Domestic Abuse and Black Churches: A Research Overview


By Dr Ava Kanyeredzi
To cite this article: Kanyeredzi, A. (2020). Domestic Abuse and Black Churches: A Research Overview. Black Church Domestic Abuse Forum (BCDAF):

What we know about domestic abuse within churches

Most of the studies of domestic abuse in churches have been carried out in the USA, with a minority from Australia, South Africa and the UK. This overview is a useful introduction to issues of faith and domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is defined by the UK Governments as: ‘Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass but is not limited to the following types of abuse: psychological, physical, sexual, financial, emotional’ (, 2020 a). The Domestic Abuse Bill scheduled for Royal ascent in 2021 (, 2020) aims to legally protect children who witness domestic abuse, strengthen provision to remove perpetrators from the home, mandate Local Authorities to provide safe spaces/refuge to victims and prohibit perpetrators of domestic abuse to cross-examine their victims in court. The recent Covid-19/coronavirus pandemic where there was a UK-wide ‘lockdown’ with limited work or activities outside of the home, was twinned with an increase in calls to the police/support services by both men and women reporting domestic abuse with one service, Refuge, reporting a 700% increase in calls to their helpline over a single day (Townsend, 2020).

Domestic abuse is a serious public health concern that disproportionately affects women and girls across historical and social contexts and countries (Walby, 2009). In the year ending in March 2019, domestic abuse was estimated to affect 2.4 million people (1.6 million women, 786,000 men) (, 2020b). Living with economic disadvantage, having little or no citizenship rights, or living with disabilities and health challenges, further impacts this disproportionality (Finkelhor et al., 1990; Moosa and Woodruffe, 2009; Radford et al., 2011; Richie, 2012; Thiara & Gill, 2010; Walby, 2004). There are strong associations between domestic abuse and mental and physical health problems and not only for victims, but also those who are perpetrators (Safe Lives, 2019). 30-60% of women who are detained within psychiatric facilities report domestic abuse (Howard et al., 2010). Women attribute mental distress or detainment under the Mental Health Act (1983) to experiencing domestic abuse (Chandan et al., 2019; Nixon & Humphreys, 2010). Furthermore, domestic abuse, child sexual abuse, maltreatment and neglect tend to co-occur in homes (Morris, 2009). Witnessing domestic abuse is associated with poor performance at school and increased mental health problems for children (Radford et al., 2011). Parents may fear their children will be removed by social services  so may under-report domestic abuse (Kanyeredzi, 2014; 2018).

Physical health consequences of domestic abuse include miscarriages, broken bones, bruises, gynaecological conditions (Bacchus, Mezey & Bewley, 2003; Humphreys and Thiara, 2003.)  Consequences for the foetus/neonate include still-births, babies who are categorised as having low birth-weight and ‘failure to thrive’ (Bacchus, Mezey & Bewley, 2002). When victims are men, consequences can include choking, targeting of genitals, burning, threats to lose contact with children or to allege domestic abuse and when they seek help, men can be accused of perpetrating violence/abuse (Hines & Douglas, 2010). The annual cost of domestic abuse is estimated between £176 million (Walby, 2004) and £66 billion (Home Office, 2019,, 2020b).  Spiritual abuse can also be part of a person’s experience of domestic abuse. Spiritual abuse has been defined as control over a person’s ability to observe their faith; fast, pray, read religious texts, attended religious events or observe religious festivals. Effectively, a denial of the space for religious expression where these are important to a person’s sense of identity (Abhrams, Aghatie & Mulhilvill, 2018). Having a faith also includes belonging to a faith community. The person who is perpetrating abuse may also be a respected and valued member of the community and leaving a relationship threatens community membership and has impacts for any children involved (Abhrams et al., 2018).

