This week we continue in our PeaceWorks University member submission series. Many in our membership are already actively engaging the topic of domestic abuse through their own writing and we would like to give them the opportunity for additional exposure as well as thoughtful feedback from our readership. Please be aware that the views presented in this series do not represent the views of Chris Moles or PeaceWorks University.
Sexual harassment and assault have been headline news a lot lately. As tragic as these episodes are to read about, it’s even more tragic to realize that mistreatment, oppression and abuse are also found in our churches. However, the church is also well-positioned to prevent, identify and intervene in unhealthy relationships. What are some practical steps that churches can take to help fight abuse in the church and among its members?
Obviously, the most helpful approach is to prevent sinful behavior rather than deal with it after it happens. Churches should take seriously their responsibility to screen and train pastors, staff members, and those who volunteer with at-risk populations, such as children, the elderly, and the disabled. This should include everything from background checks for all church workers and volunteers, development of policies to protect the vulnerable, and ongoing training and oversight to ensure compliance. Resources such as On Guard by Deepak Reju can help church leaders think through practical steps to make their churches resistant to those who would harm children and other vulnerable people.
Prevention of abuse among church members is more indirect, but no less important. This would involve clear teaching from the pulpit about servant leadership, the proper use of authority and clear denunciations of misusing one’s role. One of the best observations I’ve heard in a sermon is, “If you’re enjoying the perks of leadership, you’re doing in wrong.” The value and worth of all people, regardless of nationality, gender, age or gifting must be emphasized. Naturally, such teaching must be accompanied by wise and humble exercise of pastoral authority.
Church membership is an important factor in helping a church know its people more intimately, and gives it authority to act when troubling situations arise. Cultivating a grace-filled ethos that encourages transparency, being known, and mutual confession of sin can also make it harder to hide all types of sin.
Since preventive steps are not foolproof, churches must also take steps to identify problematic situations as quickly as possible. It can be helpful to have booklets on abuse and information on women’s shelters and services in the ladies’ restroom, where resources can be more discreetly obtained. Such resources should be accompanied by a clear message to seek help if they have any concerns about their relationship. Women who have been told that they just need to forgive and submit need to hear that the most loving thing they can do is to interrupt the oppressive cycle in their relationships.
Training for pastors, staff and other church leaders helps identify oppressive relationships by equipping them to recognize problematic patterns of behavior. While formal training is ideal — such as CCEF’s course on abusive relationships — this will not be possible for everyone. However, there are also a number of other books and resources that provide guidance on the nature of abusive relationships, such as Justin and Lindsey Holcomb’s Is It My Fault?, Leslie Vernick’s The Emotionally Destructive Marriage and The Emotionally Destructive Relationship and GRACE (www.netgrace.org). These resources open the category of mistreatment beyond physical or sexual abuse to include verbal/emotional abuse, financial control and intimidation.
Once an abusive relationship has been identified, the church needs to determine how it can help address the situation. Ideally, churches would have pastors and/or staff who are qualified to work with both parties to untangle complicated and confusing situations and address the complexities of abusive behaviors and relationships. Since this clearly won’t be possible in all cases, church leaders should not hesitate to seek outside help when needed and connect those involved in the troubled relationship with law enforcement, women’s shelters, legal or financial planning services, or addiction or mental health treatment, as appropriate. If you learn about a worrisome situation and are uncertain how to proceed, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline (www.thehotline.org or 1-800-799-7233), which is open 24/7 for assistance. Even when care must be sought outside the church, church leaders, at a minimum, should be prepared to walk alongside both parties to address the myriad spiritual needs that exist on both sides of troubled relationships. The gospel speaks to both the oppressor and the oppressed, offering hope, comfort and the possibility of true change and restoration. All of the books mentioned above, as well as Chris Moles’ The Heart of Domestic Abuse, are helpful resources for addressing issues faced by both the abused and the abuser.
When possible, diaconal funds can be of great assistance to help with practical needs, especially if outside care or separation are appropriate. As you consider steps forward in a difficult relationship, remember to be patient with women who are wrestling with decisions about how and when to address their situations. Allowing an oppressed woman to make her own choices helps to reestablish her sense of self and her own agency in the relationship.
While churches will vary greatly in the ways they can address this difficult issue, all churches should seek to be proactive in the fight against abuse in all its forms, remembering the Lord’s heart for the oppressed (Judg 2:18). Although it is difficult work, church leaders can be encouraged and hopeful as they fulfill their call by “patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 2:24-25).
Note: While men can also be victims of abuse, this article refers to women and children for the sake of simplicity and because they represent the majority of victims of domestic abuse.