Domestic Violence Allegations in the Faith-Based Community: How Shall We Respond?

A ViewPoint by Rev. Dr. Christy Gunter Sim Hailey

Woman behind a curtainHow often do religious leaders choose protecting the ones in power over giving voice to the people accusing these leaders of abuse? Way too often, I’m afraid—as evidenced in the recent internet conversations circling around one of the emergent church movement’s most prominent  leaders, Tony Jones, and his ex-wife’s allegations of abuse. It seems to me, as a professional in the field of domestic violence, that the church is more concerned about leaders, movements, and reputations than it is about truly hearing the silenced ones tell their story.

The couple’s divorce, along with the accusations of domestic violence that have been voiced against Tony by his former wife, Julie McMahon, took place several years ago  But a controversy over these happenings has blown up recently for at least two reasons.

First, Julie was given the space to use her voice in the comment section following a post on David Hayward’s “Naked Pastor” blog, September 5, 2014, a post that was initially centered on another religious leader and the question of whether spiritual abuse originates in the theology or the personality of the abuser.  In the discussion thread that ensued, Julie wrote in to tell her personal story of feeling violated.

Second, numerous letters and comments in the discussion thread on that blog (as well as elsewhere on the web) were written by Christian leaders defending and supporting the one she was accusing— her former husband and father of their children.

The purpose of this article

This article focuses on the second of these two reasons for the renewed attention to this dispute — the fact that many well-known religious leaders wrote letters that, in essence, declared sides instead of listening to the cries of someone with less power socially, politically, and religiously. It’s an unhealthy pattern I have found often in the church, where power and voice are given to the ones who already have power and voice, while the church fails to listen empathically to those making the accusations and yearning for their story to be heard.

Many of the leaders in the emergent church movement who spoke up for the person accused of committing the abuse are people whose ministries have had an important impact on my life, having given voice to my exit out of fundamentalism and into true spirituality. Rachel Held Evans gave me words about being a biblical woman without buying into the oppressive passages. Brian McLaren helped me find my voice on issues of spirituality outside the dominant church culture. Even Tony Jones impressed upon me new ideas to deepen my faith. But then came accusations of domestic violence against Tony, and with that the fabric of a tightly woven movement began to unravel, which so often happens when there is an unwillingness to listen to those who report abuse and are instead silenced.

As I wrote this piece, it became apparent to me that I too can easily fall into this familiar pattern of supporting an alleged or actual perpetrator in cases of abuse. Thanks to the gentle push of a friend, I realized I was harboring an old anger at myself for the times I displayed these inappropriate responses when I found myself in an abusive relationship— long before study, research, and writing a dissertation on healing after intimate partner violence helped me develop some expertise on the subject. Though clearly destructive, fear silenced me. And I chose not to stand up to this powerful man.

My friend asked me, “Who are you mad at?” That was an easy answer. The religious leaders for writing letters! Second, my friend questioned, “Why are you mad about this?” Again, simple response! Because these letters were in defense of someone who holds a national level of religious power! But then my dear friend gave me a third question. It was almost a whisper.  “Have you ever ‘written letters’ of defense of your own abuser, or did you ever find yourself standing up for him?”

(Insert cricket sounds.)


Yes, I did defend him. I probably even wrote letters.

So when I say writing these letters in support of the one who holds the power is inappropriate, I am calling out my own vulnerability here. I am not just mad at our leaders. I still hold a bit of anger toward myself, since I know all too well that when I stood up for my abuser, all it did was give him more power and silence me more— and thus led to more escalated violence.

Allow me to clarify that in this article I am not validating accusations of abuse. Nor am I taking a particular side on a specific issue.  I am also not investigating court documents to offer an opinion on who is right or wrong.  However, I am providing a lens by which we can look at abuse allegations. And, finally, I am saying we can do better in how we handle domestic violence accusations in the future.

Problems inherent in providing public and written support for an accused abuser

There are some points I want to highlight as a foundation for why public (and written) support of someone accused of abuse is a serious problem.

