Unmasking the Domestic Abuser in the Church

When Victims Confront Power Structures: Lessons from Moses and Pharaoh

Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:1-2)

I am writing here about a subject that I am certain others know far more about than I do, but I am going to broach the subject and hope that many of you can weigh in.

There are certain psychological mechanisms and dynamics that accompany entrenched power and its reaction to those who confront it. No doubt psychologists have studied these attitudes and patterns.  Whether it be the top dogs in some powerful corporation, a dictator like Pharaoh who imagines himself to be God, an abuser who sees himself entitled to power and control, or church leaders who long ago left off Christ’s example of greatness through humble, sacrificial servanthood, the very same kinds of reactions can be expected when we look to such power brokers for justice.
What happens when power goes wrong?

For our purposes, let’s consider specifically what happens in a local church or denomination when power goes wrong. We could spend quite a lot of time on HOW it went wrong as well, but we leave that for someone doing a PhD thesis in psychology or sociology. Such dissertations have no doubt already been written and hopefully with some benefit.  But what do we have when power goes wrong in a local church, for instance? That, after all, is the typical stage where the Christian abuse victim is dealt so much injustice.

Those at “the top” in such a local church have jettisoned Christ’s example and teachings about greatness in the kingdom of God. He said it very clearly. Just as He came not to be served, but to serve and give His live as a ransom, so must we do also if we are to be “great” in God’s measure of greatness. When local church leaders yield to the temptation of personal, worldly “greatness,” they have been seduced by the sirens of “privilege.” Power and privilege, you see. The one follows the other. Get to the top, get in control, get that power “over,” and you can then enjoy the perks. Reputation. Adulation. Veneration. Money. Being served. Benefits. Privileges. Advantages. It is the spirit of “I will be like the Most High.”

Of course there are costs. Just like the Old West in which the quickest draw was always being challenged, and eventually someone even faster came along, so it is at the top. It turns out to be rather precarious up there and behind the scenes there are very often “shoot outs” as church leaders vie for top gun status. “Where is Associate Pastor Jones?” “Oh, he felt he was called by the Lord to another field of ministry and resigned.” Reality? Associate Pastor Jones got to be too threatening to the head honcho. Or at least Honcho perceived him as a threat.

Alright, power and privilege.  Now, what do you suppose is going to happen when Linda comes along and reveals that her husband, a long time church member, significant donor, and let’s say, deacon, has been wickedly abusing her and the children for a long, long time? That he is, in fact, not what he portrays himself to be on Sundays? What do you think is going to happen?
Well, we all know, don’t we?

To the degree that unmasking what this wicked man really is will cause a shakeup in that church, to that degree the power/privilege enjoying elite are going to tell Linda (in pious-sounding language of course) to be quiet, get back home, and let’s hear no more about it. If that sounds too critical of these power/privilege fellows, then just do some reading on “whistle-blowing.” Books on that subject are not hard to find. Because Linda, you see, has just blown the whistle. Turns out all is not perfect in Camelot after all, and Linda is rocking the peace of the kingdom.

I am a pessimist/realist when it comes to confronting the possessors of power and privilege in the local church. Just as Moses found when he confronted Pharaoh — and remember, Moses was given some pretty convincing tools to use! We call them the plagues! — just as Moses found, so will we.  Pharaohs don’t appreciate being threatened. They don’t like being told what to do. Not even if God Himself is telling them anything! Did Pharaoh repent? Nope. And I believe that is the normal outcome we can expect from people “at the top.”

Therefore, just what does this say about the spiritual condition of most local churches today? It is the experience of so many of our readers, and our own personal experience as well, that the typical and even expected outcome of an abuse victim going to her pastor and church for help, for justice, is to be dealt a heaping serving of injustice. Ok, we might grant that in some of the cases this is due to pastors being naive about the nature and mentality of abuse. But even in those cases, if such church leaders and members would honestly examine themselves, there is a sense of power and privilege being threatened. And so we ask again — what does this all say about the true spiritual condition of most local churches?

