Tag Archives: family violence and the church

Raising our Voices Against Abuse

Twenty two years ago domestic violence drove my children and me out of our home. We got out with only the clothes on our backs and bounced from one friend’s house to another, as my husband went on the warpath threatening everyone who tried to help. When I called the police, they reluctantly went over to the house and “tried to calm him down,” but told me there was nothing they could do to stop him from destroying the antiques and other precious items I had inherited from my grandmother. They explained that once I married, my property became his, and he could do whatever he wanted with it.

Since he could not find us, my husband’s rage increased. He began chopping up and burning all the wooden antique furniture in the house. He also bagged up all my personal belongings and carried them to the town dump, making sure to ruin my most expensive clothes by pouring ink all over them. Several hours each day he was on the phone relaying threats against me to friends and family members. He also went to great lengths to convince them I was to blame for everything that was happening. After his own father called to tell me he was afraid for my life, I called the police again. I believed if he found us, I would be killed. The police asked me if he owned weapons, and when I told them he did, they became reluctant to respond and basically told me there was nothing they could do about the threats. In the weeks that followed, I called them several times. Once or twice they went over to try to calm him down. One of those times he told them I was going to “end up in a body bag,” but apparently that was not enough to warrant an arrest.

A friend of mine was married to a deputy, so I called and asked him for advice. He suggested I go take out a warrant against him, and get a protective order. I did it the very same day, and laid low praying that they would get him before he got us. After two days, when I still hadn’t heard anything, I called to find out what happened. They told me he had been served, but they weren’t sure he’d seen it yet. While I was actually naive enough to think they might put him in jail, I soon found that serving him only meant that a pink piece of paper was taped the the door of his house ordering him to court in 30 days . When he got home from a long shift as a staff physician, that piece of paper merely served to enrage him more. The threats through friends and family intensified.

I reached out to my pastor, and he went by to see my husband. Although he had only been a nominal member of the church, while I served faithfully, my pastor seemed to believe my husband’s story over mine. He seemed to think that I had done something to set him off, because nobody would go that crazy without reason. I tried to explain that I’d spent our entire marriage trying to avoid setting him off, but I never knew what might do it. One time, he tore the house up because he was mad at the cat. Another time, he became furious and started breaking things, because our daughter used his hairbrush and forgot to put it back. My solution to that was to go out and buy 17 brushes so that would never happen again. I always tried to smooth the way for him, but nothing was ever enough. We never knew what might set him off. The most stressful time of the day was when he walked in the door from work. Would he be in a good mood or a bad mood? If it was good, nothing would bother him, but if it was bad everything would anger him and all we could do was try to avoid him.

I explained all of this to my pastor, and he suggested we come in for a counseling session. As afraid as I was, I wanted our marriage to work so I went. I arrived 20 minutes early to avoid meeting my husband in the parking lot. When he arrived, he seemed calm and cool. We sat and listened as our pastor told us how he thought we could repair our marriage, but inside I knew none of it would work. In our 13 years of marriage, we had seen at least a dozen counselors or pastors, and nothing anyone had suggested had worked. Somehow they all put the burden for his behavior on me. I was told to boost his self-esteem, to keep a cleaner house, to pray more and ask God to show me my contribution to the problem. Most of the time, I was way ahead of the counselors and already doing what they prescribed. We had learned to tip toe around my husband quite well, except on those rare occasions when something unexpected came up. It didn’t seem anything we did could help us in those situations.

Even though he had been prone to fits of rage of the years, he had only been physically abusive towards me about 4 or 5 times in the entire length of our marriage, so I didn’t really consider myself abused. I just thought he lost control because of his troubled upbringing and long hours at work. I never thought he was intentionally trying to hurt me, so I made every effort to bring healing to our marriage. For a year and a half after that initial separation I reached out to anyone I thought might be able to help. After all, I didn’t believe in divorce! Yet, nobody had the answers I longed to find. Every earthly resource failed us–  from the legal system to law enforcement, from counselors to the church. The violence simply became more frequent and more deadly.

