‘Thus saith the Lord’: When pastors talk about intimate partner violence


As noted in a previous installment in this series, research on the discourse of clerical response to intimate partner violence (IPV) has been few and far between. What do members of the clergy say to congregants about this topic? Useful anecdotal evidence abounds, based on clergy’s and victims’ memories, but we can learn a great deal from going directly to the source by means of, for example, sermons.

In this post, I look at examples of pastors talking about IPV, drawing from Linda Coates’ and Allan Wade’s 2007 paper entitled ‘Language and Violence: Analysis of Four Discursive Operators’ in the Journal of Family Violence. They offer a groundbreaking analytic framework, ‘The Interactional and Discursive View of Violence and Resistance’, based on their own and others’ research on the nature of violence and resistance and the significance of misrepresentation and partiality in social discourse about IPV. What emerges is a lens through which they examine five accounts of IPV from a perpetrator, a judge, a psychiatrist, a government minister, and a psycho-therapist. Specifically, they look at ways in which:

Language can be used to:
conceal violence,
obscure and mitigate offenders’ responsibility,
conceal victims’ resistance, and
blame and pathologize victims.

Alternatively, language can be used to:
expose violence,
clarify offenders’ responsibility,
elucidate and honor victims’ resistance, and
contest the blaming and pathologizing of victims. (p. 513)

In the sermon excerpts I use, a great deal is happening discursively, all of which I won’t discuss here. The purpose of this work-in-progress post is to highlight a few features I find particularly interesting, focusing on how Coates’ and Wade’s model helps us understand how pastors talk about IPV. I will also suggest how the Interactional and Discursive View of Violence and Resistance framework might be modified to suit the religious context. Since physical violence has both physical and psychological effects (and vice versa), I define violence broadly, as encompassing both.

A word about the corpus

The pilot corpus comprises sermons by pastors who are: (Reformed) Baptist (23 sermons), Presbyterian (2), Free Presbyterian/Free Reformed (2), Free Reformed (1), Family Integrated (1), United Reformed (1), and RPNA (1). As I explained in a previous post, these 31 were narrowed down from the 100 most frequently accessed sermons on divorce on SermonAudio. They are the sermons attracting the widest audience. Careful examination of these sermons allows me to begin to form hypotheses about how pastors talk about IPV more widely as well as consider what criteria could be used to expand the corpus.

Only a small minority of the pastors in the corpus mention IPV directly, though some hint at it by describing a spouse as ‘anything but kind’. This is consistent with recent research by LifeWay which found that pastors seldom address domestic violence from the pulpit, despite evidence that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men experience IPV at least once in their lifetime. talktocongregationIn fact, despite ‘violence’ being a significant semantic domain in the corpus as a whole, such language was rarely used to refer to IPV. Rather, the majority of pastors used language like ‘break,’ ‘breakup’, ‘fracture’ and ‘violation’ to refer to divorce itself. In short, the most frequent message was that divorce itself, not IPV, constitutes violence worth mentioning. In later posts, I will look at this and other larger patterns in the corpus. Here, again, the purpose is to examine the usefulness of Coates’ and Wade’s model for helping us understand the rare instances where pastors do directly mention IPV.

All 3 speakers cited in this post are (Reformed) Baptist, and indeed all but 1 of the pastors in the corpus who mentioned IPV directly are Baptist. Though we cannot generalize about denomination from this corpus (nor did I intend to), questions to investigate via a larger corpus include: Are only Baptists talking about IPV?

Evaluative ‘Oh’

Excerpt 1:

Now, listen. We are empathetic people and we should be. And we feel bad when someone has been mistreated and we should. But when we give counsel, we must give Thus saith the Lord, not I feel really bad, oh, you should really, you know, oh, you have a right to, oh, you really could. No. No. When we give someone advice, it had better come from the sacred, written Word of God. And so if someone says to you, Oh, my spouse, they are emotionally abusive. They don’t respect me. They don’t love me the way that they should. They are unkind. They stay out at all these hours. They don’t treat me the way I deserve to be treated. They don’t take care of me. They don’t provide me with enough money. They don’t provide me with enough time. They have all the demands for me. They are just unbearable to live with.

