Ministry to Those Suffering Domestic Abuse

Some hurdles victims face on the path to healing, faulty and harmful approaches to "helping" those who suffer abuse

Tragically, the church can also be a place where abuse is enabled by well-meaning but woefully misinformed clergy. Lindsey and I have known of clergy who have said to victims of abuse, “Jesus’ wounds were redemptive – they saved the world. Your wounds can be redemptive and save your relationship.” Similarly, we know of pastors who have counseled abused women: “If you just submit to your husband, even if he is abusive, God will honor your obedience and the abuse would either stop or God would give you the grace to endure the abuse.” 

We now come to the final article in this series. Here we will discuss hurdles victims face on the path to healing, faulty and harmful approaches to “helping” those who suffer abuse, and a few suggestions on how to minister the victims of domestic abuse.

Tragically, at least one in four women experiences violence from her partner at some point in her adult life. And tragically, that rate is no different among Christian homes and homes of other faiths or no faith. In fact, research shows that Christian women stay far longer in the abusive context and in far more severe abuse than their non-Christian counterparts.[1]

So if you are a leader in ministry, statistics tell us there are people under your care who have suffered – or are currently suffering – from domestic violence. If you have tried to approach a church about your experience with abuse and been disappointed, you know firsthand that many churches are woefully under-equipped to deal with domestic violence. This is particularly tragic because part of God’s mission for the church is to proclaim God’s healing and to seek justice for those it encounters.  And this series is aimed to help inform you in doing just that for women in abusive situations.

Hurdles to Healing

There are numerous difficulties facing victims of domestic abuse on the path to healing. First, there is the internal struggle of victim’s not identifying their experience as abuse and/or passively accepting abuse as their lot in life. Psychologist Lenore Walker, in treating patients who have experienced abuse, make this very point. She writes, “Women with strong religious backgrounds often are less likely to believe that violence against them is wrong.”[3]  Abused women may try to rationalize their suffering by believing that it is “God’s will” or “part of God’s plan for my life” or “God’s way of teaching me a lesson.”

According to Carol Adams, victims may believe one of two things when it comes to divine deliverance from abuse. First, they may believe that neither God, the world, nor the church protect the weak. Second, they may believe that God, the world, and the church do protect the weak – but only if they are deserving. The result is that a victim often feels either abandoned by God, or that she is being punished by God.[4]

We must address the concern that one is undeserving of deliverance and protection. In one sense, this is true – it is the very nature of grace to be undeserved. Because we are all sinful people, none of the grace and deliverance we receive is given for the reason that we deserve it. Yet it is freely given. And at the same time, we can do nothing to merit this gift of grace.

For example, Adam and Eve continue under the shelter of God’s care after the fall, even though their behavior has done nothing to deserve such care. The question of deserved or undeserved is irrelevant when it comes to grace. And this, because we are all sinful people, is the best of news. It means that God will never withhold His deliverance on account of your behavior. It also means that there is nothing you can do to “earn” such deliverance–and yet, it is freely given anyway.

The second hurdle to healing victims face is the twisted words used by abusers to excuse their abuse. Abusive men often take the biblical text and distort it to support their right to abuse. Men who abuse frequently misuse Ephesians 5:22 – “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” – to justify their behavior. But here Paul’s words are taken out of context. The entire passage (Eph. 5:21-33) in fact teaches the mutual submission of husband and wife out of love for Christ: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). Additionally, the word submit does not mean to obey, and it is always a chosen act. Submission cannot be forced, it must be chosen – and it must be mutual in this mysterious dance of marriage.

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