Tag Archives: the church and abuse

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 over 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.

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 or 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. “Studies indicate that around 80% of those who have experienced domestic abuse suffer from PTSD.” * As a result, victims can seem irrational, angry and unstable. Some may have resorted to substance abuse to numb the impacts of the trauma. People helpers who do not understand trauma might conclude that her instability means she is feigning or perhaps even the causing the problem.
  2. 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 can be 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.
  3. Victims may not have recognized the abuse themselves. In my work with hundreds of abuse victims over the past two decades, I’ve found that the vast majority do not see their spouses as abusive until many years into the marriage. Since domestic abuse is progressive over time, it usually has to accelerate to an intolerable level before they are willing to call the treatment they’ve received abusive. When they finally come forward, counselors and pastors may think the sudden charges of abuse came out of nowhere.
  4. 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. Most victims of abuse struggle with complex post traumatic stress, and some may even use substances to numb the pain of their lives. Issues like this can make things even more confusing for people helpers.
  5. 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. We call it a smear campaign. 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 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.
  6. 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,” yet not once have I heard of a man being disciplined for failing to love his wife as Christ loved the church. 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.
  7. 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.  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 poor 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 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.Those inexperienced in these dynamics should reach out to experts in domestic abuse who can help determine the best course of action to take. A trained advocate can meet with the wife to determine and confirm abusive patterns. An effective response will place responsibility for the abuse on the oppressor and not make the victim responsible for the destruction in the marriage. 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.

* See the Called to Peace Companion Workbook “Lesson 4” by Joy Forrest.

**Studies I’ve read indicate false claims makeup only about 3-5% of all claims. This is very consistent with my experience working at a DV program.

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.

 

 

Is My Relationship Abusive? Part 4

This article is part 4 in a 5 part series on recognizing the signs of an abusive relationship. Many victims do not even realize their relationships are abusive. The intent of these articles is to show that domestic violence is far more than physical abuse.

Emotional Abuse 

Women who live with domestic violence often tell me they prefer hitting to the emotional torture their abusers put them through. The Power and Control Wheel calls it emotional abuse, and while some may not agree with the terminology, there is definitely an emotionally destructive element to these relationships. “Emotional abuse systematically degrades, diminishes, and can eventually destroy the personhood of the abused.”[i] Tactics include: putting her down, making her feel bad about herself, name calling, mind games, making her think she’s crazy, humiliation, and making her feel guilty. Several years ago, I watched a woman in a store ask her husband if she could purchase a three-dollar item. Rather than saying yes or no, her husband began to put her down in front of everyone present. He asked her how she could be so foolish as to want to buy something that cheap, and indicated that she probably wouldn’t even use it. As he was criticizing her for her stupidity, he looked over at us and chuckled. It was clear he enjoyed taunting his wife, and that he saw her as inferior. Her face turned red as she tried to mumble out answers to his questions, and finally she put the item back to avoid further humiliation. It seems silly that something so small could ignite such a fury, but that’s the nature of domestic violence. Molehills become mountains on a regular basis when you live with an abuser.

One woman at the shelter told me that sometimes she would purposely do something to get her husband to hit her, just because she knew that once the abuse was over there would be a break in the verbal assaults for a while. Victims are made to feel they are constantly wrong, incompetent and worthless. No matter what the issue, and no matter who is right or wrong, everything gets turned around and the victim ends up getting blamed for everything. The sad thing is that abusers are often skilled enough to convince counselors and pastors that their wives really are to blame for most of the problems in the marriage. They go to great lengths to portray themselves as morally superior and intellectually more reasonable than their victims, and by the time they get to counseling many victims are so overwhelmed, and insecure about themselves, that they do seem unstable.

Isolation

Abusers love to isolate their victims from people and situations that might provide them with support. I have had women tell me that, after getting married, they eventually lost every single friend. My friend Kathy was rarely allowed to see her family- even on holidays. On several occasions, her husband reached out to her friends and family and told them it was her decision to cut off the relationships. He led them to believe that she was mentally unstable, and he was doing his best to make things easier on her. However, he was the one controlling her contact with others. She was basically allowed to go to church (with him), and to the grocery store as long as she wasn’t gone too long, and came home with a receipt to prove her whereabouts.

