Northeastern Seminary Blog

Violence Against Women: Theological Reflection and Response

Posted on Wed, Aug 19, 2015 @ 11:00 AM

Gerhardt-bookcoverDr. Elizabeth Gerhardt addresses the historical, cultural, religious, and political context of global violence against women in her recently published book “The Cross and Gendercide.” Through the lens of theology she proposes how the Church can work together in raising awareness and aid in ending crimes towards women and girls. This passage was taken from Chapter 6, “Creative Theological Reflection and Activism.”

Following a discussion or lecture on theological foundations for addressing violence against women and girls, I am frequently asked the following: “What do we do now? What are some activities and programs our church can implement to end the violence?” I am tempted to list “things to do.” And in fact, there are many actions that aid in reducing local and global violence against women. In this chapter I describe a few of these actions that make a difference in the lives of women and girls. However, the objective of this book is to encourage the church to engage in broad theological reflection and to do the difficult work of examining Bonhoeffer’s two questions to the church: Who is Jesus Christ for us today? What is the role of the church in the world today? Every generation needs to wrestle with these questions and, while rooted in the confession of faith, be shaped by the living Christ at work in the world. In terms of the work of ending violence against women and girls these questions will lead to other questions, some of which were posed in chapter one: What are the nature and roots of the violence? How is the violence that these women and girls experienced a symptom of larger cultural, spiritual and economic conditions in our churches and society? How do we respond as a whole church community? What do Scripture and our confession of faith teach us regarding an approach toward violence and peacemaking? What concepts, language and orientation does our theology offer to help us shape a cohesive, powerful response to violence? How is violence in our local community related to the violence against women and girls experienced globally? Should we define this as a confessional, broad issue needing a multifaceted approach rather than defining this merely as a moral issue that is worthy only of being relegated to a small group of interested community members? How does our confession of faith lead us to be actively involved in resisting institutional violence and promote social policies?

Theologians of the cross will respond to the evil of gendercide by naming it as a sin and renouncing all forms of violence against women and girls as opposed to the Christian confession of faith and Scripture. Discipleship means following Christ not programs. From this perspective, the whole of the church needs to engage in living out hope-filled lives in service to our neighbors. Therefore, the following discussion on church and individual activities that help reduce violence against women and girls offers only partial remedies and should not be viewed as the church’s starting point. The beginning of the work to end the violence, oppression and marginalization of women and girls is for the church to be the church! Confess Christ and follow Christ into the world. Resistance to religious, political and social policies that obstruct the gospel and lives of millions of women and girls begins in prayer, and in humility. There is a steep cost to being church. The true church renounces the illusion of power, identification with political ideologies, prideful self-righteous claims on church strategies for instituting a Christian society, efforts on raising church attendance and being culturally relevant, substituting ethics for doctrine and the confession of faith, and being a comfortable self-serving institution. Our confession of faith reminds us who God is and challenges us to move beyond confession to activism.

From a perspective of the cross, the whole of the church can engage in a myriad of efforts to counter gendercide, some of which include consciousness raising; a prophetic call to end violence; support of political, social and religious efforts to end violence against women and girls; aid to victims; and political resistance to systematic institutional supports of ongoing violence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s three approaches of the church to the state (as descried in the previous chapter) offer a helpful framework for considering the response of the church today in relation to gendercide. The following are some possible ways of engaging in the work to end violence. However, through theological reflection and prayer, individual church communities, denominations and churches working on an interdenominational level can decide creatively on a multifaceted approach for a whole church response. The incarnational response allows for churches to frame their response creatively in partnership with non-Christian religious organizations, secular organizations and individual experts in the field of violence against women.

Gerhardt-headshotElizabeth Gerhardt (Th.D., Boston University) is professor of theology and social ethics at Northeastern Seminary and adjunct professor in the department of religion and humanities at Roberts Wesleyan College, in Rochester, N.Y.