One day my twelve-year-old daughter asked me why I didn’t just leave and give up the idea of reconciliation. My response was that God hates divorce. Immediately she said, “God hates divorce, but he’s going to hate it a lot more when my mom is dead.” Even after hearing that, I refused to give up. It took nearly losing my life to decide I needed to leave, and it was the hardest thing I’d ever done, because everything in me wanted to save that marriage. Even after I left, I waited on God hoping he would change my husband’s heart. Not until he remarried five years later did I feel released from that marriage.

During that five year separation I struggled and grieved over the loss of the marriage. I was also overwhelmed with guilt and condemnation because I couldn’t make it work. Still, I knew I had no other choice. Even though I couldn’t find the right help, I felt I had failed somehow. One day as I was reading 1 Corinthians 7 regarding separation from an unbeliever, God gave me peace about leaving. Since my husband claimed to be a Believer, and since he kept saying he wanted to stay in the marriage, I didn’t think the passage applied to us. However, that day I saw that the reason Paul released believing spouses from such marriages was that “God has called us to peace” (7:15). That passage leapt off the page into my heart as I realized I had not had peace in the entire 23 years I had been with my husband (8 years of dating and 15 of marriage). Suddenly I saw God’s kind intention towards me. He wasn’t condemning me for getting out, I was condemning myself and many in the church did too.

In the years since I left my marriage I have reached back to help others in similar situations, and have seen plenty of victims face condemnation from the very people they approached for help. Like me, most have been made to feel responsible for their abusers’ actions. I’ve seen them struggle with the same unbelievable lack of resources I faced. It wasn’t that people didn’t try to help– they didn’t know how!  People perish for a lack of knowledge (Hos. 4:6), and when helpers don’t understand the dynamics of abuse, they very often make things worse. They minimize or deny the problem and fail to believe victims who finally get up the courage to come forward. They elevate marriages over lives, and fail to recognize the deadly nature of domestic violence.

Recently a woman I know fled to the local domestic violence shelter for help. When they did a lethality index, it indicated she has a very high chance of becoming a victim of domestic homicide. Yet, a month later, her pastor was encouraging her to come in for couples counseling. I wish I could say it’s an exception to see domestic violence mishandled by the church, but sadly my experience with hundreds of women has shown me it is the rule. Every time I hear a story like this, I become more determined to make a difference.

The bottom line is that abusers continue to abuse, because we close our eyes to it. We try to pretend it’s not all that common– even though the American Medical Association says one in three American women will experience it– even though statistics are no better in the church– and even though it “is widely accepted by abuse experts (and validated by numerous studies) that evangelical men who sporadically attend church are more likely than men of any other religious group (and more likely than secular men) to assault their wives.”

Not only do we ignore the problem, we actually make it easier for abusers when none of the systems in place are able to effectively protect victims, including the church. When I look at scripture, I see God’s heart for the oppressed and his mandate for us to “loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and.. break every yoke” (Is. 58:6).  That is our calling as his people, and we need many voices if we are ever to overcome this awful plight.

November 3-4, 2017 in Raleigh, NC, Called to Peace Ministries will be hosting its fall conference, “Developing a Church-wide Response to Domestic Abuse” with domestic violence expert Chris Moles. This conference will help equip those who want to help and be a voice for those oppressed by domestic abuse. To those not local to the Raleigh area, we will have live streaming via Facebook. Please visit our Eventbrite page to register. We hope you’ll join us and become a voice for the oppressed.

Why Nobody Believes the Victim

How Churches Unwittingly Promote Domestic Abuse

The other day I sat down with a precious daughter of the King and listened to her story. As survivor of domestic violence and advocate for victims, I almost knew the ending of the story before she got half way through, because I’ve heard similar accounts so many times. Once again, I was grieved to hear that another church had turned its back on a faithful member, and embraced the abuser. Once again, I saw the hurt and bewilderment that comes from being first abused by the one who promised to love and cherish till death, and then suspected (even blamed) by the church entrusted with the care of her soul.