Domestic abuse in churches

There have been a few surveys carried out with churchgoers in the UK to understand experiences and awareness of domestic abuse finding similar or higher rates as the Annual Crime Survey for England and Wales that one in four women and one in 10 men have experienced domestic abuse. Radford and Cappel (2002) found 17% of Methodist churchgoers had been victims of domestic abuse – mainly by husbands and partners, poor responses from the church and split loyalties as wives of church-leaders. The Evangelical Alliance (2012) surveyed over 17,000 churchgoers finding 10% of women had experienced physical abuse from partners/spouses and 7% of men admitted being violent. Premier Christianity Today Magazine, together with the Restored Christian Alliance (2013) surveyed 443 churchgoers,16% had been victims of physical violence.

Aune & Barnes together with Restored Christian alliance (2018) surveyed 438 churchgoers in Cumbria. One in four reported abusive behaviour, most commonly emotional abuse among men (42.3%) and women (22.9%) within their current relationship. 15% and especially younger respondents reported experiencing violence in the previous month. Women reported a higher frequency of sexual, financial and spiritual abuse. 70% rated domestic abuse as bigger problem outside the church than in (37.6%). One in six men and one in four women sought support from a church, of these, over half were positive responses. 318 respondents were asked about church responses to domestic abuse. Most rated that churches did nothing, moderately rated that churches did something or should do more. That churches did good work in response to domestic abuse, was the least common response (Aune & Barnes, 2018).

Survey respondents were also asked to rate whether five actions against domestic abuse were carried out within their churches. 57% had experienced preaching and praying about domestic abuse, 50% were unaware that churches displayed material, 65% said churches sometimes donated to refuges and 70% rated churches as rarely donating to or working with domestic abuse agencies (Aune & Barnes, 2018). This supports the findings that churches may be suitable spaces to challenge, support and prevent domestic abuse, but more work is required on responses.

Aunes & Barnes’ (2018) survey included a representative sample of Pentecostal but not Evangelical or ‘New churches’. How far do Black majority churches form a part of Evangelical and ‘New churches’? The survey also reflected the rural, most female, older churchgoing sample in Cumbria. Urban areas were reported to have younger churchgoers who were more likely to experience current abuse and were also more likely to be aware of support services. Black majority churches often operate within urban areas and little is known about experiences of domestic abuse and help-seeking. Studies from the USA indicate the more Evangelical and traditional the beliefs the poorer the response to reports of domestic abuse and this may also be racialised (Gillum, 2008; Richard, 2017). Black majority churches tend to promote more traditional views about families, headship of the church and marriages (Richard, 2017). This may also be the case in the UK and understanding how perspectives of Black majority churchgoers on domestic abuse could reveal further insights. If you would like to take part in an online survey about domestic abuse in Black majority Churches in the UK click here (going live soon).

Faith organisations can play a more prominent role in the community coordinated responses to domestic abuse that recognises lots of agencies, healthcare, education, support services, the police, need to work together to support victims and perpetrators of domestic Abuse (Aune & Barnes, 2018; Nason-Clark, Fisher-Townsend, Holtmann and McMullin, 2018). Statutory and voluntary organisations may view churches as complicit in abuse while churches may construct support services as breaking-up marriages. However there are promising changes in perspectives within both types of organisations (Williams & Jenkins, 2019; Westenberg, 2017).

Church attendance is inversely associated with experiencing domestic abuse (Tracy, 2008). African Americans have high church attendance and this is higher still for African American women with 83% reporting praying frequently and attending religious worship (Cox & Diamant, 2018). However, African American women are still more likely to report domestic abuse even with frequent church attendance (Williams & Jenkins, 2019). In the UK, Black majority churches are increasingly prolific and are an under-researched population (Adu, 2015; Brierley, 2018; Goodhew, 2012; Olofinjana, 2018). Black Majority churches have traditionally provided spaces for respite and support for recent migrants to adapt to then language and cultural and employment contexts within the UK and solace and fellowship (Adu, 2015; Adedibu, 2013; Cappel, 2016). Similarly, Black majority churches in the USA have empowered African American congregants to fight against slavery, racism and have provided ‘a place of worship and racial uplift’ (Bent-Goodley & Brade Stennis, 2015: 137); that affords Black male leadership that might be non-existent in other social spheres (Bell and Mattis, 2000; Bent-Goodley & Brade Stennis, 2015; hooks, 2003; Marriot et al., 2014; Potter, 2007).

