The Abused Bride of Christ

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By Catherine Kroeger

Like an abused woman, the church is battered and bleeding—from a wound that she fails to recognize. Many evangelicals cannot bear to acknowledge that spousal abuse is an enduring problem within our very walls. Both individually and as a faith community, we are ashamed and humiliated to admit the presence of such a problem. It is far easier to deny, to minimize, and to conceal.

Evangelicalism proclaims the redemptive and reconciling love of God to a world in desperate need. In at least one area, however, evangelicals have lagged far behind others involved in humanitarian endeavors. We have failed to address the issue of domestic abuse in any significant way. In actuality, our leaders have been caught in a dilemma that leaves them with such a high degree of discomfort that they cannot even acknowledge the problem.

Quite correctly, they maintain a high view of the Christian home and seek to build strong families. This is commendable, but it is important that a biblical perspective be offered. In the Bible one of the features most strongly emphasized for godly homes is that of safety. Believers are promised that they may dwell in safety and that their homes will be free of terror and violence: “My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places” (Isaiah 32:18).

The theme is a recurrent one. Indeed, the prophet Isaiah maintains that peace in the home, safety, and righteousness are the inheritance of the believer (54:13-17). Faithful teaching on the Christian family must include at least as much proclamation of these aspects as is accorded them in Scripture.

Lamentably, this biblical emphasis has been much neglected and the very presence of abuse within the Christian family denied. Research demonstrates that the prevalence is at least as high among Christians as in the general population. Because of an unwillingness to face this unpleasant truth, the problem has been denied, concealed, minimized, or ignored. Key organizations that focus on the Christian family have failed to address the issue and sometimes question the orthodoxy of those who express a concern. Yet the Bible calls upon the righteous to deliver the oppressed from the hand of the violent and declares that God is angered when no one steps up to intervene for them.

The Bible calls upon the righteous to deliver the oppressed from the hand of the violent and declares that God is angered when no one steps up to intervene for them.

The Psalms repeatedly denounce violence, bloodshed, lying in wait, stalking, twisting a person’s words, verbal abuse, threats, and intimidation. How strange that we do not understand that these dictates apply as much to domestic abuse as they do to other sorts of violence and mistreatment. Yes, we have been blind to a problem that lies right within our own homes.

The task of the church is to be prophetic, as were the faithful messengers of God so long ago. Our mission is not only to declare God’s forgiveness but also to point to the conduct that requires forgiveness and transformation. Only when we identify the sin can we begin to move toward repentance and wholeness in Jesus Christ.

There are many reasons why it is imperative that evangelicals address the problem. One of which is that allowing abuse to continue harms the abuser. “You cannot strike one another with wicked fists as you do today and expect your prayers to be heard on high,” cautions Isaiah (58:4), while Peter commands husbands to live with their wives considerately, “lest your prayers be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7). Yes, allowing wrongdoing to continue violates the soul of the perpetrator. Many abusers are frightened, insecure people who need the voice of the church in guidance, counsel, and redirection. The Scriptures tell us that the evil executed by the violent person “recoils on himself; his violence comes down on his own head” (Psalms 7:16). But that abuse also comes back upon all who are in the body of Christ. When we choose to ignore the affliction of women and children within our midst, all of us are tainted (1 Corinthians 5:6-8). We are inseparably bound to one another, and when one suffers, we all suffer (1 Corinthians 12:26). When the sin of one is countenanced, all are affected.

When we choose to ignore the affliction of women and children within our midst, all of us are tainted.

The New Testament twice excludes batterers from holding church office (1 Timothy 3:3; Titus 1:7). In dealing with a domestic problem in Corinth, Paul holds the entire congregation accountable (1 Corinthians 5:2-5). He identifies a wrongdoer who must be reproved and removed from full fellowship of the church. He may be mentored, monitored, and ministered to—but not accepted as though nothing were wrong. Paul’s objective in this is so that ultimately the offender may be reclaimed. All too often in the modern church, no one dares to approach the perpetrator, while the victim is showered with all kinds of advice and reproof.

Modern-day offenders may be helped through counseling, accountability groups, batterers’ groups, or a mentor. There is a need for prayer both with and for them. Couples counseling is usually unwise, but a group approach is often effective. A study of 1,000 case files from a Christian batterer-intervention group revealed that offenders referred to the program by the pastor had a success rate nearly 30 percent higher than those who were court-referred. Those who are jailed for their offenses should receive ongoing concern and visitation from the church. Our desire is that they may be made whole by the power of Christ. The involvement of the faith community is desperately important.

Although the majority of Christian women will seek help in the first place from their pastor, many do not find the support that they need. Often they do not find a listening ear, nor are they believed when they start to disclose even a small part of their story. Some victims are sent back home to dangerous situations, and many are not given food, shelter, or a caring environment. Many are told to pray harder, to be more submissive, or to be better wives. Some are even counseled that they will win their husbands’ salvation by their own patient endurance of abuse, holding the victim rather than the perpetrator responsible.

For this reason those in deepest need often find themselves alienated from the church. Most of these women are not seeking a dissolution of their marriage but rather a means of stopping the abuse. To save themselves and their children, they will turn to other resources, often to those bitterly disenchanted by the church’s lack of concern. Tragically, it has sometimes been those most removed from the church who have been the most willing to provide safety and shelter, support and services, resources and rescue.

Due to our lack of preparedness, we may often need to avail ourselves of community resources in order to keep women and children safe. One pastor observed, “Better a community shelter than a Christian funeral.” Most community shelters offer training programs for volunteers, and there church members can learn how to deal effectively with those in crisis, how to get a victim to safety, how to utilize available resources, how to fill out a restraining order, and how to offer constructive support.

As we encounter those who come forward with accounts of abuse, let us bear in mind that they must be believed. Because of the intense shame at making such a disclosure, false allegations are very rare. It is best to err on the side of safety. On the other hand, church folks are often moved too speedily by expressions of remorse and repentance on the part of the perpetrator. We are fully convinced of God’s power to transform sinful human beings, but we must understand that the offender frequently reverts to the same conduct once the victim is back under the same roof. It is better for there to be a period of repentance and a demonstrable change in behavior.

As we encounter those who come forward with accounts of abuse, let us bear in mind that they must be believed.

Neither should instantaneous forgiveness be demanded on the part of the victim. This can tear open wounds that need adequate time to heal. As one woman living in a Christian community related, “He broke my arm, and then I had to get right back in the same bed with him.” Forgiveness is the work of the Holy Spirit and cannot be pressured or scheduled. One might well reflect upon the story of Joseph, who tested his brothers carefully before effecting a reconciliation that saved the lives of the whole family, or the story of the Apostle Paul, who was kept at arm’s length by the believers in Jerusalem until he had proved his repentance again and again.

Our task is to bring wholeness and safety to hurting families, not to make our church “look good.” We need to look long and hard at both the problem and the potential for healing. Disgrace is brought upon the name of Christ, not because a victim discloses abuse, but because we fail to intervene with God’s healing power. Sociologists tell us that abuse occurs within about 25 percent of our church families. We have failed where we were needed most. The church, too, has been victimized by our refusal to recognize the evil and to respond, but the path to new beginnings is open before the people of God.

This essay first appeared in PRISM Magazine in 2004. Catherine Kroeger was an adjunct associate professor at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, and the author of a number of books on domestic abuse.

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