- 1st Roadblock: Theology
- 2nd Roadblock: Community of Faith
- 3rd Roadblock: Response of Clergy
Domestic and sexual violence can provoke a spiritual crisis as well as a physical crisis. In the midst of crisis, Christians want to turn to their faith, church community, and spiritual leaders for help. Some of the most common questions from victims/survivors are:
1. Where was God?
2. Why did God allow this to happen to me?
3. Is my sinfulness the cause of this?
4. Do I need to forgive my abuser?
These questions reflect the victim’s struggle to integrate her beliefs with her life experiences. Resolving religious issues or concerns that surface for people in the midst of crisis are critical issues. If these issues are not addressed, at some point they will inevitably become roadblocks to the person’s efforts to resolve the crisis and move on with his or her life. The outcome depends on how the issues are handled.
Therefore, it is crucial for leaders to understand the potential spiritual roadblocks that can impact a person’s healing from abuse and then to know how to transform roadblocks into valuable resources. In this unit, you will examine three areas that create roadblocks to the healing of a victim of violence: theology, faith community and lack of response from clergy. You will then learn ways to turn these roadblocks into resources in order to facilitate a victim’s recovery.
Christian teachings can confuse a victim and become roadblocks to safety, healing and empowerment. Below are six samples of common scriptures/teachings that can become roadblocks, followed by how to bring clarity transforming the roadblocks into healing resources.
Roadblock: There are many examples in Scripture of God punishing those who sin and the consequences suffered due to their sinful behavior. Victims can easily conclude, “Because I am suffering, I must have sinned and am being punished by God.”
Resource: The disciples’ question of Jesus in John 9, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” is one that people continue to ask today. In the struggle to understand why they are suffering, victims often assume they are the cause.
Jesus’ answer to the disciples, “Neither this man nor his parents”, continues to speak truth to those suffering abuse. Their suffering is not the result of God’s response to their sin; it is the result of their abuser’s sin.
God is not blind to the abuser’s sin, even though it may feel as if God does not hear the victim’s cries. Psalm 34:15-18 says, “The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry. The face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to blot out their name from the earth. The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
Roadblock: Both secular and religious cultures are quick to quote this verse from Ephesians 5:22 when issues of authority in marriage arise. Not only do abusers of power use this Scripture to control their victim, the victims themselves often believe that this verse requires a wife to accept her husband’s abusive behavior. Using this logic a Christian woman concludes that to be a godly wife, she should submit to whatever her husband says or does.
Resource: In the New Testament, the topic of submission begins in Ephesians 5:21, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The Apostle Paul then describes what a godly relationship looks like, calling on both the wife and the husband to submit to each other. It was then and continues to be today a very counter-cultural message; many men resist laying down their lives for their wife as Christ laid down his life for the church. Yet this is what the Bible teaches; not domination but mutual submission.
When abuse enters into a marriage, the perfect relationship of mutual submission is absent; therefore, the concept of submission can no longer be applied.
Quoting God’s word to cover abuse is sin. God’s word never condones abuse.
Roadblock: These three words are well known to believers caught in abusive marriages, heard both from pulpits and abusers. These words are clear and direct. There is no misunderstanding what they mean. Even if a woman contemplates escaping, she may stay out of fear of engendering God’s hatred.
Resource: These three words are part of 197 words in Malachi 2:13-17. Yet these three dominate people’s thinking so that all the others go unheard. Furthermore, the three words are merely the beginning of a sentence. The entire sentence in verse 16 says, “I hate divorce and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garments” (emphasis added). God hates divorce AND violence. Both go against God’s design for marriage.
The text is directed toward Jewish men of that day who were abusing their wives but acting tenderly with them in public and then divorcing them to marry another. God was not fooled then and he is not fooled today.
Two times Malachi gives a strong directive: “So guard yourself in your spirit and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.” When a husband’s spirit is one with Christ and one with his wife, a healthy relationship will result. It is comforting to note that this passage is advocating for the welfare of the wife as well as God’s desire for marriage.
Roadblock: Similar to other scriptures/teachings, victims can hear this from pulpits and abusers, and even from women intending to be faithful teachers of God’s word. If a wife does not rule her own body but her husband does, then it must be acceptable for him to rule over her physically in whatever way he wants. To be a godly wife then means to surrender to whatever he does or demands.
Resource: Unfortunately, the first half of 1 Corinthians 7:4 is most frequently quoted. However, the verse in its entirety says, “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife” (emphasis added).
As in the case with “God hates divorce” and “Wives, submit to your husband”, this too is misquoted or incompletely quoted. God’s desire is for open communication between husband and wife and mutual submission to each other’s desires. The Scriptures do not give license for domination or abuse.
