Unmasking the Domestic Abuser in the Church

Wisdom for Pastors Series (Pt 2) Believing and Responding to Victims

Job 19:7  Behold, I cry out, ‘Violence!’ but I am not answered; I call for help, but there is no justice.

In the course of their local church ministry, pastors will encounter individuals who are characterized by a profound sense of entitlement.  Such persons unquestioningly believe that they are entitled to possess power and control over others, and they utilize an arsenal of characteristic tactics to gain and maintain that control, being fully justified in their thinking about their right to do so.  These are the people we are calling “abusers.”  We are not talking about husbands or wives who have merely “difficult” personalities that we can expect (if they are Christians) to be sanctified over time as they grow in Christ. No. The abuser is an entirely different beast.

Abusers may be male or female but most often are men, and the most frequent victims are their wives and children.  We have already stressed in part 1 of this series how vital it is for every pastor to educate himself in this field.  Seminary training is essentially and woefully devoid of such instruction and calls for seminaries to correct this serious deficiency are largely going unheeded. That of course would require faculty who have the Lord’s real wisdom and experience in the field. Such Christians are very hard to find.

Pastors, like most other people, have a “default” reaction to abusers and their victims.  No pastor should think himself to be immune from this default setting.  If a pastor remains ignorant regarding abuse, he and his church will surely engage the appallingly common chain of events which regularly deals injustice and suffering to abuse victims who come to their church for help.

The same pattern will simultaneously enable and support the abuser in the torment of his victims.  The victim will not be believed when she tells her pastor about the abuse.  The seriousness of the abuse will be minimized by the pastor.  The pastor will take superficial steps to “fix” the problem, such steps serving only to make the situation worse and even endanger the life and safety of the victim.  And, in the end, it will be the victim who is driven from her church rather than the abuser.   This cycle of church abuse of abuse victims will engage unless pastors give themselves to arriving at a full understanding of the mentality, nature, and tactics of abuse.

After taking diligent steps to familiarize himself with abuse (see part 1 of this series for suggested resources) the next thing a pastor must do — and in many ways perhaps the most important of all — is to believe the victim when she comes forward to report the abuse.  This will sound unwise to the untrained ear.  After all, doesn’t every tale have two sides?  Shouldn’t the other half of this marriage be consulted before a judgment is made?

While that approach may be true in other kinds of conflicts, it is most certainly not true in the case of abuse.  Once a pastor educates himself about abuse, he will be able to identify common characteristics of abuse as the victim tells her story.  While abusers have quite an arsenal of tactics, that arsenal is really quite consistent. Playing the victim, distorting history, instilling fear, utilizing a Jekyll-Hyde facade, sexual abuse, economic abuse, isolating the victim from family and friends are just a few of the weapons abusers typically use to shore up their reign.  A pastor can in fact become familiar with these tactics and learn to recognize them as a victim reports her plight.  I have only come across maybe 3 cases in all my dealings with abuse victims that I concluded were false.

Abuse victims do not readily report their abuser, especially if the victim is a Christian and functioning within a church setting.  There is a huge amount of fear and trepidation on the part of such victims, and therefore pastors must realize that by the time the victim comes to him for help, she has resolved to take a very big and risky step.  Will anyone believe her?  What if her abuser finds out?  The pastor and elders are men after all (and perhaps her abuser is one of them!). Coming into the pastor’s office and telling him these things requires great courage on the part of the victim and the pastor must understand this.

It is important for pastors to realize that the victim is most frequently going to initially share only the “tip of the iceberg” regarding the abuse that is taking place. She will do this to see what the pastor’s reaction is going to be.  If it is one of incredulity, or of shock, or of minimization — she is going to “clam up” and that will be the last time she approaches you.

Pastors receiving abuse reports from victims must listen carefully and must affirm to the victim that what is happening to her is a great evil and something that the Lord hates and for which she is not at fault.

