1. Clergy can become well educated on the nature and dynamics of abuse and the characteristics of abusers.
Clergy devote their lives to helping others and developing the God-given potential in their parishioners, so, unless they are well educated about abuse, they will often minimize abuse and give naïve and even dangerous advice to abusers and to their victims, wishing to think the best of all involved. For instance, one minister, when challenged to address domestic violence proactively in his congregation, stated, “We all have arguments. How would you like it if someone stuck their nose in your private life?”29Clearly, this minister had no understanding of the qualitative difference between a respectful verbal disagreement and a punch in the face, nor did he understand the difference between respecting legitimate privacy and the divine mandate to protect the oppressed. Thus, it is critically important for clergy to educate themselves regarding abuse and abusers. I believe it is particularly important for clergy to understand the characteristics of abusive men.30 One of the greatest misnomers about abusers is that they look a certain way, so “you’ll know one when you see one.” Thus, clergy often are in deep denial when one of their members is charged with abuse, for the accused seemed like such a nice person and did not look like anyone who could abuse. In fact, abusers cannot be visually identified, but they do have some notable behavioral characteristics. The first and most consistent characteristic of physical abusers is a pervasive denial of responsibility. They simply refuse to own their destructive behavior. They do this by shifting the blame for their abuse and/or by minimizing the abuse itself. For example, in one study of physically abusive men who were in mandated counseling, researchers who interviewed these men cataloged dozens of rationalizations and minimizations for their abuse such as: “The booze made me do it.”; “My wife verbally abused me.”; “She was the provoker and I had to defend myself.”; “I never beat my wife. I responded physically to her.”; “Women bruise easily too. They bump into a door and they bruise.”31 Over the years I have heard every imaginable excuse and minimization for abuse, yet rarely have I found abusers to condone abuse in general. They say that abuse is wrong, but what they did was not abuse. Or they say that their wives forced them to hit by being such a nag, by disrespecting their authority, by not meeting their sexual needs, etc. Pervasive denial of responsibility is exactly what we see in the life of King Saul, a physical abuser whose heart so displeased God that God rejected him from being king. The event that precipitated divine rejection was Saul’s flagrant disobedience of God’s command to destroy the enemy Amalekites and to take no spoil (1 Sam. 15:1-35). When Samuel confronted Saul for disobeying a straight forward command of God, Saul at first denied that he had disobeyed (”I have carried out the command of the Lord,” v. 13). Then, when confronted with undeniable evidence of his disobedience, he deceitfully rationalized and shifted the blame (”the people spared the best of the sheep and oxen to sacrifice to the Lord,” v. 15). When Samuel did not accept this rationalization, Saul blamed it on the people (”I did obey . . . but the people took some of the spoil” vv. 2 0-21). But Samuel did not accept any of Saul’s excuses or rationalizations (”because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He has also rejected you from being king,” v. 2 3)-nor should modern-day clergy when they deal with abusive men in their congregations. At the end of this article, several resources are given to help clergy (and others) gain valuable insights into the nature of domestic violence and abusers. In particular, these resources will help clergy answer the following critical questions:
- What are the characteristics of abusive men?
- What are some of the most common effects of domestic violence on wives and children?
- What specifically does Scripture have to say about physical abuse?
- What does the healing process look like for survivors of domestic violence?
- What do abusive men need from churches and from society?
- Once an abusive man says he is sorry and wants to change, what would real repentance and change look like?
3. Clergy should condemn abuse from the pulpit and broadly educate the congregation on abuse.
This is one of the most significant ways that clergy can encourage abuse victims, lay the foundation for parishioners to get help, and create a climate for healing.32 It is thus very empowering and encouraging for abuse survivors to hear their ministers declare from the pulpit: “God hates abuse”; “God promises to judge harshly all unrepentant physical abusers”; “There is never any excuse for touching your girlfriend or wife in anger.” These statements are solidly biblical33 and need to be proclaimed from the pulpit. Churches also need education on various aspects of domestic violence, including what constitutes domestic violence, the signs of domestic violence, characteristics of abusers, the nature of dating violence, God’s perspective on violence, what Scripture teaches about gender equality, the dignity of women, and how believers can respond to domestic violence. This education can profitably occur in various church settings, including Sunday sermons, premarital counseling, women’s ministry events, men’s discipleship groups, and the youth group.
3. Clergy should humbly recognize their own limits as well as the complexities of domestic violence and begin gathering various church, community, and professional resources to address domestic violence and assist abuse victims and perpetrators.