Church structures and domestic abuse

Clifton(2018) argues that Pentecostal churches operate a “Pentecostal gender paradox” where women occupy leadership roles at church and in the wider community but submit to husbands in the home. The submission may be more symbolic than practiced within the home among younger Pentecostals. However ‘patriarchal theology’ ‘will inevitably enable and conceal domestic violence” (Clifton, 2018, P.77). Cappel (2016) in her interview study with 13 female clergy in Black majority churches in the UK, similarly found churches are very gendered spaces, with men primarily in leadership roles, with violence from partners/spouses low on the agenda. Women are simultaneously included within the structures and community of Black majority churches, albeit in less senior and more traditional feminine, caring roles and largely excluded from the more strategic activities of church leadership. Women are also excluded from the instruction of biblical texts. Therefore, male power prevailed regardless of whether women also share senior leadership responsibilities, arguments echoed by Adidibe (2013), Gillum (2008) and Richard (2017) in reference to Black majority churches in the USA.

Themes from studies with victim survivors

People who are religious seek help from pastors over and above alternative sources such as support agencies, healthcare and the police etc. usually at the worse point of experiences (Clifton, 2018; Davies& Dreyer, 2014, Nason-Clark 2015; Nevhutanda, 2019). Most of the studies with victim-survivors of domestic abuse within churches/faith communities have been carried out with women. Women who seek religious spaces to cope with the consequences of past or current abuse may fear judgement from congregants and self-blame when interpreting religious text, yet still wish to be supported and be a part of a faith community (Damron & Johnson, 2015; Moore et al.,2015).

Belonging to a faith group can be a barrier to accessing help and support from secular organisations for violence and abuse (Bent-Goodley & Brade Stennis, 2015; Damron & Johnson, 2015; Moore et al., 2015). Cappel (2016) conceptualises this as a ‘bulimic response’: Women congregants who also work in secular organisations, eschew support from such sources because they fear their faith/religion might be scrutinised or do not feel entitled enough as citizens to access services. Additionally, studies with victim-survivors reveal, once a woman begins experiencing violence/abuse from a spouse/partner and is not well-supported by fellow congregants/clergy, her sense of belonging within her church may be eroded by being isolated and this could result in her leaving the church (Potter, 2007; Richard, 2017; Williams & Jenkins, 2019).  

Misuse of biblical texts

One of the features of domestic abuse where the abuser is also Christian, is that they misuse biblical scriptures to justify abuse. Quoting scriptures that example submission such as  (Epesians:5 22-23) and silence (1 Timothy 2:11-12) that may chime with women’s own belief in submission and wanting to be good Christian wives while they stay with abusive spouses. The more conservative the church, and male control is practiced and endorsed, the increase the likelihood than some men will abuse spouses. Christian women who are abused are less likely to leave or seek support, stay with husbands and self-blame for the abuse (Baird & Gleeson, 2018). In their ABC News 12-month study in Australia with victim-survivors and church leaders, Baird and Gleeson (2018) found abusers applied selective and literal interpretations of Bible scriptures to justify abuse and victim-survivors found sexual, financial, verbal and emotional abuse more difficult to identify without information from websites/flyers. Submission was also rife in Pentecostal churches were women were advised to separate but not divorce and to have sex with husbands to resolve issues (Baird & Gleeson, 2018).

Dasgupta (2005) cautions against using Biblical passages to justify domestic abuse over the many possible examples of peace making and the non-abusive examples within Jesus’ life that could be used to inform men’s behaviour. She further states that a lot of women have a faith and need to be helped through this context. Fortune and Enger (2006) define this as transforming ‘roadblocks’ into ‘resources’ and go on to detail the many ways in which scriptures and stories from Christianity, Judaism and Islam can be used to challenge domestic abuse especially when combined with dialogue between clergy and secular support agencies. In a similar way to what the BCDAF is doing with the Walk in the Way of Love Toolkit and Training for church leaders.