      Abusers use isolation to try and make sure their victims have nowhere to turn when things get tough. Most controlling people live in fear of losing control, so they go to great lengths to maintain it. Linda’s husband, Dave, bought a 17-acre farm 20 minutes from the nearest town, and he had the only car in the family. He was retired, so Linda had him as her constant companion. Dave controlled what she ate, what she read, and even her opinions. She was not allowed to disagree with him in any way. When I met her, they had been married over 30 years, and up until just before she came to the shelter, he had never laid a hand on her. Although Dave did not allow Linda to have friends, he had several, and when he invited his friend Carl out to visit, he brought his wife, Lucy. This was the first friend Linda had been allowed in years, and she was grateful. One day when the men were out hunting, Lucy told Linda she needed to stand up to Dave’s bullying, and let him know she had a right to her opinion. Shortly afterwards, she did just that, and Dave went ballistic. He beat her so badly she nearly died, and he ended up in prison. For all the years they had been married isolation had achieved its goal. When she completely isolated, Linda was too afraid to refuse any of Dave’s demands, but as soon as she found some external support she found courage to challenge him. Unfortunately, by the time she did, it nearly cost her life.

[i] Vernick, Leslie, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage (Colorado Springs, Waterbrook Press, 2013), Kindle Version Location 256.

Is My Relationship Abusive? Part 3

Part 3 in a Series. Today’s post will cover three of the 8 tactics abusers use as listed on the Power and Control Wheel. For more on the Wheel, see my previous post.

Coercion and Threats

At the top of the Power and Control Wheel we see that abusers use coercion and threats to maintain control. In the years I have worked with victims of domestic violence, nearly all of them have confirmed that these behaviors were used regularly in their homes. Some abusers threatened to leave their families and not provide for their basic needs, some threatened suicide in order to make sure they got their way, some threatened physical harm, and others just threatened to humiliate their wives somehow. In several cases, I’ve seen abusers go out of their way to make their wives look incompetent. After years of living with control and manipulation, my friend Jill became seriously depressed, and ended up taking anti-depressants. Her husband made sure he let the pastor know how concerned he was about his wife’s erratic behavior, her inability to parent properly, and her dependence on medication. Of course, the church had no idea of what really went on behind closed doors, and Jill knew better than try to tell them. At the same time, Jill’s husband made sure she knew that if she decided to leave the marriage, he would have no trouble having her declared incompetent and getting full custody of the children. For Jill this threat was far more powerful than bodily injury ever could have been. Her husband’s threats were highly effective in promoting his selfish interests.

Using the Children

Abusive people generally aim their threats directly at whatever their victims value most, so that means threats involving children are very common in these situations. In fact, many women stay in horrible situations far too long, because they know if they leave their spouses may harm the children. Such was the case with my friend Amy. She had endured occasional physical violence and relentless threats from the beginning of her marriage. Her husband kept a gun beside their bed, and let her know that if she ever tried to leave him he would use it on her. He even held it to her head on a few occasions. She knew she needed to leave, but was concerned about her children if she did, because he told her if she left he would “still have the children.” She wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but knew it wasn’t good. Finally, there came a day when she felt that if she didn’t get out, she would not live parent her children at all, so she mustered up the courage to take them and leave. Shortly after separation, Amy had to go to court to try and get legal custody of the kids. She told the judge her concerns about the children being with their father, but he granted regular, unsupervised visitation to her husband anyway. Amy wanted to believe that her husband wouldn’t make good on those vague threats, and that the court had made the right decision. However, in within a short amount of time, her 3-year-old son came home reporting being locked in a closet and giving descriptions of sexual abuse he and his sister had endured. Amy was finally able to stop the unsupervised visitation, but she learned that the threats against her children were not idle.

Unfortunately, Amy’s story is not an exception when it comes to domestic violence. In my own limited exposure, I have seen abusers intentionally use and misuse their children multiple times in order to punish their spouses. In other cases, it is not unusual for them to attempt to turn the children against their mothers. Basically abusers will do whatever they consider necessary to maintain control, regardless of the consequences to the children. I have seen women frozen in fear, because of these types of threats, but those I have known who decided to leave all tell me they made the right decision—even Amy. She believes things would have been far worse had she stayed. Living in fear of a man will never lead to the life God intends for you. Ask Him to help you devise a plan to leave, and be sure to utilize all the resources available to you. Your local domestic violence shelter can help you devise a safety plan, and connect you to legal resources to help you with custody issues.

