How Churches Can Get it Right


In my last blog, I told the story of how I asked two different pastors at my church for help when I was being abused by my first husband. In both cases, my pastors were unable to give me the help I needed. Because of their lack of knowledge about domestic violence, I remained in my hopeless abusive marriage three years longer than necessary.

Because many victims of abuse turn to their churches first for help, I believe it is vitally important for our pastors to be educated about domestic violence. Here are some ideas for ways pastors can become educated:

  1. Read books about domestic violence, I have a good list on my Get Help page.
  2. Seek training at or from their local women’s crisis center – many centers offer free training courses for the community.
  3. Take a college course at a local community college or university.

Next, I’d like to share some thoughts on things a pastor can/should do when an abused wife* comes to him/her for help because of abuse in her marriage. These ideas are taken from A Journey through Emotional Abuse: from Bondage to Freedompages 123-125.

The best possible outcome of telling your church would be the church supporting you (the victim), and helping you remain safe, while holding your husband (the abuser), accountable for his actions. If this did happen, you might have hope of saving your marriage, or at least you and your children would be able to live safely.

The church’s response would take two major focuses: what they do for you, and what they do for your husband. For you, they would hopefully**:

  1. Believe you.
  2. Protect your confidentiality.
  3. Not disclose to your husband or anyone else in the church anything you’ve told them.
  4. Not disclose to anyone where you are if you have gone somewhere safe.
  5. Pray with you and for you.
  6. Help you with any questions you have about the Bible and what God thinks about your situation.
  7. Offer to help you find a woman to mentor you through the next difficult period of your life.
  8. Refer you to local agencies that can help, such as women’s crisis centers, legal services, counselors, child protection services, etc.
  9. Offer to help in the short-term with any financial needs you may have.

For your husband, they would hopefully meet with him in a public place with two or three leaders from the church who are able to keep a confidence. This is to protect their physical safety as well as the confidentiality of your husband. At this meeting they would:

  1. Not disclose anything you have said to them, nor would they confront him.
  2. Be prepared for him to confront them, and/or for him to claim to have recently converted to Christianity.
  3. Focus on how your husband perceives his relationship with you, and remind him of his obligations to provide a safe, loving home for his family.
  4. Challenge any rationalizations he might give for his abusive behaviors, such as “Yeah, I am a little harsh, but she. . .” or “The Bible says the man is the head of the wife.”
  5. Help him distinguish between his feelings and his behaviors. Feeling angry and raging at someone are very different; harm comes when emotions are inappropriately expressed.
  6. Help him redefine masculine thinking. Show him “real men” don’t need to use power and control over their wives.
  7. Refer him to a batterer intervention program. Let him know they think this is his best chance to save his marriage.
  8. Let him know they will be following up with him over the next several weeks/months.
  9. Tell you immediately if he threatens to kill you or himself, and call the police. This is because abusers often kill their partners before they kill themselves.
  10. Pray with him and for him.

Often a pastor or elder will want to try to single-handedly counsel an abusive man. Sgt. Donald Stewart, author of Refuge: A Pathway Out of Domestic Violence and Abuse does not recommend doing this.*** He explains that the issues which cause a man to abuse his wife are very complicated, and require more time and skill to work through than a pastor has. For this reason, your husband would be better served by entering a treatment program for domestic violence offenders, which is designed to deal with these issues. The program will need to last at least nine months for it to be effective.

Note: According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “Many practitioners disapprove of – and at least twenty state standards and guidelines expressly prohibit – couples counseling for batterers.”****

Because of this, I HIGHLY recommend you NEVER go to joint counseling with your abuser.  Doing this can put your life in serious danger.

What is our take-away today?

  1. Pastors need to become educated about domestic violence before EVER trying to counsel an abuser or abuse victim.
  2. Pastors would be wise to avail themselves of community resources such as women’s crisis centers, domestic violence treatment centers, legal services, child protective services, etc.
  3. Pastors should not try to counsel an abuser on their own. Instead, they should rely on experts in the field.
  4. Pastors should NEVER recommend joint counseling for couples when domestic violence is present in the relationship. Doing this puts the victim’s life at risk.

Pastors and churches, please learn to be wise when it comes to dealing with abusers and their victims.

In Matthew 10:16, Jesus tells his disciples,

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves . . .”

Proverbs 24:1-4 says:

Do not envy the wicked,
    do not desire their company;
for their hearts plot violence,
    and their lips talk about making trouble.

By wisdom a house is built,
    and through understanding it is established;
through knowledge its rooms are filled
    with rare and beautiful treasures.

Deuteronomy 10:17-18 says:

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.

And finally, Ephesians 5:11-16 says:

Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said:

“Wake up, sleeper,
    rise from the dead,
    and Christ will shine on you.”

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.

I have created a Domestic Violence Guide for Churches. This guide teaches church leaders about the dynamics of DV and educates them on how to help those who experience it. Click here to preview it.

Let’s pray.

Lord, I pray the day will come when all pastors will become educated in how to help families that suffer from domestic violence. I pray fewer victims will be told to “pray harder,” or “submit more,” and given no practical advice. Lord, help us all become wiser in learning ways that will decrease the number of families who are torn apart by this epidemic. Amen.



* In this case, the abuser is the husband, and the victim the wife. Many of the same principles would apply if the roles were reversed.

** Conversation points for the wife and husband taken from The State of New Hampshire Governor’s Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence and Attorney General’s Office Faith Communities: Domestic Violence Protocol 2007,, 9 – 13.

*** Detective Sgt. Donald Stewart, Refuge, A Pathway Out of Domestic Violence and Abuse (Birmingham, AL:New Hope Publishers, 2004).

****K. Healey, C. O’Sullivan, & C. Smith, Batterer Intervention: Program Approaches and Criminal Justice Strategies. (Washington, DC:US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, February 1998).


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