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)


Evil Always Wears a Disguise


Growing Up with a “Christian” Abuser Father


  1. Seeker

    I believe this is true, but that it depends on the pastor and on the church. I think in at least some cases, when a pastor is told about abuse and he does nothing or worse, puts the blame on the wife’s shoulders, it’s due more to pure cowardice more than a desire to maintain power and prestige. He may actually believe the victim, but is terrified of confronting an abuser with a savage temper and violent tendencies. I think a lot of Christians hide behind words like Love, Forgiveness, and Tolerance, when they are really just too afraid to confront evil.

    • KayJay

      I totally agree. I’ve experienced this “fear” from church leaders who just don’t want to confront the problem and actually just waited it out, never having to “fire” the offending abusive pastor, but even letting him return to the congregation for a while after recovering from the illness that took him out, until he moved on to greener pastures (another church). I know because I am that “pastor’s” soon-to-be ex-wife.

  2. Caitlin

    Just as Jannes and Jambres [the court magicians of Egypt] opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men of depraved mind, unqualified and worthless [as teachers] in regard to the faith. But they won’t get away with this for long. Someday everyone will recognize what fools they are, just as with Jannes and Jambres. —2 Timothy 3:8-9 AMP

    This is the scripture the Holy Spirit highlighted to me after all the injustice I faced from the head pastor and assistant pastor at a toxic church. (Jannes and Jambres 2.0..)

  3. Dawn

    What you say, while true, doesn’t go far enough. The reality, as I understand it, is far, FAR worse. Here’s why I say that:

    I am not the spouse of an Christian abuser but the daughter of one. I was close to 30 when I got my divorce from *surprise* my abusive husband. And I used that as an opportunity to look at myself, figure out how I’d managed to make such a mess of my life and change how I was living and what choices I was making. It took me a long while to actually understand that my dad was abusive to us, and to me especially because, growing up, I could always somehow see through his BS, even if I didn’t understand exactly what I was seeing. My mom always told me that she thought he was afraid of me.

    My dad had destroyed our relationship by the time I was 16 and I’m pretty sure he never noticed because he simply didn’t care. He found the Lord when I was 18 and it didn’t really change anything other than that he could use G_d as a cudgel to try to get us in line. I’ve been told things over the years like “Since G_d has forgiven him, I have no right to complain about his behavior”, “I owe it to G_d to forgive him and tolerate his behavior”, “Yeah, he might have done some bad things before he was saved, but that was a long time ago and, therefore, it doesn’t count anymore”. I call my dad the Teflon King because nothing sticks to him. And my concerns don’t count. Never have. Never will. So, when I graduated from college, I moved to the other side of the country and never looked back. Best decision of my life!!!

    A couple of years after my divorce, when I was really trying to put the pieces of my life into perspective, my dad married wife #3 and was interested in convincing her that he was a good family-man. So he reached out to me. Even though I figured there was some sort of “catch”, I agreed to meet with him and a counselor. The main outcome was that he wanted me to basically give him a free pass for everything that had happened in the past. I agreed mostly because I knew he would never apologize or even acknowledge anything and, really, I wasn’t all that interested apologies anyway. I just wanted the ugliness to end. So I agreed to wipe away the past, provided that moving forward he would “be nice”. So literally, the only thing I’ve ever asked of the man is for him to “be nice”. That’s it. To my face, in the counselor’s office, he agreed. A couple of months later, I went back home to visit the rest of the family for the holidays and found out from my sister that he was telling everyone that I wanted nothing more to do with him. So basically his real response to my request to “be nice” was to end our relationship, lie to the family, lie to his church and publicly assassinate my character. If he was expecting that I would feel enough pain to beg him for forgiveness, I never bit. We have now been estranged for about 25 years and it truly the best gift he ever gave me. He freed me from his evil influence. And between that and moving away, it has given me an opportunity to unlearn the lessons of my youth and develop much better, happier, healthier ways to live my life. I am convinced had I stayed in the Chicago-area where I was raised that I would be dead by now and most likely at my own hand. That is how amazingly destructive abuse can be.

    Anyway, at the time I was trying to figure all this out including how to respond to his ending contact with me, I was active in the church and naturally shared what was going on with people that I knew there, like with people in my Sunday School class. I was shocked because EVERY SINGLE ONE backed my dad. And they didn’t even know him. They would tell me that he was correct in saying that I have no right to complain about his behavior since he was saved. And that while maybe he shouldnt act the way he does (which they knew was described as abusive), they would tell me his behavior is actually OK and that G_d forgives him!!!! *Can’t make this up.* Then they would say something dumb about how it is wrong to judge others and then immediately condemn me for my “unforgiving heart”. Guess it is ok to judge me but not him. After I eventually left the church, the comments morphed into how G_d loves him and forgives him but I am going to hell. G_d must really hate me if he wants me to suffer so much.

