by John Castle
Paul in writing to Titus a missive of pastoral counsel advised his protégé to teach the Biblical believers in Crete, “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all men” (Titus 3:2 RSV). This teaching has practicality for many of life’s situations, and the Biblical home should be the primary repository of the behavior found in this teaching. But is it?
Statistics from many studies, both secular and Christian, show that on any Sunday approximately twenty-five percent of the women sitting in the pews with us are victims of domestic abuse. That behavior can range from verbal and economic abuse, to sexual and physical violence. These statistics do not reflect husband abuse and child abuse, which are also acknowledged.
Until recently, the Christian community has lived in denial that domestic crime and brutality could be present in their congregations. After all, we have been taught from the pages of Holy Writ that if a woman submits to her husband, or a man sacrificially loves his wife, all will be well in ‘Domestic Tranquility Baptist Church’.
But this Pollyanna perspective forgets another Biblical doctrine, the existence of evil. Evil doesn’t reside just in the heart of a slobbering rapist lurking on a dark street corner, but it’s also resident in the homes of some of our most respected church members and leaders.
What is domestic abuse and violence? Don’t we all have fights and argument with our spouse? Where is the delineation between normal marital discord and abuse?
An argument takes place between two equals who have a difference of opinion. The heated exchange that takes place is about ideas and opinions. The dispute doesn't bring into question the value of the participants involved in the discussion. The partners don't make false accusations, crystal ball the other person, or call each other names.
Abuse involves denigrating (putting down) the value of the partner, either physically, verbally or with body language, social isolation, rape and other sexual violations, and economic marginalization. It can involve name-calling. It accuses the spouse of activities, sins, and omissions that are in no way true, like accusing the partner of adultery without substantiating evidence. This cruelty sinks below the discussion of ideas and opinions and desires, and calls into question the nature of the person. It doesn't recognize the personhood of the spouse. The victim is treated like an enemy that must be conquered, rather than a partner who is loved and valued.
Simply put, abuse is any action that violates a line that the victim has asked the abuser not to cross – or a limit that human beings should know that when it’s crossed it gives entrée into abusive territory, such as smashing a wife’s face into the refrigerator.
The term, “You’re too sensitive”, is abuse. Why? Because we all have our secret closets where we hide our pain. We marry looking for a lifelong partner who will be the one person on the face of God’s creation who should care about what causes us pain. When that spouse refuses to recognize those areas where we hurt, reminds us of our weakness, and even uses that sensitivity to cause us more pain, they are abusing.
Domestic abuse and violence is dangerous. Approximately ten percent of verbal abuse will progress to physical violence. Many abused spouses will die at the hand of their significant other at all levels of society, in the church and out.
Research shows that most spiritual leaders are woefully unprepared to deal with domestic abuse. Pastors are reluctant to incorporate community resources into their care plan for the victims within the congregation. Al Miles in his book, “Domestic Violence, What Every Pastor Needs to Know”, reveals that the theological training and beliefs given most clergy can actually contribute to increased violence and abuse of the victim.
Evangelical leaders laudably place a high priority on maintaining the family unit. But this crusade for family values can blind our clergy and elders to their pro-life position and how that connects to the viability of the family. When a pastor sends an abused wife back to a violent home with the counsel to submit more to her husband to prevent further battering, that leader may have condemned his parishioner to death. The life of the abused wife, and the safety of other family members, must always take precedence over the continuity of the marriage.
What should the church do in the face of this awesome social upheaval that’s only recently been recognized by social scientists, and is essentially ignored by the church? How should church leadership at every level respond to that respected elder’s wife who in confidence reports that her bruises didn’t actually result from a fall down the stairs, but from the same hands that held last Sunday’s public Scripture reading?
Before I share the immediate and long-term needs of the abusive family unit, it’s important to emphasize that clergy are probably the first-line resource for the abuse victim. That first trustful contact can save lives. Studies show that not only are pastors not prepared for this responsibility, they know they aren’t. And, yet, in every city where a seminar on domestic violence is presented, clergy aren’t there. Social science is a science. Science is truth. Truth doesn’t conflict with Scripture. Make sure your pastoral staff is supported and encouraged to attend conferences on how they can prevent this scourge from destroying individuals in your church.
