Tell It to the Church –
Last week I wrote Part 3 in my series on Holding Your Abuser Accountable. In this series I am describing the process Jesus outlines in Matthew 18 for holding a brother who sins against you accountable. This series is for you if you or someone you love is a victim of emotional, verbal, psychological or spiritual abuse. If you are a victim of physical or sexual abuse, please check out my Get help page for hotline numbers in your country, and call them as soon as you feel safe doing so.
The advice below is from my book A Journey through Emotional Abuse: from Bondage to Freedom.Be aware this advice is not meant for someone in a physically abusive relationship. Note also that an abuser who has not been physically abusive might become physically abusive when you try to stand up to him*. Consider your actions carefully. Check out my blog entitled When Emotional Abuse Turns Physical. How Can a Victim Prepare?
If you have gotten to this point, you will have performed the first two steps in the “Matthew 18” process. You will have shown him his fault between just the two of you, and you will have brought two appropriate others along as witnesses. Next, Matthew 18:17a says:
“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church;”
If your abuser is still abusing you, Jesus says in Matthew 18:17 that you should tell the church. This does not mean stand in front of the church and tell the entire congregation. It does mean finding an appropriate leader, such as one of the pastors or elders, tell them what is happening, and asking for their help.
This may or may not be the best step for your situation. Some churches will not be helpful to you because of lack of knowledge about domestic violence, or because of the way they interpret the Bible’s description of Christian submission in marriage.
Ways to discern if your church might be supportive and/or knowledgable about domestic violence:
- Have you ever heard anything about domestic violence mentioned from the pulpit?
- When the pastor discusses marriage relationships in his sermons, does he challenge men to love their wives as Jesus does the Church, or does he only focus on wives submitting to their husbands?
- Do you see any materials about domestic violence posted around the church?
- Has the church ever held any classes about domestic violence?
If you feel the leadership of your church is generally supportive of women, but you have never seen nor heard anything specific about domestic violence, you may still decide to approach them for help. This is your decision; trust your own feelings about this.
If you do decide that bringing your problem to someone at your church is the right thing, be aware this is a serious step. Your abuser may become so embarrassed or ashamed that he will insist on leaving the church. Or he may become violent. This is a risk you may decide to take. If not, and you decide to leave, check out my blog entitled “What Should You Do If You Think You Are Being Abused”.
If you want to continue trying to salvage this relationship, finding the right person in the church to help you is essential. Most people in the general population have not been trained to handle domestic violence, and this is certainly true of people in the church. Many Christians will tell an abused woman to “pray harder” or “submit” to her husband, thinking that will resolve the abuse problem. It won’t.
Because of this, search for a person with the following qualities:
- This person should be in a position of leadership, such as a pastor, elder, or church counselor.
- This person should be a man, because your abuser will not want to listen to a woman.
- This man should have a good relationship with his wife; one where she is honored and valued as an equal partner in the marriage.
- He should be a humble man, one who is not conceited, and who has a teachable spirit.
Then ask a friend to confidentially speak to this person first so your identity is protected, until you decide if he is the correct person to appeal to. You don’t need to feel ashamed about what is happening in your home. Domestic violence thrives in secret. Keeping this secret will keep you in bondage. However, choosing a person who is safe and appropriate to help you is a vital step. Find the right person before disclosing your identity.
Here are some questions to have your friend ask him:
- Would he be willing to educate himself on abuse before you meet?
- Is he prepared to believe you, no matter how persuasive your abuser may be?
- Will he keep your conversation strictly confidential?[i] If and when he speaks to your abuser, he must promise not to tell him anything you have disclosed. Your safety depends on this. Caution him to neither confirm nor deny what you have told him. Instead, he should focus on how your abuser perceives your relationship, and remind him of his obligations to provide a safe, loving home for his family.
- Would he be willing to talk with your abuser about enrolling in a program for men who abuse?
- If you become frightened about your abuser’s reaction, would he ask your abuser to leave the house, or be willing to get you and your children to a safe place?
- If things do not get better, and in fact get worse (which is a real possibility), what does the church believe are acceptable grounds for legal separation or divorce?
The best possible outcome of telling the church would be the church supporting you, and helping you remain safe, while holding your abuser accountable for his actions. If this did happen, you might have hope of saving your relationship, 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 abuser. For you, they would hopefully[ii]:
- Believe you.
