The 5 myths Churches too often believe about domestic abuse

‘The message needs to be changed’

When asked how churches should respond to domestic abuse – especially as incidences are fuelled by COVID isolation – pastoral carer Jenni Woodhouse identifies three simple, practical things to start doing right now.

“They need to listen and they need to believe,” she tells Eternity.

Domestic abuse

Domestic violence and abuse is an awful reality in Australian society, including within Christian communities. Eternity has shared many personal stories and expert opinions on this triggering subject. Here is a selection of them for you to consider.

“The message church leaders should be giving is … ‘men, stop being abusive.” – Jenni Woodhouse

“They need to listen to what the women are saying. They need to believe the women. Another thing that churches need to do, particularly at this time, is a really dangerous thing and it’s call men out.”

Listen. Believe. Call men out. Three things which experienced counsellor Woodhouse wants church leaders to be modelling and speaking about. An approach that could help to combat the five myths Woodhouse has identified about the way churches understand or respond to domestic abuse.

“If we’re standing in a pulpit talking about domestic violence and saying, ‘women, if this is happening to you, this is not right, you should leave’, that’s not a brilliant message. That’s a message that stops and gets [women] thinking,” explains Woodhouse.

“The message church leaders should be giving is ‘if you’re in this situation where the man is being abusive and not treating you well, then men, stop it – leave the house, give [your wife] some time to think through whether she wants to stay in this toxic marriage or not. Go and get some help. Come and talk to me. I will find you a counsellor.’

“That’s the message. The message is ‘men, stop being abusive’, not ‘women, it’s your responsibility to escape’. So the message needs to be changed.”

May is Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Month, and its timing could not be more appropriate. As many women and children have spent weeks in lockdown with their abusers (who are, statistically, most commonly men), the full toll on these families is yet to be discovered.

While the rate of reported incidences during lockdown has in fact been lower than usual in some Australian states, experts suggest this is because women have not had the freedom to make reports. As lockdown measures begin to lift, the number of DV reports is expected to peak.

Woodhouse describes the conditions of lockdown as a “nasty, toxic cocktail” for domestic abuse. A trained social worker, Woodhouse has been pastoral carer for the Church Missionary Society’s ACT & NSW branch for the past seven years. Prior to that, she spent 12 years delving into the “sewer system” of the Sydney Anglican Diocese as chaplain and counselling coordinator for the church’s Professional Standards Unit.

It was Woodhouse’s job to provide support to those making complaints of sexual misconduct against the church.

“There were two main group of complainants: people complaining about being sexually abused as children, and women making complaints about men crossing sexual boundaries and sexualising pastoral relationships,” Woodhouse explains. She clarifies that these cases were related to sexual misconduct with a parishioner, rather than domestic abuse.

However, that professional experience alongside her work with those in domestic abuse situations has given Woodhouse insights into some common misconceptions in churches – among both leaders and congregation members – about domestic and family violence.

She shares five myths with Eternity to help Christian communities, groups and organisations improve their understanding of and response to domestic abuse (NOTE: Woodhouse refers to perpetrators as men, as this is most commonly the case).

Myth 1: Domestic abuse is physical

“Domestic violence takes us down the physical thought pattern,” says Woodhouse. “But domestic abuse is much broader and often it’s that psychological, emotional abuse, which has a much more profound effect.

“It’s about control. It’s about entitlement.

“There’s a lot of gaslighting. The woman is always walking around eggshells and trying not to tread on them. If a woman is tiptoeing around spending a lot of time being hyper-vigilant, trying not to set him off because then I cop it emotionally – whether I cop it because he’s now not talking to me for three days and I don’t know what I’ve done, or whether I cop it because I’m getting lectured all the time, or whether I cop it because I’m getting emotionally manipulated – they’re the giveaway signs of what we’re talking about with emotional and psychological abuse.”

She continues, “From the perpetrator’s point of view, there’s always self-righteousness. There’s always ‘I have a right, you’re to blame.'”

“The problem is that domestic abuse is not a crime.” – Jenni Woodhouse

Woodhouse expresses why this emotional abuse is likely to be exacerbated by the coronavirus situation: “It’s about control, and it’s about maintaining power in the relationship. He hasn’t got very much control at this point because there’s a virus out there, and it’s actually the government calling the shots, not him.

“Actually, he’s losing control at every point and so he’s just going to try to get his needs for control met in the family relationships more than ever. Increasing his anxiety and increasing his need to grab at more control is what’s going on.”

Within church circles, Woodhouse says research has shown that psychological, emotional and even financial abuse is far more prevalent than physical violence – particularly among families where every member attends church regularly.

Of course, this type of abuse is much harder to identify and deal with. “If a woman turns up in the hospital with bruising, the police are right onto it. They can do something if he hits her … But if not, there’s no proof, particularly if he doesn’t leave bruising.”

“The fact that he calls you names, manipulates every situation to make it look like it’s your fault or that he gaslights – the problem [there] is that domestic abuse is not a crime.”

In saying that, Woodhouse does advise church leaders to report incidences of domestic abuse to the police “because you want it documented.” She also advises you to ensure you “get the number or the name of the police officer you speak to,” so it can be followed up if needed.

Myth 2: Church leaders don’t commit domestic abuse

Woodhouse has been very candid in discussing the fact that church ministers and leaders are not immune from committing domestic abuse. According to Woodhouse, rates of psychological and emotional abuse in the church are similar to those in the rest of society.

