Few things are as distressing to cops, nurses, and pastors (or chaplains) as domestic violence. A cop will tell you that responding to a domestic violence call is never pleasant and often dangerous. In cases of domestic violence emotions run high. People do not think clearly. Drugs and alcohol are often in play. Such situations are volatile. They can also be difficult cases for ministers, elders, and deacons to address. Abusers come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. It can be a real shock to find out that fellow you thought to be an upstanding member of the men’s Bible study has been abusing his wife for the last three years. She hid it well. She did not call the police. She became skilled at covering up the marks with make up and, when that failed, she became equally skilled making self-deprecating excuses (“I fell,” “I’m so clumsy”). Eventually, however, it was too much and she finally called the police and news of the abuser’s arrest filtered back to the ministers, elders, and deacons.
How should they respond? The first thing they must do is to accept the reality of the situation. Our first instinct might be to deny what is before our eyes. Perhaps the pastors, elders, or deacons wondered if something might be happening in the family but he seemed like such a “stand up” guy and her explanations seemed plausible. After all, who are we to pry into other people’s business? Yet, respond they must. Abuse of wives by husbands (and abuse of husbands by wives) should be intolerable in the church. What is abuse? It appears in many ways: verbal, psychological, emotional, and physical (including sexual). One who abuses his spouse does so for a variety of causes: sin, emotional or psychological problems (stemming directly or indirectly from sin). In my experience such abuse is usually learned. Quite probably a man who abuses his wife grew up in an abusive home and was, quite likely, abused himself. A man who strikes his wife is, except in the most extreme cases of self-defense (e.g., she attacks him with a weapon), is already deeply troubled to say the least. O. J. Simpson is a classic case. Certainly his own childhood was far from ideal. He became a skilled liar, manipulator, and serial abuser. People who knew him knew that he abused his wife. She called the authorities repeatedly and predicted that he would murder her. Because of his fame and his charm, Simpson escaped significant punishment for his abusive behavior until her prophecy came true.
If skilled professionals (e.g., cops, nurses, and physicians), who deal with such cases routinely, are capable of failing to address the danger in which Nicole Brown Simpson founder herself, how much more difficult might it be for ministers, elders, and deacons to see the symptoms and address the problem? We (ministers, elders, and deacons) need to learn the symptoms and signs of abuse and must become prepared to take concrete steps to help.
The second thing church leaders (as defined above) must do is to distinguish the civil/legal from the ecclesiastical. It is not the church’s role to administer civil justice but church authorities must be prepared and willing to call civil authorities when confronted with evidence of a civil crime. Church members are are also members of civil society. Ministers, elders, and deacons are citizens, with unbelievers, of the common sphere. As such they have duties to the common sphere and the laws of the city and state in which the reside. Abuse of one’s spouse is moral crime but it is also a civil crime and when it is discovered, authorities should be notified. We do so on the basis of Peter’s instruction in 1 Peter 2:20, “For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure?” (ESV). In this particular instance he is instructing the congregation about how to relate to their economic superiors but he draws an implied analogy with civil authorities in 3:13–17:
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil (ESV).
Verse 17 raises the possibility that Christians may run afoul of civil authorities not for the sake of Christ, not because they have given witness to Christ, but because they have broken the civil law and have put themselves in jeopardy. In that case Peter offers no mitigation.
In this case we see how not only how right but also how eminently practical it is to distinguish between the two spheres of God’s kingdom: the secular and the sacred. We do not want the civil minister (Rom 13) telling us what to preach but neither do we want the sacred minister interfering with the execution of justice in the civil realm. There have been some notorious cases of such. One that comes to mind is the meddling of a minister in Moscow, ID in the case of serial pedophile, who has been diagnosed as a “fixated pedophile.” In that case, the minister not only sought to mitigate the punishment but also later conducted a wedding ceremony while knowing that the pedophile intended to have children. The couple has a child to whom the pedophile has admitted a sexual attraction. See the latest update here. Distinguishing between the two spheres would aid in all cases of abuse committed by church members, whether in a Protestant sect in Idaho or in a Romanist congregation in Boston.
The third thing to do is to confront the matter ecclesiastically. When was the last time anyone was disciplined for abusing his wife? We know it occurs but is it ever a matter of discipline? Typically we distinguish between private sins and public scandals. When a man is arrested, charged, and convicted of abusing his spouse that is the public scandal. Such a person should also be disciplined publicly. We should make it known to members and to the watching community that we do not condone, wink at, or tolerate abuse but rather we recognize it for the sin it is. As in all cases, we discipline with the hope of seeing repentance and restoration to the church.
Finally, we must not try to justify it. Recently I was made aware of a Facebook post in which someone attempted to justify the use of violence by husbands against their wives as a form of discipline. This is the poisonous fruit from the wicked tree of Patriarchalism, i.e., the notion that the father or husband is the “federal head” of the home and represents his family before the Lord as a priest. In Patriarchalist circles (e.g., such as advocated by Theonomists, Reconstructionists, and Federal Visionists) the seeds of abuse are already present. In Patriarchalism, one’s wife is reduced to an appendage to her husband, even to property with which he may do as he will. There is a logical, internal coherence between League of the South affiliations in these groups and Patriarchalism. The truth is that Jesus is our only High Priest and Mediator, as we confess in Heidelberg Catechism 31:
31. Why is He called Christ, that is Anointed?
Because He is ordained of God the Father and anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption; and our only High Priest, who by the one sacrifice of His body, has redeemed us, and ever lives to make intercession for us with the Father; and our eternal King, who governs us by His Word and Spirit and defends and preserves us in the redemption obtained for us.
There were Patriarchies in the history of redemption but they were typological and expired with the death of Christ. Further, the Mosaic law protected wives and children from abuse. In the New Testament, with the fulfillment of the types and shadows, we see certainly the older notion of households, i.e., extended and corporate families (as distinct from the modern nuclear family) and household baptisms but we do not see evidence of patriarchalism. We even see female heads of households and property owners (e.g., Acts 16).
The church is to care for orphans and widows (James 1:27). An abuser has essentially orphaned his children and abandoned his wife. He has turned his vocation as a caregiver and protector on its head and corrupted it. Where the husband is meant to be a source of strength and safety, he has become weak and a source of fear and violence. If so, the church must step up and step in. Wives and children of abusers must be able to see in the church a refuge, a place of safety and help. Abused church members are the most vulnerable of all of Christ’s lambs and to them we owe a duty of special care and protection.