I’ve worked with victims of domestic violence for nearly 20 years, and in all this time a several common patterns have emerged, but the most egregious is that when they finally get up enough courage to reach out to their churches for help, the overwhelming majority of them are not believed. Pastors have come straight out and told me they believed the victims were making up lies in order to deliberately destroy their husbands, or others have said that that it’s nearly impossible to know who’s telling the truth in such cases.  Several times, pastors and church counselors indicated that my judgment in advocating for victims was certainly clouded by my own history of abuse. In one case, I prayed that God would not allow me to be fooled. I went back and interviewed 17 people who had worked with or knew the couple in question, and the only evidence of lies I could find were those told by the abuser, yet the church continued to believe his story rather than hers.

Why in this world is this such a problem? As I’ve continued to ponder this question, I come up with several possible answers.

  1. Victims are taught to cover up and hide the abuse, and most do not come forward until the pain becomes unbearable. Being in an abusive relationship is a bit like being in a cult. Victims are conditioned to protect and make the abuser look good to the outside world. Many times they’ve done such a good job that people naturally doubt their stories.
  2. Abusers can be the nicest folks you’ll ever meet! (At least in public they are). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been shocked to find that someone I admired and respected within the church turned out to be abusive. One of the common traits of an abusive person is the Jekyll/Hyde syndrome. They are often charming and charismatic in public, but cruel and demanding in the privacy of their own homes. Since they may seem more put together and stable, it is easy to assume that the anxious wife is the main source of the problem. 
  3. Abusers work very hard at discrediting their victims. Over the years I have seen abusers spread deliberate lies about their spouses being unfaithful, mentally unstable, unfit parents and so on. Once a man a man came up to me and indicated how glad he was that his wife was taking one of my classes at church. He said “Maybe you can help her,” indicating that she was deeply troubled. Months later, she came to me in tears about the way she was being treated at home. However, because this man was considered to be a leader in the church and because of his earlier conversation with me, I found myself doubting her story. She did seem frazzled and unstable. It was only my training in domestic violence that enabled me to keep an open mind, and refrain from making her feel foolish for coming forward. The interesting thing is that she wasn’t even sure of what to make of what was happening in her home. She didn’t really come to accuse him; she came to ask me if her perspective was wrong, and if she was overreacting to his treatment.
  4. Misplaced Biblical Doctrines on Male Headship. Although I tried to deny its existence for years, I have become painfully aware that many non-abusive Christian men hold beliefs that encourage abuse. I have seen pastors take the side of abusers whose biggest complaint was that their wives were not being submissive. On more than one occasion I have heard church leaders discuss church discipline against women for being “unsubmissive.” Experts in domestic violence are clear that a sense of entitlement is a foundational element among those who perpetrate violence at home, and harsh interpretations of biblical passages on male headship can serve to support that sense of entitlement. The Greek term for submission in the New Testament, hupotassō, indicates yielding for the sake of order. Even more conservative scholars recognize that it is not something that should be forced.* Yet, churches often unwittingly foster abuse when they attempt to force something that was intended be voluntary.
  5. The Belief that Domestic Violence is Provoked. Even when victims have sufficient evidence to prove abuse, many counselors and pastors operate under the faulty assumption that they must have done something to set their abusers off, or that the violence was mutual. While there are some victims who do play into the violence, the majority I have known have done everything in their power to avoid it. They describe it as “walking on eggshells.” The sad part is that they can never predict what might set it off. For one woman, leaving a cup in the sink caused her husband to flip out, for another a misplaced hairbrush led to destruction that looked like a war zone in her home. It takes very little to provoke an abuser, and victims can never do enough to prevent the violence. There is never an excuse for domestic violence, and counsel that questions how the victim might have provoked the abuse is not only counterproductive, it serves to enable the abuser.