Intimidation

Besides using their children to hurt their wives, abusers make regular use of intimidation techniques to instill fear and attain unfettered power in their families. Intimidation can range from a harsh look to extreme physical violence. Most abusive people have conditioned their victims to know when they are about to snap. As a result, a single angry glance can cause wives and children to completely freeze up or change their course of action. If a nasty look doesn’t get the desired result, or if the abuser is feeling particularly grumpy, he may resort to more physical tactics such as throwing and smashing things, destroying her property, or even abusing the household pets. When I was working at the shelter, one of the clients told me that her husband decapitated her dog in front of her and the children, and countless other victims told me that their family pets often received the brunt of the abuser’s wrath. One lady told me that her husband filled her car with poisonous snakes to make sure she didn’t go anywhere.

Intimidation is a highly effective tool for perpetrators of domestic violence, and it usually escalates in intensity if the abuser does not feel his demands are being met. Some of the behaviors often seen in the progression of violence include: blocking her exit from a room, screaming, raising a fist, denying access to prescription medicine, grabbing, jerking, shoving, spitting, pulling hair, and so on. If these methods do not work, then punching, kicking and other methods of inflicting more serious physical harm are likely to follow. An interesting thing to note here is that, even when hitting occurs, many abusers, in an effort to keep the abuse hidden, maintain enough control over themselves to make sure they hurt their victims in way that doesn’t leave obvious bruises.

 

Is My Relationship Abusive? Part 2

Part 2 in a Series.

In order to recognize the signs of domestic violence, most experts rely on a tool called the Power and Control Wheel. This resource was created by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project of Duluth, Minnesota in 1984,[i] and is based on observation of several focus groups of women who had been physically abused. When project personnel began to interview these women, they discovered several patterns of control and manipulation that seemed to exist almost universally within the groups. As they began to document these common behaviors or tactics, the result was a tool that has been used by victims’ advocates for over three decades. The first time I laid eyes on a Power and Control Wheel I cried, as have numerous victims I have shared it with over the years. It’s pretty easy to deny a relationship is abusive until someone puts a detailed description of your life right in front of your eyes!  For years I suffered in silence, thinking that nobody knew what I was going through, but when I picked up the “Wheel,” it seemed as though somebody had been a silent observer in my house over the years. I was also amazed to find that I was not alone, and that an estimated one in four women experience physical abuse from an intimate partner within their lifetimes.[ii]

One thing that stands out to most observers is that the majority of behaviors listed on the Power and Control Wheel do not involve physical harm. I had denied that my relationship qualified as domestic violence simply because physical altercations were somewhat infrequent. However, the tactics described on this chart happened on a daily basis. According to this tool, bodily harm is simply a last resort when all other tactics fail to achieve the desired power and control. Domestic violence is not merely about physical harm, but about abusers establishing patterns of complete domination over their victims. Basically, the motivation is far more telling than the behavior. In his book, The Heart of Domestic Abuse, Pastor and biblical counselor Chris Moles states that abusive behavior “is driven by a heart of pride and self-worship.”[iii] True domestic violence is not merely a reactive pattern of behavior, but one that is intentionally self-serving. A look at the behaviors listed on the Power and Control wheel show just how self-seeking abusive conduct really is.

As we continue this series, my upcoming posts will describe each of the eight characteristics found on the wheel. Stay tuned!

power_and_control_wheel

[i] “Wheel Gallery” http://www.theduluthmodel.org/training/wheels.html. Accessed January 17, 2016.

[ii] Please note that the focus of this work is to highlight the more prevalent issue of male against female violence; however, we do recognize that women can also be abusive.

[iii] Moles, Chris, The Heart of Domestic Abuse: Gospel Solutions for Men Who Use Control and Violence in the Home (Bemidji, MN, Focus Publishing, 2015), 43.

Is My Relationship Abusive? Part 1    

One fine day, in the spring of 1995, I lied to a judge. This happened shortly after taking an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Oddly enough, I didn’t feel even a twinge of guilt, because at the time, I didn’t believe I was lying. I testified to the judge that my marriage of 14 years had not been abusive at all. Rather, some recent stress had caused my husband to snap, and act completely out of character. It was a story I wholeheartedly embraced, because I had been telling it to myself for so many years. Up until that point, there had been numerous incidences of violence, but it didn’t happen on a regular basis. In fact, a few years were completely violence-free. Perhaps another reason I did not think I was abused was the image that I had conjured up in my mind about abuse victims. When I thought about domestic violence, the term that came to my mind was “battered,”, and I was certainly not battered. In the entire length of our relationship, he had never once punched me with his fists. Our rare physical altercations usually began with something like a shove or being jerked by the arm. Once I had my fingers slammed into a drawer and once I was kicked. Oh yes, and there was that time when he held a knife to my throat, but no I wasn’t battered.

