The character of a church is revealed by how it treats its most vulnerable members. The poor, exiles, widows, and orphans constitute, according to American philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, the “quartet of the vulnerable.” It would not be an exaggeration to include among these widows the Brazilian victims of domestic violence, invisible women who have been crying out for help, but whose cries still finds little resonance.

An overview

Brazil is a dangerous place for women. In 2018, every two hours, a woman was murdered. Every two minutes, a woman was beaten, and every day, an average of 180 women became victims of rape. These statistics place the country among the world’s champions in aggression against women, according to the Anuário Brasileiro de Segurança Pública (Brazilian Public Safety Yearbook). Worse yet, these numbers are underreported, since, according to the yearbook, only 40 percent of victims register these crimes.

While general indicators of violence in Brazil have improved over the past decade, violent deaths among women have increased by 4.2 percent between 2008 and 2018, according to the 2020 Atlas of Violence. Other survey — carried out by Datafolha between December 5th and 6th, 2019 — shows that Brazilian evangelical churches are composed mostly (59%) of poor, black women. This group, who make up the majority of those in the pews of Brazilian evangelical churches, were the hardest hit: The homicide rate among black women increased 12.4 percent in the period, while falling 11.7 percent among non-black women, also according to the Atlas of Violence. While 54 percent of the Brazilian population is black, a 2021 survey from the IBGE (the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), indicates that the average earnings of a black or brown person is less than two-thirds of that of the white community, contributing to this population’s vulnerability.

Violence in the home

Behind these grim numbers are a significant number of female evangelical victims. Researcher Valéria Vilhena interviewed many domestic violence survivors for her master’s thesis, which eventually became a book: Uma igreja sem voz: análise de gênero da violência doméstica entre mulheres evangélicas (A Voiceless Church: A gender analysis of domestic violence among evangelical women). The interviews revealed that 40 percent were evangelical. Her research analyzed the reports of women who visited a domestic violence support center in the south zone of São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city. The study went viral, becoming a reference work on the subject.

Vilhena’s research reveals that churches and their leaders have inadvertently helped to perpetuate this tragic scenario. As they turn to their local pastor for advice and support, hoping to escape physical and psychological abuse, many women invariably receive the same sermon: “Sister, you must pray more, fast, cry out to God for the conversion of your husband.” They quote 1 Peter 3:1–2: “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.”

This attitude, which seeks to treat a criminal issue with spiritual tools, adds fuel to the fire of violence against Brazilian evangelical women. Taking this approach, many pastors, albeit unknowingly, have contributed to the perpetuation of domestic violence in Christian homes, resulting, in some extreme cases, in the murder of the women involved. Few understand the negative impact and consequences that their theology has for survivors.

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Thus, our sisters in the faith are victimized twice: first by the violence at home and second through a legalistic reading of the Scriptures, which keeps them imprisoned, waiting only on God for deliverance, when help could come from their pastors.

In my research for the book O grito de Eva (Eve’s Cry), I interviewed some of these suffering women, coming into contact for the first time with a universe filled with pain and resentment. Many had their young lives destroyed by the ruthless men with whom they lived, some of whom had even been empowered by church leaders.

A complex and challenging issue

“Why do these women stay and submit to this?” I asked myself many times after these interviews. Looking for an answer, I sought out psychologists with experience in assisting evangelical Christians, such as Jungian analyst Dora Eli Martin Freitas. These women often reproduce family patterns and come from a context of violence in the home, she says:

In some cases, it was a cruel and domineering mother; in others, an authoritarian or alcoholic and oppressive father. The child either learns to strike with the same weapons with which she was struck, becoming evil and even perverse, or becomes passive and fearful. Men who beat their wives also have these same backgrounds.

The submissive behavior of the mother toward the father, or the opposite, can traumatize the children, who become either very aggressive or excessively passive. These more passive women, who are not allowed to express their desires, are prone to somatization, whether it is recurring migraines or cancer. They cannot live an authentic life, and neither can they transgress, so they end up betraying themselves. Transgressing, in a Jungian sense, as Martin Freitas explains, is the failure to fulfill the expectations of others with regard to oneself. It is when a person sees the standard they have been subjected to and has the courage to say: “I am not, and I will not be, that person.” It is having the audacity to break with that expectation.

In addition to these psychological barriers, economic dependency is another important reason why victims remain silent. Fear of their partners is the greatest reason why women fail to report their partners, according to a DataSenado Institute’s national survey of 2,400 women. The second is lack of financial autonomy.

Submission

As Christians, we are all called to manifest a willingness to serve and submit to others out of reverence to Christ (Eph. 5:21).This convocation applies to marital relationships as well. The challenge is to prevent the obedience to this principle from turning us into victims in an unbalanced relationship, in which one spouse dominates the other.

