In Part I of this series, we discussed the raging epidemic of domestic violence in Christian churches and pastors’ self-reported unpreparedness in handling it. And while ongoing education is the mission of organizations like Agape Moms, we’ve developed a list of five meaningful steps Christian leaders and pastors can take RIGHT NOW to safeguard their congregations and help families struggling with these issues.
Unchecked Abuse Permits Unbelief in the Body of Christ
Before we dive into our list, we want to take a minute to set a foundation and align our hearts with God’s Word as it pertains to abuse. 1 John 3:15 states that “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (NKJV). Scripture is replete with warnings, from the Old Testament through the New, to avoid angry people. And John tells us why in this passage- an emotionally volatile man is not exhibiting evidence that he belongs to the Body of Christ.
Obviously, a wife is spiritually a closer relation than a brother (one flesh!). This verse should be a wake up call to us that a man who so brazenly verbally and/or physically enacts violence on his wife may not actually be a believer, though he may think he is.
Not only is it a danger to have these kinds of “believers” wandering around spreading impurity within a congregation, these men may be under the impression that they are saved when John seems to indicate they are not (remember, “no murderer has eternal life abiding in him”).
So the need to address abuse is dire, for the protection of the wife, the salvation of the husband, and the unity of the Body of Christ.
Church Discipline for Abusive Husbands
So often with these sorts of situations, men and women are referred to outside counselors and therapists to deal with these matters. And while therapy is one tool in the arsenal to combat abuse, we must not forget that Jesus and Paul declared the Church itself is responsible for addressing unrepentant sin and providing individual accountability within the Body of Christ.
Individual therapy can be helpful in addressing the traumas that are involved in patterns of abuse, for both the abuser and the victim (marriage counseling is not appropriate in cases of abuse). However, an abusive man also requires real life consequences and discipleship that a therapist or Christian counselor can’t really provide. And if he’s not willing to repent, the church must step in and hold an abusive man accountable with discipline (which may include separating the him from the congregation, as Jesus outlines in Matthew 18).
Paul wrote to both the Thessalonians and Corinthians regarding the handling of sin issues within the Body. 2 Thessalonians 3:6 says, "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us." (NASB)
Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 5:11, Paul says "not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler- not even to eat with such a one." (NASB)
Not even EAT with him!
While seemingly harsh, this kind of tough love is essential to the “grace and truth” paradigm that Jesus established in His coming. Grace calls us into repentance that gives the opportunity through the Holy Spirit to walk according to the truth. BOTH are essential to the life of a true believer, and to the health of the Body of Christ.
Paul shows how this concept is played out in church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5:5. In this passage, he describes why he is positioned against a so-called brother in the Corinthian church who is entrenched in sin. He says "I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." (NASB) Paul is choosing to allow this man to experience separation from the fellowship of the Church, and into Satan’s realm (yikes), with the hope that ultimately it will bring him back around. It wasn’t (and shouldn’t be) done in a spirit of punishment or retribution, but rather out of love and concern.
How Churches Can Get Started Tackling Domestic Abuse
So now we know that the Bible tells us abuse is something that must be addressed and that the local church has the authority and responsibility to take part in handling it. But what does that look like practically? Here are fives ways churches can start today.
Become aware of the deceptive side of abuse. Domestic abuse is often hidden- abusers often develop a highly respectable reputation which make any claims of abuse seem unlikely, and they are highly skilled in convincing others nothing is wrong. In actuality, one study found that some men who demonstrate very outward signs of religious participation are more likely to be abusive. That means not only is abuse happening in your church, it’s possible that even your most active members (worship leaders, ushers, missionaries) are engaging in these behaviors. While we are currently developing resources for churches to understand this phenomenon, even a quick overview of what domestic abuse is will help you realize that abusers commonly deny or justify what they are doing, and “seem” to make quick changes to look like they are progressing. Don’t fall for it!
Be proactive in starting the conversation. When God commissions Jeremiah as a prophet, God tells Jeremiah He as given him position to “root out and to pull down, to destroy and to throw down, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). Building a congregation means proactively rooting out problems, rather than waiting for them to surface. Partnering with local domestic abuse ministries and women’s shelters brings visibility to the issue by allowing the church body to work first hand with those affected. Then the conversation can continue with including the abused in discussions about the downtrodden, as is relevant in so many sermons (and other smaller group teachings).
Learn how to perform a victim’s risk assessment. This short questionnaire is a quick and easy tool that shows when a woman is experiencing domestic violence. It’s important that victims are believed (and at least given the benefit of the doubt) when they come forward. Her claims should be assessed and not minimized in any way. Furthermore, she should not be given the responsibility of handling this issue on her own- she does not have the resources to handle this level of spiritual warfare. But her church does (see above)!
Designate a Care Person to help a victim get help. Victims often fail actually get help because they have been groomed to think what is happening to them is not abuse. They often feel overwhelmed by the process (and the doubt) and may end up going back to an unhealthy situation because it is easier. The Care Person doesn’t need to be an expert on the subject of abuse! It should be a spiritual mentor who can walk with her in locating community resources (which can be located through thehotline.org), garner support for her within the church body, and encourage her through weekly Bible study and consistent prayer.
Be consistent with church discipline and abuser discipleship. Many men slip through the cracks of traditional men’s group ministries (and worse yet, some use these groups as a way to make it appear that they are making change). Identified abusers who are willing to seek treatment should enter a batterer intervention program (more on that below). However, he MUST also have a proactive mentor through the church who is involved in his life to an extent similar to that of an addiction recovery sponsor, to provide personal accountability. Like the victim’s Care Person, an abuser’s mentor doesn’t need to be an expert in abuse. Many of these men are dealing with not only significant past traumas, but also a lack of good discipleship. They require the involvement of a one-on-one, daily spiritual guide to challenge them regarding the realities of what the Bible says about their behavior, but also embrace the forgiveness that is available through Jesus Christ.
Batterer Intervention to Treat All Types of Abuse
Despite what we’d tend to think about treatment for abusers, basic therapy isn’t necessarily effective for abusers, and neither is anger management. In addition to the personal accountability of church intervention described above, abusers should be required to participate in batterer intervention programs targeted at healing past traumas and changing unhealthy patterns of thought.
The big question here usually is, “what if he’s not actually physically violent?”
Domestic violence isn’t limited to physical abuse; it also encompasses verbal, emotional, and spiritual control and manipulation. The mindset behind all these varieties of abuse is the same, as the abuser exercises control of another individual to manage negative thoughts and feelings (which often stem from childhood trauma). Research suggests that psychological violence is actually more damaging than physical violence (not to mention physical abuse often includes psychological abuse), so it is of the utmost importance that perpetrators receive tools to reshape their thinking and behaviors and that victims find relief.
Have you had any experiences with a church that is proactively tackling the issue of eradicating domestic violence? We’d love to know more- please leave us a comment.
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