For more than fifteen years, it seemed as though my life was a revolving door to crisis. As a victim of domestic violence, I found myself helpless to overcome the physical abuse and intimidation that occurred regularly in my home. Over the years, frequent marital counseling sessions with Christian counselors and pastors failed to stop the violence. In fact, it only continued to escalate in intensity until fleeing for safety became the only option. Unfortunately, my story is not a rarity in our increasingly violent society, and sadly, statistics suggest that the problem is equally prevalent among Christian families.[i] Yet, one need only visit a battered women’s shelter or peruse the current literature to discover that, for the most part, the church has been absent regarding this issue.
Twenty-five year police veteran, Detective Sergeant Don Stewart, has made a career of studying the problem of domestic violence. As a Christian, he laments that far too few pastors take the time to familiarize themselves with this troubling topic. Perhaps many pastors do not recognize the issue, because it thrives in shame and secrecy. In a nationwide survey of pastors, a majority interviewed indicated that they did not believe spousal abuse was happening in their churches, because “no one had ever disclosed an episode of abuse to them. [However] none of these ministers seemed to associate the lack of disclosure with the fact that they had never broached the subject of domestic violence from the pulpit.”[ii]
As former spokesperson for a domestic violence program, I am fully aware of the prevalence of family violence within the church. In my own small corner of the world, I have seen victims wearing wounds to rival those found on battlefields, and children’s faces telling stories of shock and dismay. I have met women who were strangled, stabbed, forced to drink poison, kicked, and punched. I have heard stories of unbelievable intimidation by abusers. One woman watched her husband cut the head off of her dog, and another opened her car door to find her car filled with poisonous snakes. Several perpetrators threatened violence or sexual assault against their own children. Many of these women were Christians, and were doubly grieved because their churches offered little or no support. Some reported that their pastors didn’t believe their stories or seemed to care more about saving their marriages than their lives.
Although, preservation of marriages is the ideal, a thorough examination of scripture might indicate a more important objective for those counseling the abused. While religious leaders insisted on the letter of the law, Jesus always chose individuals over ordinances. When they chastised Him for healing on the Sabbath, He responded by asking, “What man is there among you who has a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep!”[iii] Surely, this passage would apply to rescuing hurting women and children from the torment of abuse.
If the church is to be salt and light to an unbelieving world, can we do it by esteeming broken covenants over His hurting children? Would unbelievers be attracted to a God who expects His children to endure horrific abuses? Jesus said that even evil earthly fathers know how to give good gifts to their children. Would an earthly father just stand back and watch someone beat his daughter unconscious? I certainly doubt it, but the church’s failure to reach out to victims of domestic violence causes our Lord to seem cruel and distant in the eyes of unbelievers. There are no easy solutions for the problem of domestic violence, but that does not mean the church can remain silent and expect worldly shelters to handle it. Pastors and church leaders must take the initiative to learn how to effectively minister to those held captive by violence.
Understanding the Dynamics of Domestic Violence
Domestic violence occurs within every socioeconomic group and every race. Every year, in America approximately 2000 women are murdered by their spouses, former spouses, or partners. Every year over 700,000 incidents of domestic violence are documented in America, with thousands more going unreported.[iv] Battering by an intimate partner is the number one cause of injury to women.[v] As indicated earlier, the church seems to fare no better than the world when it comes to domestic violence. In fact, many experts have suggested that unbalanced teaching on biblical submission and headship can actually worsen the problem for some women.[vi] George Scipione, director of the Institute for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship in La Mesa, Calif., has stated that “in our circles, people get beat up with the bible.”[vii] Abusers have a great tendency to take scripture out of context and use it to keep their wives under control.
For the most part, physical abuse is related to a batterer’s desire to control his wife. He may seek to dominate nearly every aspect of his partner’s life, and often uses a variety of methods to maintain power. Experts have identified common behaviors among most abusive men that range from economic abuse, to isolating the victim, to physical battering. [viii] These control mechanisms can be subtle and often involve a great deal of mental deception. He may make her feel sorry for him, make her responsible for all of his problems, or make her feel she deserves the abuse. When mental coercion fails, he often resorts to verbal denigration, threats, or intimidation. He might block her exit from a room, or destroy her property in an effort to get his way. If these tactics do not work, he soon directs his violence towards her.[ix]
Many abusive men are able to maintain control without severe physical assault- grabbing and pushing may get the desired results. Perhaps this is the reason a large number of women in violent relationships do not even identify themselves as battered. Chaplain Miles claims that out of the hundreds of abused women he has seen “almost none of these victims has identified herself as a battered woman.”[x] This dynamic only serves to complicate matters for counselors and pastors. In most violent marriages, the abuse comes in cycles.[xi] Often, after a particularly violent episode the abuser may show remorse in an attempt to lure his partner back. During this “honeymoon phase,”[xii] many batterers will agree to go for counseling. However, many couples never admit to the physical abuse, and may merely indicate that he has anger issues.