This entry is the final post in a blog series that focus on experiences, understanding, and responses to violence against women, as part of an online course offered by Northeastern Seminary beginning in the 2015 fall semester. Instructed by Dr. Elizabeth Gerhardt, this course addresses the problem of violence against women from a Christian theological perspective. To learn more about taking this course and other Seminary course options click here

Tags: domestic violence, church's response to violence, violence against women

Violence Against Women: There is Much Work to be Done, Beginning with the Church

Posted on Mon, Aug 17, 2015 @ 11:58 AM

July 28, 2015 the body of an 8-year-old girl who had been raped and strangled was found in a dumpster in Santa Cruz, CA. The suspect in custody is only 15-years-old.[1]

The truth about violence against women is disturbing. The details of this one incident make us uncomfortable, but the reality of the problem is so immense that it impacts each and every one of our lives. Even if you are not a woman, you have a mother, sister, wife, or daughter, someone you love, who is at risk of gender-based violence.

global_face-1-186749-editedThe statistics are staggering. Harmful practices, including female genital cutting/mutilation, femicide, sexual harassment, early marriage, domestic violence, and rape in the context of conflict, damage girls’ physical beings and self-worth by reinforcing gender-based marginalization and inequality. According to UN Women, “One of the greatest challenges in ending violence against women and girls lies in unraveling how harmful gender attitudes and roles are deeply ingrained across the fabric of societies, and fostering values of mutual respect and equality.”[2] 

The Council of Europe (COE), which established a committee for equality between women and men in the 1990s, identifies unequal power relations between women and men as both a cause and a consequence of violence against women. The COE states, “It is violence directed against women because they are women and must be considered as structural violence because it is an integral part of a social system which manifests itself in an imbalance of power with accordingly unequal opportunities for women and men.”[3] The Council concludes that crime control is not the solution to combating violence against women.  Moreover, the COE advocates equal rights for women and men insuring that all are given the same opportunities and that everyone’s contribution to society is equally valued and respected; “only real equality between women and men and a change in power dynamics and attitudes can truly prevent violence against women.”[4]

This is precisely the point where the church can engage. A biblical worldview of humanity values both women and men, created equally in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). The church accurately reflects the heart of God when it acts on behalf of the oppressed, and restores the dignity of God’s creation to their rightful place as imago Dei. The view of biblical equality for women both deters violence against women and advocates on behalf of victims. 

In addition, Christianity offers hope and restoration through Christ for victims, and perpetrators, alike. In Jesus women have a God who can identify in their sufferings, and mourns in their pain (Hebrews 2:17-18). In Christ, perpetrators can experience reconciliation through repentance, and be released from the bondage to sin.

There is much work to be done, beginning with the church itself. The church must accept its past and present culpability in perpetuating hierarchy between men and women. We need to confess and repent of the ways in which we have contributed to the vulnerability of women by limiting their equal access to power.

The church must also accept its responsibility as the voice of social change. We must renounce the perpetuation of a lopsided gospel by limiting our engagement with the world to proclamation of salvation without seeking justice for those whom Christ came to save.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free (Luke 4:18).


Marie Moy completed the Master of Arts in Theology and Social Justice at Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College in May 2015.  She serves in the city of Buffalo through
Jericho Road Community Health Center and Renovation Church.  Marie is passionate about Christian community development, and works with like-minded individuals and organizations to holistically restore communities.

This blog series focuses on experiences, understanding, and responses to violence against women, as part of an online course offered by Northeastern Seminary beginning in the 2015 fall semester. Instructed by Dr. Elizabeth Gerhardt, this course addresses the problem of violence against women from a Christian theological perspective. To learn more about taking this course and other Seminary course options click here.

                [1] Maria Sevilla, WIVB News, via Associated Press, (accessed July 28, 2015).

                [2] “Main Challenges to Ending Violence Against Women and Girls,” United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women website, (accessed July 28, 2015).

                [3] “Safe from Fear, Safe from Violence:  Council of Europe Convention of preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention), An instrument to promote greater equality,” Council of Europe website, (accessed July 28, 2015).

                [4] Ibid.

