It shouldn't have been any surprise to find that there's domestic abuse in church communities. Of course there is.
Sometimes it's at the fringe, with families that we hardly ever see. Sometimes an abused woman in the wider community comes to us for help without her husband. Sometimes the victim is a woman (or in one case I know of, a man) who comes to church, while the partner is not a believer.
But sometimes abuse occurs even at the hands of those the pillars of the church community. We know this, and this year my denomination (the Anglican Diocese of Sydney) apologised for it.
What I've learnt is how I've been blind to it too often. Abusers can be good at cultivating pastors like me.
They make sure that they win over the minister by telling us that their spouse is having mental troubles, by asking for prayer, or by getting us to doubt their partners. They impress us with their willingness to help and with their piety.
They confide in us.
And what happens in a domestic abuse situation is, by its nature, private.
The signs are hard to spotA family can present as fairly normal by the time the tears have been wiped away and the bruises covered.
A woman with small children seems depressed — this is not unusual, is it? She's just struggling with tiredness. And who wants to be thought of as a failure, when Christians put such a high value on family?
In one case I know of, a man who was studying for the ministry in a residential bible college was persistently abusive and violent to his wife. This all occurred while he had fellow students as his next-door neighbours, who noticed nothing. The couple both carried on as if nothing was wrong. It wasn't until his wife decided to leave that he was exposed.
There are cases that are more complicated than that. Violence is much easier to spot than emotional abuse. There are often mental health issues at play, sometimes because the abuse has triggered them. Sometimes a spouse holds out hope that there may be healing and reconciliation, even though she has been deeply hurt by her partner.
Pastoring amid abuseRecently, though, through the courage of victims and through compulsory training offered to ministers by the Diocese, I've learnt a number of things about pastoring in the midst of domestic abuse.
We ministers are trained to talk. But the first lesson is … listen. And listen hard. My job is not to fix the problem, or to make a judgement as to who is right and who is wrong. My job is to listen, and to believe. Abuse victims in the church (as elsewhere) have been silent because they feared that no-one would believe them. But finding someone who believes them can be a life-saver.
The second thing I've learnt is that I am not there to fix the problem. There are experts in marriage counselling, domestic abuse counsellors, and welfare agencies. These all have a part to play. Some matters need to be referred to the police. What do I do? I listen, pray, and I speak of the hope and love of Jesus.
But there's always a need for practical help. And this is where church communities can, in my experience, be literally life-saving (that was an expression one victim of abuse used).
In one situation I know of, a victim received several rounds of groceries, and a squad of blokes from a men's bible study group who cleaned her house because she had to move. Other victims have been given a shed to put their things in, emergency accommodation for them and their kids, and someone to attend court with them.
Reflecting on our teachingsI've also learnt that what I teach about marriage needs to be done with an awareness that a percentage of people listening will have some experience of an abusive relationship.
Christians believe in practising forgiveness. They believe in a pattern of love which is sacrificial, especially for husbands. In Christian marriage, we are called to lifelong union, in which we seek the good of our partner above our own.
These ideals are a beautiful and life-affirming vision. But in an abusive relationship they can become warped beyond recognition, such that a victim will believe she has to submit to the abuse of her spouse.
We pastors need to be clear. Isn't it just obvious that emotional, sexual and physical abuse is wrong in a marriage?
You would think so, but that's not the reality that many people live with. The evidence is there in the testimony of the victims I've met and read about.
We thought we were teaching one thing, but it was heard by some couples as meaning something else.
It turns out we do need to spell it out: it simply isn't Christian to treat your spouse as there to meet all your needs. It is not acceptable to subject them to your rage.
It is not a form of Christian spousal love to control, dominate, or hurt your wife; and to hear that the beautiful Scriptural picture of Christian marriage is used to justify this behaviour makes me sick to the stomach. It's an offence to the name of Jesus Christ himself.
Where to next?Where does the church go from here? Denominations need to work hard to understand the needs and to provide training, resources, and support — and a lot of work is going on in this arena.
The front line, however, is the local church, where people gather in all their complexity and with all their baggage. The problems can seem overwhelming. The poison of abuse can seem to infect everything. Yet here's the miracle: the grace of God given to us in Jesus Christ gives us a vision of a better way.
A community of Christ's people is a community with a mission to be a place of refuge.
We don't ask perfection of each other, but are called to show grace and kindness to one another.
At our best, the church can be - and often is - a place where a victim finds the love of God in action.
This article was written by Michael Jensen and was copied from here.