What Should Counselors Do When Encountering a Domestic Abuse Situation?

How to address the immediate and long-term needs of your counselee

Jonathan Holmes

Clearly, abuse is not something new or modern. It has been one of the results of sin in our fallen world from the very beginning. Tim Lane and Paul Tripp write, “The Bible is not about an idyllic world full of noble people who always make the right choice. The Bible describes a world we recognize, where very good and very bad things happen, and where people make wonderful and horrible choices. The Bible describes a world that sometimes makes us laugh, but often makes us cry.”1Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp, How People Change (Greensboro, NC: New Growth, 2008), 98. 

The Bible condemns abusive violence of all kinds. The Bible not only describes abuse and narrates tragic stories of abuse, it also clearly and unequivocally condemns abuse of all kinds (cf. Ex. 21:12–27). Abuse of authority or power is always a sin. It is never an acceptable dynamic in any relationship, especially a marriage relationship. The psalmist writes, “The Lord examines the righteous, but the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion” (Ps. 11:5). Does that language surprise you? Aren’t we told hate the sin, not the sinner? Not always so. Here the Bible speaks loud and clear—God hates those who love violence. 

The Bible speaks honestly of abuse, condemning abuse and those who practice violence. But most importantly—and what your counselee needs to hear—is this: God hears the cries of the abused, the oppressed, the torn down, the battered, and the beaten.2Cf. Abigail and Nabal in 1 Samuel 25:3, 17, 24–25, 38 and the Israelites in Jeremiah 50:33–34.  Psalm 10:17 states, “You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry.” The abused have a God who is never deaf to their cries for help.3Cf. Psalm 5, 7, 10, 55–57, 140.  Ed Welch writes, “If she [he] looks for words to say in the Psalms she will find that God especially invites those who have enemies and oppressors to come to him.”4Edward T. Welch, “Living with an Angry Husband,” Journal of Biblical Counseling 24, no. 4 (2006): 47.  

Indeed, our Savior is someone who understands what it means to be afflicted and oppressed: “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isa. 53:3). 

In marriage, all forms of abuse must be addressed and taken seriously by the counselor. As referenced in chapter three, when abuse is taking place in a marriage, the marriage counseling needs to come to an end. At this point, individual and separate counseling for the abused and the abuser is necessary.5The level of competency needed to address issues like domestic violence and abuse are most likely beyond the scope of the average pastor. That does not mean the pastor is absolved of responsibility, but in instances of abuse, pastors should probably help develop a network of care, accountability, and counsel.  Winston Smith writes, “It’s important to identify the presence of abuse in marriage because, undetected, these patterns can sabotage the counseling process. A fundamental dynamic of marriage counseling is helping spouses examine their own behavior so that each understands his or her contribution to shared problems, but this very process can unwittingly play into patterns of abuse rather than stop them.”6Winston Smith, “When NOT to Do Marriage Counseling,” Journal of Biblical Counseling 27, no. 1 (2013): 73–74. 

In counseling husbands who are abusive, it must be made absolutely clear that biblical headship does not entitle a husband to treat his wife in a violent or oppressive manner. At the heart of most domestic abuse is the sinful use of a husband’s leadership to exercise control over another individual.7One of the dynamics that can lead to outbreaks of domestic violence in marriages is an upside-down view of complementarian headship, i.e., that the husband is the head of the wife. A husband can wield such authority in an ungodly way. Jason Meyer states, “Hyper-headship is a satanic distortion of male leadership, but it can fly under the radar of discernment because it is disguised as strong male leadership. Make no mistake—it is harsh, oppressive, and controlling. In other words, hyper-headship becomes a breeding ground for domestic abuse.” Jason Meyer, “Hyper-Headship and the Scandal of Domestic Abuse in the Church,” April 28, 2015. The Gospel Coalition: https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2015/04/28/ hyper-headship-and-the-scandal-of-domestic-abuse-in-the-church/. Another dynamic that can lead to women being called to submit to such abusive headship is a high view of marriage that leads to a “marriages must be saved at all costs” mentality. Both must be balanced by a biblical understanding of Scripture.  Biblical headship is described as sacrificial servanthood, not unlimited authority (Mark 10:42–45). Let’s not confuse terms—when a husband demands his own way or dominates his wife, we do not call this biblical headship, we call it what it is—selfishness and abuse of power. 

In light of this, what should we do as counselors? Two immediate priorities emerge: identify immediate needs and plan for long-term care. 

Identifying Immediate Needs

The first immediate need in any domestic violence situation is to prioritize the safety of the abused.8Brad Hambrick has a helpful post on the triage of complex counseling cases: http://bradhambrick. com/triage2/.  Often this is primarily a matter of physical safety. Make sure they have emergency contact numbers at hand. As a counselor or pastor, you should not be their first phone call in case of emergency. Here are a few helpful numbers and tips. 

If they are in an abusive relationship, help them develop a personal safety plan. Here are several helpful templates available online: 

Seek an assessment of the situation to differentiate abuse from everyday relational conflict. Using the definition of domestic violence provided by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb, a number of issues can help you understand the difference between abuse and everyday conflict:9Holcomb and Holcomb, Is It My Fault?, 57–58. 

Understand that abuse typically escalates. Yes, there might be days and weeks when the abuse recedes into the background, but over the balance of the relationship, abuse tends to escalate and intensify without intervention. Make sure you are not sending the abused back into an environment unprepared. 