When it comes to that scenario we look at the biblical text and there is only one biblical text on this issue, 1 Corinthians chapter seven verses 10 and 11. That is all you have. And because it is all you have, it is the only counsel you can give. Do not cave under the pressure because of your concern and love.

(‘Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage’)

Again, this excerpt has more going on in it than we have space here to discuss. However, notice, for example, that the perpetrator is at times invisible, for instance in the passive ‘has mistreated.’ Further, though the pastor mentions giving ‘someone’ (one victim) advice, he uses the plural ‘they’ for the abusive spouse. We might say this is an instance of ‘single they’, which conceals the offender’s gender (since both men and women can be violent). However, paired with the single victim, it has the effect of distancing the violence from any one perpetrator. It isn’t him; it isn’t her; it’s they. Arguably, the pastor’s language choices disperse and therefore mitigate the responsibility of any one perpetrator. Note also that the pastor mentions ‘emotional abuse’ but uses vague language like ‘mistreated’, ‘unkind’ and ‘unbearable,’ etc., which may or may not include physical violence. The selection of the term ’emotional abuse’ is particularly significant in this context since it is much less likely to attract sympathy than physical violence, a point I will likely return to in another post.

Next, the pastor presents an image of a victim who repeatedly complains (perhaps pathologically) about all her problems. As complaint can be considered a form of resistance, we might see this as the pastor elucidating rather than concealing the victim’s resistance. However, this reading is undermined, first, by the chronic complainer’s long list of problems. Second, a particularly interesting technique is how this pastor blames the victim by introducing his constructed dialogue with a victim with ‘oh’ as in ‘Oh, my spouse, they are emotionally abusive’.

This reading is supported when we examine concordance lines from the COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English). Examples include the following, where the speakers are marking reported speech, in some cases reinforcing their negative evaluation with further commentary like ‘that wasn’t true’ and ‘that’s completely unfair’:

  1. The nurses were very matter of fact about it, oh she’ll be fine, she’ll be fine and that wasn’t true.
  2. I would have us wear red because they think administrators/school personnel, ’Oh you wear red, you’re automatically a Blood’, when that’s not
  3. But when someone else wears red, they’re like, ’Oh, you can’t do that’ and that’s completely unfair.
  4. A second commented, When you give them more choices, you diffuse the ‘Oh, this is really meaningless to me.’

The second sermon excerpt (below) has victim blaming and pathologizing throughout. Again of interest is the evaluative ‘oh’, where ‘many a girl’ says ‘Oh, I know that he drinks’. The pastor presents a multitude of women, each responsible for her husband’s violence because of her naivete and stupidity in believing that she can change the man she foolishly loves. Although the speaker directly connects the husband with his violence, the command ‘remember’ he directs at the woman, further minimizing the perpetrator’s responsibility and placing it squarely on an individual woman’s shoulders. The pastor neglects to mention any resistance to this violence, though the language of violence is surprisingly explicit and exposing.

Excerpt 2:

The Bible gives only one sin that can break the marriage vow and give ground for divorce, and that sin is fornication. Drunkenness is not a sufficient reason for divorce. A husband may come home at night drunk and beat his wife or waste his money, make his home a hell, but according to God’s Word that’s no ground for divorce. I’ve had many a girl say, Oh I know that he drinks. But I’ll reform him and marry him because I love him. But remember one thing, young woman, when he gets drunk and comes home and beats you up, raises hell and puts [indiscernible] leaves you without food even clothes to wear, you have no ground for divorce. That marriage is still binding.