During counseling, victims “may fear that openness will lead to retaliation by the abuser.”[xiii] This is why many experts strongly suggest individual rather than conjoint counseling in such cases.[xiv] Without training in the dynamics of domestic violence, a counselor or pastor might spend several sessions with the couple and never learn their secret. In such instances, it is likely that the abuser will only attend a few sessions to appease the victim, and quickly drop out as the cycle of violence escalates. The challenge for those who would help an abused wife is to get her to tell the truth before serious physical harm is done, remembering that domestic violence escalates over time, and it thrives on secrecy. “All of this adds up to the fact that you may have to overcome a conspiracy of silence in the family that serves to protect the [abuser]… You must be prepared to drag it into the light.”[xv]
A Ministry Plan for Battered Families
Once the issue is exposed, safety for the victim must be the first priority. Detective Sgt. Stewart has suggested that the church has a “biblical mandate” to care for victims of domestic violence. [xvi] George Scipione put it rather bluntly, “I’m sick and tired of pastors who don’t protect their sheep!”[xvii] People perish for a lack of knowledge, so in order to protect those in the throes of abuse, pastors and counselors must seek to learn how to keep women safe. In most cases, this will involve something that might seem contrary to scripture- separation from the marriage. Perhaps this explains the reluctance of many pastors to deal with domestic violence, and the myriad of complaints by victims that their pastors seemed more concerned about their marriages than their lives.[xviii] Some scholars have suggested that I Corinthians 7 forbids a woman from leaving her husband for any reason. They say that Paul is inferring that “if she does leave,” it would be sinful. However, such interpretation fails to examine the purpose of Paul’s instructions in the first place. They were written because “God has called us to peace.”[xix] A battered woman lives in terror on a daily basis, and many times separation is the only way to achieve peace.
There are multiple positions on the length a separation between abuser and victim should last, but most recommend a minimum of one year. George Scipione has indicated that the couple should not be reconciled until there is some guarantee that the abuser will be held accountable, and the victim feels safe. Regardless of the timeframe, the church needs to be prepared to help provide for the wife’s basic needs of housing, food, and transportation during this time. If it becomes necessary for her to obtain a protective order, or go to court, those helping should recognize how intimidating this may be for her and volunteer to go with her. Statistics reveal that the danger for a woman increases significantly once she leaves the abuser. Women are 75% more likely to be killed by their partners when they leave or report the violence. [xxi] This is particularly true if there is no one to hold him accountable.
If the church is not able to provide for her safety, then a battered women’s shelter may be her only alternative. While many believers are quick to condemn these institutions, they have been on the front lines saving lives for decades while the church has been largely absent. The problem with these programs is that they have historically focused on helping the woman by discouraging reconciliation.[xxii] However, in recent years, more shelters have expanded their service to offer programs for batterers as they have recognized the tendency of victims to return to them. Their main priority is safety, and they are experts in providing it. They assist women with filing protective orders, transportation for job searches, medical treatment, and more. In addition, their experience in the field can help determine the lethality of an abuser.
Anyone interested in beginning a domestic violence ministry could learn a great deal from these centers. Most shelters accept volunteers, and many would appreciate having someone who could provide scriptural counsel their Christian clients (this was certainly the case in the shelter where I worked). A believer’s presence there could provide a powerful witness to women who have given up on churches altogether. Perhaps, rather than completely disregarding these institutions as bastions of feminism, the church should view them as mission fields full of broken women in need of a Savior.
After the victim’s safety is achieved, the next step needed to restore the couple is confrontation of the abuser. This can be particularly challenging since many batterers are masters of manipulation. They can be “charming and gifted seducers” who feign confession and repentance.[xxiii] Counselors must be aware of this, and resist the temptation to encourage the victim to forgive and forget before it is truly safe. Because of the illusive nature of the batterer, many experts have suggested that “group treatment is preferable over individual treatment because, to put it simply, it’s hard to con a con man.”[xxiv] In other words, batterers can fool just about everyone except other batterers.
Biblical counselors, David Powlison, Paul Tripp, and Edward Welch believe that biblical confrontation and accountability is the best way to treat abusive men.[xxv] Since many of these men come from backgrounds of abuse, they must unlearn violent behaviors and replace them with the biblical actions such as servanthood and truthfulness. Galatians 6:1 implores believers to “gently restore” those who are caught in trespasses. In the case of abusers, this may be a challenge, but it is not impossible. Abusers need “radical honesty, accountability, reminders, encouragement, models, daily exposure to the light of day, prayers of intercession.” [xxvi] They need to learn that there will be negative consequences if they choose to abuse.
