What NOT To Do When You Discover Abuse

Issues of domestic violence are far more common in the church then many realize. On the one hand we don’t want to think that such things are happening among our churches, and of course abusers are very good at hiding. As pastors, counselors, and lay leaders discover abuse, however, we need to be prepared to respond well. Education and training are the most important elements of being prepared, but there are many things we are tempted to do when we first discover abuse that we should NOT do. Here are four common things we are tempted to do when we discover abuse, but which we should NOT do.

First, do not ignore the abuse. Often pastors and lay leaders will feel particularly ill equipped to address matters of abuse. Very few have been trained in abuse awareness or intervention and so we, rightly, feel out of our depth. When we feel ill equipped we are sometimes tempted to default to what we do know. So, pastors will often ignore the issues of abuse and attempt to do marriage counseling with a couple. This is disastrous for the victim. Abuse is not a marital issue and the imbalance of power in the relationship means that the victim will not be able to actually express concerns over their spouse’s behavior. Abuse should be the primary focus of counseling and marriage counseling should cease in order to address these pertinent and critical issues. Do not ignore abuse.

Second, do not blame the victim. Most people do not intend to do blame victims for the abuse they receive. The goal is always to be helpful, but when we don’t know what to say we offer simplistic advice that puts the responsibility of the situation squarely on the victim’s shoulders. We talk about not “provoking” or “stirring the pot.” We encourage wives to “submit” and not to start fights. We spend more time addressing the victim’s response to their spouse’s sin than we do focusing on their spouse’s sin. Inadvertently we end up blaming the victim for the abuse they experience, but which they did not cause and have no control over. Don’t blame the victim.

Third, do not act without the victim’s consent and readiness. In an effort to be helpful and to intervene, many helpers will attempt to act quickly when they discover abuse. We should not act, however, without the victim’s consent and readiness. Sometimes pastors will immediately want to confront the abuser, but this exposes the victim to greater risk of harm. Abusers are very good at covering their tracks and hiding their oppression (most don’t even use physical violence). Confrontation will most likely result in an inability to prove anything, and when the dust of accusation settles, the victim will pay the price. At other times we will want to get the victim to safety or want to call the authorities, and these are good desires, but without proper preparation it also puts the victim at greater risk of harm. Statistics reveal that most victims of domestic violence die after leaving the home! If appropriate plans are not made it puts the victim in harms way. Do not, act, then, without the victim’s consent and readiness. It should be said, of course, that where minors are involved pastors and counselors are both legally and ethically required to report abuse to the authorities immediately.

Fourth, and finally, do not simply hand abuse situations off to law enforcement. When appropriate plans have been made law enforcement should be involved in domestic violence situations. But even when the authorities have stepped in, when victims have been moved to safety and perpetrators have been issued consequence, the church has a responsibility to its members. If abusers are members we want to work with the legal authorities to ensure that appropriate consequences and accountability are in place. Church discipline should be administered, and levels of appropriate accountability to the church should be required. Grace and forgiveness should be given only when fruit of repentance is demonstrated over the long-haul. Churches can often be naive about forgiveness, and for the victim’s sake we cannot be naive. Victims, likewise, should find that their church provides support, care, encouragement, and protection. Often perpetrators in abuse situations receive greater attention than victims, and in an effort to demonstrate the grace of the gospel we focus on the abuser’s restoration. We should, however focus equally (if not more) on care and support for the victim. Do not simply hand situations over to legal authorities, be involved!

There are many things that we are tempted to do when we learn about abuse in the church. There is a lot, however, that we are tempted to do which is wrong, unhelpful, and dangerous. The church should educate itself on the best way to assist other professionals in caring for victims of abuse and confronting abusive individuals.

Comments

  1. Rita Francesco says:

    Pastor Dave, thank you so much for this excellent advice. I can totally relate to that. I wished I could contact you and have you as my pastoral counselor. The pastors I contacted so far did not really understand the importance and urgency of my request. I think they were also scared and it was inconvenient. Because honestly the devil always has his hands in these types of relationships. And the church today rather does not want to deal with the devil too much. They rather have happy music and happy gatherings. So the ones who have these types of problems of abuse and where there is demonic oppression involved are often very isolated.

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