How Your Church Can Serve Survivors of Domestic Abuse

| April 24, 2019

As a pastor, I have not always understood the dynamics of domestic abuse, and I have not always gotten things right when it comes to trying to minister to those who are oppressed by this grievous sin. Though I have seen numerous instances of domestic abuse, I am still learning more and more about the darkness and destruction that it causes. Survivors of domestic abuse are members of our churches, and we are to be the church for them, but we can only do that well if we are aware of the dynamics of this grievous reality. This post is an effort to promote awareness and justice with respect to matters of domestic abuse.

1. Understand what Abuse is

Abuse is a pattern of sinful, coercive control that rises from the abuser’s sense of entitlement. Abuse uses fear and intimidation to subjugate another person. Abuse may be physical, sexual, financial, emotional, spiritual, etc., but it may or may not include all of those elements. Verbal and psychological abuse always accompany and support the other forms of abuse. The Bible calls verbal abuse “reviling.” Some are tempted to say that verbal abuse is not that bad when compared with other forms, but according to one woman’s testimony, the verbal abuse of her mother was far worse and more damaging than the years of sexual abuse from her father because it led her to believe she deserved the abuse by her father. It’s also important to understand that there is a distinction between an instance of abuse and an abusive pattern. At one level, all sins are abusive because all sins hurt and use other people for selfish reasons. But “abuse” is a hardened and unrepentant pattern of abusive speech and actions arising from the abuser’s wrong sense of his or her “rights.”

2. Understand who Abusers are

Abusers do not think or feel like other people think and feel. For that reason, many people have a hard time understanding them and treat them like they would treat anyone else caught in a pattern of sin. That is a mistake. The fundamental problem with the abuser’s thinking is that they believe they are entitled to abuse their targets. In terms of the abuser’s feelings, they have trained their consciences not to feel remorse for their terrible cruelty, though they are quite skilled at feigning remorse to deceive others.

Abusers are highly deceptive and manipulative individuals. They may be quite knowledgeable of the Scriptures, and they can appear to be very godly, sweet, and generous people. Sometimes people in the church think of them as humble, servant-hearted Christians. They may use social media, or other public venues, to enhance their image of godliness. Abusers often know exactly what to say when they are caught in a sin. They may claim that they have been abused by their targets, when in reality, they are the perpetrators of abuse. The Bible describes the character of the abuser in 2 Timothy 3:2-5:

“For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God…”

And you would think those qualities would be obvious to anyone who knows this person. You might think, “Sure, that’s exactly what an abuser would be like.” But then verse 5 says:

“…having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.”

They appear to be godly. They don’t seem to be any of the things in that list. A pastor has to pay close attention to what an abuser actually does in order to identify them. People who are not close to their situation are often shocked to find out who they really are at home. Their families know who they really are, but no one else does.

Often, even when an abuser’s spouse separates from them for the sake of his or her safety, the abuser continues his controlling and abusive behavior precisely because the abuser believes that his spouse is his or her property.  Abusers may threaten to get a divorce, but they will never do it because they believe they “own” their spouses. When a survivor separates from or divorces their spouse, it does not bring the abuse to a complete halt. Abusers continue to influence and intimidate their spouses. For years and years, the abuser will keep trying to prove their righteousness to the church and to the world, attempting to deceive others into thinking that their spouse was overreacting, and that things were never really that bad.

3. Understand who Survivors are

Survivors of domestic abuse have been deeply affected by their abusers. They often don’t leave their relationships, even when the abuse is very severe because of the great fear that their abusers have worked to instill into them. Women who are abused usually want to protect their children above all else, and may be afraid of doing anything that might set off their abuser and cause harm to their children. Some people wrongly think, “If the abuse was really that bad, then they would have spoken up sooner.” Or, “If I were in an abusive relationship, I would have been gone by now. What’s wrong with that person for staying so long?” But the fact is that very often, survivors of domestic abuse stay in abusive relationships for a long time precisely because the abuse is so severe.

Survivors of domestic abuse feel terrible shame because the very person they had hoped would love them is the one who has rejected them, made them feel like they are less than nothing, and that their only value in this world is to serve the pleasure of another person. Because of their abuse, they are tempted to believe that they shouldn’t trust people at all. They often come to believe that they can’t even trust their own thinking, since they have been told over and over that reality is the opposite of what they think it is. The mind games in abusive relationships are truly stunning and difficult to understand unless you’ve seen it first-hand. And I have. Survivors often learn to be suspicious of everyone’s words and motives, since every “kind” thing their abuser said or did always had an ulterior motive. Perhaps most sadly of all, they often come to think of their own God-given longing to be loved as an enemy, since they have been burned by their desire for love so consistently. Their longing to be loved requires vulnerability and vulnerability opens them up to more abuse. They have had to learn to protect themselves and to survive alone because no one else could see or understand what was happening in their homes.

Survivors also struggle when they go to church on Sundays. People in the church might ask, “How are you doing today?” with a smile, and the abuse survivor is forced to choose between lying and saying, “I’m fine,” or telling the truth and saying, “This has been a hard day,” risking a confused or disapproving look from the person who asked, but didn’t really want to know the answer. Or some people in the church might know something of “marital problems” and ask, “How is [your abuser] doing?” This question leaves the wronged spouse feeling unsupported and as though the abuser is the one cared for rather than them. Abuse survivors also struggle with the expectation in churches that Christians should always be happy and joyful, never deeply struggling in their lives and with their faith.

Survivors also struggle deeply with God’s sovereign purpose in their lives. “God has allowed and even planned these terrible things in my life. Where was He? Why didn’t He protect me? Does He even love me?” Doctrinally, they often know the right answers to these questions, but emotionally and experientially, they struggle profoundly. Their families, pastors, and churches need to learn to be patient with them and love them as they work through these questions and emotions.

Christian spouses who are abused are suffering for Christ and are being persecuted for righteousness sake. God the Father spared not His only begotten Son to accomplish the redemption of poor sinners. And Christians who are abused share in His sufferings. Therefore, the church must be very tenderhearted and supportive toward abuse survivors. The Lord Jesus Christ does not crush the bruised reed or extinguish the smoldering flax.

4. Listen Carefully and Counsel Wisely

I can’t stress strongly enough how important it is for pastors (or any church member) to listen carefully to those who come to them to tell them about their abuse. A survivor often takes a tremendous risk just by talking to a pastor at all. Pastors make an enormous mistake, if they say, “I won’t talk with you about your marriage, unless your spouse is present.” Pastors need to be accessible to each individual member of their flock, and it can be dangerous to meet with abusers together with their victims. When talking to survivors, be sure to ask lots of questions because they often won’t tell you everything. Ask, “Are you safe? Is there anything we can do to serve you practically? Are your children safe? Is there anything you think you should tell me that you haven’t told me?” If the survivor is not safe, the pastor should immediately take practical steps to get them to safety.

Pastors should also be careful not to issue directives to survivors of abuse. Their abusers have always told them exactly what to do in every situation. Instead of giving orders to abuse survivors, pastors should try to give wise counsel, according to the Scriptures, but also leave matters of liberty and personal judgment up to the survivor, supporting their decisions, even if the pastor doesn’t agree with the decision. One of the most important pastoral tasks in counseling survivors is to help them learn to make decisions for themselves on the basis of God’s Word, and not to give their minds or consciences away to any other human being.

Once a survivor has been seperated from their abuser for a little while, the memories can begin to fade. In fact, part of how the abused person survived within the abusive realtionship was to cultivate a poor memory. The fact that they can “forget” such attrocities is part of their survival mechanism. The survivor sometimes begins to feel guilt and to fear that they are obligated to try to reach out to their unrepentant abuser and try to rebuild the relationship again. A pastor or church member who does not understand the dynamics of abuse might be tempted to encourage that contact.  The right thing to do, however, is to remind the survivor of the serious and confirmed nature of the abuse that they previously endured. It is dangerous and unloving to try to restore realtionship with an unrepentant abuser. Scripture repeatedly warns Christians to flee the wicked and to run from persecution (Psa 1:1; 1 Cor 15:3; 2 Thess 3:14; Matt 2:13-14; 4:12; Jn 6:15; 8:59; 10:39, etc.).

Above all else, pastors need to give abuse survivors the hope of the gospel, to proclaim Christ and Him crucified as the one who identifies with the horrors of betrayal and loss, who forgives their sins, who loves them and will never abuse them, and who rose from the dead to give them the certain hope of everlasting life and the unbroken communion of His love for all eternity.

5. Involve the Civil Authorities

If a person comes to a pastor reporting domestic abuse, the pastor should immediately counsel the survivor to contact the authorities because abuse is a crime and not just a sin. If the pastor has a reasonable suspicion of child abuse in the home, he should call the authorities himself. But in cases of spousal abuse, the abused spouse is the one who will have to press charges. Because abuse is a crime, it should not be handled exclusively inside the church.  Rather, the matter should be referred to the appropriate civil authorities and then abuse should be dealt with in the church as a matter of discipline.