Tags: church's response to violence, violence against women

The politics of addressing domestic violence in our churches

Posted on Thu, Aug 13, 2015 @ 12:00 PM

violence_against_women_response-566768-editedI was attending a church where I felt I really took ownership of my faith and became acclimated to church culture. At the time, there were several couples who were living together, but not yet married. Upon the arrival of a new pastor, his solution was to encourage the couples to get married sooner rather than later. Consequently, he married a few of them in his office and then the couples later held wedding ceremonies with invited guests.

There was one couple in particular who concerned me. Upon getting to know them, I was doubtful of the suitability of a marriage between them. The reason for my objection, I suspected the male was physically abusing his female partner.

This couple was among the “quickie marriages.” They continued to attend the church sporadically. But I made an effort to stay in touch with the wife. As I continued to connect with her she shared that she was indeed being abused by her husband.

I am not sure how the pastor addressed this situation or if he even knew. But I thought, “If I, a fairly new member to this congregation and young in the faith can tell that something was gravely wrong with the relationship, how could the pastor and/or ministers and/or deacons miss it?” To this day I wonder, “Did none of them see it? Or did they simply not want to see it?”

In all fairness, again, I don’t know that the situation wasn’t noticed and addressed behind closed doors by the pastor and/or church leadership. Yet, the incident continues to disturb me. I’ve been at my Christian walk a little longer now. I’m a bit more seasoned. And what I’ve noticed is that discussion of domestic violence is routinely avoided in our churches, especially by male pastors and especially in the more conservative denominations.

I can tell you without even asking them which of my pastor associates and friends preached about domestic violence during October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. My more “liberal” and female friends definitely make it a point to do so. Whereas, I have sat in more conservative churches and churches with male senior pastors during the various awareness months—domestic violence, child sexual abuse, human trafficking, crime victim survivors—and not heard one preached word about these problems.

This indicates a complicity of a major portion in the perpetuation of these issues by the Church. If the Church loses or represses its prophetic voice and vocational call to preach and to bring peace and healing, and to counter the subjugation, violence, and exploitation of the world, then it ceases to fulfill God’s purpose. It loses its identity. With our impotence around the culture of violence in the United States, is it any wonder why our churches are in decline? Why would God bless a fruitless tree?

Now several pastors from various backgrounds and denominational persuasions may object to my critique, and criticize me for being “political?” I counter with two questions: “What do you think Christianity is really about? What Gospel is being preached?”

Jesus said to set captives free, to heal he wounded, to bind up the broken hearted. He meant this not just “spiritually” but physically. I believe the Bible is also quite clear to call sin what it is—not to equivocate on the need to renounce it and repent. And here is maybe where some of my critics would probably part ways with me. “Is beating one’s wife really a sin?”

I’ll let you answer that question for yourself.

As to how we understand Christianity, I am amazed at how many Christians either are unfamiliar with or just ignore the context of the first century. Rome was a political, ideological, military, and social entity. It is in this highly politicized and socially stratified environment that God stepped into history in Christ.

Jesus continuously countered the problematic ideologies of the political parties of his own community, the Jewish people. And we know what that led to. It led to him being subjected to an unjust judicial system which sentenced him to death. He died a convicted criminal. Then his followers were systematically persecuted, disenfranchised, socially discriminated against, and economically subjugated by the Roman gestalt that authorized Jesus’ crucifixion.

How is none of that political? And if that is the foundation of our faith, a leader who was fearlessly political, openly critical of evil, staunchly against abusive traditions and customs, how are we all of a sudden not political people?

I speak forthrightly. I believe that Christians who avoid condemning and combatting domestic violence, and other forms of violence, on the grounds that they don’t want to be “political” are copping out. Believing in the furtherance of The Kingdom of God means rejecting what God rejects, and embracing what God embraces.

If you believe in the sanctity of human dignity and the inalienable right of everyone to safety, then you believe in the theological premise that God has created all of us with inherent value and worth. Therefore, there is no justification, not for the Christian, of the beating, intimidation, and sexual violation of women.

