Domestic Violence, Church Response, Beliefs
I am pausing our Sunday Gatherings for the rest of October. October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, and I would like to take this time to talk about how the church can effectively respond to domestic violence.
The church can be incredibly helpful to victims of domestic violence, or, it can be incredibly damaging to victims. The way in which a church responds to a victim depends upon the beliefs that the church has about domestic violence. This is an open challenge to the church to re-evaluate a few beliefs which may keep victims within abusive relationships.
The Bible never promises that life will be easy. Jesus told his disciples in John 16:33:
I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
Suffering can make a person stronger, or cause physical and emotional reactions that may take years for a victim to recover. The church can offer a victim of domestic abuse empathy and compassion. Faith can play an important part of healing for a victim when those within the spiritual community offer support and encouragement.
However, some churches teach that suffering is ordained by God, is a part of God’s will, and insist that Christians need to respond to suffering with joy. One only needs to go to The Gospel Coalition or Desiring God to see titles such as: 4 Reasons God Ordains Suffering for His People, Don’t Waste Your Suffering, Seven Reasons You Owe Everything to Suffering, or Suffering Exposes Our Sin.
It is important to remember that abuse is about power and control. A victim of abuse experiences suffering involuntarily. Victims do not ask to be beaten, stalked, verbally assaulted, or sexually assaulted. The belief that a victim experiences suffering because it is God’s will makes God out to be cruel. Furthermore, a victim may choose to stay in an abusive relationship because they think that there is no other option or way out.
The church places high value on the marriage relationship – almost to the point of making an idol out of marriage. For some, marriage idolatry is dangerous because divorce will never be never an option for a victim of domestic abuse. The marriage must be saved at all costs. (Lori Alexander is a fine example of this belief.)
When scripture from Ephesians, Corinthians, and Colossians is taught from the pulpit, a pastor may focus more on a wife’s role in the marriage than the husband’s. If a pastor misinterprets scripture and teaches that a wife must submit in all things, he is sending a message that abuse must be endured. This teaching also validates the abuser, and arms him with verses that support his authority in the marriage.
Scripture never provides husbands with power and control over the marriage relationship. God does not condone abuse.
Confession and Forgiveness
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9
When an abuser confesses his sin of abuse to a pastor, the pastor may think that he is humble and contrite, and will offer forgiveness. The pastor may then ask the victim to forgive her abuser, and then the matter is taken care of. The pastor with a mindset of forgive and forget does a disservice to the victim. Abuse will never be forgotten. It stays with a person forever.
The problem with “simple forgiveness” is that abusers are highly manipulative. An abuser will say what a pastor wants to hear, but the confession may not be true repentance. After the confession, there may be a pause in the abuse, but it will start up again at some point. However, repentance involves a change in behavior. An abuser must show that he is willing to seek assistance to change his thoughts, actions, and attitudes about power and control. Pastors can play an important role in making sure that abusers stay true to their word that they are willing to seek change.
A pastor must also be open to a victim expressing forgiveness at her own timing. Forgiveness must neither be assumed to aid in healing, nor be forced. A victim’s ability to forgive should not be based upon a pastor’s expectation, but upon her own timing which must be respected.
Role of Secular Resources
The church must recognize when it is not capable of helping a victim and should use community resources when available.
A church that thinks that leadership must investigate all cases of domestic abuse may place additional trauma or harm by the perpetrator on the victim. Pastors must understand that domestic abuse is a crime which must be investigated by proper authorities. If cases of domestic abuse are solely handled within the church, the abuse may never cease.
Unfortunately, there are many churches that refuse to refer victims of abuse to trauma-informed counseling. Churches which focus on a Biblical approach to counseling may add trauma by focusing on the sin of the victim. There is no sin that a victim can commit that justifies abuse. The sin is on the abuser, not the victim. Churches may also refer victims to marriage counseling. It is widely known that marriage counseling is not an appropriate form of counseling for abusive relationships because of the focus on mutual contribution to the problem.
Churches must be aware of professionally trained resources within the community in which to refer a victim. These may include abuse advocacy, treatment, and intervention resources. Churches need not be afraid of community resources which aid victims, but should find value in partnering with resources for a victim’s best interest.
Church leaders, please take time to reevaluate your beliefs about marriage, gender roles within marriage, suffering, confession and forgiveness, and the use of outside resources. The way you respond to a victim of domestic abuse may mean life or death.