Sexual and Family Violence: A Growing Issue for the Churches

by Lois Gehr Livezey

Dr. Livezey is assistant professor of Christian social ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 28, 1987, p. 938. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


It is time to break the silence on sexual and family abuse — a silence that still haunts churches and schools of theological education even as these very issues are front-page news. Our silence will not protect us; it is life-threatening, and it is unfaithful to our commission.

The problem of sexual and family violence is at least as old as Lot’s offer of his daughters to the men of Sodom, an offer all the more grievous because it was made in the name of the ethic of hospitality to strangers and sojourners: "Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof" (Gen. 19:8). Lot, however, is remembered in Christian tradition as the "righteous" Lot (II Peter 2:7) ; his act of giving his daughters to violence and violation goes unnoticed. The betrayal of intimates and the conspiracy of silence so commonly bound together in sexual and family violence are also features of this biblical story.

In the intervening centuries theologians have only occasionally addressed issues of sexual assault or domestic abuse. In The City of God Augustine did write on the meaning of rape, which had become an issue for the church with the rape of Christian women during the sack of Rome in 410, and he begins his discussion with the apt judgment that responsibility for rape belongs to the rapist, not the raped. But all too quickly Augustine’s perverse version of the hermeneutics of suspicion becomes clear: he suggests that women may experience rape with pleasure, and that such women may be getting what they deserve. In facing the perennial question of why this crime is inflicted on Christian women, he opines:

Some most flagrant and wicked desires are allowed free play at present by the secret judgment of God . . . Moreover, it is possible that those Christian women, who are unconscious of any undue pride on account of their virtuous chastity, whereby they sinlessly suffered the violence of their captors, had yet some lurking infirmity which might have betrayed them into a proud and contemptuous bearing, had they not been subjected to the humiliation that befell them in the taking of the city [Whitney J. Oates, editor, Basic Writings of Saint Augustine, vol. 2 (Random House, 1948) , p. 351.

Clearly, Augustine’s doctrine of sin -- with its inextricable mix of sex and lust -- and his doctrine of divine providence lead him into speculations that are unhinged from the experience of rape and invidious to the women violated.

John Calvin wrote the following words to a battered woman seeking his counsel:

We have a special sympathy for poor women who are evilly and roughly treated by their husbands, because of the roughness and cruelty of the tyranny and captivity which is their lot. We do not find ourselves permitted by the Word of God, however, to advise a woman to leave her husband, except by force of necessity; and we do not understand this force to be operative when a husband behaves roughly and uses threats to his wife, nor even when he beats her, but when there is imminent peril to her life . . . [W]e . . . exhort her to bear with patience the cross which God has seen fit to place upon her; and meanwhile not to deviate from the duty which she has before God to please her husband, but to be faithful whatever happens ["Letter From Calvin to an Unknown Woman," June 4, 1559, Calvini Opera, XVII, col. 539, in P. E. Hughes, editor, The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin (Eerdmans, 1966) , pp. 344-345].

In this brief letter, the familiar but devastating themes in pastoral responses to battered women are given classical expression. Violence and "tyranny" at home are women’s "lot," a fate to be suffered rather than a problem to be solved. Indeed, Calvin, like Augustine before him and countless others since, seems compelled to explain violence against women by appealing ultimately to the will of God. The inviolability of the institution of marriage justifies a deaf ear and a blind eye to the violation of a woman’s body and spirit through torture and terror. Only the clear and present danger of death legitimates the separation of batterer and battered -- and Calvin does not seem to regard the ever-present life-threatening potential of such violence very seriously. He takes for granted the subordination and servanthood of women in family relations. Calvin stops short of justifying wife- and child-beating in the name of patriarchal duty and discipline, but his message is clear: the Christian duty of a battered wife is not to oppose violence and violation but to endure it and, further, to please her batterer husband.

In Christian Scripture and tradition, then, we find an ethic of care for strangers that renders precarious the protection of daughters; an ethic of chastity -- laden with innuendos of pleasure, lust and pride -- that renders precarious the moral standing and human rights of women; and an ethic of Christian duty that renders precarious the basic safety of wives. Our theological heritage is an accomplice to sexual violence and violation.

