Becky Castle Miller
Becky Castle Miller is the Discipleship Director at an international church in the Netherlands and writes about emotionally healthy pastoral care at medium.com/wholehearted. She conveys her five kids around town on bikes and studies New Testament in the middle of the night via Northern Live.
Glass shards scatter as he wrenches the kitchen cabinet from the wall and throws it across the room. Then he lurches across the floor and yanks on the refrigerator, toppling it. She tries to disappear into the corner, covering her head with her arms. This scene of baseball bats and blood in the dark is from the 1997 movie The Rainmaker, and this is what I thought domestic abuse looked like.
The relationship between Cliff and Kelly Riker in this film is what many people think abuse looks like: his hands around her neck, her face and arms bandaged in a hospital bed. And it’s true that abuse does sometimes take this form. But other times, with affects just as devastating for the victims, abusers use financial, sexual, verbal, and emotional methods of abuse without ever leaving a physical scratch.
Any form of abuse is contrary to the ethics of Jesus. The heart of abuse—power and control—is antithetical to the heart of Jesus, which is self-giving service.
[SMcK: I sketch the big themes in the ethics of Jesus in One.Life.]
What is abuse?
Sometimes women are being abused and don’t realize it, because their male partners are not ripping down cabinets and leaving bruises. It’s important to understand what abuse is: “A pattern of coercive control that proceeds from a mentality of entitlement to power, whereby, through intimidation, manipulation and isolation, the abuser keeps his target subordinated and under his control. This pattern can be emotional, verbal, psychological, spiritual, sexual, financial, social and physical.” Abusers believe they are “justified in using evil tactics to obtain and maintain that power and control.” (From the website A Cry for Justice, which addresses domestic violence and the church.)
The majority of victims of domestic violence are women, so I am addressing that dynamic in this article, but you can change the pronouns and the principles still apply. Women can also be abusers, and men can be victims.
I have had many conversations with women who say they are having difficult times in their relationships. As they go into detail, they describe abusive actions their partners are taking:
“He yelled at me until I was sobbing.”
“He threw my cell phone against the wall and shattered it.”
“He said my sin in being a terrible wife kept him from being a deacon.”
But then they excuse this all away:
“He is dealing with a lot of stress, and unfortunately, he takes it out on me.”
“He has to be authoritarian at work, and he just brings that home with him.”
“If I hadn’t nagged him, he wouldn’t have exploded at me.”
They think being abused is normal.
What did Jesus say about abuse?
The core of Jesus’ ethics is servanthood, putting self under others to lift them up, not pressing down on them from above in a hierarchical way. The theme of service is the structure on which Jesus built the ethos he gave the church.
Jesus told his disciples explicitly to do their work and live their lives by serving, not by holding authority over others: “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28, NLT).
Jesus certainly had authority, but he did not use it in a selfish way. The crowds recognized it, amazed at his authoritative teaching (Matthew 7:28-29). The Father gave Jesus all authority, and Jesus passed that on to his students. Jesus told them to use that authority to welcome others, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching people, by their example of love and service, to obey God (Matthew 28:18-20).The author of the Gospel of Matthew drew out this anti-authoritarian theme many times to emphasize this core of Jesus’ ethics. In the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, the blessed ones include the humble, the merciful, and those who work for peace. The Sermon on the Mount collects some of Jesus’ sayings that repudiate emotional and verbal abuse among His followers. The disciples were not to be angry, call people names, nor curse them (Matthew 5:22). Instead, they were to follow Jesus’ example of treating others with empathy and gentleness. Matthew 12 quotes from Isaiah 42: “Look at my Servant…He will not fight or shout or raise his voice in public. He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.”
Jesus did not coercively control others. His way was not domination or superior force. He did not manipulate people; rather, he offered open-handed invitations that they were free to accept or reject. When Jesus called Simon Peter and Andrew, he gave them an invitation to follow him, and they immediately responded (Matthew 4:18-20). Jesus invited the rich young man to sell all he had and follow Jesus. The man walked away sad. I imagine Jesus was sad too, and yet Jesus let him go (Matthew 19:21-22).
Jesus contrasted his way with the way of the Pharisees, who “crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden” (Matthew 23:4). Jesus’ ethical creed, by contrast, is a statement that flows out of empathy and non-controlling service. All that law, that the Pharisees enforced with power and might, Jesus summed up like this: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind…Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).
It is clear that someone who abuses another person is not walking as a disciple of Jesus. Christians can and should repudiate abuse, loudly and often.
How can Christians respond well to abuse disclosures?
When a woman tells you about her relational experiences, and you think she might be a victim of abuse, listen to her. Believe her story. Remind her that Jesus condemns the choices her abuser is making.
Ask specific questions rather than broad ones like, “Is your husband abusive?” Remember that some abuse victims have not yet understood that their spouse is an abuser. They may think what’s going on is normal or that they deserve it. Try questions like these:
Does your husband call you names or insult you? (verbal abuse)
Do you have to account for every penny you spend? (financial abuse)
Do you feel like a child instead of an adult in your relationship? (overall pattern of abuse)
Does he make you do things sexually you do not want to do? (sexual abuse—I am working on a future post specifically about sexual abuse in marriage)
These questions are inspired by a relationship questionnaire by abuse expert Leslie Vernick. You can read through her Emotionally Destructive Relationship Quiz to learn more questions to ask people who might be victims, or for yourself, to help determine if your partner is abusive.
Ask if she would like you to help her call the police. Domestic violence is a criminal matter and should never be kept within the church; the proper civil authorities should be involved. If children are being abused, church leaders have a responsibility to involve the police. If the victim is an adult, offer to go to the police with her, but allow her to make that decision on her own—as much as you want to help, do not take the place of the abuser in her life by controlling her in any way.
Take extreme caution to protect anyone who makes an abuse disclosure to you. Never tell the alleged abuser what the victim has said to you. Do not send a couple together to marriage counseling if you suspect any sort of abuse. Both partners should go to separate counseling sessions with different professional therapists skilled with addressing their unique problems (the abuser to a batterers’ intervention specialist and the victim to someone skilled in assisting with abuse recovery).
Offer resources for her to learn about abuse. And make sure to read these yourself so that you are better prepared to help abuse victims. My top recommendations are The Emotionally Destructive Marriage by Leslie Vernick, Why Does He DO That? by Lundy Bancroft, and Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife by Ruth Tucker, which Scot has previously reviewed on this blog. A couple websites that can help are Emotional Abuse Survivor by Natalie Klejwa and Document the Abuse.
Is your church ready to offer practical support to victims of abuse? Can you serve like Jesus served in meeting her needs for a safe place to stay and money to start life free on her own? Are you prepared to take a stand on the ethics of Jesus and call out abuse for what it is?