Heath: Domestic violence is a really, really serious topic for us to address. It is such a serious topic because the pain is so profound and because the experience of the difficulty is so wide-ranging. There are statistics that report that anywhere from 25-33% of women will be victimized physically by the male significant other in their life; maybe that’s a husband or maybe that’s a boyfriend. The one thing we know about those statistics is that they underestimate the problem because domestic violence is one of the most underreported problems that exists. These statistics also only account for women. They do not account for men that are being abused by their wives or children who are being abused. The problem of domestic violence is massive and we cannot talk about it in one brief podcast. But we need to talk about this issue at least as it relates to women because it is such a problem and because I think the church is really confused about how to handle this issue.
Amy: What would you say that this confusion looks like in the church?
Heath: I think that there are two extremes that it is easy for Christians to stake out. I think one extreme that’s popular in the culture that’s easy for the church to adopt is that when we hear that a woman has been abused by her husband we give her counsel that she should never ever return home. We say, “Once an abuser always an abuser,” “If he hits you once he’ll hit you twice.” “Abusers don’t change.” People advise women to never go back because it’s never going to be safe. I understand the instinct that would lead to someone saying that. They care for women. They don’t want them to get hurt. They are aware that research shows that there is a high rate of repeat offense of people who are guilty of abuse.
The problem with that from a biblical perspective is Romans 8:9-11,
“You however are not in the flesh but in the Spirit if in fact the Spirit of God dwells with you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him but if Christ is in you although the body is dead because of sin the Spirit is alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”
This is a promise that all of those who trust in Jesus have the Spirit of Christ dwelling in them and that the same Spirit that brought Jesus back to life is going to change them. So in our good desire to want to honor important research that is true and indicates that this is a problem that is difficult for change, and in our important desire to want to protect women, we cannot overlook the good news of Jesus Christ which says that anybody can change. It’s not a statement that weakens our response to abuse, it’s a statement that magnifies the good news of what Jesus came to do. So when the Spirit is dwelling in a person they can be different and we always want, because of a desire to honor Jesus, to point out that reality. So we don’t want to say that you can never return because things are never going to change.
Another extreme when Christians hear that a woman has been abused is they say, “Go home immediately. You have to trust the Lord. You’ve got to submit to your husband. And so you’re going to have to just go and pray and trust the Lord.” That is reckless advice. It takes principles that are true: that you should submit to your husband and that you need to trust the sovereign care of the Lord. But it takes out a whole other part of the biblical equation. One part of that is what we read about in Psalm 82:3-4, it says, “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless. Maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy. Deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Also, Proverbs 24:11-12 says, “Rescue those who are being taken away to death. Hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, ‘Behold! We did not know this!’ Does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it? And will he not repay man according to his work?” So this is the Bible commanding believers that we have to protect weak people. We have to protect people who are in harms way. I think Christians have confused, and dangerous, and harmful responses when they say you can never go home cause he’s never going to change or you must go home right now because you have to trust the Lord. The Bible corrects both of those confused extremes.
Amy: So with these two extremes how can we help her know what to do?
Heath: How do we avoid the extremes and know when it’s right in a particular situation to go back. The tension is between wanting to aim for restoration and wanting to protect people from unsafe situations. 2 Corinthians 13:11 commands Christians to aim for restoration. Christians always should be interested in pursuing restoration and reconciliation in having our relationships be restored. But the other side of that is we should never send a woman or anybody into a situation that we know to be or suspect is unsafe.
And so that’s the tension. We want to aim for restoration. We want to believe that this abusive man can change and their marriage can be restored but we also need to be sure that we’re doing what we can do to keep this woman safe. And so that is the tension and I think the way you resolve it is with a couple of different things.