In cases of spousal abuse, the survivor may fear reporting their abuser to the authorities for various reasons. It is important to understand that the law does not require the survivor to report their abuse; therefore, the survivor should not be blamed for deciding against reporting, nor should church members conclude that the abuse must have been minimal if the spouse does not report it.  Pastors should simply inform the survivor that it is his or her choice whether to report or not, but make sure from the outset that they know that the abuse is against the law.

6. Discipline the Abuser

Church discipline is a crucial part of unmasking the abuse and providing protection for the survivor and their family. I once heard of a story of a survivor going to a pastor and telling him about her terrible experience of abuse. The pastor said that he did not believe her story, and he demanded pictures of the bruises (which were in embarrassing places) before he would believe her. While pastors do need proof (witnesses, other objective evidence, etc.) to make the case for church discipline, they should listen carefully and work with the person who is making a charge of abuse, until enough evidence comes to light to make the case for discipline. In my experience, systemic sins like abuse cannot hide indefinitely. Every single time a person has ever come to me to report abuse (and sadly, there have been many), the facts became demonstrably clear in time. I believe that pastors who want to get to the bottom of things will be able to do so, but it takes understanding, persistence, vigilance, and careful listening.

During the process of gathering evidence and once there is sufficient evidence to make a case for discipline to the church, the pastor should make certain that the survivor is completely safe, especially before all confrontations of the abuser. Pastors should also work closely with the survivor by letting them know ahead of time any announcements they will be making to the whole congregation. Pastors should also try to protect the survivor by giving the church enough information so that everyone understands the nature of the abuse in the home without unnecessarily embarrassing the survivor or the family.

7. Don’t Focus on the Abuser but Serve the Survivor

One of the greatest mistakes that a church can make in dealing with abuse is that after an abuser is disciplined, the church remains primarily focused on the abuser. You can understand why churches might make this mistake. Jesus leaves the ninety-nine sheep in order to pursue the one lost sheep. A faithful Christian’s heart is always to seek restoration and redemption for sinners. Churches should certainly pray for the sincere repentance and restoration of the abuser. But a church might spend most of its time praying for the excommunicated abuser and being more concerned about how he is doing, while overlooking the survivor of abuse that is present Sunday after Sunday.

The Scripture teaches that an abuser, who is by definition a hardened impenitent sinner with a seared conscience, is not a “sheep” (2 Tim 3:1-5). Abusers are dangerous and deceptive wolves (Acts 20:29-30). Scripture is clear that such people are to be marked and avoided by the church (2 Tim 3:5; 1 Cor 5:13). The ultimate goal of church discipline is not the restoration of the sinning member, though certainly we should pray for sincere repentance, but to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ and protect the sheep.

Survivors become deeply discouraged when pastors and churches make “restoration” and “reconciliation” the goal in an abusive relationship. Sometimes survivors are made to feel as though they have not given their abuser enough time to change before separating, and they are blamed for leaving too quickly. But in my experience, by the time the church hears about the abuse, the survivor has already given many years, sometimes decades, to their abuser, longing from their very souls that the abuser would change and that the abuse would stop.  But it never did. When churches sympathize with the hardened and impenitent abuser, and act as though the survivor is being too hard on him, they are either demonstrating that they have a deep misunderstanding of the nature of abuse or that they have profoundly hard hearts.

After an abuser has been exposed and removed from the church, the church should rally to the survivor of abuse. The abuser has been exposed as a wolf, but the survivor is a deeply wounded and brokenhearted sheep whom Christ loves. The survivor is the one sheep for whom the church should leave the ninety-nine to rescue. Churches need to show great sympathy, patience, and compassion toward the survivor. They should find out if there are ways in which they can serve the survivor financially and practically. Most of all, they need to understand that when the survivor comes to church, they are often in a state of great grief and sorrow, maybe even struggling with remaining anger and confusion. Perhaps instead of asking a survivor, “How are you doing today?” you should just say, “It’s so good to see you here today.” And it might be appropriate to say something like this to them at least once: “I’ve been praying for you. I’m so sorry about everything that has happened. Please let me know if there is any way I can serve you or your children.”

8. Educate Your Church on Abuse

I recommend preaching sermons on abuse. Abuse (oppression) is addressed and explained in the Scriptures. Pastors should study the subject, learn what the Bible has to say about it, and share it with your congregation.  In my experience, it’s hard to find good books on abuse. Very strangely, I have discovered that some authors of books on abuse seem to be a bit abusive themselves, attacking people who don’t agree with them, making accusations without evidence or due process, etc. So, the literature on abuse is a minefield.

But I would recommend the following books on abuse. In recommending these, I am not giving them a full endorsement. I don’t agree with every word in them. But I have found them to be helpful, and they have been practically useful to survivors of abuse.