It is the end of October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. This is a time when more are speaking up on the topic of domestic abuse: victims and survivors of abuse are telling their stories, advocates are bringing awareness, and ministries are focusing more on this subject. But it is a conversation that must continue to happen beyond a month of recognition. And we must also take practical steps that lead to reformation.
Unfortunately, the church has often responded poorly regarding domestic abuse. Abusers have been empowered and victims re-abused. We have been so bent on saving the marriage at all costs, that we neglect to help and support those who are suffering terrible oppression and abuse. We have failed to realize that we don’t have a divorce crisis but an abuse crisis. But more voices are being raised up to speak out on this topic and call the church to do better. The tide is slowly starting to change.
I was recently asked how the church, and church leaders in particular, can do a better job of responding to domestic abuse. There is much that could be said about this, and this article will certainly not be exhaustive. But the points below are a summary of some of the things that I shared and can be a good starting point for seeing change come to the church.
Generally speaking, there is a lot that the church does not know about domestic abuse. If we don’t understand how common it is, we will (wrongly) assume that it probably is not happening in our church. If we do not have insight into the nature and tactics of abuse, we will not be able to recognize it when it is right under our noses. If we don’t properly diagnose that a marriage is in fact abusive, we will give advice that ends up doing more harm than good. Sometimes, abuse is perpetuated because church leaders themselves are abusive and abuse is engrained into the culture of the church. But in many cases, I believe that church leaders are simply ignorant about this topic.
So, as church leaders and pastors, we must humble ourselves and learn. We must listen to survivors of abuse and be educated by experts in the field. When my wife and I first had our eyes opened to the widespread problem of domestic abuse, we began to devour books and articles, watch training videos, and learn from others who have decades of experience. We are still learning and have a long way to go, but we had to start somewhere and learn and grow. (Check out our resource section for some helpful resources.)
If we are going to respond properly to domestic abuse, we must take the side of the victim. Pastors and church leaders often try to stay neutral, but this only empowers the abuser. This is a principle that we must live by: In situations of abuse and oppression, it is always right to take the side of the victim. It is more convenient to stay neutral. Taking sides rocks the boat, while staying neutral maintains the status quo and allows us to wash our hands of responsibility. Taking the side of the victim is a lot messier. It can bring backlash, misunderstanding, and attacks from abusers and their supporters. However, we must take sides because it is the right thing to do.
The good shepherd doesn’t run when the wolf comes, he lays down his life for the sheep (see John 10:11-13). In the same way, we must be willing to lay down our lives for those who are abused. The Good Samaritan did not bypass the one who was lying on the side of the road half-dead, he was willing to be inconvenienced and give of his time and money (see Luke 10:25-37). We also must be willing to take sides, get our hands dirty, and not be driven by keeping the status quo.
Victims of abuse are often isolated from friends and family. When they are not supported by the church, it adds to the deep isolation and pain that they are suffering. They often end up having to leave the church where they attended, while the abuser remains and is seen as a “great guy.”
The church can offer support in many ways:
When domestic abuse is responded to poorly, the church can do incredible damage. But when responded to in love and support, the church can be a source of healing and community.
There is much more that could be said on this topic, but these three areas alone can go a long way in bringing much-needed reformation. I want to challenge church leaders to dig into this topic and pray for the heart of God. Be willing to learn and grow, and set assumptions and pre-conceived notions aside. Make no mistake: there are victims of domestic abuse in your congregation. The question is, how will you respond?