Loving Our Vulnerable Neighbour: When church courts fail and how we can do better

Hannah’s Prayer, Ilja Repin

A cornerstone of presbyterianism is its Book of Church Order (or BCO, variously titled depending on the denomination). The Book’s procedures and standards are designed to facilitate order, equity, and consistency in how the various denominations govern themselves, especially in handling questionable doctrine or sinful behaviour. As with any organization, without this important polity manual, powerful figures are more likely to dominate to the detriment of the (at least relatively) weak. Yet no human system is perfect, and every self-conscious Presbyterian would insist that no BCO should be in conflict with the church’s core mission. If such a conflict is discovered, there is a process available for revision. Peter Coertzen explains the significance of a ‘route of revision and appeal’ for any set of procedures, noting that

the order which is created must be theologically accountable and as such must also be applied responsibly …. that is within the parameters found in the Scriptures.

The aim of this article is to examine the extent to which the Books of Church Order facilitate our obedience to the second of the two greatest commandments in Scripture: Love your neighbour as yourself.

Love Your Neighbour as Yourself

In a 2012 edited collection entitled What Does the Scripture Say?, Christopher Chandler investigates the exhortation to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ from Leviticus 19:18 and how it was applied by Jesus and His followers. Chandler writes:

That they [the Pharisees] ‘acquitted the guilty and sentenced the just’ and ‘banded together against the life of the just’ could readily be taken as references to their unjust practices in the courts. The latter phrase is a quote from Ps 94:21a. This psalm calls upon God to judge the injustice of those who ‘slay the widow and the foreigner’ and ‘murder the orphan’ (94:6) and who ‘condemn the innocent to death’ (94:21b).

Chandler’s thesis is that, first, for those living in New Testament times, loving one’s neighbour was understood as the doing of justice to one’s neighbour in a court setting. And second, that this commandment emphasizes loving vulnerable neighbours in particular. Chandler’s analysis raises these questions: Who is our 21st century vulnerable neighbour? To what extent do our church court systems love him/her? How can we do better?

Who is a vulnerable neighbour?

In a way typical of many institutions, the Church of England defines a vulnerable adult

as a person who is or may be in need of community care services by reason of mental or other disability, age or illness; and who is or may be unable to take care of him or herself, or unable to protect him or herself against significant harm or exploitation in any care setting. This includes individuals in receipt of social care services, those in receipt of other services such as health care, and those who may not be in receipt of services.

This definition encompasses a wide range of people, including those with mental illness, those with disability, those fleeing oppression, and victims of psychological or physical abuse. However, context is important. Certain individuals might be vulnerable in one context more so than another. Consider, for example, the vulnerability of a young woman walking by herself down a country lane to a local shop in the middle of the day. Compare this with the same young woman in a big city, walking home late at night, on her own, through areas where violent assault is frequent.

And vulnerability is ideological, as well as physical. Consider the risk of a new Christian practicing his religion openly in a culture hostile to Christianity, with no access to churches that preach the gospel. Then compare this with a new Christian doing the same but while surrounded by mature Christians and Christ-centred churches. In short, vulnerability is not static; it moves and shifts with context, though some will remain at-risk across a wider range of contexts.

The important question to ask ourselves is: Who is vulnerable where we are?

Are we loving our vulnerable neighbours?

Most of the vulnerable people who contact me are Christian women. Most of these women have suffered spousal abuse and have sought help from church leaders, only to be turned away or treated badly. By the time they contact me, they are often desperate, and some have even left the church.

Take, for example, a woman whom I will call Hannah. Hannah’s session had fired her from her job as music leader at the church some years earlier. Their reason? She had refused to move back in with an abusive spouse. This had left Hannah with a mistrust of their ability to care for her. Hannah therefore contacted her presbytery’s clerk to seek advice about another more recent and unrelated problem with her session.