In my experience, the factors above explain the main reasons nobody seems to believe the victim. Of course, I know saying they’re never believed can’t possibly be true, but it sure seems to be that way far more often than not. Sure, there are false accusations in the world, but they are the vast minority of cases. Research shows that an overwhelming majority of abuse accusations can be substantiated, yet in all my years of dealing with domestic violence victims, nearly all were doubted or even blamed for their marital problems when they reached out for help. They couldn’t all have been lying, but that was the consensus among the church leaders who were petitioned for help. Sadly, even in cases where the truth of the abuse came out beyond dispute, the bulk of the burden was placed on the victims to improve the situation. Many were told to do more to make their husbands happy—to submit, have more sex, read their bibles or pray. Unfortunately, such advice only serves to promote an abuser’s sense of entitlement, and encourage cycle of abuse.

God’s heart is for those who are oppressed and maligned, and he hates it when justice is perverted in his name. “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Is. 1:17). Yet, too often those who claim his name are unwittingly doing the exact opposite. I am not writing this in order to condemn. I certainly understand how easy it is to unintentionally promote wrong for “righteousness” sake. For years, my own convictions on marital submission and divorce made me a lousy friend to those who divorced as a result of abuse. I was so opposed to divorce that I encouraged them to stay in situations that were clearly destructive. My beliefs also served to ensure the eventual failure of my own marriage. I thought I had to submit to any and everything my husband demanded. In the end, my strict beliefs only served to promote his sin, and the cycle abuse worsened over time as I gave in to it.

The only way to overcome abuse is to, first of all, admit the truth. That requires believing it when it’s presented to you. Being able to recognize the truth often requires specific training on the dynamics of abuse. There are well-established typical patterns common to most cases. Overcoming abuse requires holding the abuser accountable, rather than making the victim responsible. It all starts by listening and being open to believe the oppressed who come to you for help. My prayer for our churches is that we will open our eyes to the epidemic of domestic violence in our midst, and learn to be the solution rather than part of the problem.

 

 

*(Mahaney, C.J., “How to Encourage Husbands to Lead” in Pastoral Leadership for Manhood & Womanhood, ed. Wayne Grudem & Dennis Rainey. (Wheaton, Crossway Books, 2002), 204.)

Is My Relationship Abusive? Part 5

This is the 5th and final post in a series on recognizing abusive patterns in relationships. Most people believe that physical abuse stems from heated arguments, but generally speaking, that is not the case. Most often abusers becomes violent when the techniques  described on the Power and Control Wheel fail to achieve the desired control. Today we look at the last 3 tactics found on the Wheel.

Minimizing, Denying and Blaming

Grace had been married to Charlie for over 10 years, and was a stay-at-home mom. Although, she went to extreme measures to please Charlie, he criticized her constantly. The house was never clean enough, the kids were never good enough, and meals never seemed to meet his approval. Grace tried very hard to please him, so one day she decided to cook 2 meals in an attempt to find something Charlie would like. Instead, he walked in late and went straight upstairs, ignoring both meals. Soon after, Grace discovered Charlie was seeing another woman, and he’d had dinner with her that evening. When she confronted Charlie, he turned the situation all back on Grace. First of all, he explained, he had done nothing wrong, and she was being ridiculous. He criticized her for even bringing it up, and when she pressed him on the subject, he started blaming her for his actions. Maybe if she had been more attentive to his needs or managed to do something right from time to time, he wouldn’t have needed to find outside companionship. Basically, he told her she had no right to question his actions, and if she wanted to see things improve in the marriage, she needed to try harder.

Grace also learned that Charlie was slapping their 10-year-old son on a regular basis, and the same thing happened when she tried to talk to him about her concerns. At first he denied it was even happening, but when she caught him doing it one day, he simply acted like it was no big deal. When she expressed her concern that it was contributing to their son’s anger issues, he turned it back on Grace. “Of course, he’s angry! He has to live with you!” No matter what she said and did to confront the wrongs against the children and herself, Charlie always either denied wrongdoing, minimized it or blamed someone else. He never accepted responsibility for his actions.

