When Jesus articulated His Messianic mission to “heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, . . . to set at liberty them that are bruised” (Luke 4:18, KJV), it should have elicited a rallying cry in support of the underprivileged and the disenfranchised. Instead, it ignited explosive anger and murderous intent against Jesus Himself (vv. 28, 29).
So, when Jesus speaks to victims of abuse, He speaks from experience. The community He speaks for includes victims of domestic abuse—even in the church. The community He speaks to, with the greatest responsibility to fight for the oppressed, including victims of domestic abuse—is His church.
Intimate partner abuse is a reality, and to combat it we pastors in particular need to understand it. Domestic abuse occurs in relationships where one individual holds power over another and uses that power for harm. The most virulent form of domestic abuse is characterized by the practice of coercive control—a pattern of behavior that seeks to take away the victim’s freedom and strip away their sense of self. It consists of the violation of another person’s human rights. Coercive control may include emotional, psychological, physical, and sexual abuse, along with stalking and a myriad of other ways to intimidate and control such as financial, property, or digital abuse. These relational dynamics are not limited to the home or to marriage. Incidences of dating violence are disturbingly on the increase. We must also keep in mind that some people misuse the definition of abuse to include any difficult relational conflict or disagreement to easily exit the marriage.
Abuse and intimate terrorism
Terrorism has been defined as “the calculated use of violence (or the threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature; this is done through intimidation or coercion or instilling fear.”1
Trauma specialist Dr. Judith Herman, in her excellent book Trauma and Recovery, has identified major commonalities between the experience of survivors of domestic violence and prisoners of war. She compares “the survivors of vast concentration camps created by tyrants who rule nations and the survivors of small, hidden concentration camps created by tyrants who rule their homes.”2
In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Palmer Parker describes violence as “any way we have of violating the identity and integrity of another person.”3 Victims of intimate terrorism often testify that physical violence is not the worst part of their experience. The worst part is the malicious tactics of humiliation, degradation, and insults that systematically undermine identity and personhood. Intimate terrorism is a heinous sin because it not only warps the individuals’ concept of themselves but also fundamentally distorts the image of God for both victims and perpetrators. An appropriate response to intimate terrorism will always fall short until we fully appreciate the long-term traumatic impact of exposure to coercive control upon the spiritual, psychological, emotional, and physical health.
The church and intimate terrorism
That intimate terrorism occurs in secular society is bad enough; that it happens in the church is even more tragic. Research shows that in faith communities, religion is not a deter-rent to domestic abuse. Research on intimate partner violence, conducted by Dr. René Drumm among 49 Seventh-day Adventist churches in the United States, indicated that 90 percent of abusers were active church members. These included church leaders such as deacons, elders, pastors, chaplains, a Pathfinder leader, a conference secretary, and a university professor. The study indicated that women in the church are just as likely to be abused by their husbands as are women in the general population. Even more surprising was the finding that men are more likely to be abused by their wives in the church than are those in the general population.4
Maybe the reality of domestic abuse in the church should not take us by surprise. The apostle Paul warned that in the last days men would be “lovers of themselves . . . unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:1–7, NKJV). An accurate description, for sure, of intimate terrorists in the church.
C. S. Lewis said it well: “Of all bad men religious bad men are the worst.”5 We have terrorists in the church. However, they do not carry bombs and AK-47s; they carry Bibles and have learned to weaponize the Word of God itself. In the context of marriage, intimate terrorists commit violence to the Bible in order to commit violence against their spouses. They often quote passages about headship, submission, and subjection as a way to justify their abuse. Whatever view is held about roles in marriage, a godly union cannot include force, coercion, intimidation, or violence. Such behavior is antithetical to the gospel. Jesus said, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matt. 20:28, NKJV). He came to sacrifice Himself, not to demand allegiance and impose punishments for disobedience.
Biblical submission is a voluntary gift of love given by the one who submits. It cannot be demanded. “Neither the husband nor the wife should attempt to exercise over the other an arbitrary control.” “Entire submission is to be made only to the Lord Jesus Christ. . . .