First, for all those who could be victims of abuse, as Julie McMahon claims to be, the following messages are coming through from those with power and influence, and they’re being heard loud and clear:

•  We can team up and together malign your character by showing how “crazy” you are.

•  Your voice does not matter because our friend’s reputation is more important than your perceived experience.

•  We have never seen our friend behave inappropriately; and because we (and he) are in power, our story trumps your story.

Man sitting on floorLet’s look at these messages in a bit more depth, working our way backwards. This is what they are saying in essence:

1. “Your story can’t be true because we have never witnessed the accused person display any abusive characteristics.” The truth is, rarely does anyone (besides the family of the abuser) ever witness abuse. Domestic violence is about power and control over another person. It is a serious pattern where the victim is groomed into submission over a period of time, where any weakness is leveraged against them. Abuse is about controlled moves that gradually cause a person to feel less human, and these behaviors are not typically on display for the entire world. Abusers do not appear as monsters to the general public. They are often smooth, classy, and admirable. When religious leaders write letters in defense of the accused, they dismiss the unseen experience of victims.

2.  “Your voice is less important than ours because our friend’s reputation matters most, and it must be protected.” When I read the original letters and the subsequent public statements issued, all I see are leaders in a panic. They might actually say some form of the words, “I validate survivors,” and then the statement is followed with a pile of nothingness that leaves survivors feeling lost. If you want to truly validate survivors, then your words and choices must be survivor-centered. Which means you must listen to all voices, not just your friend’s voice. When religious leaders write letters in defense of the accused, they have just written off the victim’s voice; especially when they admit to never having had a personal conversation with the victim.

3.  “We can’t believe you would make such accusations about someone we know to be a kind, wonderful person— unless you really are mentally ill (as he claims, and has provided us with evidence).” This is character destruction through the crazy-card. It is too easy for those in power to dismiss the stories and voices of victims of domestic violence with the accusation of mental illness. Here is the thing we tend to misunderstand: domestic violence victims are torn apart at the core, manipulated, put down for years, shamed, blamed, and isolated from family and friends. Thus, I would expect the one who is actually the victim to be labeled as irrational. Any human being in these lonely, self-derogating circumstances would be expected to show signs of emotional anguish and may even themselves begin doubting their sanity! When religious leaders write letters in defense of the accused, they have just written off the actual lived experience and voice of victims— an experience of complete and utter torment beyond many of these leaders’ understanding, a depth of suffering where crying out from the spiral of trauma can appear a bit “crazy.”

Characteristics of abusers and their victims

Additionally these letters are inappropriate because they fail to be informed by what tend to be characteristics of the abused and the abuser.  The chart below fleshes out these characteristics.

Characteristics of Abuser and Abused

Sensitivity to Victims of Domestic Violence

In other words, whether Tony Jones is an abuser or not, all those who hear or read about this and who themselves live in the dynamics of being controlled by another person, will see the things he is said to have done as characteristics of their own abuser. Therefore, how we respond to those accusations makes all the difference in the world. We must be sensitive to those living in abuse situations and who may have been silenced themselves.  This is the main point I want to make in this article

The handling of the Jones-McMahon controversy was exacerbated through those in power using social media to their advantage. We watched religious leaders take sides and stand up in defense of the one accused. We watched religious leaders conduct their own investigations from the privacy and safety of their own homes, checking any facts they could find, and  then issuing their own verdict about who was the victim.

womanThe public outcry over this letter-writing campaign is entirely appropriate and to be expected. Leaders should not be surprised when it happens. I am not saying all letter writing must discontinue. I am saying if you want to write the letter and defend someone as not being an abuser, the reactions to such a letter are on your hands. You have to take responsibility for the ways victims and survivors respond to your letters.

Here is what the outcry of the victims and survivors is declaring: these leaders displayed an unhealthy and inappropriate response to domestic violence, a response that happens all too often.

