Article  Human Dignity  Life  Marriage and Family  Religious Liberty  Domestic Abuse

Educating pastors about domestic violence

According to LifeWay Research, pastors are less likely to preach on the topic of domestic abuse than other topics throughout the year. Of those surveyed, 42 percent said that they rarely or never speak to their church through sermons or large group meetings about the topic. Bob Smietana reported, “A new survey from LifeWay Research found that most Protestant senior pastors say they know victims of domestic violence and believe stopping abuse is a pro-life issue. But those pastors seldom address domestic violence from the pulpit. And less than half have been trained in how to help victims.”

Justin Holcomb hopes to eradicate this epidemic through educating pastors and congregants about the issue. Justin, along with his wife, Lindsey, wrote Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence. for pastors who are unsure about the issue and how to respond.

What led you and your wife to write a book on domestic violence?

When Lindsey and I met (9 years ago) and started dating, she worked as a case manager at a domestic violence shelter and serving as an advocate for women needing support and assistance. So, it is an issue she is very knowledgeable in. She started teaching me about it and buying me books to read. We realized specific ways that the gospel applied to those suffering abuse.

Also, in 2011, we wrote Rid of My Disgrace, which was primarily for those who suffered sexual assault but also for the family, friends, and ministers to learn how to support them. After that book, people asked us to write a book on domestic abuse.

How do you define domestic violence?

Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive, controlling, or abusive behavior that is used by one individual to gain or maintain power and control over another individual in the context of an intimate relationship.

This includes any behaviors that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, exploit, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure, or wound an intimate partner. This definition isn’t just our personal preference. It’s the increasing consensus of psychologists, lawmakers, and experts in the field.

Domestic violence can take many forms, including willful intimidation, physical assault, sexual assault, battery, stalking, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, economic control, psychological abuse, spiritual abuse, isolation, any other abusive behavior, and/or threats of such. Of course, threats of abuse can be as frightening as the abuse itself, particularly, when the victim knows the perpetrator may carry out the threats.

What have you seen as the major effects of such violence?

We agree with Ann Jones and Susan Schecter, who campaigned internationally against violence against women. They identified five key feelings experienced by women who were abused by their partners:

  1. Fear
  2. Shame
  3. Guilt
  4. Anger
  5. The nameless feeling of “going crazy”

Do you see that domestic violence is in conjunction with another form of abuse, such as sexual abuse or even rape in marriage?

Yes. I do see that domestic violence is in conjunction with sexual abuse. Any situation in which a woman is forced to participate in unwanted, unsafe, or degrading sexual activity is sexual abuse. Forced sex, even by a spouse or intimate partner with whom they also have consensual sex, is an act of aggression and violence.

Sexual assault includes rape, but it also includes coercion, intimidation, or manipulation to force unwanted sex. In Rid of My Disgrace, Lindsey and I define sexual assault as “any type of sexual behavior or contact where consent is not freely given or obtained and is accomplished through force, intimidation, violence, coercion, manipulation, threat, deception, or abuse of authority.”

Sexual assault is a display of power by the perpetrator against the victim. It is not a product of an “uncontrollable” sexual urge. In fact, it is not actually about sex at all; it is about violence and control. Perpetrators use sexual actions and behaviors as weapons to dominate, control, and belittle another person. According to surveys, one in four women will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetimes, and these statistics are probably under-estimates.

Sexual assault can occur in marriage. As a matter of fact, researchers have estimated that sexual assault occurs in 10 to 14 percent of all marriages.

Have you ever had anyone come to you either confessing committing violence or sharing having been abused?

Yes. We’ve had both many times. One man told me that he sexually abused his girlfriend a few times. He was worried that he’d do it again and asked me to go with him to turn himself in to the police. I’ve also had numerous women and two men share that they were being abused by their partner.

In your book, you focus on what the Bible says about delivering victims. How do you share these truths in faith while a woman remains in an abuse situation?

God knows and sees you in your experience of abuse, he loves you through it all, and he greatly desires your safety and protection. God has not forgotten you. He grieves with you. And we hope that knowing this will embolden you to be honest with both him and others and know that it is courageous—not shameful—to reach out for support.

We hope you will not be silent or passive but express your emotions freely, cry and grieve the pain and fear you have experienced. God has compassion for the victims of injustice, and at the root of his compassion is the fact that he witnesses the suffering of the abused. He sees your suffering, grieves with you in it, and longs for you to find freedom from it.

Affliction does not mean that God has forsaken his people. Rather, the constant biblical evidence is that God is on the move in response to prayers for deliverance. Not only that, but he equips us to move ourselves. The Psalms show us that while David prayed to God for deliverance, he also took the necessary measures he needed to get to a safe place away from the violence. David prayed, but he also wisely fled and removed himself from the threat of violence.

While we cannot always observe this deliverance immediately, God will, no doubt, deliver his people. And in the meantime, we can wait actively—taking measures to get ourselves to a safe place where we can pursue the future God has called us to, a future that is hopeful, free, and healed of violence and abuse.

When is it good for a woman to leave?

In general, it is good for a woman to leave if she is being abused and/or the children are being abused. Specifically, they feel they or their children are in any kind of danger. “Abuse” does not mean physical harm but also threats or abuse that is emotional, verbal, or psychological.

Making a safety plan is important. They can use this form, which is Appendix 3 in Is It My Fault?.

If you are experiencing physical, sexual, emotional, and/or verbal abuse from a partner, spouse, family member, etc., you can create a personalized safety plan. A personalized safety plan will help you know what to do if/when you decide to leave or find yourself (and children) in an emergency. You can create this safety plan even if you are not ready to leave.

There are some important things that need to be considered. Evidence shows that planning before leaving is really important and is more likely to help the women stay away. Please ensure that safety is considered when creating, printing, and/or completing this document. Considering who will have access to it and where it will be stored are extremely important.

Have you ever encountered a man who endured domestic abuse and determined not to hit back?

Personally, I have met one man who was abused by his wife and did not respond violently. The overwhelming majority of domestic abuse victims are women. But we also know that there are male victims out there as well, who sometimes suffer from the added burden of feeling that it is unacceptable or a personal failure for a man to be the victim of domestic violence.

How can pastors be more informed?

There was a study by LifeWay on domestic violence and sexual assault, revealing that 52 percent of ministers do not have sufficient training to deal with cases of domestic or sexual violence. We wrote Is It My Fault? so pastors could learn about the issue and how to best respond. Steven Tracy created a recommended reading list.

Local sexual assault resource agencies and domestic violence shelters may have training sessions and seminars.

Pastors can easily look at this subject and think, “This couldn’t happen in my congregation.” Domestic violence is often hidden and therefore we want to equip pastors and ministry workers of the potential.  

Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal priest and a professor of theology and Christian thought at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. He previously taught at the University of Virginia and Emory University. Justin holds an M.A. in Theological Studies and an M.A. in Christian Thought from Reformed Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Emory University. He serves on the boards for REST (Real Escape from the Sex Trade), GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments) and Biblical Counseling Coalition.

Lindsey Holcomb counsels victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Previously, she worked at a sexual assault crisis center and also served as a case manager at a domestic violence shelter. Lindsey provided crisis intervention to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence and conducted a variety of training seminars to service providers. She earned a Master in Public Health with a focus on violence against women and was a co-founder of REST (Real Escape from the Sex Trade).

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