The Pastor and Domestic Violence

Catherine Clark Kroeger

Only yesterday I was told of a Christian woman who escaped a viciously cruel marriage and went to consult her pastor. The man of God, wishing to restore domestic peace and harmony, sent the fearful congregant back to her home along with his well-meant prayers and good advice. Two days later the woman was dead, slain by the hand of her husband. Only weeks before, a similar tragedy played out in a neighboring parish. Although the pastor had intended to reestablish the marital union, his guidance had led to its permanent destruction. His first obligation was to do all in his power to safeguard the life of the parishioner.

Are evangelical shepherds endangering the lives of the sheep? Ezekiel speaks of the watchman appointed by God who is responsible for the safety of the lives entrusted to him. “If the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes the life of one of them,…I will hold the watchman accountable for his blood” (Ezek 33:6). But most of our pastors are unaware of the danger.

C. S. Lewis observed that one of the devil’s cleverest tricks is to convince folk that he does not exist. Unencumbered by Christian wariness, he is far more free to wreak his mischief in our lives. Similarly there is a belief among evangelicals that domestic violence does not exist within our ranks, that the horrifying statistics are only feminist fabrications. Yet the government computes the body count with data gathered from hospitals, police stations, and morgues. In America at least two thousand women a year are killed by their intimate partners, and the toll for children is even higher. Even though many abused women and children do not die, they often carry their wounds for life—in terms of both physical and emotional injuries. We must also note that five percent of abusers are women, although their lack of physical strength makes them less likely to inflict serious injury. The facts tell a grisly tale that we have chosen to ignore.

Tragically, our longing to see the family made whole has blinded us to the dangers that lurk in family life. We must first admit that the danger is real and that we have been slow to recognize it. No type of faith community is immune from the scourge. Sociologist N. Nason-Clark has researched the prevalence of abuse in evangelical families, and finds the rate about the same as in the general population. In North America, a pastor preaches on Sunday morning to a congregation in which, on average, there is abuse in one quarter of the families. Other studies, such as that done at Calvin College, confirm these findings. But we are not facing this reality, nor are we prepared to deal with the terrible reality that engulfs us.

Few pastors have been given adequate preparation to deal with domestic violence. Our seminaries seldom offer instruction on the issue, although pastors report that they spend more of their counseling time on this subject than on any other. A Canadian study revealed that the more training pastors had been given on the subject, the more likely they were to refer the problem to a highly qualified professional. The less training pastors receive, the more likely they are to feel that they can handle the challenge themselves.

Studies show that when a Christian woman seeks help in an abusive marriage, she ordinarily consults either her pastor or a Christian woman in the congregation. The first lesson that we must teach pastors is that the danger is real and that it takes great courage for a woman to disclose the humiliating truth that she is a victim. She is well aware that many a woman has been sent home by the pastor along with the rebuke that if she had been a better wife there would have been no problem. Thus she must struggle not only with shame but also with fear—fear that she will not be believed and fear that it may go worse for her at home once she has made the disclosure.

The Pastor’s Dilemma

Some pastors suspect that women fabricate stories of their abuse, and they are very reluctant to hear of such behavior on the part of their fine church members. Occasionally a woman does indeed make up the charge, but most of the time the fears that she expresses are based in reality. It is far better to err on the side of safety and to make sure that the woman is placed in a secure location even when she may be too distraught to give a rational account of the problem.

Furthermore, pastors must understand that even the most astute of mental health experts have been misled by putative perpetrators. Abusers may seem very pious, very self-controlled, or even very repentant, but they may be very dangerous. Even the most convincing of statements may not guarantee safe behavior behind closed doors. Those who work most extensively with endangered women maintain that the victim herself usually has the most accurate understanding of the level of risk to herself and her children. We must not ignore or minimize her appeal for help in the face of her perceived peril. The woman can be assisted in developing a safety plan to be utilized if there is need. Often those best equipped to help with the plan are ready at the other end of a hot line. The victim can also be told of the resources that are available to her in the community.

The Pastor’s Resources

The first and mightiest tool that the pastor has is prayer, but he or she must add other weapons to this arsenal. The pastor must accumulate basic information and forge essential contacts. Many different kinds of resources will be needed in a crisis. In dealing with a life-threatening situation, it is imperative to move cautiously. A pastor should not enter a house where there is active violence until he or she is accompanied by police or other members of the church. Bear in mind that many a police officer has lost his or her life in responding to domestic violence calls.

Frequently the safest place for an endangered woman is the community shelter. The experienced staff has many established safety features that a congregation may not be privy to, no matter how well-intentioned they might be. It is important that the location be unknown to the perpetrator and that it is an unlikely one for the perpetrator to discover. Remember that stalking and lying in wait frequently accompany other kinds of abusive behavior. More than one church member has been slain because they offered housing to an abused family. Many pastors are fearful of sending a member of their congregation to a shelter that is operated by persons with another life philosophy. This is sometimes a necessity, the best immediate solution for a terrifying problem, one that provides far more security than a local church can offer. The path of safety runs from the steeple to the shelter.