African American women may use prayer to cope with domestic abuse, but are less likely to speak to pastors about experiences fearing ministers will be unable to help, breach their confidentiality and feel ashamed about experiences (ElKoury et al 2004; Mattis, et al., 2007; Gillum et al., 2006). Yick (2008) carried out a qualitative meta-synthesis on religious coping and experiences of violence/abuse finding that prayer was a theme in all of the studies. Coping with violence/abuse from partners/spouses through reading scriptures is illustrated by the experiences of the three Christian women; two Black and one White American, in Nash and Hesterberg’s (2009) narrative study. Similar to Yick (2008), the women described using prayer as a method of coping with their husbands’ violence and infidelity. One of the Black women sought advice from her sister who kept referring her to religious scripture and praying with her to stay with her abusive husband, advising her to have sex with her husband to resolve the violence. All women eventually left their abusive spouses and reinterpreted scripture they had used to cope. In Potter’s (2007) study, of the 40 women interviewed, 12 lost their faith after experiencing violence/abuse, and the remaining women changed denomination or faiths.

Writing from South Africa Chisale (2018) furthers on the role of self-silencing facilitated by religious texts that endorse a patriarchal rule in marriage among African heritage women who experience domestic abuse. Women are more likely to not speak at all about experiences of domestic abuse within their church communities. In some cases women’s spouses also attend churches. Domestic abuse can be used by a spouse as justification for the refusal of a woman to submit to the will of her husband is more accepted by men and women in African contexts. In African contexts women and children self- silence to demonstrate respect. Cultural and religious interpretations encourage women in African contexts to stay silent about domestic abuse. Chisale suggests that pastoral care as a sociocultural ‘reading’ or ‘hearing’ what the self-silenced victim-survivors have experienced, to discuss ‘unstoried narratives’, as being both obvious and difficult to decipher. Pastors can offer to share a spaces of silence with victim-survivors, being silent together as solutions both for victim-survivors and perpetrators. Contrastingly the perpetrator’s silence is an indication of guilt. These findings are useful when considering how African heritage women in the UK seek help and support for domestic abuse and the of churches.

Leaving abusive relationships

Having a faith also includes belonging to a faith community. The person who is perpetrating abuse may also be a respected and valued member of the community and leaving a relationship threatens community membership with impacts if there are children involved. Jewish, Muslim and some Catholic women further fear that secular support agencies will not understand their faith (Abrahms et al., 2018). Women of faith who are victim-survivors of domestic abuse can be caught between, belonging to faith communities, submission to husbands, fears for the safety of their children and their own interpretations of spiritual redemption. This means that they may stay silent about abuse, fear responses from secular agencies or be pressured to stay with abusive partners (Abrahms et al., 2018). In Potter’s (2007) study women attributed their turning point for leaving, or their partner leaving, to God. The women also attributed moving away from their faith with becoming involved with violent partners but sensed that God was watching over them.

“I do a lot of journaling and have for the last 15 years. I call them “Dear God” letters because it brings me closer to God and helps me share with others….God had been real grateful for me in saving me so many times, and he had put people in my life who had been patient with me…or agencies that really did restore me for the moment.” (Potter, 2007 p.272) 

How victim-survivors of domestic abuse are responded to by clergy

Churchgoers who are also victim-survivors of domestic abuse report being ignored, not well responded to even after, repeated reports and when abusers were also pastors, they are moved to another province/city (Nason-Clark et al., 2018; Nevhutanda, 2019, Richard, 2017). When women report domestic abuse to pastors they are encouraged to stay, pray and be patient and not divorce. Church leaders may also advise women to not to report partners to the police in some cases and in others, women are blamed for provoking partners/spouses. In Baird and Gleeson’s study (2018) there were many examples where women were told to be patient with abusive spouses and one told to leave the church because the pastor could not protect her from her husband, with women eventually leaving their husbands and the church. Furthermore, in the Australian enquiry into family violence (2016) with 938 submission, when women reported to churches, frequent poor responses, many ignorant of how to refer or effectively respond (Baird & Gleeson, 2018).

