How pastors, church leaders can address domestic abuse

Domestic violence is the No. 1 public health issue facing women and children in the United States today.

Spousal abuse is a big part of that problem. A serious form of exploitation, it victimizes, damages, belittles, maims and sometimes ends the life of a wife or husband. No one should suffer any type of violence or abuse in the home, whether it is physical, emotional, psychological, verbal or sexual.

In June, Southern Baptist Convention messengers addressed the issue and approved a resolution on spousal abuse, stating that it dishonors the marriage covenant and blasphemes the relationship between Christ and the Church.

But even so, spousal abuse is a sensitive issue — so sensitive that church leaders might avoid confronting it. Spouse abusers and their victims often hide in plain sight, sitting beside us in worship services, serving on church committees or teaching Bible studies.

Using church as a cover

Some abusers might use church as a cover, becoming a smiling deacon/Dr. Jekyll at church and a hurtful husband/Mr. Hyde at home. Domestic violence happens within Christian homes at the same rate as in non-Christian homes.

As much as we wish to believe that every Christian household in our church is “home sweet home,” the statistics reveal that not every marriage is based on Colossians 3:18–19 and not every husband and wife practice a 1 Corinthians 13 type of love.

Seventy-five percent of the nation’s telephone calls to 911 are related to domestic violence. It is the leading cause of injury to women — more than car accidents, muggings and rapes combined.

Each year in the U.S., 5.3 million incidents of interpersonal physical violence occur, and 2 million women are injured through some sort of physical abuse. Every nine seconds in the U.S., a woman is physically assaulted or beaten.

And every day in the U.S., three women are murdered by a husband or boyfriend. About 1,300 women die each year as a result of domestic violence.

But abuse doesn’t stop with just physical violence. Emotional, verbal and psychological abuse include threats, name-calling, stalking, withholding needed money, intimidation, degradation, belittlement and verbal or emotional attacks that aim to control or to instill fear.

Aggravated threats are those that threaten rape, maim or murder.

Sexual abuse is the administration of any unwanted or forced sexual acts.

And spousal rape is forced, nonconsensual intercourse within a marriage.

In addition to the pain and trauma in the marriage relationship, spousal abuse has other effects.

Women who survive domestic violence are 60 percent more likely to develop chronic diseases than women with no abuse history. A boy who sees his father abuse his mother is twice as likely to grow up and abuse his own wife.

Between 30 percent and 60 percent of spouse abusers also abuse children in the home. When discovered, child abuse must be reported to the authorities.

When abuse is suspected, church leaders must take immediate action, ensuring the safety of each family member in the home. If not addressed and stopped by professional intervention, abuse will always escalate.

How can pastors and church leaders respond to domestic abuse?

  • Address spousal abuse in sermons and Bible studies. (One study found that 65 percent of pastors had spoken one or fewer times about domestic violence; 22 percent had addressed it annually; 33 percent had mentioned it rarely; and 10 percent had never preached or taught it.)
  • Host a speaker from your community’s domestic violence center, hold a seminar and educate your staff and congregation about spousal abuse and ways to respond.
  • Help support your community’s domestic violence centers.
  • Keep a list of Christian domestic violence counselors to refer to abusers and victims. Counseling for the abuser could lead to repentance and healing and possibly preserve the marriage.
  • Include a study on family violence (and its prevention) in the adult Bible study curriculum.
  • Teach your youth about healthy dating relationships and biblical marriage.
  • Put together a list of resources, hot line numbers, domestic violence centers, etc.
  • Update information frequently, making it available to leaders and members.
  • In visible places, display brochures, newsletters and information about domestic violence (especially the National Domestic Violence Hotline number — 1-800-799-7233).
  • Never counsel an abusing husband and wife together. (She will be afraid to speak and he may increase the violence.)

When you suspect spousal abuse:

  • If warning signs (see sidebar, this page) indicate the possibility of abuse, privately ask, “Is everything OK at home?” Or “Is someone hurting you?” If she indicates that things aren’t OK, ask: “Is your husband hurting you?” If she affirms it, take action.
  • Listen to her without judgment or criticism.
  • If she agrees, call the national hotline. If it’s an emergency, call 911. Police are trained to handle domestic violence incidents.
  • If she is injured, make sure she receives medical care.
  • Help her and her children move into a local domestic violence center. Christian women usually stay much longer in abusive relationships, usually leaving only when “he hurts the children.” She must not stay in the home with the abuser. Make sure she is taken to a safe place that is unknown to her abusive husband. Never put other lives in danger by taking her to a family member’s home or to your own home.
  • Make sure she takes important papers with her when she leaves, including birth certificates, passports, health insurance documents, cash, etc.
  • Provide her with funds, if needed.
  • Support her if she decides to have her husband restrained or arrested. Domestic violence is a punishable crime.
  • Keep everything she tells you in strict confidence, sharing with professionals and others only with her permission.
  • Put her in contact with a trained domestic violence counselor. Her children might also need special counseling.
  • Support her with your prayers.

Domestic violence is a delicate and embarrassing subject, not easily identified or addressed. Learn the warning signs, and if you suspect abuse in a church member’s home, take action immediately. You might just save a marriage and a life.

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Helpful resources

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How to recognize spousal abuse

  • Have visible cuts, bruises, black eyes, etc.
  • Wear heavier than usual makeup (to hide abuse marks on her face)
  • Wear heavy clothing out of season (to hide physical abuse marks)
  • Won’t stay around to talk after church; must hurry home
  • Seem withdrawn, on edge or jittery or experience frequent mood swings
  • Miss church sporadically with unexplained absences
  • Will never volunteer to work or teach in the church
  • Miss appointments consistently
  • Won’t invite anyone into their home.