Can we stop avoiding the difficulty of correcting this abuse? Can we stop with the quickie wedding ceremonies that ignore problems of violence in a relationship? Can we overcome our cowardice in taking a stand on the issue of domestic violence?

Alicia Dixon-Garrard, M.A. ’14, Teen Challenge volunteer, Catholic Schools of Broome County substitute teacher.

This entry is part of a blog series that focus on experiences, understanding, and responses to violence against women, as part of an online course offered by Northeastern Seminary beginning in the 2015 fall semester. Instructed by Dr. Elizabeth Gerhardt, this course addresses the problem of violence against women from a Christian theological perspective. To learn more about taking this course and other Seminary course options click

Tags: domestic violence, church's response to violence, violence against women

Failing to address sexual abuse of teens in our churches

Posted on Tue, Aug 11, 2015 @ 04:00 PM

Early in ministry, I spent a few years leading children’s church and then Sunday School.

One Sunday, a young lady in the youth group sat by me on the pew during opening worship. As was my habit, I put my arm around her for a hug. She pulled her knees to her chest, leaned into me with her head on my shoulder and began sobbing. I just held her not knowing what was wrong. I was unaware of what caused such an open display of pain. Another young lady in the youth group came and got her hand and led her out of the sanctuary. There the second young lady embraced and comforted her crying peer.

Years later, I learned that one of the twenty-something male youth leaders had a sexual relationship with both these under-18 teenage girls. I was stunned. But even more so, I was angry. Why hadn’t I, one of the children/youth ministry leaders been told?

Of course, one’s initial reaction is to say because of confidentiality. However, this begs the question about the distinction between confidentiality and cover-up.

A meeting could have been held with church leaders, especially the youth leaders, to alert us to the issue and how to minister to the youth group who clearly all knew and were devastated by it. In retrospect, I realized that no safe sanctuary, youth leadership, or child and sexual abuse training was offered to any of the church leaders and volunteers. A background check was done only for the church van driver. Even for the nineties this was quite inadequate and remiss in creating the best ministry environment and, above all, safety for the youth.

Still today there is a naïve belief among many church-goers that child abuse and sexual abuse do not occur in our own faith communities. The statistics on these matters, however, shatter that naiveté. And truthfully, I think church leadership knows much more than it shares about these issues in the church.

Hats off to those churches that have instituted Safe Sanctuary practices and have trained their volunteers. And again, I’m not trying to undermine the need for confidentiality in matters of pastoral care. What I am calling for, however, is transparency and overturning the denial that abuse and sexual abuse are real problems in our congregations.

I doubt many Christians would debate the fact that abuse and sexual abuse violate the personhood and scar the image of God in children. Our understanding of psychology has contributed greatly to our knowledge of the development and emotional needs of children and youth and the damaging effects of violence and abuse. However, there is still a sense that families are entitled to their “privacy” and that children and youth need to be subject to their parents. There remains a subtle anti-intellectualism that neglects the insights of “worldly” psychology into the human psyche and behavior, and an allergic avoidance of talk that seems too “new age” in regard to the mystery of the spirit and the soul.

We as Christians would do well to reclaim the integrated nature of body, mind, soul, and spirit so to give greater attention to the pastoral care and healing of those victimized by abuse.

I believe two things have contributed to the silence and cover-ups about child abuse and sexual abuse in our congregations. For one, Christians, in general, are quite uncomfortable with talks of sex, sexuality, and the body. We have lost the sense of embodiment obviously valued by God as evidenced in the Incarnation—God put on a flesh—and in the resurrection in which Jesus’ body, as well as his spirit and soul, came back from death.

Second, the gravity and pervasiveness of evil in this world frightens us. We don’t want to acknowledge that darkness can exist among the people of God. Yet if we truly understand human nature, if we remember that this world won’t be fully redeemed until Christ’s second coming, and if we really understand the call of the Church, then the existence of evil in the Church should not surprise us.