Perhaps believing lies was my way of trying to convince myself that things really weren’t that bad, so when I finally did have to admit I had been in abusive relationship, I felt like a complete fool. I had always considered myself pretty bright, and facing the truth challenged that belief. Another thing the truth challenged was my idealistic concept of my husband’s opinion of me. I thought that my ability to elicit such great emotion from him meant that he truly loved me. It didn’t matter that his actions towards me were the exact opposite of the biblical description of love.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. [i]

Whenever I came across this passage in my quiet times, I couldn’t help but notice that my husband’s actions towards me were most often the reverse. It didn’t take much for him to lose his patience with me, and within my first month of knowing him, jealously reared its ugly head several times. I can’t tell you how many times he embarrassed me in public by making rude comments towards others, the kids or me. I felt so vulnerable and unprotected when I was with him—certainly not protected. It was his way or no way, and lies were the foundation of our relationship. However, the most blatant contrast between godly love and my relationship was found in verse 5, which states that “love is not easily angered.” There were times when I couldn’t believe how seemingly insignificant details could enrage my husband, and over the years I’ve heard countless stories from other victims of abuse who suddenly found themselves the object of wrath when a small detail in the course of the day set off a reaction of atomic proportions.

One dear lady told me that she received a horrible beating simply because she left hamburger meat in the sink to thaw, another was belittled to the point of tears in front of her children because she failed to fold and stack her towels in the “correct” manner. Another relayed that her husband tore apart the entire house (throwing things against the walls, and clearing counters of their contents as he went through each room) after one of the children moved his hairbrush from its prescribed resting place in the bathroom. In recent years, a counselee told me that just leaving one cup in the kitchen sink would send her husband into a rage. I would call that being “easily angered,” and it took me years to realize that true love does not act that way.

Perhaps one reason victims tend to lie to themselves is because admitting the truth is almost more painful than the abuse. It means admitting that their husbands’ actions do not equate to love at all. So most convince themselves that wounds from the past (or mental illness, alcohol or drug dependency, etc.)  just make it harder for their husbands to deal with life, and that they don’t really choose those angry actions. I truly thought my husband was out of control when he blew up, and that I needed to try to hold things together so that he wouldn’t have a reason to lose it. I thought he needed me, and so I built my life around making things go as smoothly as possible for him. I realize this is probably contrary to the average stereotype about domestic violence. People who are unfamiliar with it, including many pastors and counselors, believe that domestic abuse is the result of heated arguments that could have been started by either party. Certainly no man would physically harm his wife unless she had done something to provoke him, right? It seems to be a logical conclusion, but the problem is, that in the vast majority of cases, it’s a faulty one.

Most abusive people are self-seeking, easily angered, impatient, along with all the other contradictions to God’s love listed in 1 Corinthians 13, and most victims have a hard time facing the fact that their abusers are choosing to treat them with contempt rather than love. In his book, Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, Lundy Bancroft states that “An abuser almost never does anything that he himself considers morally unacceptable. He may hide what he does because he thinks other people would disagree with it, but he feels justified inside.”[ii] After working with victims and abusers for nearly two decades, I’d have to say that this assessment is spot-on. Unfortunately, it is not something that most victims would like to admit. It was so much easier for me to believe my husband was abusing me because he was wounded inside, or that he lacked coping skills, than to admit he was making a choice to hurt me. Coming to terms with the truth was almost too much to bear, so I lied to myself until the day somebody placed a tool called the Power and Control Wheel into my hands.

This is part one in a series.  

[i] 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, New International Version

[ii] Bancroft, Lundy, Why Does He do That? (New York, Berkley, 2002), 31.

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.  Their 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.

 

A Biblical Account of the Abusive Personality

People often ask me for specific biblical counsel on domestic violence, and though there is not a specific case of blatant spousal abuse in scripture, there are numerous accounts of abuse. The very first example of family violence came very early in the history of mankind when Cain killed Abel. The inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were known for their wickedness, which apparently included blatant sexual abuse on a regular basis. Joseph was abused by his brothers. The Levite in Judges 19 casually threw his concubine out to a mob to be raped, and when she died as a result of her injuries he cut her into pieces to show Israel how his property had been destroyed. Family violence touched king David’s household when Amnon raped Tamar and later Absalom killed him. If I were a betting woman, I would bet that Abigail’s husband Nabal was abusive towards her. Scripture tells us he “was harsh and evil in his dealings” (1 Sam. 25:3), and as a former victim I can relate to the ways she tried to make up for her husband’s foolishness. The Old Testament is filled with violence, and God’s prophets regularly preached against it. In the New Testament, we see God in the flesh enduring abuse at the hands of his own children. He came to earth and took on the worst abuse imaginable in order to redeem his fallen creation. What amazing love! We have a God who cares about abuse, and we have a bible that is by no means silent on the subject.

