How Pastors Can Best Help Victims of Domestic Abuse

This article originally appeared in Leadership Journal (Spring 2015).

At least one in four women is a victim of domestic abuse in her lifetime. And research shows that Christian women stay far longer in abusive situations and in more severe abuse than their non-Christian counterparts.

My wife, Lindsey, served as a case manager at a domestic violence shelter, and together we provide crisis intervention to victims of abuse. As we’ve conducted training to service providers and churches, we’ve found that pastors want to help those being hurt by domestic violence, but they don’t always know how.

Ministers can offer immense help and support. Those suffering domestic abuse need care on various levels—practical, spiritual, emotional—from pastors. Responding effectively and referring victims to advocacy services results in fewer violence-related injuries and saves lives. Here are some of the most common questions we receive from ministers.

What is domestic abuse?

In our book, Is It My Fault? Lindsey and I define domestic abuse as “a pattern of coercive or controlling behavior used by one individual to gain or maintain power and control over another individual in the context of an intimate relationship. This includes any behaviors that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, exploit, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure, or wound an intimate partner.” This definition is the consensus of psychologists, lawmakers, and experts in the field.

Is abuse dangerous if it is not physical violence?

Yes. Domestic abuse can take many forms—willful intimidation, physical assault, sexual assault, battery, stalking, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, economic control, psychological abuse, and isolation. Threats of abuse can be as frightening as the abuse itself.

Should I encourage a victim to call the police and report physical abuse, or should we deal with it as a spiritual issue?

A victim should first turn to the police when violent abuse has occurred. Pastors have much to contribute, but after the police have been called.

“Violent abuse” refers to using physical force in a way that injures or endangers someone. Physical assault or battery is a crime, whether it occurs inside or outside of the family. The police have the power and authority to protect victims from physical attack. And victims of violent abuse have the right to protect themselves and their children.

The police are able to respond quickly to her situation 24/7 and will know where she can seek immediate assistance in the community. The police are informed of medical and emergency housing options and can help facilitate safe travel to those places for her and her children.

The police are the best first responders because an act of violence is a crime, potentially life threatening, and should be addressed immediately. Without proper intervention, this crime will most likely escalate and occur again. The police receive training on how to intervene in domestic assault situations and are prepared to keep the victim and themselves safe in the process.

What might an abused woman think about God and the hope for deliverance?

Abused women who are Christians often rationalize their suffering as being “God’s will” or “part of God’s plan for my life” or “God’s way of teaching me a lesson.” But enabling one person’s cruelty to another is not the will of a just and loving God.

Pastors can say something like this:

“God knows and sees your suffering. He cares for you so much that he wants you safe and delivered from threat and violence. If you have children, he wants them safe too. And beyond physical safety, God wants you to heal from the many ways you’ve been wounded.

“Your suffering does not mean that God has forsaken you. Rather, God is on the move in response to prayers for deliverance. Not only that, but he equips us to move ourselves. The Psalms show us that while David prayed to God for deliverance, he also took the necessary measures to get to a safe place away from the violence. David prayed, but he also wisely fled and removed himself from the threat of violence.

“While we cannot always observe this deliverance immediately, God will, no doubt, provide a way of escape.

“In a world where you have suffered from the one closest to you, the greatest promise we can offer is the assurance of God’s loving and watchful presence. And he will give you the strength you need to do what’s next.

“As you discern what your next step is, remember that there are resources available to you. You don’t have to remain silent anymore. Tell a friend, a family member, the authorities, a pastor, or ministry leader.

“Please understand: Jesus responds to your pain. Your story does not end with abuse and violence. Your life was intended for more than shame, guilt, fear, and confusion. The abuse does not define you or your identity. Yes, it is part of your story, but not the end of your story.”

What can I say to a woman who is convinced the abuse is her fault?

“There is no action, thought, or sin you could have done to make you deserving of violence. You do not deserve this. And it is not your fault.

“You did not ask for this. You are not worthless. You don’t have to pretend nothing happened. You are not damaged goods or ‘getting what you deserve.’ You are created in the image of God and should be treated with dignity, love, and respect. Instead you were the victim of abuse and violence, and it was wrong. You were sinned against.”

When should I encourage a woman to leave an abusive situation?

In general, whenever she and/or the children are being abused or feel they’re in any kind of danger.

Make a safety plan, which outlines what steps to take if they are experiencing physical, sexual, emotional, and/or verbal abuse from a partner, spouse, or family member. A safety plan helps her know what to do if/when she decides to leave or finds herself (and/or children) in an emergency.

Since it’s such a sensitive document, tell her to be careful when creating, printing, or completing a safety plan. Consider who will have access to it and where it will be stored.

Leaving is a critical step for a woman in an abusive relationship, but it is also dangerous. There is an on-going risk even after leaving. Over 75 percent of separated women suffer abuse after they have left their partners.

Does the Bible require a woman to stay in a marriage that’s abusive?

Abuse twists God’s good intention of marriage. The Bible condemns domestic violence, and proclaims God’s judgment on abusers. The psalmist, for example, declares God’s hatred of abuse in no uncertain terms: “the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion” (Ps. 11:5).

No person is expected to stay in an abusive marriage. Marriage is a covenant. When a husband chooses to be abusive, he breaks that covenant.

If his wife chooses to separate, she is making public his breaking of the covenant, and this does not go against what the Bible says about divorce. It is the abuser who must be confronted about breaking the marriage covenant.

As Ron Clark writes, “Victims need to know that leaving is well within their rights as a child of God.”

If I suspect a woman is being abused, how do I approach her?

Find a time to meet with just her. Tell her you have noticed certain things and are concerned about her safety and well-being. Explain what you see and why you think it might mean she is being abused. Women in abusive situations often don’t identify it as abuse. She might think this is normal.

Ask her what she needs and how the church can care for her. Be prepared to offer a few options. Does she need emergency shelter, medical care, or legal support? (Have a list of domestic violence shelters with legal advocates.)

Let her know she isn’t alone, doesn’t have to make a decision today, and that you are there for her when she is ready to get help.

You can call a local domestic violence shelter or the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) for specific things to ask or not say and get some practical things to offer if she opens up.

What are possible signs of abuse?

Possible signs of an abusive relationship

  • Partner belittles, controls, or threatens her, or exhibits violent behavior.
  • Partner talks over her or for her. She is reluctant to speak.
  • Partner makes disparaging comments about her.
  • Partner is in contact with her excessively. Rarely leaves her unaccompanied.
  • Partner presents her as unreasonable and himself as victim of her unreasonable behavior.
  • She is more and more isolated. Withdrawn. Stops talking about her partner.
  • Has unexplained injuries or blames herself for them.
  • May appear fearful, jumpy, or over careful in her partner’s company.
  • May have no access to money.

Her children may call her names and ignore her. Or they may be clingy, not wanting to leave her.