For many abuse survivors, the seemingly positive Christian disciplines of church attendance, bible reading, and prayer can be the source of significant distress. Anxiety and panic in church settings are completely normal and healthy reactions to the kind of trauma Christian victims have experienced. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is not a sin problem, and leaders should never put pressure on survivors to engage in Christian disciplines until they feel ready.
Words from the pulpit
Whether church leaders realise it or not, words from the pulpit are a crucial part of whether abuse survivors feel safe in church. One survivor describes how leaders should preach on key topics such as marriage, divorce, and gender roles to congregations, understanding that there will be people who have experienced abuse and trauma listening. 1 Her blog post is summarised below.
Understand that survivors are often hyper-vigilant
When key passages like Ephesians 5:22-33, Colossians 3:18-19 or 1 Peter 3 1:7 come up, survivors may be filled with dread or panic, and go into ‘fight or flight’ mode. This is an involuntary response to past trauma common to people with PTSD. To stay safe survivors are ready to mentally block out messages that interpret the Bible in ways that align with their experience of abuse.
Start with an acknowledgement
Begin your sermon by recognising the topic can be difficult for those that have been abused. This calms a person’s ‘fight or flight’ response and helps them to be able listen to what you are saying.
Be explicit about what those passages do not mean
Hyper-vigilance will continue until you explicitly say that a husband’s headship does not give him a right to abuse his wife, or that there are situations where divorce is biblical. To someone who is in flight or fight mode, you are a potential threat until you prove yourself otherwise.
Be mindful of non-verbal messages
Too many abusive people are very smooth talkers who say all the right things, while doing the opposite. A survivor’s radar to “I’m just saying what needs to be said, but really, I think this is a bit unnecessary and a fuss over nothing” is finely tuned.
Don’t invalidate or dismiss their experiences, even if it seems trivial
One of the deepest wounds survivors carry is that of invalidation and dismissal. This is because it is often the first wound, and all other abuse often stems from that. It takes a great deal of courage for survivors to raise issues with pastors, and the way you respond is either going to reinforce the shame cycle or help them heal.
Preach faithfully and bravely, but sensitively
Your voice on key issues has the potential to heal some of the wounds survivors carry. They need to be given a solid place to stand – a solid truth – when the mental “a wife must not leave her husband”, or “God hates divorce” narrative scripts start running.
Challenge the marriage fairy-tale
The message is often put like this: “wives are to submit as husbands are the head of the house, but it’s OK, because if a woman chooses their spouse very carefully she can ensure he will only ever be looking out for her best”. This is the Christian equivalent of a fairy-tale. The reality is that both husband and wife are sinful, and that we have tendencies to warp the way our marriage roles are supposed to work. Give equal treatment to both roles: what they mean and what they don’t mean. Be explicit on how it can be warped and how abuse can occur. Give clear guidance on what to do when things aren’t going well.
But do use the pulpit
It is not easy to stand in front of a congregation and talk about domestic violence in Christian marriages. But it is essential. Commit to making the broader problem of violence against women and children a critical concern. Use teachings and practices that support equality and respect for women and girls. Emphasise a woman’s right to be free from violence. Attend to attitudes and beliefs that support the idea that violence can ever be justified.
You could invite an expert speaker from a recognised agency to talk to members of the church community.
You may need to do some biblical work examining different interpretations of biblical texts, principles and doctrines that are sometimes used to support abuse in the family.
Look at texts that can be misinterpreted or manipulated to justify the abuse of women and children. Counter wrong interpretations with Biblical principles that support non-violence and the dignity of human life.
Some recent sermons
- Rev Michael Paget, St Barnabas Anglican Church
- Tim Giovanelli, Manly Life Baptist Church
- Rev Doc Geek, Williamstown Uniting Church
- Rev Chris Udy, Crows Nest Uniting Church
- Liam Miller, Uniting Church Chaplaincy at Macquarie University and Chaplain of Bedford College
- Reverend Anne Drummond, Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral in Suva
We have linked to relevant bible studies, prayer times, and service outlines here.