(‘The Home, the Bible, Divorce’)

An appeal to authority

Though both these excerpts fit nicely into Coates’ and Wades’ model in many respects, their religious context means that language is used to accomplish additional goals. More specifically, these excerpts demonstrate an appeal to authority, that of God’s Word and God Himself.

In the first excerpt, the pastor juxtaposes his portrayal of the congregation’s sympathetic feelings and intuitions with the counsel that God (allegedly) requires when a victim asks for help. Notice the dramatic change in register in ‘Thus saith the Lord’, a reference to a highly frequent appeal to (and indeed indication of their own derived) authority by prophets in the Old Testament. 250px-moses_pleading_with_israel_28crop29 We also see again the evaluative ‘oh,’ used here to introduce and disparage the would-be counselor’s advice. In essence, we might say that the pastor is adopting the voice of a prophet here and encouraging his congregants to do the same when they talk to a victim of violence.

But when we give counsel, we must give Thus saith the Lord, not I feel really bad, oh, you should really, you know, oh, you have a right to, oh, you really could. 

(‘Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage’)

Both the appeal to the Word of God (and to the pastor himself) as an authority and the switch to a more formal register lend an air of unquestionable finality to the pastor’s eventual pronouncement, shortly after, that

A wife is not to depart from her husband. That is a direct command.

(‘Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage’)

Similarly, in Excerpt 2 the pastor contrasts God’s Word with quite dramatic examples of IPV, demonstrating that even the most devastating acts of violence cannot alter the requirement to obey commands (allegedly) ‘according to God’s Word’. The implication seems to be that God does not consider the suffering of victims of violence to be relevant to His commands. This happens elsewhere in the corpus, such as in the additional excerpt below, where the pastor reminds his congregation that even murder or incest are not grounds for divorce ‘according to Scripture’.

Excerpt 3:

…whether the man commits adultery, the woman commits adultery, whether they kill, murder, maim, commit incest, there is nothing that breaks the marriage bond and there is no way that a man or a woman can remarry, according to Scripture, without being called an adulterer or an adulteress.

(‘Divorce, Re-Marriage, the Bible #2’)

Pitting compassion against God

In closing, it is of course hardly surprising that a pastor would directly appeal to the authority of the Word of God, particularly in a conservative, evangelical context. We Christians consider it a pastor’s calling and duty to direct our attention to God’s Word. However, the question remains: Why this appeal, and why now? These direct appeals to authority suggest, first, the view that any instinct we might have to consider IPV as grounds for divorce runs counter to the Word of God and, second, that congregants therefore require this correction/exhortation*. The use of language to distinguish between our instincts/sympathies and God’s Word seems to be significant in this context and is unaccounted for in Coates’ and Wade’s model.

So far, therefore, the examples I have provided are consistent with Coates’ and Wade’s framework and suggest that it is indeed useful in making sense of how pastors talk about IPV. As a fuller analysis of the pilot corpus will indicate, almost every single one of the direct references to IPV in the corpus minimize perpetrator responsibilityconceal violenceblame victims, and conceal resistance. However, the religious context of the sermons means that the model is likely to require some adaptation, particularly as the corpus expands, and I have suggested the additional use of language to appeal to authority. In the excerpts above, this appeal, at times, overrides any concealing of violence. For these pastors, no matter how terrible the violence, God requires victims of IPV to remain married.

Finally, though nearly all of the direct references to IPV accomplish similar goals, there is one notable and encouraging exception, another Baptist sermon, which I look forward to sharing with you. It deserves its own post.

*It will be interesting to track where else such direct appeals to authority occur. The question is: When do pastors feel confident enough to state that their interpretation of Scripture is ‘from God’s lips to your ears’? A quick look at my reference corpus of over 100 sermons on non-marriage related topics suggests that pastors say ‘Thus saith the Lord’ most frequently when quoting this exact phrase from the Bible in context, suggesting that it doesn’t happen often when offering interpretation. But I will need to look at this more closely as well as other forms appeal to authority takes (‘according to God’s Word,’ etc.).


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