A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Believing and Responding to Victims (advice for pastors, Part 2, by Ps Jeff Crippen)

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.”  They 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.

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 reporting 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.  These reports are worthy of our belief.

To help you discern the true victim from the abuser who feigns victim-hood, read Marks of a Pretend Victim versus a True Victim.

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 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.

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.

Risk Assessment Framework. There is a DVD which is part of the framework materials; if you look at chapter one of the DVD, it can give you an idea of how to open up a discussion with a victim.
Also see this Risk Assessment Checklist from a police department in the UK, but be aware that risk assessment isn’t just ticking boxes on a list; it’s about having a compassionate, respectful, encouraging conversation with the victim.
Safety Plan 1 (with American phone numbers)
Safety Plan 2 (with Australian phone numbers).

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?

Numbers of readers have pointed out how important it is for pastors to train themselves in regard to the nature of genuine repentance, and to be able to identify false repentance.  They make this suggestion 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 we 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. We also highly recommend How to Recognize True and False Contrition, a post written for this blog by Dr George Simon Jr, PhD.

Luke 15:21  And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

Read part three of this series

10 Comments

  1. Joey

    Excellent!!!!! Thank you so much for your sensitivity and understanding of the victim. My ex actually drunkenly outed himself before the Pastor, so it was easier for me to start to talk to him. The first thing he asked me was if my ex had hurt me…it meant the world to me! Being out of the abuse closet and being believed saved my life and my spirit.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Out of the abuse closet — I like it! That is what is must feel like. Huge relief when someone listens and believes you. I plan to continue writing this series for pastors. It will take several more to cover at least the basics.

  2. I am hoping and praying that lots of pastors will comment on this series.
    Joey, I love your story. He outed himself!
    AND you were believed – this is how it should be!

  3. Reblogged this on Speakingtruthinlove's Blog.

  4. Anonymous

    What if a pastor reads the above, and asks “what does pursuing righteousness and justice for the oppressed look like?” Does it mean that the Matthew 18 should be executed? What should be the final result? If he does not show signs of change, does that mean he should be asked to leave? Or come under ministry? My pastor didn’t believe that it was legal to ask someone to leave the church because it is public property and anyone can step in unless you can prove that the person is committing a crime like pedophilia.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Ah yes! Tell him to read on. We shall be dealing with all of those issues in this series. And I like that — “Matthew 18 should be executed.” :):)

    • I know of a person who was delivered a formal ‘letter of ban’ by their church elders. I won’t go into the details, but in that denomination the rules of procedure (codified in the denominational code book) permit such an action by the elders. It was explained to this person that:
      a) The normal (default) assumption is that the church extends an invitation to ANYONE to attend church services. All people need to hear the gospel, so the invitation is normally extended to all.
      b) But the elders of a church may decide that a certain individual ought to be prohibited from attending that local church, because the elders believe that individual has infringed biblical behavior in some serious way.
      c) If the church owns its own premises, those premises are private property.
      d) To prohibit an individual from setting foot on church property, the elders deliver a letter of banning to the individual. This gives the individual notice that if they attempt to set foot on the church’s property, police may be called on the grounds of trespass.
      e) The letter of ban formally withdraws the church’s invitation to attend services, and counteracts the assumption of invitation to attend church services that normally applies.
      f) No letter of ban can prohibit an individual from attending service at another church. It only prohibits the individual from attending the premises which are owned by the legal body which issued the letter of ban.
      g) Obviously, because different congregations and denominations can be constituted differently as legal entities, the letter of ban may pertain only to one local parish, or one local church, or one ‘campus’ of a church, or to a denomination as a whole.

      Hope this explains that the pastor you spoke to was not correct. If a church owns its own premises, it CAN legally prevent an individual from attending its meetings. Of course, in most cases, this kind of formal procedure might not be necessary. A strong word of command would often be enough, without the need for written or legal backup. And there’s always a place for a little old fashioned public shaming of the wrongdoer! (Sadly, far too often applied to the innocent victim rather than the guilty perpetrator…)

  5. What if a Pastor is your abuser? What if the pastor encourages the entire congregation to abuse you?

    • Jeff Crippen

      Dear Margaret – leave that church immediately if you can. There are many pastors who are abusers of their wives and/or their flock. Some local churches are virtual cults. Read up on spiritual abuse at the Church Exiters website done by Barb Orlowski.

  6. Finding Answers

    (Airbrushing….)

    Odd humour (from me, about me). I am a person who oftentimes connects words chosen – mine or others – with the root of physical symptoms. (Omitting details / examples for protection.)

    For many years, I have recognized and acknowledged I experience varying levels of head pain (even noted on some of my ACFJ comments) whenever I was healing.

    After an afternoon bedridden with acute head pain, the Holy Spirit helped me remember the description I use when convicted (not condemned) by something I may need to change. I refer to it as “needing to pry my head open”. Go ahead and laugh. I did. 🙂

    Pastor Jeff wrote 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.

    I am still trying to “pry my head open” and accept what Pastor Jeff emphasized in his sentence.

    And yes, I have a headache. 🙂

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