3 Reasons Christians Fail to Care Well for Victims of Domestic Abuse (guest post by MaryEllen Bream)

MaryEllen Bream has been encouraging Christian mothers at her Imperfect Homemaker blog for several years. More recently, she has begun speaking up about domestic abuse on Facebook and at Hope for Hurting Wives. She has impressed me as a calm, steady voice in the world of abuse advocates, and goodness knows we need more of those calm, steady voices. And she loves Jesus. So I’m happy to be able to host her for a guest post.

***

Domestic abuse is a terrible thing.

Most people would say that if they were aware of any instances of abuse in their church, they would certainly stand up against it, and would help the victim in whatever way they could.

However, the sad reality is that there are many people who have suffered abuse at the hands of their spouse who have never received the help they needed from their churches. In many instances, their churches have added to their pain. Dr. Diane Langberg said,

“When did we start thinking that tolerating abuse in the home was a godly thing to do? When God’s people are obedient, they reprove abusers and defend the helpless; unfortunately we have often reproved the helpless and protected the abusers.”

Why does this happen? Are people truly that cold-hearted that they would intentionally hurt or ignore someone who is already suffering?

Sometimes there are indeed wolves circulating among the sheep whose intention it is to destroy. As Acts 20:28-30 says,

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.

Sometimes the leaders are hirelings who run from trouble instead of protecting the sheep. As John 10:12-13 says,

He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

In these cases, yes, the “secondary harm” done to victims of abuse does indeed proceed from a cold heart.

But apart from these instances, good people with good intentions can still fail to care well for victims of abuse in their churches. If you’re one of those good people who truly desires to help others, being aware of the potential pitfalls will help you take action to avoid them.

1. Are you ignorant about abuse?

There are a number of ways that ignorance regarding the topic of abuse can make a church ineffective at caring well for the victims.

First, there is ignorance about how often abuse occurs within the church itself.

“I would be the first to help a victim of abuse, but I just don’t know any people like that.”

I’ve heard some variation of this phrase on multiple occasions.

This thinking stems at least in part from a common myth that domestic abuse occurs mainly among a certain demographic of society. Some people envision domestic violence that occurs in a run-down part of town, in a home where a raging alcoholic beats his wife and children in a drunken fit. [RD note: This was certainly the stereotype I believed.]

But domestic abuse also occurs with startling frequency behind the closed doors of the homes of people you know. Some of the people who come sing hymns with you on Sunday morning go home and abuse their spouse on Sunday afternoon.

When King David recounted the abuse he was experiencing from his oppressor, it was not an enemy or a stranger who was oppressing him; it was someone with whom he had “walked unto the house of God in company” (Psalm 55:12-14).

Jesus gave his followers a new commandment to love one another (John 13:34), yet there were people among the church who were not doing so (I John 2:9-11). It is still the same today. There are those who come to church and sing and pray, yet they do not display the love characteristics of I Corinthians 13 toward their own spouse. They honor God with their lips, but their hearts are far from him (Matthew 15:8).

Perhaps you wonder why, if domestic abuse is prevalent in the church, you have never noticed any occurrence of it. If you’re looking for evidence of abuse in the form of bruises and black eyes, you may not find it. If this seems impossible, consider the fact that But domestic abuse is not about singular incidents of physical violence. Domestic abuse is about a pattern of power and control that one spouse exerts over the other.

According to Ephesians 5:18, the expectation for a believer is not that he should control others, but that he should BE controlled by the Holy Spirit of God. Yet there are many who do not exhibit the fruit of love, gentleness, meekness, etc. (Galatians 5:22)  toward their spouse because they are more interested in doing the controlling than in being controlled by the Spirit.

You may not see women in your church coming to services with a black eye; instead there are women who go home from church to receive scathing lectures from their husband because they talked too much or they shook a man’s hand. Their husbands drive the car recklessly on the way home so they can intimidate their wives into “behaving better” next time they go to church.

There are women who have been up all night with a newborn whose husbands won’t allow them to take a Sunday nap because “a woman’s place is in the kitchen” and she’d best be getting that Sunday dinner on the table, women whose husbands will call them awful names when the Sunday dinner isn’t seasoned to his liking.

These women will be beaten down in a million little ways day after day after day. And though they might not have bruises to show for it, they are dying a slow death as their bodies and spirits buckle under the stress.

The church fails to care well for victims because, while they may share a pew with an oppressor and his victim, they fail to realize what they are seeing.