Roadblock: Often when a woman attempts to leave an abusive situation, her abuser and sometimes her pastor will pressure her to forgive the abuser if he asks her. Scripture teaches the importance of forgiving: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” (Matthew 6:12); “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). Implied with the pressure to forgive is to forget the abuse and remain in the relationship. To leave would be to be unforgiving and therefore sinful.
Resource: Matthew 18:15-17 and Luke 17:1-4 ground us in an important truth: the work of forgiveness, though intensely personal, is done within the community of faith. Those who experience abuse do not accomplish this hard work alone. This means, then, the end of secrecy in the home and the church. Christian community is the place and context of healing. The church discerns whether the repentance is from godly sorry (2 Corinthians 7:8-11).
Reconciliation does not immediately follow true godly repentance. Rather, time for the penitent one to demonstrate a changed behavior is imperative. A victim’s life could be endangered if she reunites with her abuser before his transformation is evident. Also, the victim needs time to work through multiple stages of forgiveness.
Roadblock: Scripture teaches us to take up our cross and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23) and to rejoice in our sufferings because they produce perseverance (Romans 5:3). If you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God (1 Peter 2:20). To suffer is to be like Jesus. A victim of abuse comes to believe that she must simply accept abuse, her “suffering”, as her cross to bear.
Resource: It is crucial for a victim of abuse to have clarity on God’s word relating to suffering. In the “take up your cross” passage, for example, Jesus is not speaking to all forms of sufferings, annoyances and frustrations; he is specifically teaching on the importance of complete surrender of one’s will and agenda in order to follow him wholeheartedly, even to the point of death. Likewise, suffering for our faith is not the same as suffering abuse; the former is the cost of true discipleship; the latter is the result of power and control over another individual, never sanctioned by God’s word.
Jesus is our example of ultimate obedience, even to the point of suffering on our behalf. We, too, will suffer in our obedience to his calling. However, victims of abuse must never equate their suffering as a ministry call from Jesus or as God’s will for them.
Breaking silence about domestic violence or dealing with the after effects of sexual assault may not only cause a breech in the victim or survivor’s faith, but it may rupture her sense of belonging to a community that shares the same beliefs. Women believe they will be judged and/or ostracized by their community, especially by other women.
Some of the behaviors that exist among congregants that might cause a victim or survivor to live in silence, rather than break silence are:
1. Denial that this happens
2. Being judgmental and holding a “better than” you attitude
3. Lack of personal involvement and distancing
4. Keeping up facades to pretend that it has not happened
5. Minimizing the effects of the violence
6. Lack of understanding of the victim’s experience
To turn this roadblock into a resource, it is “vitally important for religious leaders to be proactive in identifying and responding to domestic and sexual violence in their congregations. Addressing these issues – from the pulpit and in classrooms – as a pervasive and painful problem, and hosting programs, support groups and advocacy efforts can break the barrier of silence and help survivors emerge from isolation and despair. Conversely, when domestic and sexual violence is not addressed by religious leaders, or is dealt with in a well-intended yet uninformed manner, more pain and suffering can be wrought upon survivors and their families.”1
Over the last 15 years, RAVE, an organization devoted to equipping religious leaders to respond to domestic violence, has collected data from over 500 church women concerning domestic violence.2
When a victim of abuse hears her pastor openly address domestic violence, she is encouraged to seek his or her help. However, if that is not the case, she has to gauge how she will be received.
In addition to surveying church women over the last 15 years, RAVE also collected data from over 500 religious leaders concerning domestic violence. Here are some of their beliefs concerning abuse and a snapshot of their experiences related to working with victims and perpetrators:
Many factors can influence a clergy person’s responsiveness to a victim/survivor:
1. Denial that a member of the church is abusive, particularly if the abuser is a person in leadership
2. Lack of awareness, education and training on abuse
3. Theological position (such as those discussed above)
4. Personal experience (e.g. negative past experiences—with the victim, with women in general, with his/her own marriage, with volunteering at a shelter, etc.)
5. Fear (e.g. of how acknowledgement of the abuse would impact the church; how to handle/address the abuser if they are a member of the church, of losing financial support of significant donors, etc.)
6. Not having a support network to turn to when facing these types of issues
To remove this roadblock requires introspection and openness on the part of the spiritual leader. It will also require a commitment to becoming aware of the problems, issues and ways to address them. The spiritual leader can then lead the congregation from the pulpit as well as by personal example.
1. A Message from the Boston Coalition Religious Community Task Force, in Responding to Domestic Violence: a Guide for Clergy and Laity. Office of Attorney General Scott Harsbarger in cooperation with the Boston Coalition Religious Community Task Force.” 1997
2. Rave, www.theraveproject.com, Resources.