Did you know that 25% of married Christian women are being abused by their spouses?

How might that change your response when a woman in your church comes up to you seeking marital advice?

Victims of abuse need you to be alert to their reality. How might knowing the prevalence of domestic abuse prompt you to engage women in your church differently? I know it is hard to imagine that domestic abuse is so common, let alone that it frequently occurs in your church. And, regardless of how often it is occurring in your church, if there is even one woman in your local church body that is being abused, she needs you to be alert to recognize her situation.

Unaware of a Pervasive Problem    

There are two main reasons we often do not detect the presence of domestic abuse. The first is that marital oppression occurs behind closed doors—it is typically not something we observe happening. Oppressors use coercion and punishment in private to control their spouse, while they manage a carefully crafted image in public. The Bill Cosby and Ravi Zacharias scandals help us to better understand an abuser’s ability to deceive those around him. They behaved very differently in public than in private. People who perpetrate abuse are master deceivers. That means there are most likely abusive people in your church that you could never imagine were abusive. Many abusers do not fit the loud, aggressive, out-of-control personality that you might picture in your mind.

The second reason why we do not recognize abuse is because the victim does not realize she is being oppressed. I have had hundreds of conversations with victims who themselves struggle to call abusive behaviors sin, let alone abuse. Victims of abuse know that something is wrong, but they often do not know what it is. They worry that they exaggerate, are oversensitive, are ultimately responsible for their spouse’s anger, or do not remember things correctly when recounting an intense conflict. Their abuser blames them for how he treats them, and they come to believe the cruel and twisted accusations. Consequently, they live in a fog of confusion created by their oppressor.

Because of their inability to comprehend that what they are enduring rises to the level of abuse, when abused women approach other women in the church, they will ask for advice or feedback. Their questions typically do not reveal the severity of their situation:

  • “Does your spouse care how much you talk to your mother?”
  • “Is it normal for a man to want lots of sex?”
  • “Do you have to ask your husband to babysit your children?”
  • “I cannot seem to keep my house tidy in a way that makes my husband happy, do you have any tips?”

Many women ask these types of questions, so how would you know if there is a more sinister context behind them? How can we pick up on the potential isolation, sex abuse, neglect, or cruel criticism?

Slow Down and Listen

We have to slow down and ask more questions before we give answers. That seems simple, but it is hard to slow down and seek to know a person before we speak into their world. But victims need us to see their situation clearly, even when they do not. In Zechariah 7:9, the Lord reminds us to “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another.” He also warns us not to contribute to oppression or exploitation of the vulnerable (7:9–10). He clearly tasks us to care for the vulnerable among us. That means we need to draw out more of a person’s story before we speak into their world.

Here are some simple questions you might ask when someone approaches you for advice that might help you begin to see more of their situation.

  • “What has happened that causes you to ask that question?”
  • “Has that happened before?”
  • “Tell me more about why you are asking.”
  • “What have you already tried to do, and how did your husband respond?”
  • “What happens when you try to talk to your husband about that?”

Asking well-placed questions is just one way we can increase our ability to detect the presence of abuse. If you are in leadership in your church, I especially urge you to read more about it to have a broader understanding of how to detect abuse and offer wise help.[1]

In fact, studies show that when a Christian woman seeks help in an abusive marriage, she ordinarily consults either her pastor or a Christian woman in her congregation first. That first disclosure is critical; research consistently shows that the advice of the first person a victim tells will, in considerable measure, determine her next steps.[2] We want to offer advice that honor’s God’s heart for the oppressed.

At the same time, please let me be clear about what I am not saying. I do not want us to see abuse when it is not there. Whenever I slow down and ask a screening or clarifying question and abuse is not present, I rejoice. We can do harm to others and our relationships with them if we are too quick to assume abuse when we do not adequately understand their situation. When the Lord has placed someone in my care, I want to be slow to speak and careful to seek the Lord’s wisdom.

It is often tempting to offer quick advice or move quickly through a conversation. When we do that, we might miss all sorts of doubts, struggles, and hard circumstances, not just abuse. All I am suggesting is that we slow down and really know a person before we advise them. I cannot tell how many women come to me after getting advice that shut them down or implied that they should endure or submit to abuse. It is heartbreaking, and it often leads victims, and their children, to endure abuse for many more years without seeking help.

Be praying and thinking about how you might become more aware of the victims of domestic abuse in your church. The vulnerable are on the Lord’s heart, and he has tasked us with caring for them (Matthew 25:40, 45). We want to be women and men who represent his counsel and heart well, especially when encountering the oppressed.

              [1] For some free resources, see https://www.focusonthefamily.com/marriage/what-is-sexual-abuse-in-marriage/ and https://www.ccef.org/an-open-letter-to-helpers-who-wonder-is-it-abuse/ and www.churchcares.org. To go deeper into this topic, you may wish to consult my book, Is it Abuse?

              [2] http://religionanddiversity.ca/media/uploads/projects_and_results/biblio_and_case_law/strand_three_‌violence_and_religion_phase_1.pdf

About the Author:

Darby Strickland

Darby Strickland is a counselor and faculty member for the Christian Counseling & Education Foundation. She is the author of Is it Abuse? A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims. She is also a contributor to the free web-based training curriculum Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused. Darby has a Master of Divinity degree in Counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary, where she currently teaches a course on counseling people in abusive marriages. She and her husband John have taken great delight in homeschooling their three children.