As another semester has come to a close and a new one is just starting, I wanted to take an opportunity to write something about how the church handles domestic abuse before I get neck deep in academia again.
At some point, I would like to get back to writing regularly, but before school gets back into full swing, and time once again becomes my hottest commodity, I wanted to take a moment to give an update.
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Regardless of whether that is true, I feel like Superwoman. I have another semester and 9 more credits under my belt, all while doing the ER nurse and mom thing (not in that order) by myself. I have to be honest though, this last semester about did me in. There was a point, (ok, about a month), that I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. But the crisis has passed and I’ve had a three-day break before starting the summer semester. I did some fun and spontaneous things with the kids, including swimming across Lake Lanier, (the person at the gate who said the water was 70° is completely untrustworthy…just saying), going through drive-throughs and getting sushi at 10:30 at night, and completed some long overdue projects around the house. I am rejuvenated and ready to get back at it.
Now, on to the church.
Just as I tried to hide what was going on in my own marriage for so long, the church often tries to hide its own skeletons. I have long avoided talking about, and generally still do not talk about, my experience at my own church. While I rarely have a reason to, there is also that deeply embedded belief that by talking about that particular failure of the church I will somehow reflect poorly on the gospel and Christianity as a whole.
Perhaps this was ingrained in me through years of sitting in front of a pulpit or it is an underlying principle perpetuated by the Christian community, but I recognize it in myself and feel guilty when I do talk about it, especially to those who do not consider themselves to be religious. I will not weigh in on the Paige Patterson imbroglio, but there is one particular statement that he made that ties into this post.
In 2013, he made a statement that women who are experiencing “problems at home,” apparently a reference to abuse, should not take their case to a judge because it may alter the judge’s opinion of the faith. While at first look this may seem to make sense to the Christian community, one has to come to the realization that this requires hiding, covering up, or dealing with abuse quietly within the walls of the church.
While there are scriptures that discuss how believers should handle certain matters privately, rather than in a court of law, it is doubtful that the Bible is advocating for concealment of domestic violence. I do not want to take on an exegesis of these passages here, but I also want to be cautious not to make false claims on the meaning behind these scriptures and stretch it to fit my case. I only bring them up as they were used by a leader of the Christian community to unwittingly advocate for the concealment of abuse within the church. How he chose to deal with it after that, I have no idea.
While, yes, the testimony of a Christian (or lack thereof) can be off-putting to an unbeliever, it is still ill-advisable to conceal that kind of behavior for the sake of testimony. In fact, much to its detriment, when the church does hide these things and they come to light, often in the form of an exposé, it looks much worse for the church than had they dealt with it in an appropriate public manner. This is just my opinion, but if a church were to do that and show a no tolerance policy for that kind of behavior, it would project a much healthier testimony.
Not only can concealment become a matter of great embarrassment for the church, it sends a message of tolerance. The perpetrator is often granted protection and the wife, as it often is, is encouraged to stay quiet, which only further perpetuates her victimization.
I am not saying that the church has no jurisdiction over the matter. The church can play a great role in accountability for the abuser and protection for the victim. The church, however, is limited. Who is going to make the abuser turn the phone back on, put the money back in the bank account, and restore credit cards that have been closed down (all of which I experienced)? Who has the power to enforce physical boundaries when things get dangerous or out of control? Who can protect the victim’s assets or parental rights? This is where the court plays a vital role. To advise a woman not to get legal protection is like the well-wishers in James 2 where they say to the needy “Go in peace. Keep warm and well fed,” yet do nothing to help.
I would argue that the church does have a responsibility, first and foremost to protect victims. While some form of this can be done without the law, dangerous situations should always include the law and anyone who knows of violence, whether it be the pastor or another leader, should not hesitate to get the law involved.
The deacons of my church advocated for separation while they worked with my husband. They clearly had no concept of how situations of abuse, including manipulation and control, work. They stated that the church could help support me financially. While I appreciate this attitude of good-will they had regarding financial support, this thinking was naive at best.
As I have said before, the church is ill-equipped and most leaders ill-prepared for dealing with abuse. It is a complex issue that requires specialized counseling and yes, sometimes the law, either in the form of the police or a judge.
The church does not do its testimony any favors by mishandling, or even worse, concealing abuse. And just like in any other profession, there are times when one has to recognize his own limitations and cede to another more qualified person. The church ought to readily facilitate that.
Yes, it is possible that the testimony of one member may cause an unbelieving judge to be skeptical towards Christianity, but God’s grace is greater than our failures and hiding an issue such as abuse may do more damage to the testimony of the church in the long-run.
To the church: Get involved and do the right thing. Do not turn your back and do not hide it. It is likely to be difficult and uncomfortable, but when was doing the right thing ever easy?
P.S. I want to note that the pastor that succeeded the pastor that I was under during my tenure at the church wrote me a letter. He has never met me and came after I left. He had nothing directly to do with my situation, though I understand there was fallout at the church for some time after. Because of his lack of involvement, he certainly did not have to write me, but I am glad he did. Especially for my children’s sake. I let them read the letter and it did their hearts and souls a great deal of good. Like salve on a cut, it helped heal some deep wounds left by our treatment by the church. God has allowed me to go through some situations in my life where I have had to forgive some deep wounds and my parents had done a great job teaching me that we are all sinners and as such prone to hurting and disappointing other people. There is nothing like having a good grasp on humanity, including your own, that allows you the freedom to forgive others. My children have not had such opportunities and regardless of my attempts to teach them as my parents taught me, fought bitterness.
The letter was one of apology and a statement of remorse over how the situation was handled. While for me, it was not necessary, my children benefited greatly, so thank you. You have helped my family through your thoughtfulness.