Frequently Asked Questions
Q. The woman sitting in front of my desk has bruises on her face and her arms and has just told me the story of her husband’s abuse and violence. What do I do first?
A. Your first responsibility is to listen to her and let her know that you take her report very seriously. You cannot provide all the help she needs, but she has the right to your practical help in identifying and accessing the available network of professional services offered by your community. She also needs your spiritual support and encouragement.
Q. What next?
A. Your first concern must be for the safety of the person(s) at risk. Ask questions such as: Are you afraid your spouse will further injure you or your children? Are you concerned for your lives? Do you have a safe place to go? Are there friends and relatives to whom you can turn? Do you have an escape plan for an emergency?
If she needs a safe place to go, you may help her locate a shelter. The best time to develop your list of community resources is early in your ministry. Before you are confronted with an emergency, you will want to check out listings and consult with other clergy in town to learn of the professional contacts to whom they turn in such a crisis. If there is no shelter available in your community, you may wish to ask one or two families in your church to make preparation to shelter a victim(s) as the need arises. Choose couples whose relationships are positive and who demonstrate the necessary maturity and wisdom to be of support. It would be helpful if one of the spouses were trained in a helping profession—i.e., nursing, medicine, counseling, teaching, etc. Such a background will enhance understanding of the needs of the abused family members and provide some basis for extending practical help.
Q. If I suggest that she leave her home for a shelter or that she go to a friend’s house, wouldn’t I be contributing to the breaking apart of a family? Isn’t it better that they try to work things out together?
A. If the family breaks apart, it will be because of the violence and abuse, not because of action to secure the safety of endangered family members. Healing and reconciliation can be addressed only after the abuse has stopped and a professional with expertise in working with offenders confirms that the abuse is unlikely to reoccur.
Q. The accused is a prominent leader in the congregation. If I try to help the victim, it’s going to cause a terrible problem in my church. Other members aren’t going to want to believe he would do this.
A. It is not helpful to deny that the family is experiencing difficulty or that abuse and violence may be present, even within the families of prominent church members. On the other hand, confidentiality is essential for continuing trust and the safety of the abused. Do not provide details of the situation even to fellow church leaders without the permission of the victim. Assure others who are asking questions or expressing concern for this family that you and other professionals who can best help are working to enable them to deal with the problems they are facing. Explain that what the family needs right now from their church and others who care about them is love and practical support. Tell those who desire to help that you may need to call on them to provide child care, transportation, or some other service as the need arises.
Q. Aren’t there two sides to every story?
A. It is true that the family dynamics present in some abusive families seem to entrap family members in dysfunctional patterns of relating. However, this recognition is not to be misconstrued as reason to blame the victim for the abuse. Even if a spouse’s behavior seems unreasonable and inappropriate, it is the partner’s responsibility as an adult to take charge of his own feelings and actions. No one “makes” another angry, violent, or abusive. Abuse is a choice made by the abuser himself to abuse, usually in an attempt to control, manipulate, or otherwise get what he wants.
Q. Doesn’t the Bible say that a woman should be submissive? Isn’t it her duty to please her husband?
A. The overarching instruction given by Paul to married couples is to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21). Christ came to put an end to the curse of sin and to make all things— including marriage—new again. The gospel calls Christian marriage partners to stretch toward the restoration of God’s ideal for marriage in Eden where male and female shared equally in God’s image, His blessing, and the responsibility for procreation and co-regency over the earth. God’s declaration that His original plan for mutuality in marriage was very good has not changed.
Q. Aren’t Christians called to suffer at times?
A. The good that can come from experiencing suffering should never be offered as a reason for staying in an abusive situation. Suffering is a result of sin. When Jesus was asked about whose sin caused a man’s blindness, he turned from this question to minister compassionately and to provide healing for a person in need. His response provides a model for our response. God does not cause His children to suffer in order to punish them, teach them lessons, or enhance their spiritual growth. He does allow human beings to experience the consequences of sin so that we may come to see its true nature. When we learn from suffering, it is God working good out of bad.
Q. Isn’t it true that some wives need discipline in order to do what they should?
A. The practice of abuse and violence in the name of the discipline of adults—or even children—has troubling implications. Such behavior toward a marriage partner may stem from or lead to the erroneous conclusions that the wife is merely the property of her husband, that women are inferior and cannot be encouraged in the Christian way except by brute force, or that women are not responsible for their personal response to God’s grace. Scripture never enjoins the use of force with a married partner.
Jesus had no problem communicating to women the most profound spiritual lessons. It was He who defended Mary for seeking the best part as she sat at His feet to study the Torah. Further, Christ did not beat His followers into submission. In fact, God has shown Himself to value and respect human beings so highly that He desires only the service of love. He uses no coercion, only the gentle persuasion of love and grace.
Christians are called to follow His example in family relationships.
