That violence could exist in a Christian home is abhorrent and counter-intuitive. That churches might be complicit in this violence by the manner of its preaching is unacceptable.
The abhorrence of such violence would seem self-evident. It would seem reasonable to expect the gospel of peace that Jesus came to bring might mark the Christian church so the instance of abuse within the church would be unwelcome and rare. The ubiquity of violence within the church, as well as outside, raises questions not so much as to the content of its gospel but to the effect of its preaching.
It may be that we preachers are not equipped to appreciate how our preaching either tolerates or tacitly consents to the ill treatment of the women in our homes. It is not enough that such preaching be curtailed, but that we might become proactive in thinking about the ways by which gospel preaching can be more redemptive, respectful and life-giving to women and to the homes and families in which they live.
Sexual Violence in the Christian Home
Despite our most fervent desire, the fact is that sexual abuse and violence against women is common within the church. The RAVE Project has compiled research from more than 500 churched women, as well as more than 500 religious leaders, gathered during more than 15 years.
These pastors and religious leaders report their belief that one in five couples in their congregation are violent; 83 percent of these pastors have counseled at least one abused women from their congregations in the past year; 58 percent of churched women report having helped an abused woman, 25 percent of whom offered these women shelter in their own homes. Despite these numbers, 95 percent of women report never having heard a sermon preached on the subject of sexual abuse from the pulpit of their own church (Nason-Clark).
Given the extent of the problem and the inherent calling of the preacher, such neglect borders on malpractice. There is a tendency among some within the church to distort the gospel in ways that encourage power and control instead of peace and safety. Preachers typically are tone deaf to the ways in which their preaching can exacerbate the problem. The fact that these ways are not normally intentional does little to blunt the impact.
Why Preaching Matters for Peace and Safety in the Christian Home
Andy Smith argues that violence against women is more likely to occur in conservative religious homes—the kinds of places where preaching is highly respected and practiced (Smith, p. 342). While the point is debatable, there is little question that a misappropriation of some widely accepted biblical principles and practices could create insecure environments for women at risk.
Preaching is a power-laden practice, usually practiced by men in an environment of authority and control (Matthews, pp. 122-24). Domestic violence derives entirely from the exercise of power and control (Tiffany and Tiffany, pp. 4-7). Women experiencing or at risk of violence in their homes naturally will find the preaching exchange to feel perilous. Authoritative preaching, offered by a man who appears to want to direct or control some of the most significant and intimate areas of listeners’ spiritual lives can increase a woman’s fear of victimization. When preachers are unaware of the dynamics of our preaching for these at-risk congregants, we inadvertently can aggravate and add to a woman’s suffering.
Conversely, women in need can become overly dependent on the preacher for nurture and comfort in cases where such necessary psychological elements are deficient within the home. Emotional dependency misdirected to the pastor can be deeply destructive (Smith, p. 342). While the preacher often is not at fault in such circumstances, awareness and vigilance will go a long way toward the cultivation of a kind of preaching that presents a lowered risk.
Preaching matters because it is powerful—for ill and for good. Preaching that is inattentive to these issues can be terribly destructive. Yet, preachers who understand and utilize their preaching in helpful and productive ways can do much to reverse the gravitational pull of abuse within their churches.
The manner or tone of our preaching along with the content of our preaching can be tuned to be respectful and redemptive. Such preaching will bring refreshment and hope to women who long to hear how the gospel can affect their physical safety and emotional well-being positively.
The Content of Preaching that Encourages Peace
Of course, the content of the sermon can be a key factor contributing to an increase of danger for women in their homes or to an elevation of factors that contribute to a woman’s peace and safety.
Best practices for preaching require the founding of a preacher’s message firmly on the Scripture text. Any authority or power derived should emanate properly from a relevant biblical text, carefully discerned and communicated. A preacher dare not approach such freighted themes from the foundation of his or her own perspective or opinion. Happily, the Bible offers a rich array of material beneficial to women at risk.
Bible uniformly calls for non-violence in human relationship. Beyond the requirement that the Christian do no harm, the Bible calls for a way of life that pro-actively pursues the well-being of all within the Christian family (Collins, p. 296). The household requirements of
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount calls us to avoid judging others, knowing our own accountability could place us at even greater peril (
“The intent and the effect of contempt is always to exclude someone, push them away, leave them out and isolated. This explains why filth is so constantly invoked in expressing contempt and why contempt is so cruel, so serious. It breaks the social bond more severely than anger” (p. 152).
Physical violence is little more than the material expression of this withering brand of contempt, antithetical to the call of Jesus and His kingdom.
“To brand someone fool in this biblical sense was a violation of the soul so devastating, of such great harm, that, as Jesus saw, it would justify consigning the offender to the smoldering garbage dump of human existence, gehenna. It combines all that is evil in anger as well as in contempt. It is not possible for people with such attitudes toward others to live in the movements of God’s kingdom, for they are totally out of harmony with it” (Willard 154).
