realistic paths of prevention and
healing. This book is intended to help Christians confront both the
reality and the potential for remedy.
The time has come when we must both listen and learn. Only as we perceive
the vile in our midst, prayerfully bring the Word of God to bear on it, and take
appropriate action can we become agents of reconciliation and healing.
God calls us to deliver the helpless from the hand of the violent and to correct
the way of the sinner. We must heed that call.