Illustration of two seated figures, one looking down


Faith in the Face of Abuse

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Nancy E. Nienhuis

Though most of us want to believe intimate partner violence (often referred to as “domestic violence”) is on the decline, and that we are getting more enlightened on this issue, statistics indicate otherwise. Because of the continued stigma and secrecy surrounding this problem, the percentage of those living in violent relationships in the United States is often underestimated, but the numbers are disturbing. Studies show that one out of four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.1 Consider for a moment that in the six years of the current Iraq war, the United States has suffered the deaths of 4,179 service members and the wounding of 30,182.2 During that same period there have been 9,000 murders (75 percent of which are women) and approximately 28.8 million assaults and rapes of women by intimate partners.3

Religious beliefs play an important role in how people respond to intimate violence. People who are battered will often bring their religious background and teachings into the incident—as do the batterers. Some women believe (or their spouses argue) that their religious faith entitles a man to enforce submission, or to access her for sex any time he wishes, even without her consent (i.e., rape).4 The survivor’s crisis is physical and emotional, certainly, but it will also often be spiritual. Survivors often have deep questions about their faith in the face of such violence. And while women may rank churches as the highest rated resource for support, the majority of their specific experiences are negative. Church leaders and congregations either are not sympathetic or they don’t know enough about the law to be helpful. In a 2004 study, only 37 percent of clergy who counseled those involved in intimate partner violence referred them to agencies in their communities that offered services to victims of domestic violence.5

Marie Fortune, a pioneer in the field of religion and domestic violence, explains that women who are in life-threatening relationships often get unhelpful “advice” from religious leaders in the following ways: Submit to your husband; pray harder; try to get your husband to church; be a better wife; lift the abuse up to God; forgive your abuser and take him back. These responses blame the woman, suggest it’s her responsibility to fix the relationship, and require forgiveness of the abuse without justice. They make the woman responsible for stopping the violence, and they do nothing to hold the perpetrator accountable.

It is not surprising, then, that survivors often feel they must choose between their beliefs and their physical safety, that they can’t have both, because they understand their faith to require them to stay in abuse. In Christian sources we find recurring theological messages that reinforce this bind survivors are in, including a theology advocating suffering and patience regardless of one’s situation, a theology of obedience and subordination to male authority in marriage, and a theology of ownership and power, where husbands are understood as responsible for the behavior of wives.

Theological responses of religious leaders to abuse are often a critical factor in a victim’s willingness to leave an abusive relationship, and thus in her ability to survive. Yet too many religious leaders act as roadblocks, reinforcing beliefs and theologies that encourage victims to stay in abusive relationships. But this influence can also work in the opposite direction. Leaders in faith traditions can be critical resources for survivors, and can even set women free to leave abusive marriages. A few years ago I co-taught a class with Beverly Mayne Kienzle called “Historical Narratives of Battering and Their Theological Implications.” A woman in the class told us how she had repeatedly gone to her priest seeking help from her husband’s abuse. The priest told her that marriage was a sacrament, and she was bound to it. Eventually a new priest came to her parish, and she somehow gathered the courage, once again, to go and ask for help. This particular priest told her, “The first time your husband hit you, he violated the marriage sacrament and you were no longer bound by it.” The woman looked at us and said, “It was like he opened my prison door and I walked through.” That’s the kind of power faith leaders can have for victims of violence.

We cannot underestimate the potential of clergy responses to violence. A 2007 study showed that “[c]ompassionate clergy counseling can have a positive influence on psychological outcomes of women in abusive relationships.”6 The researchers studied 476 women who were still living with their batterers, all of whom had sought assistance from shelters. Researchers asked the women about their experiences with religious leaders. When clergy had responded to them in helpful and compassionate ways, as judged by the women themselves, there was a positive impact on the women’s self-efficacy and sense of self-esteem. This study also found that of women who consulted clergy for help, 79 percent found that interaction helpful. There is a huge potential for positive outcomes when clergy respond in supportive ways.

Clergy can also be important resources for batterers. When clergy refer batterers to intervention programs, they are much more likely not only to attend such programs, but eventually to graduate from them, as compared with batterers who are referred solely by the judicial system. If the courts and the clergy both refer a batterer, he is even more likely to stay in and complete the program.7 When batterers are held accountable by their faith communities, it’s good for the batterers and for the survivors.

Those of us with religious commitments can turn roadblocks into resources by focusing on the understanding that we are all created in the image of God, and equal in God’s eyes. Religious leaders can make a particularly significant difference in this issue simply by becoming informed on how to respond to survivors and batterers alike. Think of how much more could be accomplished if clergy were well informed on this issue and had information on hot lines and local shelters at the ready in their offices. Intimate partner violence has been at epidemic levels for far too long, but this is one epidemic we can all do something about.


  1. Patricia Tjaden and Nancy Thoennes, “Extent, Nature and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence” (National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 2000). Men are also victims of intimate partner violence. Approximately 7.5 percent of men report being raped or assaulted by an intimate partner in their lifetimes.
  2. Military estimates of American casualties from March 2003 to February 2009 are available at
  3. See “Understanding Intimate Partner Violence” (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2006),
  4. In Beijing in 1995, all countries in the UN voted to “abolish the marital privilege to sex on demand.” Also see Seth Faison’s “Women’s Meeting Agrees on Right to Say No to Sex . . . ,” The New York Times, September 10, 1995. In January 1995, religious leaders across all faiths, across the U.S., made a public statement declaring a woman’s right to consent in their faith (see Roy Rivenburg, “When the Laws of God and Men Converge,” Los Angeles Times, February 5, 1996).
  5. Rob J. Rotunda et al., “Clergy Response to Domestic Violence: A Preliminary Survey of Clergy Members, Victims, and Batterers,” Pastoral Psychology, 52, no. 4 (March 2004): 363.
  6. Barbara A. Anderson et al., “Women Experiencing Intimate Partner Violence: Effects of Confiding in Religious Leaders,” Pastoral Psychology, 55, no. 6 (July 2007): 773-787.
  7. Nancy Nason-Clark, “When Terror Strikes at Home: The Interface Between Religion and Domestic Violence,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 43, no. 3 (September 2004): 303.

Nancy E. Nienhuis is the dean of students and community life at Andover Newton Theological School. This article is adapted from a March 2009 talk she gave at the Center for the Study of World Religions at HDS.

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