In recent years, Christians have acknowledged that domestic abuse exists within the evangelical community. Some churches have faced this reality and sought resources for healing and reconciliation. But while some have found blessing and growth when they have addressed this concern openly others remain uncomfortable when any significant attention is given to this subject.
Churches that have responded to the reality of abuse in their midst do so because of the biblical calls to truth and compassion toward those who suffer (Ps. 72:1-4, 12-14; Eccles. 4:1; Isa. 58:4-6; Jer. 21:12, 22:16; Ezek. 45:9). In these communities, abusive actions and attitudes that may exist are not seen as private matters—excused and immunized simply as losses of temper or annoyance. Instead, they are seen as hindrances to the message of reconciliation within the body of Christ.
When we look closely at the motives behind inappropriate actions and attitudes in our relationships, we find that abuse is more common than we thought. It may be something as seemingly harmless as constantly and purposefully ignoring a spouse’s known emotional needs; disrespect, constant yelling, or the silent treatment; or something more severe—throwing things, kicking, and hitting. Some evangelicals are naming these actions and attitudes “abusive,” for it is hardened hearts and demands for one’s own way that are behind the actions. Abusers are knowingly inconsiderate, and their actions are intended to punish, diminish, manipulate, control, or intimidate. The present and future cost of trying to live in this kind of environment is a brain bathed in years of stress and fear, anxiety and anger, and it can lead to health problems, from depression to heart disease. Abuse is improper stewardship of the lives to which one has been entrusted, and understood as an intentional stumbling block that can lead to the sins of bitterness, contempt, disrespect, hopelessness, and despair within those we are called to love and protect.
The Roots Of Abuse
Although we say that abuse is wrong for Christians to engage in, we may be surprised to discover how significantly Scripture addresses situations and relationships that may be related to abusive actions. They concern one’s relationship with God and the ways humans go about making themselves feel secure and significant through their use of power and control.
Old Testament passages that call for compassion and justice, as well as passages that condemn abuse, injustice, and disregard for the vulnerable, are many (Exod. 3:7-8; Ps. 34:14, 37:37, 58:2; Prov 3:31, 12:20; Isa. 32:16-17; Mal. 2:16-17). The New Testament is also full of instructional references for both healthy and abusive interactions (Matt. 5:21-24, 12:34-37; Rom. 12:9-19, 14:19; Heb. 3:13, 10:24, 12:14; 1 Peter 3:8-9, 4:7-11; Eph. 4:29-32, 5:1-2, 21; 1 Tim. 3:2-4; 2 Tim. 2:24; Titus 1:6-7; James 1:19-20, 3:9-18, 4:1-3, 5:9).
It is relationship with God that is behind the sin of our first parents in the Garden. Original sin wasn’t simply disobedience to God; it included humans acting on the temptation to become like God (Gen. 3:2-7). It was humans choosing self-power and knowledge over yielding to God’s moral will and wisdom. That quest for security and significance apart from God backfired and resulted instead in our alienation from him as well as from one another
Now, seen in the context of original sin, abuse is not just a person hitting because of having a hard time with temper control; it goes far deeper. Abuse includes the need to establish oneself above others and to have enough power and control in order not to appear vulnerable or weak and so not to have to yield (submit) to those around. Abuse includes using others for establishment of self and for punishing those who challenge or threaten the establishment of the self. Seen in the contest of original sin, abuse is removed from the “something other people do” box that we have self-righteously placed it in. It becomes instead something we have all been guilty of in varying degrees. And this becomes the crux of why many of us are uncomfortable with expanding the definition of abuse to include verbal, emotional, and psychological damage.
When we thus widen the arenas of abuse, many of us would have to face the fact that, at times, we too have been abusive. Some of us would have to acknowledge that our own marriages are abusive—though it’s more comfortable for us to limit the definition to the physical alone. In this way we preserve our estimation of our spiritual and marital health along with the positions of power to which we believe we’re entitled.
The Remedy: Imitation Of Christ
Some Christians are beginning to confront the problem of abuse by honestly exploring tendencies toward abusive patterns in their own lives. Many are turning toward imitation of Christ in order to learn new ways to respond in their relationships. Instead of clinging to worldly uses of power and position in their families and to the enforcement “tools” often used to maintain and protect that power and position, Christians are looking to Christ and to his example of yielding and submitting (Matt. 20:4-28, 23:6-12; Mark 9: 35, 10:42-45; Luke 22:24-27; John 13:13-17; 1 Cor. 1: 26-31; Gal. 5:13; Eph. 5:21; James 2:5, 3:17; 1 Peter 5:2-3).
The goal of imitating Christ in family relationships means endeavoring to treat others fairly and with justice. It has to do with defendants and with lifting up family members, not putting them down, and not competing against them or engaging in “one-upmanship.” It means not seeing ourselves as somehow entitled to and deserving of primary consideration, or of advantage, of position, and superior spiritual standing. It means not leaving our family struggling with stumbling blocks that we’ve placed in front of them, or scrambling for loopholes in our enforced system of entitlement, searching for ways to consider only the minimum of their needs, their feelings, and their interests.
More than one Garden of Eden relationship was broken because of sin. But now, with the coming of Christ, more than one Garden of Eden relationship has the possibility for restoration. Working to restore broken relationships among the people of God is central to the gospel message. The full implication of the coming of Christ and his death on the cross centers on restored relationships—a restored relationship with God and restored relationships with one another (Matt. 5:23-24, 15:12, 17, 22:34-40; Acts 2; 1 John 3:16-19, 23, 4:11-12; 1 Cor. 12:24-26; 2 Cor. 5:16-20; Gal. 5:22-23; Eph. 2:13-22, 3:28; 4).