Prior to this call, Hannah had sent a letter to the clerk, the same letter I read when Hannah first contacted me. This letter documented the church’s response to her spousal abuse, her ensuing poverty, and her desire for the session to see her and to minister to her in this most recent dispute. Having read this letter and during the approximately two-hour phone call, the clerk frequently interrupted Hannah and used harsh, cruel language, bordering on shouting. He referred to her as a violent oppressor, as a problem, and as an immature child, even as Hannah cried. He told her she was a ‘pariah,’ ‘coercive,’ ‘violent,’ ‘frightening,’ ‘aggressive,’ a ‘tormentor’, an ‘abuser,’ a ‘threat to our church.’ He said, ‘I’ve read your letter. And I’ve listened to your conversation. And you’re a problem.’*

Hannah is by no means unique. One woman reported that despite the proof she presented of her husband’s repeated infidelity, her session declared her ‘hormonal’ and in need of medication to ‘help me through my rough patch.’ Another Christian woman reported that her session sent her letters threatening to strike her from the membership record for leaving her unfaithful and abusive husband. She had stopped attending church because many women in the church had sent her unkind letters, heaping burden upon burden, a problem the session refused to deal with.

And there is the case of another woman, who contacted me in late 2016. She sent me a letter from her session in which they required her to ‘repent of withholding sexual intimacy’ from her sex addict husband, who had raped her. The session was preparing to exercise church discipline against her, not him. Faced with such pressure, she withdrew her membership, losing her right of complaint.

In another case, a college student, victimized by stalking on a university campus, was invited to a Reformed church and quickly encouraged to enrol on multiple weekend-long Biblical Counselling courses. The one who issued the invitation, an on-staff church counsellor, spent long hours with her, putting deadlines on her to join the church, pressuring her to go on a six-month ‘courtship track to marriage’ and even to drop out of school and stop ballroom dancing, a hobby since childhood. All of this occurred explicitly against her Christian parents’ counsel, within the space of a few months. With the help of two pastors in other churches, they were eventually able to persuade her to stay away from the counsellor and that particular church.

Another woman was placed under church discipline for failing to ‘resume sexual submission and co-habitation’ with a spouse who admitted to stalking, drugging, and sexually assaulting her for years. She eventually withdrew her membership. In her words,

I tried for many months to get the elders to follow the church order and release my membership to another [church session].  I followed the church order, and they totally ignored it; it was a situation of unwritten rules applying to me and the obvious and recorded rules of the denomination having NO bearing upon the elders themselves.  Even when I articulated my last desperate request, that I resign my membership, they told me I had no authority to do such a thing.

Yet another Christian woman reported how she had shared a humiliating story with her pastor and his wife regarding her husband’s abusive sexual behaviour. After this portion of the ‘counselling’ session, her pastor commanded his own wife to stand up so he could ‘swat’ her on her rear. Apparently, the pastor wanted to prove that the woman was overreacting, that ‘for years, he had swatted his [own] wife on her rear, even among friends and in public.’ What, then, was the big deal? This woman also left that church, losing her right of complaint.

The above cases are only a small sampling of what has happened recently in the PCA, the OPC, and the URCNA, what women have reported to me and what I have at times witnessed. In all cases, I have, where possible and appropriate, contacted church leaders with the information I have received to request a response, viewed documents, and/or contacted other witnesses for corroboration.

These stories were difficult for me to hear and are no doubt uncomfortable for you to read. Some have argued that stories like these have no place in the public eye. But we must hear them. We must resist the temptation to make these accounts more palatable. To stifle the stories of these women is to deny the reality that in all these and other similar cases, the church and its court system has failed to love our vulnerable neighbours. These women have been abandoned by leaders who in many cases are ignoring their cries for help and in other cases either don’t understand their Books of Church Order or even deliberately use it to their own advantage. Often these are leaders who mean well and may even be trying to help but are misguided ideologically or practically. Often they appear to be men who ultimately can’t see past themselves and their own interests. Right now, at this moment, Christians are struggling all over the United States, all over the world, under the weight of the injustice that they carry and re-carry, many of them with no human help.

