Kathryn* was a close friend. We met at church and spent hours ministering together. But she seemed guarded whenever the subject of her marriage came up. My husband and I knew her husband; we attended church together. And we sometimes shared meals with them. He baked me a cake once when I miscarried—he could be so kind. But he also sometimes made lewd comments that made me wonder if he had a porn addiction. Eventually Kathryn confided that her husband often raged at her and spewed abusive speech, and that he had dragged her across the room by her hair. Another time, he barred the door to keep her from leaving.
When Kathryn got pregnant with their second child, the abuse escalated. (One in six abused women reports that her partner first abused her during pregnancy, and according to the CDC, at least 4 to 8 percent of pregnant women report suffering abuse during pregnancy.) Afterward, he would apologize and beg forgiveness, but then he would repeat his actions a few days later.
After the baby was born, my friend took refuge with her children in our home. And her husband kicked in our door to get to them. She went to an attorney to request a restraining order, and she learned that she could not get one in our state unless she filed for divorce. So she filed only to protect herself. But some church elders threatened discipline. They reasoned, “The husband says he is sorry, and the wife files for divorce. She must be the one in the wrong.” When she wrote them a letter explaining that she wanted what was best for him, they would not read it. Their reasoning: they did not want to know intimate details about this couple.
A decade later another close friend, with a husband in church leadership, was my workout buddy. One day when walking next to her on the treadmill, I noticed a nasty bruise on her arm. When I asked her about it, she looked terrified.
“Did your husband do that?” I probed.
In this case, the elders (at a different church) told him to clean up his act or leave the church. He promised the former, but he chose the latter.
Every year in the US, more than 4 million women experience physical assault and rape by their partners. One in three female homicide victims are murdered by their current or a former partner. Young women, ages 18 to 34, are at greatest risk.
And it’s not happening only outside the church. Domestic violence is rampant in our churches, yet we rarely talk about it. Many people who pass themselves off as good Christians seek to establish power and control over another person through fear and intimidation, often including the threat or use of violence. In doing so, the abuser betrays the trust that should be inherent in such a close relationship. And he or she has a mentality of entitlement that says, “I’m justified in using evil tactics to obtain and maintain power and control.”
According to domesticviolence.org, most victims are women (one in four will experience it in her lifetime). But men can be victims, too. And it is worth noting that children in homes where domestic violence happens are more likely to experience abuse and/or neglect, as well (30–60%). Most children in such homes know about the violence. And even if a parent never physically harms them, they suffer emotional harm and experience behavior problems from witnessing it.
The abuse is most likely to happen between 6 PM till 6 AM. And it usually happens at home, though 40% of the time, it takes place elsewhere. Sometimes, but not always, it involves alcohol. In both of the cases described above, there was no alcohol involved.
For victims who leave, the result can be homelessness. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, about 1/3 of families in shelters are there due to domestic violence. But many choose to stay in the abusive situation. And most incidents go unreported.
So how can we and our churches help?
1. Go public. Speak out in public against domestic violence, and encourage pastors to preach on the subject. Periodically include in your church bulletin a domestic abuse hotline phone number as well as contact information for a church member trained to help in cases of abuse.
2. Teach accurately. Verses interpreted as teaching that a good wife must always bring only honor to her husband (e.g., Prov. 31:12) can keep victims trapped in silence. And misguided teaching about males leading and wives submitting, especially when such teaching presents “lead” as the husband’s verb instead of agape “love” (Eph. 5:25) can reinforce the entitlement mentality. Some reports say abuse is actually higher in traditional churches than in the population at large.
3. Use your words to bless. The abused person is probably beat down emotionally and mentally, and the lies he or she has heard can creep into the thinking process. Expect victims to have a lot of self-doubt and be paralyzed by fear. The abuser usually wages a mental war that leaves the victim cowering both physically and emotionally. So speak truth. Remind victims of God’s love and their value. Pray with and for them. Promise confidentiality and keep your word. When possible, lead both victim and abuser to get wise counsel.
4. For the sake of safety, allow divorce as an option. Divorce is not ideal in a healthy relationship—Jesus pointed to the beginning as the ideal. But when hardness of heart makes living unsafe (Mark 10:5), whether emotionally or physically, we do not help victims by making divorce itself the enemy. The marriage is destroyed by the abuse, not the legal document that comes as a result of the abuse. That is not to say divorce is the first course of action; but often a no-divorce policy ends up further victimizing the victims who feel they have no choice but to file.
5. Most instances of abuse go unreported, so suggest notifying authorities. Encourage the victim to photograph any physical evidence, and report the crime to police. But in the process, avoid giving the impression that only physical abuse counts. Emotional abuse is every bit as damaging.
6. Believe that abusers can change. Abusers are among the captives whom Jesus came to set free (Luke 4:18). Still, have realistic expectations. Most abusers choose not to repent.
7. Encourage victims that they are under no obligation to stick around till change happens. Nor are they responsible for making change happen.
Proverbs 31:8–9 says to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. Part of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8) is standing up for those beat down by abuse. The church should be known as a refuge for victims, not a shield for the violent-tempered or manipulative. With God's help, those of us with influence in the church can help make Christ's Body a place where the helpless run for solace and find they are finally safe.
*Not her real name.