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Domestic Violence in the IFB Church Movement

god domestic abuse

Let me begin by giving readers the definition of domestic violence. The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines domestic violence as follows:

Domestic violence can be defined as a pattern of behavior in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner.

Abuse is physical, sexual, emotional, economic or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure or wound someone.

Domestic violence can happen to anyone of any race, age, sexual orientation, religion or gender. It can happen to couples who are married, living together or who are dating. Domestic violence affects people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels.

Does the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement have a domestic abuse problem? The short answer is Yes!

The IFB church movement is built on a foundation of psychological manipulation and abuse. This is seen in how parents discipline their children and how husbands lord over and control their wives. These behaviors are often modeled by IFB pastors, deacons, and church leaders as they manipulate, control, and dominate church members.

I know IFB readers of this blog are howling over what I have written here. How dare I suggest that the IFB church movement has an abuse problem. How dare I suggest IFB pastors and church leaders emotionally and mentally manipulate and control people. Child abuse? Domestic violence? Where do such things happen? says the IFB church member. I have never seen it.

And therein lies the problem. The abuse and violence are institutionalized to such a degree that it is considered normal. People are so used to seeing it that they never consider whether such behavior is appropriate. IFB church members are familiar with having their “toes stepped on.” They are accustomed to fire-and-brimstone, naming-names, calling-sin-“sin,” sermons. They are used to aggressive behavior from their pastors. It seems quite “normal” to them. Those of us who were raised in the IFB church movement understand this. It took us getting away from it to see how manipulative and abusive our churches, pastors, and families really were. The waiting rooms of mental health professionals are crowded with people whose mental wellness and self-esteem were ruined by Fundamentalism.

For those of us who spent decades in the IFB church, we know that the deep psychological scars left by our time in the IFB church will never go away. We learn to come to terms with our past and try to do the best we can going forward. We are marred, even broken, yet somehow, we find a way to pick up and move forward.

This is why some of us speak so openly about the IFB church movement and its manipulative and abusive tendencies. We don’t want ANYONE to experience what we experienced. When we see someone gravitating towards Fundamentalism we try to warn them as we would warn a person who is driving towards a cliff. Stop! Turn around!  Sadly, many people ignore these warnings and often pay a heavy price, emotionally, mentally, and sometimes physically, as a result.

Domestic violence in the IFB church movement is widespread. Unfortunately, it is often not seen as domestic violence by those who are devoted church members. Instead, the use of domestic violence is often seen as being “true to the Bible” or being “a faithful follower of Jesus.” To understand this, we must first understand the theological underpinnings of such violence. Domestic violence often happens because husbands (it is almost always husbands who perpetrate domestic violence in the IFB church) want to be obedient to the Bible, Jesus, and the pastors’ dictates. Remember, in the IFB church, the voice of God sounds an awful lot like the voice of the Pastor.

Here is what many IFB pastors preach to their church members:

  • Christ is the head of the church and pastors are ordained by God to lead (and control) their churches.
  • The Bible is an inspired, inerrant, infallible text that should be interpreted literally and explicitly obeyed.
  • Husbands are the head of their homes.
  • Wives are to submit to their husbands.
  • The highest calling for women is to bear children and to be a keeper of the home. Many IFB pastors discourage women from working outside the home or getting college educations (unless they go to an IFB college to get an MRS degree).
  • Husbands are the authorities, disciplinarians, and the kings of their homes. God holds them, like he did Adam, responsible for everything that goes on in their homes.
  • The Bible sanctions using violence when children disobey. If parents don’t spank, whip, or beat their children, it  means they are not willing to obey the teachings of the Pastor and the Bible. The rod of correction is meant to be used to drive wickedness out of the hearts of children.

Now, none of these things necessarily lead to domestic abuse. However, add to this the IFB church’s preoccupation with sin and the portrayal of God as a violent deity who will whip them if they disobey, and you have a recipe for not only domestic abuse but also child abuse. I have watched more than a few IFB church members and pastors beat the living hell out of their children with a belt, switch, or paddle. I remember hearing of one parent who picked up a 2×4 and beat his two teenage girls with it. Why? The teens deliberately disobeyed him by riding the church bus home instead of going home with him.