Vulnerability and the Books of Church Order

I have searched for statistics regarding the frequency with which women, who are often vulnerable, file complaints in various Reformed Christian denominations. I suspect one would have to go to the historical records office of each denomination and comb through presbytery records and sessional minutes to arrive at such statistics. However, despite this shortfall, I am fairly certain, as are pastors I have consulted, that few women file complaints in the church courts without some advocacy.

One obvious reason for the paucity of complaints filed by such women is the imperviousness of the various BCOs and their procedures to laypeople, particularly vulnerable laypeople. Return with me to the case of Hannah, the woman verbally abused by her presbytery’s clerk. This remarkable woman attended five presbytery meetings and filed and refiled two different complaints multiple times after they were rejected on various grounds over several years. In multiple instances, the leaders involved did not explain to her the reasons her complaints were ruled out of order. In fact, they made these clear only after I pressed them to do so. And even after Hannah made it over the first hurdle, filing one of her complaints successfully, she was passed from commission to commission as various members delayed and/or resigned, necessitating the appointment of new members, requiring that both they and Hannah start from scratch. In the end, her hard work was in vain as both her complaints were found out of order. Frustratingly, the judgment about the phone call with the clerk contained numerous factual errors which I sought to correct with no reply from the committee.

But there are other reasons why vulnerable Christians are unable or unwilling to file complaints. There is the issue of time constraints. For at-risk members of the church, their immediate priority is often the physical safety of themselves and their children. On most occasions, those experiencing trauma are unable to prioritize filing a complaint within the various limited time periods the BCOs stipulate. By the time many of the aforementioned women managed to get their bearings, the narrow window of complaint had closed.

Remember also that many women in need of help have already been wounded and bullied by their own sessions, some of whom treat delicate, personal matters with great disrespect and callousness. Women have reported suffering from panic attacks and multiple health concerns as a consequence of both the abuse and secondary abuse they have suffered. For some, contacting further church leaders constitutes a great risk, one they simply do not believe is worth taking, particularly without an advocate. Understandably, most withdraw their membership, losing their right of complaint. After a time of recovery, some women have reported contacting multiple church leaders in their presbytery, who turned them away.

The Sisyphean System: How can we do better?

Why do these stories continue to happen? Why do we assume the worst of people suffering? Why are we too often like Eli in I Samuel 1:10, a man who walked in faith yet reacted in sweeping and cruel judgement to the hurting woman who cried out to God? At the heart of all of these cases are ideological issues that need our collective attention and correction. God saw Hagar’s abandonment by Abraham and Sarai in Genesis 16, and He sees all those with similar burdens. There are vulnerable people in every congregation whom it is a church leader’s  privilege and duty to serve. Leaders, learning how to love your at-risk neighbour involves educating yourself about trauma and its effects, about disability, about mental illness, about chronic illness, about dementia. It means abandoning such mindsets as that a victim of abuse can or should just “get over it.” It means leaving behind the notion that those with no medical expertise should try on their own to repair a person’s physical body or mental self. It requires a commitment of care to your brother or sister for life–and not just until they become too inconvenient, until you can no longer handle their hurt.

I hope to consider these ideological issues elsewhere. But the focus of this post is this: Loving our vulnerable neighbour requires adapting our systems and our attitudes to meet their real needs. More specifically, this post has sought to make explicit the compounding issue of the church court system, which often fails to protect those who are vulnerable, and which makes it harder for pastors to help those who need it most.

