The church is to care for orphans and widows (James 1:27). An abuser has essentially orphaned his children and abandoned his wife. He has turned his vocation as a caregiver and protector on its head and corrupted it. Where the husband is meant to be a source of strength and safety, he has become weak and a source of fear and violence. If so, the church must step up and step in. Wives and children of abusers must be able to see in the church a refuge, a place of safety and help. Abused church members are the most vulnerable of all of Christ’s lambs and to them we owe a duty of special care and protection.
Few things are as distressing to cops, nurses, and pastors (or chaplains) as domestic violence. A cop will tell you that responding to a domestic violence call is never pleasant and often dangerous. In cases of domestic violence emotions run high. People do not think clearly. Drugs and alcohol are often in play. Such situations are volatile. They can also be difficult cases for ministers, elders, and deacons to address. Abusers come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. It can be a real shock to find out that fellow you thought to be an upstanding member of the men’s Bible study has been abusing his wife for the last three years. She hid it well. She did not call the police. She became skilled at covering up the marks with make up and, when that failed, she became equally skilled making self-deprecating excuses (“I fell,” “I’m so clumsy”). Eventually, however, it was too much and she finally called the police and news of the abuser’s arrest filtered back to the ministers, elders, and deacons.
How should they respond? The first thing they must do is to accept the reality of the situation. Our first instinct might be to deny what is before our eyes. Perhaps the pastors, elders, or deacons wondered if something might be happening in the family but he seemed like such a “stand up” guy and her explanations seemed plausible. After all, who are we to pry into other people’s business? Yet, respond they must. Abuse of wives by husbands (and abuse of husbands by wives) should be intolerable in the church. What is abuse? It appears in many ways: verbal, psychological, emotional, and physical (including sexual). One who abuses his spouse does so for a variety of causes: sin, emotional or psychological problems (stemming directly or indirectly from sin). In my experience such abuse is usually learned. Quite probably a man who abuses his wife grew up in an abusive home and was, quite likely, abused himself. A man who strikes his wife is, except in the most extreme cases of self-defense (e.g., she attacks him with a weapon), is already deeply troubled to say the least. O. J. Simpson is a classic case. Certainly his own childhood was far from ideal. He became a skilled liar, manipulator, and serial abuser. People who knew him knew that he abused his wife. She called the authorities repeatedly and predicted that he would murder her. Because of his fame and his charm, Simpson escaped significant punishment for his abusive behavior until her prophecy came true.
If skilled professionals (e.g., cops, nurses, and physicians), who deal with such cases routinely, are capable of failing to address the danger in which Nicole Brown Simpson founder herself, how much more difficult might it be for ministers, elders, and deacons to see the symptoms and address the problem? We (ministers, elders, and deacons) need to learn the symptoms and signs of abuse and must become prepared to take concrete steps to help.
The second thing church leaders (as defined above) must do is to distinguish the civil/legal from the ecclesiastical. It is not the church’s role to administer civil justice but church authorities must be prepared and willing to call civil authorities when confronted with evidence of a civil crime. Church members are are also members of civil society. Ministers, elders, and deacons are citizens, with unbelievers, of the common sphere. As such they have duties to the common sphere and the laws of the city and state in which the reside. Abuse of one’s spouse is moral crime but it is also a civil crime and when it is discovered, authorities should be notified. We do so on the basis of Peter’s instruction in 1 Peter 2:20, “For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure?” (ESV). In this particular instance he is instructing the congregation about how to relate to their economic superiors but he draws an implied analogy with civil authorities in 3:13–17: