A woman suspects abuse in her marriage: How should a church respond?

The most important tool to protect women from abuse is education. Education for the woman and education for those in leadership. Unfortunately, there is a deficit of education about the concept of “abuse of power.” This leaves women and churches vulnerable to tolerating abusive behavior. In addition to education, churches can provide practical help to vulnerable women and children in the following ways:

  1. Ask questions and understand the signs of abuse (see pages 27-30 of What to Do When You Are Abused by Your Husband ), and ensure that the woman understands the signs of abuse. One of the most important things a woman needs to hear is, “Based on what you’ve said, there is abuse in your marriage.” This is both validating and empowering, and women often need to know someone else “sees” in order to act courageously on behalf of themselves and their children. We recommend giving women the book What to Do When You Are Abused by Your Husband; it is short, practical, and addresses the key issues from a Christian perspective. We also recommend that all clergy and lay leaders read the book to understand and recognize signs of abuse.
  2. Though there are two sides to every story, most abused women minimize and do not exaggerate claims of abuse. In contrast, most abusers put a “magnifying glass” on every real or invented flaw in the woman to take the spotlight off himself. The most important thing a church can do is believe and support her unless proven otherwise, especially if the woman has a history of integrity.
  3. Supply prayer support and individual counseling, but do not recommend couples’ counseling. The “balance of power” is already severely off in these relationships, and the woman should not try to reconcile at this stage. Individual healing and signs of true repentance are needed for at least 6 months.
  4. Create a “pipeline” to help women and children leave safely. Statistically the most dangerous time for a woman leaving domestic abuse is the first two weeks after she leaves. The most practical immediate need a church can supply when a woman and her children need to leave is 3 nights of emergency shelter at a hotel followed by 2-4 weeks of short-term housing with a local family (or Airbnb) until she can secure a more permanent home and possibly job. Christian women especially are often from single-income families, and they do not have employment. This is one of the primary reasons they do not leave earlier. It takes time for them to get a job, be approved for rent, etc.
  5. Have a list of recommended domestic violence savvy attorneys and mediators. Free legal counsel is also available through Legal Aide if finances are a strong concern. Abused women generally have poor self-advocacy skills and need an attorney who understands the common tactics with custody and negotiation with narcissistic personalities.
  6. Include the topic of abuse in premarital counseling and marriage courses. Rarely is any mention of abuse or the signs of abuse mentioned in premarital counseling or marriage courses. The best intervention is prevention, and unfortunately, many women do not recognize the subtle signs of abuse or abusive tendencies until things have escalated. We recommend that signs of abuse be included at the beginning of classes since “typical” marital advice can backfire and act as gasoline in an abusive marriage. Abuse is like a disease, and it is best addressed in the early stages. For the sake of children and future children, preventative measures are one of the most important and overlooked steps.
  7. Use the pulpit as a platform to educate the congregation about 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 and other passages which speak about boundaries with people and make no mention of exclusion in marriage. Education from the pulpit is one of the most important steps. Some pastors have spoken about narcissism and used “modern” terms to engage their congregation.
Tags: churchtoo, domestic abuse, religion