How Fighting Toxic Marriage Teachings Can Help Fight Church Abuse

by | Oct 16, 2023 | Marriage | 32 comments

We see fighting toxic marriage teachings as part of a broader mission in the church.

 For the last four and a half  years, our team at Bare Marriage has pursued wholeheartedly a difficult and overwhelming task: Challenging the toxic messages in our evangelical resources that hurt and damage marriages and enable abuse. We’ve done that through huge ground-breaking studies; thorough reviews of our best-sellers; and heartbreaking focus groups as we listen to the fall-out. 

The sum total of the teachings is that men are entitled to women’s bodies; that men deserve unconditional deference free from being challenged for any bad behaviour; and that men cannot be expected to act honorably or even safely, so when men do harm, it’s likely because a some woman somewhere wasn’t doing her job. 

 It’s not hard to imagine how disastrous this can be.

 In a survey done by the Institute for Family Studies, about 27% of highly religious men in complementarian marriages claim that they have been violent with their current partner. Marital rape is hard to measure, because it depends on the definition, but it looks like in evangelical marriages it ranges from 10% with a narrow definition to as much as 25% if you’re looking at obligation sex that has caused trauma.

 Our survey for The Great Sex Rescue confirmed findings from previous studies that evangelical women suffer from sexual pain at around 2.5 times the rate of the general population: and one of the main reasons is the obligation sex message. When a woman believes this when she marries, her chance of experiencing sexual pain increases to almost the same statistical effect as prior abuse. Because both obligation sex and abuse tell her: You don’t matter. He has the right to use you however he wants. And our bodies interpret that as trauma.

 It doesn’t end there. When women believe these toxic messages, they’re far less likely to be able to identify abuse and marital rape, which is one of the reasons why Gilad et. al found in a 2014 study that highly religious evangelical women stay in abusive marriages far longer than women in the general population.

Fighting teachings that enable abuse is part of fighting the abuse culture in churches

Part of fighting abuse, then, is challenging these teachings that normalize abuse and allow it to flourish. We very much see our work as part of the overall mission to create a church that is built on love not on power. While some advocates work to call out individual abusers and organizations, we work to undermine the teachings that have empowered abusive systems and relationships to flourish. 

As a healthy church community, we need to do both. 

When we deplatform a pastor who has abused his congregants, we rescue his present and future victims and we provide vindication and a measure of justice to his past victims. 

But if we don’t address the teachings that enabled that leader to rationalise, justify, and hide their exploitation, then more abusive pastors will keep popping up and we’ll just keep playing abuser whack-a-mole. 

Until people are educated on how to recognize and reject abusive systems and teachings, abusers will continue to be enabled to operate with impunity.

But there’s another problem: In any church where the pastor is abusing some specific congregants, either sexually or through bullying, many, many other women are also being abused–they’re just not being abused by the pastor.

Even if the new pastor DOESN’T abuse, if nobody addresses the underlying abusive teachings, then that church will still be full of abuse victims unless someone helps them. 

In the Bare Marriage research focus groups, we heard stories of horrible rapes – not by church leaders, but by husbands. Every single day, our team receives heartbreaking emails and comments. It’s like Law & Order SVU level – all the time.

Debunking toxic teachings rescues people in more ways than one

But what we have found is that when we teach people to recognize the red flags of abusive systems, then they’re less likely to marry abusive partners, and they’re less likely to get sucked in by an abusive pastor or organization.

In fact, one of the most common emails our team gets after people read The Great Sex Rescue is that they’ve also left their toxic church for a healthier one, because once they have the tools to recognize abusive relationship patterns, they recognize those patterns elsewhere, too. 

One woman said that reading Bare Marriage’s books and blog posts was like peeling an onion. Each time another layer came off it revealed another type of abuse that had permeated her life, and not just her marriage. 

Another woman said that after reading The Great Sex Rescue:

I have since stepped away from my church and spoke up about blatant sexual harassment at work from my boss, all in the span of a few weeks. I’m exhausted and sad but liberated beyond comprehension and so stunned to realize how toxic multiple environments I’ve been trying to function in have been. My muscle tension in my neck and migraines are suddenly gone.

Messages that correct harmful teachings about marriage can also give energy and resources to the broader mission to confront churches, organizations and denominations that do harm.

"A groundbreaking look into what true, sacred biblical sexuality is intended to be. A must-read." - Rachael Denhollander

What if you're NOT the problem with your sex life?

What if the messages that you've been taught have messed things up--and what if there's a way to escape these toxic teachings?

It's time for a Great Sex Rescue.