“When husbands require the complete subjection of their wives, . . . they place their wives in a position contrary to the scripture.”6 True biblical headship places an enormous responsibility on the shoulders of husbands to care for their wives with the self-sacrificial love that Jesus displayed for the church (Eph. 5:25). The glaring disconnect between the agape love that characterizes genuine Christianity and the malice perpetrated by abusers is a testimony to the fact that intimate terrorism is, first and foremost, evidence of a spiritual deficiency. The bottom line is that perpetrators of abuse are not interested either in biblical injunctions to love or in the injunctions that prohibit abuse (see Col. 3:19; 1 Peter 3:7). They are not interested in truth; they are interested in power and control.
Myths and intimate terrorism
Ineffective responses to the challenge of intimate terrorism are compounded not only by a failure to appreciate the meaning of Jesus’ man-date to fight for the oppressed but also by the failure to understand the nature of perpetrators and the dynamics of coercive control. For example, intimate terrorism is not an anger-management problem. It is often assumed that abusers just cannot control themselves. They do not tend to “lose it” with their boss, friends, or parents. They direct their abuse only at their spouses and children. For most abusers, anger is a tactic, not a cause. Intimate terrorists know how to control themselves. They just choose not to.
Intimate terrorism cannot always be solved by couples counseling. Pastoral carers often make the erroneous assumption that, in abusive marriages, both parties are at fault in some way, and some conflict resolution strategies will heal the relationship. Such rationale fails to appreciate that abuse, by definition, involves a power differential in which power is abused. Abusers are not interested in solving problems or what is right or wrong; they are interested in dominance. Abuse is, always, the fault of the abuser, no matter what provocation they may claim. Counseling couples in such cases places victims in greater danger of harm and often implies complicity in the abuse they experience. Abusers require individual intervention, preferably in special programs that are designed to work with perpetrators.
As pastoral caregivers, we believe in the sacredness of marriage, the efficacy of hope, and the power of the gospel to transform lives. However, we must also come to terms with the research that indicates that the vast majority of abusers (some studies put the numbers as high as over 90 percent) will not change.7 This is not because they cannot change but because they do not own responsibility for their behavior or choose to access help. When we are delivering support to victims of abuse, we need to factor this unfortunate truth into the equation because there must come a point when enough is enough.
When a marriage fails to fulfill the purpose for which it was created, it becomes destructive to spiritual, emotional, psychological, and physical health. When abuse is involved, affirmative action is required to “rescue the perishing.” Not all marriages can be saved, and we must guard against the danger that our high view of marriage leads us to make an idol out of the institution. Just as Jesus pointed out that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27, KJV), marriage was made for humankind and not humankind for marriage. When intimate terrorism is taking place, our primary responsibility is the safety of the victims, not the preservation of the marriage.
Confrontation and intimate terrorism
While the reasons why individuals perpetrate abuse are multifaceted, the general reason is that, somewhere along the line, they have accepted a culture that makes abuse OK. Whether the culture is a secular mindset or a religious one, it denigrates, diminishes, and subjugates women to the status of property to be used and abused at will. The challenge for the church is to change the culture. There are four steps every church must take.
1. Embrace the mission of the Master.Victims of abuse need to know that God is on the side of the oppressed and that we are too. “Learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17, NKJV). We must send a clear message to survivors and perpetrators that our church is committed to a zero-tolerance policy on intimate terrorism. Combating this scourge is everybody’s responsibility. It requires collaborative work. It especially needs men to accept the challenge to change the mind-sets that allow abuse to thrive. Male abuse against women is a men’s issue, too, and the people best placed to change the culture of men are other men. So, the majority of men who do not abuse their partners need to influence those who do. That means (a) challenging attitudes that diminish the value of women, (b) mentoring young men and modeling for them how to respect women, and (c) teaching our young women to view themselves as precious in God’s sight. We cannot remain indifferent to the problem of intimate terrorism. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke profound truth when he said, “A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.”8 A sense of justice should compel us to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; for the rights of all who are destitute” (Prov. 31:8, NIV).
