Why do pastors struggle with confronting domestic violence?
Author and blogger John Shore recently addressed the above question after hearing from a multitude of women who were told by their pastors to, “in one way or another, stick with their abusive husbands.”
Explaining that he personally had never known any pastor that would give such advice, Shore attempted to highlight six reasons why he and his wife thought “good, loving, well-intentioned men” might have done “such a terrible thing.”
First, Shore penned on his blog last week that domestic violence was fundamentally unbelievable and incomprehensible to most people – even pastors.
“When faced with a woman saying that her husband is abusing her, pastors must sometimes immediately and even instinctively assume that in some fundamental way the woman must be mistaken.”
Assuming that the wife’s perception was skewed, many pastors could subsequently feel that wives were “exaggerating, misunderstanding, rushing to unsupportable conclusions, too upset, or too emotional.”
Another reason why pastors might give such “manifestly, egregiously, [and] cruelly wrong” advice, Shore speculated, was because wife abusers were masterful manipulators and sociopaths.
“Guys who abuse their wives are typically the friendliest, most sincere, open, warm, kind, generous, good-natured people ... And guess who’s at the top of the list of people the abuser is determined to fool?”
“The family pastor, who is very much inclined to love and trust people,” he answered. “Most pastors don’t stand a chance against a perpetrator of domestic violence.”
Shore mentioned several other factors for such alarming counsel including: Pastors think spousal abuse only happens in certain kinds of families; pastors haven’t thought enough about the gray area between “submit” and abuse; pastors believe what they preach; and pastors simply aren’t trained on domestic violence.
But before categorizing all pastors into one mold, Dr. Heath Lambert, assistant professor of Biblical Counseling at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, differentiated three unique scenarios that could have occurred between the pastor and the abused wife.
In alternative number one, the counsel could have come from a good pastor who gave unwise counsel, stating that even good pastors make mistakes.
“They mean the best, but they blow it. This is the scenario Shore assumes, and I think he is correct in many of his reasons for thinking a good pastor would give such bad advice. I think there are at least a couple of other options, however.”
In the next scenario, the counsel could have been given by a good pastor whose advice was misunderstood.
“For instance, we can imagine a scenario where a woman was abused by her husband, is angry, scared, and wants to leave. Her pastor, however, has several things that he tries to communicate to this wife: the church is going to do whatever they can to keep her safe and out of harm’s way; the church also wants to help her husband with his sinfully violent rage.”
“The church wants to minister to any children involved, and help them with their problems as well; the church – out of desire to honor the institution of marriage, and a belief that even the worst situation can improve by the power of Jesus – wants to try to save the marriage and see the couple come back together in a happy marriage.
“This is a complex and multi-layered response, but we can imagine that a scared wife would only hear the last goal, and not the other three.”
The last alternative could be that the counsel was bad advice given from a bad pastor.
“There is no guarantee that someone is any good at being a pastor just because they work under a steeple and have a sign on their door that says ‘pastor.’ This is the case for any person in any occupation whether engineers, physicians, teachers, or lifeguards. Not every individual is the best potential representative of the line of work in which they serve.”
Attempting to resolve each scenario, Lambert suggested that in the first alternative where good pastors gave bad counsel, pastors need to read about domestic violence so they know what to expect and what to do when they have such conversations.
“They need to listen well, proceed slowly, and then seek the advice and counsel of other pastors with more experience than they.”
In the second, good pastors need to be careful in how they communicate the counseling goals to a woman who is fearful in the aftermath of domestic violence.
“Pastors need to be clear that the goal in the aftermath of abuse is not merely to ‘stick with their abusive husbands’ any more than it is to leave at any cost ... The goal is to deal with the problem ... care for hurting women and their children, to keep them safe at all costs, and to help them know how they can live for the glory of Jesus Christ even in desperate and dangerous times.”
In the last alternative, where women are mistreated by their husbands and then mistreated by their pastors, “victims twice-over,” Lambert proposed that they should do all that they can to find a better pastor.
