In the same way that slavery was a moral challenge for the 19th c. & totalitarianism was a challenge for the 20th c., the challenge that women & girls face around the world is the moral challenge of our time.

~ Sheryl WuDunn & Nicholas Kristof

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Elephant in the Sanctuary: Abuse & the Church by Mimi Haddad

Dr. Mimi Haddad is president of Christians for Biblical Equality. She is a graduate of the University of Colorado and Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary (summa cum laude). She holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the University of Durham, England. Mimi is part of the leadership of Evangelicals for Justice. She is a founding member of the Evangelicals and Gender Study Group at the Evangelical Theological Society, and she served as the convener of the Issue Group 24 for the 2004 Lausanne III Committee for World Evangelization. She has written more than one hundred articles and blogs and has contributed to nine books, most recently Living Faith: The Fragrance of Christ, published by the Evangelical Fellowship of India and the Evangelical Fellowship of India Commission on Relief, 2011. She is also an editor and a contributing author of Global Voices on Biblical Equality: Women and Men Serving Together in the Church. Mimi is also an adjunct assistant professor at Fuller Theological Seminary (Houston), an adjunct assistant professor at Bethel University (Saint Paul, MN), and an adjunct professor at North Park Theological Seminary (Chicago, Illinois).
We begin our celebrations of Women's History Month with a sober realization that the abuse of females is inseparable from the lives of women and their histories. Gender-violence is also part of the history of Christians for Biblical Equality. Incorporated as a nonprofit in 1988, to advance the biblical basis for the shared leadership of males and females, within months we began hearing from abused women.

From the very beginning CBE has endeavored to understand why so many Christian women have encountered abuse, and how the church might become agents of healing and reconciliation. Catherine Clark Kroeger, CBE founder and president emerita, vigorously addressed the challenge of abuse which she encountered early on. As president of CBE, Cathie directed a significant portion of CBE's energies to this challenge. In 1994, CBE held a conference themed "Women, Abuse, and the Bible." We were overwhelmed by the number of people who attended this event, and who had experienced abuse in a Christian marriage, family, or church. Within several years of this conference, we had enough material to publish three separate volumes on abuse, gender, and faith. Ultimately, when Catherine Kroeger retired as the first president of CBE, she went on to become founder and president of Peace and Safety in the Christian Home (PASCH), a nonprofit organization devoted to address domestic violence and abuse.

While CBE was established largely by academics to explore the biblical, theological, and historical material on gender, we were inevitably faced with the challenge of addressing abuse as well, simply by sheer numbers of individuals who called upon us for help. Had we been more alert, the prominence of abuse in culture would not have caught us unaware. Certainly this is the point James Gilligan, a professor of medicine at Harvard, makes in his very helpful book entitled Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic. The prevalence of abuse is likewise noted in Jackson Katz's book The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help.
Based on their ten year study interviewing 24,000 individuals, the World Health Organization believes that somewhere between 15%-71% of the world's women report being physically or sexually violated in their lives. Their report also suggests that:

1.        Many women said that their first sexual experience was not consensual. (24% in rural Peru, 28% in Tanzania, 30% in rural Bangladesh, and 40% in South Africa).

2.        Between 4% and 12% of women reported being physically abused during pregnancy.

3.        Every year, worldwide, about 5,000 women are murdered by family members in the name of honor.

4.        Trafficking of women and girls for forced labor and sex is widespread (more widespread than slavery prior to abolition) and often affects the most vulnerable.

5.        Forced marriages and child marriages violate the human rights of women and girls, yet they are widely practiced in many countries in Asia, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.

6.        Worldwide, up to 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men report experiencing sexual abuse as children. Children subjected to sexual abuse are much more likely to encounter other forms of abuse later in life.

Though groups like the World Health Organization have been assessing the prevalence of abuse for years, Christian churches as a whole are slow to respond to this pervasive problem. For this reason Cathie Kroeger, Nancy Nason Clark, and Barbara Fisher-Townsend published Beyond Abuse in the Christian Home: Raising Voices for Change, to help pastors and churches address abuse. Citing research from interviews with pastors and women parishioners, here is what they found:

Pastors report:

1.        Pastors believe 1 out of every 5 couples in their congregation is violent.

2.        8% feel well-equipped to respond to domestic violence.

3.        9% have counseled 5 or more abused women in the last year.

4.        83% have counseled at least 1 abused woman.

5.        31% have preached 1 sermon on abuse.

6.        40% discuss violence in premarital counseling.

Church women report:

1.        95% have never heard a sermon on abuse.

2.        58% have personally helped an abused woman.

3.        Many Christian women who have been violated by abusive acts do not feel that the term "abused woman" applied to them. So we have a perception problem, as well.

Though abuse is prevalent, we are not necessarily dealing with it, perhaps because we lack the tools. While many pastors are reluctant to discuss abuse in premarital counseling, there are tools used by churches all over the world to help couples prepare for marriage and to assess for the possibility of violence and abuse.
One of the most widely used premarital inventories, the Prepare/Enrich Program, was developed by David Olson, CEO and Founder of Life Innovations. Olson states that he is seeing more and more egalitarian couples in his work in recent years. Fewer women, he says, are willing to be denied decision making, and more men are open to egalitarian marriages because they perceive the benefits of sharing decision making in marriage. Making decisions as a couple reduces stress for men and leads to greater couple satisfaction, according to Olson.

Olson and his colleagues studied 20,951 couples and determined that there are many factors that impact abuse, including financial stress, couple intimacy, support from family and friends, shared religious values, and more. Yet the most significant indicator was partner dominance coupled with spousal avoidance. When one partner is dominant and the other avoidant, there is a significantly higher incidence of abuse. A power imbalance between males and females is a significant contributor to abuse. This may explain why so many abused women, and those who work with them, are drawn to CBE's mission. Thankfully, there are many biblical resources to challenge the abuse of women and girls, including CBE's conference this summer. Will you join us in Pittsburgh, on July 26-28, as we search Scripture and celebrate how God leads us beyond power, domination, and prejudice. Hope to see you in there. Mimi Haddad


  1. A great article based on a talk Mimi Haddad just gave at The Justice Conference in Philadelphia a few weeks ago. Thank you Mimi for all you do to bravely ring the liberty bell in our churches & in our world. Thank you for your brilliant mind & passion for presenting a high view of Scripture that honors the full human equality of women & men as co-image-bearers of God and bravely sees connections many people would rather not see between abuse & underlying religious ideas which create a power imbalance between men & women. It is easy for many of us living here in the US to turn a blind eye to this "elephant in our sanctuary" but around the world, in cultures which are highly patriarchal, the elephant is not hidden. In the Solomon Islands, for example, where 98% of the population is Christian a staggering 64+% of women are victims of gender-based violence. It is not uncommon in places like this around the world for men in the church (even pastors) to believe that as the decision-makers/heads-of-the-house/leaders they have a right & even a duty to "discipline" their wives. Liberty Bell keeps hearing stories like this from Christian organizations working around the world to promote faith-based solutions to combat gender-based violence... We have our work to do not only to put band-aids on all these gender wounds but take a good hard honest look at the Elephant in the Sanctuary...

  2. Thanks Mimi! I love your work, and I'd love to meet you in person some time!