- Keep your whereabouts a secret.
- Answer any questions you have about the Bible and what God thinks about your situation.
- Refer you to local agencies that can help, such as women’s crisis centers, legal services, counselors, child protection services, etc.
- Offer to help in the short-term with any financial needs you may have.
For your abuser, 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 abuser. At this meeting they would:
- 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.”
- Refer him to a batterer intervention program. Let him know they think this is his best chance to save his relationship.
- Let him know they will be following up with him over the next several weeks/months.
- Tell you immediately if he threatens to kill you or himself, and call the police. When abusers kill themselves, they often kill their partners first.
- Pray with him and for him.
Often a pastor or elder will want to try to single-handedly counsel an abusive man. In his book, Refuge: A Pathway Out of Domestic Violence and Abuse, Sgt. Donald Stewart does not recommend doing this.[iii] He explains the issues which cause a man to abuse are very complicated, and require more time and skill to work through than a pastor has. Most pastors receive three or less hours of domestic violence training while in seminary. For this reason, your abuser would be better served by entering a treatment program for domestic violence offenders, which is designed to deal with these issues.
Remember you should never enter into joint counseling with an abuser.[iv]
Women’s crisis centers often recommend an abuser not be asked to step down from leadership positions, or leave the church. They say the more losses an abusive man feels, the angrier he tends to become. For example, if he looses his position in the church, and is asked to leave the church altogether, he has lost two very important things. If this man has a tendency toward violence, this could send him over the edge. Churches meet at the same time every week. If your abuser knows where you are every Sunday morning, he can find you easily, or wait for you in the parking lot—prepared to cause you or someone in your church harm.
If you are afraid for your safety at any point during this process, you might decide to go to another church, at least for a time. This is your decision. If your pastor knows where you are going, make sure he promises to keep your whereabouts secret. Also, if you are afraid for your safety, you may want to seek a restraining order.
If you do get a restraining order, make sure your church has a policy for handling stalkers. If they don’t, you, your children, and other church members will not be safe if your abuser shows up at the church.
In Keeping the Faith, Guidance for Christian Woman Facing Abuse, Marie M. Fortune, writes, “If you found your pastor or priest unhelpful, if you were not believed, or you were counseled to:
- Submit to your abuser
- Pray harder
- Try to get your abuser to church
- Be a better Christian wife
- Forgive your abuser and take him back
without dealing with the battering and abuse, then that person does not understand what you have been through. He or she has no comprehension of your experience and no information about abuse. At this point, this person will not be a helpful resource to you.[v]
“Remember most ministers have not received any training to prepare them for understanding your abuse. Although they may care deeply about you and want to help, their lack of knowledge and skill will prevent them from being the support you need. Do not feel guilty about choosing not to discuss your abuse further with your minister at this time. God will provide other pastors or priests, or godly lay people, who may be more knowledgeable and prepared to help.”
Asking your church for help with your abusive relationship is risky. Many things could go wrong, but this action might help your abuser make some serious changes in his life. Please ask God for discernment before taking this last step in the Matthew 18 process.
Dear Lord, please give abuse victims discernment as to whether it is wise to continue trying to repair their abusive relationships, or whether it would be better to try to safely leave them. We know you are the Lord of wisdom. Give these victims your wisdom, power and peace as they make these difficult decisions. Amen.
P.S. If you have had trouble getting help from your church, please check out my Domestic Violence Guide for Churches. This guide describes the dynamics of abuse from a Christian perspective, then educates church leaders how to help those who experience it. Click here to see a preview of the written and video guide.
* In this blog, I use the word “she” to identify the victim of abuse, and “he” the abuser. The same principles apply if the abuser is a woman and the victim a man, or if the victim and the abuser are the same gender.
[i] 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, http://doj.nh.gov/criminal/victim-assistance/documents/faith-communities-protocol.pdf, 11.
[ii] 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, http://doj.nh.gov/criminal/victim-assistance/documents/faith-communities-protocol.pdf, 9 – 13.
[iii] Stewart, Refuge, 219.
[iv] 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).
[v] Marie M. Fortune, Keeping the Faith, Guidance for Christian Women Facing Abuse (San Francisco:HarperSanFrancisco, 1987), 88.