Why Churches Brush Off Verbal Abuse

Pastors and churches are often ill-equipped to deal with cases of verbal abuse among their members. Thankfully there has been a growing awareness of the scourge of sexual abuse and even domestic abuse in evangelical churches, so pastors have become sensitized to the symptoms of abuse. This is wonderful; our churches are better equipped to prevent sexual abuse and minister to abuse victims with compassion and care.

But in our zeal to address abuse, some churches have overlooked a subtle but devastating danger—verbal abuse. Physical violence and sexual sins are recognized as abuse, but churches in the main don’t regard verbal abuse as “real” abuse. This is especially unfortunate because so many wives[1]Most perpetrators are men although not exclusively so in our congregations suffer terribly. When she brings it to the church leadership, they have a history of mishandling it, adding to her distress.

I think there are four reasons for this.

#1 Because Verbal Abuse Has Had an Elastic Definition

Abuse is a very powerful word that can get used too freely, and I’m against an expansive definition of abuse—not every sin is abusive. However, the word does describe certain behaviors and language accurately. I’ve talked about this in another blog, so I won’t define verbal abuse again here, but Christians that don’t know better can imagine that verbal abuse is just a term used by a vindictive spouse to exaggerate how sinful her husband is. And they can believe it’s an extreme word used to generate sympathy for her cause. But that’s not the case.

Verbal abuse is not the normal communication sins that occur in all marriages. Every Christian husband has sinned against his wife with his tongue, and fixing those involves confessing sin and seeking forgiveness. Healthy Christian marriages involve mutual admission of sin and seeking and granting a lot of forgiveness.

Verbal abuse is different. It’s more severe, it’s consistent (it’s not a one-off event of severe verbal sin), and the oppressor is blind, defensive, and refuses to repent. When confronted, he excuses and points the finger at his wife. He really believes that his sin is justified and caused by her. When confronted about his words, he might claim, “I’ve never hit her.” That’s because he knows violence is “real” abuse. His destructive speech is just words. How damaging can they really be?

But victims say that verbal abuse is more damaging than physical abuse. Does that sound unbelievable? Both secular and Christian experts claim it’s so. Steven Tracy relates the story of a woman he calls Betty who was physically and sexually abused by her dad. He says, “I was shocked when she said that twenty years of physical abuse and ten years of rape by her father weren’t as painful as the verbal abuse she endured from her mother.”[2]Steven R. Tracy, Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 35. The scars of verbal abuse last a long time.

#2 Because It Seems Less Urgent than Other Problems

Pastors always have more demands on their time—more than they can do. Dealing with a problem that doesn’t seem as easily defined just isn’t as urgent as preparing for Sunday, or reconciling those two families that won’t speak to each other, or meeting with the finance committee. Why stir up a potential hornet’s nest when other more pressing problems exist? Pastors don’t need to make more work for themselves, and dealing with a wife that complains about her husband’s harsh language seems like a problem with all downside and no upside for church leadership. And honestly, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” right?

It’s just not as urgent as other issues, and it seems a little exaggerated anyway. If he’s violent, well that has to be addressed right away. But words?! Can’t we just wait and see if it blows over?

You need to know that every physically abusive relationship began with verbal abuse. This doesn’t mean that verbal abuse inevitably leads to physical abuse, but that’s where all domestic abuse starts. Because this is so, addressing verbal abuse isn’t just good for the oppressor and victim, it might actually prevent the escalation to physical violence.[3]“The survey found that women whose partners were jealous, controlling, or verbally abusive [emphasis added] were significantly more likely to report being raped, physically assaulted, and/or … Continue reading Verbal abuse is an urgent problem.

#3 Because They Are Unfamiliar with Abuse Dynamics

What types of dynamics are characteristic of abuse? Coercion, humiliation, embarrassment, isolation, and control are all normal elements in an abusive relationship. Christian husbands that abuse will also weaponize religion—he will claim his spouse needs to ask his forgiveness, that she is not submissive, and that she’s the one sinning in the relationship. The cumulative effect of all this leads to confusion for the wife. Pierre and Wilson say, “Can we give a reminder we think is important here? A victim of abuse can often appear either crazier or more critical than the spouse she’s accusing of abuse. She may seem scattered, unreasonable, and even defensive. … If someone has been living under constant abuse, confusion should not be surprising.[4]Jeremy Pierre & Greg Wilson, When Home Hurts: A Guide to Responding Wisely to Domestic Abuse in Your Church (Fearn, Ross-Shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2021), 85.

The victim’s confusion is frustrating to those around her, including you as a friend, pastor, or biblical counselor. You point her to God’s Word, but she seems to be in a fog. Even the most sensible suggestions is difficult for her to process. She cannot seem to make the most basic decision for her safety. It’s surprising how long-term abuse can disorient a woman. The perpetrator will use that to prove that he’s not doing what he’s been accused of. He will suggest that her story can’t be trusted because she’s so confused.

His story and excuses on the other hand are convincing, especially to pastors. They know this guy; he’s probably faithful in attendance and ministry, and he’s well-liked in the congregation. When they talk to him, they are prone to take his perspective at face value. They don’t know that most verbal abusers are smooth talkers telling believable stories.

Not knowing these dynamics makes churches unprepared to hold the perpetrator accountable and to offer care to the family.

#4 Because They Don’t Realize the Harm Words Can Cause

While words aren’t violence—violence is violence—words can be hurtful, sometimes extremely so. Words can cause severe damage. James in his epistle claims the uncontrolled tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity, a defiler of us, sourced in hell, a restless evil, and full of deadly poison. Those are not tame pictures of the tongue.  

A verbal abuser characteristically minimizes how hurtful his words are. He unloads on his wife and imagines that the name calling, swearing, and demeaning speech doesn’t hurt much. After he gets what he wants, he doesn’t feel much remorse. James 3 alerts us that words are powerful. They have a great capacity to cause severe hurt and destruction. Verbal abusers often yell, swear, manipulate through guilt, and attack their wives abilities, looks, character—their entire personhood. Sinful words damage wives.

Hopefully this gives you a better understanding of verbal abuse and a desire to pursue women in your congregation that are being verbally assaulted. May God grant you wisdom, compassion, and a willingness to seek the oppressor and hold him accountable.

References

References
1 Most perpetrators are men although not exclusively so
2 Steven R. Tracy, Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 35.
3 “The survey found that women whose partners were jealous, controlling, or verbally abusive [emphasis added] were significantly more likely to report being raped, physically assaulted, and/or stalked by their partners, even when other sociodemographic and relationship characteristics were controlled. Indeed, having a verbally abusive partner was the variable most likely to predict [emphasis added] that a woman would be victimized by an intimate partner. “What Is Domestic Violence?,” National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, accessed June 2, 2015, http://www.ncadv.org/need-support/what-is-domestic-violence.
4 Jeremy Pierre & Greg Wilson, When Home Hurts: A Guide to Responding Wisely to Domestic Abuse in Your Church (Fearn, Ross-Shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2021), 85.