How can we improve the system? Consider the following possibilities, as a start:

  1. Amendments to the Books of Church Order, appropriate to the needs of at-risk people. These might include:

a. changes to time restrictions

For example, the PCA BCO 43-2 gives a 60-day time frame in which a member in good standing can file a complaint. The EPC BCO 13.4 specifies the narrowest window of those I examined, that of 15 days. The OPC BCO IX.2 is the most generous I have seen, stipulating a 3-month window ‘unless it is shown that it could not have been presented within that time.’ This last clause is particularly encouraging to see, if it actually facilitates justice for vulnerable people, and, if so, could be a step in the right direction for other denominations.

b. guaranteed access to a neutral adviser

The PCA BCO 43-5 states a complainant may obtain the assistance of a communing member of the PCA, but there is no guarantee of such assistance. OPC BCO IX contains no mention of assistance for a complainant, though a person accused is entitled to counsel from another OPC member in good standing (BCO IV.A.3). In most cases, it seems, a complainant is on his/her own unless she happens to know a sympathetic party in the denomination, which is not very likely when it comes to those at-risk.

c.  a more accessible version of the BCO

The language of most BCOs I have encountered is exclusionary and automatically gives church leaders an advantage. By that, I mean the language is difficult to make sense of without regular use and guidance. Leaders in the church who are required to consult the BCO as part of their position are automatically in a position of privilege over those for whom the process of complaint may be their first encounter with the BCO.

  1. The establishment of a past-case review, similar to that found here.

Vulnerable adults often leave the church before they can make a complaint, in order to protect themselves and their children. As a result, the church court is not notified of cases where discipline (or more) is needed. One possible solution might be to consider the following model:

In Southport, UK, at the United Reformed Church General Assembly in July, 2016, a group known as the Safeguarding Advisory Group (SAG) reported on the progress of a project, known as the Safeguarding Past Case Review. This project was commissioned by the Missions Council in November, 2015, to bring detailed proposals before the Council ‘on issues of abuse in the Church.’ Phase One involved reading 1,556 ministers’ files and classifying them according to level of concern and urgency of response and referring them if necessary. SAG reported on trends within the resulting 54 referred ministers’ files.

SAG also introduced Phase Two in March,

open for anyone who believes that they have been inappropriately dealt with by the Church to be listened to. From April to October 2016 this phase will encourage those who feel they have been carrying a burden to share that with specialist listening teams.

At URC General Assembly in July, 2016, SAG reported these findings and plan to the wider body along with their hope that Phase Two would commence that same month. Whether or not the Safeguarding Past Case Review will bring about positive change in this particular denomination remains to be seen. Regardless, this is a significant step forward and one other denominations should considering emulating, as a matter of urgency.

      3. Appropriate training of church staff and congregants.

Such training might include better equipping staff to use the BCO wisely, to minister to at-risk individuals, to identify those in need, to spot abusive behaviour, and to respond appropriately. Of even greater priority is firm grounding in the theology which lies at the heart of cases involving vulnerable people.

Jesus Christ as Covenant-established Legal Advocate

Those we perceive as difficult are the ones that God requires us to love the most. In loving our vulnerable neighbour, we must consider circumstances, backgrounds, frailties, and burdens, many of which we cannot even comprehend, most of which we cannot fix. Now is the time to obey our Saviour’s command to pour out a love worthy of that by which we have been called. In the early church, certain groups were particularly vulnerable as they had no male legal advocate. But as one pastor friend put it, it is Christ who is the advocate of the neglected, the voiceless, and the vulnerable. Take care, church leaders, that you do not fail those for whom Christ advocates. Jesus Christ stands before them as witness (Eph. 1:3; 2:4-6; Col. 3:1-4).

Why do we love our vulnerable neighbour? In the end, we do so not because we wish to make ourselves more palatable to secular society. We do this not because it will satisfy a longing in us to serve and in so doing become better people. We love our neighbour because Christ commands it and because to do so is to acknowledge God’s holiness and His saving work. ‘And the King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of Mine, you did for Me.”’

*I am able to quote from this phone call because Hannah began recording approximately 45 minutes in. She had not intended to record the call until it became – to her surprise – a clear example of the verbal abuse her divorce attorney had advised her to record. In fact, the clerk’s email to her before the call had been, in her words, ‘pastorly and kind’.