Thankful for Shore’s article, which provided an opportunity for Christians to think more clearly about the issue, Lambert told The Christian Post that he was also thankful that the blogger was very charitable to pastors.
“Many who criticize pastoral responses assume the worst of pastors and make them out to be fundamentally unkind and unloving. Such a characterization is not true.”
“Pastors are men who give their lives to advance the kingdom of Jesus and to help hurting people. Pastors, as a rule, are not malevolent. In referring to pastors as ‘good, loving, well-intentioned,’ Shore shows that he understands this fact.”
As a minister to many abused women and a victim of childhood abuse himself, Lambert understood much of Shore’s analysis to be true, though he did not agree with every point made.
In regards to pastors not thinking enough about the gray area between “submit” and abuse, the professor stated that there was actually no connection between biblical ideas of submission, authority and abuse.
“The Bible repeatedly urges those in positions of authority to be servants full of love.” Quoting Ephesians 5:25 and Matthew 20:25-28, Lambert relayed, “Paul tells husbands to ‘love their wives as Christ loved the church.’ Jesus says to those in authority, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you.’”
“‘But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”
“There is no endemic connection between authority and abuse,” he clarified. “We do not assume that a boss at work is malicious because of his position of authority over his employees. We do not assume a teacher in school is abusive because she has charge over her students.”
Instead, we say that some wicked people engage in abuse because they are sinful and distort the responsibility they have to advance the cause of good in their spheres of influence, he illustrated.
Repeating that there was no gray area on the issue, Lambert stressed that abuse and biblical categories of authority and submission were as far away as hot and cold.
“Abusers are wicked people who misuse their authority and should be corrected. The problem does not exist intrinsically in the idea of submission and authority.”
Good pastors, he emphasized, understand this and are not confused by the “gray area.”
But wanting to be as clear as possible on the issue, Lambert pointed to the relationship within the Holy Spirit. “The Bible makes it clear that Jesus Christ, who is God the Son, submits to the Father, but the Father honors and gives glory to the Son. The relationship that exists within the triune God, therefore, shows that it is possible for there to be submission among two co-equal persons without any abuse of power.”
Pastors should point husbands to the caring authority of God the Father, and should point wives to the gracious submission of Christ as model for how authority and submission work out between two equal persons.”
It is not enough however for Christians to simply desire that pastors did a better job handling issues of domestic violence, Shore expressed. “We must also help them obtain the training necessary for doing so.”
Expanding on the training necessary for pastors, Lambert suggested that first, all pastors should learn about 1 Thessalonians 5:14, which states, “And we urge you brothers, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”
“When abuse happens, a pastor is dealing with all three of these kinds of people,” he said. “Abusers are unruly who need admonishment and correction. Pastors should move quickly to correct abusers with church accountability and legal consequences.”
To the fainthearted persons, or those who had been abused, pastors should minister the tender mercies of Jesus while dealing with pain and devastation of abuse, he continued.
“Finally pastors should offer tangible help to victims and perpetrators of abuse: helping women out financially, providing a safe place to stay, marriage and individual counseling, help with children. All of these things need to be on the radar.”
Elaborating on the grave issue of physical abuse, Lambert’s article entitled “Three Questions about Physical Abuse” will address the problems and possible solutions more thoroughly and will be published in a few weeks by The Journal of Family Ministry.
“Though my experience as both a victim of abuse and a minister helping those who have been victimized help shape my thinking, this article is not anchored in my experience,” his introduction reads. “Instead, it is anchored in the pages of God’s Word which wisely, sufficiently, and relevantly addresses the theme of abuse and offers counsel both to attackers and those they attack.”
“Ministers can have confidence ... that the Bible equips them to understand what abuse is and how to minister to marriages affected by it all,” Lambert concludes. “Ministers can furthermore have confidence that the Gospel of our mighty Christ is sufficient to empower abusive men and abused women to change so that they look more like him.”