Domestic Violence and Spiritual Abuse

By Amy Thomson

Spiritual abuse is a form of psychological manipulation used by abusers to coerce their victims into compliance by using religious belief as leverage. Regardless of the religion involved, doctrine is used by both the abuser and the enabling members of the congregation to force the victim into subjection.

How spiritual abuse manifests in the context of intimate partner relationships

Victims living with an abuser who uses spiritual control in the home are subjected to additional levels of control and coercion not experienced in non-practicing families. When used against a believer, manipulated doctrine has a powerful way to make the victim subject themselves to the abuser’s wishes.

By engaging in this behavior, abusers effectively elevate themselves to the role of God. The abuser expects their victims to be entirely submissive to them and exacts punishment for anything less than full compliance. Victims are often expected to subject to their partner’s will at any cost, including disregarding scripture or denying God if the victim’s partner is not a believer.

  • Abusers use scripture regarding wifely duty to manipulate their partners into having intercourse. However, any time a victim does not consent to intimacy, it is sexual assault or rape.
  • Abusers use scripture referencing subjection to guilt their partners into obeying everything they are commanded to do. Victims attempting to resist are met with rants and accusations about being a failure as a partner and parent to the children.
  • If a victim attempts to call the abuser into account for their abusive behavior, the abuser dismisses their concerns and notes scripture references to the woman being the property of the husband.
  • The victim is often prevented from attending church or engaging in social activities with other members of the congregation. They are also subjected to the ridicule of their beliefs or can be forced to practice a religion they do not want to.
  • Women are often not allowed to work outside the home as the abuser enforcers strict gender roles.
  • The abuser makes all decisions – even significant ones – without seeking input from the victim. If the victim disagrees, they are reminded to subject to the abuser’s authority as the head.

How spiritual abuse manifests in the context of religious leaders and congregations

Victims of domestic violence also face psychological manipulation from the enabling behavior of their spiritual leaders and congregation. Religious groups tend to be highly influential in their members’ lives and the congregation is expected to be at the center. Secular bodies and disbelievers exist outside this context, and therefore a congregation’s members are pressured to remain free of their influence.

Spiritual leaders are charged with the wellbeing of their congregants. Religious beliefs regulate all aspects of a person’s life and church leaders find themselves in the position of being both spiritual and psychological guides. Members of the church seek help with self-improvement and relationships or family life. When victims of domestic violence confide in the clergy, they are unfortunately not always met with the Godly love they hear so much about from the pulpit. Clergy often responds with victim blaming and shaming wrapped in the guise of counsel.

  • Church leaders usually meet with the abuser and victim at the same time to discuss the abuse occurring in the home. This is never a good idea because the victim is not free to say what they need to address. Also, it puts the victim at risk for retribution for revealing the abuser’s secret.
  • Prayer and self-examination are the most commonly offered solutions, but they also imply the victim is at fault. Victims are discouraged from calling the police or getting medical documentation of the injuries and are instead pressured to pray, change behavior, and submit.
  • Often, members of the congregation will blame the victim and pressure them to stay with the abuser. In too many cases, both clergy and congregation tell the victim that their weak faith is the problem.
  • Safety of the victim is jeopardized. The victim is pressured or coerced to subject to the head of the household and stay with the abuser to avoid breaking up the family.
  • Victims face the difficult choice of not only leaving their abuser, but their entire life behind. Religious communities tend to be closed to outsiders, and the church is the focus of its congregants’ lives. Most of the friends, family, and social activities exist within this context. When a victim leaves, they must leave their friends and social connections as well.
  • Long-term abuse in this context can damage or destroy the victim’s spirituality because they may start to feel abandoned by their god. They may stop attending services permanently, unable to trust that any congregation functions healthily.

Breaking free from this dangerous situation is an impossible choice for the victim to make. If they stay, their family remains together, yet they sacrifice their safety and well-being. If they leave, they have a hope of building a better life for themselves and children. However, victims must also consciously choose to leave their entire lives behind, not just the violence. Their lives center around the religious community, and the congregation often shuns those who leave. Such victims are unsure of where to go and whom to trust because they were expected to ignore secular sources of help.

How religious leaders and congregations can get involved:

  • Contact a local domestic violence organization and ask to set up an action plan to use when congregants disclose domestic violence. Understand that secular institutions are not there to undermine faith, but to help the victim safely escape their abuser and refer them to legal, medical, housing, and law enforcement resources.
  • Each person in a leadership role should undergo domestic violence and trauma training to learn how to respond to abuse victims appropriately.
  • Give occasional sermons dedicated to addressing violence and trauma in the home. It is the clergy’s responsibility to tell their congregation that abuse is not condoned and that shaming and blaming is not acceptable.
  • Make listings of resources available to any congregant needing help.
  • Do not pressure the victim to stay and pray it out. If they have decided to leave, offer them help, and do not cut them off from the congregation.

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