Domestic Abuse Misconception #14: The church is the safest place for a victim to seek help. The truth is that it is actually one of the least safe places for victims. Here is a sobering statistic. One study showed that 7 out of 10 victims seek help first from their place of worship but of those who have done so, only 4% would recommend doing it.
I don't think that most churches are intentionally cruel and intend to do harm, it is more that they are grossly ill-equipped to care for people in this situation. It is incredibly common for people within the church, especially church leadership, to provide input and guidance in an area where they have no specific training. There is this idea that if you know the Bible, if you know theology, then you are able to address any situation out there and that is, quite frankly, just not true.
Domestic abuse is a very special situation that requires extensive knowledge in the dynamics of abuse. Training and understanding is essential. A family practice physician should never attempt to do brain surgery except in the most dire of situations (trapped on a desert island, stranded on a ship in the arctic, isolated in the heart of the rain forest...and then only if not doing so means certain death). A wise physician will always refer to a specialist for conditions he or she is not qualified to treat. To do otherwise would be considered malpractice.
Yet the church commits malpractice all the time when it comes to abuse. Sometimes it is well meaning, but ignorance. Sometimes it is the toxic combination of ignorance plus arrogance. Sometimes it is just a blind spot. But blind spots are dangerous (I know. Our Toyota Tundra has one.) and the only way to operate safely is to be aware of your blind spots.
Why is this so important? The truth is that abuse handled poorly by anybody does incredible damage to the victim and often further enables the abuser. But abuse handled poorly by the church does exponential damage because the church, in effect, is speaking for God. The spiritual damage done to a victim is horrific when she is destroyed by her abuser and then that abuse is disbelieved, the damage is minimized, she is forced into couples counseling, rebuked for not submitting enough, admonished to try harder, commanded to forgive, and sometimes even threatened with church discipline if she doesn't obey their authority. (This pattern happens more than you've believe.)
This is a horrific tragedy because this kind of spiritual malpractice paints a picture of God that is totally opposite of who he says he is: the God of the oppressed.
So, what can churches do to be the safe place that victims need? Here are some basic steps:
Believe the victim.
Support the victim.
Refer the victim to professionals and agencies that are competent to serve them.
Educate and equip the congregation to care for victims in their midst.
Believe. Support. Refer. Equip. Make victims glad they came to you first.
Here is an excellent article on the matter.
(Note: In all of my posts I use "he" for abuser and "she" for victim for simplicity and because, in the majority of cases, the abuser is male. But it can be the opposite with a female abuser. Dynamics of abuse can also happen in same sex relationships.)
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