the Responses of
Churches to Domestic Violence
Resource for Community Workers
To people working in the areas of
domestic violence, the attitudes of churches to revelations
concerning family violence is often puzzling. This resource is an
attempt to give some insight into the internal dynamics of churches,
particularly those which describe themselves as evangelical,
conservative, charismatic or pentecostal.
It must first be understood that every
congregation is a unique organism with its own personality,
traditions and history.
While outsiders often see churches as
being part of a mysterious monolithic institution, similar to
government departments or perhaps large corporations, individual
congregations work hard to establish strong relational networks that
offer a unique quality of support, encouragement and love.
Most congregations work hard to
establish dynamic links with the wider community in order to bring
the message of salvation to the community and also to help improve
Most churches provide healthy role
models and various forms of mentoring and accountability structures.
Most christians are sincere in their
beliefs and try to live consistently with their beliefs in the love
of God for all people. Part of that belief structure is a very high
value on marriage and traditional family relationships.
Some churches are very suspicious of
government and community organisations which, by their very nature,
have different values and ways of operating. Some may feel, for
example, that government-funded groups are more accepting of divorce,
single parents and other factors which the churches may feel are part
of the modern threat to families and marriage.
Some churches have what might be
called a remnant mentality which means that they see themselves as a
small faithful remnant of God's people in a world rapidly heading
towards increasing evil. These churches are often more isolated from
the rest of the community and see themselves as morally superior.
Pastors or ministers are deeply
committed spiritually, emotionally and financially to their
congregations. They have very deep personal investment in the life of
the congregation. Most see their work as a divine calling or
appointment and not certainly not a job. A good minister will have a
deep emotional attachment to his people.
An allegation of family violence in a
congregation causes unique internal dynamics for the following
- it calls into question the deeply held values of the congregation
- it calls into question the validity of the congregation as a
- it may provoke the intrusion of external “worldly”
organisations including the police, courts and Department of Community
Services into the privacy of the family involved.
- It calls into question the integrity of the husband and wife,
particularly if one or other or both of them have leadership positions
or are influential members of the church
- It will threaten the unity (and therefore the future) of the
congregation, particularly if people take sides.
The pastor is caught up in all of
these dynamics and has additional stresses caused by:
- his pay cheque comes from the offerings of the members of the
church. If there is any negative disruptions to the congregation, he
may find himself without an income
- many churches are run by committees or boards made up of members
of the church. The minister's job security may be threatened if he acts
in a way that is disapproved of by members of the committee, which may
include, for example, the perpetrator or close supporters of the
- Most ministers do not separate their work from their home life.
The vocational nature of the position runs against this kind of
separation. Therefore, a pastor's wife and family will also be affected
by stress in the congregation.
Most churches have attitudes to
marriage which are considered old fashioned by many people. Some
churches have a very patriarchal attitude to marriage based on a
selective reading of some passages of scripture. These churches will
teach that wives must submit to their husbands and be obedient to
It is expected in most churches that
people will be faithful in their marriages and that marriages will
normally last for life. Divorce is seen as a threat to this belief.
People who have marriage problems may feel higher levels of shame and
guilt than in the wider community.
These dynamics often make it difficult
for people experiencing problems such as DV to disclose to people in
the church. It will also make it hard for them to disclose to people
outside the church if the church sees community organisations to be
hostile to marriage.
In order to protect a marriage,
pastors and other church members may put pressure on a couple to stay
together and work things out, even when it is obvious that this might
not be in the best interests of the couple. This may indicate denial,
but often may indicate a level of naiveté towards the issues
surrounding domestic violence.
Most ministers and churches are
strongly committed to the emotional, spiritual and physical health of
their people. However, there are times when those who are closest to
the people involved find it very difficult to see the signs of abuse
in the family. This is usually not because they are clueless but
often they are simply not equipped to deal with a problem that
challenges them on every level.
When community-based organisations are
involved in domestic violence situations that involve committed
church members, case workers need to be aware of their own prejudices
and pre-existing attitudes towards religious organisations in general
and especially churches. Many DV victims may find deep supportive
networks among their faith community. Where clients indicate a faith
or a connection with a church, workers should find out if the client
wants either a minister or another member of the church to be
contacted for support. If the client indicates that the church and
its members are likely to be unhelpful then this should be respected.