2. Educate the mentality of the ministers. With the best will in the world, we can make bad situations worse when we operate out of ignorance. We can think we are doing the right thing, but we end up becoming complicit with perpetrators of abuse. Victims of abuse are frequently made to feel guilted by church leaders— with erroneous views on submission and faulty theologies of suffering—into staying with their abusers. To tell victims of intimate terrorism to “take your beating, be a good wife, submit more, and pray harder” pours spiritual abuse on top of the physical, emotional, and psychological abuse that they are already suffering. Such advice flies in the face of research that indicates that the more submissive a victim becomes, the more emboldened the abuser becomes in their abuse and the more justified they feel.9 Perpetrators need accountability, not appeasement.
3. Enlighten the minds of the members. Every church should have clear policies and procedures regarding the best practice in dealing with incidences and disclosures of domestic abuse. Church leaders should be trained to respond in appropriate ways. Policies and procedures should include information regarding local agencies who are specially equipped to assist victims of abuse in ways the church is not equipped to do. Worship leaders can speak out against domestic abuse in preaching, teaching, and prayers. Every church should make church members aware of whom to approach when they are ready to disclose intimate partner abuse. Departments can work collaboratively to combat domestic abuse. Resources can be made available that give clear guidance to victims about their options. Up-to-date information on domestic abuse should be provided on every church’s website.
4. Enforce the accountability of the abusers. Intimate terrorists are not Christians, contrary to what their baptismal certificates, church offices, or ordinations may say. In addition to Paul’s warnings about those who merely have a form of godliness, Jesus said, “‘An evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart’ ” (Luke 6:45, NIV). First John 4:8 states, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (NKJV). Intimate terrorists in the church are Christians in name only, and the church has a responsibility to hold them accountable, not only in order to help their victims but also because abusers are lost souls in need of a Savior.
Where a victim reports abuse, the church has guiding principles for addressing offenses, summarized in Matthew 18:15–17. If abusers express genuine repentance and are willing to engage fully in a treatment program, then we can give them the opportunity to mend their ways and support them in their efforts to change. However, if they refuse, then the procedure outlined in Matthew 18 should be carried to its nth degree, and the privilege of church membership should be removed.
Compassion and intimate terrorism
The church must cultivate spiritual insight and compassion for victims of abuse. The mission of Luke 4:16–19 is not just a message of comfort. It is, also, a message of deliverance. We are challenged to be the voice, the hands, and the feet of the Master, who Himself knew abuse, in order to make the Messianic message of justice for the abused and oppressed a reality in our churches. Pastors, we have an obligation to “Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy; free them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:3, 4, NKJV). Surely the victims of intimate terrorism must be considered prime candidates for defending.
1 Vocabulary.com Dictionary, s.v. “terrorism,” accessed February 5, 2019, vocabulary.com/dictionary /terrorist%20act.
2 Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: BasicBooks, 1997), 3.
3 Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (San Fransisco, CA:Jossey-Bass, 2004), 169.
4 René Drumm, Marciana Popescu, and Robert Kersting, “Effects of Intimate Partner Violence Among Seventh-Day Adventist Church Attendees,” Critical Social Work 10, no. 1 (2009), uwindsor.ca/criticalsocialwork/effects-of-intimate-partner -violence-among-seventh-day-adventist-church -attendees.
5 C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Books, 1958), 32.
6 Ellen G. White, The Adventist Home (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), 118, 116.
7 See also Carrie Askin, “Abusive Partners Can Change! We Aren’t Doomed to Repeat Our Mistakes.” Psychology Today, Nov. 3, 2015. www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hurt-people-hurt -people/201511/abusive-partners-can-change.
8 Martin Luther King Jr., speech in Selma, Alabama, March 8, 1965, wisdomquotes.com/martin-luther-king-jr-quotes/.
9 See, for example, Thijs Kanters et al., “Are Child Abusers Sexually Attracted to Submissiveness? Assessment of Sex-Related Cognition With the Implicit Association Test,” Sexual Abuse 28, no. 5 (August 1, 2016): 448–468, doi.org/10.1177/1079063214544330