I have admitted my own violent, abusive methods of correcting my three oldest children. Fortunately, I abandoned these practices with my three youngest children. My oldest sons routinely got thrashed for disobeying their parents. I corrected them this way because I thought that is what God wanted me to do. The books I read said this was the proper way to discipline children, and every big-name preacher I heard preach said I was doing right by my kids when I whipped them. Is it any surprise then, with Bible-sanctioned brutality against children and a violent God who uses violence to chastise disobedient IFB church members, that violent behavior spills over into the relationships between husbands and their “submissive” wives?

I can’t say that I know of more than a few instances where IFB husbands physically beat their wives. I know of a few pastors’ wives who were physically abused by their pastor husbands. The pastors were men of God in the pulpit, but at home they were violent disciplinarians who ruled over their wives and children with a rod of iron. Most of the abuse I saw was more of the mental and emotional type. If their wives weren’t submissive enough or didn’t put out sexually, they would pay for it. If they dared to have ambition, wanted to work outside the home, or go to college, these “rebellious” wives would be brought to heel, reminded of God’s divine order for the home.

I have often said, I don’t know how ANY woman stays in the IFB church. Well, I do know. Women are afraid. They fear disobeying God, their husbands, and their pastors. They fear God will chastise them if they dare step outside the role God has allegedly ordained for them.  And so they stay and suffer the abuse.

Again, theology plays a big part in this. Many IFB pastors think that there are no grounds for divorce or that the only ground for divorce is adultery. Having a husband who is abusive, especially if it is emotional or mental abuse, is not grounds for divorce.

Let me give an illustration of how this is perpetuated from the pulpit:

Years ago the church I was pastoring joined together with other IFB churches to hold a joint revival meeting. The speaker was Bill Rice III. (I am almost certain it was Bill Rice but it could have been Pete Rice, both were associated with the Bill Rice Ranch.) One night, Bill Rice preached on  the subject of marriage and divorce. Rice did not believe there were any grounds for divorce. He said that even if a husband was beating on his wife, the wife should stay in the marriage. Perhaps she would win her husband to Jesus by her willingness to stay in the marriage. Rice intimated that saved husbands don’t beat their wives.

By the time of this meeting my views had already begun to change and I pulled our church out of the meetings. I was incensed that Rice was advocating a woman endure her husband beating on her, implying that God wanted her to do so.

As my wife and I traveled beyond the IFB church movement, we had to relearn what it meant to have a healthy marriage and family relationship. Ultimately, it took getting away from Christianity altogether for us to find wholeness.

I am not suggesting that every husband in the IFB church movement is abusive or that every father abuses his children when he disciplines them. I am suggesting that IFB theology encourages manipulation, violence, and abuse. Personally, I don’t think the IFB church movement is good for anyone. The extreme Fundamentalism found in the movement is psychologically harmful and people are better off finding other Christians sects to be a part of; sects that don’t view women as inferior, and don’t see children as chattel. I am of the opinion that the best thing that can happen to the IFB church movement is that it dies a quick death. It is dying, but it is dying slowly. I am all for smothering the movement in its bed.

Over the years, I have watched a number of women break free from domestic violence. They decided their own personal self-worth and happiness were more important than supposed obedience to God, the Bible, the pastor, and their husbands. Most often, gaining their freedom required them to divorce their husbands.

Let me head off those who might suggest that the reason there is domestic abuse and child abuse in the IFB church movement is that they misinterpret the Bible. I don’t think this is the case at all. Sadly. abusers are being consistent with their beliefs and literal readings of the Bible. After all, the Bible does command fathers to beat their children with rods. The Bible does command wives to be submissive to their husbands and be keepers of their homes. And let’s face it, the Bible is a written record of the violence God pours out and will yet pour out on all those who do not worship or obey him. The good news is that many Christians ignore or explain away vast parts of the Bible. They know beating children is wrong. They know demanding a wife submit to her husband is demeaning. They wisely reject such things.

Do you have a story to tell about domestic violence? What did you experience growing up in the IFB church? What went on in your IFB home when the doors were closed? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

24 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    I suspect most wives would disagree with me, but adultery is one thing that I would NOT see as automatically deserving of divorce. It definitely means trouble, and that might not be resolvable, and maybe divorce is ultimately necessary… but it depends a whole lot on the circumstances and how we both value our marriage.

    OTOH, if he abused me he’d never talk to me again without my divorce lawyer present, and if he was that kind of person we wouldn’t have made it past the first year, much less 35 years.