Preaching that names this kind of contempt for what it is will go a great distance toward our experience of kingdom relationship on earth as it is in heaven.
Challenges to the Preaching of Peace and Safety in the Christian Home
Faithful preachers will want to pay particular attention to a series of issues that prove particularly challenging for the preaching of peace and safety.
The question of submission and the power differential between men and women is a particular challenge in the church, particularly where complementarian interpretations of Scripture are valued. These legitimate interpretations need to be well understood for their impact by the preachers who hold them.
An appreciation for differentiation in the role of men and women in the church and home does not necessitate a diminishment of value for women in relationship to men. Nevertheless, where such an approach is communicated callously or without appropriate sensitivity, some women will find increased reason to feel fearful.
“When women are taught that they must obey and follow men it is not surprising if they are not sure they have the right to refuse sexual contact when it is forced upon them. Consequently, evangelical women often have a particularly difficult time fighting back, or even saying ‘no,’ when they are assaulted by evangelical men” (Smith, p. 343).
Of course, a scenario such as this is a perversion of a legitimately held theological and hermeneutical position. The Bible teaches a wonderful mutuality and reciprocity in the negotiation of human sexuality even within an understanding of complementary difference (Piper and Grudem, p. 88). Nevertheless, when these issues are not preached with sufficient precision and tact, some men perceive an increased license and their women face a magnified danger.
A related challenge is the preaching of forgiveness and consequence. Forgiveness can seem to come cheaply to the perpetrator who finds it easier to be right with God without being right with his victim (Smith, p. 346). The Christian message is commended for its emphasis upon grace and forgiveness, which is wonderful for the perpetrator but painful for the victim.
Preaching the example of Jesus from
These issues derive from faulty ideas of kinship and community as we see them in Scripture. Contemporary approaches to the Christian faith are highly individualistic, forgetting our accountability to our brothers and sisters in the Christian family. Christians have a tendency to privatize their faith, separating themselves from scrutiny at the level where life becomes most practical and dangerous.
“One reason domestic violence, incest, and marital rape have been so badly handled legally and socially is that we have erected walls around the arena where it generally takes place—the home. That is, the premium placed on rights of privacy means certain actions have fallen outside the public eye…Compassion calls for us to reexamine our assumptions and our approach to the forms of cruelty that take place in the privacy of the home, whether the issue is child abuse or spousal abuse. A home may be a ‘castle’ for the man, but it is potentially a torture chamber for his victims” (Teays, p. 60-61).
The privatization of spirituality is neither helpful nor biblical. The apostle Paul embraced his relationship with Timothy as a father with his son. While the Scripture speaks to the faith of his mother and grandmother, Timothy’s Greek father remains unnamed and undescribed, opening the door for Paul to parent his young protégée. In result, we find encouragement to see the Christian community as a kind of family, wherein we find kinship with one another in the faith (Malina, 46).
When our families fail us, we have kinship in Christ. When the church fails us, either by shirking its communal responsibilities or by abusing them, we have nowhere left to go for the hope and encouragement intended by the gospel.
Paul’s letter to the Philippian believers includes an intriguing reference to the “saints in Ceasar’s household” (
Yet within that household was a body of believers bearing witness to the hope of the gospel. It is in such contexts the Christian faith finds its most potent witness. Preachers need to appreciate the power of their opportunity to encourage peace and safety in a dangerous and violent world.
The Tone of Preaching that Encourages Peace and Safety in the Christian Home
The tone of our preaching matters almost as much as the content we preach. Women need to hear from preachers who will treat them respectfully and with the dignity due to anyone created in the image of a loving God. We must offer a great deal more respect for women in the manner by which we preach.
Carol Norén suggests men who preach bring a different sensibility to preaching than would a woman: “…the male preacher…is likely to go straight to the pronouncement by Jesus and explicate it for the congregation, that is, assume the voice of the ‘powerful’ in the text, and speak from that perspective. The male preacher is more apt to tell the congregation what they should do rather than who they are” (Norén, p. 106). Women who are struggling to survive the abuse of powerful men will not well hear such forceful tones. The preacher does not want to be numbered among these abusers.
Howard Hendricks describes the frustration of one of his female students, who wasn’t so concerned about what women could or could not do in the church, but who was deeply angered by the way in which her way of being was being disrespected in her church and in her seminary. “(S)he wasn’t feeling respected as a woman and as a person. She didn’t feel that her emotions mattered, that her doubts mattered or that any alternative points of view might be considered as having anything to offer” (Matthews, p. 163).
In fact, this describes a deficiency in preaching generally, which if addressed, would lead to a healthier approach to the preaching task that would benefit men and women. Preaching is essentially an act of love, not the exercise of power or control. We ought to choose to preach because we want to love our listeners with the love God first gave to us.
