A Message to Churches: Abuse in the home is a subject near to my heart for many, very personal, reasons. I’m far too familiar with the subject in far too many ways to pretend it doesn’t need to be addressed. Abuse, in a number of ways, has invaded the lives of many family members, many friends. I was born into a family broken by abuse. I know what it does, what it can do. I understand, first hand, how it destroys the lives of those affected by it. I have no compassion, no patience, for abusers. Nor do I have compassion for those who would shelter them, deny the abuse is happening or choose to look the other way. That many, if not most folks, who have not known abuse first-hand would fear coming close to it, I can understand–though Christian compassion ought to cause us to overcome our fear and help the abused; I can’t, however, understand the determination to pretend it isn’t real or to come down hard on the one (usually a woman) who is abused. Abuse isn’t catching but it is real. Often, those who are living in abuse, have no idea what to do, no one to turn to and are desperately frightened. Often, it is at great personal cost that the abused comes forth with the truth. The harm that is done when church folks ignore her cries for help or for being believed that it is as bad as she says it is, is far, far greater than one who hasn’t faced it could ever know. If her husband finds out she has told, more often than not, she will pay for the telling. Some women pay with their lives.
So, please, if a woman (or, at times, a man) comes to you or to your church (Pastors, please listen) with a shocking story of abuse by a man you believe to be good and upright, take time out of your day and listen to her, comfort her, offer her hope. If you don’t know how to advise her, find out. There are places where she can receive help, even if the abuse leveled against her is only emotional or verbal abuse (as if these aren’t real abuse); these are killing abuses just as much as physical abuse can be. The only difference is what part of a woman is killed: her heart or her body.
So often women who are abused by their husbands not only have to deal with abuse at home but, often, with neglect in their local churches. Since church folk often confuse being forgiven with being perfect, anything or anyone that isn’t “perfect” often tends to get pushed aside. Often that leaves those who are most in need of love and guidance alone and lonely as they try to make sense of the nightmarish life they are living.
Many Christians have an idea of the ideal marriage that is sadly based more on tradition than on Scripture (a falsehood which allows a man to treat his wife as a possession) and many wives don’t know enough or have enough support to fight against such a belief; this very fact sets many wives up for abuse. While Scripture teaches the headship of man and teaches that marriage is to be complementarian, nowhere does Scripture support or allow for a man to verbally or emotionally browbeat or abuse his wife or children or abuse them sexually, financially or physically. Scripture also does not allow men to physically discipline their wives or force her to stay locked in a room or never leave the house (or only do so with their very rare–if at all–permission); a woman is not a child and physical punishment at the hands of her husband is just plain wrong. As such it, like all abuse, is sin.
It is often very difficult for a church to recognize an abuser as such; abusive spouses are good at keeping up the façade that causes observers to believe the best about them (while often painting their spouses in unflattering ways) while at home, in private, their families get to see, and deal with, the painful truth of their abuse. This is why wives who muster the courage to speak of abuse must be believed. While it is true that anyone, even a true Christian, can sometimes lose their temper, act in unbecoming ways or even say or do things in a cruel fashion, conviction and repentance will mark the true but imperfect Christian from the abusing spouse who professes Christianity. The problem is getting the church at large to see the difference.
Sadly, even if they do understand the difference, churches frequently refuse to acknowledge that abuse can be going on in one of their families. Failure to believe abused wives is epidemic in our churches. Often it is easier to believe the abused spouse of being overly emotional or unforgiving or to tell her to go home and try to be more submissive to her husband than it is to force ourselves to confront the fact that there are abusers in our midst. Since the abused wife is most likely far more submissive than most Christian wives, telling her to be more submissive is not only not helpful, it also is enabling the husband to continue to sin against her and possibly bring her and the children further harm.
Additional problems arise when the spouse is believed but, through the very act of being believed, becomes a sore spot among members who might want to maintain a more traditional view to the surrounding community or even among themselves. There are places where abuse simply does not happen even as it is happening and can be proved.
Church members and leaders need to acknowledge that there is a very great chance that sooner or later you are going to have to deal with abusive persons in your church. Accept it and arm yourself to deal biblically with it. If a woman is telling a story of emotional, sexual or physical abuse about a man whom you trust and respect, do her and yourself a favor and at least look into it. It takes great courage for her to stand up and admit it to anyone because she might have to pay a very great price for her honesty. Don’t be guilty of killing the messenger when the messenger has already suffered so much.