Economic Abuse

Jan’s husband John put her on a very strict allowance, and it usually fell far short of meeting the basic needs for their family of six. When she went to the grocery store, Jan had to bring back her receipt so that John could analyze every item she bought. He ridiculed half of her purchases and called them wasteful. On the other hand, she had to make sure she bought him special (and somewhat expensive) snacks that nobody else was allowed to touch. When extra expenses popped up, such as prescription co-pays or extracurricular fees for the kids, Jan didn’t have enough left for necessities. She had two little ones in diapers, and one on formula, but the budget barely allowed for these items. If she ran out of money, John ridiculed her for being frivolous. Eventually, Jan decided it might help to take on a part time job in the evenings to help out, but John refused to let her work. Although he constantly claimed to be broke, he often bought high-dollar items for the kids and himself. The older kids were given the latest smart phones, and he bought a boat. Jan was still using an old flip phone her sister had given her several years back.

John made sure that Jan did not have access to his income, or bank information. She only had access to the joint account he set up for her allowance. Even at tax time, John simply had her sign their tax returns without looking at them, but one day she caught a glimpse at his annual income, and found that, in spite of his claims of being broke, John was earning well over six figures. She was barely surviving on what he gave her, but he wasn’t struggling at all. He simply enjoyed wielding power over Jan.

Using Male Privilege

When Jan finally got up enough courage to ask the church for help, John discredited everything she said. Since she had struggled with post-partum depression, he used that to convince the church she was completely unstable. John was considered a leader in the church, and his outstanding service gave people little reason to doubt him. On the other hand, Jan was usually pretty frazzled. She had been in a bible study I had taught a few years prior. At the time, John approached me to say he hoped I could help her with her issues. He acted like she was very troubled, but didn’t give me details. He seemed like such a good guy, I even fell for his portrayal of her.

When she approached me in tears two years later, we set up a meeting and even then, I’m ashamed to say, I doubted her more than him. Eventually, as we met, I did begin to recognize the abusive pattern, and I approached our pastor to say I felt the situation was potentially dangerous. His response was that I was only hearing one side of the story, and that he believed Jan was making up lies “to destroy her husband.” When I asked why she would do such a thing he referred me to years of joint counseling sessions in which John was able to get her to admit she was wrong for accusing him. John had also shown him a video of Jan “freaking out” and yelling. Of course, there was nothing on the videos showing what led up to that, but his efforts to discredit her were hugely successful. The consensus among church leaders was that John was a great guy with a very troubled wife. The worst part of it was that he was able to use his role as head of the house to keep Jan subdued. At home, he reminded her that she was to submit to him, and did not involve her in any family decisions. He basically dictated how things would be. In counseling sessions, he often complained that Jan was not submissive. In addition to exercising male privilege, I would say John used spiritual abuse by distorting his biblical role as head to force his self-seeking agenda, which is ultimately the goal of all of the tactics found on the Power and Control Wheel.

Anyone who truly wishes to help families living with domestic violence must understand these patterns of control and manipulation. A lack of knowledge truly causes people to perish. If counselors and pastors are unfamiliar with these patterns, they will easily be fooled by the abuser, and see the victim as the cause of the problem. I have seen far too many victims come under church discipline, or told to submit to the abuser and let God handle him, when in fact abusers need accountability, and victims need practical solutions rather than weak advice that doesn’t work. Domestic violence is an epidemic in our world and our churches! Until people of faith learn how to help, they simply perpetuate the destructive cycle.

 

 

The Worst Kind of Counselor

Recently, I began reading the book of Job in my quiet time. I love so much about this book, but I always find myself wanting to fast forward all the well-meaning advice from Job’s friends.  Job’s friends’ counsel seems all too familiar to one who has lived through, and helped others escape, the horrors of domestic violence. It is so easy for one who has never suffered intensely to come up with godly sounding advice, and even to misapply perfectly good scripture in a way that implies the victim surely must have done something to bring on the trouble.