Great Sex Rescue

Again–I don’t believe this is an either/or. I believe this is a both/and. 

Let’s help those who are hurt cling to Jesus

But that’s not the only reason for correcting toxic teachings: we also need to step in and correct toxic teachings so that people who leave abusive churches don’t flounder and end up in the same place just at a different church. And we also need to make sure that people harmed by abuse know that Jesus is safe and what they were taught is of Jesus isn’t of Him at all. 

If we don’t want people to feel spiritually homeless or remain vulnerable to abuse, then we need to give clear messages that dangerous teachings on relationships, marriage, racism or power are not of God.

Become a part of the movement

Join 40,00 others and let's change the evangelical conversation about sex

That’s why fighting toxic teaching on marriage is part of the wider mission of healing the church. 

And it’s why we need to give these messages widely, even (or perhaps especially) in toxic spaces because it’s those people in the pews who most need to hear it!

I’m so grateful to those who are able to go into these toxic spaces where we have often already been blacklisted to give these messages (and if you need any resources to do so yourself, that’s what The Great Sex Rescue Toolkit is for!

But that also means that we can’t just declare some audiences off-limits because they’re associated with the wrong person. We have to find a way to reach people still in difficult places.

Last week on the podcast looking at echo chambers in church, I said this:

Jesus says, you guys are trying to set these really high bars for who is allowed in and who you’re allowed to talk to and who you’re allowed to associate with.  And that’s not what God does.  God breaks down those barriers, and He says, “Hey, let’s be together.  Let’s show mercy.  Let’s have community.  Let’s talk.

And I hope that that is something that the church can do because I’m worried that we’re losing it.  I’m worried that we’re losing the ability to talk across the aisle and that we’re becoming so fractured and so much into echo chambers that we’re never going to grow.  We’re never going to talk to anyone else.  

And we’re also not going to be effective. 

Let’s say that you have a doctrine that you believe in strongly.  For us, it might be women’s equality.  For you, it might be something else.  If you’re saying that if there’s an organization, a person, an entity, a church who doesn’t hold that belief then I will never talk to them or anyone who is affiliated with them, how am I ever going to spread my belief if this is something which is really important to me?

Debunking toxic teachings is important.

We need to start thinking strategically about how we can do this, especially in places that are often toxic. I’m seeing so many new influencer channels start on social media parroting all the same toxic sludge. It’s still everywhere. It’s a big job–but people are hearing it from the grassroots level. 

So I’d love to hear your thoughts: What’s next? How can we as a community debunk these messages, because it’s so important. Let’s talk in the comments!

Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Rebecca

    Well, I used to enjoy listening to the Babylon Bee interviews, but when, within the space of a month, they interviewed both Doug Wilson and Voddie Baucham (to lavish, slobbering audience approval) and reverently quoted John MacArthur, that was too much for me. It would be so wonderful if you all could be the subjects of one of their interviews: Their audience desperately needs it.

    • Amy

      Rebecca – me too. I used to watch the Babylon Bee interviews, but between them platforming Doug Wilson (twice) and the giant man-crush they have towards John MacArthur, I had to stop giving them my time. I have also thought that both The Great Sex Rescue and She Deserves Better would be great subjects for their interview show, but I doubt they would consider it.

    • Lisa Johns

      They lost me earlier when I began to realize just how nasty they were about differing points of view. I stopped reading them completely when they shared a link to a Doug Wilson sermon. Now I won’t give them the time of day. They are forever known as the Babylon Bigots.

  2. Nessie

    I don’t use social media so excuse my ignorance, but are there any influencers that are donig the opposite of the toxic ones? Are there any popping up and proclaiming healthy ways? Unfortunately, like you lately had to explain to a commentor, the algorithms used on search engines, etc., do not provide a lot of variety once it has a person pegged. It’d be great if there were more unbiased ways to access information to reduce online-filtering echo chambers.

    Highlighting real people who do it well- and honest with areas of needed growth- helps me see what is possible yet realistic. Seeing men comment here who are truly safe, not perfect but working on improving, chips away at my learned ‘men love nothing more than to put women “in their place” mentality.’ It’s like exposure therapy.

    Playing whack-a-mole with abusers… envisioning that is rather cathartic, thank you! Haha.

  3. Lizzie C

    I just wanted to comment and say that your work on identifying toxic teaching has really helped me identify other toxic ways of thinking within the church!