From anecdotal evidence, Woodhouse has identified particular personality disorders commonly associated with these perpetrators.

“Mostly we’ve got men who display all the symptomatology of narcissistic personality disorder – who are unable to empathise, who see the woman as being there to meet his needs, not to shame him and make him feel good about himself.”

COVID-19 lockdown and online services for many churches are likely to have aggravated the need for recognition among such men who are Christian leaders, Woodhouse says.

“They will be getting congregational feedback, but it might be ‘dear minister, you spoke too quickly today’ or  ‘the internet connection was no good’ … There won’t be a lot of positive stuff.”

“You put that together with feeling a bit out of control, and it’s just not a nice cocktail – a really scary one for women who become the emotional punching bag.”

Jenni Woodhouse

Jenni Woodhouse

Myth 3: Faulty theology is the cause of domestic abuse in the church

“If a woman’s in a church where she’s being told you should keep the marriage together at all costs, and if she’s in a church where she’s been told women should submit to their husbands, even though their husbands are not loving them, those churches certainly need to change,” says Woodhouse.

But the problem is not usually faulty theology about “wives being submissive”, she says, adding that the problem remains the same both outside and inside the church.

“I don’t think it’s a church problem. I don’t think it’s a theology problem. It’s a sin problem really.” – Jenni Woodhouse

“If a man is going to be controlling it’s because he has a need to be controlling and a need for an emotional punching bag. If he wants to make that his wife, he’s going to make that his wife.”

“Certainly he can use the theology that’s being taught from the front of church against her – but he’ll use anything against her.

“If the church is teaching women be submissive, then he’ll use that against her.

“If the church is teaching all men and women are equal, then he’ll find something different to use against her. But if they’re in the local football club, he’ll use something that’s there against her.

“So, I don’t think it’s a church problem. I don’t think it’s a theology problem. It’s a sin problem really. That’s a general thing that all human beings are suffering from … I don’t know of anywhere around the world where there isn’t domestic abuse.”

Myth 4: We should simply tell women to leave their abuser

There are several problems associated with merely telling women to leave abusive husbands (or partners), according to Woodhouse.

The first relates to livelihood. Often, women will have been raising children and only worked part-time, if at all, and have little superannuation, so they are financially vulnerable.

The second problem is safety. Woodhouse tells that story of a minister who confronted a husband in his congregation who was abusing his wife: “This minister took it upon himself to go around and talk to the guy because he thought he could make the guy understand …”

“That didn’t go well for him and it didn’t go well for her either – because what he didn’t factor in is that [the husband’s] now going to punish her for telling this minister ‘lies’ about him.”

“Church leaders do need to confront [abusers], but they need to be very strategic about it.” – Jenni Woodhouse

She continues: “So if church leaders are actually going to confront [a perpetrator], they really need to set it up very well. They need to be able to protect her and they need to be able to get her out of the house – with the kids out of the house, safe, – and then go around and confront him.

“But don’t expect that he’s going to listen to you by any means, and make sure he can’t get to her after you’ve confronted him …

“So, [church leaders] do need to confront him, but they need to be very strategic about it.”

Another issue is that provision of long-term support and persistence, on behalf of the church, also is required.

“A woman, on average, in this sort of [domestic abuse] scenario will leave her husband about seven times before she leaves him for good,” says Woodhouse.

She offers reasons for this: “She could be thinking I’m just overacting. He has gaslighted her for however many years to the point where she turns herself inside out trying to figure out how she should be a better person and not trigger him …”

“Sometimes women won’t talk about it, particularly if she’s married to someone in a leadership position in the church.

“She will have the most to lose because she will look like a real idiot having stayed with him or having married him in the first place, she might think.”

Woodhouse adds: “plus it’s jolly hard out there on your own.”

“Just to do nothing … leads to us being a perpetrator-friendly culture.” – Jenni Woodhouse

Regarding the need for churches to offer active, long-term support to those being abused, she says: “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that we do nothing. The victim, on the other hand, does ask the bystander to share the burden of pain.”

“The victim demands action and engagement and remembering – that’s really hard.

“Just to do nothing, which is what our society is very good at doing, that leads to us being a perpetrator-friendly culture.”

Myth 5: With help, the perpetrator will change

“It’s naive to simply think that if the situation or the surroundings were a bit better, then the marriage would work. Or maybe there’s just not enough forgiveness or if you just do enough Bible studies, then it’ll be fine – without understanding this is pathological; he’s not going to change,” says Woodhouse.

“Maybe one or two guys out of 60 or 70 might change. It’s not many.

“So I think as churches, we need to be much more realistic, and we certainly need to be able to listen carefully to women and we need to understand the minds of these guys is not likely to change.

“If the minister comes in and says, ‘well, let’s do some marriage counselling so we can keep the marriage together,’ I think that’s a wrong first approach.

“A first approach is ‘right, let’s get her safe. Let’s get her and the kids away and keep them safe and then challenge him …’

“If you get her out of the situation first, you can then stand back safely and look at his true colours. God can save the marriage whether they’re apart or whether they’re together. Ministers should not be stepping in in order to be God.”

Of course, in all situations discussed above, Woodhouse recommends that church leaders refer those in domestic abuse situations to relevant counselling and support services. These include the following national support services: 

More state-based support services can be found on the Department of Social Services website.

If this article has raised issues for you, please do contact these support services.