Understanding the Responses of Churches to Domestic Violence

A 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 the community.

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 reasons:

The pastor is caught up in all of these dynamics and has additional stresses caused by:

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 them.

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.