Updated: Apr 7
Missy slammed her fist on the counter. Tears slid down her cheeks. “What in the world are they thinking?” she yelled out loud. No one else was in the apartment, but Missy couldn’t help vocalize how baffled she was. “This makes absolutely NO sense,” she said in words now muffled by waves of sobbing.
The dog cocked his head in her direction. Missy knelt and scratched his chin. “I’m not mad at you,” she whispered. Scout looked back at her with warm, puppy dog eyes. She wondered if he had more compassion for her than the leaders at Faith Presbyterian.
Missy had just spent an hour on the phone with her pastor, explaining once again why she felt it was unsafe to move back home with her husband. The pastor had called to convey the desire of the leadership that she and her husband spend the next year working toward reconciliation. “If, at that time,” he said, “the marriage proves irreconcilable…then separation might be considered.”
She couldn’t figure out exactly what they didn’t get. Sure, she’d held back information when describing John’s tirades. But she thought her emphasis on how, when her husband of 22 years got “that look,” she knew she was in trouble. John had never laid a hand on Missy. He didn’t need to. Missy told the church leaders that John knew how to get her to do whatever he wanted without so much as making a fist. His threatening gaze was enough.
Missy realized that the circumstances she shared probably didn’t seem significant to the elders. But, how could she describe what it felt like to be warned like a child by her husband that he would “punish” her if she “misbehaved?” Besides, being sent to her room without dinner hardly qualified as wife battering. “But, would the elders realize what that means?” Missy blurted out to an empty room. “Will they figure out I go without food, water, and access to the bathroom for hours—sometimes DAYS?” She couldn’t bring herself to share those humiliating details with a bunch of men.
“That’s why they don’t understand,” she thought.
Sometimes, John punched the dog to get Missy to do (or not do) what he wanted. Hurting Scout had the same effect as intimidating her. She thought for sure when she told her pastor, it would have been a red flag to get his attention. “For the life of me,” Missy asked the dog, “why doesn’t anyone but you or I see this as a problem?”
What happens behind the closed doors of an abusive home is shrouded in darkness. Lifting the curtain for a behind the scene glimpse entails hearing what’s left unspoken by the victims. The dehumanization of abuse produces incredible shame. The humiliation of sharing embarrassing details is enough to keep women silent. If church leaders want to draw out the information necessary to comprehend what’s happening in the home, here are some of the ways a victim would suggest they might help:
It’s easier to talk with a spiritually mature women rather than a group of men.
Abused women find it incredibly difficult to speak about the intimate details and humiliation they endure. Talking with men about such things may add to their disgrace. Revealing specific details about the sins committed against them may also be inappropriate. By providing a female advocate for a victim of abuse, church leaders increase the extent of their shepherding care. In addition, to include other women in sensitive conversations acts as a safe-guard. By protecting their senses from hearing, processing, and thinking about the depraved details of the acts committed, women assist church leaders in the pursuit of purity.
I need to see humility.
Unfortunately, those of us in the church sometimes respond negatively to abuse victims. It is difficult to imagine that respectable, well-loved, upstanding husbands are capable of dreadful acts of violence. Women say this is a major reason their abuse goes unreported.
In 1 Corinthians 15:10 Paul tells us that, “by the grace of God I am what I am.” All of us sin against God and our brothers and sisters. Church leaders who respond to abuse with this humble understanding are cut to the heart when they hear their sister’s story (Acts 2:37, oppression destroys the image of God). They recognize their own tendency to sin. They have a robust doctrine of evil and can empathize with its victims.
Our Lord meets each of us in our sinful nature with compassion. We see this in Luke 7:36-48 as a patient, long-suffering Savior approaches a “sinful woman” gently, with kindheartedness and encouragement, as he draws her to himself. The Christ-like contact we communicate as we imitate Jesus humbles itself in the same way.
I need to hear grace.
Even if a woman responds unbiblically to the circumstances of her journey, grace must be extended. Paul instructs us how in Thessalonians:
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone (1 Thess. 5:14–15).
For instance, a woman degraded by her husband might be considered fainthearted and weak. Therefore, her primary need is to hear encouragement and help from the Word of God. At some point, she may need to hear admonishment for her sinful responses to the abuse; however, she must know that the helper’s heart for her is restoration and healing—not simply reproof.
Women living under oppression need the support of church leaders, friends, and families to help them eradicate the wickedness in their homes. In order to serve our sister’s in need, the church must consider how to develop a strong theology of abuse, evil, trauma, and consequences for the perpetrator in cases of domestic abuse. The lives of many women depend on it.