‘What Christian is it that beats his wife?’

domestic-violence-infographic1In the last post in this series, I looked at the ways in which pastors preach about intimate partner violence. The examples I examined were, sadly, typical of the rare instances where pastors directly refer to such violence. In this post, however, I will look briefly at a sermon which defies convention by exposing violence, clarifying offenders’ responsibility, and contesting the blaming and pathologizing of victims. Like the previous post, I will rely on Linda Coates’ and Allan Wade’s (2007) analytic framework, ‘The Interactional and Discursive View of Violence and Resistance’, keeping in mind the additional category of ‘appeal to authority’ I suggested. This is by no means an exhaustive look at this particular sermon. I use this space to point out striking discursive features I’d like to explore in more detail elsewhere, focusing on the places in the sermon where the pastor mentions abuse explicitly.

The broader context of this sermon is worth noting before we dive in. When I read the transcription of this sermon, it was quickly apparent how different it is to the other sermons on divorce in the corpus. While many of the other sermons rely heavily on discursive features such as the language of constraint, on language describing how husbands and wives ought to behave, on women receiving action vs. men taking action, etc., this sermon stands apart discursively. Only recently did I look up the pastor and discover that apart from being Reformed Baptist, he is also British. This raises a question I had hoped would emerge from my pilot corpus: In what ways do cultural background and context influence discourse about divorce? I can hardly generalize from one sermon, but I’m intrigued to see this issue already popping up.

Exposing the abuser and their violence

Excerpt 1:

This would be a case which perhaps you’ve heard of, such situations where a Christian couple get married together, whatever, then the husband turns out to be abusing the wife, violent, uncaring in that way, deserting, leaving her, going off and behaving abominably, not following their vows and commitments.

(‘Divorce – Remarriage’)

A few things to note straightaway from this excerpt are, first, that the abuser is in subject position, his actions and attributes directly connected to him. He is violent, he is uncaring, he is deserting, he is behaving abominably. Next, see that the pastor begins with the action ‘abusing’, which is somewhat vague. But he doesn’t stop there. Rather, he goes on to specify what that abuse looks like, including a range of actions, both physical and non-physical. By providing this wide range of abusive behavior, the pastor is defining clearly for his congregation what abuse might look like and exposing abuse as not simply an act of physical violence. And finally, notice that the pastor presents this case using the historic present, which has the effect of bringing this event into the foreground and perhaps, as some have suggested convincingly, demonstrating its current relevance. While the other pastors in the corpus also used the historic present, in this case the abusive acts are not only present but progressive. They are ongoing, they are right now, they could be happening as we speak.

Particularly interesting is the way this pastor shifts from male to female when talking about an abuser, as in the following passage. For this pastor, abusers can be either sex, whereas in nearly every other sermon, men are the abusers.

Excerpt 2:

If a husband, oh, well, we can see it here, if a wife is behaving in an abusive way like bad violence or somewhere rather behaving in a drunken fashion and destroying the home, threatening the children, violence in that respect…

In this passage, we see again some of the same discursive features (historic present, progressive, active voice, etc.) which expose both the abuser and the violence, though the pastor expands the concept of abuse to include only physical violence. This is another issue worth exploring in detail later, in an expanded corpus. In what ways is abuse gendered? What might this mean?

This pastor further assigns blame to the abuser towards the end of the sermon, where he asks a series of rhetorical questions, identifying the abuser with an unbeliever, someone who is to be treated like a ‘heathen and a tax collector’.