Throughout the Old Testament, God used consequences to discipline and correct His children. In the same way, abusers “will not acknowledge the problem until they personally experience the painful consequences of their choices.”[xxvii] This is a concept that victims need to learn as well, since most have become skilled in protecting their abusers. Such women live with constant fear of man, and must be taught to replace that fear with a holy fear of the Lord. Once a woman is out of harm’s way, it becomes much easier to teach her this concept. She needs to learn that allowing sinful behavior to continue is not the most loving response to her husband, and that separation could very well be a catalyst to motivate change.[xxviii] This will involve a careful study of scripture to challenge her unhealthy fear of man, and to help correct any misinterpretation of scripture. Like their husbands, most Christian women who live with abuse have distorted interpretations of a godly marriage.[xxix] Many believe God calls them to endure mistreatment in the name of submission.
If both the victim and the abuser are willing to lay aside their idolatries and make God the center of their lives, their marriage can possibly be redeemed. However, counselors working with these couples must be aware of the high recidivism rate among abusers.* If a wife decides to return to the home, there should be a strict system of accountability for her husband. The counselor should also help the wife devise a safety plan in case the violence returns.[xxx] If the husband repeatedly proves to be a danger to his wife, the church must be willing to confront him according to Matthew 18:15-17, and if necessary put him out of the church as an unbeliever.[xxxi] In such cases the wife would no longer be bound to the marriage.[xxxii]
We serve a Savior who was sent “proclaim release to the captives… recovering of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty them that are bruised…” [xxxiii] He offers hope to the afflicted that the world cannot. As His followers, we are called to share that hope with others. We are to “loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free…”[xxxiv] Too many precious lives have been “destroyed for a lack of knowledge.”[xxxv] In order to effectively minister to those held captive by violence, we must make a choice to obtain to the knowledge necessary to set the captives free. It is the church’s calling, and we have left it to the world for far too long.
Note: I wrote this article about 10 years for a counseling class in seminary, and while I agree with the basic concepts, I need to add an extra warning here. For a plan of reconciliation to possibly work, you must include experts who are versed on the dynamics of abuse. Trying to handle this issue with regular counseling is counter productive! Please contact us at Called to Peace Ministries if you need more information on where to turn for help .
[i] Catherine Clark Kroeger & Nancy Nason-Clark, No Place for Abuse (Downers Grove, IL, Intervarsity Press) 20.
[ii]Al Miles, Domestic Violence: What Every Pastor Needs to Know (Minneapolis, MN, Fortress Press) 154.
[iii] Matthew 12:11-12 (NASB)
[v]Catherine Clark Kroeger & Nancy Nason-Clark, No Place for Abuse (Downers Grove, IL, Intervarsity Press) 20.
[vi] Carol Adams, Woman Battering (Minneapolis, Fortress Press) 99./ Miles, Domestic Violence. 35./ Kroeger & Nason Clark, No Place For Abuse. 119.
[vii] George Scipione, “Spousal Abuse.” Recorded at To Love & To Cherish Marriage Conference.
[viii]Beth Swagman, Resonding to Domestic Violence: A Resource for Church Leaders (Grand Rapids, MI, Faith Alive Christian Resources) 38.
[ix] Hegstrom, “Battered Families- Help & Hope” Recorded on Focus on the Family.
[x] Miles, Domestic Violence. 22.
[xi] Stewart, Refuge, 44-45.
[xii] Swagman, Responding to Domestic Violence. 31.
[xiii] David Powlison. Paul David Tripp, & Edward Welch, “Pastoral Responses to Domestic Violence” in Pastoral Leadership for Manhood and Womanhood, ed. Wayne Grudem & Dennis Rainey (Wheaton, Ill., Crossway Press)
[xiv] Hegstrom, “Battered Families.”
[xv] Powlison et al, 273.
[xvi] Stewart, Refuge. 210.
[xvii] Scipione, Spousal Abuse.
[xviii] Miles, Domestic Violence. 34.
[xix] I Corinthians 7:15 (NASB)
[xx] Adams, Woman-Battering. 22.
[xxi] Stewart, Refuge. 58.
[xxii] Hegstrom, “Battered Families.”
[xxiii] Powlison et.al., “Pastoral Responses.” 272.
[xxiv] Swagman, Responding to Domestic Violence. 133.
[xxv] Powlison et. al. “Pastoral Responses.” 275.
[xxvii] Leslie Vernick, How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong (Colorado Springs. CO, Waterbrook Press)178.
[xxix] Clark & Nason-Clark, No Place for Abuse. 91-99.
[xxx] Stewart, Refuge. 147-149.
[xxxi] Scipione, “Spousal Abuse.”