BRUCE ASHFORD, J. D. GREEAR, AND BRAD HAMBRICK
Pastors who wish to support, protect, and counsel survivors of abuse are often left wondering how best to minister to them. They want to provide the best counsel possible. But several misconceptions around the issue can cloud the thoughts and guide the actions of well-intentioned church leaders.
For pastors, saying “make sure you’re safe” may feel uncomfortably close to counseling “leave your marriage for good.” Any steps taken to protect victims of domestic abuse are steps towards fulfilling God’s will for marriage.
God hates divorce because he loves marriage. But that is also why he hates abuse. Paul says marriage should reflect the order and commitment within the Godhead, and thus should depict Christ’s sacrificial love for the church. Abuse is in diametric opposition to God’s design for marriage. Any steps taken to protect victims of domestic abuse, therefore, are steps towards fulfilling God’s will for marriage. By intervening on behalf of those afflicted by slander (abusive speech) or violence (abusive actions), we serve as God’s arm for executing justice for the needy (Ps. 140:11–12).
When pastors first hear stories of abuse, their initial instinct is often, This is bad. Something needs to be done quickly. But just because a victim speaks up, it doesn't mean she is ready to confront her abuser.
When church leaders act too quickly, questioning or confronting the abuser before the victim is ready, they can cause more harm than good, even putting the victim in greater danger. The victim may be silenced and punished by the abuser who now knows she spoke to an outsider.
Disclosing abuse and processing its implications can be overwhelming, and victims are often unclear about what actions, if any, they want you to take. Don’t take hesitancy as a sign that nothing needs to change. Unless there is risk of imminent harm or minors are involved—both require mandatory reporting—it is best to:
Direct intervention helpers (pastors, police, lawyers) are initially less helpful to those in harm’s way than less direct intervention helpers (hot lines, social workers, counselors). When abuse victims are asked to make changes for which they are unprepared, even healthy changes, the situation actually gets worse.For assistance to result in a positive outcome, the abuse victim must be ready to live out the implications. This is why involving an experienced abuse counselor is so important. If the abuse victim is not prepared and has no viable plan, emotional or financial pressure often leads her back home prematurely, and it may be years before she reaches out for help again.
When legal authorities get involved, the church often feels hampered in its ability to engage in restorative church discipline, which can go against a pastor’s shepherding impulses. A restraining order or an attorney’s request for the abuser not to make any incriminating statements can delay a church’s actions for months. When this happens, it means the offenses were significant enough to merit this kind of legal process.
It can be difficult for many church leaders to understand why the actions and processes of the church should be postponed so legal processes can unfold. But in Romans 13, Paul makes it very clear that in criminal matters, the state is God’s agent of justice. Deferring to legal processes is not putting God second; it is recognizing who God asked to take the lead when a crime has been committed. By putting the needs of the victim first, you are not minimizing the offenses of the abuser. Rather, you are preparing the victim to walk a difficult journey after her abuse becomes public knowledge.
We know that the vast majority of pastors genuinely love the members of their congregations and want to protect them. But as in all relationships, love alone is not enough. We must respond and act with biblical wisdom.