All of us have the capacity to do great harm to another, and if we are honest with ourselves we cannot say with 100 percent certainty what we would or would not do. As the Native American proverb says, “Do not judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” The power of our faith is not the absence of evil but in its ability to choose good despite and in the midst of evil. And the greatness of God’s grace is that forgiveness is offered to all who would receive it.

Our role as the Church is to manifest and further the Kingdom of God. And by the “Kingdom of God” I mean God’s presence, image, and character in the world—that is justice, mercy, compassion, humility, peace, and love.

I’m not talking about the hippy version of these things. I’m referring to the Jesus version of these things. In this version, Jesus very strongly and clearly states that to violate a child is unacceptable in the eyes of God. This applies to those in our youth groups as well. Though they are older, teenagers are still spiritually, emotionally, and mentally vulnerable, and wounds inflicted during adolescence still do much damage.

Christian love must love the abuser enough to call them on their sin so that he/she may confess, repent, and be healed of the darkness in their soul causing them to abuse—whether that darkness be a result of their own abuse, a personality disorder(s), or simple self- serving belief in gender/parent/racial superiority.

With violence and sexual abuse clearly not being God’s will how can we continually refuse to openly discuss the problem of child abuse and sexual abuse in our churches? How can we continue to neglect proper training of our leaders and volunteers to address these issues? Why do we allow abuse to go unpunished and continue to expose children and youth to great harm in our churches in the name of the “sanctity of the family?”

Alicia Dixon-Garrard, M.A. ’14, Teen Challenge volunteer, Catholic Schools of Broome County substitute teacher.

This entry is the first in a blog series that focus on experiences, understanding, and responses to violence against women, as part of an online course offered by Northeastern Seminary beginning in the 2015 fall semester. Instructed by Dr. Elizabeth Gerhardt, this course addresses the problem of violence against women from a Christian theological perspective. To learn more about taking this course and other Seminary course options click here.

Tags: church's response to violence, violence against women

Help us, Lord

Posted on Tue, Jun 23, 2015 @ 06:27 PM

originally posted June 19, 2015

I am heartbroken.

This week tragedy happened again. Lives were taken, hatred won, and we were left to make sense of another example of the racial tear in the fabric of our community. As I read through the stories of each of the nine victims of the AME shooting, my heart broke. These were our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandparents, colleagues, neighbors, pastors and fellow believers. They were members of our community.

Earlier this week I attended a one-day seminar sponsored by Northeastern Seminary entitled Power, Inequity and Reconciliation in the Church, led by Dr. Christena Cleveland, who challenged us to listen… to listen to what is being said by ALL our brothers and sisters. As I have prayed and mourned the recent acts I have also been attempting to listen. At the risk of not articulating perfectly, I ask you to hear my heart as I try to make sense of what I am hearing in this challenging time.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. – Martin Luther King Jr.

We live in a fallen world, a world where hate and racism exist. The recent act in Charleston, South Carolina reminds us once again of our painful history as a divided nation. It is true that many around us love as Christ called us to love and are examples of living in community. But there remains a deep weed in the garden of our lives, an ugly weed that appears far too often. It divides our country around surface topics of personal defense and justification, and we slide into the posture of defending our position instead of listening to each other. I am guilty of this pattern even while trying to make sense of the senseless. Log into any social media today and you will hear debates brewing around our interpretation of what just happened in Charleston.

Injustice happened. Lives were taken. A community was impacted. A church was targeted. A people of a specific race were attacked. Wrong happened and we are left reminded we have not yet learned to live out our calling of loving our neighbor as ourselves. Dr. Cleveland also pointed us to Philippians 2 as a model for how we are encouraged to live within community.

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus (Phil. 2:1-5, NRSV).

Read full article at President Porterfield's blog site

Dr. Deana Porterfield is president of Northeastern Seminary and Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester. NY.

Tags: listening, community, church's response to violence, compassion

The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls

Posted on Wed, Jun 04, 2014 @ 09:13 AM

describe the image The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global   Violence Against Women and Girls

Dr. Elizabeth Gerhardt’s new book addresses the historical, cultural, religious, and political context of global violence against women. Through the lens of theology she proposes how the Church can work together in raising awareness and aid in ending crimes  towards women and girls. This passage from her book was taken from Chapter 1, “A Point of Departure: The Cross and Global Violence Against Women and Girls.”