    • Avatar
      howitis

      I agree. It definitely depends on the couple, but adultery is not always a deal-breaker in a marriage. A college friend of mine married a pro hockey player, and she knew full well that he slept with other women on a regular basis, especially when he was on the road. But she put up with it because she loved him (he could be a very nice guy); because he was a great father to their kids; and because his salary allowed her to live a lifestyle (fancy houses in exclusive gated communities, fancy new cars every year, exotic vacations, private school for their kids, she didn’t have to work) that she would not have had otherwise. Basically, his infidelity was the price she paid to live in the lap of luxury, so all she asked of him was that he always use protection (to avoid the STDs and paternity suits she saw other players’ wives deal with) and that he keep his side affairs discreet and on the down-low. Last I heard, they are still together.

      On the other hand, it is possible to recover from an affair; I have a good friend who cheated on her husband early in their marriage, but rather than get a divorce when he found out, they decided to work on their relationship. They went to counseling for several months, and both agreed to make significant changes. He agreed to quit his job as a truck driver in favor of a career that would keep him home more; she agreed to move to another city and away from her meddling, high-drama parents. It wasn’t easy, but they saved their marriage, and they are happy and still together almost 30 years later.

      One thing that is an absolute deal-breaker to me: abuse. If your spouse lifts a hand to you, you leave. Period. Full Stop. Once an abuser, always an abuser, and he will not change, no matter what he says, 99.9 percent of the time. I have volunteered in a shelter for abused women and of the dozens of women who came through the doors, I can only think of one case where a man stopped abusing, and that was a guy whose real problem was his alcoholism; he only got violent when drunk and once he went through rehab (under threat of hard time in prison) and got sober, he stopped being abusive. In literally every other case, women who went back to their husbands got abused again. Many were abused even worse when they came back. And many were left permanently disabled, or dead.

      TL;DR: Abuse, not adultery, is the marriage deal-breaker. Thus the bible is wrong (as usual.)

      • Avatar
        Ahab

        Unfortunately, not all abuse victims have the option of leaving. Some victims stay with their abusers because of money, an insufficient support network, or life-threatening danger from the abusers if they leave.

        This is why it’s so important to have domestic violence services in our communities, and why we should support loved ones who are experiencing abuse. Those things can enable escape.

      • Avatar
        Lydia

        I’m fascinated by the story of your friend who tolerated her husband’s infidelities. Was she given the same freedom to have other partners? Do you think she was truly happy with the arrangement, or was she just tolerating it?

        • Avatar
          howitis

          I don’t know if she had the same freedom to sleep around; if she did, she didn’t talk about her affairs. What she did talk about, when someone asked her why she “put up with it,” was how much she loved him, and what a great Dad he was, and how much she loved their life together….which frankly I interpreted as “I love my affluent lifestyle as much (or more) than I love him, and I’ll lose that lifestyle if I leave him, so I will look the other way unless it becomes too humiliating.” She once told me that when she got engaged and became part of the players’ wives clique, she was told by one of the more “veteran” wives, basically: “Buy the ticket, take the ride. He will stray, and you need to decide right now if this life you get to have is worth that reality. If not, don’t get on this ride.”

          It’s a decision that, frankly, a lot of women who are married to pro athletes, actors, politicians, rock starts, etc. seem to make. I remember reading something around the time that Tiger Woods’ wife left him over his many indiscretions; someone wrote that she was the exception, not the rule, in that she decided to divorce him. Many, if not most, of the women whose prominent husbands get caught cheating seem to stay with their husbands and even defend them. Perhaps because they are just as addicted to the power, money and fame and the lifestyle it buys; perhaps because they love them and can’t imagine life without them; perhaps because they long ago realized (and accepted) that monogamy, while a great concept, is not for everyone, and negotiated an “open” relationship with their spouse, something that the larger society is loathe to accept. Perhaps it’s a little of all of the above; and perhaps, sadly, there are abuse dynamics at play in many of these relationships as well.

  2. Avatar
    khughes1963

    Michael Pearl’s continued popularity is a mystery to me, especially given that his disciplinary techniques have contributed to the deaths of several children. Of course, Michael Pearl disclaims any legal or moral responsibility for it. As for domestic abuse in the IFB, Jack Hyles’s flagrant affair with Jennie Nischik and Jack Schaap’s sexual abuse of the teenaged girl that he was supposed to be counseling come to mind. So do the accounts of children from troubled homes being sent to the religious prisons like New Bethany and Hephzibah House.