    My husband and I stepped away from our long-time church because of a years long situation with a woman there who is the equivalent of a high school mean girl. We weren’t the only victims, unfortunately. I was able to put up with it before we had our daughter, but after my daughter came (there was some bizarre jealousy that I was even having a daughter and pregnant before this other girl), I realized that my family was too precious and valuable to subject to this person. (She was involved in the children’s ministry, as well!)

    I believe that we’ve done everything we can to address the issue. Church leaders are aware of the situation. But nothing has been done. Our church isn’t otherwise bad, I don’t think. But abuse is abuse.

    It’s really hard because lately the church is talking about the importance of community and showing God’s love. It just feels so hollow and empty because I know there’s enough other women at church who have been victims to this mean girl who people refuse to address.

    It also hurts a little to think that this mean girl did what my incredibly abusive parents never could- get me to leave a church!

    Anyway, your articles and ministry have been blessings to me as we’ve been spiritually homeless. You have helped me realize that not only are my daughter and I valuable and worthy of good marriages and good spiritual teaching, but we’re also worthy of safe churches when it comes to other people, too.

    Thank you for everything!!! Even if we don’t have a physical church, I feel like we have a good online community and that is so important. ♥️

  4. NM

    This is so important but so, so tough. In our experience of confronting church leaders over the issue of women’s leadership and domestic abuse, we slammed into a big brick wall of “but the Bible says.” Changing your mind requires a complete overhaul of what inerrancy means, what cultural context means, and a willingness to look at research and outcomes even if they conflict with your “worldview.” It’s a tall order. Most people, at least that I’ve seen, can’t do it.

    And it makes sense, right? In my argument with my old pastor, I was trying to get him to see that my argument was *also* rooted in scripture. But if he were to admit that women’s equality and women’s subordination could both be argued from the Bible, and he was then choosing women’s subordination, then he’s admitting selfish motives. And that’s too hard to face.

    I am hopeful for the next generation. My sons were quite literally confused when I told them our church wouldn’t allow women to preach. It made no sense to them. There will still be pockets that refuse to budge, but by and large I believe those churches will continue to shrink and healthy ones will grow.

    For now, let’s just keep having these conversations with the real people in our neighborhoods and churches. Even in our healthy church, I have heard women repeating some of these tired old tropes. I am now equipped to gently push back with some common sense, and you can see the wheels start to turn. Keep up the good work everyone!

    • Perfect Number

      “My sons were quite literally confused when I told them our church wouldn’t allow women to preach. It made no sense to them.”

      Yes! I love this!

  5. Jo R

    Hard to see how a gentle, stay-in-touch-and-keep-trying approach will work, when millions of women have struck out for decades with the same approach in their marriages.

    It seems like it’s time that we simply separate ourselves, following Jesus’s idea of shaking the dust off one’s feet when a town doesn’t listen to the disciples’ message.

    The “towns” that are so many churches need to be left in their literal dust, and the Strike at Putney needs to be implemented, even to the point of all like-minded people starting their own house churches. No more big buildings, no more expensive staff, no more hour-long monologues. Small groups who really know one another, support one another, share a word from the Lord with one another, and let the Spirit move among them.

    Why waste yet more time on people who are more enamored with power than the people who are supposed to be in their care, including the mere women?

    • Lisa Johns

      Ugh, those hour long monologues…. 🤬

    • Angharad

      Coming from the UK, which doesn’t really do mega-churches, I see a lot of advantages to smaller churches. If you are a smaller group, you can realistically ‘be family’ to each other, as you all know each other. And you are more likely to spot when someone is struggling. I have a friend who is a member of a church in America that has a congregation of several thousand, and their church has just published an online form for parents to fill in if they wish their child to be dedicated on ‘dedication Sunday’. I saw the photos of this event last year, and dozens of babies were being dedicated all at the same time (basically, all the kids who’d been born in the previous year). With the best will in the world, there is no way the entire church can love, support and encourage ALL these families. Their baptism services are like a conveyor belt exercise too – every time I see one of them, I’m reminded of how we dip sheep on farms over here!!!

      Our main congregation is around 20 on a ‘good’ day, every single person is known and recognised and every single one is missed when they are not there. I read an article a while back saying that once a church got to 40 or 50 people, it was time for it to split and start a church plant somewhere else, so that you would end up with lots of little church gatherings which know and are known by their local community. It seems to me that this is much more in line with the church we read about in the Bible – yes, they gathered together in larger numbers sometimes, but most of their faith life was carried out in smaller groups. (Though not everyone would agree – a lady rang up the other day and wanted to speak to ‘one of the admin staff’ in our church office…she was quite put out when I explained that we didn’t have a church office or admin staff, and even the church minister worked part time elsewhere so that the church didn’t have to pay him – apparently, we’re not ‘proper church’! 😂)

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Canada doesn’t do megachurches in the same way, either, though we do have lots of churches in the 200-400 range. I’ve always found 200 a good number because it’s large enough for kids to have friends and for youth group, but small enough that you honestly do know everybody’s name.

