Domestic Violence: What's the Church to Do?
George C. Scipione
Imagine yourself watching a "real life" police show. In the first clip, police officers, responding to a 911 call, enter the small wood-frame home of Zach, 45, and Elizabeth, 40. He is slightly built and balding, and has a beer belly; she is frumpy, weary, and worried. Two boys, ten and eight, run around the small house in their underwear. Zach, an unemployed logger, spends his days watching sports on TV, drinking, and yelling at everyone. Elizabeth, who works part-time to help financially, fearfully tries to make everything perfect in order to avoid Zach's wrath. Five years ago, Zach threatened to beat the boys severely, and when Elizabeth intervened, he slapped, hit, kicked, and spit on her. Zach's remorse consisted of banging his head against the wall until he bled. He has never hit her since, and figures that making holes in the wall is better than hitting her. Tonight his drinking and threats, including throwing things, triggered her fear and she called 911. She is packing to go to a battered women's shelter.
Next you see Jim, a hardworking Navy NCO in his early twenties. He and his wife, Sheri, have two childrenPeter, 5, and Michael, 6 months. After a particularly rough day, when his men had bad attitudes and his CO was critical of him, Jim tried to help Sheri, who was sick. He managed to get some food on the table and watch the boys. Jim's frustration mounted when Mikey would not stop cryingno matter what he tried. In anger, Jim shook Mikey like a rag doll. Mikey shrieked in pain as his head snapped back. Suddenly, Mikey stopped and didn't move. Frightened, his parents took him to the Naval hospital, but lied about the cause of the injury. The police have been called to arrest Jim. Mikey is now permanently brain-damaged and developmentally injured. Jim will go to military prison for a seven-year term for felony child abuse. Peter and Mikey are in foster care. Sheri lives alone.
Sam, 13, has a sister, Susan, 15. Their American dad married their mother after meeting her in Japan. She gave up her land, her family, and her job (as a Geisha girl), and followed him to the States. Dad is not a believer, but mom now is. He has left her and the children to pursue a younger woman. Mom and Susan often lock themselves in their rooms because they fear Sam. He runs with a gang, has been violent to them, constantly threatens them, and has spent time in juvenile hall. He despises all authority and brazenly brings drugs into the house. His parole officer is too busy to be directly involved with him, and there is no space in juvenile hall for him. The police are responding to a 911 call for help.
What do these three clips have in common? They portray domestic violence and family feuds, true. But also, these true but detail-altered cases are from Christian families in Bible-believing churchesincluding OP churches! What is one to do? More particularly, what can and should we and our church be doing?
The church, locally, regionally, and nationally, needs to do at least three things: discover the problem(s), define the problem(s) biblically, and then develop and direct people towards God-glorifying solutions. We have our work cut out for us. We need to understand and apply God's instructions for being peacemakers in a violent and hostile world.
We need to discover the reality all around us. We must have biblical eyes to see. The church must be careful in this discovery process. On the one hand, we must not adopt worldly viewpoints and see "abuse" in every imperfect, fallen action. Today, many people view any exercise of authority as abusive by definition. But authority is not always abusive. God wields an awful lot of it and sometimes he delegates it to others. He certainly never abuses his authority. On the other hand, we should not think that every mention of abuse is part of a liberal conspiracy to get government social workers into every home or to get our children into lesbian-run day care centers.
Why must women in danger have nowhere to go but to a feminist shelter for battered women? Are the only alternatives to stay, to be hurt, or to die? Why must truly oppressed victims face a church that increasingly treats people humanistically rather than biblically? People, including church members, are sinners, capable of cruelty, violence, and lying to cover their sins. We Reformed Christians, above all others, should take total depravity seriously. Sinners sin. Should we be shocked? Grieved, yes; shocked, no.
We also must do the hard exegetical work to define the biblical view of domestic violence and how to deal with it. Again, extremes must be avoided. On the one hand, we cannot accept the world's victim mentality, which focuses on individual rights and entitlements. We are image bearers of God and responsible to him, not pawns in an evolutionary chess game. We not only are sinned against, but sin!
On the other hand, while we do not have a biblical primer or handbook on domestic violence, there are Mosaic laws that relate to violence in general, expounding and applying the sixth commandment. Some deal with particular abuses in the family. The "general equity" of these laws, statutes, and judgments cannot be ignored without sinking into a quagmire of relativistic sentimentality or a bog of personal biases. Passages such as Ex. 20:13; 21:10-27; 22:20-24; Lev. 19:13-18, 33-37; 20:1-5, 9; 24:17-23; 25; Num. 5:5-31; 15:22-31; 35; Deut. 12:29-31; 13:6-11; 16:18-17:20; 19; 21:1-9, 15-21; 22:13-29; 24:1-25:16 are more than covenantal museum pieces, ensconced in their Old Testament trophy case. There are many other passages, in both the Old and the New Testament, that direct our paths from violence to peace. Difficult work? Yes! Necessary? Yes! But if you and I do not do it, do not expect the church in general or the world to do the job for us.