In Potter’s (2007) study 8 out of the 40 women interviewed sought help from clergy. Nearly all of them were told to go home and work on their marriages, women left the church as a result. Of the women who did not seek help from clergy, some observed how the clergy had dealt with other abused women and decided not to approach them for help or thought they would not be believed. Their partners also restricted church attendance or they had a feeling that the church would not help. Of the Muslim women interviewed four out of five were supported by fellow members of their mosques and in one case members removed a woman’s husband from the family home.

Richard (2017) interviewed eight women victim-survivors whose spouses/perpetrators of abuse where Black majority church clergy and found ineffective responses from church leadership, secrecy in the church, where male abusers would be temporarily removed from service only to be later re-instated or relocated to churches in a different state to resume clergy work. Richard argued that Black Majority churches’ theological interpretation of the Bible passages was too selective and literal and used to justify domestic abuse.

Themes from studies with church leaders

Pastors may prioritise keeping marriages together over the safety of victim-survivors, may offer couples counselling for both spouses where one is the abuser endangering women’s lives, may not report abusive men the police, do not discuss domestic abuse in the sermons, underestimate the extent of domestic abuse in congregation and require more training on domestic abuse (Dyer, 2017; Nason-Clark 2015; Williams & Jenkins, 2019; Zust, Housley & Klatke, 2017). The BCDAF are offering domestic abuse training for church leaders based on our Walk in the Way of Love Toolkit

Black majority churches may similarly hold congregants in an oppression paradox, where they offer support from the hurts of racism and marginalisation (Adu, 2015), whilst simultaneously provide Black males the opportunity to lead, yet oppress Black women with advice to ‘stay and pray’ in relationships with violent men, or create a culture that makes it difficult or unsafe for women to speak about experiences of violence and abuse (Bent-Goodley & Brade Stennis, 2015; Gillum, 2008). This also means that abuse by Black men, including when they form part of the clergy, goes unchallenged and under-reported (Bent-Goodley & Brade Stennis, 2015; Moore et al.,2015).

Studies with mostly female clergy have found clergy are either unwilling or lack training (Bent-Goodley, St. Vil & Hubert, 2012; Gillum, 2009; Shannon, Levy & Dull, 2005) or the ability to engage with outside agencies to help women (Davis & Dreyer, 2017). Nevhutanda (2019) Interviewed 14 church leaders and 10 women victim survivors in South Africa and found a lack of knowledge about domestic abuse and a feeling of helplessness. Victim-survivors did not want their abusive partners to be exposed in church and pastors’ experiencing difficulty in challenging abusive men especially when they are in positions of power within the church. Other themes were that pastors chose to stay out of ‘other men’s business’, did not want to attract a bad image of the church and did not address domestic abuse in sermons. However, most would refer to specialised services but did not know any or how to do this and there were no support systems for pastors who counselled victim-survivors. Furthermore, pastors lacked formal training in counselling skills (Nevhutanda, 2019).

Black clergy do believe that churches should intervene and prevent domestic abuse. Williams and Jenkins (2019) in their study with 112 Black majority church leaders and lay pastors who were mostly male and over 50 years (Baptist, Christian non-denominational, Pentecostal or Church of God in Christ (COGIC), found churches may underestimate the numbers of members who experience domestic abuse. Pastors thought domestic abuse was insufficiently addressed from the pulpit and some still would offer couples therapy and that there was no risk/safety assessment. Respondents wanted more training for church leaders. Responses to reports of domestic abuse included in the order scoring, counselling victims, couples counselling and counselling the abuser. 20% thought that the pastor did a safety/risk assessment, but only occasionally was a perpetrator asked to leave the congregation, over half thought victims would be offered assistance and over a third thought the victim would be referred to an agency. Most of the pastors (58%) were dissatisfied with their church’s responses to domestic abuse and wanted churches to work more closely with specialised agencies, and similar to Nevhutanda’s (2019) study in South Africa, did not now about specialised support agencies. A minority (20%) frequently worked with agencies. Findings could also indicate that congregants less frequently report domestic abuse to pastors (Williams & Jenkins, 2019). (A Risk Assessment Tool is included in the Walk in the Way of Love Toolkit)