One is: violent men have to be separated from their wives and their families for a season in order to establish trust. There has to be some kind of separation here. Usually that’s going to mean the people in the church if it’s possible removing him from the home, giving him a place to stay so that the wife and kids can operate in their home in an as uninterrupted a way as possible. If that’s not possible, and if you have a very violent man who’s not listening to reason, then you might have to have the wife and her kids come stay with a family in the church or with a family member or some place else safe. But there has to be some separation so that we can figure out what’s going on and so that we can establish trust. In the early stages of dealing with this one of the principles that I’ve observed is that a husband only sees his wife during times of intense counseling. And so you’re out, you’re staying somewhere else, you’re staying with a friend, you’re in an apartment or your family is out staying some place else, and the time you’re with your wife is when you’re meeting for counseling or to work on the problems. And you should have a situation where you’re getting intensive counseling certainly in the early weeks where two, three times a week you’re meeting together to deal with the urgent issues that have come from this revelation of abuse. Slowly, over time you can begin to increase the amount of supervised time that a couple spends together. We will be together, but we’ll go out with some couple friends of ours who know about the problem who are working with us. Or maybe a Christian couple who is coming with us to go to the park and our kids can play while we sit and talk. And then after that’s gone on for a while and you’re making progress then you can slowly increase the amount of unsupervised time. This would be where a husband takes his wife on a date. They go out to dinner, they go out to do something fun together, and they’re alone but they’re alone in public and they’re alone for a shorter amount of time so that we can continue to evaluate this kind of thing. Eventually, you want to slowly begin to reestablish the couple in the same house. And I say you slowly want to do that and that might be the husband comes home from work, has dinner, helps put the kids to bed, but then goes and stays where he’s been staying for a while. Slowly establish them in the house.
Then maybe he spends the weekend and we’re just establishing that this seems that it’s going well. Through all of that we’re watching two things: we’re watching one, the comfort level of the wife. She knows this guy. She knows him better than anybody else. And if she is saying, “I feel really good about this. I think he’s different.” Then that really is a judgment that matters. And on the other hand if she’s saying, “Something’s not right. He’s acting strangely.” Then that is a judgment that really matters as well. So we’re watching for her response and paying attention to that. And then the other thing we’re watching are signs of repentance from him. 2 Corinthians 7:11 tells us what to look for in somebody that is repentant. It says,
“See what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment. At every point you have proved yourself innocent in the matter.”
The point there is to give some indicators of what it looks like when someone who is guilty of sin is really turning at the level of their heart from that sin. We want to be as Christians watching this man to see is he demonstrating these marks of repentance. If he’s not we have a problem, but if he is we can start to feel good about these slow, steady steps towards restoration but also keeping this woman safe in the midst of this process.
Amy: How should a wife know when she should call the police? Or how should a church know when they should get involved with the police?
Heath: First of all, we have to say that the involvement of law enforcement in these matters is completely appropriate because we’re told in Romans 13:4 that God has established the state to enforce law and order. It’s biblical to look for help from the governing authorities. When a man abuses his wife he not only sins against God and sins against her, also he commits a crime against the state. So it’s right that the state would be involved through law enforcement.
A woman should call the police whenever she feels in danger. If her husband has hit her she should call the police. There is actually a research study that was done several years ago that indicates that when a woman called the police the very first time her husband ever perpetrated an act of violence against her it reduced the number of repeat offenses by 80%. That just means that it helps to call the police. People who are helping this woman (people in her church for example) if they have been brought into her confidence, they should also feel comfortable to call the police even if she asked you not to. If you were concerned for her safety (even if she asks you not to) you should call the police. You have to think about this: she might not live. She could be in mortal danger. I think you should be honest with her. I think you should say, “I know you’ve asked me not to call the police. I want to honor your wishes but I’m so concerned for you and I’m going to call the police even if you’ve asked me not to.” You should be honest with her. You shouldn’t go behind her back cause that would erode more of her. She’s already brought you into her confidence, she already doesn’t trust her husband, and you don’t want her not trusting you. She might be angry with you but at least she’ll know you’re a trustworthy person if you tell her the truth.
The question is how should you know when to call? And for example, if your friend is telling you, “My husband hit me. He hit me three weeks ago,” and that was the first time he’s ever hit me in our fifteen years of marriage. She says, “I don’t feel scared. He says he’s never gonna do it again. We’re getting help,” then you probably don’t need to pick up the phone and call the police in that situation. But if she says over the phone through tears, “My husband just hit me. I have a black eye. I’m scared. I don’t know what’s gonna happen next,” then you have to call the police. In the middle of those two extremes you’re gonna have to make a judgment call. Your judgment call should always be informed by first, protecting the woman, air on the side of protection and call the police. Second, following the law. Many states require you to report these kinds of crimes to the police. If you’re required to report then you should obey the law and report it.
For more information about helping couples in abuse situations, check out this session by Tim Pasma.