Further, Scripture is clear that each person is responsible for the care of his/her own body, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Nothing which destroys the body is to be engaged in, let alone encouraged or required of the Christian. The value of every man, woman, and child can be measured only by the price of his or her redemption—the shed blood of Jesus Christ. For this reason, Christians are called to honor God with their bodies. Everything about abuse and violence is in violation of this call; hence the warning that if anyone destroys God’s temple, he or she must be accountable to God. The con- sequence of ignoring this warning will be self-destruction.
Q. Shouldn’t I pray with an abused person who comes to me? I believe that God will protect people if we only ask Him.
A. God is always willing to listen to our concerns. He cries when we cry, hurts when we hurt. He extends His arms from heaven through human beings in times of need and through the peace and presence of God that the Holy Spirit provides. A victim may have to work through many spiritual questions to see God in this way. She may be confused about how she can honor her father and yet say “no” to his abuse. She may be wondering where God has been as her husband has abused her. She may not know whether God can forgive her for a failed marriage. She’s likely confused about what God wants her to do. She will need you in the weeks to come to address her spiritual concerns one at a time. Now she needs your understanding and practical support, not a Bible study or discourse to sort out her theology or terse advice to “just pray about it.”
Of course, it is always appropriate for you to suggest a prayer together. Ask her if she would like you to pray for her and her family, as well as yourself and the church family, as you respond to this crisis. If she responds positively, ask her what she would like you to pray for and assure her that God is listening. It is always appropriate to talk to God about the pain she is experiencing, which you know grieves His heart because she is His beloved child. You can ask God to help her find the best path through the crisis she is confronting and to help you and her church family to support her in the most helpful ways. When you have finished your prayer, it’s time to move into appropriate action as God’s emissary. If you sense she is not able to join you in prayer just now, tell her you understand and that she will be in your prayers.
Q. If the situation is so awful, why doesn’t she just leave? Why do women stay in, or return to, abusive relationships?
A. There are many reasons. She may feel that it is her responsibility to keep the home together for the sake of the children or her husband. She may believe that the abuse is her fault and be embarrassed for anyone to find out what is really happening. She may be concerned about her husband’s career or fear the reaction of extended family members. She may be worried that she cannot make it on her own— financially, emotionally, as a single parent, etc. She may think she has nowhere to go. She may erroneously believe that God wants her to stay in the relationship no matter how her husband treats her, because He hates divorce, He is trying to teach her a lesson, He wants her to lead her husband to Christ, or He is punishing her for something she has done wrong, etc. She may fear that her leaving will bring on even worse treatment or that her husband will take away her children. She may even be afraid for her life and the lives of her children. Remember, the issue in family violence is power and control. Abusers are often highly skilled in manipulating their spouses into staying, despite the abusive treatment.
Q. Aside from helping a victim of family violence find a safe place, what else can I do?
A. Your responsibility as an important piece of the network of professional resources needed by families experiencing violence is primarily to:
• Help the victim and other vulnerable family members find a safe place where they will be protected until the abuse has stopped.
• Identify the network of professional services available in your church and community with the expertise to help all involved.
• Provide practical assistance to the family as they seek to use these services to meet their needs.
• Cooperate with other professionals to hold the abuser firmly accountable for his abusive behavior in order to create the best likelihood that he will participate actively in professional treatment, stop the abuse, and learn better ways to relate.
• Address the spiritual questions confronting abused persons.
• Provide a ministry of reconciliation when right attitudes, cessation of abuse, and rebuilding trust open the possibility for true repentance, forgiveness, and new beginnings.
• Assist families in grieving the significant relationships that cannot be restored.
Do not take the role of counselor upon yourself unless you have been trained as a marriage and family therapist, counselor, psychologist, or social worker. You do not have sufficient expertise to deal with such complex problems. Many pastors who are also therapists find that it is best not to assume the role of counselor for a parishioner since it is difficult to be both pastor and counselor at the same time.
The entire family needs you as a spiritual resource right now. You may be the only one who can fill this role in the network of professional services available. In the wider sense, you can also be a powerful spokesperson in the church and in your community against abuse and family violence.
Q. What about the children?
A. Children are highly vulnerable and need protection. Inquire about them. Find out what you can do to help ensure their safety. When you suspect child abuse, take immediate action to protect the child(ren) and to report your concerns to the appropriate child protective agency in your area. Children often act out after they are separated from their abuser. The degree of acting out depends on their age, developmental stage, and their understanding of what is happening. However, the acting out will decrease over time as they are removed from the stressful situation and are able to access counseling resources.
Q. What will happen when I make a report?
A. Once you have made a report to the appropriate child protective agency, a child protection worker will investigate the allegations. They will provide for the safety of the child and others who may be at risk if action is called for. Initially, the offender will likely deny all allegations and attack the credibility of the victim(s). You, too, may become the focus of attack. Victims may recant their stories because they feel under extreme pressure by the perpetrators or are frightened by the chaos their disclosure has brought about. It may take several weeks for any measure of normalcy to return. Your ministry to the family during this time—reassuring victims that they have done the right thing to disclose the abuse and to seek help, and providing the practical help they need—will be most welcome. Attention given to helping the abuser get into treatment will also create the best likelihood that he will accept responsibility for what he has done, cease the abuse, and learn better patterns of behavior.
