Towards an effective church response to domestic abuse

Right now the church isn't equipped to address domestic abuse, but one organisation is hoping to change all that

This year saw the launch of a new resource to raise awareness of domestic abuse happening both within the church and outside. It’s still early days but Peter Grant, co-director of Restored, says that a lot of churches are getting onboard and recognising that domestic abuse is happening in their midst.

The resource pack is simple. It includes a charter that churches can post up on their notice board stating that violence against women is always wrong. It also provides them with guidance about how best to respond to a woman who turns to them for help.

“Restored is driven forward by two questions,” says Peter. “Where is the church and where are the men?”

The resource, Ending Domestic Abuse, is an attempt to answer the first question. It’s still being drafted and the final version is expected to come out sometime in 2011.

The answer to the second question is a new campaign to be launched in the next few months, First Man Standing. As the name suggests, the campaign is challenging men to be the first man to stand up in their church, in their sports clubs, in their workplace, or whatever group setting they may be in, and speak out about domestic violence.

“A lot of the messages around violence against women are aimed at women – like not taking illegal cabs for example. But we feel there also needs to be a campaign aimed at men saying ‘please stop’,” he says.

Peter shares the belief of other campaigners who say that the attitudes and actions of men must change if violence against women is to be ended.

First Man Standing is about challenging the behaviour of peers, modelling good behaviour and speaking up for positive relationships.

Peter continues: “There is a lot of peer group pressure to behave in a certain way. If you look at stag nights, the behaviour on these nights is all about what’s acceptable in a group and you need to be a courageous man to stand up in that group. There are other issues like language and jokes demeaning women. It’s about changing culture and challenging what is acceptable.”

The statistics are horrifying. In the UK, it is estimated that on average 167 women are raped every day, while two women a week are murdered by a partner or former partner. In the US that figure rises to three a day and in Russia one every hour.

A recent sample survey by the Evangelical Alliance suggests that violence against women is just as prevalent in UK churches as in wider society.

Right now a lot of churches just aren’t equipped to respond, says Peter. Statistics suggest that a woman might experience 35 incidents of violence before reporting the abuse to outsiders and coming forward is especially difficult if the victims are the wives of clergy.

Natalie Collins, 25, managed to escape an abusive marriage after her husband violently assaulted her, causing her second child to be born three months premature.

She says that a lot of people in the church simply don’t understand what domestic abuse is. It’s not about anger but control and power, and the abuser will use all manner of tactics to dominate their partners and weaken their self esteem to the point where they feel that they are so worthless that they deserve the abuse. It may be physical or psychological, but regardless of the form the abuse takes, it could happen to anyone. Abusers come from all walks of life – and so do their victims.

The Christmas period will have been particularly difficult for women suffering domestic abuse, explains Natalie. The festive season means that the men may be at home more than usual and therefore more likely to turn violent, expecting the women to wait on them hand and foot and lashing out when they don’t, tipping over the Christmas tree, or destroying the children’s new toys when they go on a rampage through the house.

Abusive men always try to isolate their wives or girlfriends but with the constant stream of visitors to the house over Christmas and New Year, the men will typically play up in front of visitors – ignoring the guests, watching TV really loudly, walking out the room, burping or farting are some of the ‘tactics’. The effect is that loved ones will think twice about visiting again.

In the Christian context, abusers may use Scripture or theological positions to justify their behaviour, while the women may believe that the permanence of marriage, the importance of forgiveness, and the headship of the man in the family means they must simply accept it.

That’s why the resource pack includes a theology table that breaks down what certain verses mean and what they definitely don’t mean.

“This needs to be talked about and what forgiveness means needs to be explained because people don’t realise that it is not being a doormat,” says Natalie, who is helping to draft Restored’s resources.

Leaving may seem the obvious or easy choice to those looking in from the outside, but in reality women in abusive relationships are more likely to be murdered by their partners at the point of leaving than at any other time in the relationship.

“We’re scared,” says Natalie, who left after enduring four years of violence at the hands of her former husband. Some women remain in the relationship for decades and sadly there are those who never manage to leave.

She continues: “If I ever did try to leave he would become the ‘persuader’ and that is the key to why we don’t leave. He becomes the person we first fell in love with. He might have just beaten us black and blue but he’s telling us he’s going to change, he’s going to get counselling, he’s never going to do it again. And we’ve got kids and we believe he will change and we believe ‘my love can change him’. But it doesn’t.”

Natalie, who has since remarried, grew up in the church and remains in it to this day, but she agrees with Peter: right now churches just aren’t equipped to respond to domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women.

Christian women, she says, find it very difficult to confide in the church about what’s happening to them. They have a feeling that the traditional Christian notions of men and women in the family and, of course, divorce mean they have no choice but to accept what is happening to them. If the abuser is also a member or leader of a church, the decision to seek help is made even more difficult for the women by the recognition that doing so will almost certainly be dire for the church.

Even when they do manage to come forward, sometimes the only answer they receive from the church is an offer to pray for them or counsel the abusive partner, an action which could create even more problems for the woman when he hears what she has said about him and returns home to confront her.

The challenge for the church is manifold.

“It’s just not talked about in the church,” says Natalie. “It generally doesn’t support divorce and if you are going to tell the church that you have to leave an abusive relationship in order to save yourself, they’re not going to support you or you don’t think they are.

“I had this belief just from growing up in a church setting that forgiveness meant just accepting any behaviour and that if my husband said sorry then that was repentance and I had to forgive him, and if he wanted sex then I just had to say yes because that was what submission meant.

“I didn’t get that from one sermon. It’s not like one person stood up and said ‘this is what it is’ but the problem is that no one stood up and said ‘this is what it isn’t’.”

Natalie sees the resource as the starting point in turning around the church’s response to violence against women. It is there to help churches send out the message that if women come forward to them, they will be taken seriously and receive the support they need, primarily through putting them in touch with the local organisations that are already doing great work and have a track record of helping women.

“At the minute, the church isn’t the answer for people suffering abuse,” says Natalie. “The pack can’t do everything but it can be a resource and a tool for the church to use to start thinking about the issue and what they need to do and for them to realise that it is an issue. It will help them to understand what domestic abuse is and recognise when it might be happening to someone in their midst. And it can create a culture and environment where domestic abuse is always condemned and the support of women is always enabled,” she says.

“If you aren’t aware of domestic abuse it can be daunting for a church leader to know how to respond,” adds Peter. “The church pack won’t make them an expert but it will offer them some practical guidance and help them to make that initial response and refer women to the organisations that can help because there is a lot of expertise in society.”

For more information about how your church can help women For more about how your church can help women caught up in domestic abuse, visit www.restoredrelationships.org

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