Although scripture is filled with examples of violence and abuse, one of my biggest frustrations with churches over the years has been a severe lack of knowledge when it comes to the dynamics of domestic abuse. Scripture indicates that a lack of knowledge causes people to perish, and nothing is truer when it comes to abuse. I have had some limited success in sharing secular resources that describe the characteristics of abuse in church and seminary trainings, and even though they are based on observation I feel sure pastors and counselors would prefer to use scripture as their guide. For decades, each time I have read the story of Saul and David I have recognized the dynamics of abuse in play. Saul seems to be the embodiment of just about every abuser I have ever known. And while this is not an account that deals with intimate partner violence, I believe it is very applicable. Abuse usually just boils down to one person asserting malicious control over another, and that is exactly what we see here. We also see Saul abuse his position of authority over David, which is often the case in spousal abuse, particularly for more conservative Christians.

Recently my yearly bible reading plan brought me to the story of Saul and David in 1 Samuel, so I decided to make a list of the common abusive traits I recognized in Saul. Abusers tend to become attached to their victims very quickly, and we see in the same was true in this account. David was hired to play the harp for Saul, and it said that “Saul loved him greatly” (16:21). Obviously, this love was based on what David could offer Saul. Another trait that is very common with abusive personalities is the tendency to be insecure and jealous. Although the jealousy here is a little different that in an intimate relationship where the abuser fears losing the affection of the victim, the root is still the same. In this story, Saul was afraid of losing the affection of the people to David. Fear and insecurity are very common attributes of abusers. It is what drives them to control, and Saul was often consumed with fear.

Those of us who have lived with abuse know all too well that abusers are prone to sudden mood swings for no apparent reason, and that was certainly true of King Saul. One day, as David was ministering to him with music, Saul suddenly hurled a spear at him. Most people believe that abuse is provoked, but nothing could be further from the truth. During my time at the domestic violence shelter, I met scores of women who shared their stories of unprovoked abuse. It seems that little things could set off their abusers, from folding towels the wrong way to putting something on the wrong shelf in the refrigerator. Sometimes, like Saul, their abusers would be in a good mood and suddenly turn on them.

While many people assume abuse is born out of passion and a lack of self-control, the story of King Saul and David shows is it is far more insidious. Even when Saul was not in a rage, he made efforts to hurt David. His decision to give his daughter to David in marriage was so that she would ‘be a snare for him” (18:21). I have seen this seen this characteristic show up often in counseling situations within the church. Abusers have a talent for making malicious decisions look generous and kind to the outside world, while only their partners know the cruel intentions behind them. In one situation, church counselors told the husband to do something tangible to bless his wife. The action he chose was to offer her something he knew she hated and when she declined his invitation, he went back to the church and reported that she refused him. He made it seem as though he was doing everything in his power to make it work, and she was flatly denying him. He was much more vocal than she was in counseling sessions, so the outcome in this particular case was that the wife was labeled as antagonistic and resistant to her husband’s leadership. It seemed as though he was the victim rather than she.

Most abusers do see themselves as the victim, and Saul was no exception. When the priests at Nob aided David and his men, Saul lamented that everyone seemed to be conspiring against him, and that no one was sorry for him (22:8). When the Ziphites reported David’s whereabouts to Saul, he thanked them for having compassion on him (23:21) as though he was the underdog in the situation. David was hiding out in caves in an effort to preserve his life, yet Saul still saw himself as the victim. This is such a common trait among abusers. They are masters at turning truth upside down and making their victims seem to be the perpetrators. To outsiders it can certainly appear that way. Abusers love to influence the perception of others by causing them to think their victims are equally responsible for the violence.