For the most part, the complicity of the churches and their theologians in sexual violence is a complicity of silence. We have simply crossed to the other side of the road, in the dubious tradition of the religious leaders in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Even today, when issues of sexual violence receive considerable media attention, surveys and studies indicate that the majority of ministers and seminary students know almost nothing about the dynamics of sexual and family violence and have little or no experience in dealing with it.

Breaking the Silence: The Feminist Revolution. The sexual revolution, which effected a new, more positive valuation of the bodily and sexual character of our humanity, ought also to have affirmed the inviolability of the body (as of the conscience) and respect for the physical integrity of every human being. But the sexual revolution has not been a revolution against coercive sexuality. Indeed, some studies indicate that rape is increasing, and that over 50 per cent of male high school and college students view coercive sex as acceptable behavior (Diane Russell, Sexual Exploitation: Rape, Child Sexual Abuse, and Workplace Harassment [Sage Publications, 1984], pp. 62-65). Nor has the sexual revolution been a revolution for equality in male-female relations. Sexual violence is primarily a problem of violence against women and girls. Until we challenge the status of women as men’s servants and subordinates at home and at work, assault, harassment and abuse will continue.

It is the feminist, not the sexual, revolution that has effectively broken the silence about sexual and family violence, transforming the private hells into a public issue amenable to shared concern, public discourse and common action. The feminist revolution has insisted on the distinction between coercion and consent in sexual relations. It has insisted on equality between women and men, and on justice for women regarding access to basic needs, the means of sustaining a livelihood and the decision-making processes that organize and regulate the common life.

The dramatic emergence of sexual and domestic violence as a public issue testifies to the power of breaking the silence. In June 1974, a Ms. magazine article described the founding of a battered women’s shelter near London. Within the next decade 500 battered women’s shelters were established in the United States. Society has acknowledged that "family violence" includes not only spouse abuse but the abuse of children by parents and other relatives, sibling abuse and the abuse of elderly parents by their adult children. The abuses covered by the term family violence illustrate the problem of defining the issue. Some definitions of family violence limit it to physical assault that causes or intends to cause physical pain and injury, but others include verbal abuse, threats of violence and other actions causing mental or psychological harm. More recently, definitions of family violence have incorporated coercive sexual relations, including the sexual abuse of children by family members, and also marital rape. Definitions of domestic abuse may include neglect, especially in relation to children and the elderly, and financial abuse, a prominent issue in the relations of adult children to their aging parents. What connects these various forms of abuse is the element of coercion or nonconsent; the violation of bodily integrity and well being; and the betrayal of covenantal relationships.

In the past ten or 15 years many states have revised rape laws to encompass male as well as female victims, marital rape, acts of sexual coercion not involving intercourse and assaults in which there is no instance of resistance or physical harm. Some procedures for prosecuting rape have also been changed. Columnist Ellen Goodman illustrates the changed attitude by summarizing several recent rape cases with the phrase: "If she says no, then it’s rape." Beyond and behind the legal change, a reinterpretation of the nature of rape has occurred. We have learned that sexual assault and harassment are exercises of power and control or anger, not expressions of sexual need, interest or pleasure. Testimony by sex offenders corroborates victims’ reports that rape is a life-threatening experience.

Underreporting, the limited and nonrandom character of most surveys, and the problem of definition make reliable statistics on sexual and family violence difficult to establish. But even the most cautious estimates indicate far higher rates of abuse than previously imagined. It is clear that violence against women and violence within families is commonplace, and that the perpetrators and the victims of such violence are ordinary people. Some call it the most democratic violence in America: it is a serious problem among all classes and races of the population.

Murray Straus’s studies suggest that marital violence occurs in one out of four marriages, not as a single event but as a pattern (Richard J. Gelles and Claire Pedrick Cornell, Intimate Violence in Families [Sage Publications, 1985], p. 69) The Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence estimates that one girl out of three and one boy out of seven are sexually abused by age 18, and that in half the cases their abusers are family members; that 1 million children are physically abused by parents or caretakers every year; and that 1 million elderly people are abused every year by their adult children. In Diane Russell’s study of rape, 44 per cent of the women interviewed had been subjected to rape or attempted rape, and contrary to the prevalent stereotype, strangers accounted for only 11 per cent of the perpetrators. Her work also indicated that rape rates are rising: in every age group the rape rates are significantly higher than for the same age group in any earlier period (e.g., for women under 20, the rape rate increased from 11 per cent in 1931 to 36 per cent in 1976).