Q. Wouldn’t it be better to handle the situation privately and protect the privacy of the family?
A. Experience has shown that the broader the network of professionals and community services involved in helping a family dealing with abuse and violence, the better the chance that the family will get the help they need to stop the abuse and move toward reconciliation. In cases of child abuse, the law in nearly every state and province mandates that you report reasonable suspicion or disclosure of abuse or any situation where a minor needs protection. Your legal and moral obligation to protect the innocent and vulnerable makes reporting a sacred mandate.
Q. I’m also the pastor of the abuser. Don’t I have a responsibility to him as well? What can I do to help?
A. Your first responsibility to the abuser is to help him recognize that whenever there is a report of abuse and violence, there is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. It is not your responsibility to conduct an investigation to prove his guilt or innocence. This work is for community agencies with trained professionals.
You can help best by cooperating with a network of professionals and other individuals with specialized training who can confront the abuser and hold him accountable for his behavior. An abuser needs professional treatment to own his behavior, stop the abuse, and learn positive ways of relating to his family and others. He will need your help and encouragement to participate actively in a treatment program.
Abusers also have spiritual needs and questions. As a pastor, you can provide the assurance that, regardless of what he has done, he is not outside the circle of God’s grace. He is not beyond God’s trans- forming power. At the same time, grace is not cheap. It cost the life of the Son of God. With grace comes a powerful call to live Godly lives. It is a call to full acknowledgement of one’s sinful actions, a call to true repentance, and a call to a totally new way of life in the Spirit—a life in which there is no place for abuse and violence.
While there are always forgiveness and new beginnings with God, there may be consequences for abusive actions that cannot be removed. In some families, trust has been so eroded by the abuse that relationships cannot be restored. When a perpetrator has sexually abused a child, the abuser can never again be trusted around children or placed in a leadership position that sends children the message that he is trustworthy. It is your responsibility and the responsibility of the faith community to guard against the victimization of other vulnerable people in the church, as well as future generations, at the hands of any perpetrator known to them. It is your responsibility as the pastor to notify future pastors and other congregations who may also be vulnerable to a perpetrator’s abusive history.
Q. What if he says he’s sorry? How can I be sure his repentance is real?
A. Denial is usually an abuser’s first response to confrontation. He will frequently contend that the victim lied and attack her credibility in other ways. Remember, it is very difficult for a victim to summon the courage to tell you about the abuse. But wherever there is a report, there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Beware of quick repentance or conversion on the part of the abuser. Recognize the stages of the abuse cycle, which may explain apparent remorse. Be aware that such remorse may simply be another way to control. The characteristics of true repentance include:
• Acceptance of responsibility for the abusive action.
• Recognition of the pain he has caused with no attempt to minimize or excuse abusive behavior.
• Sincere apology with no demands for a response of any kind on the part of the victim.
• A willingness and attempt to make restitution where possible.
• Willing and active participation in a professional treatment program.
• Changed behavior, which stops the abuse and exhibits growth toward better ways of relating.
Q. As Christians, we are called to forgive those who hurt us. Shouldn’t I try to help her to forgive him?
A. Forgiveness is God’s healing balm for deep relational wounds. Its unconditional aspect can help a victim let go of the anger, bitterness, and desire for retaliation in exchange for hope, healing, and progress toward a new life no longer incapacitated by this painful experience. But God’s call to forgive should never be offered as the reason a person must remain in an abusive relationship. Forgiveness also has a conditional aspect. This aspect of forgiveness is dependent upon the response of the abuser and is one of the last steps in dealing with abuse and violence, not the first. This aspect of forgiveness is a process that begins with the offender entering into the pain he has caused and accepting full responsibility for his behavior. It allows the victim time for processing the painful events that have transpired and the feelings of mistrust, betrayal, exploitation, and devastation that most victims experience. In time, forgiveness can open the way for better attitudes and patterns of relating to emerge. Only when the abuse has stopped and growth toward positive relational patterns are evident to professionals experienced in treating offenders can forgive- ness safely come full circle to the place that reconciliation may be considered. Sometimes the abuser refuses to enter into the process. Sometimes the pain has run so deep that relationships have been totally destroyed by the abuse and reconciliation is not possible. In that case, all that remains is to help the family through the process of grieving the loss of a significant relationship in which they had once placed so much hope.
Q. What if she wants a divorce? I’m not comfortable with encouraging the breakup of a marriage.
A. Separation, and in some cases divorce, may be the only safe option if the abuser refuses to accept responsibility for his actions and get help to change his attitudes and behavior. To require a person to stay in an abusive relationship is to depreciate the worth God places on every human being and to inflict on individuals and families unjustifiable pain and risk. When families break apart, it is always a circumstance to be deeply mourned. But the need for some families to live apart is a reality in this fallen world. Such tragedy brings great sadness, but it can also generate new commitment to minister God’s grace to the afflicted and to enable all to find the abundant life Christ came to bring—a life free from abuse and violence by His grace.