Thus, when we respond to allegations of domestic abuse we must be survivor-centered in our reactions. This is how the church should respond to allegations of violence, whether it is a beloved leader, our friend, or someone we love:

•  Believe it when someone says they are abused. Listen to their story.  Hear them out.  It is incredibly humiliating to admit someone controlled you. Claiming someone violated you, took away your power, and silenced you is mortifying. So believe the person claiming such things; it is not an easy place to be.

•  The victim’s sanity is not up for discussion. Period. What is often not understood is that anyone who has been victimized—shamed, blamed, controlled, doubted, psychologically battered so that their self-esteem is beaten down and their confidence destroyed even if their body doesn’t show bruises and broken bones— is bound to show trauma responses that may look a little crazy. In fact, such a person is likely to appear mentally unstable if they are actually being abused. Years later that victim might move on to thriving as a survivor and be able to find quite sane words to describe and explain things to you, but it takes time to walk through the normal trauma response path. This is an important point for those on the outside looking at victims and thinking they must be insane, and it’s also an important point for victims themselves who need assurance that they’re OK just as they are.

•  We should not put the responsibility on the victim to prove their own story about being violated. We have created the unhealthiest culture of demanding documentation to believe someone is being abused. There is no need for victims to prove themselves.

In the words of Rachel Held Evans herself, “I’ve been corresponding more regularly with victims of abuse who have patiently and graciously exposed me to the ways in which the Church routinely mishandles abuse allegations by shaming the alleged victims and protecting church leaders” (emphasis hers).  Shaming alleged victims and protecting powerful leaders was a problem for the church when she wrote those words in 2013, and it still is.

David Hayward has published a powerful cartoon in a 2015 follow-up post to the blog post that started this ongoing discussion about protecting the reputation of leaders accused of abuse. Hayward’s cartoon shows a fork in the road with signs pointing in two directions, one being “reputation and revenue,” and the other, “solidarity with the silenced.” He talks about the pressure he has been receiving to take down or edit the original post “that started all this,” along with the nearly 1,000 comments it garnered.  “In other words,” he says, “the pressure to be silent has been enormous and hasn’t let up. Actually, for me, the pressure has been to stop providing places for the silenced to speak.” And this he refuses to do.

Thus, I too suggest we commit ourselves to hearing all voices, even if it makes our hearts ache. Let’s not protect the ones in power simply because they are our friends and we cannot imagine such things. Let’s be willing to believe people who claim they were violated. Let’s listen to their stories. Let’s allow victims the freedom to look a little crazy in their trauma response.  And let’s change the way we typically respond to allegations of domestic violence.  Survivors of abuse deserve better.

© 2015 by Christian Feminism Today

Rev. Dr. Christy Gunter
Christy graduated from St. Paul’s School of Theology in Kansas with a doctorate in Global Health and Wholeness. Her main area of research was in healing after domestic violence, and her dissertation was titled Body, Theology, and Intimate Partner Violence: Healing Fragmentation through Spiritual Play. She also holds an M.Div. from Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City and is listed in the Scientific Reviewer and Adviser database for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as an expert in Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Teen Dating Violence. In June, 2018, she helped organize the "For Such a Time as This Rally," speaking outside the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, encouraging pastors and ministry leaders to respond to domestic violence and sexual assault in trauma-informed and survivor-centered ways. Her new book Survivor Care: What Religious Professionals Need to Know about Healing Traumacame out in spring 2019 (Wesley Foundry Books).


  1. In my past, I’ve had work abuse happen. I still have shame around what I put up with and how devastating it was to live with on a daily basis. It not only effected me, but my family and my children.

    I’ve never publicly shared this, but felt motivated after reading your words.

    The problem with most people is we tend to judge our insides by someone else’s outsides.

    Sometimes the picture perfect smiles people see could be covering up something you just can’t know. You just can’t know without truly having that conversation you are encouraging us all to have.