In his book Domestic Abuse, pastor and biblical counselor Chris Moles mentioned his experience of being invited to speak to a group of Christian women in a support group for domestic violence survivors. The thing that stood out to Chris as he listened to these ladies share their experiences was that nearly everyone of them had reached out to their churches for help after enduring years of controlling and violent behavior, and the result in the majority of cases was that the church counsel had eventually turned against them. 

This common scenario usually goes something like this. A woman musters up the courage to reach out to her pastor for help. Sometimes he believes her (although he thinks she’s probably exaggerating the severity), but often he doubts her story. After all, he knows her husband to be a godly man. He then goes to the husband to ask about his wife’s allegations. The abuser explains to the pastor just how absurd that is. He indicates that has tried to encourage his wife, but she is clearly unstable and responds to his support with disrespect.

Afterwards, this man goes home and scolds or threatens his wife for talking to the pastor. In some cases, the result might be physical harm. When the couple goes back to the pastor later for counseling, the wife is strangely silent or perhaps too emotional. When the pastor asks her to voice her concerns, she gives a briefer, sanitized version of her earlier account, or defers to her husband. The pastor then gives some advice about how they can improve their marriage, assigns some helpful reading, and closes with a prayer. The husband approves, thanks him for his time and assures him they will work on things. The wife leaves feeling completely dejected. Even though she is clearly a victim behind closed doors, the counseling session put equal or even more of the burden on her to change the situation. Hopelessness begins to set in. Like Job she knows that the counsel they received completely missed the heart of the problem.

Over the course of time, counsel like this ends up harming rather than helping to restore abusive marriages. No matter how much scripture is quoted or how much this wife works on herself, things will likely go from bad to worse. That is because the true problem is hidden. In Job’s case, nobody involved knew the interchange that had occurred between Satan and God. His friends, being good students of wisdom, naturally assumed that Job must bear some of the responsibility. Even though there was truth in their words, they did not see the whole picture, and unfairly accused him. In the end, God was angered with their charges against Job.

In my 18 years of working with abuse victims, I have witnessed modern versions of Job’s counselors multiple times. In fact, I’ve been one myself. Before my marriage failed, I operated under the faulty assumption that marriages failed because people didn’t try hard enough. When two of my own family members experienced divorce because of abuse, I secretly judged them in my heart. Surely, they could have done something to make it work. I was far more concerned for their marriages than their well-being. In the end, I applied the same sort of counsel to myself, and ended up working on my marriage until I nearly lost my life. One day as I was crying out to God and studying his Word, I realized he cared more about me that that that broken covenant. I understood that there’s no way one person can make a marriage work if the other isn’t willing. Like the Pharisees, I had elevated an institution over the people it was intended to bless. While they missed the point about the Sabbath, I missed it about marriage. I failed to understand the true source of the problem, and consequently did more harm than good.

The church is filled with well-intentioned counselors who are doing the same thing to victims of abuse. Women in these situations have come to me baffled and hurt when the tables have turned on them. Rather than getting help they got blamed. I fully understand why God aimed his wrath at Job’s friends. They assumed too much, blamed too quickly, and refused to believe Job’s pleas of innocence- even when their previous interactions with him supported his claims. They even used their knowledge of God against Job. Rather than trying to understand the whole story, they arrogantly assumed and placed the blame where it did not belong. They were in a position to love and support, but instead added insult to injury, and as a result became the worst kind of counselors.

 

The Church and Domestic Violence: A Call to Action

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.

Offering Hope

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.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Leslie Vernick, How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong (Colorado Springs. CO, Waterbrook Press)178.

[xxviii] Stewart, Refuge. 202.

[xxix] Clark & Nason-Clark, No Place for Abuse. 91-99.

[xxx] Stewart, Refuge. 147-149.

[xxxi] Scipione, “Spousal Abuse.”

[xxxii] I Corinthians 7:15

[xxxiii] Luke 4:18 (ASV)

[xxxiv] Isaiah 58:6 (NKJV)

[xxxv] Hosea 4:6