How Church Leaders Can Help Domestic Violence Victims

Two decades ago, my husband (now ex-husband) called me on the way home. His angry words drove ice-cold fear into my heart. Despite my prayers for change, the cycle of abuse was starting again. Based on experience, his verbal tirades would soon spiral into threats of bodily harm. I immediately gathered my children and sought asylum at a local church office. That church soon became our faith community. 

My own journey out of domestic violence hasn’t been easy or quick, but I’ve seen God’s grace at work in my life and the lives of my children. In large measure, this grace came to us through the local church. As my Christian brothers and sisters cared for us, they tangibly affirmed that God walks with the oppressed. And they encouraged us to be faithful in hope, knowing God will bring justice in the end—even if we can’t see it in the moment.

During this pandemic—when vulnerable women and children may be forced to shelter-in-place with their abusers—it’s even more important for churches to be aware of the crucial role they can play in assisting victims.

Here are some things church leaders should know about addressing domestic violence. 

Domestic Violence Rebels Against God’s Good Design

While domestic violence can involve women abusing men, or same-sex abuse, in most cases, men abuse women. It’s a fact of biology that women are typically physically weaker than men. And, in our sinful world, the strong and powerful frequently oppress those who are weaker. 

This is exactly the opposite of how God instructs his people to live. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church, to nourish and cherish them as their own bodies (Eph. 5:25–30). Peter tells husbands to “live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life” (1 Pet. 3:7). God holds fathers responsible for protecting and providing for their families (1 Tim. 5:8).

Sadly, some men rebel against God’s design for marriage. We shouldn’t be surprised when domestic violence—like other evil—shows up in the church. 

Domestic Violence Is Hidden

By its nature, domestic violence happens in the privacy of the home. Both abuser and victim tend to hide the truth, due to a combination of denial, fear, and shame. Mothers in particular may excuse their abuser in a misguided attempt to protect their children. 

Sadly, some men rebel against God’s design for marriage. We shouldn’t be surprised when domestic violence—like other evil—shows up in the church.

So how can church leaders know when abuse is taking place?

1. Know your people.

A healthy church weaves thick webs of relationships. Believers are expected to know one another well enough to admonish and encourage as needed (1 Thess. 5:14). Paul tells older men to model and instruct younger men in self-control, while older women train younger women in godliness (Titus 2:2–6). When Christians develop robust relationships and share life with each other, as the Bible tells us to do, sin is harder to hide. This includes the sin of abuse.

If your interactions with a dating or married couple in the church lead you to believe something is wrong, take initiative to dig deeper. As a matter of prudence, men should generally ask questions of men; women should ask questions of women. For example, you could say, “I noticed that things seem tense. Would you like to have coffee sometime?” Note that these questions are more likely to bear fruit in the context of an ongoing relationship. And, depending on the answers, you may need to bring in other believers (Matt. 18:15–20).

2. Know the signs of abuse.

Violent behavior in the home may include physical battering, destruction of property, continual verbal cruelty, threats of harm to children or pets, isolating the victim from friends and family, depriving the victim of physical and financial resources, and forced (or demanded) sexual contact of any kind. Violent behavior often follows a cycle where the abuser, perhaps afraid of consequences, apologizes and promises to do better. These periods of good behavior can sap the victim’s determination to get help. It’s helpful for church leaders to know and recognize these common patterns.

3. Know your community resources.

Your city likely has one or more organizations designed to help victims of family violence. Even in my rural area, we have a Domestic Abuse Resistance Team. Church partnership with such organizations can bear much fruit, as volunteers gain hands-on experience in domestic-violence relief. Working in the community also signals to victims that your church is a safe place to come forward.

Valuable Tools to Fight Domestic Violence

Thankfully, God has given believers everything we need to live a godly life, including the power to fight abuse (c.f. 2 Pet. 1:3). Church leaders and members must continue in faithfulness, trusting that the practice of ordinary spiritual disciplines (including the ministry of Word, prayer, and acts of mercy) have extraordinary power for families caught in violence.

1. Preach the gospel.

The church must clearly preach repentance for sin, forgiveness in Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit for godly growth. Church leaders must condemn sins such as sexual immorality, jealousy, and fits of anger, boldly warning that “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19–21). Believers must be encouraged to “crucify the flesh with its passions and desires,” while growing the spiritual fruit of kindness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22–24). 

If your interactions with a dating or married couple in the church lead you to believe something is wrong, take initiative to dig deeper.

These exhortations are tools that the Spirit can use to convict abusers of their need to repent, turn to Christ, and get help. In addition, when victims understand that God takes the sin of abuse seriously, they gain courage to come forward. Ultimately, only the power of the gospel will bring lasting change to sinful patterns of behavior. 

2. Meet the needs of victims.

Christ-followers are called to meet physical needs (James 2:15–16). Victims of domestic violence often need food and shelter, childcare, guidance through the legal and criminal justice systems, counsel, and emotional support. Many years ago, my new pastor and his wife opened their home and watched my kids until I could find a job, an apartment, and legal assistance. After the immediate crisis was over, the church continued to care for us by providing friendship, practical help, and biblical counsel for more than a decade.

3. Seek to uphold truth.

If a woman or children are in danger of physical harm, the church should support (and help to facilitate, if necessary) immediate separation from the abuser. And as long as there is risk of continued harm, churches should continue to do everything possible to keep victims safe—including involving civil and legal authorities wherever appropriate.

Churches should continue to do everything possible to keep victims safe—including involving civil and legal authorities wherever appropriate.

Before church leaders proceed to enacting church discipline against an abuser, or offering victims counsel for the long-term, they must make a thorough search for truth. Hearing all sides of any matter is the way of wisdom (Prov. 18:17). In my own situation, my pastor took steps to verify my story by talking to others who knew me. While continuing to prioritize my safety, he met with my ex-husband to get his side of the story. My pastor also brought my situation before the elders for guidance. 

This process—while uncomfortable—allowed me to make hard choices with a clear conscience, and with the full support of the church community.

Redemption for Abusers and Victims

The fight against domestic violence—like the fight against all other sin—is a long-term commitment. Victims and abusers both need Christ’s work in their lives and hearts. No one is too sinful for Christ to redeem. And no one is too broken for Christ to comfort.

There are no simple solutions when a church takes seriously the fight against domestic violence. But local churches should be encouraged that God has given us the tools we need.

Written by: LAURA BAXTER

First published 01.06.20:

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