How pastors respond to accusations of domestic abuse

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A Christian woman who gets up the courage to report her husband’s abuse frequently turns to her pastor first. Usually, he is not equipped to help her. The church hasn’t yet fully stepped up to confront domestic abuse. If they would, they’d find that the women involved in it are both out in the world and in their pews. Many Christians have a hard time believing that Christianity and domestic abuse can, and do, go together, so all too often it gets swept under the rug.

Before you misunderstand, hear this: I’m not saying that a true Christian can be an abuser. A genuine Christian cannot be an abuser, but an abuser can hide in a Christian church. A Christian can lose their temper, fall into sin for a season (like King David), be hard to get along with at times, and misbehave in various other ways but domestic abuse isn’t a temporary sin. It’s a pattern of sin, of control, of seeking power over one’s partner. Domestic abuse is evil, and it often hides in our churches.

One in four American women experience some form of domestic abuse in her lifetime. Many of those are members of churches. When those abused members get up the courage to speak out about the abuse, and seek help for it, they often turn to their pastors. And, more likely than not, they will receive little, if any help.

How could that be? Wouldn’t a pastor jump at the chance to help an abused woman? You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But you’d be wrong. Here’s why.

  1. Domestic abuse is, at its core, unbelievable. This man, who stood before God and man, proclaiming his love for a woman, making a husband’s vows, is now beating her, berating her, or neglecting her? How could such a thing be? So when a wife comes to her pastor and tells him that her husband, a man he most likely knows, has done and/or said these horrible things to her, his first response is likely to be that she’s blowing it out of proportion. She must be mistaken. How could she not be? He knows Peter (or Bob, Tony, Phillip, etc.), he’s prayed with him, talked with him, ministered to him. He’s seen his heart for God, for his children, for the church, for her. There’s no way that she can be telling the full unmitigated truth.
  2. Pastors don’t understand domestic abuse. Seminaries don’t usually offer classes in how to handle domestic abuse cases. So when he’s faced with it, he just doesn’t know what to do. So he does what he commonly does when faced with marital problems: He suggests prayer, self-examination, couple’s counseling, etc. He might tell her that if she would just work on herself some, she could probably make things better in her marriage. Minister to him, find out what’s eating at him, serve him more, help him more, repent of her own sins, and things should get better. 
  3. Abusive men are masters at manipulation. They can pull the wool over your eyes quicker than anyone. Do they need to act repentant? They will. Do they need to confess to some small aspect of the abuse to give credence to their denial of greater acts? Confess they will. Do they need to shake their head, sigh, and tell the pastor that he didn’t really want to have to expose this about his wife but, well, she’s not really mentally stable. She lies. She twists the truth. She, well, see, she just can’t be trusted. He looks sad, downcast, maybe even sheds a tear.  And the pastor is eating out of his hand, just like he intended.
  4. Pastors don’t understand that traditional marital problems and problems caused by domestic abuse are nothing alike. When the things he’s suggested, such as couple’s counseling, the wife working on herself, etc., don’t work, he might just be inclined to blame the wife, not realizing that she could do those things eight days a week, and it won’t ever make a dime’s worth of difference–except now her abuser understands himself to be the victim in the pastor’s eyes, and he sees that he now has her permission to continue with the abuse because she isn’t confronting him, isn’t demanding change from him, isn’t threatening to leave or actually leaving, but is accepting the blame for it. So things get worse.

God’s Word stands against abuse. The word isn’t usually in most versions but words such as oppressor and oppressed are. God’s heart is with the abused, and against the abusers. Ours must be also.

If we want to see change within our churches concerning how domestic abuse cases are handled, then pastors must become educated about domestic abuse. Christ’s church should be a haven for His people, including for His women who are being beaten down by their husbands; instead, churches are often havens for the abusers who manipulate the leaders into believing them rather than helping their victims. It’s a win-win for the abusers. And a lose-lose for the victims, for our churches, for our church leadership, and for the proclamation of the pure Gospel because the Gospel of Christ cannot thrive where abusers hide.

Have you know a church that had to confront a domestic abuse case? How was it handled?

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4 Replies to “How pastors respond to accusations of domestic abuse”

  1. I mostly agree with the article on abuse, but I’d like to add several thoughts as a pastor myself. As mentioned, not all who claim to be Christians really are. Too many professing ‘church-goers’ have dark secret lives away from their congregation. Sadly, this is also true of many ministers, & very public acknowledgement of that fact has recently exposed Catholic priests especially. Obviously (since they are NOT permitted to marry) they are severely ill-equipped to deal with spousal abuse issues. The greatest challenge facing me as I entered into full-time ministry was breaking the status-quo of traditional mind-sets regarding ‘modern’ psychology & it’s possible relativity to Christians. Popular theologies tend to ‘demonize’ all aberrant behavior, rather than objectively seek scientific methods of physical or emotional remedy. Most have trouble distinguishing between a naturally twisted mind & a demented ‘spirit’. While both DO exist, 90% of the time, a physiological imbalance is the culprit – NOT demonization! Since most pastors only studied doctrine & not human-behavior analysis, they are not prepared to understand, much less help the abused. Even more sad is that these ministers too often recommend ‘Christian Counselors’ who merely attempt to apply their personal spiritual suave, rather than the ample remedial counsel of a trained & qualified certified Christian Counselor. I have 30+ years experience as a certified counselor & offer free consultation @ http://esteme.tumblr.com/

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