Excerpt 3:

What Christian is it that beats his wife? What Christian is it that deserts his wife, walks out on her? What Christian is it who acts in such immoral ways and is behaving in a way completely contrary to the Word of God? So they placed themselves there effectively as an unbeliever…

The Victim Isn’t to Blame

Some sermon excerpts also have the effect of challenging anyone who might be tempted to blame the victim of abuse. First of all, notice the verb ‘turns out’ in Excerpt 1 (‘the husband turns out to be abusing his wife.’). Consider in what contexts it is most frequently used. The picture here is not of a woman who knowingly married an abusive man and so was somehow partly to blame for her victimization. ‘Turns out’ indicates the unexpected, the unpredictable.

Also telling is this pastor’s version of evaluative ‘oh’ and the way he combines this with an appeal to authority, both of which you may recall from my previous post. Evaluative ‘oh’ was used with some regularity in the corpus to introduce and cast doubt on invented quotes from victims of abuse and those who might support them. See if you can spot the difference in how this pastor makes use of invented reported speech in Excerpt 4.

Excerpt 4:

What happens then? Is the counsel this? Well, sorry, you’re married, you’re a Christian, he is a Christian, she is a Christian… you have to stay together. Well, actually the situation is far more complex than that.

I suggest that the ‘well’ here functions as an evaluative ‘oh’ and indicates negative evaluation of the uncaring adviser, again unlike the other sermons. This interpretation of ‘well’ is confirmed elsewhere in the same sermon, as in the following:

But the Pharisees were not so interested in that. They were rather interested in only certificates that you could sign. Husbands there could say, Well, I detest my wife now, got fed up with her, don’t like her another… And the Lord’s saying, no, not at all.

The implication is that the deserter is the guilty party, and the appeal to authority which follows (‘the Lord’s saying’, a version of ‘Thus saith the Lord’) further condemns him rather than condemning the victim, in contrast with the other sermons.

Still more to say…

This sermon is by no means faultless in its depiction of an abusive marriage and its implications for divorce. Questions remain regarding the aforementioned gendering of violence, and particularly troubling is another point I didn’t explore here: the pastor’s eventual recommendation that the victim use the Matthew 18 principle as a first step to dealing with violence. However, this sermon is one of the only sermons in the corpus in which the pastor explicitly refers to abuse whilst exposing violence, clarifying offenders’ responsibility, and cautioning against victim-blaming. Considering the statistics regarding intimate partner violence, it is highly likely that a victim of violence sat in the pews when each of the sermons we have looked at was originally preached, not to mention the many who have since downloaded one or more from Sermon Audio. As someone committed to the protection of such victims, I know which pew I would prefer to sit in, given the choices so far.

I have only scratched the surface with regard to the discourse of divorce. If you are interested in hearing more, please consider attending the inaugural Lydia Symposium, where I will present my findings in much more detail and where we can discuss these matters in person. And with a glass of wine in hand even!

Image from the Institute of Health

‘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.).

Marital Captivity: An Update on the Divorce Corpus

1385554520maastrichtuniversityscholarIn November, I will deliver a paper as part of the International MARICAP Conference in the Faculty of Law, Maastricht University, The Netherlands, which is this year titled ‘Marital Captivity: Divorce, Religion and Human Rights’ (see here). This conference will bring together academics and professionals from a range of disciplines including legal anthropology, (international) family law and humans rights law, and of course linguistics. My paper will be part of a multi-disciplinary panel on marital captivity in practice and will focus on a recently built pilot corpus of 30 Christian sermons on divorce, which I am currently poring over. When I am working on a project, I tend to try to deliver multiple versions or even the same version of a paper at several conferences. In this case, I’m presenting an early (read: very rough) version of this paper at the 8th Biennial Inter-Varietal Applied Corpus Studies (IVACS) conference in Bath in June (see here). I will also present a more in-depth version at the Inaugural Lydia Symposium in September (on site at Greystone in Coraopolis, PA USA; details forthcoming).

