How Far Have Evangelical Pastors Come on Domestic Violence?

How Far Have Evangelical Pastors Come on Domestic Violence? February 28, 2018

A year ago, Christianity Today reported on a LifeWay Research study that surveyed 1,000 senior pastors on how their churches approached and addressed domestic violence. In some areas the responses were encouraging—only 4% of those surveyed said that divorce was never an option even if domestic violence was present—but the findings also pointed to some differences between evangelicals and mainline Protestants.

In other words, if a church member filed for divorce over domestic violence, 68% of evangelical pastors would investigate whether there actually was domestic violence while a smaller 46% of mainline pastors would do so. Similarly, 66% of mainline pastors would believe the claim while a lower 56% of evangelicals would do so. As Christianity Today reported:

Baptist (70%), Pentecostal (70%), and Holiness (76%) pastors are more likely to investigate claims of domestic violence. Lutherans (52%), Presbyterian/Reformed (47%), and Methodists (39%) are less likely.

And, according to LifeWay’s report:

Lutheran (70 percent), Methodist (63 percent) and Presbyterian/Reformed pastors (62 percent) are most likely to believe domestic violence took place if a church member files for divorce and cites domestic violence as a cause. Baptist (49 percent) and Pentecostal (40 percent) pastors are less likely.

While there is clearly some overlap, mainline and evangelical churches tend to have divergent theologies and approaches to social problems. Namely, evangelicals are more likely to hold to traditional ideas about gender, family leadership, and divorce.

In two-thirds of mainline churches, a domestic violence victim can expect to be believed; in two-thirds of evangelical churches, the same victim can expect to be investigated. Pentecostal churches appear to be the the worst offenders: only 40% of Pentecostal pastors would believe a domestic violence victim seeking a divorce, while 70% would investigate the claims.

What is the problem with pastors investigating claims, rather than believing them? As the Christianity Today article detailing the study notes:

Julie Owens, a North Carolina-based consultant who has designed domestic violence prevention programs for churches and the Department of Justice, said churches want to be safe havens for victims. But there’s no way for a victim to know a church is a safe place if the pastor never discusses the issues.

Church leaders had a hard time believing [domestic violence victims’] claims were true—in part because they didn’t think domestic violence could happen in the church.

Launching investigations … can do more harm than good, Owens said. If a pastor talks to an alleged abuser, the abuser will often deny the claims and then retaliate against the victim, she said.

And abusers often know how to manipulate pastors, she said. Abusers will ask for forgiveness and say they want to reconcile with their spouses—and that’s what pastors want to hear, she said.

“It can be a lot easier to believe the abuser than to help a victim,” she said.

This is a dynamic regular readers of my blog will be familiar with.

Another statistic especially stuck out to me from the study:

It is encouraging that only 4% of pastors surveyed said that domestic violence was never a reason for divorce. However, that 55% of evangelical pastors believe divorce may be the best response to domestic violence compares badly with the 72% of mainline pastors who believe the same thing.

This statistic leaves me with another question as well: Even pastors who agree that divorce may be the best option when domestic violence is present do not necessarily believe that those who are divorced should be able to remarry. In many churches, these are two separate questions. Divorce is tantamount to separating—remarriage is something else altogether.

Knowing that your church will give you approval to divorce an abusive partner is helpful, but if you also know that your church will not approve of you remarrying, such approval is only going to go so far. Unfortunately, the LifeWay study does not address this question.

The problem, in part, is this: many (though not all) churches accept the legitimacy of divorce that follows adultery, and allow the parties to remarry. They do not, however, make a similar exemption for divorce that follows domestic violence.

Check out this policy on divorce and remarriage from the Village Church of Barrington, Illinois, for instance:

Biblical Teaching on Divorce and Remarriage

  1. God intends marriage to be a lifelong contract (Genesis 2:24; Matt 19:2-9). This relationship is meant to reflect God’s relationship with the church, which is unbreakable, and therefore Christian marriages are to be maintained until the death of one of the partners (Romans 7:2-3; Matt. 19:6; Mark 9:10).

  2. Divorce is not commended or encouraged in the Bible (e.g. Mal 2:16; Mark 10:9; Luke 16:18). God hates divorce.

  3. Divorce for Christians is permitted (at least conceded) for two reasons:

    • Where one partner has committed sexual sin and is unwilling to repent and live faithfully with his/her partner (Matt 5:31-32; 19:3-9).
    • Where one partner is not a Christian and permanently leaves the Christian partner (1 Corinthians 7:10-16). If the unbelieving partner does not abandon the believing partner, the believing partner is not normally at liberty to initiate the divorce.
  4. The Christian who has been divorced (in terms of number 3 above) has the right and freedom to remarry if he/she has diligently sought reconciliation without success (Matthew 19:9; 1 Corinthians 7:27-28a).

Note that there is no allowance for divorce—or remarriage—when a partner is abusive. The only allowances are made for adultery and abandonment. Note, too, that even if one has a legitimate reason for divorce, remarriage is allowed only once one has “diligently sought reconciliation.” Try applying that to a situation with domestic violence—as long as the abuser wanted you to stay married, you would be stuck. For the victim to say “no” and walk away would make them the problem—the one who refused reconciliation.

Reconciliation, reconciliation, reconciliation. This perhaps is why, while only a very small percentage of pastors stated that divorce is never acceptable in marriages rift by domestic violence, only just over half of evangelical pastors were willing to state that divorce might be “the best response to domestic violence.” For many evangelical pastors, the best response to domestic violence is and will always be reconciliation.

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