In the book Women, Abuse and the Bible: How Scripture Can Be Used to Hurt or Heal (Catherine Clark Kroeger, Baker, 1996), James R. Beck’s article, “Theology for the Healthy Family,” draws on biblical principles and examples for healthy ways of relating. Beck writes, “Building on our full equality in Christ as marriage partners, our family communicates directly, lovingly, and honestly with one another, confesses to and forgives one another in the routine conflicts of life, conciliates when tempted to misuse authority with control or force, and conjures no one, but offers only authentic contrition to one another.”
The topics of abuse and reconciliation in the teachings and programs of a church cannot be dependent on community interest, assessed need, or comfort with the subject. Church leaders who avoid addressing the subject of abuse in their midst have to face that their silence and fear of “rocking the boat” could even be enabling abusive relationships in the congregation, honoring sin, and fostering the very problems they often find themselves addressing in private on their knees.
In her book Battered but Not Broken: Help for Abused Wives and Their Church Families (Judson Press, 1996), Christian author and shelter director Patricia Riddle Gaddis writes that as many as “one in four members of the faith community is a victim or survivor of domestic violence.” With this kind of reality in mind, some congregations are authentically responding to the possibility of abuse in the body. Still, many congregations are reluctant to approach the subject beyond an occasional sermon or Scripture reading that teaches respect and love. To address this brokenness properly, much more is called for.
Elephant In The Living Room
The subject of abuse in all its facets can open a big can of worms for a congregation. At the same time, it can also be the proverbial elephant in the living room, whose existence can neither be denied nor ignored for very long. By intentionally maintaining and protecting the “code of silence” on the subject of abuse, but then rising to the occasion with concern, financial help, and prayers when the result of that abuse inevitably becomes visible is like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping, bleeding wound. Many church members’ health problems and the personal problems that pastors face daily can be traced to broken relationships and the “sins of the fathers [parents]” being revisited upon the children—the cycle of abuse. Divorce, depression, eating disorders, emotional suffering, suicide, illnesses, adolescent problems, stress, anxiety, sexual abuse, anger, and violence in Christian families: all can be traced to the abuse of power and unhealthy patterns of relating (though chemical imbalances such as depression, ADD, and even thyroid disorders can also cause misunderstandings and emotions that may lead to abusive responses toward others).
Churches should see their ministry as twofold: one area concerning teachings and programs that either foster or hinder the maturing quality of a relationship with God, the second area concerning fostering or hardening the maturing reconciliatory quality of members’ relationships with one another. To minimize one area is to weaken the other (see James 2:14-17). Aiming for balance involves regularly addressing what imitation of Christ looks like as well as what it does not look like. How do we edify, lift up, and empower others? Conversely, how do we manipulate, control, and diminish people?
There is a connection between the spiritual health of one’s relationship with God and the state of one’s relationships with others. Until this connection is seen and made primary in a church’s teachings and programs, its ministries will be incomplete. The very wholeness and healing that is sought may instead be deferred (Matt. 5:23-24; 1 Cor. 13:1-3; 1 Peter 3:7; 1 John 2:9, 3:14-23, 4:7-21; 5:1-2).
Writing in reference to Jeremiah 22:3-5; Luke 6:31, and James 4:17 in the Winter 2000 issue of Priscilla Papers, Steve Nicholson says:
[N]ot only must you refrain from doing wrong things to those who are weak or powerless, but you must also take an active role in rescuing them from the sins of others. The New Testament reinforces that doing right is a matter of taking positive actions, not simply of refraining from negative ones. The parable of the Good Samaritan reminds us that if we stand by silently or passively while a neighbor is injured or beaten or spit upon, then we have failed to love our neighbor as ourself. If we see hatred and evil and prejudice, yet stand by and say and do nothing, then we have committed the sin of silence. We have a communal responsibility for what happens in our midst, even if we are not the ones committing overt acts of violence. God holds us responsible both for what we do and for what we do not do. (P. 16)
While Nicholson is speaking of ethnic and racial reconciliation, his words and the Scriptures to which he refers are applicable to the subject of domestic abuse within the evangelical community as well.
Making a connection between how we use power and control and the quality of our relationship with God is controversial and threatening; it will shake many of us out of hiding places. We will have to admit that it is inappropriate actions and attitudes toward those we are called to love, to submit to and nurture and protect, that are what hinder our prayers and closeness to God, not how stimulating and entertaining our programs, our music, and our worship services are. Making this connection challenges our assumptions about the power and positions we’ve claimed. We’ll need to recognize that some of the ways we relate to our own family are not yielding and submitting; they could even be called abusive. And we’ll have to admit that pride and fear of not being in control are often what drive us— not loving our neighbor as ourselves.
The words of Scripture, the resources, and the personal stories of “wounded healers” who have survived abuse (both as victims and as perpetrators) are powerful instruments for blessing to those in the faith community presently living through personal violence.
But we don’t need to fear the subject of abuse, for fear is what keeps it hidden and allows it to grow. Fear keeps us suckled against the safe and comfortable. Fear keeps us from participating in the full reconciling ministry of the church. Exposing abuse in the body and bringing it into the open means revealing the truth. It names the abuse, weakening it. It will allow us to cut through the shame and respond to the voices of those “crying in the wilderness” who sit among us.