“It is important that we affirm preaching as an act of love because acts of love aren’t generally what we are known for. Preachers haven’t always been seen to be very loving. Faced with the prospect of rejection, many preachers have chosen to go to war with their listeners, forcing their ideas on people and lacing their messages with a strong dose of fear” (Anderson, p. 25).
If violence in the home is the exercise of power and control, then we must go out of our way to make sure we are not attempting to overpower or control our listeners, but to love them. The power invested in preaching is entirely the power of God. It does not originate in the preacher. The power of God is exercised in perfect love and can be received in trust as such.
To call for preaching that encourages peace and safety in the Christian home is not to take any particular theological position on the question of the ordination of women or the possibility of complementary roles for men and women in the church. It is, however, a call to preach in ways that bestow a sense of dignity upon the battered women who find the courage to gather in our churches. These women need to hear us say they can be pure, accepted, blameless, affirmed and made new in Christ, a message far more affirming than anything they might hear in the self-help media and press (Holcomb and Holcomb).
Brian Larson describes one such woman from his congregation, a woman living in poverty with a hateful and abusive alcoholic husband.
“(E)ach week something happened in the life of that woman that elevated her to a higher, brighter plane. She would come to church and hear a sermon. That sermon was nothing less than a condensed dose of dignity that saved and ennobled her battered spirit. Regularly I saw the tears of gratitude as she grabbed my hand before she left for home” (Larson, pp. 29-30).
Great preachers understand that preaching offers the voice and love of God to people created in His image. Preaching offers a message of hope and resurrection. Preaching assumes listeners can think and discern questions of life, truth and eternity. As Larson puts it:
“Nothing else in life treats a man or woman in a way that assumes greater worth or higher powers. There is no more costly gift I could have given that downtrodden woman than my best and God’s best in a sermon. It is a weekly dose of compressed dignity” (Larson, p. 30).
If we are serious about offering dignity, peace and safety, we must find ways in our preaching to articulate the problem of abuse and violence against women in the church, what it looks like and why it matters. We must confirm the lack of scriptural justification for such violence. We must promise confidentiality to women who come forward. We must assure that abusive men will be held accountable, and we need to take action that confirms the seriousness of our intent.
We need to preach sermons that attack these issues directly with such messages as their theme. We also need to make the message of dignity a normal and recurring part of our vocabulary in our preaching and beyond.
Preaching is powerful, but it need not be controlling. Preaching animates the church, setting its direction and calling its tune. It remains the primary way by which the church seeks to offer the hope of the gospel and the light of the world. Our preaching must find ways to bring that hope and light to the vulnerable among us.
Works Cited and Consulted
Anderson, Kenton C. Choosing to Preach: A Comprehensive Introduction to Sermon Options and Structures. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006.
Collins, Gary R. Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide, Revised edition. Dallas, TX: Word, 1988.
Davison, Lisa Wilson. Preaching the Women of the Bible. St. Louis, MO: Chalice, 2006.
Holcomb, Lindsay A. and Justin S. Holcomb. Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011.
Johnson, John M. “Church Response to Domestic Violence.” In Violence Against Women and Children: A Christian Theological Sourcebook. Edited by Carol J. Adams and Marie M. Fortune. New York, NY: Continuum, 1995.
Kroeger, Catherine Clark and James R. Beck, eds. Women, Abuse and the Bible: How Scripture Can Be Used to Hurt or Heal. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996.
Larson, Craig Brian. “A Weekly Dose of Compressed Dignity.” In The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching. Edited by Haddon W. Robinson and Craig Brian Larson. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.
Malina, Bruce J. Timothy: Paul’s Closest Associate. Paul’s Social Network: Brothers and Sisters in Faith. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008.
Matthews, Alice P. Preaching that Speaks to Women. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003.
Nason-Clark, Nancy. The Rave Project. n.d., Web. Accessed May 10, 2011.
Norén, Carol M. The Woman in the Pulpit. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1992.
Piper, John and Wayne Grudem. “An Overview of Central Concerns.” In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991.
Smith, Andy. “Born Again, Free from Sin?” In Violence Against Woman and Children: A Christian Theological Sourcebook. Carol J. Adams and Marie M. Fortune, eds. New York, NY: Continuum, 1995.
Suetonius. “Nero.” In The Twelve Ceasars. Translated by Robert Graves. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 209-42.
Teays, Wanda. “Standards of Perfection and Battered Women’s Self-Defense.” In Violence Against Women: Philosophical Perspectives. Edited by Stanley G. French, Wanda Teays, and Laura M. Purdy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.
Tiffany, Donald W. and Phyllis G. Tiffany. Power and Control: Escape from Violence. New York, NY: University Press of America, 2000.
Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, 1988.