Are High-Profile Evangelical Leaders Endangering Victims of Domestic Violence?

Dr. James Dobson and Dr. John MacArthur, two influential evangelical family counselors, ‘blame’ battered women for their plight, says Christian evangelical author Jocelyn Andersen.

While domestic violence — also known as intimate partner violence — is in no way limited to any particular race, religion, ethnic group, class or sexual preference, author Jocelyn Andersen maintains that for far too long too many evangelical pastors have tried to sweep the problem under the rug. According to Andersen, the problem of physical, as well as emotional and spiritual abuse, is being exacerbated by the outdated teachings of several high-profile conservative Christian pastors.

In the introduction to her new book Woman Submit! Christians & Domestic Violence (One Way Cafe Press, 2007), Andersen points out that “The practice of hiding, ignoring, and even perpetuating the emotional and physical abuse of women is … rampant within evangelical Christian fellowships and as slow as our legal systems have been in dealing with violence against women by their husbands, the church has been even slower.”

Andersen maintains that domestic violence in Christian families “often creates a cruel Catch-22 as many Christians and church leaders view recommending separation or divorce as unscriptural, but then silently view the battered woman, who chooses not to leave, with contempt for staying and tolerating the abuse. Victims quickly pick up on this hypocritical attitude and either leave the church altogether — or begin hiding the abuse. Either way they are giving up the spiritual guidance, and emotional support, they desperately need.”

“The secular medical world has had to reach in to advise and help women from the church see the truth of their situations, get shelter, and inform religious leaders about the need to accept medical and clinical facts about physical and mental abuse,” OneNewsNow.com — a news service of the American Family Association — reported in late June.

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“Secular organizations are constantly addressing the religious aspects of domestic violence,” Andersen told the news service. “Christian women struggle with it and the secular organizations see what Christian women go through and religious women go through. They have set it up as their goal to educate spiritual leaders on the spiritual aspects, and the different aspects of domestic violence so they can give good counsel to the women coming to them. It’s a big issue.”

Andersen’s book discusses why women who are victims of domestic abuse stay with their abusers: “The third chapter of [the Book of] Genesis give us a clue, when the woman is told, ‘your desire will be to your husband’ — and he will ‘rule over’ you. The clue right there is no matter how he acts, her desire is often still toward him. She loves him. She responds to the abuse with an even greater determination to try to resolve the situation … and make it better.”

According to OneNewsNow, “Andersen never advocates divorce — yet she says after domestic violence enters the marriage picture, there must eventually come a point where a Christian woman decides what the will of God is for her in the face of the dangers of abuse. And that is where Andersen says the woman will likely conflict with pressure from the church to stay, no matter what.”

High-profile evangelical leaders blaming the victim

Andersen, whose account of physical abuse by her husband makes for a harrowing first chapter, says that the problem is exacerbated by misguided advice and use of outdated information in the writing of Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, and Dr. John MacArthur, a pastor-teacher at the Sun Valley, California-based Grace Community Church. “We do see some very big-name evangelical leaders blaming the battered woman for the abuse,” Andersen explained. “You know, talking about how she may provoke her husband into doing it; or that her poor, non-communicative husband can’t handle maybe what she’s trying to communicate to him and he lashes out and hits her — [that] shifts the blame right off him and to her.”

Via several emails, Anderson told Media Transparency that the work of Dobson and MacArthur perpetuate the problem of domestic violence among evangelical Christians.

She chose to look closely at their work because of the “scope of influence” they wield “within the Christian Community.” Both men are “prolific writers with best-selling books,” and the both “have large listening audiences for their radio broadcasts,” which “have been staples of Moody Christian Radio for years.” Millions of people listen to the broadcasts weekly, she said.

“Both Dobson and MacArthur are high-profile evangelical leaders with enough influence and ability to make a positive contribution to the plight of battered women which would result in lives being saved.” Instead, “their words are often used to send Christian women back into the danger zone with counsel that encourages them to try and change violent husbands or return to violent homes as soon as the ‘heat is off.’ The last time I looked, assault was a crime, but Christian women are generally not encouraged to report that crime.”

In her book, Andersen cites an incident in which a battered wife wrote to Dobson telling him that “the violence within her marriage was escalating in both frequency and intensity and that she feared for her life.” Dobson “replied that her goal should be to change her husband’s behavior — not to get a divorce (Love Must Be Tough, (1996) [this is the edition that was being sold as of March 2007]).”

He did suggest leaving as a temporary solution, but only as a way of manipulating the husband’s behavior. I found it inexcusable that not one note of real concern for this woman’s immediate physical safety was sounded in his response — in spite of the fact that she clearly stated she was in fear for her life.

Dobson counseled her to precipitate a crisis in her marriage by choosing the most absurd demand her husband made, then refusing to consent to it. This was not only absurd advice in a domestic violence situation, but life-threateningly dangerous as well, and very telling of the fact that, in spite of over 1,000 deaths per year due to wife-beating, the wife beater is not generally viewed as a real threat to his wife’s life or safety.

Andersen also takes on MacArthur: According to a tape titled Bible Questions and Answers Part 16, a member of Grace Community Church asked MacArthur how a Christian woman should react “and deal with being a battered wife.”

MacArthur’s answer contained “some very dangerous advice to battered wives. He said divorce is not an option to a battered wife, because the Bible doesn’t permit it.” While saying that it was okay “for the wife to get away while the pressure was on” it was with the understanding that she would return. “He warned wives to be very careful that they were not provoking the abusive situations. Because, he said, that was very often the problem.”

“Three years later, MacArthur said essentially the same thing (softened with a few disclaimers) in a booklet he still distributes today titled Answering Key Questions About the Family.”

“How many thousands of pastors, leaders and lay Christians have been and are still being influenced through the writing of James Dobson, John MacArthur and others who share their views?” Andersen asked.

Andersen says that both of these pastors “admit they believe a large percentage of battering cases are instigated and provoked by the wife.” While Dobson “described the issue of domestic violence as a problem of ‘epidemic proportions,’ in ‘Love Must Be Tough,’ only five-plus pages are devoted to the subject. And he used over half those pages to highlight a case in which a wife deliberately provoked her husband into hitting her so she could gain her ‘trophy’ of bruises which she could then parade around with in order to gain sympathy.”

While those incidents happen, Andersen points out that “the bulk of the research about domestic violence refutes the myth that battered wives enjoy being battered or deliberately provoke the violence in order to gain some moral advantage. That unfair example in no way typifies the face of domestic violence.”

“If a Christian Leader blames a woman for the violence in her marriage and neglects to encourage a battered wife to use the legal resources available to her in order to preserve her physical safety, that leader is not only sanctioning the abuse but perpetuating it as well,” Andersen maintains.

“Many wife-beaters who are church-goers, professing Christians, even pastors and leaders of churches are getting the message loud and clear that their spiritual leadership is not so concerned with the fact that they beat their wives as they are concerned that wives should be submitting to their husbands and not seeking legal protection or divorce.”

“Telling a woman to leave while the heat is on with the intention of returning is not uncommon advice among evangelicals. It amounts to no less than sending a battered woman back into a violent home. With a violent spouse when is the heat ever really off? This is sin and, in my opinion, it is criminal.”

Thus far, Andersen hasn’t received any grief for the charges in her book. She said that she received a request for a review copy of her book and a media kit from a news correspondent at Family News in Focus — a Focus on the Family news service — which she mailed several weeks ago, but hadn’t yet heard from them again.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column, "Conservative Watch," documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right. Read other articles by Bill, or visit Bill's website.