Skip to main content

Rape Culture in Sermons on Divorce

Part of the Religion and Radicalism book series (RERA)


In this chapter, Valerie Hobbs uses a critical discourse framework to study the violence implicit within evangelical Christian sermons on divorce. Her work in this chapter extends research on intimate partner violence by focusing on the construction of discourses about violence in 31 popular sermons on divorce, which either compromise or espouse efforts to combat violence against women. Through close analysis of these sermons, she notes that a significant number of pastors use euphemism for violence, frequently identify divorce (rather than spousal abuse) as an act of violence, and often appeal to biblical or religious authority to justify their requirement that women stay with violent men. In light of the role sermons play in cultivating problematic attitudes towards gender violence, Hobbs argues that these findings indicate a need for members of religious communities to examine closely the ways their own discourses promote rape culture.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-72224-5_6
  • Chapter length: 24 pages
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
USD   79.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-3-319-72224-5
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Softcover Book
USD   99.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Hardcover Book
USD   139.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)


  1. 1.

    This source also contains a helpful overview of three decades of research on attitudes towards violence against women, including a comprehensive discussion of the range of social processes that contribute to these attitudes.

  2. 2.

    “So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him” (Acts 8:30–31).

  3. 3.

    See also Alsdurf and Alsdurf (1988), Bowker (1988), Wood and McHugh (1994), Rotunda et al. (2003), Horne and Levitt (2004), Levitt and Ware (2006), Moon and Shim (2010), Nason-Clark (2010), Pyles (2007).

  4. 4.

    A nominalization is the use of a nominal (noun) form instead of the verb from which the nominal is derived. Like passives, nominalizations can hide the identity of the one who commits an act or otherwise minimize the connection between the actor and their action. For example, compare “He violates” with “There is violation.”

  5. 5.

    The corpus comprises sermons by 27 pastors (26 pastors in the United States, 1 in the United Kingdom) who come from a number of Christian denominations, including (Reformed) Baptist (23 sermons), Presbyterian (2), Free Presbyterian/Free Reformed (2), Free Reformed (1), Family Integrated (1), United Reformed (1), and Reformed Presbytery in North America (RPNA) (1). These 31 sermons, which were downloaded 77,720 times as of September 2016, were selected out of the 100 most frequently accessed sermons on divorce available on SermonAudio. The selection process was as follows: identify the 100 most popular (most frequently downloaded) sermons; include the first sermon by each speaker; include two-part series if both appear in the top 100; exclude longer series.

  6. 6.

    While few, if any, studies exist which apply principles of CDA to religious leaders’ responses to intimate partner violence, relevant research includes analysis of political discourse on violence against women, which examines discursive strategies obscuring intimate partner violence.

  7. 7.

    Although, Meyer (2001) notes that the terms “abuse,” “domestic violence,” and “intimate partner violence” have become “banal and sanitized euphemisms” to some extent, “indicative of the depoliticization of women’s issues in general, and violence against women in particular.”

  8. 8.

    By explicit, I mean pastors used some form of the word “abuse” and/or else referred to some specific act of violence (either physical or emotional/psychological).

  9. 9.

    This is consistent with recent research (LifeWay Research 2014) which found that pastors seldom address domestic violence from the pulpit, despite evidence that one in three women and one in four men experience intimate partner violence at least once in their lifetime (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2017).

  10. 10.

    A national survey carried out by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) indicates that among mid-life divorcees, the top reason women seek divorce, including those who call themselves Christian, is physical and/or psychological abuse.

  11. 11.

    All quotations come from my own transcriptions of the audio sermons in the corpus, not from transcriptions provided on the Sermon Audio site.

  12. 12.

  13. 13.

  14. 14.

  15. 15.

  16. 16.

  17. 17.

  18. 18.

    “break” is a keyword (LL score = 34.34), and the semantic domain of “damaging and destroying” is likewise significant in WMatrix (LL = 8.96). A keyword is a word that is more frequent to a statistically significant degree in a text or corpus than it is in some (larger) reference corpus. A log likelihood (LL) score above 6.63 indicates 99 per cent significance.

  19. 19.

  20. 20.

  21. 21.

  22. 22.

  23. 23.

  24. 24.

  25. 25.

  26. 26.

  27. 27.

    See Van Dijk for a discussion of the systematic abuse of discursive power and “the consequences of such discourse properties on the mental models of the recipients” (2008, p. 821).

  28. 28.

  29. 29.

  30. 30.


  31. 31.

  32. 32.

  33. 33.

  34. 34.

    See Günthner (1999, 2002) for an explanation of the use of discourse markers, among other devices, to signal evaluation of reported speech. The interpretation of the pastor’s use of “oh” to mark negative evaluation is further supported via examination of concordance lines from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (Davies 2008). Examples include where the speakers are marking reported speech, in some cases reinforcing their negative evaluation with further commentary such as “that wasn’t true” and “that’s completely unfair” (e.g. “The nurses were very matter of fact about it, ‘oh she’ll be fine, she’ll be fine’, and that wasn’t true”).