As is so often the case, the church has lagged behind other elements in our society when it comes to addressing an evil that cries out for redress. Feminists have led the way in developing a methodology and an expertise in saving the lives of endangered women and children. Much of the operation depends upon dedicated volunteers who are trained to answer hot lines, transport endangered victims, staff shelters, and locate safe houses when all the beds at the shelter are full. Some are skilled in filling out applications for restraining orders and will accompany the victim to court. Others provide care for bewildered children, locate food, clothing, and toys. Indeed, this mission should be shared by the church!

Churches should partner with a local shelter, supplying basic necessities, painting a room, and providing special treats for a holiday. Better yet, church members should take the basic training for rescue workers. They may not care for some of the sentiments expressed or the language in which it is voiced; nevertheless, there is much that dedicated members of a congregation might learn to help their own members in time of trouble—and much to help others.

If it is necessary for a woman to flee from a dangerous situation, trained workers can help make the transition safer. Seventy-five percent of all domestic murders take place just before, during, or shortly after the woman leaves. The preparatory arrangements must be disclosed to as few people as possible, and judicious guidance is indispensable in the planning. Various precautions and strategies of secrecy can make the process more orderly, safe and effective, with necessary funds, documents, and medicines in hand. Are there Christians in our congregations who stand ready to give this kind of care?

There are many other issues that arise in long-term care for abusive families. Often the victim is flooded with advice, but no one addresses the perpetrator. Some maintain that it is not right to interfere with the way a man conducts the life of the family in his own home, but this is not what the Bible says. “If a brother be overtaken in a fault, you that are spiritual, restore such a one” (Gal 6:1).

Sometimes pastors have been slow to refer offenders to batterer intervention programs because there has been a very low rate of success. In God’s providence there are now a few Christian intervention programs with excellent rates of transformed conduct. The best rates ensue when the offender is referred by the pastor, the family, or the church. We evangelicals must insist that these programs be studied carefully and that qualified therapists be trained in these techniques. There are answers to be had, but the people of God must work together to find them.

We must also establish a network of Christian hot lines, Christian shelters, and Christian rehabilitation centers for both victims and perpetrators. Our lack of caring has made us a reproach in many circles. It is time that we take action, but first we have a need for pastoral leadership. We need to be challenged to offer prayer and practical support to victim and offender alike. We can be there to listen and to care, to set up accountability groups within an atmosphere of zero tolerance for the offense, but we must be led.

The Pastor’s Mission

The first obligation of the pastor remains that of proclamation. It is the duty of a prophet to observe evil in our society and to speak out against it by applying the Word of God to the need. The Scriptures contain over one hundred condemnations of violence, stalking, lying in wait, word twisting, as well as mental and emotional abuse. Very seldom do we hear these issues addressed from the pulpit. The Bible says that it is the obligation of the righteous to deliver the oppressed from the hand of the violent. Few sitting in the pews have ever heard an exposition of this biblical mandate. Fewer yet have been called to committed and constructive action.

All too often we have failed to view the totality of biblical teaching on God’s patterns for the home. In the Bible, one of the features most strongly emphasized for godly homes is that of safety. “My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places” (Isa. 32:18). Within their own homes, God’s people should be able not only to lie down in safety (Lev 26:6; Ps 3:6; Isa 14:30; Jer 23:6; 32:37; 33:16; Hos 2:18) but to live in safety (Jer 23:6; 32:37; 33:16; 34:24-28; Ezek 28:26; 34:24-28; 38:8). “You shall know that your tent is safe” (Job 5:24). As heavenly husband, Yahweh vows to his repentant wife, Israel, a home life free of fear and abuse:

“Your children will be taught by the Lord, and great will be the prosperity of your children. In righteousness you shall be established. You shall be far from oppression, for you shall not fear; and from terror, for it shall not come near you. If anyone stirs up strife, it is not from me; whoever stirs up strife with you shall fail because of you…. No weapon that is fashioned against you shall prosper, and you shall confute every tongue that rises against you in judgment. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord and their vindication from me, says the Lord” (Isa 54: 13-14, 17). If this is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, then we must help them to claim it. How often does this promise enter our discussions of the Christian family? Faithful teaching and preaching on the Christian family must include at least as much proclamation of these aspects as is accorded in Scripture (cf. Ps 94:16; Isa 59:15b-16a).

Suggested Resources

Good books on the subject include A. Miles, Domestic Violence: What Every Pastor Should Know (Fortress, 2000); J. & P. Aldsdurf, “Wife Abuse and Scripture,” in Abuse and Religion (ed. A. Horton and J. Williamson [Heath, 1988] 221-28); C.C. Kroeger and N. Nason-Clark, No Place for Abuse: Biblical and Practical Resources to Counteract Domestic Violence (InterVarsity, 2001); N. Nason-Clark, The Battered Wife: How Christians Confront Family Violence (Westminster John Knox, 1997).

Two intervention programs that are specifically Christian in nature are worthy of your attention. They are Northwest Family Life located in Seattle, WA, and Christians Addressing Family Abuse in Eugene, OR.

Posted Feb 01, 2004