The first, and absolutely most important action toward the victim is to believe them. The act of “coming out of the closet”, took great courage on the part of the victim, and no matter how shocked you might be that this crime has been simmering behind the scenes in an honored home in your congregation, the victim must be heard. Be patient. Listen – that means don’t talk. Ask simple questions for clarification, but the less said the better. Allow the victim to share with you the pain that’s probably been going on for many years. Never minimize their story. If the victim perceives that you are not supportive, she may fade back into her house of horrors, and the next time you hear from her, it may be as another statistic in your newspaper’s obituary page.
Don’t ask the abuser to come and sit down with the victim so “to find out truth”. This action can place you, as well as the victim, in danger. Instead of addressing the abuser at this point, suggest to the victim that she obtain a temporary restraining order (TRO). Take her to the family court and support her in the process. It’s free and there are attorney’s available who will advise her on her rights. The TRO can give the victim a measure of security from which basis she can then make other arrangements, both long and short-term, for herself and the children.
Don’t ask inane questions like:
1. “What did you do or say to provoke him?” That question is neither Scripturally or scientifically accurate. The Bible tells us that we’re all responsible for our own sins. None of us is ever perfect enough. At what point in my growth toward perfection will I recognize I'm good enough not to be battered? If my behavior can cause my spouse to abuse me, then I’m not only all-powerful, but I’ve relieved my tormentor from any responsibility for his or her choices.
2. “Why do you stay?” Leaving a violent situation is one of the most complicated actions that must be pondered by the victim. Research by social scientists shows that it involves support systems, children, economics, and for the Biblical believer it means violating years of church indoctrination of the sacredness of marriage.
The victim must be assured that they didn’t deserve the abuse, and the violence was not their fault. Any other response is simply a legalistic revictimization of the abused, and teeters on spiritual abuse in addition to all the other pain that the victim is already experiencing.
Research shows that violence and substance abuse are separate issues. Though both dysfunctions are commonly present in the abusive home, one doesn’t cause the other, and the abuser will need treatment for both problems.
Do not advise the victim to return to a violent relationship. Protect the victim. Take them to a shelter, or some other hiding place. The most dangerous time for the victim is when the abuser perceives that he is in danger of losing control over the victim. Abuse is only about power and control. The rages and abuse are a result of a deep need on the part of the perpetrator for some control in his own life. The abuser may also be considered a victim, because most abusers were either victimized as children, or watched one of their parents victimized.
Commonly abusers will have “a spiritual experience”, and promise that they will never abuse their partner, again. They will be repentant and ask forgiveness. Affirm these feelings, but remain suspicious. If they are truly desirous of change and reconciliation, they will do the hard work of entering into spiritual counseling, therapeutic counseling, and group therapy. If they don’t agree to enroll in these therapies, the prognosis isn’t promising.
Marriage counseling shouldn’t be considered until all parties feel that the abuser is making progress in therapy. Evaluate his dedication to supporting his family. Is he paying child and spousal support? Is he faithful in continuing in fellowship with the congregation? Does he obey all court orders? Is he consistent in attending therapy sessions? Until the abuser shows progress in working on the abuse, no other marital problems can be solved. Abuse is a cloud that obscures all other behaviors and communication problems. As long as abuse is an issue, the victim can’t realistically be expected to face any other marital issues, even those where she must make changes in her actions.
Don’t spiritualize the situation or the process. The most spiritual action you can perform is to listen and exhibit compassion for the victim. The victim is usually a “whipped dog”, without confidence or self-esteem. Even at the point that they’ve shared this evil with you, they are probably still thinking that it’s their fault and they could have been a better wife or husband. They need affirmation and a listening ear. Let them know they have your continuing support.
Keep it confidential. This is a painful, sensitive matter that’s bedded in confusion for the victim. They need to know they can trust someone, and for the moment that confidant is you. Don’t confront the perpetrator without the victim’s permission, and even then it’s probably not wise until the victim is safely “stashed” in a safe place and she has counseled with domestic violence and legal experts.
The victim may surprise you and return to the abuser on their own volition. Sometimes the victim will leave and return many times before making a complete break, or before a safe reconciliation can be arranged. The victim needs your support for her bad decisions, as well as her good ones. Ask questions, and ask them in a non-judgmental manner, but don’t condemn her decisions. Let her know that you’re still there for her if she needs you.
Don’t forget the children. Remember, if you’re clergy you have a legal responsibility to report the circumstances to Child Protective Services if you have any suspicion the children are in danger. Usually, the presence of spousal abuse is sufficient suspicion to make that report. Domestic violence is a learned behavior. The children in that abusive environment are learning to abuse their own children and spouses. It must be stopped now.
~ PRAY ~