While public perception often tends to place blame on victims, the vast majority I have known have done everything in their power to avoid the violence in their marriages. Many women (like I once did) have strict understanding of biblical headship and submission. They are told in their counseling sessions that they should submit and win him without a word. Then if he does wrong, then God will surely deal with him. However, the case of David and Saul shows us that submission and honor do not necessarily result in stopping the abuse. David never did anything to intentionally provoke Saul—like most victims he was completely baffled by the abuse (20:1). In fact, Saul’s violence often occurred when David was ministering to him (18:10, 19:9). While abusive people seem to truly believe their victims are provoking them, in most instances that simply is not the case.

Those who desire to help families affected by domestic violence must learn to recognize common abusive traits, such as these found in the story of Saul and David, and realize that victims do not cause the abuse. Absolutely, I have seen situations where the victim has learned to be angry (Pr. 22:24-25), and perhaps seemed equally violent. However, in the overwhelming majority of cases I have observed within the church, this has not been the case. (And even if it had been, abuse is never justified!) My experience in conservative, bible-believing churches has been that Christian women who tend to be victims can tend to be very passive. I tell people I once subscribed to “doormat theology;” meaning I truly believed if I submitted and showered my abuser with kindness he would certainly change his ways. Unfortunately, somewhere in that process I inadvertently enabled his sin. Of course there were times when I tried to break out and went to the church for help, but most of them failed to recognize the dynamics of abuse. The result was that they too unintentionally enabled him through their counsel. Even those who were wise enough to help me take a stand against the violence missed the boat when it came to reconciliation, because they did not understand the propensity for abusers to feign repentance. In the end, I always reconciled too soon, because I believed he was sorry, and I thought that forgiveness meant I had to trust him again.

In the story of Saul and David, it is clear that Saul never truly repented. Sure he confessed, he cried and he acted broken over his sin (24:16-17, 26:21), but David knew he still could not be trusted. True repentance involves a change in behavior over a course of time. Saul “repented” in chapter 24, but by chapter 26 he was seeking to kill David again. Domestic violence can easily turn deadly, and churches need to wake up to this fact. Too often our counsel is so anti-divorce that it ends up sending women and children back into harmful situations. Encouraging reconciliation without true repentance, and without someone helping the wife hold her husband accountable is just plain dangerous! In the past year alone, in my small county, I have had personal ties to 2 women who were killed as a result of domestic violence. They were both Believers and part of local churches, yet when I reach out to churches to offer training on domestic violence, most pastors indicate that they do not believe it is a problem in their congregations.

Statistics indicate that as many as 1 in 3 women will be physically abused by an intimate partner at some point in their lives, and these numbers are no better for women within the walls of our churches. Domestic abuse thrives in secrecy, and victims go to great links to protect their abusers from exposure, so whether you are aware or not, it is happening in your church. The question is whether or not you will educate yourself enough to help rather than hurt when someone finally musters up the courage to let you in on their family secret. Recognizing the characteristics is one of the first steps in learning to help rather perpetuate the problem. Scripture is not silent on the subject, and this story of the first two kings of Israel can help you better understand the dynamics of abuse. My prayer is that God’s people will rise up, and decide to be part of the solution when is comes to overcoming this hidden epidemic.

 

A True Story of Redemption from the Pit of Abuse

A True Story of Escaping Abuse & Dealing with Rejection by the Church

I am posting this link to another blog I follow, because this story sounds all too familiar to me. I’ve lived it, and I’ve heard it from scores of women over the last 20 years. It’s horrible and painful to be trapped in an abusive marriage, but for many women it’s like a double whammy when their churches esteem their marriages more than their lives and put undue pressure on them to stay in an abusive relationship. Some of these marriages can be redeemed, but it requires knowing how to hold the abuser accountable, and it is NOT wise to counsel the couple together until after a prolonged period of separation and individual counseling. See my earlier article on properly dealing with domestic violence (https://joyforrest.wordpress.com/2014/02/26/the-church-and-domestic-violence-a-call-to-action/). Here’s the story of one woman who found freedom.

A Cry For Justice

This is the story of one of our newer readers at ACFJ. She graciously gave us permission to publish it as a means of encouraging and helping others dealing with abuse, including the abuse at the hands of their church. Many blessings in Christ upon her and her family! This is her story.

As you read, just imagine her being given the recent “Catechism for Christian Wives” we so roundly reject. What would it have done to her? You know the answer.

* * *

Hello!  I recently found this blog, and I am so thankful for the work that has been done and is being done. The Lord has used you all so much in my life over the past two weeks! I feel like I have been led to a group that understands where I have been and what I have been through. I feel like there…

View original post 3,019 more words

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