Planning for Long-Term Care

A second priority is planning for long-term care. In cases where physical safety is a concern, a physical separation is advised. However, encouraging the abused spouse to separate from their abusive spouse must not be done lightly. “When church leaders act too quickly, questioning or confronting the abuser before the victim is ready, they can cause more harm than good, even putting the victim in greater danger. The victim may be silenced and punished by the abuser who now knows she spoke to an outsider. Ensuring the immediate safety of the victim is essential, but so is securing her long-term safety.”

Darby Strickland reminds us, “Keep in mind that the most dangerous time for a woman is when she is fleeing abuse. There is no room for optimistic and naive thinking when it pertains to safety issues. It is incumbent upon us to be educated.”10Darby Strickland, “Counseling in the Brambles: How to Help Oppressive Marriages,” Journal of Biblical Counseling 30, no. 3 (2016): 37.  This is not a time to deliver a theological argument about divorce and remarriage. That can come at a later point. Right now the immediate need is the care and support of the abused.11For additional reading on the topic of divorce in abusive marriages, I would recommend Jim Newheiser, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage: Critical Questions and Answers, 259–65; and David Instone- Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities, 93–106. The scope of this chapter does not allow for questions related to the biblical arguments for/against divorce/separation in cases of abuse. 

Yes, God calls us to endure suffering. Yes, he can redeem us through suffering and hardship, but those principles must be balanced and read in relationship to all of Scripture. God cares about the oppressed and seeks to deliver them. God cares for the individuals in marriage as much as he cares for the institution of marriage. You do not have a “high view of marriage” if you encourage spouses to endure abuse. This is actually a low view of marriage. 

Ask questions to help you gain a better perspective and understanding of the situation.12The Holcombs have a list of questions in their book Is It My Fault? on pages 32–35. Leslie Vernick has a downloadable survey you can use at her website: http://www.leslievernick.com/pdfs/Relationship -test .pdf.  At this point, some counselees might be fearful of retribution from the abusive spouse or feel they are betraying their spouse by answering your questions. Help the abused understand that sharing their story is not a betrayal of their spouse. Ed Welch notes, “It is not a betrayal of the perpetrator. Instead, one goal is to bring the perpetrator’s sin to light so he has the opportunity to turn to God and, as a result, turn away from God’s wrath.”13Edward T. Welch, “Living with an Angry Husband,” Journal of Biblical Counseling 24, no. 4 (2006): 48. 

If the abused decides to leave the abuser, utilize all the resources at your disposal (e.g., benevolence fund, deacon fund, etc.) to help them find food and shelter. Remember that our faith is an active faith, so wise words should be accompanied by good deeds (James 2:14). 

It is important that you do not handle this situation on your own. Early on, you will need to identify and get help from a variety of people, including: medical professionals, legal professionals, counselors, law enforcement, etc. 

And you should pray with your counselee. It might seem inconsequential to you, but this powerful act of prayer is most likely something they haven’t experienced before. Pray specifically, powerfully, and expectantly for God to draw near to the abused. 

Heavenly Father, 

I come to you this afternoon and ask for your help in the midst of Lucy’s trouble. Father, you know her, you created her, and you love her. Help her right now in this moment to sense your presence and care. I pray that she knows that you see her, hear her, and have a plan to rescue her from evil. 


When Spouses Remain in Abusive Relationships

What should you do with spouses who choose to remain in abusive relationships? First, do not condemn or shame. The dynamics of seeking to separate from an abuser are incredibly complex. Leaving an abuser does not necessarily mean that the abuse ends. Justin and Lindsey Holcomb note, “Domestic abuse does not end immediately with separation from the abuser. Over 75% of separated women suffer post-separation abuse.”14Holcomb and Holcomb, Is It My Fault?, 64.  

While separation from the abuser is recommended, that is not always what the abused chooses. Chuck DeGroat writes, “A decision to stay in a relationship with an abuser requires significant spiritual/emotional strength. They have an internal strength and sense of identity (rooted deeply in Christ, not in the devastating “arrows to the heart” from the abuser). This choice often comes after significant self-assessment in relationship with wise counselors and pastors. It also comes in the context of the community looking in on her well-being. When or why she should stay is not answered by filling out a checklist, but by working through some pretty heavy questions and with very wise counsel.”15Chuck DeGroat, “Identity, Abuse, and Cruciformity: Does ‘Being Like Jesus’ Mean Staying with an Abuser?,” May 25, 2005. https://chuckdegroat.net/2009/05/25/identity-abuse-and-cruciformity -does-being-like-jesus-mean -staying-with-an-abuser/. 

Abuse of any kind—emotional, spiritual, physical, sexual, economic—is evil and wrong. Pastors and counselors must be unequivocal in condemning such behavior as it is entirely opposed to the sacrificial love of our Savior. Counseling those in abusive relationships is one of the most difficult situations we encounter in counseling, and it requires a pastoral counselor to marshal all the resources at their disposal to bring help, hope, and healing to bear. May God equip us well for this task.

Taken from Counsel for Couples: A Biblical and Practical Guide for Marriage Counseling (pp. 179-183, 186) by Jonathan Holmes. Copyright © 2019 by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com. 

Jonathan Holmes is the founder and executive director of Fieldstone Counseling. He also serves as the pastor of Counseling for Parkside Church Bainbridge and Green. Jonathan graduated from The Master’s University with degrees in Biblical Counseling and History and his M.A. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of The Company We KeepCounsel for Couples, and the forthcoming Rescue Plan (P&R Publishing, 2021). He and his wife, Jennifer, have four daughters, Ava, Riley, Ruby, and Emma.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24