When a church learns of domestic violence in a relationship, or suspects it, there are several common reactions by church leaders and members, all of which can endanger the victim(s).
First, those in the church, particularly in leadership, strongly caution each other not to take sides. The credibility of the alleged victim may be vigorously questioned at this point. The victim’s past may be dredged to find reasons that they may be fabricating or exaggerating the disclosure of domestic violence. Friends, acquaintances, and family members may be questioned as to the veracity of their claims. Physical illness, mental illness, disability, past trauma, drug or alcohol abuse, and infidelity may be offered as factors driving a victim’s “desire for attention.”
Another common reaction is to treat the victim and suspect as equally liable for the abuse. The couple in question is admonished to get into marital counseling (or premarital counseling) as soon as possible. Church leaders may insist that the couple work out their issues together, which keeps the abuser in control as the victim cannot speak openly in his presence. The church may also counsel the man and woman individually, still treating them as equally responsible for “fixing” the relationship, and bring them together at a later date to “try again.”
Over and over, our organization has been told of victims who were counseled by their church to dress sexier, be more sexually available, act more pleasant, cook better meals, and to otherwise embody the archaic ideal of a perfect housewife who has no needs, job, or dreams of her own. Even in 2020, women are unfairly pressured to carry more than their share of a relationship as if they are both the problem and the solution. Yet any scripture that can be thrown at them to be more loving or service-oriented can be countered with scripture instructing men to do the same.
“Let’s monitor the situation and see what happens” is another reaction that allows the church to excuse itself from domestic violence. In Part 1, we discussed what domestic violence is, and many houses of worship still define it as severe physical abuse. If it doesn’t leave a mark, if it doesn’t cause lasting physical injury or land her in the hospital, if it wasn’t done in the presence of others, then churches can consider it a private family matter they shouldn’t touch. Physical violence is just one piece of a whole spectrum of behaviors that are intended to control and terrorize victims. Churches may not want to act until something so terrible happens that they “have” to act. At that point they have actual “proof” that abuse is occurring.
“God hates divorce” is another pervasive doctrine that is used as a reason to encourage victims to stay involved with abusers or not to help them. God does hate divorce. But He also hates selfish, violent, hate-filled behavior that causes pain and suffering. Many Christians were raised in churches that said they could never be married again if they ever got divorced. Faced with potential loss of income, loss of housing, loss of custody of the kids or pets, and a lifetime of being treated like an irredeemable leper if they leave an abusive relationship, victims hang in there to the point that it sometimes costs them their lives.
Judging the victim, trying to counsel both victim and abuser, spreading the blame, refusing to act, prohibiting divorce, and using scripture not to help are all too common in today’s church. Instead, the very first question that the church should ask upon learning of domestic violence is this: is she safe? Not is she credible, is she liable, can they be counseled, should we get involved, but is she safe? Sometimes the victim is male and churches might not want to believe that a male can be the victim– they absolutely can. The safety of the victim and children are of paramount importance. Their lives may be at stake.
Because the preservation of life should be the church’s first priority, the church needs to start by believing. False domestic violence allegations are not as common as they are portrayed in popular culture. A victim may be risking everything when they find the courage to come forward and ask for help. This fact is underscored by the estimate that 60 percent of homeless women in our area are homeless because of domestic violence. At bare minimum, they are risking their reputation to share their experiences in a faith-based setting. They also risk having the church force them to stay with or try to reason with their abuser as detailed above, and they risk having the church rally around their abuser, who may have spent years carefully curating a “good guy” image.
Start by believing. It’s that simple. This is by far the most important first step a church can take to stop domestic violence. Assume that the victim is telling the truth and treat them with respect. Honor their confidential disclosures. Remember that we all have pasts and we are all flawed human beings. Have resources to hotlines, local domestic violence agencies, and area police departments ready to give them. In Part 3 we’ll discuss how to safely share this information with victims.
When you finally find your voice and are ready to escape the abuse, you need reliable friends around you to help you through that dangerous time. Now more than ever, we need the church to be a safe place that will believe victims and help shepherd them to safety.
©2020 Christian Coalition for Safe Families