    Sadly, I have heard the exact same sort of thing from pretty much every Christian I have told my story to over the last 25 years. Here’s what I think is the true state of the current church:

    1) The average Christian has no idea what evil (or abuse) is.
    2) Worse, they have no desire to find out. It would be too much work and effort.
    3) In response to evil, suffering, oppression, etc., they don’t really want to be bothered and so their “solutions” are superficial at best and damaging to the real victims at worst.
    4) They love their “superficial” solutions because they don’t have to expend any effort in making sure they understand what is really going on and
    5) they can pat themselves on the back about what wonderful people they are and how they were able to be so incredibly helpful and brilliant.
    6) And the situation is set up so that if it turns out that the solution doesn’t really work, then it is clearly MY fault (not theirs) because I clearly didn’t follow their wonderful, fabulous, brilliant, amazing guidance.

    Honestly, I personally think the average Christian would prefer that I just go ahead and slit my own throat because then the problem would go away without any discomfort for them, they can blame me, and feel justified in how helpful and brilliant they are. I don’t believe G_d would condemn me to hell because I endured an abusive childhood and no longer wear a specific label.

    • This is soooo true. Thank you a BUNCH for telling us. You are correct in every point. Would you mind if I made your comment into a blog post so that we are sure everyone sees it?

      • Dawn

        You would be most welcome to make this a blog post, especially if it would be a help to others. I know it is a rather long read.

        I appreciate your ministry in service to those who have suffered at the hands of Christian abusers. Over the last 10 years, give or take, I’ve finally been seeing people stand up against the teachings of the church which support and encourage abusive conduct while expecting that the victims will passively and silently accept their situation, effectively abusing the victims a second time. It is nice to see the change.

        BTW, I don’t know if my mom was right when she told me as a child that she thought my dad was afraid of me. But I know that he should be afraid of me NOW. I have more integrity in my little pinkie than he has in his entire body. I am solid in who I am as a person, I know exactly who and what he is about, and I know the tactics to watch out for. I am a bigger, stronger, better person than he will ever be and because I am willing to look at my own failings and weed them out of my life, I am continually improving, growing, and learning.

    • Z

      Hi Dawn,
      You are so spot on with your comments. I’m so sorry for what you’ve had to go through. But if it helps, my story is almost a parallel to yours. Except both of my false “Christian” parents were in cahoots in their abuse. I too married another abuser-at a very young age just to get out of that house. I didn’t realize how my abusive upbringing as well as so many false Christian teachings had so shaped and warped my thoughts and choices to sabotage any chance I had of peace and happiness.
      All your insights into the reasons why so-called SELF-described (not actual) “Christians” take the side of the abuser-even when they KNOW they are abusers and false Christians-are so true! It’s all about “cost/benefit” and “risk/reward” to them. And we as victims have often walked away from financial stability or benefit just to be free. So there’s no cost to everyone throwing US under the bus. The abusers usually have the control of finances in families. When I went permanent No Contact, HAPPILY, I was immediately cut out of the ex-parents’ will. And my ex-siblings and extended family saw an opportunity to GET MORE OF THAT WILL FOR THEMSELVES with ME out of the picture. So they were GLAD I went No Contact. They mercilessly ostracized me and mob-smeared me to everyone in the church and general community to make sure I was a leper with no allies and therefore the No Contact/BIGGER SHARE OF THE WILL-was permanent! They were FOR the cutting off of abusers-but for all the WRONG reasons. Not to protect myself and my husband who they’d eventually physically attacked. Not to “expose and expel the wicked man/woman”. Nope. For the extra money. Some “Christians, huh?
      Through it all, Jesus has sustained me and been my Best Friend. I agree with you that cutting them out of my life was the best decision I’ve ever made. Not one regret despite the very hard, lonely and unnatural road it is.
      I pray God blesses you with His comforting Presence, Dawn.


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