Imagine you’ve pastored a church for many years, and one of your church members, Cindy, comes to meet with you. She describes, through tears, an incident when her husband, Mark, threw her to the ground in a fit of rage. She tells you that when he loses his temper like this, he later apologizes and she forgives him.
“But I walk on eggshells around him,” Cindy says. “I just try to quell the tension so it won’t boil over again.”
You are surprised that Mark loses his temper like this. He’s a respected businessman and deacon in your church. Do you counsel Cindy to forgive Mark once again, and suggest they get marriage counseling? Or do you recognize that Cindy is trapped in an abusive marriage and report this incident to the authorities?
You have come face-to-face with the ugly issue of domestic violence. I hope these guidelines will clarify how to respond effectively.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month in the United States. The sheer impact of domestic violence in our country is staggering. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence says nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused in our country. Also, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have been victims of severe intimate partner violence in their lifetime.
It is no better worldwide. The Global Health Organization estimates that 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence. Yet while the impact of domestic violence is vast, it is rarely discussed in churches.
Because of the shame that accompanies domestic violence, victims typically suffer in silence. Lifeway Research asked Protestant pastors in 2014 how often they addressed the issue. Four out of 10 pastors admitted to rarely or never addressing it, while another 22 percent said they discussed the issue only once a year.
I will never forget the first time I learned of domestic violence in the church. I was a young seminary student, enrolled in a class about ministry to women. Aside from a handful of female seminarians, most of the students were future pastors’ wives auditing the class for free.
When the topic of domestic violence arose, one of the wives told us that she was an EMT, and when she took a job with a local rescue squad, she was received very coldly. Eventually, her colleagues explained that they had responded to so many domestic violence calls from student housing that they hated the seminary community.
Sadly, churches have often enabled domestic violence. But just because we have a high view of marriage doesn’t mean we should tolerate abuse. Jeff Crippen, author of Unholy Charade: Unmasking the Domestic Abuser in the Church, writes: “When one marriage partner engages in willful, habitual, unrepentant breaking of the marriage vows, what was supposed to be a marriage has become a distorted, evil instrument of slavery.”
Here are three ways IPHC churches must respond to domestic violence:
Learn about the dynamics of abuse.
Domestic violence occurs because the abuser wants control over others. Ruth Tucker, author of Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife, was married to a pastor. She says people could easily assume she was married to a mentally disturbed man. “But that was not the case,” Tucker writes. “My ex-husband’s only outwardly identifiable trait was his strong opposition to women in ministry and equal partnerships in marriage and the accompanying misogyny, though well disguised in public.”
There are three stages in abuse that repeat in a cycle, escalating over time. Recognizing this pattern when learning of an incident like Cindy and Mark’s will help you identify that abuse is occurring rather than a typical marriage conflict.
Stage 1 is known as “Honeymoon.” Initially, an abuser ensnares a victim through “love-bombing,” coming off as “too-good-to-be-true.” As the cycle continues and abuse escalates, this stage becomes a time of seemingly genuine remorse and repentance on the part of the abuser, with promises and crocodile tears. The victim has renewed hope, and is often encouraged by other Christians to reconcile and to forgive.
Stage 2 is “Tension Building.” The abuser withdraws affection and begins nit-picking, isolating the victim and tearing down their self-esteem with name-calling and criticism. Feeling entitled, there is a bottomless pit of needs the victim must meet.
Stage 3 is “Acute Explosion.” This is the stage when abuse reaches a boiling point in rage or violence. The abuser rationalizes their behavior, enabling them to escalate their abuse over time. But in order to retain control, they will feign regret and the cycle goes back to the honeymoon stage, starting over.
Use Your Pulpit to Counter Abuse
Statistically, it is likely that domestic violence is occurring in families in your church. We must consider how an abuser may hear our sermons and twist them to justify entitlement and control at home.
Not all abusers are male, but a big contributor to domestic violence among Christians is the privilege of men and subjugation of women that is implicitly or explicitly taught in churches.
Pastors must assume there are abusers in their churches, and then consider how an abuser may be hearing their sermons and filtering the Bible’s teachings on male headship and wifely submission through a desire for absolute control and power at home.
You must boldly proclaim the equality of women in the church and regularly expose the evil of abuse in your sermons. Pray publicly for victims of abuse, so that they know you are a safe person to approach for help.
We must us also proactively amplify the voices, gifts and callings of women in our churches. If men are holding all the power and authority in our churches, women and girls are unconsciously socialized to see themselves as inferior. It benefits everyone and is vital for the work of the kingdom that women and girls are functioning in their full capacity as image bearers of Christ.
Be Prepared to Respond to Reports of Abuse
If we want to convey God’s heart for justice and mercy, we must pursue liberation for those caught in the snare of domestic violence. And we must humbly acknowledge when we are out of our depth. It is far easier to believe a “repentant” abuser than to do the hard work of helping a victim escape and get back on their feet. Here are a few steps recommended by Pastor Jeff Crippen in his book:
• Take any kind of abuse seriously. Justice and protection for victims should be our priority.
• Recognize that anyone, no matter how well-respected or likable, can be guilty of abuse.
• Before allegations of abuse arise, be prepared by forming alliances with local domestic violence shelters and counseling centers in your community.
• When a charge of abuse comes, believe the victim. Shame and fear hinder victims from speaking, so it is vital they be believed. False reports are very rare.
• Report the accusation to law enforcement. Allow the authorities to investigate and let the chips fall where they may.
Let’s pray that God will give all IPHC churches the wisdom and courage needed to confront domestic violence and to share Christ’s love and healing to victims.
Originally published in Encourage magazine.