Women’s stories of sexual violence are stories of terror and torture. We are only beginning to recognize what experiences of sexual violence mean in women’s lives. Indeed, we scarcely have a language or a theory to deal with the short- and long-term effects too long neglected by the care-giving community and by the victims themselves. The studies done on "rape trauma syndrome" are an example of the research needed in the field. Investigations of the intergenerational effects of family violence are another significant contribution.

Breaking the Silence: The Churches’ Response. Breaking the silence is a fitting task for churches and church members. We know the power of the Word in our own lives, and we are called to witness to the good news of the gospel, the gracious love of God for us revealed in Jesus Christ. And it makes a difference. Pastors attest to the impact of mentioning the problem of sexual and family violence in a sermon or a prayer, or posting information about a rape crisis center or a battered women’s shelter on a bulletin board or mentioning it in a newsletter.

Churches are beginning to respond, especially by educating people through congregational programs and outreach support for community-wide care-giving services. Some concrete examples will illustrate various possibilities in this direction, and perhaps encourage thought and action about what more can and should be done by religious institutions. Seattle’s Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence deserves special mention for its decade of pioneering work on family violence with Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish congregations and organizations. Directed by Marie Fortune, a pastor and author of Sexual Violence, The Unmentionable Sin: An Ethical and Pastoral Perspective (Pilgrim Press, 1983), the Center has developed resources for congregational study and action, including a study guide for teen-agers on preventing sexual abuse, a monograph on violence against women of color, and a manual for congregational use in discovering and developing community resources on family violence. CPSDV has also initiated national conferences on family violence and theological education.

Denominational judicatories are beginning to generate their own resources. For example, the Council on Women and the Church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has developed a packet of materials on family violence for local church use, "A Time to Speak," and also a pamphlet and filmstrip on sexual harassment, Naming the Unnamed: Sexual Harassment in the Church. The Division for Parish Resources of the Lutheran Church in America has included several brochures on family violence in its family-resource series; these resources are valuable for families affected by abuse as well as for congregational study. The Office of Ministries with Women and Families in Crisis of the United Methodist Church has also been engaged with this issue. A 1981 church-wide survey revealed sexual and family violence to be a serious problem within the church. Since then the church has followed two avenues of action: developing resources for the education of members, and supporting model ministries -- such as The Refuge in Erie, Pennsylvania, a church-sponsored shelter.

Theological education is a critical dimension of educating the churches. Few seminaries provide courses on sexual and family violence. At best, some reference may be made to the issue in a pastoral counseling course -- usually within the narrow bounds of crisis counseling or therapeutic intervention. But even sensitive and responsive crisis counseling requires an understanding of the social dimensions of family and sexual violence. If ministers are to be prepared for pastoral counseling and congregational consciousness-raising, the curriculum must include specific and multidisciplinary attention to these issues.

In seminaries as in churches, breaking the silence has a powerful impact on the community itself: student organizations sponsor films and speakers on the topic; campus incidents are addressed rather than denied; field-education placements in shelters are developed, or a session on sexual harassment is provided for field-education supervisors; resources on these issues are added to the library, and continuing-education programs are developed. Thus, even a very modest institutionalization of this issue in theological education provides legitimacy and resources to those addressing the problems, and a space for healing, thinking, talking and acting together.

Some churches are involved in community services, especially emergency-care services: crisis counseling centers, battered women’s shelters and other housing for homeless women and young people -- many of whom are running away from physical and sexual abuse. Long-term housing for homeless women and their children is also a critical need, one often ignored by churches’ outreach missions because the homeless men on the streets of downtown areas are more visible. Ministers and laypersons should get to know the community’s resources for responding to and preventing family and sexual violence: What programs and services exist? What is their perspective on or interpretation of the sexual and family violence with which they deal? What are their policies and procedures?

Churches also must develop their capacities for informed and effective advocacy before the legislatures and the legal system. Innovative and vigorous support is needed for a greatly expanded network of community services for the abuser as well as the abused. Laws are needed to establish adequate legal protection from sexual assault and abuse at home and work.