After this general principle, the text in Ephesians 5 goes on to describe in detail what it expects from the specific dynamics of the marital relationship. “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” (v. 22). It adds right after, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25).The text states that the woman’s submission must correspond to the husband’s sacrificial love for her. Thus, according to the biblical concept of submission, the woman should not submit to a husband’s violence, but should submit to his love.

Psychology can also help us to better understand the biblical concept of submission. “I understand,” says Martin Freitas, “that serving the other is not subjecting yourself to the power of the other. It is about demonstrating the availability to help the other, regardless of who this other is. It is not subjecting oneself to the role that the other represents. Many times, husband and wife are just pre-established roles, full of stereotypes, and to fulfill these roles, people need to become ‘personas,’ that is, actors, distancing themselves from their deeper selves. To transgress, in this case, is to say—I don't accept living as an actor.”

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In Martin Freitas’s view, many pastors only reinforce these female stereotypes, limiting women to the little boxes of religion or even culture. Their attitudes are reminiscent of the German saying, which reserves for women the three Ks: Kinder, Küche und Kirche: children, kitchen, and church.

Attorney Priscila Diacov has contributed a legal point of view to the biblical understanding of the concept of submission. She works as a mediator of family conflicts in São Paulo and shares information with churches. In her seminars, she teaches about the different forms of abuse and shows that the attitudes of evangelical women, compared to nonevangelical women, are related to the teaching of submission to the husband at any cost; the obligation to forgive the partner for his violent acts; the feeling of guilt for damaging his reputation within the community, should she denounce him; and the fear of being judged for going against the Word of God. “They also feel guilty for not praying enough for their spouse to change his behavior, and if they seek a divorce, they feel responsible for destroying the family,” Diacov said.

Based on this misconceived notion of submission, pastors and leaders often help form a mentality in men and women that is distorted and difficult to change. But little progress can be made without confronting these convictions and bringing their distortions of Scripture to light. In the view of Daniela Grelin, director of the Avon Institute, a philanthropic organization with programs combating violence against women: “At the core of Judeo-Christian culture is the idea of the dignity of the human being, male and female, created in the image and likeness of God. This is the standard that must be taught.”

The challenge of change

Violence against women is not just a women’s problem; it is a problem for all areas of society: families, churches, companies, and the government. We can all play a role in raising awareness in our areas of influence. According to Grelin, just as we cannot allow only black people fight for the end of racism, or leave only Jews to fight antisemitism, so it is not possible to relegate the defense of this cause only to women. “It is necessary to engage men in this transformation.”

Welcoming victims of aggression within the churches depends on a strong commitment from leadership. “It is a complex job, requiring the participation of all, and it depends on the training of pastors and church leaders,” says Diacov.

Unfortunately, however, the issue of domestic violence by Christian men is not on pastors’ agendas. They simply ignore this reality or place the responsibility on women to deal with the problem. Many are unaware of the different forms of abuse and are poorly informed about gender and child violence.

With the support of volunteers and members in the areas of mental health, the law, or social work, pastors and other leaders of the local church could set up small safe spaces for listening to, receiving, and welcoming these women. “It is important that these women are listened to, welcomed and that they receive adequate guidance to save their lives and their dignity,” Diacov adds.

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But the aggressors also need help. Mature, capable men can form conversation groups focused on listening and mentoring, as many aggressors bring deep emotional wounds as a result of abuse they themselves suffered in childhood.

Unfortunately, domestic violence is a very serious and widespread social problem, a challenge for both the less developed countries in Latin America as well as the wealthier countries in the Northern Hemisphere. In a country like Brazil, in which unemployment, poverty, and inequality have gotten worse during the pandemic, violence against evangelical women is yet another item on a challenging social agenda.

The church of Christ, in its manifold wisdom and discernment, does have the moral strength and content to reduce these terrible indicators, becoming part of the solution instead of part of the problem. At the end of the day, we have all received, through Christ, the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18). But for this to happen, it is essential that the teaching dealing with the submission of women be proper and call not only wives to have an attitude of loving companionship and respect for their husbands, but also on husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church and sacrificed himself for it.

Marília de Camargo Cesar was born in São Paulo, is married, and has two daughters. A journalist, she is assistant editor of special projects at Valor Econômico, the largest economic and business newspaper in Brazil. She is also the author of books that provoke reflection among evangelical leaders. Her best known works are Feridos em nome de Deus (Wounded in the Name of God), Marina — a vida por uma causa (Marina: A Life for a Cause), and Entre a cruz e o arco-íris (Between the Cross and the Rainbow).

Translation by Paul Brian Connolly

[ This article is also available in Português and Français. ]