Linda walked tentatively into my small basement office. She was a young woman with short cropped hair and a fresh, newly stitched wound that stretched from her temple, ran across her cheek and ended at her chin. Linda related her terrifying story with little    affect and trembling hand gestures. “My husband chased me   around the house with a butcher knife and caught up to me, slashing me in my arm and face.” She rolled up her sleeve to show me more stitches. “I ran out of the house screaming, and my neighbor called the police.” Linda’s face finally began to mirror the pain in her voice, and she began to sob. “The policeman walked across the lawn, looked down on me and asked me what I had done to deserve my husband’s abuse.” She pointed to her cheek, “I feel like I’ve been victimized twice, first by my husband and second by the police!” Linda was my first client and my first introduction to the shadow world of violence against women and girls. Over the years I heard hundreds of stories from battered women and girls. Through each story I learned more of the cultural, religious, historical and political supports for violence and the global scope of these heinous crimes.

Violence against women and girls is a human rights problem that impacts the lives of millions of families and communities. In the United States one out of every four women has experienced domestic violence and one out of six has experienced attempted or completed rape. Almost one and a half million women have been abused during the past year, and the health costs are an astounding 5.8 billion dollars. Violence against women has been identified as the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of fifteen and forty-nine and is one of the country’s most expensive health problems. Globally, it is a significant and complex human rights problem that exacerbates the problems of poverty, child abandonment, communicable diseases and homelessness. The perception of violence as a private, family problem has obscured efforts to increase the visibility of this dilemma as a public human rights issue that affects all members of society. Violence against women and girls crosses all borders, cultures and classes.

Statistics that provide a snapshot of the extent of this global problem are overwhelming. Although prohibited in most countries, violence continues and is permitted by political, social, and religious institutions and systems and remains the major cause of the most violent attacks on women and girls. Global violence against women and girls takes on many forms: widespread rape as a tool of war, gender-selective abortions, female genital mutilation, sexual trafficking, disfigurement and economic exploitation of women, among other horrific violent crimes. Maymuna, a fifteen-year-old Nigerian girl, was forced into marrying a sixty-five-year-old local man. She conceived three months later. Her labor lasted for days before she was taken to a hospital that was three hours away. By the time she arrived, her uterus had ruptured, and she struggled to survive. As a result of hemorrhaging, both she and her baby died. Maymuna’s tragic story is one among tens of thousands illustrating this one type of violence               and exploitation.

In recent years nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), governmental bodies and other agencies have been effective in bringing attention to this critical problem. Christian churches also contribute in several ways to the prevention and elimination of “gendercide.” Efforts include identifying and describing the problem, working to educate Christians as to the extent of the problem, encouraging support to victims, and philanthropic efforts to aid women and girls in need. And yet, there is often a halting acknowledgment by churches to identify violence against women and girls as a theological and confessional issue that requires a unified, holistic church response. The underlying causes of global violence against women and girls are rooted deep in our cultures, and the scandal of this violence is symptomatic of a pervasive and deep misogyny. Millions of girls have undergone the brutal practice of female genital mutilation. Millions of women been forced to undergo sex-selective abortions. Millions more have experienced the horror of sex trafficking and have been imprisoned as slaves with no hope of escape. The list of reprehensible acts is long, and the targets are primarily girls and women. The stubborn pervasiveness of this violence and its deep rootedness in misogyny is best defined as a theological issue, rather than merely an ethical or moral issue. Christian confession concerns an orientation that begins with our understanding of the being of God and, subsequently, God’s mission in the world. By using this theological approach, the church can offer a broad, imaginative and effective response.

Learn more about The Cross and Gendercide at InterVarsity Press.

Elizabeth Gerhardt (Th.D., Boston University) is professor of theology and social ethics at Northeastern Seminary, Rochester, New York, and adjunct professor in the department of religion and humanities at Roberts Wesleyan College, Rochester.

