NASHVILLE, TN (BP) – As discussion of domestic violence persists among evangelicals, seasoned pastors and others who minister to families are advising their ministry colleagues on what to do when they encounter physical abuse in a marriage. At issue in evangelicals' discussions are controversial comments by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson regarding women, divorce and domestic abuse. See Baptist Press' reports here, here and here.
"When we have a case of domestic violence, my recommendation is that we immediately deal with making safety the number one priority" for the "spouse that's being abused physically," said South Carolina pastor Marshall Blalock, whose state was called by Charleston's Post and Courier "among the deadliest states in the union for women" in terms of domestic violence.
"In some cases," creating a safe environment "may mean law enforcement is involved," Blalock, pastor of First Baptist Church in Charleston and president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, told Baptist Press. "... We've learned in South Carolina domestic violence oftentimes leads to very serious cases, even people being killed. So you never want to put yourself in a situation where you underestimate the gravity of domestic violence." Blalock, a 30-year pastoral ministry veteran, said his state's laws require reporting domestic abuse any time it involves a child. He recommends reporting abuse of a spouse any time children are present in the house.
Two studies by LifeWay Research -- one in 2014 and another in 2017 -- highlighted pastors' views on domestic violence. Last year's study found 89 percent of American Protestant pastors believe their churches regularly communicate that domestic violence is not acceptable. Still, 45 percent say their churches have no specific plan to help victims of abuse. The 2014 study found 62 percent of pastors have provided "couples or marriage counseling" to those experiencing domestic violence, and 56 percent address the subject in messages at least annually.
Joanna Berry, vice president of family and international ministries for South Texas Children's Home Ministries (STCHM), a ministry partner of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, told BP pastors should both address domestic violence from the pulpit and prepare to point abuse victims to resources. "From the pulpit a pastor can present how women should be treated, using many examples, including Jesus," Berry said in written comments. "Testimonies from recovering women are extremely impactful. The church can also provide counseling services, a confidential phone line and a list resources on their website. Resources should include where a mother with children could go for respite and healing, keeping in mind that most women will not have financial resources to pay for this." STCHM and some other Baptist children's homes -- ministries affiliated with more than 20 Baptist state conventions -- offer abused women "a safe environment, counseling, spiritual and practical training to rebuild their lives and ... skills to help with a variety of issues, including job skills -- all at no cost," Berry said.
LifeWay Research found that among churches with resources for domestic violence victims, 76 percent have a referral list for professional counselors, 64 percent have finances to assist victims and 61 percent can find victims a safe place to stay. Fifty-three percent have a referral list for legal help.
Tony Rose, a 31-year veteran of the pastorate with a master's degree in conflict management in addition to his theological training, noted "the pain and effort and energy and angst it causes a pastor who's willing to step into the messes of people's lives and walk with them." But he said the effort is worth helping hurting people. "We do not need to hide" domestic abuse, Rose, pastor of LaGrange (Ky.) Baptist Church, told BP. "We don't need to fear making abuse public. The church doesn't have a reputation to guard. She has a character to guard. Reputation is what people think of you. Character is what you really are." After a report of abuse is confirmed, "the first thing" a pastor should do "is get the couple to separate for safety's sake," Rose said, adding separation is not the same as divorce.
During the separation, both the husband and wife should get counseling -- either from their pastor or a Christian provider the church recommends, said Rose, who chaired the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee's Mental Health Advisory Council. The goal of counseling a couple dealing with domestic abuse is to preserve the marriage, Rose said. Yet he believes in severe cases there is "freedom of conscience to grant divorce and remarriage" for "something as far out and against Christian truth and the covenant of marriage as abuse." Like Rose, Blalock said he believes divorce is justifiable in some cases of abuse, though some godly pastors disagree. He called physical abuse "a serious violation of the marriage covenant."
Alan Branch, an ethics professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, noted the variety of views among evangelicals about abuse and divorce, but he said a wife is never "required to stay in a situation where she is in physical danger." "There is no specific passage of Scripture which addresses divorce and domestic violence," Branch told BP in written comments. "There are two issues: What is one's stance on divorce and what is one's stance regarding domestic violence. There are a wide variety of moral stances regarding divorce among Southern Baptists.
"In 1 Corinthians 7:15," Branch said, "Paul says that if a non-believer chooses to leave a believing spouse, the believer is no longer bound to the marriage. The situation Paul has in mind seems to be case where two non-Christians get married, and then one of them comes to faith in Christ after they are married. If the non-believer decides he or she doesn't want to be married to a Christian, many Baptists understand Paul to be giving an allowance for divorce. For some, physical abuse is considered a kind of 'abandonment' and thus an allowance for divorce in cases of physical abuse."
Other Southern Baptists, Branch said, "do not see any allowance for divorce in the Bible. For people with such a moral stance, the idea of a permanent separation is often suggested" in cases of physical abuse.
Regardless of their views on divorce, Blalock said, pastors should always get abuse victims to a safe place and never "make people feel like if you're a good Christian, you shouldn't say anything about" domestic violence. Silence "is not helping our families." The SBC last spoke to domestic violence in a 1979 resolution which recognized it "as one of the serious moral issues of our time," encouraged pastors and churches to minister to domestic violence victims and urged "clear and responsible public policy related to domestic violence" at the local, state and national levels.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.