Another type of ignorance that prevents the church from helping victims well is ignorance of how an abusive person operates. This in turn causes ignorance regarding how to help keep a victim safe.

Abusive people are master manipulators. “[Their mouths are] full of cursing and deceit and fraud: under [their] tongue is mischief and vanity” (Psalm 10:7). They will do everything in their power to make themselves look like innocent lambs and make their victim look crazy. If they realize someone is onto them, they will tearfully “repent” of their abuse and promise that they have changed. The church then believes that all is well and their protection of the victim is discontinued. But repentance for an abuser is merely an act. He does not believe God will even notice his wicked deeds (Psalm 10:10).

Finally, although people in the church may wish to care well for victims, they are often ignorant regarding exactly how to do that. Many see their role to be a rescuer, swooping in and “saving” the victim. During this process, they will dole out instructions for the victim – “You have to separate.” “You have to live here.” “You should get a job here.” Though this may be done with the goal of helping the victim, it is removing her autonomy and failing to validate her own ability to make decisions for her own life.

When Peter encouraged the elders of the churches to care for the flock of God, he instructed them not to be lords over God’s people (I Peter 5:3). Neither should any believer exert lordship over another, even in the name of caring for them.

You may believe that making decisions on her behalf is for her own good, but her abuser told her the same thing. She doesn’t need to escape one controlling person only to be controlled by another.

The goal to help is commendable, but don’t let your ignorance sabotage that goal and cause the opposite effect for the victim. Instead, you can enlist the help of someone who is trained in the topic of domestic abuse and have them guide you through this tricky process. Get to know the people at your local domestic violence shelter or avail yourself of an organization like Called to Peace Ministries who can provide support for the victim as well as guidance for your church.

2. Is poor theology in the way?

The last reason the church fails to care well for victims of abuse is that they often have poor theology regarding certain topics.

Certain catch-phrases are tossed around that silence the victim’s pain and teach them to ignore the harm that is being done to them. [RD: links provided to blog posts I’ve written on each topic.]

Things like:

“Forgive and forget.”

“Don’t be bitter about the past.”

“Don’t gossip about your spouse.”

“Take the beam out of your own eye.”

“It is not loving for Christians to have boundaries.”

“Your fear is sinful.”

“Remember all you really deserve is hell, so this is better than you deserve.”

“It’s not about you.”

“You need to love your enemies.”

“Remember your greatest problem is your own sin.”

“You need to turn the other cheek.”

— “You need to be willing to suffer for the cause of Christ.”

“You need to be willing to give up your rights.”

For female victims, there is often an additional layer of beliefs that can make it more difficult for the church to believe or help them:

Ideas like:

–“Women are too emotional.”

–“Women are deceptive.”

–“Women are vindictive.”

–“Women cause their husbands to mistreat them because they are not submissive enough.”

–“Women cause their husbands to betray them sexually because they did not meet his needs enough.”

And there are even more cliches people say without stopping to consider whether they are really true. (They’re not.) For example:

–“It takes two to tango.” (But it takes two people working together to make the dance work. It takes only one to ruin it.)

–“God hates divorce.” (But God hates the abuse and abandonment that causes divorce.)

–“You made your bed now you’ll have to lie in it.” (But no one chooses to be abused. The oppressor chose to exploit his target, and the church’s job is to protect the oppressed.)

Caring well for victims means you will have to rethink the beliefs that are harming them.

God calls the simple to come to a place of understanding (Proverbs 8:5). Receiving wisdom from the Lord will lead you to reject arrogant attitudes that assume you know everything (Proverbs 8:13). If you choose to remain simple, you will walk right into the manipulative web of the abuser. Their deceitful tactics include twisting scriptures to further their own gain. You must cultivate a strong ability to recognize this deceit and combat it with the truth. Proverbs 22:3 says,

“A prudent man foresees the evil, and hides himself: but the simple pass on, and are punished.”

3. Are you willing to move out of your comfort zone?

It can be difficult to move out of your comfort zone, both emotionally and physically.

From an emotional standpoint, defending the victim will by nature require rebuking the oppressor.

When you’ve had the impression (perhaps for many years) that both partners in a couple are equally good people, the natural inclination when whispers of abuse begin to surface is to try to treat both spouses equally.  The danger occurs when you believe that loving both people well means treating them both the same.

Believers are to reprove the unfruitful works of darkness (Ephesians 5:11) and to refrain from keeping company with people who have adulterous, abusive, or idolatrous character (I Corinthians 5:11).