        • Angharad

          I grew up in a rural church that was max 40-50 people and there were usually only a handful of kids, but we learned to make friends with a much wider age range than some of our peers did, and also used to have inter-church youth events on a monthly basis where kids from all the local churches met up, which was great as we had exposure to a wide variety of ways of ‘doing church’ from an early age. You do need to have plenty of other small churches in your area that are prepared to join in with this kind of thing though, so it’s not always feasible.

          • Nessie

            I’m curious if the smaller churches (20-50 range) have less of a problem with sexual harassment overall? I could see there being an increase in harassment in larger churches due to more of a feeling of anonymity, and less of a problem in smaller ones due to knowing others better.

          • Angharad

            Definitely my experience that smaller is safer, although I never made the connection until reading your comment. But the churches that have been safe for me have all been small. I guess in a larger church, it’s easier for predators to hide. Plus, maybe for a lot of men like that, it’s easier to attack an ‘anonymous’ woman who is just a face at the other side of a big meeting hall than it is to attack someone who is more like a relative in a close knit family.

  6. Laura

    After I complete my master’s degree next fall, I plan to return to writing my book about my experiences with those toxic teachings and how they harmed me spiritually and in my first marriage. I’ve talked about them a bit when I gave my testimony for Celebrate Recovery and several women came up to me sharing their experiences. So I know I’m not the only one in my area who has been harmed by those teachings.

    I agree this is a struggle to call out the toxicity of these long held teachings because the typical response is, “but the Bible says…” It gets to be a headache trying to explain myself so I know through my writing, I will be working on some strategies.

  7. Angharad

    I don’t know if this is apocryphal, but I read once that bank staff are trained to spot counterfeit notes by studying real ones in detail. The theory is that there are so many different ways of counterfeiting that you will never spot them all – what you need to do is to be rock solid in your ability to recognise a good note and then you will automatically be able to spot the bad ones. Whether this is true or not, I think we should do something similar regarding marriage and relationship teaching.
    Keep speaking out about normal relationships – it’s the best way to flag up what is abnormal. If everyone knows what healthy relationships look like, they are going to be so much better at spotting teaching which promotes abusive ones.

    I have a dear friend who has recently broken up with the guy she was dating, and is feeling guilt because her family and church teach that the woman NEVER breaks up unless the guy stops going to church…it doesn’t matter how he treats her, she is to take it, because her sole goal in life is to marry and have kids. She always apologises, even if it’s clearly his fault, and if he doesn’t like any aspect of her personality, then she suppresses it.

    She asked me how hard I found it to alter my personality to suit my husband, and it was eye-opening to see the shock on her face when I said I’d never even considered doing that. I trust my husband to love and accept me for who I am, and I would never have married him if I hadn’t believed he would do that. This led to a whole load more questions, like ‘how do you apologise and make it sound honest when you really don’t feel you are the one at fault?’, ‘what do you do to calm him down when he gets so angry he starts screaming at you?’ and ‘how do you cope when you are constantly disagreeing?’ and I could tell how amazed she was that I have never needed to do any of these things because we don’t have this kind of relationship.

    I know the guy she has been dating and he is extremely abusive. But I believe the abuse started with the church that told her an abusive marriage is ‘normal’ and that ‘good Christian girls’ put up with this kind of treatment. I’m hoping that a conversation about a Christian marriage that doesn’t have these dynamics is going to help her look for a healthier relationship next time she starts dating.

    • NM

      That poor woman! I’m curious, what religious background does she come from the the woman isn’t even allowed to break up a dating relationship? I thought I’d heard it all but I’ve never heard that one before.

