By: Bruce Ashford, Lauren Ashford, Joy Forrest
In light of the ongoing national conversation about Christian responses to domestic violence and the sad reality that abuse statistics are no better among church attenders than among society at large, it is incumbent upon us—SBC churches and pastors—to do everything we can to respond appropriately when victims come forward. To address domestic abuse more effectively, we must:
- Recognize the multi-faceted nature of domestic abuse, which includes not only physical violence but emotional abuse, intimidation, coercion, threats, control, isolation, manipulation, and misogyny. When we fail to recognize non-physical forms of abuse as abuse, we conceal the truth and diminish the pain of thousands of victims.
- Equip ourselves by learning from Christian counselors and leading experts on domestic violence, and by adding women’s voices to our conversations about abuse. (For examples of such resources, click here, here, here and here.)
- Reject the temptation to dismiss the victim’s claims. When an abused woman steps forward to speak, it is a really critical moment because most of these women have lived in isolation and fear for years. In spite of that, and even though false allegations are relatively rare, domestic abuse counselors report that pastors often side with the abusive husband either by believing his denial or by minimizing the severity of the abuse. As pastors, we should remember that abusers learn to be charming in public even while violent and controlling in the privacy of the home. Similarly, abusers often discredit their wives by claiming or insinuating that their wives are mentally unstable, unfaithful, or otherwise untrustworthy.
- Be careful not to act too quickly. If we act too quickly, questioning or confronting the abuser before the victim is prepared, we can cause more harm than good, even putting the victim in greater danger. The victim may be silenced and punished by the abuser who now knows she spoke to an outsider. Ensuring the immediate safety of the victim is essential, but so is securing her long-term safety.
- Recognize the effects of domestic abuse on the victims and their children. Victims and their children suffer in many ways. Many of them exhibit symptoms of complex PTSD. It is nearly impossible for them to heal when they are being exposed to continual abuse. Therefore, refusing to allow the abused wife and her children to separate from the abusive husband/father causes further harm. (Studies reveal that children who live with domestic violence are more likely to drop out of school, be incarcerated, deny the faith, and commit suicide.)
- Denounce any interpretation of Scripture that sets up the man to be an authoritarian in his home. Biblical complementarity is not authoritarian. A man should lead through love and persuasion rather than coercion or control. He should love his wife as Christ loved the church, ready even to lay down his life for her.
- No matter a church’s view on divorce, it should be able to recognize that Scripture does allow for separation. And separation is absolutely necessary in many cases. Victims are doubly abused if they are subjected to church discipline for separating from an abusive husband who harmed them and/or their children.
- Understand that there is a correlation between the Sexual Revolution and domestic abuse. Although the Sexual Revolution certainly did not create the phenomenon of domestic abuse, it has provided “on-ramps” to domestic abuse. Consider that domestic abuse counselors report that abusive spouses are often addicted to pornography or involved in adulterous relationships. Such sins encourage a man to take a posture of entitlement and objectification towards women, thus increasing the likelihood they will participate in the “power and control” wheel that characterizes domestic abuse.
We believe Southern Baptist churches wish to protect, support, and counsel survivors of abuse. And if we as Southern Baptists will take these eight steps, we will go a long way towards glorifying God, protecting women and children, and bringing justice to an unjust situation.
***For Christian ministry resources related to domestic abuse, see Called to Peace Ministries.