  3. Avatar
    Kenneth

    I never really thought of how far some people take Christianity and I’m saddened to know this type of behavior could be seen as positive by IFB’s. I guess if you take the Bible literally, this type of thing could easily become very common anywhere and with any part of Christianity.

  4. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    I grew up seeing domestic abuse committed against my mother by her third husband, progenitor of my half- brother. It was awful to witness and endured. I considered killing and robbing that person many times until I was a legal adult and converted to Jesus at 19. The guy was an alcoholic, had a mean streak, he’d admitted that since he knew my mother was easy to victimize– due to her uncaring and indifferent relatives–he didn’t have to stop. There were no shelters for people suffering from domestic violence, running away from home was decriminalized only in 1976, as I recall. I was told Christians didn’t beat their wives like seculars do. Of course, over time I noticed tense marriages in the churches I attended. I got cold feet, realizing that having Jesus didn’t guarantee a decent marriage, and that a bad one meant that spouses may be in those situations as a test/ ordained life-path. I didn’t know of anyone with a good marriage, anywhere. I didn’t want their lives for myself at all ! That said, most church denominations have the IFB policy for family life. Image is everything. If you have problems, go to a ” nouthethic ” counselor and and sweep things under the rug. I decided being alone was better. IFB is just one of many creeds that force people to stay together. I remember Steve Mays, a negatory and domineering radio pastor, saying year ago that his wife had said that she’d leave him, if she wasn’t afraid of Jesus. He proclaimed this little gem as some kind of honor. I’d hear this trash and shake my head, thinking how lucky I am not to buy into the above anymore. Mays died on the operating table years ago for a simple procedure. I was glad for his wife and sons they didn’t have to put up with Mays anymore. I’ll never get this abusive mindset these Fundies go for. Never. Much less how they treat babies and kids, then moan and groan when the now- adult survivors leave the churches in droves ! They were driven out by abuse and their parents’ cognitive dissonance.

  5. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    I grew up seeing domestic abuse committed against my mother by her third husband, progenitor of my half- brother. It was awful to witness and endure. I considered killing and robbing that person many times, until I was a legal adult and converted to Jesus at 19. The guy was an alcoholic, had a mean streak, he’d admitted that since he knew my mother was easy to victimize– due to her uncaring and indifferent relatives–he didn’t have to stop. There were no shelters for people suffering from domestic violence, running away from home was decriminalized only in 1976, as I recall. I was told Christians didn’t beat their wives like seculars do. Of course, over time I noticed tense marriages in the churches I attended. I got cold feet, realizing that having Jesus didn’t guarantee a decent marriage, and that a bad one meant that spouses may be in those situations as a test/ ordained life-path. I didn’t know of anyone with a good marriage, anywhere. I didn’t want their lives for myself at all ! That said, most church denominations have the IFB policy for family life. Image is everything. If you have problems, go to a ” nouthethic ” counselor and and sweep things under the rug. I decided being alone was better. IFB is just one of many creeds that force people to stay together. I remember Steve Mays, a negatory and domineering radio pastor, saying year ago that his wife had said that she’d leave him, if she wasn’t afraid of Jesus. He proclaimed this little gem as some kind of honor. I’d hear this trash and shake my head, thinking how lucky I am not to buy into the above anymore. Mays died on the operating table years ago for a simple procedure. I was glad for his wife and sons they didn’t have to put up with Mays anymore. I’ll never get this abusive mindset these Fundies go for. Never. Much less how they treat babies and kids, then moan and groan when the now- adult survivors leave the churches in droves ! They were driven out by abuse and their parents’ cognitive dissonance.

    • Avatar
      Darcy Walker

      Yulya: ” that his wife had said that she’d leave him, if she wasn’t afraid of Jesus.” Afraid of… the guy who is supposed to be about love? The Son of God? Her Savior? Who knows everything about everybody, including the abuse in the Savior’s name? Scary thought.

  6. Avatar
    Sage

    My father, though not IFB, he was a minister in an evangelical denomination. He was, and remains, very devout in his christianity. He has never been physically or emotionally abusive, although he definitely did not spare the rod. My mother was a stay at home mom – the proper preachers wife – who he has cared for and loved for over 60 years of marriage. He was never one to be preaching on the street, or be overtly aggressive in his soul winning. If unchurched people showed interest in god, he would speak with them. If they showed no interest, he would just move on. In general, most people who encountered my father consider him a nice guy.

