Family Violence doesn’t exist in Christian communities, does it? Surely those stories of Christian men dragging their wives around by the hair can’t be true. While a comprehensive study of Christian families in Australia is yet to be done, some smaller studies suggest that the rates of violence within Christian families might be the same as, or only slightly lower, than the general population 1 . Another study suggests that pastors underestimate the rates of violence within their congregations 2 . Increasingly, victims are speaking out, and their stories correlate with these statistics.
The recent Royal Commission into Family Violence made three recommendations that relate specifically to faith communities. In summary: “It is therefore important that faith-based communities address barriers to the disclosure, prevention of or recovery from family violence and make it clear that religion cannot be used by perpetrators and others to condone or excuse abusive behaviour. 3 ” (p131)
While we pray and wait for the day that God’s people ALL treat each other with mutual respect and equality, here’s some ideas for how each of our churches can better prevent and respond to Family Violence.
1. Train your leaders to Recognise, Respond and Refer.
Most church leaders are keen to help with family violence but don’t know what it looks like, how to help, or when to refer on to specialist services. Many ministers and elders with good intentions but poor understanding have increased the danger for the victim as they clumsily get involved. Lifeline run reputable training that church leaders could attend 4 , as do some Relationships Australia offices. Intervening well into situations of family violence takes knowledge and skill. Sometimes that can happen within the church, and sometimes its best to refer on to a trusted professional. Form a good relationship with a local counsellor skilled in working with FV, and refer accordingly.
2. Distinguish between Family Violence and Couples Counselling.
Oh so many of the referrals I get in my psychology practice for ‘couples counselling’ are actually about family violence. One is likely to be some challenges with communication, the other is a crime. A problem in a relationship is not always a two way street.
3. Work with experts to update your denominational policy and congregational procedure.
Each church’s Family Violence Policy andProcedure should be available to all members of your church, so that if a victim is deciding whether to come forward, they’ll know what to expect. Those seeking to help will also be guided in the scope and limits of their involvement. The policy should condemn violence in all forms, and place the safety of the family members above any obligation to remain in a violent marriage.
4. Preach on what abuse and neglect in families can look like.
Preach on how much God hates abuse (Ps 11:5), how its not part of his plan for his people, and that it hurts everyone involved (Jer 23:1-6). Preach on what love and submission to one another (Eph 5:21) looks like, and that perfect love does not contain fear (1 John 4:18). But remember the map is not the terrain; Perpetrators are likely to disregard your message of care and respect if it doesn’t fit their worldview (Mal 2:16). However, there will almost certainly be victims and survivors in the congregation, and they’ll be grateful for your message.
5. Hold congregation members accountable for their conduct at home.
This might take the form of asking husbands and wives separately what their relationship looks like, and if there are any concerns. Just asking men if they treat their wives lovingly is not enough. Be specific. “Have you raised your voice to your wife this week?” “What are three ways you have prioritised the needs of your wife above your own this week?” “What is one way you have been proactive in listening to your wife’s thoughts this week?” Accountability for leaders is especially important.
6. Identify people at risk of perpetrating Family Violence (easier said than done!).
Look for things like history of violence or abuse, substance abuse, narcissistic traits, sense of entitlement, mental illness, and significant power imbalances in the relationship. Men are more likely to perpetrate family violence than women. Keep those identified people in accountability partnerships with skilled leaders. Be ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ (Matt 10:16) when working with people who can be manipulative and controlling.
7. Reconsider the ‘permissive’ effect that complementarianism might have on family violence.
A church that demonstrates that men alone hold positions of authority risks the perception that men are also ‘in charge’ at home. Gender inequality is at the heart of family violence. Read more on the relationship between complementarianism and family violence here.
8. Be a safe haven for victims and their children.
Each church could appoint a ‘safe person’ and ‘safe house’ to be available for anyone experiencing or fleeing from violence. Publish those contact details in your weekly newsletter. Teach your congregation to understand the dynamics, and to know what is and isn’t helpful to say and do for someone experiencing violence. It’s possible to do this without breaching confidentiality by saying something from the front like “through no fault of her own, our sister and her children need extra care and support at this time.” Have a good working relationship with a local DV support service,and refer back and forth.
9. Focus on active prevention.
Provide a positive lead on relationships based on mutual respect and gender equality. Regularly hold workshops and seminars like ‘Expect Respect’ and ‘Love Bites’ at Youth Group. Run marriage preparation and enrichment courses 5 . Teach couples what unhealthy and healthy relationships 6 look like. Teach anger management to those that struggle with it. Gently and kindly teach self-confidence and worth to those that think they deserve nothing better than poor treatment from others.
10. Remember that safety is the first priority.
All other issues are secondary. The safety of the victim and children is always the first priority. It may literally be a matter of life and death, as at least one woman is killed by her partner each week in Australia. If reconciliation is to be considered, it comes after the perpetrator demonstrates ALL of the following:
significant changes in behaviour
maintained over time
independent of other circumstances changing (i.e. it’s not enough for him to say I’ll stop yelling at her after she stops irritating me. Abusive behaviour needs to change, full stop. Saying he’ll only change after she does is a continuation of abuse).
God does not love marriage or the family unit more than he loves the people in the marriage or family unit. Don’t risk someone’s life (or sanity) for the sake of appearing pro-marriage. Sometimes separating until something changes is the best approach.
A good congregational resource on Family Violence can be found here.
If you are experiencing Domestic Violence and are afraid for your safety, seek help from a trusted friend or counsellor, or call the National Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Counselling Service on 1800 RESPECT.
Visit our Resources page for further help.
If you are in danger in your home, please call 000 (if in Australia).
2 http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/june/church-and- its-
response-to- domestic-and- sexual-violence.html and
6 https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/teen/dating-sex/Pages/Expect-Respect- Healthy-Relationships.aspx
Kylie is a Christian Psychologist whose client demographic includes perpetrators and survivors of Family Violence. Kylie is a graduate of SMBC.