    A problem shared is halved and a joy shared multiplied.

    I also know that I have to continue to learn to choose new behaviors and see that I teach people how to treat me.

    It was a series of choices I made to get into that situation and it was a series of choices I made to get out of it.

    I’m going to be honest… Getting out of it was ugly, but years later I feel good about myself and everyone involved who helped to get me out of the abuse.

    If you are stuck in a bad situation reach out. You are worth it.

  2. Thank you very much for taking the time to research and write about this. A powerful piece which helps me think about the Tony Jones case in different ways. Appreciate it!

  3. Dr. Sim, as a survivor of domestic and spiritual abuse, who has been deeply devastated by the responses of these leaders, leaders who have shaped much of my theology and several of whom have platforms as advocates for the oppressed, thank you for this article. I hope this will shine a firm, but loving, light on why those of us who were angered by their responses have legitimate reasons to be so.

  4. There is one problem with your premise. Scripture does not permit us to accept abuse on the word of one witness. Scripture, YA knw. The Bible. I notice you stayed away from that. The Bible teaches that two or three witnesses need to be involved. A doctor can be a witness, but Scripture doesn’t allw solo allegations to be accepted. It also says that if a woman is separated from her husband FOR ANY REASON, disqualifies the husband from ministry.

    i am currently reading a blog of a woman who was married to a pedophile for 40 years. She describes in detail what pedophiles are really like. It is called Finding AHealing Place. He was a pastor of a Church of Christ in Pennsylvania. You might find it educational.

  5. Robert, I’m curious how you would deal with the millions of cases in which a pedophile abused in private or an abuser beat his wife in private. That is where is nearly always happens — in private.

    It is worth noting that scripturally, there are other relevant examples than just requiring more than one witness. For example, one church was counseled to expel from fellowship a man who was sleeping with his father’s wife. Everyone in the community apparently knew about it, but we can be sure they didn’t all crowd into the room to witness the adultery personally. They probably saw him go to her house repeatedly, that sort of thing. So no witnesses at all — just circumstantial evidence. We need not be blind to the point of foolishness simply because abusers typically don’t abuse in front of witnesses. That would be condemning all the victims to the same treatment they’re getting now, and God will not hold us guiltless for that.

    Finding a Healing Place is excellent. We have a number of strong “personal/research blog”-type resources on the Internet that help people. I hope in the future we will be more mainstream and systematic about helping instead of covering things up.

  6. Terri
    My apologies for not getting back sooner. I don’t check every blog daily. To begin with, you are asking three different questions, so let’s address them one at a time.
    If the pedophile is a man, they will always have child pornography and they almost always have multiple victims. That has been pretty well established. It seems that most pedophiles begin as teenagers. I am defining a pedophile as a person who is sexually attracted to kids who are preadolescent or beginning adolescents, say up to 14. Child testimony, DNA, defendant photographs medical testimony as far as std or physical trauma suffered by the victim would all be lawful to introduce as evidence. It is now t just one person. Once a cop cracks the case, the supporting evidence comes pretty fast. If this evidence doesn’t exist, there is a good chance he is innocent. For women who molest, there will be text messages and DNA with testimony. There won’t be many victims, probably just one or two. But there will be external evidence.

    The problem with domestic violence laws as they stand is that they are designed to destroy marriages. As far as the courts are concerned breaking up a marriage is better than reconciliation. It is easier for the courts to enforce. In some states, Idaho being one of them, an unproven allegation of domestic violence is grounds for a woman to give secret testimony to a judge about her ex in regards to custody. So much for the constitutional right to face ones accuser. I hope that gets challenged soon because The father’s that you should all rights are being thrown out the window. This leads to another generation of fatherlessness children. I didn’t say fatherless children. Unless we address this this lack of possibility of reconcilliation, the children will grow up with poorer grades,higher likelihood of repeateting the domestic violence cycle and drugs etc. remember, once the kids have seen the violence the damage is done. Taking them away from the violent parent creates different problems in additional n to the violence.
    I have more to say, but I have to go to work. I am not trying to diminish domestic violence, but, the court destroying marriage is scant protection.

  7. I’ve had this post open for a couple of weeks now. Every now and then I re-read it. This morning was one of those times. I’m coming upon my 1 year anniversary of leaving my abusive husband. I’ve had many milestones along the way. There are two things that have been the hardest to overcome, 1) peeling away at the layers of my husband’s reality and discovering my own reality, and 2) having to choose between my faith and my well-being. I have been told, in no uncertain terms, that I have sinned by leaving my husband. After all, he “took in” me and my three kids. How can he possibly be bad? I can’t begin to experience Julie’s pain, but I know my own. When an abuse victim comes forward, the abuser is innocent until proven guilty. The victim, however, is guilty until proven innocent. Guilty of false accusations unless she has concrete proof. This is difficult when the abuse always takes place behind closed doors. And when you spent many years protecting your abuser’s reputation, all at the direction of your church.

    Robert states that we shouldn’t take children out of abusive homes because, after all, the damage has already been done. The abusive father’s rights trump the children’s well-being. I mean, the children are already screwed, why screw the father, too? Those evil courts for trying to protect the children and trampling all over the father’s rights. Tsk, tsk. What is this world coming to? There was a time in this great country when women and children didn’t have a voice. When no judge in his right mind would listen to a woman. She’s probably crazy anyway, right, Robert?

  8. The irony isn’t unnoticed here: “In the words of Rachel Held Evans herself, “I’ve been corresponding more regularly with victims of abuse who have patiently and graciously exposed me to the ways in which the Church routinely mishandles abuse allegations by shaming the alleged victims and protecting church leaders” (emphasis hers).

  9. I couldn’t possibly count the number of times I’ve seen men (and it’s almost always men) who use this standard as a means of silencing victims and survivors of abuse. While I suspect the great majority of them are well-meaning, suggesting the universal application of such a standard is harmful in the extreme, and it utterly ignores what we now know about the dynamics of abuse. Although he never addressed domestic abuse as we understand it, Jesus (ya know, the Lord and Savior of those who would cite this standard) stated a particular principle rather succinctly which I think would necessarily supercede it—the sabbath was made for us, not us for the sabbath. The point he was making is abundantly clear. These rules which the Bible enumerates are meant to serve people, as opposed to nebulous ideals of right.

    The typical reply to what I’ve said above (and I hear it every time), is that we must consider the rights of the accused. Certainly, that is always a consideration. However, as Dr. Sim points out in her article, it is positively damaging to all survivors of abuse to prefer the accused over the accuser. Numerous studies show that false allegations of abuse are exceedingly rare, and the reasons Dr. Sim provides explain why. Extraordinarily few among us would wish to see themselves exposed publicly as having submitted to abuse, and that acts as a horrifically effective means of keeping survivors quiet. In my experience, what you’ve stated as the preferred (divinely commanded, to be accurate) standard is a fine example of what Jesus referred to as gnat-straining.

    Allegations of abuse are always messy and complicated. Working to support survivors is dirty work which carries high personal risk, and those who would seek to do it are always smeared right along with survivors themselves. In the broader Church, this smearing is routinely achieved using the very scripture you cite, and it does nothing more than continue to enable those who would use their positions of power and prestige to escape notice. There simply is no means of addressing the rampant issue of abuse within the church (much less society as a whole) so long as people choose, as the Pharisees infamously chose, to adhere to the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of it.

    Jesus stated explicitly that his purpose was to seek out and heal the abused and the discarded. He most certainly never made it his priority to live up to the rules imposed by those who claimed a superior grasp and practice of scripture. In using the standard you name, whether or not you realize it, you are doing the work of the Pharisees by upholding the superiority of principle over that of the practice of compassion. I sincerely hope you reconsider your stance, and in so doing that you discover a deeper expression of your faith.

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