Once discovery and definition are in process, the church needs to direct people. Primarily, the church needs faithful shepherds who are willing to get dirty and even hurt while feeding and wrestling with smelly sheep. If we do not have elders who are worthy of the Good Shepherd, the job will not get done. The work is tough, smelly, serious, solemn, and often dangerous. Elders must deal with the everyday issues that affect the sheep and then be ready to deal with the tough cases. If they don't, we should not be surprised when government agencies step into our family lives. Nor should we complain. (Part of the reason we have the cultural mess that we are in is that too many elders have abdicated their jobs.) Elders must live with the sheep to care for and direct them.
Shepherds should follow Christ's model as our mediator (see the Larger Catechism, 36, 42). Imitating his threefold office, they should prophetically proclaim God's will to people (LC, 43) from the pulpit and in Sunday school, VBS, special seminars, house visits, etc., teaching God's will for family life (LC, 123-33). The sixth commandment must be taught (LC, 134-36).
The elders should persist in priestly pleading with God for patience with his people (LC, 44). This involves prayer, fasting, counseling, discipleship, and peacemaking both between God and man and between man and man. They must bring sheep to repentance; biblical counseling is a must.
They should also provide kingly protection (LC, 45). Elders must not try to be Rambo. They are shepherds, not cowboys; kings under Christ, not Kung Fu masters. But they must protect. The elders must set up "cities of refuge" within the borders of the congregationthat is, safe houses, to protect both the victims and the perpetrators. People trained in biblical counseling and reconciliation should oversee the counseling and reconciliation process, including these live-in situations. Older couples could be mentors. This help is as necessary to the work of reconciliation as shepherding homes are to the pro-life movement.
Elders must trust God and use the process set forth in Matthew 18:15-20. Especially in the tough, violent cases, they must be willing to employ the keys of the kingdom and not withhold this blessing. The sword of the Spirit applied in loving discipline is much more powerful than the state's literal sword. This is necessary so that 1 Corinthians 6:1-9 is not violated and God may honor their work. The elders need to have working positions or papers on the issues involved in domestic violence and how to apply them pastorally to all who are involved. In certain extreme instances, they need to render judgments as to the application of 1 Corinthians 7 to individual cases as possible grounds for divorce. They act as judges of God's people. This is serious indeed, but necessary.
Along with the elders, the deacons must see to the practical, physical concerns of the family members involved. If the church offers safe houses correctly, the state's foster-care system for the children may be avoided. The perpetrator may need a place to stay while reconciliation is being sought. In rare circumstances, there may be medical problems that contribute to the violence or result from it. The deacons may help to insure proper medical care. If the deacons can help financially, the family can be protected economically and in some cases legally. Also, temporary protection may create a need for transportation, as well as a need for shelter. The deacons should be familiar with the police and other government officials, so as to minimize jurisdictional turf wars.
Extension into the Community
The church, once it gets this all together, can extend this discovery, definition, and direction to the community at large as an evangelistic tool. We say there is power in the blood of the Lamb; if ever a needy group existed that needs this help, it is the family cursed with domestic violence. Battered wives and bitter husbands need good news, not self-help groups. They need knowledge of the risen Christ proclaimed with power, not professional dog-and-pony shows for self-satisfied yuppies. They need the hand of the reigning Christ, not some hip X-rated hero for Generation X. They need the light of the world. Let your church shine as light in darkness; let it salt a dying and decaying community. You can influence government officials and especially judges, who are supposed to be God's agents in matters of public violence.
Dear ones, may the Lord of Glory, the Prince of Peace, the ruling and reigning King Jesus, conquer all his and our enemies. Let's not ignore evil and stick our heads in the sand, or wring our hands and whine about our helplessness, leaving the hard work to the police and government agencies. Instead, let's do our job. Let's live completely consecrated lives, competently to Christ's honor and praise. Let men see your Spirit-produced good deeds and so glorify the Father in heaven.
There are resources that can assist you in this process. The ones listed in the box below are available from OP or other Reformed men who are committed to biblical exegesis and practice. Make use of them!
Mr. Scipione, the associate pastor at Bayview OPC in Chula Vista, Calif., is the director of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation in San Diego. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 1997.