  35. 35.

  36. 36.

  37. 37.

    See Abdul-Latif (2011) for a discussion of how appeals to divine authority function as affirmation of a religious leader’s authority.

  38. 38.

  39. 39.

  40. 40.

  41. 41.

    It would be interesting to track where else such direct appeals to authority occur. When do pastors feel confident enough to state that their interpretation of Scripture is “from God’s lips to your ears”? A quick look at my reference corpus of over 100 sermons on non-marriage-related topics suggests that pastors say “Thus saith the Lord” most frequently when quoting this exact phrase from the Bible directly, rather than when they are offering their own interpretations. Further examination of this question would be of value, however.

  42. 42.

  43. 43.

    See Brinton (1992) for a discussion of the discursive function of the historical present.

  44. 44.

  45. 45.


  46. 46.

    The pastor is referring here to Matt. 19:7.

  47. 47.


  48. 48.

    See Hunt (2010) for a discussion of the tension between a perspective on conflict resolution rooted in some interpretations of Matthew 18 and an acknowledgement of the long-lasting trauma caused by violence.

  49. 49.

  50. 50.

    Professor David Engelsma is a theologian and pastor in the US Protestant Reformed Church.

  51. 51.

    Other themes related to the fostering of rape culture emerged from the data, which were not prominent but which warrant further discussion elsewhere. Among these were the portrayal of marital sex as compulsory and the framing of marriage as a form of conflict.

  52. 52.

    While this pastor is a Reformed Baptist, as were most of the others who mentioned violence explicitly, he is also the one British pastor in the corpus. This raises the following question which cannot be answered with these data: in what ways do cultural background and context influence pastors’ discourses about divorce?


  • Abdul-Latif, Emad. 2011. Interdiscursivity Between Political and Religious Discourses in a Speech by Sadat. Journal of Language and Politics 10 (1): 50–67.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Alsdurf, J.M., and P. Alsdurf. 1988. A Pastoral Response. In Abuse and Religion, ed. A.L. Horton and J.A. Williamson, 165–171. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Annis, Ann W., and Rodger R. Rice. 2002. A Survey of Abuse Prevalence in the Christian Reformed Church. Journal of Religion & Abuse 3 (3–4): 7–40.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Behre, Kelly. 2014. The Fathers’ Rights Movement Undermines Victims of Domestic Violence. The New York Times, 13 June. Accessed 12 August 2017.

  • Bowker, L.H. 1988. Religious Victims and Their Religious Leaders: Services Delivered to One Thousand Battered Women by the Clergy. In Abuse and Religion, ed. A.L. Horton and J.A. Williamson, 229–234. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brinton, Laurel J. 1992. The Historical Present in Charlotte Brontë’s Novels: Some Discourse Functions on JSTOR. Stylistics and Strategies 26 (2): 221–244.

    Google Scholar 

  • Catalano, Shannan M. 2012. Intimate Partner Violence, 1993–2010. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Accessed 11 August 2017.

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2016. Intimate Partner Violence: Definitions. Accessed 11 August 2017.

  • ———. 2017. National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS)|Funded Programs|Violence Prevention|Injury Center|CDC. Accessed 11 August 2017.

  • Cheong, Eun-Ye. 1999. Analysis of Sermons Delivered by Korean, Filipino and American Pastors: The View of Genre Analysis. RELC Journal 30 (2): 44–60.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Coates, Linda, and Allan Wade. 2007. Language and Violence: Analysis of Four Discursive Operations. Journal of Family Violence 22 (7): 511–522.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). 2008. Accessed 11 August 2017.

  • Djikanovic, Bosiljka, Halime Celik, Snezana Simic, Bojana Matejic, and Viktorija Cucic. 2010. Health Professionals’ Perceptions of Intimate Partner Violence against Women in Serbia: Opportunities and Barriers for Response Improvement. Patient Education and Counseling 80 (1): 88–93.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Dobash, Russell P., R. Emerson Dobash, Margo Wilson, and Martin Daly. 1992. The Myth of Sexual Symmetry in Marital Violence. Social Problems 39 (1): 71–91.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Engelsma, David J. 2017. Questions and Answers Regarding the Speech on Spousal (Wife) Abuse. Unpublished Paper.–questionsandanswers–2017.docx?dl=0. Accessed 11 August 2017.

  • Flatley, John. 2016. Focus on Violent Crime and Sexual Offences – Office for National Statistics. Office for National Statistics. Accessed 11 August 2017.

