‘Thus Saith the Lord’: When Pastors Talk About Intimate Partner Violence

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.

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’.


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.

In 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?

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