Last but not least, Christian theology must provide a firmer foundation for care and justice, for standing against sexual and family violence, for healing the violated and for changing society’s values and structures. Our education, service and advocacy depend upon the adequacy of our theological vision -- the way we interpret Scripture and tradition regarding relations between women and men, sex, marriage, parenting and violence. In this adventure of faith and thought, the victims of violence and violation can offer valuable guidance. We need to listen to their stories with an ear for the religious reflections that sustain capacities to survive, to heal and to flourish. A careful and respectful attention to the voices of the violated may also encourage the reconstruction of our theologies, as the experiences and interpretations of sexual violence cast new light on old theological symbols and doctrines.

Ending violence and violation must be a presupposition of pastoral counseling and congregational service and support activities. In the past, a preoccupation with keeping the family together at any cost has contributed to the churches’ complicity in violence against women. But if the conditions of trust and communication so critical to viable, meaningful and stable family life are to be created and nurtured, violence must be stopped. Here, too, we are led to theological and ethical reflection, and a reconsideration of what it means to be human in the presence of God.

All violence -- and certainly sexual violence -- is destructive of essential human capacities and distinctive human purposes. It is obviously physically destructive of victims’ bodies and, indeed, of their lives. The seriousness of this destruction must be emphasized in view of the devaluation of bodies, especially women’s bodies, in traditional Christianity. Ironically, Christian orthodoxy affirms that the integral relation of body and spirit is what makes us human. Thus, sexual violence is always also existentially and spiritually destructive. It threatens self-respect and mutual trust, giving rise to feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, humiliation, worthlessness, mistrust and even self-blame.

Violence is also destructive of the freedom requisite to being and becoming human. Essential human capacities for thought and action; conscience, consent, and choice; communication and association, worship and discipleship can be realized only in freedom. Violence against women or children paralyzes thought and so threatens capacity to deliberate on a course of action or to imagine alternative futures. It mutes speech and so perpetuates the conspiracy of silence that has left victims without recourse to help and healing -- or justice.

Humans are distinctive in their capacity to create, sustain, transform -- and destroy -- community, both interpersonal and political: Violence, whatever else it does, categorically repudiates mutuality and equal participation in decisions affecting intimate and family relations. It denies to victims their citizenship in the family or in the society at large. It is not uncommon for a man who batters his wife also to forbid her to associate with others, whether for friendship, enjoyment or politics. Independent forms of association are ruthlessly suppressed, as they are in all types of tyrannies.

Humankind is created for rejoicing. The Shorter Catechism of the Presbyterian Church begins with the question: What is the chief end of humankind? The answer is: To glorify God, and to enjoy God forever. But in the face of violence, joy gives way to terror. We should not trivialize this violation of human purpose. As Christians who declare that human life is life lived in the presence of God, we must speak boldly against the violence that reduces life to a matter of survival. The psalmist was wiser: "May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy!" (Ps. 126).

Christian theology does not lack grounds upon which to stand against sexual violence and violation. Shalom is the vision of a society without violence or fear: "I will give you peace in the land, and none shall make you afraid" (Lev. 26:6). No violence! No fear! In a society as violent as ours, a commitment to nonviolence, in interpersonal as well as international relations, is a radical commitment. But shalom means that, and more. Commentaries on the concept speak of a profound and comprehensive sort of well-being: "abundant welfare," with its connotations of justice and the common good. In Until Justice and Peace Embrace, Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that shalom also means harmonious and responsible relationship with God, other human beings and nature. In the city of shalom, duty gives way to delight.

Shalom is one angle of vision on opposing sexual violence, but it is not the only one. A doctrine of creation that gives theological justification to human rights; the history of exodus and covenant; the ministry of Jesus Christ; the ethic of care for the stranger; and the stories of women in the Bible are all fruitful resources for liturgies of healing and for the work of securing justice. Each of us must explore our own traditions with an ear for victims’ stories and an eye on ending violence.

"May God keep you safe until the word of your life is fully spoken." Margaret Fuller’s words of blessing remind us what sexual violence destroys and what the struggle for peace and justice means. It is time to break the silence on sexual and family abuse -- a silence that still haunts churches and schools of theological education even as these very issues are front-page news. Our silence will not protect us; it is life-threatening, and it is unfaithful to our commission. Let us speak the word of our lives, the gospel of our faith. Let us speak truth to power for the sake of the survival of some and justice for all.