By Donna Gibbs
Domestic Violence: Two. Intimidating. Words.
I’ve been working as a professional Christian Counselor for nearly 20 years, and these two words still haunt me. No matter how much experience I have with this issue, no matter how many encounters with violence, I still have a healthy respect for the unpredictable nature of this often silent struggle. One thing is for sure, domestic violence is a real thing. And, this side of heaven, it’s not going away. It’s in my church. And, it’s in yours.
I’ve seen the bruises, the cuts, the broken bones, and the broken spirits. I’ve seen the long-lasting trauma in a child who has witnessed a chronic form of terror. I’ve sat across from more than one female who narrowly escaped death at the hands of the husband who committed to love, nurture, and protect her for life. Domestic violence doesn’t always involve a male offender, though over 75% of domestic abuse events involve a male offender. The point is domestic violence is real. And its scary.
So what is the appropriate response for a pastor? I genuinely believe that a pastor, and their church leadership, can be the most effective tool available to a community in educating families and breaking the silence and chains of abuse. On the other hand, pastors and church leaders can also be the very tools used to create the silence, and continue the horror.
The responsibility of the pastor is huge, and intimidating. When do I encourage her to stay? When do I encourage her to get out? Will I be held accountable for advising in the wrong direction? What if she leaves and these patterns really could have been addressed? What if she doesn’t leave…and she doesn’t survive? When is it reasonable to intervene in a situation…and which situations are just too dangerous to address?
I am presently working a case in which the church is providing firm intervention, loving support, godly instruction, as well as a way out if necessary. I have great confidence in the outcome of this situation. I have another unfortunate case in which the pastor and leadership are abandoning a wife whose life will clearly be jeopardized if she doesn’t leave. They are abandoning her based on their belief that the husband is to have all authority and that she is not fulfilling the role of a scriptural, submissive wife in her efforts to take a stand against the abuse. These cases represent the wide dilemma of the church at large, and the dilemma of you in particular, as a pastor.
With that said, what should your role as a pastor be regarding cases of domestic violence in your church?
- Insist on premarital counseling with a professional counselor prior to performing a wedding ceremony. Trained counselors are often able to discern and prevent destructive relationship and generational patterns before they fully develop. This may also prevent a tragic marital situation if patterns have already developed in courtship.
- Interact with local law enforcement and domestic violence shelters. Learn from them, and partner with them in addressing abuse in your community. You are likely their most significant and influential resource.
- Educate your congregation about domestic violence. In an informal poll with 30 pastors a few years ago, not one of them had taught about domestic violence in the five years prior. The enemy has an alternative to God’s design for marriage. Our tendency in church leadership is to focus on teaching God’s truths and instructions for marriage, while not fully addressing the alternative reality that many in the pews are already living.
- Address spiritual abuse, or the use of incomplete pieces of scripture to guilt, manipulate, and ultimately control. Remember that marriage is to be a reflection of Christ’s relationship with the church: He was servant to all who followed Him. He never ordered, threatened, hit, bit, shoved, or frightened….rather He loved with a sacrificial love.
- Be present with those who come forward as victims of domestic violence. Listen. Believe that abuse could happen. Then, be patient… it will take time and significant planning for her to make a change.
- Place boundaries on how you intervene. Because of the risk of violence after sessions, conjoint counseling should never be done with a couple until the abuse has ceased completely. Refer couples to a professional counselor who can assist in managing sessions individually until such time that it is assessed that the situation is safe enough to engage in conjoint counseling. There are some situations in which this time never comes.
Ultimately, the Fall created a cycle of sin that has created a hostile and dangerous world. In addressing the issue of domestic violence, we are addressing a very serious spiritual battle. Abuse is one of the prime strategies of evil and it will be a battle until the Lord returns.
The strategy of evil is to strip the victim of faith, hope and love—the strategy is to destroy. So, let us be strong in the Lord. Let us be willing to take a stand against evil. Let us stand firm. Let us pray. Let us be alert, and let us pray some more!
Donna Gibbs is a Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor, a National Certified Counselor, and a Board Certified Professional Christian Counselor. She is also a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC). She directs A Clear Word Counseling Center, along with marriage and support ministries for Mud Creek Baptist Church in Hendersonville, NC.
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-7233 or www.thehotline.org.