A brief word about the corpus: In the long-term, I hope to build a large corpus of transcribed sermons on various topics under the umbrella of ‘women and family,’ a venture that will require substantial funding. As a first step, I’ve constructed this pilot corpus focusing on divorce, using funding from a Faculty Small Grant. The size of my corpus was constrained, quite practically, by the amount of money I had for transcription. I decided to focus my attention on the 100 most popular sermons on divorce on SermonAudio and, using various criteria, narrow that list down to 30 (more about factors affecting corpus construction here). Roughly speaking, the first step was to identify the first sermon by each speaker appearing in the top 100 list. If that first sermon was #1 in a 2-part series, both of which appeared in the top 100, I included the whole series. Longer series were not included. I eliminated other sermons because of poor sound quality and/or because of miscategorisation. In all, my aim was to achieve balance and representativeness. I did not listen to any sermon beyond the first few minutes during the selection process, and most of the speakers were unknown to me, which allowed me to select fairly objectively. The resulting corpus of 30 sermons (1,538 minutes) captures, fairly well I think, the most frequently accessed perspectives on divorce by conservative Christians on SermonAudio.

It is early days with this corpus as I only just last week received the final transcriptions, but already there is so much to say. While I am excited about sharing my findings and getting feedback from colleagues at these various venues, this is, in many ways, my favorite stage of a project. Everything is so fresh and new. I’ve already run the corpus through WordSmith Tools and cast my eye over the wordlist. I’ve also created a few concordances using high-ranking words in the wordlist. But since this is a small pilot corpus, I’m also reading through each text carefully to identify features that might not be immediately obvious from quantitative analysis. Using this combination of methods, I’ve already noted the seeming importance of such features as modality, i.e. ‘You cannot divorce your wife for…’, ‘The wife should not divorce her husband for…’, the significance of story,  and the use of exaggeration and repetition, among other features about which I will be blogging, writing, and speaking over the rest of 2016. I note that at least one speaker in the corpus has already made it quite clear that women have no right to write or speak authoritatively about ‘a subject of theological importance and worth any merit’, which suggests there will be plenty to work through here.

Those interested in this topic may want to read more about another conference, entitled ‘Tradition is the New Radical: Remapping Masculinities and Femininities in Theology’, to be held at Lund University from 12-14 Dec 2016 (see here). Abstract deadline is 15 June.


Clerical Discourse Surrounding Intimate Partner Violence (Part 1)

woman abuseIntroduction

Over the next few months, I will be reporting on an in-progress project on the topic of conservative Christian discourse about and response to intimate partner violence. This project, funded by a Faculty Small Grant from the University of Sheffield, is informed by existing research on the religious response to intimate partner violence and founded on theoretical and methodological principles derived from corpus linguistics (CL) and critical discourse analysis (CDA). My data will be drawn primarily from the 25-30 most popular (most frequently downloaded) sermons on divorce from SermonAudio, ‘the largest and most trusted library of audio sermons from conservative churches and ministries worldwide’, which hosts, for free, over 1 million audio files of sermons which are freely accessible (Sermon Audio, n.d.). Eventually, I will supplement the resulting small sermon corpus (collection of texts) with personal accounts of clerical response to abuse from survivors of intimate partner violence within the Reformed Christian community. Findings from multiple data types will be cross-compared and patterns identified and explained via discussion of socio-historical/theological conditions within which the discourse was created (Fairclough, 2013). Research questions include:

  • In this community, in what contexts is divorce permissible?
  • How are wives’ and husbands’ actions in divorce framed in clerical discourse, i.e. how are wives/husbands given or denied agency?

