In response to our post from my friend who was abused, Sara Marie Forrest de Jaimes, a Christian midwife who has extensive experience in helping domestic violence victims, has written this two part series about how churches can respond to abuse.
As Christians, we have a responsibility to share God’s love with other Christians from many walks of life. When we have a woman in our church family who is going through an abusive situation, we need to make sure that the steps we take are not only godly, but also helpful and protecting one of God’s daughters.
Please remember that men can be victims of abuse as well. Although specifically written about female victims, this article applies to victims of both genders.
What is Domestic Violence?
Domestic violence is any type of behavior that inhibits the rights or freedoms of another person in an intimate relationship. Recognized forms of abuse include mental, emotional, spiritual, financial, sexual, and physical abuse. This can happen in a marriage, in a family, in a dating relationship, or between close friends.
Mental or emotional abuse is the most common form of abuse. It frequently, but not always, turns physical a few times during a relationship. It may be mild (pushing or shoving) or outright physical (hitting, slapping, kicking, or punching), but mainly the abuser uses words to control and belittle the victim.
Mental and emotional abuse almost always accompanies physical abuse. Sexual and financial abuse are also very common in these extreme relationships. Forced or coerced sexual contact or activity inside of a committed relationship is still rape.
Approaching a Suffering Family
The first thing to do when we suspect or are presented with abuse in our church is to confirm the reality. No matter how perfect (or imperfect) the couple seems, rumors need to be confirmed. Never brush off suspicions of abuse because of how someone “seems” at church, even if he is a senior member, elder, or even the pastor. Abuse knows no discrimination.
Another thing to remember is that everyone defines abuse differently. Some people may consider name calling as a form of emotional abuse, while it may not phase someone else. No matter what form of abuse we find ourselves dealing with, it is vital to understand that abuse is mostly about power. Whatever (or whoever) threatens the abuser’s power is going to be seen as an enemy.
When you decide to approach the subject with the family, remember to go to the suspected victim first. If you go straight to the abuser with accusations or “I am just making sure this isn’t true” and there is actual abuse happening, it is impossible to predict the reaction, immediate (to you) or delayed (once the abuser is alone with the victim).
Never ask a suspected victim about their safety in front of a suspected abuser. When an abuser is present, often the victim will not be able to be honest about the abuse. She may be scared or even suffer physically abusive consequences once alone with the abusive partner. There are certain ways of asking a woman about if abuse is occurring in her home. The safety of the suspected victim needs to be the ultimate priority. Approaching a victim in a safe environment means ensuring that the abuser cannot overhear the conversation.
As Christians, we need to avoid sinning in our quest to help. Lying, cheating, or betraying to get a woman away from her suspected abuser for a conversation is not helpful. If you invite her to go out to a women’s brunch, make sure there is a women’s brunch. If you invite her to a play date, make sure there are children there to play with her children. If the suspected abuser changes the plans, not having lied will prove beneficial to all involved.
A good start to the conversation can be something like, “As a church family, we are responsible for each other and I (we) want to make sure you don’t need anything.” Make sure whatever you say is not personally targeting the family in need, and does not come off as judgmental. Women in abusive relationships have many different feelings about their situation. Do not presume to know what your friend is thinking or how she will react. Many women will initially be fiercely protective of their partner. Other women may come out and say it. Direct the conversation, but do not be confrontational. While she may be submissive at home, she may react surprisingly strongly if she feels her relationship is under any kind of attack.
If the victim does not initially admit to issues, let her know that there is always an open door. Pray for her, and her family, and keep in touch. Would you tell a dark, generally shameful secret to a stranger? Sometimes, women will admit that there is some abuse or “there was that one time, but everything is fine now.” Either way, pray and stay in touch.
Never ask, “Why are you staying?” There are many reasons why women stay, but the reason can be generally grouped into four categories: Love, Fear, Shame, Finances. Abusers are amazing at making their victims dependent on them. They will alienate their victims from any family or friends that would threaten the abuser’s power. They will encourage (or demand) that the victims stop working or going to school. They will prevent the victims from doing anything that shows independence, including saving money or signing for a home or a car. Abusers will frequently threaten loved ones, including their own children. Abuse victims who are parents find themselves between a rock and a hard place. While they want their children to have their father, they also know that this is not a healthy environment for them. It must be understood that the victim is already accustomed to protecting her partner, either from their children or their own family or friends. That protection is, by now, a natural response to questions.
If your friend discloses the abuse, make a safety plan.
In Part II of this series, Sara will discuss guidelines for making and enacting a safety plan to help a victim of abuse get out of her dangerous situation. You can find more resources about Domestic Violence and other women’s health issues on her website, SaraTheMidwife.com.
4 thoughts on “A Church’s Response to Abuse Part I: The Approach”
Let the suspected victim vet you. It may take multiple conversations before she opens up. She doesn’t know if you’re safe, and she may well have encountered others she thought were safe only to be betrayed by them (whether the betrayal was malicious or not).
Oh yes, excellent point.