Abusers fail to find their identity in God. They cannot accept that they may be abandoned, hurt, or not respected by others, so they control the people around them to preserve their god-like identity. This means the abused cannot try to manage the situation. Trying to appease or avoid conflict won’t change the abusers’ real need to find their identity in Christ alone.
Abuse is a deliberate attempt to gain control. You don’t overcome abusive behavior, then, by focusing on self-esteem or anger management. Abusers aren’t sick; they’re clever and driven by a desire to control. This means the abused aren’t crazy or the ones to blame.
Awful things are often said about women who remain in abusive relationships. Instead of being one of those voices, let’s try to understand why a woman may find it hard to leave. Fear of more violence, fear for her children, fear of her own future—these often paralyze and produce a fog that distorts reality. Abusers work hard to isolate those they’re abusing by threatening, discrediting, or shaming them into thinking nobody will believe them. A wife may not necessarily hate her abusive husband; she just hates the abuse and wants it to stop. With all of his manipulative apologies, she believes he will change. And sadly, she hopes her suffering will achieve his redemption. It’s heinous to think she stays because she’s responsible for his behavior, or because she deserves the treatment she’s getting.
One of Satan’s greatest lies is getting you to believe you can remain unaffected by sin committed against you. The serpent wants you to keep quiet and not let the beauty of a risen Savior shape every part of your story. The church must learn how to give women back their voice so they can taste the wondrous reality of God’s redeeming work for them. We must let the gospel have the last word.
4 Common Mistakes in Abuse Counseling
1. Assume marriage must be preserved at all costs
Sadly, the church can become a place of more abuse, misapplying biblical texts to promote the abuse of power by a husband or the place of suffering for a wife—all in the name of “submission.” A woman who’s been battered, neglected, or verbally abused doesn’t need marriage counseling with her husband; she needs to hear of the protective, loving, and redeeming work of Jesus. I fear that if former NFL player Ray Rice and his wife, Janay, sat in some of our well-taught congregations, he would be told to attend anger management classes and she to simply serve her husband. Such couples must both turn from their momentary marriage to the eternal marriage between Jesus and his bride. Earthly marriage isn’t our god or ultimate goal.
2. Assume all divorce is sin
God not only hates divorce, but also the one whose garment is covered with violence (Mal. 2:16). A violent and abusive man has broken the marriage covenant by his sinful choices; he is the “divorcer,” and that marriage is not honoring to the Lord (1 Cor. 7:15). I know the topic of divorce is exegetically complicated and ecclesially controversial, but I am amazed at the responses I often get from pastors on this issue. The husband is abusive, and the wife pursues divorce. What do some churches do? Discipline or ignore the woman. They refuse to condone divorce even at the expense of her safety. Friends, this isn’t courageous pastoral ministry.
3. Misapply headship and submission
Ephesians 5:22–33 beautifully displays God’s design for the home. It’s a high and holy calling, one never to be downplayed or tweaked to “fit the times.” The problem isn’t God’s pattern; it’s man’s corruption.
We don’t need to become feminists or egalitarians to speak against domestic violence and abuse. We need to stand in the truth of God’s Word and in the gap of a culture gone mad.
4. Misunderstand forgiveness
We must rightly understand the biblical teaching on forgiveness and reconciliation. The end goal isn’t a man back in the home; the end goal is holiness. Reconciliation isn’t the same thing as reunion, and forgiveness isn’t a demand from the abuser that we can “get on with things.”
6 Things We Can (and Must) Do
In brief, here are six things the church can and must do when confronting abuse:
1. Prioritize safety
It’s not uncommon for a woman to really think her abusive husband will kill her. This fear should never be dismissed as “extreme” or “dramatic.” The church that fails to prioritize the physical and emotional protection of the vulnerable fails to practice “pure and undefiled religion” (James 1:27).
2. Listen compassionately
If someone’s brave enough to share her story with you, listen with compassion. Express gratitude for her vulnerability, pray with her, and then connect her with an experienced and competent biblical counselor.
3. Avoid quick fixes
Don’t go into “fix it” mode, scrambling to get every detail and to reunite victim with perpetrator. While safety should be secured immediately, clarity and healing take time.
4. Increase understanding
Read books and ask experienced counselors about the issue. Justin and Lindsey Holcomb’s Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence (Moody, 2014) [review] is a great place to start.
5. Offer hope
Nothing gives hope—hope for forgiveness, hope for healing, hope for change—like the gospel of Jesus Christ. Communicate and apply this good news with humble conviction.
6. Provide accountability
As you encounter abusers, rebuke and report them. Don’t let fear of awkwardness (or worse) keep you silent. By God’s grace, do the courageous and loving thing.
Related at TGC:
- A Complementarian Manifesto Against Domestic Abuse (Jason Meyer)
- Hyper-Headship and the Scandal of Domestic Abuse in the Church (Justin Taylor)
- Don’t Mess with Her, Man (Matt Smethurst)
- The Church, the Gospel, and Violence Against Women (various)
- 9 Things You Should Know About Intimate Partner Violence (Joe Carter)
- What if I Told You There’s a Place for Ray Rice? (Alex Duke)
- The Church and Women at Risk (Lindsey Holcomb)
- Sexual Assault, Domestic Abuse, and the Gospel (TGC15 workshop) (Justin and Lindsey Holcomb) [also published here]
- Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Abuse review (Aaron Armstrong)