A journey from trauma to authenticity
Why Victims Stay Silent.
Why Victims Stay Silent.

Why Victims Stay Silent.


There is within me a part called Mr Silence. Ironically, he is loud and commanding. Perhaps you have one too? These are some of the things he might say.

“Children should be seen and not heard. Don’t speak unless you are spoken to. You must be silent.”

“Women should remain silent in church. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission. (1 Corinthians 14 v 34) You must be silent.”

“Let a woman learn in silence and full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. 1 Timothy 2v11-12. You must be silent.”

“The husband is the head of the household and holds the God-given authority. His decisions will be honoured by God, even if they are not ideal. The wife and children must obey. You must be silent.”

“It is dangerous to speak up, you will be rejected by your family and your community. You must be silent.”

“It is dangerous to ask questions, they will realise you have doubts and are ignorant. You must be silent.”

“Don’t expose yourself by speaking. You must be perfect, and holy. If you speak, you will reveal your imperfections and lack of knowledge. You will be treated with contempt. Just listen and learn what they want to hear. You must be silent.”

“Why are you feeling upset? He has every right to behave this way, it says so in the Bible. You are bad. You need to behave better, so he does not get angry with you. You are the problem. Everyone else manages to submit, and not cause problems. You must be good. You must be silent.”

“Don’t tell your teacher, pastor or anyone about this. You are just a young girl. They won’t believe you. He is a pillar of the community, respected by one and all. And anyway, he does a lot of good for God, he saves souls from going to hell. You must not damage his Christian witness. You must be silent.”

“Don’t tell anyone about this. It’s not really that bad. There are lots of good times. Focus on them. If you do speak, and anyone does believe you, you will lose your family. And then what would happen? It is too scary to think about. You must be silent.”

“Shame on you for trying to tell that person about what happened the other night. What were you thinking? They were right to shut you down and tell you not to speak of such things, because it would ruin the witness of the church. You must be silent.”


Silencing. It is a powerful weapon in the hands of an abuser.

Now, of course, not everyone who holds a hierarchical view of the Bible is an abuser. However, the power structure this creates is the perfect environment for abuse to develop, and silencing plays a large part in allowing this to continue to this day in church families.

If you are someone who wants to understand how the Bible can be understood in an egalitarian way, I recommend Craig Keener’s book, Paul, Women and Wives, for a thorough exploration of the key texts, in their original context. He does a great job of showing how these verses were written at a time when women were not educated, so Paul is actually allowing women to learn for the first time. They do not preclude them then going on to be educators themselves, or mean they have to remain silent forever.

I am not going to go into more detail of this here, as my focus is on the less well understood ways in which silence is used in the context of abuse in the church.

I hope I have shown in the examples above, how controlling and abusive behaviour towards wives and children can be legitimised by the supposed God-given authority of the man. In these cases, Bible texts are taken out of context, read literally and weaponised. The woman can be trapped by the teaching that she must submit to the male head of the household. She has no power or right to a different opinion or interpretation of Scripture. Teachings about people being sinners can be twisted to erode self-esteem and self-worth, effectively eliminating any push-back.

Children raised in these environments can react in different ways.

First, children may just experience this home-life as normal. They may have never experienced anything other, and may not visit other families much. Abusers can actively use normalisation techniques to raise their children thinking that what they are experiencing is “right” and “normal”, and that any differences they may notice in other families are “not Christian” or are “strange”.

If a child is experiencing emotional abuse from the parent, such as harsh punishments for stepping out of line, or contemptuous comments if they ask a genuine question, or withdrawal of approval/attention/affection if they make a mistake, the child may withdraw and become silenced. If venturing a different opinion, having a question, or risking making a mistake is too dangerous, then it is safer to hide, not say much, and toe the line. They may become people-pleasers from a very young age, always doing what the adults around them want, and never developing their own sense of self, likes, dislikes or opinions.

It is very unlikely a child will volunteer to disclose emotional abuse, or controlling behaviour in the home, because they think it is normal, they want to please their parents to gain some approval, and if they realise there is a problem at all, they think they are the problem. Children internalise blame. It is too dangerous for a child to imagine the care-giver is at fault, because they need the adult to survive. If they blame themselves, it gives them some sense of control and ability to keep themselves safe, albeit by hiding and keeping silent.

Other children will develop the same aggressive, manipulative, gas-lighting and controlling behaviours they see modelled by the perpetrator.

Children witnessing and experiencing coercive control, see one parent with the power and control, and the other parent colluding and enabling. They do not see anyone standing up to the abuser. The church can also too often appear to be enabling the abuse. Teachings such as “God hates divorce”, “You must forgive 70 times 7”, “You need to pray more”, can all be used to collude with the abuser. What the women and children need to hear and see modelled is “God liberates the oppressed and hates abuse”, and “You have immense value.” 

And then, there is the scandal of the cover-up. How many times have victims courageously tried to speak up, only to be shut down by the message that they should keep quiet to not damage the Christian witness of the individual or the Church? Far too many is the answer. Let’s be very clear. Christian witness (or reputation) is not damaged by people speaking up about abuse. It is destroyed by the perpetrators every time they choose to abuse someone, and by those who know about it and choose to stay silent, and those who counsel women that they should forgive, and stay in abusive relationships.

And some churches are doing things differently, with good attention to safeguarding, members who notice abusive behaviours, listen to victims, report disclosures appropriately and support survivors.

Patriarchal cultures are not just found in churches. I lived in a Latin American village for 13 years, where the culture was machismo, and men held much of the power because they were the bread-winners, and the woman lacked education and income. Many of these families attended either the Catholic church, run by the male priest, or patriarchal evangelical churches. As their doctor, I heard countless women and girls telling me of physical, verbal, emotional and sexual abuse that they felt powerless to escape from. People again did not report crimes because it would bring shame on family members, because it was a local church leader perpetrating the crime and paying for the child’s education in exchange, because it would have led to a worse beating later on, because 12 and 13 year old girls were called promiscuous when they were found to be pregnant, and were made to live with the adult father of the child.

With a few notable exceptions, the church there too was silent regarding gender-based violence, indeed its teachings reinforced the power of the perpetrators in the main.

I have now found my voice, and talk back to Mr Silence.

“Thank you for the years when you silenced me to protect me and keep me safe. I am no longer in those circumstances. I have worked hard to make sure my current relationships and friendships are respectful. I will never again be part of a church with a patriarchal leadership structure, because I do not find that a safe place to be. I now choose to listen to the oppressed, to the wounded and seek to offer them a safe place to tell their stories and be heard. I now choose to speak, and use my voice, to ask my questions and offer my opinions. I choose to speak up for the voiceless, to break the silence, and say #metoo, #churchtoo. And I hope to be able to use my words to set others free.”

What do you say to your own silencer? How do you use your voice?

finger to mouth, silenced
Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash


    1. I see evidence some people have learnt from historical church abuse, and of more openness, mutual respect and equality. Unfortunately however, I also know abuse continues to happen in church families currently, and many of the teachings and cultures in the church that enable this to happen have still not changed.

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