One of the most common mistakes clergy make when confronted with abuse is to try to “take care of everything in house.” Domestic violence is an astoundingly complex problem which defies quick, simple solutions. Abusers have deep-seated wounds and pathologies that have existed for many years, as do battered wives. The dynamics of abusive families are complex and well hidden, making it very difficult for outsiders to know the truth, let alone offer a wise response. Hence, working with violent families calls for a partnership with various agencies, wise leaders, and professionals. A major part of this action step is to help victims and perpetrators of domestic violence in getting professional counseling.34
4. Clergy must refuse to be deceived by perpetrators of domestic violence and work with other church and civic leaders (including legal authorities) to hold batterers fully responsible for their actions.
Before I clarify this point, I should note the seriousness of clergy overlooking violence or absolving abusers of their sin. Scripture declares, “acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent-the Lord detests them both” (Prov. 17:15 NIV). God severely judged the prophet Eli because he refused to stop his sons from abusing men and women in the temple (1 Sam. 2:16, 2; 3:13). Holding abusers fully responsible means refusing to accept any excuses or minimizations for violence whatsoever. If clergy accept abusers’ blame-shifting or minimizations, this inevitably serves as stronger reinforcement for the abusers’ pathological beliefs and actions. It is also profoundly harmful to battered wives. I have known several instances in which a minister was told about abuse in one of his or her church families, confronted the abusive husband, but then largely or entirely accepted the husband’s version of the story. This resulted in the wife deciding that she would never report the abuse again to anyone (either because it was hopeless to report it or because she must be the one with the problem). In several instances, these very women were later murdered or seriously injured by their abusive husbands. Holding batterers fully responsible and accountable for their violence is not only necessary for the sake of the victim, but also for the sake of the abuser. Pastoral counselor and abuse expert Carol Adams argues that abusers batter their wives because it works. They will often attempt to manipulate their ministers, counselors, and friends to avoid something worse (such as jail time or having their wives leave). So the best potential for abusers to repent genuinely and avoid the judgment of God is when clergy (and others) hold abusers fully responsible and accountable for their actions.35 In the context of holding batterers responsible, clergy can then begin to consider others ways of ministering to abusers.36
5. Prioritize the protection of abuse victims and their children.
Scripture makes it very clear that God hates violence and calls his people, particularly spiritual leaders, to be assertive in protecting the abused and the vulnerable (Prov. 2 4:11-12, Isa. 1:17, Jer. 22 :3). Thus, clergy must take seriously all reports of domestic violence, must never minimize abuse victims’ concerns, and must be willing to confront abusers boldly and offer practical assistance to victims. This includes helping victims of domestic violence develop a safety plan and access safe housing (community shelters or a family in the church) and assisting with financial needs. Prioritizing protection certainly includes encouraging and supporting women to separate from abusive husbands.37 While an abused woman with no children has strong biblical warrant to flee an abusive husband, she has additional warrant (even a mandate) to do so if she has children. Jesus pronounced the most severe judgments on those who cause one of the little ones (children) to stumble (Matt 18:1-10). Abusive husbands cause tremendous long-term physical, emotional, and spiritual damage to children, even if they only physically abuse the mother (and roughly half of men who physically abuse their wives also abuse their children38). Dr. Bruce Perry, one of the top neurological trauma researchers in the world, has conclusively shown that, when young children merely witness domestic violence, this trauma exposure creates long-term physiological changes, including permanent structural alteration and damage to the brain.39 We also know that the most common factor among men who abuse their wives is that they experienced (received or witnessed) domestic violence themselves in childhood. Additionally, we know that girls who grow up in physically abusive homes are several times more likely to be physically and sexually victimized in adulthood due to the emotional damage of childhood abuse (even simply witnessing it). All of this shows that growing up in a physically abusive home, whether or not one is actually beaten, is extremely damaging long-term and certainly “causes little ones to stumble.” Separation from an abusive husband is also ethically important for the wellbeing of the woman, because domestic violence creates serious physical, emotional, and spiritual damage.40 And Scripture does not commend enduring avoidable suffering. Christ repeatedly avoided physical assault by hiding (John 8:59), by maintaining physical separation from his abusers (Matt. 12:14-15, John 11:53-54), and by eluding them (John 10:31, 39). Other godly individuals in Scripture, such as Paul and David, also repeatedly fled physically abusive civil and religious authorities (1 Sam. 19:12, 27:1; Acts 9:22-25, 14:5-6, 17:8-10, 14). Following the example of godly individuals in Scripture, clergy should advise battered wives to flee from their abusive husbands and should assist them in every way they can to find safety and physical security.
To read in full, please go to http://www.mendingthesoul.org/2007/04/clergy-responses-to-domestic-violence/