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This blog is adapted from a workshop by Stephen McMullin of the Rave Project. The workshop was part of the CRC's recent Safe Church Conference. 

In evangelical churches, the person most likely to be the first contact of an abused spouse will be the pastor. That is why it is so important that pastors know how to respond and how to refer appropriately. Pastors who are the least equipped are least likely to refer appropriately.

As important as it is to partner with community organizations, there are barriers:

  • Eagerness of clergy to protect the institution of marriage, appealing to the victim’s marriage vows and Christian witness.
  • Abusers coaxing naïve pastors into being allies in seeking forgiveness and ensuring continued access.
  • Community advocates’ distrust of pastors.
  • Pastors who are reluctant to make referrals to professionals when needed.

If a pastor does not respond well, it can have dire consequences, for example:

  • If a victim of abuse approaches the pastor and does not get appropriate response, the individual may not seek help again for several years.
  • Suggesting marriage counseling or confronting the abuser may put the victim at higher risk.
  • A victim made to feel he or she is breaking marriage vows by leaving the abuser is more likely return to the abusive relationship.

Most clergy are poorly prepared to respond to victims of domestic violence. A recent study of 400 seminary students showed that first and second year students expected to be well prepared when they graduated for how to respond to domestic abuse. However, those surveyed when they were about to graduate indicated that they weren’t well prepared.

It is not enough for a pastor to know the phone number of the nearest shelter. It is much better for a pastor to visit a shelter and get to know the staff. Seminarians who visited a shelter and met with staff said it was the most important preparation they received in responding to domestic violence.


Abuse is a serious issue.  But it is a complicated issue.  Especially it is complicated for Christians who desire to live their lives as examples of Christ.   There are so many aspects to it, and yet it is often treated as if there is only one type of abuse, and there is only one reason for it.    I know of a situation where a seven year old girl was constantly hitting her father.   It was her automatic reaction to any teasing or jokes or even innocent comments.  She hit him hard on the arm at meal times, and he just took it and said nothing about it, once in awhile making some empty threats which did not slow her down at all.  The father had been abused also by her mother, although they had been separated and divorced since shortly after the girl's birth.   But he took the abuse from his young daughter as almost a sign of affection.   Of course, she was getting older, and her hitting was beginning to hurt, and it was pretty constant, maybe twenty times at a meal.   Because someone told her to stop doing this, and also told him to stop allowing it (he was a single father), it did stop.   But without someone intervening, she was being inadvertently taught to be abusive.  

Often an abuser has caught this disease from his or her parents.   Or has not been innoculated against it by his parents or by his community. 

I know of another situation where a woman accused her husband of abuse.   But I also know that the woman herself was also rather "rough".   Eventually they permanently separated.   And another situation where a woman was threatened by her husband.  She perceived a high risk to her children and herself.   Based on counselling (not christian counselling), she was advised to not even talk to the man anymore.   Of course there are more details which I won't go into.   But the problem for me is how we deal with these situations as Christians.   It is simpler if we are not christians.   Well, the guy or the woman is not nice;  he's mean and rough;  we'll just separate and find someone better.  Simple.  Done.  

Is this also then the answer for Christians?   For Christians who promised for "better or for worse"?   Till death do us part?   In sickness or in health?    What distinguishes our lives and our approach as Christians to this issue?   

Thanks for posting this important article. My prayer is that many pastors will take time to look at the RAVE website and become better prepared to deal with family violence that affects so many Christians.

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