  • Flood, Michael, and Bob Pease. 2009. Factors Influencing Attitudes to Violence Against Women. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse 10 (2): 125–142.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Günthner, Susanne. 1999. Polyphony and the ‘Layering of Voices’ in Reported Dialogues: An Analysis of the Use of Prosodic Devices in Everyday Reported Speech. Journal of Pragmatics 31 (5): 685–708.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2002. Perspectivity in Reported Dialogues. In Perspective and Perspectivation in Discourse, ed. Carl F. Graumann and Werner Kallmeyer, 347–374. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Horne, Sharon G., and Heidi M. Levitt. 2004. Shelter from the Raging Wind: Religious Needs of Victims of Intimate Partner Violence and Faith Leaders’ Responses. Journal of Religion and Abuse 5 (2): 83–97.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Horton, Anne L., and Judith A. Williamson, eds. 1988. Abuse and Religion: When Praying Isn’t Enough. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Huckin, Thomas. 2002. Critical Discourse Analysis and the Discourse of Condescension. In Discourse Studies in Composition, ed. Ellen Barton and Gail Stygall, 155–176. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hunt, Laura J. 2010. Missions in the Context of Recovery from Childhood Sexual Abuse. Missiology: An International Review 38 (3): 321–333.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Johnson, Michael P. 2006. Conflict and Control: Gender Symmetry and Asymmetry in Domestic Violence. Violence Against Women 12 (11): 1003–1018.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Koyama, E. 2006. Disloyal to Feminism: Abuse of Survivors Within the Domestic Violence Shelter System. Incite. Accessed 11 August 2017.

  • Kozu, J. 1999. Domestic Violence in Japan. American Psychologist. Accessed 11 August 2017.

  • Kurz, D. 1989. Social Science Perspectives on Wife Abuse: Current Debates and Future Directions. Gender and Society 3 (4): 489–505.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Lazarus-Black, M. 2007. Everyday Harm: Domestic Violence, Court Rites, and Cultures of Reconciliation. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Levitt, Heidi M., and Kimberly N. Ware. 2006. Religious Leaders’ Perspectives on Marriage, Divorce, and Intimate Partner Violence. Psychology of Women Quarterly 30 (2): 212–222.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • LifeWay Research. 2014. Pastors Seldom Preach About Domestic Violence. Accessed 11 August 2017.

  • Meyer, Nancy J. 2001. Now You See It, Now You Don’t: The State of the Battered Women’s Movement. Off Our Backs 31 (10): 22–23.

    Google Scholar 

  • Moon, Sung Seek, and Woochan S. Shim. 2010. Bridging Pastoral Counseling and Social Work Practice: An Exploratory Study of Pastors’ Perceptions of and Responses to Intimate Partner Violence. Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Social Work: Social Thought 29 (2): 124–142.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Nash, Shondrah Tarrezz, and Latonya Hesterberg. 2009. Biblical Framings of and Responses to Spousal Violence in the Narratives of Abused Christian Women. Violence Against Women 15 (3): 340–361.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Nason-Clark, Nancy. 1997. The Battered Wife: How Christians Confront Family Violence. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2004. When Terror Strikes at Home: The Interface Between Religion and Domestic Violence. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 43 (3): 303–310.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2010. Clergy Referrals in Cases of Domestic Violence. The Journal of Family and Community Ministries 23 (4): 50–60.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pyles, Loretta. 2007. The Complexities of the Religious Response to Domestic Violence. Affilia 22 (3): 281–291.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Rotunda, Rob J., Gail Williamson, and Michelle Penfold. 2003. Clergy Response to Domestic Violence: A Preliminary Survey of Clergy Members, Victims, and Batterers. Pastoral Psychology 52 (4): 353–365.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Shannon-Lewy, Colleen, and Valerie T. Dull. 2005. The Response of Christian Clergy to Domestic Violence: Help or Hindrance? Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (6): 647–659.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Tracy, Steven R., and Phoenix Seminary. 2009. What Does ‘Submit in Everything’ Really Mean? The Nature and Scope of Marital Submission. Trinity Journal 29: 285–312.

    Google Scholar 

  • Trinch, Shonna L. 2001. Managing Euphemism and Transcending Taboos: Negotiating the Meaning of Sexual Assault in Latinas Narratives of Domestic Violence. Text – Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Discourse 21 (4): 567–610.

    Google Scholar 

  • Van Dijk, Teun A. 2008. Critical Discourse Analysis and Nominalization: Problem or Pseudo-Problem? Discourse and Society 19 (6): 821–828.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Wood, Alberta D., and Maureen C. McHugh. 1994. Woman Battering: The Response of the Clergy. Pastoral Psychology 42 (3): 185–196.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2018 The Author(s)

About this chapter

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Hobbs, V. (2018). Rape Culture in Sermons on Divorce. In: Blyth, C., Colgan, E., Edwards, K. (eds) Rape Culture, Gender Violence, and Religion. Religion and Radicalism. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Download citation