What Happens When Churches Don’t Respond?
Did you know that domestic abuse is a very real problem in the Christian community? Dr. Benjamin Keyes, then Program Director/ Associate Professor, School of Psychology and Counseling Regent University, VA, said in a 2016 interview, “In Christian marriages we have a much greater frequency of domestic violence than we do in non-Christian homes.”
Dr. Keyes goes right to the heart of the problem: “Part of the reason is that in a traditional role structure, whether in an evangelical, fundamental, or charismatic home, the woman is subservient to the man.”
Domestic abuse or violence is defined as a pattern of abuse where one person exerts power and control over another in an intimate relationship. The abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, verbal, financial, or spiritual.
According to theology professor Steven Tracy in an article for ABC news, “It is widely accepted by abuse experts (and validated by numerous studies) that evangelical men who sporadically attend church are more likely than men of any other religious group (and more likely than secular men) to assault their wives.”
False Theology and Thin Religion
Surely churches that hear of abuse rush to the aid of the victims, right? Unfortunately, no.
(For real-life accounts of spiritual abuse by church, click here and here to read guest blog posts.)
Simon Smart, Executive Director of the Centre for Public Christianity, referred to theologian Miroslav Volf’s observation in an article about how “Submit to your husbands” is misinterpreted. Volf calls the misinterpretation “thin religion ... stripped of its moral content and used as a weapon for goals completely unrelated to the faith.” This may be the case when pastors and male leaders in the church seek to retain control and keep women out of leadership.
Dr. Keyes suggested that women stay because of finances or their children and that they often do not see a way out. An article, #WhyIStayed: How Some Churches Support Spousal Abuse reveals other reasons.
Today, more and more churches are realizing they’ve too often been enablers of domestic abusers.
What Happens When Churches Don’t Respond
Today, more and more churches are learning that their responses to abused parishioners have been wrong, pure and simple. They’re realizing they’ve too often been enablers of domestic abusers.
ways churches respond to domestic abuse victims. In one instance of a church encouraging the victim to return to her abuser, sadly, she died at the hands of her abuser.
The church could bring harm to itself.
Often a church isn’t aware of its legal obligations, let alone attuned to its responsibilities as an institution entrusted with the spiritual care of parishioners. Why is that? A church that chooses to turn its back on domestic abuse victims in hopes of protecting its image may in fact be harming itself. In the article, Why Domestic Violence in the Home Endangers Your Church, church security expert Carl Chinn says, “As Christians, we are dedicated to the preservation of the marriage, as we should be. But when there is abuse, or even the suspicion of it, we, as the church, often refuse to recognize it for the danger it is.” Chinn says this is a mistake with potentially grave consequences. Statistics show that, in 2016, eleven of the forty-seven murderous attacks at churches and ministries had the same cause: domestic violence.
Churches can also end up in legal trouble.
An article in Relevant magazine, This Is How Churches Should Respond to Abuse, explains that, “Each state has different mandatory reporting laws, but churches must engage local law enforcement who are trained and equipped to investigate [abuse] accusations. Elder boards acting like arm-chair investigators do far more harm than good.”
The article goes on to state that pastors can be “naïve and easily manipulated.” They are often recruited to speak on behalf of the abuser during legal proceedings. Rarely do they speak in support of the victim. We should ask what is wrong with this picture and how can we be change agents.
A Better Way
How can churches become places of safety and support for abuse victims? What could compel them and how would they begin? Following are steps I’ve gleaned from various sources that churches can take.
Become informed and share that information
Understand what domestic abuse is, realizing victims of abuse are very possibly in the congregation. The church needs to be alert to the signs of domestic abuse and recognize its unique role in helping abused women who see the church as a safe place to come for help. Physical violence is often the most obvious abuse, but women also experience verbal, emotional, or sexual abuse by their husbands or partners.
Once church leaders have become informed, it’s important for them to educate the congregation on how they can support the abused. Begin with sermons on the subject. A study called I Believe You: Sexual Violence and the Church, by Sojourners found that, of pastors who responded to a survey, 65 percent had addressed domestic and sexual violence once or never in a sermon, 22 percent addressed it annually, 33 percent mentioned it “rarely,” and 10 percent had never taught on it. Change needs to happen from the pulpit to the pews.
Many churches quick to teach submission are often slow to point out that women were also among the followers of Christ - Beth Moore
Other ideas for disseminating information include studies in the adult Sunday school curriculum on family violence and the prevention of violence, as well as Bible studies about women and their value. In a letter to her Christian brothers, author Beth Moore wrote, “I’m asking for your increased awareness of some of the skewed attitudes many of your sisters encounter. Many churches quick to teach submission are often slow to point out that women were also among the followers of Christ (Luke 8), that the first recorded word out of His resurrected mouth was ‘woman’ (John 20:15), and that same woman was the first evangelist.”
When a victim comes forward, it’s critical that church leaders’ first impulse is to listen and believe the victim’s feelings and listen to her story. In a Lifeway Research Survey of evangelistic protestant pastors titled Protestant Pastors’ Current Responses to Domestic Violence, about 50 percent said they would believe the victim, 68 percent said they would investigate whether domestic violence was really present, and 46 percent of mainline protestant pastors would investigate rather than fully support the victim.
“When a woman reports domestic violence and her report is discredited or dismissed,” says Penelope Hefner, principal and family law attorney at Sodoma Law Union in an article for domesticshelters.org, “it not only takes away from her pain, but it sends a message to the aggressor that the action is acceptable.”
Assess her level of safety
Churches can reduce trauma and even save lives by taking action to help abused women get to a safe place. They must remember an investigation of the abuser’s actions could prove fatal to the victim, if he feels threatened and takes his abuse to a higher level.
Partner with community services
It’s vital for churches to reach out to the community for support. The church and the community become stronger when they work together. The church should offer informed counseling or help the victim connect with other resources within the community. Community organizations will have access to government resources and training not available to the church.
Offer support and unconditional love
Connecting victims with support groups, prayer partners, and providing ongoing emotional and practical support are other important roles churches can play. Churches should prepare to offer support and guidance for years, not days or months, even if the victim is receiving professional counseling.
While many churches historically have fallen short of being places of refuge and active support to victims of domestic abuse, all churches need to develop the resources to help reverse this troubling crisis.
Would you like to hear about the results of churches implementing policies to support victims of domestic abuse? So would I. I’ve already begun contacting those in the know, and will be reporting back to you, as well as providing a list of resources. If you know of an example of how a church has chosen to help, please let me know in the comments below. Stay tuned!
Linda M. Kurth is a writer and a divorced and remarried Christian. In going through the divorce, she experienced a dichotomy of responses from the Christian community. After sharing some of those experiences in her upcoming memoir, God, the Devil, and Divorce, she's heard many stories of divorced Christians who have struggled with the same issues. This blog invites divorced Christians to tell their stories with the goal of encouraging churches to resist condemnation and become a source of healing and grace.
Do you have a divorce experience to share? Have you been shamed by a church because of your divorce? Or encouraged? There are hurting people who would like to hear your story, who need to know they are not alone, and who need to be encouraged. If you are interested in sharing your story, email Linda for guidelines: Linda@LindaMKurth.com