In order to properly care for the victim, you will have to leave your emotional comfort zone by believing the truth about the oppressor and taking action to keep his victim safe. Psalm 10:17-18 says,

O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
    you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
    so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.

If you are to partner with God in his righteous purposes of bringing justice to the oppressed, it may require taking a stand against someone you formerly considered to be an upstanding member of the church or even a personal friend.

In order to care well for a victim of abuse, you will also be moving out of your physical comfort zone.

Listening to the victim and learning how best to help will require your time.

Entering into someone else’s pain may cause you some sleepless nights and emotional turmoil.

Providing a refuge for someone who needs a safe place may inconvenience you.

Supporting someone who is trying to rebuild a broken life may require you to contribute financially.

But all of these are things that Christ asks of his body.

  • Weep with them. (Romans 12:15)
  • Bear their burdens (Galatians 6:2)
  • Support the widows and orphans (James 1:27)
  • Love one another the way Christ loved us (John 15:12)
  • Provide for the physical needs of other believers (Romans 12:13; James 2:15-16)

First John 3:16-18 says,

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

How does the love of God dwell in you if you do not give of yourself to meet others’ needs?

Treating others the way we would want to be treated (Matthew 7:12) requires us to envision ourselves in their shoes.

Think about how you would feel if the church, the place that should be a refuge for you, had no idea how to recognize or respond to your needs when you were in emotional or physical peril.

Think about how you would feel if the church could help, but out of concern for their own comfort acted more like the priest or the Levite than the Good Samaritan.

Think about how you would feel if your spirit and body were broken, but you were met with Job’s comforters insisting that you need to search for sin in your life.

When Jesus interacted with people during his ministry, his lens was that of compassion. When he saw hurting people, he didn’t say, “Maybe if you’d kept the law better, these things wouldn’t be happening to you.” No, Jesus wept with them and offered them abundant grace, hope, and rest.

I pray that the church of God will respond to those who are hurting in a similar way.

Once we realize the potential pitfalls into which we can stumble, we can use wisdom to avoid them. Then we can take practical steps to actively defend and stand with the oppressed. Read 3 Ways the Church Can Care Well for Victims of Domestic Abuse here.

 

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[…] The bad news is that many churches do not do a great job of supporting domestic abuse victims. Even those who express a desire to help have often failed to accomplish that. (I wrote a guest post for my friend Rebecca Davis that explores some of the reasons for this failure. You can read that here: 3 Reasons Christians Fail to Care Well for Victims of Domestic Abuse) […]

Mark M. Tyrrell
Mark M. Tyrrell
5 months ago

A defining moment in my life occurred some three years ago when I heard a lawyer state her very strong opinion that most men are outraged at the thought of violence against a woman and this is especially true in the matter of sexual violence.

The lady was absolutely right on the money, and this can only mean that we say good-bye to toxic feminism with its’ toxic myths about toxic masculinity and male violence and we can go on to address issues and solutions.

Statistics-Canada says that intimate partner violence is four-to-five times more likely to happen in a common-law union than in a traditional marriage.

Spousal murder, Statistics-Canada says, is seven-to-eight times more likely to happen in that common-law union than in a traditional marriage.

Furthermore, Statistics-Canada says that when a woman conceives and becomes pregnant in that common-law union, there is a 50% greater chance that the man will leave her.

All of which says to me that the starting point of any discussion about intimate partner violence must be to explain these variables to people and resolutely oppose the very notion of common-law unions.

At the same time, people are absolutely right to point out that the conservative evangelical church has failed miserably on this front. We have for too long allowed people like Bill Gothard and others like him to occupy front and center stage. In this regard, indeed, there has been a falling away from what previous generations of believers taught and practiced.

Dana Lange
Dana Lange
5 months ago

Thank you for this post. Vital!

Kay
Kay
5 months ago

Having left one church with an abusive pastor, and getting kicked out of another, I can just agree with you 100%. The people I know who stayed under these abusers were Ahab-weak. The domestic violence victims in these churches were just further victimized by these wolves. The failure of the body of Christ to LOVE ourselves is epidemic.

Anonymous
Anonymous
5 months ago

I think ALL points are important, but in regards to the second point, I wish there were more resources like this in Spanish, because in conservative circles bad theology has creeped in (most, if not all of the topics mentioned in that point), and we need sound theological content to refute that.

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