Why You Should Address Abuse from the Pulpit

Domestic violence is in the Bible. Address it from the pulpit.

Sexual abuse is in the Bible. Address it from the pulpit.

Child abuse is in the Bible. Address it from the pulpit.

Domestic violence, sexual abuse, sibling abuse, child abuse — all these issues are not only present in the Bible, but present in abundance. On multiple occasions, the Bible speaks to these issues. See the abuse of Abel, Dinah, Tamar, Joseph, and the Levite’s concubine, to name just a few.

Yet the passages in which these stories are contained are often ignored. How often have you heard a sermon about one of these issues? Most of time pastors shy away from these passages because they are dark and depressing. But these passages are not only relevant to today’s church. They are also pressing matters that must be addressed as the church faces one abuse case after another.

If you’re not addressing these topics in church, you’re neglecting some serious parts of the Bible.

When pastors treat topics like domestic violence and child abuse as peripheral to the church and the task of preaching, they are being unfaithful to the Bible, which speaks directly to these topics and on many occasions. They are repeated subjects.

Take the example of domestic violence. In Judges 19, we are presented with a case of serious intimate partner violence, as the Levite’s concubine is forced into sexual slavery and then killed and dismembered by her own husband. Wil Gafney writes for Sojourners that, “Judges 19 contains the most brutal story in all of the scriptures. While ostensibly advocating for an Israelite monarchy but simultaneously demonizing the Gibeonites of Benjamin, Saul’s city and tribe, it is also the account of a gruesome rape-murder-dismemberment (or perhaps even a rape-dismemberment-murder) of a woman, facilitated in part by her own husband… Judges 19 is a story of intimate betrayal and the complicity of a larger community calling us to consider our own roles in our communities.”

The Bible makes clear what should be the response to this abuse, in the final verse of the chapter: “Set yourselves (your hearts) on her, confer and speak!” We are given the task of speaking out against abuse in our faith communities by the Bible itself. As Gafney notes, “It is far past time for congregations and communities to seriously engage violence against women, domestic and intimate partner violence, and the survivors and abusers in our midst—in our scriptures, congregations, and communities. Speak!”

Yet, growing up, I never heard a single sermon about the Levite’s concubine—or any other story in the Bible about abuse. No pastor spoke to these issues, and even today few pastors speak to these issues or address them in responsible ways. Continuing with the example of domestic violence, a recent study by LifeWay found that, “Only about half of churches (52%) have a plan to assist victims of domestic abuse. Forty-five percent have no plan.” Churches are failing survivors by ignoring the stories of abuse in the Bible that speak to their deep pain and hope for healing.

What about the story of Tamar?

Consider the response Tamar receives from those around her after her rape in 2 Samuel 13:18-22:

“Tamar was wearing a long robe with many colors. The king’s virgin daughters wore robes like this. Tamar tore her robe of many colors and put ashes on her head. Then she put her hand on her head and began crying. Then Tamar’s brother Absalom said to her, ‘Have you been with your brother Amnon? Did he hurt you? Now, calm down sister. Amnon is your brother, so we will take care of this. Don’t let it upset you too much.’ So Tamar did not say anything. She quietly went to live at Absalom’s house. King David heard the news and became very angry, but he did not want to say anything to upset Amnon, because he loved him since he was his firstborn son. Absalom began to hate Amnon. Absalom did not say one word, good or bad, to Amnon, but he hated him because Amnon had raped his sister Tamar.” 

This passage is instructive to us in more than one way. First, it reveals to us common responses to abuse within our churches and communities: People try to get survivors to “calm down,” to not “let it upset you too much.” We silence survivors when we shut down their emotional responses to pain. Second, this passage reveals to us the way patriarchy intersects with abuse: King David did not want to say anything to upset his firstborn son. David chose to remain silent to not cause waves. He played favorites. Yet this only made matters worse. Third, neither Absalom nor David did the right thing by turning Amnon over to the authorities. This makes the wounds fester, and eventually leads to family dysfunction and death.

While this passage is teeming with insights into abuse dynamics and faulty responses to abuse, it is so often neglected in churches today, just like all the other passages about abuse. This needs to stop.

Pastors have a duty to speak to issues of abuse and to empower survivors in their congregations. This will only happen if pastors start educating themselves about abuse and start speaking about it from the pulpit. Violence against women, children, and other marginalized groups are not “pet” issues that only activists should care about; they are central to the human experience and central to many Biblical stories.

Published by R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.

One thought on “Why You Should Address Abuse from the Pulpit

  1. I did hear a sermon on the Judges story…that if you have a lust problem, you should fast. There was also talk of marriage, how men should seek a woman who dances before the Lord. (For the events further down the passage)

    Abuse was not addressed in that passage, and the most that was offered was lip-service (and downright lying) that they would help abused wives. The passage “Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath” was glossed over, and they dismissed it by saying kids will say they are being provoked when there is nothing wrong. (This sounds like gaslighting to me.)

    In reality, a friend told me there was DV in their home growing up, and that her mom was told to put make-up on to cover her bruises.

    In many cases, I wonder how often churches are actually the abusers.

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