‘Domestic violence ruins lives and is completely unacceptable… It has been one of my top priorities’ (Home Secretary, Theresa May, 2014).
The Home Secretary is determined to tackle this social problem. After identifying systematic failings in police response to the problem, the Home Office has demanded an improvement.
A Disclosure Scheme for England and Wales in which an individual can ask the police to check whether a new or existing partner has a violent past was introduced two years ago. This ‘right to ask’, if successful, can reveal whether there is a ‘risk’ in the relationship. By contrast to these government measures, including a Scottish programme in which professionals are trained to recognise signs of domestic abuse, church leaders tend to be less aware of the problem in their communities and in local evangelical churches. Women are complaining that church leaders are not listening to them and pastoral support is often lacking.
What is domestic abuse?
Domestic violence/abuse refers to ‘any incident or patterns of incidences of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass but is not limited to psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional aspects’ (as defined by the Home Office, March 2015). How big is this social problem? Here are some facts:
- In the UK two women per week die as a result of domestic abuse by an intimate partner.
- On average, there are 35 assaults on a woman before the victim calls the police.
- While the police receive one domestic abuse call each minute of the day, fewer than 50% of all domestic abuse incidents are reported to the police.
- It is estimated that at least 25% of women experience domestic abuse during their lives and nearly one million women annually live in fear of domestic abuse.
- One in seven children experience living in families where there is domestic abuse.
- No other crime has such a high rate of repeat victimisation.
- Perhaps surprisingly, one in six men also experience domestic abuse. However, we focus here on the plight of women.
- Evidence suggests that 50-80% of women in prisons have suffered domestic abuse.
Domestic abuse is no longer confined to physical violence. That is important. While there are challenges in proving ‘controlling’ and ‘coercive’ behaviour, the definition covers a wide range of current domestic abuse. For example, ‘psychological’ abuse is destructive and can be more devastating than physical assault. ‘Emotional’ abuse involves destructive criticism, pressure tactics, lying, persistently putting the victim down in front of the children and others, isolating the partner from friends, controlling or even preventing communication with others. The victim feels crushed and often unable to think rationally for fear of further bullying or the children being taken from her.
Apart from the cost to victims and their children due to domestic abuse, the UK government estimates an annual cost of £16-19 billion to the state, employers and the treatment of human suffering.
While some denominations (e.g. Anglicans and Methodists) have addressed this problem for over 10 years, there tends to be silence in evangelical churches. This article is no more than a wake-up call to church leaders. Someone in your local church may be experiencing domestic abuse!
The preacher noticed a young mother was absent from church with her children. Assuming they were ill, he called to see them immediately. Knocking the door, he heard screams before a young child opened the door and invited him in. The mother appeared tense. Unknown to the preacher – then or later – when he knocked the door, the husband was strangling his wife. Screaming, the children struggled to defend her. Within seconds, their mother would have been dead except for that pastoral visit. The husband fled via the rear door.
This occurred in Wales but it could be anywhere in the UK. Despite the couple’s strong church links, no one knew the dark secrets of their relationship. The abuse was physical but also psychological and manipulative.
An extreme example? Not really. The most awful sufferings are being inflicted on women in the home. And some of these victims are in our churches. I know some of them.
Who are the perpetrators? Sometimes it is a man respected within the church, possibly an elder or even the pastor. Or he is a popular or quiet member. They all have one thing in common. Their public image is different from that at home. For that reason, church leaders may not believe the wife’s story. One pastor informs me he knows the woman’s story was true but his elders disagree because of the man’s reputation in church.
Children also suffer in a family where there is domestic abuse. One young man, having seen his mother suffer over years, appeals for churches to remember the deep needs of children in these situations. Others want me to emphasise this fact.
Women are often unwilling to seek help. They fear the consequences for themselves and their children. They often blame themselves, preferring to suffer in silence, dutifully submitting to their husbands.
Approaching male leaders is also a huge step for some women. Here women have a vital role in the church, caring for one another and identifying needs which the leadership can pursue. Such a role for women must be encouraged but wisely and biblically. A female church worker in this context can be invaluable.
Victims report that they need support, especially a protective network in which a handful of trusted people who understand and care are willing to help at any time. That may involve the victim being free to phone at crisis points or meeting regularly for a chat and prayer. This network creates a sense of acceptance and belonging to a wider family in which the victim feels she is loved practically and prayed for.
There are many other issues to face. But here are a few for consideration:
- Do we prepare couples for marriage, providing a thoroughly biblical view of marriage? Or are we implying a distorted view of the husband’s role as a ‘boss’ or ‘tyrant’ to be obeyed whatever? Biblically, the husband should lead lovingly and sacrificially, ‘as Christ loved the church’ (Eph. 5:25), in protecting, nurturing and providing for his wife. Such an approach encourages a wife’s respect and submission.
- Victims report they have never heard the subject raised in sermons/Bible studies, not even when teaching is given concerning the roles of husbands/wives. Why the silence in the pulpit?
- A final word to church leaders. Think carefully before advising a wife to continue submitting to a cruel husband. The damage can be irreparable for the family. If the man talks of repenting, monitor to see whether there is a behavioural change. Remorse is not repentance.
The author welcomes correspondence from victims. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.