Intimate Partner Violence

Intimate partner violence is ‘physical, sexual, or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse’ (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015). Among the most vulnerable survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) in the USA are religious women (Nason-Clark, 2004), many of whose communities espouse a patriarchal form of domination in marriage and stress preserving marriage at all costs. Research on IPV in religious communities has historically focused on interviews with and questionnaires and/or surveys from female survivors (statistically the most frequently victimized), perpetrators, and those who counsel them (Levitt & Ware, 2006b; Nash & Hesterberg, 2009). These studies provide valuable statistics and rich, powerful accounts of IPV but neglect the wider perspective arising from triangulation with other data such as sermons, articles, blogs or other texts produced within religious communities. Research which gives voice to IPV stories whilst also uncovering the wider patterns of discourse which either work against or aid in raising awareness about IPV and empowering victims in religious communities is urgently needed. Indeed, overwhelming evidence exists, both anecdotal and systematic, of the growing on- and offline presence of influential patriarchal voices which empower abusers and send clear messages to women that they should stay in abusive relationships rather than seek separation and/or divorce (Pyles, 2007).

Existing Research

Research on clerical involvement in IPV has produced often conflicting findings revealing a range of attitudes and approaches but has consistently shown that many clerics are ‘conflicted about actions, such as separation or divorce, which they deem threatening to the sanctity of marriage’ (Shannon-Lewy & Dull, 2005: 648-649). Existing research has tended to rely either on:

  • large-scale surveys (Alsdurf & Alsdurf, 1988; Bowker, 1988; Wood & McHugh, 1994; Rotunda, Williamson & Penfold, 2004; Choi, 2015),
  • interviews with leaders from one or more religious communities (Horne & Levitt, 2004; Levitt & Ware, 2006a; 2006b; Moon & Shim, 2010),
  • a combination of survey and interview (Nason-Clark et al., 2010) or,
  • in a few instances, interviews with IPV agencies about the role of church support in IPV cases (Pyles, 2007).

While these studies have revealed much about how the clergy describe their response to IPV, I am unable to identify any study which looks at the extent to which this self-reported data is consistent with clerical discourse, such as sermons, about IPV produced within and for the religious community itself.

Research Design

The growing impetus of corpus linguistics (CL) methods (the study of language using samples of authentic text) has revolutionized all areas of modern linguistics and provided opportunities for quantitative/qualitative research in the exploration of language communities worldwide. Given the increasing dependence of religious organizations on online presence via blogs, news sites, and sermon libraries such as SermonAudio (Cheong et al., 2009), CL offers an effective means of examining patterns within the public discourse about IPV among prominent RPC church leaders.

Likewise useful to exploring discursive patterns is the framework of critical discourse analysis (CDA), which relies on the understanding that ‘public discourse often serves the interests of powerful forces over those of the less privileged’ (Huckin, 2002: 158-159) and that language choices facilitate and even constitute these exercises of power. While few, if any, studies exist which apply principles of CDA to religious leader response to IPV, relevant research includes analysis of political discourse on violence against women (see Berns, 2001; Vives-Cases & La Parra Casado, 2008) which examines discursive strategies obscuring IPV.

In this project, analysis will involve close reading of texts and linguistic analysis, aided by a corpus tool, relying on concepts derived from CDA, starting with features that demonstrate agency, such as transitivity, i.e. who is doing what to whom (Fairclough, 1989), and classification, i.e. the naming and labelling of wives and husbands and their actions via language such as noun phrases, modifiers, and complements (Lakoff, 1990). However, close reading will drive choice of features. Future posts will explore and explain these in greater detail.

Sermons are only part of the picture that the church paints for someone who is facing IPV. Ultimately, this project, in the long-term, aims to describe this picture more fully, capturing the various places where IPV survivors encounter the conservative Christian church’s discourse about and response to IPV as well as divorce more broadly. In this first stage, I focus on one part of the picture, displayed in the language used by church leaders in public-facing, online discourse in the form of sermons and in the counsel/response they offer, as reported by survivors. This first step will aid in the identification of discursive features to facilitate a larger-scale study on religious leader discourse about and response to IPV and its connection to a theology of divorce and of women. In future posts, I hope, step by step, to explain in detail the stages of this project as well as its findings.

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If you believe in the importance of this and other work of the Lydia Center and would like to support its development, please consider donating at the Greystone site: http://greystoneinstitute.org/give.html


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