Couple’s counseling is not appropriate for abuse cases and can (no, will!) endanger the emotional and physical safety of the victim. Pastors must never resort to the simplistic yet far-too-common method of pressing her into couple’s counseling with her abuser in a misguided and ill-informed attempt to “save the marriage.”

The pastor must also keep the victim’s report confidential from the abuser, and seek to take immediate steps to ensure her safety. There are well-recognized factors that help identify how much danger a victim is in and those factors are available on most domestic abuse websites (presence of firearms in the home, escalating level of abuse, presence of physical violence, choking or strangling, etc).

Important Fact: the risk level for the victim doubles at separation, because abusers don’t like to lose control.


Pastors are required to report abuse incidents to the police if (in most states) there has been physical assault or harassment. Pastors must never hesitiate to take this step no matter who the abuser is.  While state laws often do not require reporting if there is no physical abuse, the pastor must not make the error of concluding that non-physical (verbal, emotional) abuse is less serious.

Pastors must prepare for these encounters.  Receiving a report of this great evil called abuse, in which the perpetrator is often someone whom the pastor has known only as a “fine Christian” man, is somewhat akin to having the FBI come to your office and tell you that one of your elders is a terrorist who has been working behind the scenes for many years planning mass bombings.   Unbelief can overwhelm us in such settings and that unbelief and fear and shock will never produce good, righteous decisions.  We must train for that day so that when it comes — and it surely will — we will not automatically default to a stance that rejects and oppresses the victim, but to one that recognizes the familiar pattern and deception of evil and resolves to pursue righteousness and justice for the oppressed. Should we pastors, who have studied and believed Scripture all these years, really be surprised at the depth of evil or should we be shocked at the masterful ability of evil to camouflage itself behind a “Christian” mask?

It is also vital for pastors to train themselves in regard to the nature of genuine repentance, and to be able to identify false repentance.  This is necessary not only for our normal pastoral ministry, but because of the incredibly deceptive and confusing nature of abuse.  Abusers who parade as Christians will inevitably, when confronted and exposed, work very hard at shifting blame and guilt away from themselves and back onto their victim. One of the very common tactics used to accomplish this is to feign repentance, then demand that everyone forgive and forget.

Over and over and over again I receive reports from abuse victims about how their pastors and churches fell for the abuser’s false repentance and then targeted the victim with charges of “unforgiveness” when she did not believe the culprit’s repentance to be genuine.  Therefore, we will turn to this topic in part 3 of this series.

1 Comment

  1. Anon.

    Excellent post. A person’s experiences and expectations shape what they perceive and see.

    There was a TED talk by an ER doc who didn’t realize she was looking at human trafficking and sex trafficking when she first became a doctor. She saw a woman who’d waited a day or so to come in and give birth, taking pain pills and all. Her pimp was present the entire time, which controlled the woman’s responses and explanations. Even when a pimp or abuser is not immediately present, if the offender is powerful enough, she’ll cover-up for fear of her pimp, abuser, or controller somehow finding out.

    Same thing goes on with domestic abusers. And people don’t know what they are seeing unless they themselves experienced it or they are well-trained and very knowledgeable about such things.

    And if pastors are required to report to law enforcement, those same pastors ought to be required to tell the abused woman that they are about to do such. She should be the first to know. The pastors should almost be required to report to the woman, BEFORE she says anything, that if she discloses physical violence, that pastor is going to call the police, no matter what. She should be able to know and decide first. Some abusers are cops. Some abusers have law enforcement contacts. It’s a very hairy situation and it’s fraught with risk for the abused woman. Moreover, if the police are called, without her permission or knowing it, and the stakes get really high, she may recant everything in order to appease her abuser because it seems less risky (and often is the safest thing she can do) as the cops eventually go home, she is stuck going up against the abuser, his friends, his family, his allies, and she is just one, isolated, scared to death (and rightfully so) individual.

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