Tags: community, Dr. Elizabeth Gerhardt, church's response to violence, The Cross andd Gendercide

The Role of the Church When Faced With Victims of Violence?

Posted on Mon, Nov 05, 2012 @ 09:18 AM

A guest post by Dr. Elizabeth Gerhardt, professor of theology and social ethics at Northeastern Seminary


shattering photoThe statistics are overwhelming.  One in four girls is sexually abused before they reach adulthood. One of four women has been abused by a partner. In the United States domestic violence accounts for more injuries than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined.  The stories behind the statistics are even more disturbing. Women’s testimonies of being choked, thrown down staircases, punched, stalked, raped, and verbally and psychologically abused are common.  Girls who are sexually abused are abused by someone familiar to them, usually a family member, ninety percent of the time. This betrayal of trust is more egregious when these incidents of abuse go unreported by other adults, including pastoral leaders.

We live in a culture of violence that objectifies women and girls. The pornography industry is a multi-billion dollar business in our country. Advertisements, popular magazines, videos, and music often reduce girls’ value to shallow descriptions of what is defined as “beautiful.”  Women continue to make less than eighty cents to every dollar men earn. Women are underrepresented in government, high positions in corporate America, and in leadership roles in our churches. This culture of violence supports the ongoing misuse of power in all areas of American life including in the educational, recreational, athletic, and religious arenas. Penn State, the Boy Scouts, and the Catholic priest scandals all bring up images of victims of violence, and the silence and collusion that “covered up” the abuse of so many innocent children.

The church also participates in this culture of violence when we fail to speak out against all forms of domestic violence. We, the church, participate when we emphasize abstinence to our teen groups, and yet never address the fact that twenty-five percent of the girls listening have been sexually abused. We offer no information and support and they often report feeling alone and isolated. We, the church, participate when we do not hold perpetrators accountable. Some pastors fail to report child abuse because they are fearful it will “break apart” the family. This loyalty to the family is a false loyalty, and becomes an idol when we put children at risk for more harm. Pastors support a culture of violence when they minimize or blame the victim for the abuse she is suffering from her husband or boyfriend. I heard a pastor once tell his congregation that if there is abuse in the home then they should come to him and not call the police. “We keep these things in our house,” he declared.  Other pastors may not be so bold as to articulate this “church rule” but indeed, by their failure to report child abuse and sexual abuse, they reduce the criminal behavior to a “family problem” and participate in the culture of violence. 

What is the role of the church when living within a culture of violence that objectifies women and girls? What is the role of the church when faced with victims of violence within their own congregations? First, it is important to break the silence surrounding violence. We need to “bring to light” that which lives and survives in darkness and secrecy. There are opportunities in teen and adult education groups to talk about different types of violence and let everyone know that victims will always be supported. Education is essential to breaking through the myths and supports of violence. When pastoral leaders hear about child abuse they should not hesitate to call the authorities who are the local experts and by doing so they hold the perpetrators accountable. We need to create a culture of love and acceptance in our churches that promotes the strength and resilience of our girls and empowers them to grow and use all of their gifts that God has granted. Our churches need to be “safe sacred spaces” where children grow up seeing both men and women in leadership and they experience a no tolerance for any types of abuse or denigration. Cultures of non-violence, education on these issues of violence, support and referrals for victims, criminal accountability and referrals for perpetrators can create a place where violence is not tolerated, and peace and safety is promoted both in our homes and churches. We are all equal in Christ, and the church is called to live out that reality within our communities. Church leaders have a particular responsibility to protect and ensure that violence is never tolerated and that healthy, love filled relationships are always promoted.


Conf on Min web banner 912Learn more about the church's response to child sexual abuse and domestic violence within the faith community—what it is and what it could be—on November 13 at "Shattering the Silence," part of the Conference on Ministry Series at Northeastern Seminary. Details and registration information can be found here.

Tags: church, domestic violence, church's response to violence