If you are or if you are not going to church this weekend, care for victims of abuse

CW: Religious justification for domestic violence

Hi Joel,

For those who haven’t been following the hubbub in the Southern Baptist Convention, Paige Patterson, the president of Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth Texas, made comments in 2000–and defended them last week in a press release–in which he said that abused women should pray for their husbands, even to the extent of sometimes enduring physical abuse, and never pursue divorce. In his recent press release, he admitted that he was “probably unwise” in sharing a particular example of a case in which he felt that God used a case of domestic violence to bring an abuser to Christ, but even in this admission, he puts the blame on the rest of us, saying that his words were unwise “especially in the climate of this culture.” Somehow, it’s the fault of #Metoo that we “mischaracterized” him.

I have heard from too many preachers that women need to stay with abusive men. I have seen them say this to women’s bruised faces. I have heard it taught in women’s Bible studies, on radio broadcasts, and in counseling sessions.  I have heard women justify their own staying this way. In the US, more than 1600 women are murdered by their partners per year. Murder by partner is the top cause of death of pregnant women–and this in a nation where pregnant women don’t fare very well anyway. I teach young people who have lost their mothers and siblings to domestic violence. And, yes, I have attended victims’ funerals.

Above, Paige Patterson stands at a podium to preach. 

I have also seen what leaving these men looks like. It is terrifying and potentially deadly, but it is also always better than staying because women who leave have hope that staying (and even staying and praying) cannot give them. A year later, life is almost always better. Children who couldn’t go to sleep for fear that their father would kill their mother if they shut their eyes rest in their own beds. Women who might otherwise be dead aren’t.  Even though the time of leaving is incredibly dangerous for women and children and even though our court and police systems do not do enough to insure their safety, divorce generally works to protect victims.  

Patterson said that his admonition against divorce is part of his belief in “seeking to mend a marriage through forgiveness rather than divorce,” which is very nice, unless someone is trying to kill you. Other Southern Baptists have made it clear that violence is both a sin and a crime, and they have called for victims to call the police–not just their pastors–for help. And yet many of them still won’t say that divorce should be an option.  Patterson says that physical separation should be, but the idea that a woman could just cut a man out of her life (though, of course, this isn’t really how divorce works, either, if they have children) and move on isn’t on the table. She always needs to be looking toward him, even if he’s in jail for domestic violence, with hope that he can change.

If you have heard these messages, know that they are wrong.

If you have been told by your pastor that you have to keep trying, know that he is wrong.

If you have been told by your church that you can’t come back to Sunday worship because you refuse to pray for/reconcile with your abuser, they were wrong.  You don’t have to pick up your abuser and carry him. If the church thinks that work should be done, then it is the work of the church to do it.

If your church tells you that if you only respected your spouse more, he would love you more, they are wrong. If your church tells you that men are naturally aggressive, they are wrong.

If you are divorced and your church tells you that you are a second-class citizen in God’s kingdom, they are wrong.

If your church teaches this garbage, even if it doesn’t seem to personally affect you, change your church. If you can’t change it, find a new one. If your church prefers abusers to victims, change it or find a new one.

If you have a feminist church but can’t go this week because, dear God, it’s just too hard, know that you are loved by God and others and that there is many other Christian women are praying for you today.

And if you go to church and you see people absent this weekend, be tender to them, and if they are there, be tender to them, because living in “the climate of this culture”–which so devalues women–is hard.





  1. I would add that it is extremely important to listen to and believe women about when it is safe to leave. While it is of course better to be out than in, the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is when you leave, and this is true for the children as well. Women (victims of any gender) need and deserve respect from their allies—respect they don’t get from their abusers. Help leaving, help preparing to leave, and constant reality checks of “yes, this is abuse, yes, it is wrong, no you don’t deserve it, no you don’t have to live this way, yes it will be better after you leave, yes you can survive without him” are crucial. Also crucial is unconditional support and believing in victims’ ability to recognize when the escape window is available and when it is not.


    • Excellent point, Maria! From the outside, we often say “just leave!”–as if it is just that easy, as if they don’t know what they need and the dangers they face.


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