      • Angharad

        I’m not sure what ‘label’ they would give themselves, but I think the reasons behind it are:

        Male leadership (otherwise known as absolute control 🤮) of women – it’s not unusual for her parents’ generation in these circles to still believe in arranged marriages and even if the parents don’t set you up they are still expected to have a lot of input, boyfriend should ask for your father’s blessing before asking you out as well as before proposing and if boyfriend and daddy agree it’s a good thing, then the girl will come in for a lot of condemnation if she says no. And of course, breaking up with a guy because of abusive behaviour is no reason at all, because if he’s angry with you, it’s your fault, if he belittles you, it’s your fault, if he doesn’t like you having a different opinion on something, it’s your fault because he gets to decide everything anyway. So if he’s being nasty to you, you just need to be more submissive and it will all be ok. And anyway, marriage is hard…

        Dating only with intent to marry and the ‘best’ Christians marry the first person they date – the more people you date, the less ‘pure’ you are (NB: there is no suggestion that any of these relationships include sex – just meeting up with a guy one-to-one in public is enough. It’s ok if you end up marrying the first guy you meet like this, but if you meet more than one, you are committing ‘serial fornication’ – and yes, I am totally serious that this is what they believe!!! I heard someone preach this from the pulpit once) So therefore, every relationship the girl ends is making her ‘less pure’ for her eventual husband. As well as breaking rule 1, and making a decision without her father’s permission.

        • Lisa Johns

          That is horrible. And all the more so for me personally because that is the kind of sicko mentality I bought into for many years. 😬🤬
          It did me no good, and trying to get out is HARD.

          But I WILL be free!

          • Boone

            I really can’t understand how somebody agrees to give other people that much control over their life. I also don’t understand how anybody feels qualified to exercise that much control over another person.

          • Angharad

            Boone, I think if you are raised to think this is normal and what ‘everyone’ does from childhood, you never think to question it. You don’t even realise another way is possible unless you are told about it. That’s why it is so important to keep speaking out about normal relationships, so that those who don’t have them realise they are possible!

            Similar but different, my grandfather was abusive to my mother and later to me. My mother instructed me to put up with it and told me I must never tell my father or anyone else about it (she knew my father would take action if he knew about the abuse and she didn’t want the embarrassment of people knowing that her ‘good church preacher’ father was abusive) It never even occurred to me that other people had different relationships with their grandparents. I remember when I was about 10 hearing a friend talk excitedly about going to visit her grandparents on her own, and I blurted out ‘but who will stop your grandfather hurting you if you’re there on your own.’ The odd looks I got were my first indication that not everyone feared their grandfather.

          • Lisa Johns

            Boone, speaking for myself, I carried a huge amount of trauma into my adult life, and did not believe that I was worth enough to NOT live that way, and also, the churches where I participated tended to be the ones that were promulgating this poison; I didn’t know that the God I wanted to serve didn’t require it of me. So I swallowed it. At the time I would have said that it was holiness or some such nonsense. I look back now with complete disbelief, but that is the basic foundation for how I lived for many years.
            And incidentally, when I say “trying to get out,” I don’t mean leaving the setting (I could move away tomorrow and no one would be hounding me down), but I’m talking about getting those thought processes out of my mind and learning what is REALLY required — do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with my God. Getting rid of the thought processes isn’t too hard either; the hardest part is seeking and finding what is REAL.

      • Jane Eyre

        My parents aren’t very religious but did that to me. It is because they didn’t value me as a person, thinking so little of me that I didn’t even have a right to basic decency, let alone happiness.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes! And hopefully a healthier church too.

  8. Nathan D. Wachsmuth

    And to think, I really liked John Piper and Voddie Baucham at one point (politically and theologically I thought they had the right ideas). But there’s a lot of things that this blog showed me is very much wrong with their teachings, and it throws a lot of what I used to believe into confusion.

    But obviously, this is just me being a worldly “Christian” who would rather go along with “every tossing wave of doctrine” than follow “the true faith” (notwithstanding that I argue that YEC, Male Patriarchy, and Dispensationalism are not only relatively new ideas but also that they’re non sequiters to my actual faith — but that’s for another story).

    Guess I’m eternally lost for this 🤷‍♂️ What can a guy do but love God and try to love the women God puts into his life?

    • Lisa Johns

      Seeking truth is not the same as being tossed. You’re doing just fine!

      Your last sentence though … how many women ya got there, buddy? Lol!

      • Nathan D. Wachsmuth

        I don’t mean like that, silly.

        But my fiance, obviously, my mother, my church friends. There are lots of different kinds of love that God endorses! 😊

        • Lisa Johns

          I did know that! ;D

    • Virginia Allen

      What’s wrong with Voddie in your opinion?

      • Lisa Johns

        He is very complementarian/gender-essentialist.

        • Virginia Allen

          What is gender-essentialist? This is the first time I’ve heard this term.

          • Lisa Johns

            It means that there are essential roles that men or women must fulfill in order to be “biblical.”

            He also traces a pretty straight line between CRT and Marxism (he’s not alone there), which I really question as I read and learn more about what CRT actually involves.

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