Domestic violence is a reality that many people do not like to talk about or even know about.
But the reality is that all of our communities have people who live in abusive homes and experience physical and sexual violence at the hands of a spouse or dating partner.
Many of those victims suffer in silence, afraid to let anyone know what is happening in their homes. Many of those victims attend local churches but are afraid to ask for help.
One of the ways that we can demonstrate the power of the gospel is by addressing the sinfulness of domestic violence in clear and in helpful terms, and by providing safe opportunities for victims to seek help.
When I talk with pastors and church leaders about domestic violence, I often hear one of two responses:
1. “Thank goodness there is no domestic violence in this congregation. The people at our church come from good Christian families.”
2. “I am afraid that there are people in our congregation who experience domestic violence, but I do not know what to do about it as a pastor or leader.”
The sad truth is that even though there has been much progress in efforts to address and respond to domestic violence in society, the ability of local congregations to make a meaningful difference is often limited by ignorance and fear.
Domestic violence is unlike normal disagreements or conflicts in a home. The root of domestic violence is in the sinful desire of one person to use power to control someone else (such as a spouse or dating partner), and that power and control can be expressed in a number of ways, such as control over finances or friendships or behavior or decisions.
As time goes on, emotional or financial abuse escalates to physical violence. Among Christian families, the abuser may seek to use the Bible or Christian marriage vows or access to spiritual resources as weapons to control.
A victim may be told, “If you do not do what I tell you, I won’t let our children go to church on Sunday.”
A wife may be told that “the Bible commands that you submit to your husband” or, after a violent incident, the victim is told “you have to forgive me because that is what the Bible commands you to do.”
Research conducted by the Religion and Violence Research Team, part of the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre at the University of New Brunswick, demonstrates that there are victims of domestic violence within our congregations.
In some instances, abusers masquerade as committed Christians; in other cases, victims come to our churches because they are seeking spiritual help and friendship in order to survive the violence they are experiencing.
Knowing that congregations large and small include people who experience beatings and other forms of violence in their own homes should motivate us as Christians to care and to help.
That brings us back to the original problems: ignorance and fear.
Some leaders do not respond because they think, “I don’t know for sure if anyone in our church is a victim of abuse” or they think “I am afraid that if I try to respond, it will only make things worse.”
When we suspect that someone is a victim of violence at home, we may even ignore troubling signs or try to convince ourselves that behaviors or attitudes we have seen are not a cause for concern.
Here are some practical ways that congregations can respond:
1. We can let victims know that they can ask for help and that they will be believed.
That means talking about domestic violence in sermons and discussing violence at home and dating violence in youth groups. Before addressing the topic, though, it is important to know the trained people in the community to whom people can be referred when they ask for help.
2. We can make the church a safe place for victims to worship and to find friendship and spiritual support.
Jokes about wives or about gender or about violence are never appropriate in public or in small groups. Imagine being a victim of violence and hearing such things joked about in one’s church – it is devastating.
Insist that the abusive spouse worship with another congregation until trained professionals agree it is safe for the abuser to return, which may never happen. Always consider the safety of the victim first because that is of first importance.
3. We can offer practical help.
Pastors and youth workers and church leaders are not trained professional counselors so they should not try to intervene themselves to stop the violence or to confront the abuser or to counsel the couple.
Church leaders can and should find out what resources are available in the community and be prepared to refer victims or family members to the appropriate people.
Make sure that leaders are familiar with the Religion and Violence e-learning website: TheRaveProject.org.
4. We can provide real community.
That means that the church must be taught to be a community that does not stigmatize people who have been victims of abuse or who come from abusive families.
Divorced people and single parents who have left abusive relationships should not be treated as second-class church members but welcomed and affirmed and loved. They should not have to hide what they have experienced in order to be accepted.
5. We can offer spiritual nurture and guidance.
This is what the church can do best: Help adults and youth and children who have experienced violence at home to know Jesus better and trust him and find in him the love and the strength and the grace that they need in order to heal from their painful past.
We can pray with victims, encourage them with Scripture and affirm their identity as part of God’s family.
When the church addresses a problem as serious and as pervasive in our society as domestic violence, it not only provides help and hope for victims and for their families, it also demonstrates to the surrounding community that we truly love our neighbors as ourselves and that our faith is more than our private beliefs or our meaningless talk.
It shows that Jesus has changed our hearts to the extent that we care about all of the people that he cares about. In other words, it validates our witness.
People will begin to listen to what we believe and to what we say about Jesus because they will see the reality of Jesus in our love for others.
Steve McMullin is associate professor of evangelism and mission at Acadia Divinity School in Nova Scotia. A version of this article first appeared on RenÃ©e Embree’s blog, One Neighborhood, and is used with permission.