Quick escape (ESC)

Abuser-friendly church cultures

We know that the Church has been one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse and find help.

Content warning This page involves descriptions and discussion of the experiences and impacts of domestic and family violence. Some survivors might find its content troubling.

"I didn’t know that no one is immune to abuse and that it can happen to anyone no matter your age, race, sex or social background. I didn’t know that abuse doesn’t stop at the church, or that it is alive and well in many of our Christian communities."

Ashley Easter

We know that Christian women across the denominational spectrum have been taught that they must submit, stay with, pray for and obey the very men who are violating and traumatising them. As a result of this dangerous advice, Christian women have returned to relationships only to endure more years of abuse. Yet there is very little evidence that male victims receive such inappropriate counsel, and it is extremely rare for a man to be told by anyone to stay with, pray for or obey any women, let alone one who is abusing him.

It is unlikely that a minister will explicitly endorse or condone violence within marriage. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that female victims speak accurately about the ways that churches can be ‘abuser-friendly’ cultures where leaders have knowingly or unwittingly enabled abuse. 

Where clergy and laypeople are ignorant or unconvinced of this dynamic of abuse, and unequipped or unwilling to identify it, cultures of denial, discounting and minimisation wreak havoc in the lives of victims. Where leaders defensively close ranks and take sides with abusive leaders against criticism, abuse is enabled. And where Christian theologies of 'headship', self-sacrifice and forgiveness have been inappropriately applied to female victims, women are spiritually pressured to return to dangerous situations.

Six failings of the church

Mark Conner, Senior Minister, CityLife Church in Melbourne, details what he says are the six failings of the church: 1

  1. We have not done a good job of helping to prevent domestic violence, of confronting it when it does occur, nor of helping those involved - both the perpetrator and victim.
  2. There has been too much ignorance about the prevalence of domestic violence. Many church leaders have failed to believe that it can happen, even in Christian homes.
  3. There has been much erroneous teaching about ‘submission’, ‘authority’, and ‘obedience’ in the home. This has led to a culture of silence and acceptance.
  4. Preachers have not taught on this subject nor referred to it enough in their messages.
  5. Pastors and church leaders have not been equipped to address this matter nor have they equipped their congregation members with proper responses should domestic violence occur.
  6. Pastors have often emphasised forgiveness and repentance at the expense of a person’s welfare and safety.

Churches begin to be agents of change as they acknowledge and repent of the role they have played as well as become attentive to the ways they may be upholding or perpetuating violence.