Recognizing Abuse

Updated: Jun 7, 2020

This article was originally published on

The Institute for Collective Trauma and Growth website.

Following the #metoo movement in our broader culture and the #churchtoo movement in our Christian communities, it is clear that the abuse of power in the form of sexism, harassment, and sexual assault is far more prevalent than many would have believed. And yet, these stories and disclosures of abuse do not only confirm the severity of this problem, they also reveal another insidious problem as well: a general ignorance of abuse.

Consider the controversy with former president of the Southern Baptist Convention Paige Patterson which began with criticism of his callous remarks to a victim of domestic violence.

In response, Thom Rainer, a prominent Southern Baptist like Patterson, publically declared that there is no excuse for the abuse of women in any context. And, of course, I agree.

Still something disturbed me as I watched the comments roll out on social media the last few days. Then a video of pastor and theologian John Piper began making the rounds again. In it he counsels abused women on what submitting to an abusive husband looks like. He suggests that if the husband wasn’t causing her to sin but was "simply hurting her" then she might "endure verbal abuse for a season", and " perhaps being smacked one night" before seeking help from the church.

One criticism of Patterson’s comments and Piper’s advice was that both neglected to involve the police or other civil authorities.

From these examples it is blatantly evident that Patterson and Piper have no knowledge of abuse or abuse dynamics, but the responses advocating automatically involving the police are also problematic. While it may seem wise, this also betrays an ignorance of abuse. Of course when children disclose abuse you must inform authorities, but for adult victims of abuse or sexual assault the choice is not so clear.

First, not all abusive behaviors are considered criminal. Plus, abusers will retaliate when victims seek help and intervention. Involving police does not lead to the abuse being stopped. Instead it usually leads to an escalation of abuse.

Plus, abuse is not as simple as Piper and Patterson assume. It is not an occasional lashing out followed by an abuser that is quick to repent when confronted by church folk. Domestic Violence is a pattern of controlling behaviors within the context of a specific relationship.

Recognizing abuse is not easy even when, or perhaps especially when, you are in a romantic relationship with the abuser. For example, Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of the memoir Crazy Love, provides an answer for why she stayed married to her former husband while he abused her, “I didn’t know I was being abused.”

As shocking as this seems, it is common.

In addition to not recognizing abuse, the reasons victims do not leave are complex and unfortunately include the very real possibility that if they try to they will end up murdered. The results of effective grooming complicate leaving. In addition, economic and social concerns are very effective means of keeping victims in abusive relationships.

And yet, there is hope.

Recognizing and naming abuse is vital to helping and supporting victims. This requires becoming informed about abuse dynamics, including how abusers function, and how it impacts victims.

In short, we need conversations in our sacred spaces about what abuse is, what it looks like, and how it is lived out in relationships, otherwise we can condemn abuse all we want while missing it when it is right in front of us.

So, when we find ourselves in situations with a victim of abuse seeking counsel what can we do?

First become informed about abuse as soon as possible. There are a number of ways to do this. You can read books written by abuse experts, such as Lundy Bancroft – an expert on domestic violence or Anna C. Salter – an expert on sexual abuse.

Bancroft and Salter excel at their research because both of them have experience treating offenders and victims. Therefore, they understand the nuances of abusive relationships and dynamics. This means they can help you understand how abusers think and function, as well as how those thoughts and behaviors impact their victims and survivors.

Another thing these experts have in common is their belief that therapeutic experts are not the only experts to consult: survivors of abuse have taught them much and have much to teach us as well.

Inviting survivors – such as Nicole Braddock Bromley - to speak, teach, and/or lead workshops is an excellent way to learn about the complexities of abuse.

Or you could create a book club that reads a book together - such as those mentioned above or perhaps Amy Jo Burns’ memoir Cinderland - and create a space to discuss abuse.

Some other pragmatic supports and behaviors include

Know your community’s resources for victims, contact them and build relationships with them, and most importantly utilize them.

Center victim’s voices and experiences by providing survivors a platform.

Always defer choices and decision making to victims. Victims are systematically disempowered by their abusers. They have had their will broken down and violated over time until all choices feel terrifying and paralyzing. Know and provide them safe options but do not choose for them.

Understand and practice being present with others in their pain and ambivalence without telling them what to do, how to feel, or which decisions to make.

And of course, speak and teach about abuse. The more we talk about it in healthy informed manners the more we remove the stigma and shame of being a victim.

What resources have you found helpful or informative? What innovative or creative ideas have your communities used to educate or respond to abuse?


Bancroft, Lundy. Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men.2003.

Burns, Amy Jo. Cinderland: a Memoir. 2014.

Salter, Anna C. Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders. 2018.

Steiner, Leslie. Crazy Love. 2010.


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