    But all of this kindness did not keep me from suffering the mental abuse inflicted on me by christian beliefs and by the belief of my father. It is much different when you grow up knowing you are bi and non-binary. This is simply not acceptable, and is just sinful nature and desires that have to be prayed over. It was a constant battle, because I wasn’t a hetero, cis gendered person. Imagine growing up in an environment where your very existence, the core of who you are, is evil, or, as I was taught, and abomination.

    Most people cannot understand the struggle. For a hetero, cis gender person, they are already “normal”, so all they have to worry about is staying “pure”. A boy can be a boy, act like a boy, and like girls, and all is fine. A girl can be a girl, act like a girl, and like boys, and all is fine. Just don’t touch. These kids knew who they were, and it was accepted, and proper, and from god, and so the person they were, at their core, was acceptable. But what is a queer non-binary person to do? You like people of the same sex. You express gender that is not quite proper. And all of this desire and gender expression, which is ok in other kids, is evil, sinful, an abomination for a non binary child. You are just the personal embodiment of sin. And when you are told that your sinful nature causes this, you understand “sinful nature” in a much different way that others.

    So you grow up, being taught that the very core of who you are in sinful, evil, vile, and ungodly – a burden cis gendered people do not carry. As much as you try to avoid it, and put on the facade, and pray, fast, and do all the right things, you never can overcome it, because it is your nature, your very DNA. I doubt a person who has not experienced this awful struggle can comprehend it. Your indoctrination leads you to hate yourself, and if you indoctrination is deep enough, then you can spend decades living in this horrible state of mental abuse. It us not always easy to see that the church, which you were indoctrinated to believe was helping you, was actually making your entire life a painful struggle through mental and emotional abuse.

    Fortunately, after decades of suffering, I was able to break free of this cycle of abuse. Now on the other side, I see just how bad it was, and how deeply it impacted me. I also see others suffering the same struggle, and hope they can be reached to understand that they do not need to suffer through the church that hates them, and teaches them to hate themselves. Perhaps, as a result, I am a tad aggressive and confrontational toward christians who spread hatred of the LGBTQ community, in the name of “love” and in the name of god. I wish someone could have reached me many years ago, but it was much different back then. Now there is hope that younger LGBTQ people can see a different path, one that does not keep then in the cycle of abuse in the christian church.

  7. Avatar
    ... Zoe ~

    Bruce: “Let me head off those who might suggest that the reason there is domestic abuse and child abuse in the IFB church movement is that they misinterpret the Bible. I don’t think this is the case at all. Sadly. abusers are being consistent with their beliefs and literal readings of the Bible.”

    Zoe: Exactly

  8. Avatar
    kittybrat

    INDEED. The god of the Bible is a domestic abuser in the worst way. Why wouldn’t the “man of god” emulate that? If people are used to deferring to an evil authoritarian’s whims, the husband is simply being godly.

  9. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    At the fundamentalist Christian school I attended in the 80s (most of the faculty and staff were Bob Jones University or Pensacola Christian College graduates) paddling was the norm for discipline. The students all talked about the paddle, what it looked like, which male faculty were the ones who used it (the female faculty weren’t the punishers, just certain male faculty). I never thought before about what message that sent to students.

    Everyone I knew growing up in the South was spanked or paddled. My mom stopped spanking me when I was 8 because I turned around and hit her back. Imagine my surprise when I met my husband in college, and he said his parents didn’t believe in spanking! His dad had a degree in social work and had seen a lot of abuse; plus, he had suffered his share of absolute beatings, including being thrown down the stairs, by priests and nuns at Catholic school.

    But spare the rod and spoil the child, the fundies say!

  10. Avatar
    Catherine A Kirk

    One of the last things that happened to me that caused me to leave home to live with my grandparents was when my stepfather last spanked me. I was 16 years old and homeschooled. We were about to leave church and a friend had allowed me to borrow his guitar so that I could practice some chords. My mom saw it and told me to give it back because I was a little behind on some school work. I asked her to let me keep it and promised to catch up before I played it but she wasn’t having it. I got out of the car to give the guitar back and slammed the car door a bit too hard in my frustration. My stepfather beat me black and blue when we got home for my attitude. I couldn’t sit down for a week without wanting to cry, because I freakin slammed a car door. What a terrible crime! And I was 16 years old and still getting spanked. I hate the IFB movement and all it stands for! Unfortunately it took me many more years to completely dispose of the indoctrination, but thankfully I did and raised my kids in a secular environment.

Want to Respond to Bruce? Fire Away!

Bruce Gerencser