Conversely, even where clergy are trained, they fear they are still ill-prepared to effectively respond (Drumm et al., 2018). This indicates church leaders may require ongoing support. In summary Black Majority church spaces though useful as resources to tackle public health issues such as HIV, obesity and sexual health (Stewart, 2014) may not yet sufficiently courageous, ready or equipped to make a stance against violence /abuse (Moore et al., 2015). Overwhelmingly male leadership in churches and especially in Black majority churches could reflect the lower priority of violence from spouses/partners in the church/sermon agenda (Adedibu, 2013; Cappel, 2016; Richard, 2017; Westenberg, 2017). Studies with clergy and victim-survivors report a lack of training in how to respond to reports of violence from spouses/partners (Brade, 2009; le Roux & Loots, 2017; Richard, 2017; Williams & Jenkins, 2019). The BCDAF offers churches follow-up support after Domestic Abuse training for church leaders.

Useful interventions for churches

A consistent recommendation is for churches to tackle violence from partners/spouses in sermons where there is a captive audience and to use Bible scriptures to facilitate this (Aune & Barnes, 2018; Gillum, 2008; Fortune & Enger, 2005; Richard, 2017; Williams & Jenkins, 2019). This should send the message of zero-tolerance to violence/and abuse to perpetrators, encourage victim/survivors to seek support and more effective responses from congregants.

Promising interventions in the USA include: START; Silence Talk about it Alert the public Refer Train (START) yourselves and (Stennis, Fischle, Bent-Goodley, Purnnel & Williams) and SHARE; Step 1: define the problem. Step 2: identify risk and protective factors. Step 3: develop and test prevention strategies, and  Step 4: assure widespread adoption (Wagman et al., 2012:1392).

Kim and Menzie (2015) suggest having a Faith Leader Advisory Group in churches to create a sense of ownership and to identify as change-makers, not only as recipients of training. In a similar vein, Green (2015) recommends institutional champions. Faith organisations should also be regularly surveyed for policies on domestic abuse. In a cross-faith survey, few churches had policies Green (2015). An example of a policy is outlined below (Green, 2015: 448):

  1. Religious institution’s mission statement.
  2. Religious institution’s commitment to address violence and the definition of domestic violence.  
  3. List of committee expert members and contact information for non-profit partners.  
  4. Names of champions addressing domestic violence and the champion action plans listed in chronological order.
  5. Action plan for congregants, and steps listed in chronological order.
  6. Safety plan for victims.
  7. Confidentiality plan for victims.
  8. Process for follow-up and progress checks.
  9. Process for dealing with perpetrators.

Aune and Barnes along with Restored Christian Alliance (2018) similarly suggest recording reports of domestic abuse, responding effectively to build trust among victim/survivors and speaking about domestic abuse in sermons and having champions to facilitate effective responses as well as training of leadership and partnership working with support agencies. This requires a multi-pronged approach involving ongoing multi-agency work to facilitate effective responses as domestic abuse is a complex issue.

There is also the BCDAF Domestic Abuse Training for church leaders and Toolkit now available in the UK.


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Thiara, R. & Gill, A., (2010). Violence Against South Asian Women: Issues for Policy and Practice. London: Jessica Kingsley. Thomas, A. J., Witherspoon, K. M. & Speight, S. L., 2004. Toward the Development of the Stereotypic

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The BCDAF offer training and support to churches and church organisations who wish to improve their responses to domestic abuse.

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