Theology of Abuse

What is Theology?

Theology is “faith seeking understanding”. It’s the way we think about God.

Theology is where we ask questions like

  • why is this violence happening?
  • how is this related to God?
  • what should we do now?
  • how can God help us?

Page Contents

Old TestamentNew TestamentSufferingObedienceForgiveness
The Church and Survivors of ViolenceMore Topics

Old Testament

“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains… they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4:1,4)

The promise of the prophet Micah that “no one shall make them afraid” must have been as welcome in his day as it is in ours today. Violence against women is not a recent phenomenon. Indeed, there are stories in scripture so horribly violent and degrading that they are seldom, if ever, read in church. The church has passed over these stories, just like it’s passed over the stories of women in the pews who have suffered from violence.

How come so few of these stories are read in church?  Many of them are not included in the regular cycle of readings, and sermons are never or rarely heard about Hagar, or Tamar, or the unnamed concubine. Is it that the texts themselves are too painful to bear? If we tell these stories, will that mean we admit that the abuse and rape of women is still too much with us?

Biblical feminist scholar Phyllis Trible observes in her book Texts of Terror that Christians sometimes like to look at the horror stories of the Old Testament and think that such conduct is “a relic of a distant, primitive and inferior past.” But this Christian superiority rings false. Similar stories could be found in any generation.

The only sounds that come out of the silence around these scriptures are the memories of the moans of the victims themselves. But these stories remind women that violence against them is so deeply rooted that nothing less than a revolutionary change of attitude will stop the violence. And they may remind some men that because the violence is not condemned within the stories, such action must have some legitimation.

What attitudes do we find in these biblical stories? Are they attitudes we still have today?

We read of Hagar, the servant wife of Abraham and Sarah. As one of the first women in Scripture to suffer use, abuse and rejection, she merits our attention.

Before Hagar’s son was born, she flees the home where she is being abused. She meets an angel who tells her to return. There, no doubt, she still continued to experience the abuse from Sarah that caused her to flee.

She gave birth to Abraham’s child. She was rewarded for her sacrifice by being banished by Abraham from the household to live alone with her child in the desert. She and her son will have to fend for themselves.

For many today, Hagar has become the symbol of the woman who is abandoned when her pregnancy becomes known. The woman who is abused by her husband. The woman left to raise a child alone. The welfare mother fearing not only for her own life but that of her children. She is the domestic servant exploited, the person of colour abused by a woman of the ruling class, the surrogate mother.

Rape is something that happens in Scripture. 2 Samuel 13 tells the story of the royal rape — King David’s daughter, Tamar, is raped by her brother, Amnon. She comes to his apartment out of compassion, because she heard he is sick.

He is the prince who is accustomed to having his own way, who claims power and prestige by his very birth. She is the sister who is accustomed to obeying her father and playing second fiddle to her brothers. By her very virginity and beauty she becomes an object of lust to Amnon. He is so tormented by his desire for her that he plots, with his father’s unwitting help, to take her against her wishes. He pretends to be sick, to lure her to his bedroom.

Amnon meets an obstacle in the form of a sister who resists his attention, saying, “No, my brother, do not violate me, for it is not done thus in Israel.” But he was stronger, and he raped her.

Amnon hated her after he violated her. She has become, for him, a disposable object. Her torn robe means that she is no longer a virgin princess, no longer a marriageable asset to the royal family. Her older brother Absalom counsels her to hide her shame in the name of family loyalty.

Raped, despised and rejected, she goes to live in Absalom’s house, desolate and alone. We sense that the older brother’s retribution in killing Amnon was not so much an outrage at the act of rape but anger at the loss of some political or economic connection that a royal marriage might have made.

There are too many Tamars today who are raped, despised and rejected simply because they trusted too much. Or, like Tamar, they were viewed as objects to be desired and conquered and then abandoned.

One of the most grisly stories in the Hebrew Bible is about an unnamed woman in Judges 19-20. She is a concubine. She becomes the symbol of the powerless, helpless women who fall victim to man’s power and brutality.

The story begins with the woman leaving the home of her master to return to her father’s home. We can only guess what prompted her to do so. It must have been a good reason, because her father would have the burden of her care, and she assumed he would take her back. When the master comes to take the woman home, he is greeted with much delight by her father.

It is on a stopover on the way home that the violence occurs. The host is wakened by a rowdy group who demand that the man be given to them for the purpose of sodomy. The host refuses, offering instead his virgin daughter and the unnamed concubine. Two female objects, offered as protection for the male who, in the name of hospitality, should be protected!

Listen to the words: “Ravish them and do to them the good in your eyes. But to this man do not do this vile thing.” The story continues as the concubine is pushed outside and left to the horror that awaited her as she was gang-raped until she falls senseless at the door. There the master finds her, takes her home and dismembers her, dividing her body into twelve pieces.

To take to heart this ancient story is to recognize its present reality — in the serial murders of women who too often are raped before they are murdered and mutilated.

There are other stories, too many others, that remind us that women in those early days were considered the possession of a man, to be used as he saw fit. It is not difficult to find Scripture references to bride purchase, to polygamy, and to laws that assured that women would remain secondary in status, and the property of a man. Even in the Ten Commandments which were the core of the religious and moral code, women are listed after a man’s house and along with his animals as “objects” not to be coveted because they belong to a neighbour. A divorce could be easily attained by a man but could not be initiated by the wife.

I mention all of this because those scriptures in large measure shaped the way society in much of the world was organized, and thus have become the basis of male/female relationships to this day. The attitudes towards women expressed in the Bible are the legacy under which women still, in large measure, exist today.

Anne Squire, adapted from an address made in June 1992, reprinted from Fire in the Rose: Churches Exploring Abuse and Healing, “Resources for Worship and Study”, (The Church Council on Justice and Corrections, 1995) 6-8.

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New Testament

Jesus was God’s message to the world about how to live the abundant life. Jesus reiterated the message of the prophets: “Love the Lord your God”, “Be like this Samaritan”, “Give to the needy”. Jesus modeled care for those who were marginalized in his society.

Jesus healed people with disabilities like leprosy and blindness, he touched the woman who was considered unclean, he spent time with tax collectors, he fed the poor and hungry. Jesus showed mercy to the woman caught in adultery, challenging her accusers to examine their own hearts. He healed the woman who was bent over.

Jesus also spoke against leaders whose hardness of heart led them to denounce this healing because it was on the Sabbath: “…ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16) He did all this in the name of God, encouraging others to follow his example.

Jesus did not feed every hungry person on earth and he did not heal all people of their illnesses. But he did respond to the needs of the people with whom he came in contact. He balanced his work of healing and teaching with times of quiet reflection, seeking solitude to pray.

As followers of Jesus, we too are called to respond to those people with whom we come in contact. We are called not to harden our hearts to their suffering, but to be touched by it, and to give the cup of cold water, the shelter when it is needed. We can listen to the voices of those people who are not heard in our society. We can speak out for women and children whose pain binds them. Like Jesus, we cannot heal everyone, but we can encourage other people to also follow God’s way.

Jesus, like the prophets before him, was not popular with the powerful people of his time. He denounced religious leaders who were corrupt and oppressed others. While the people sometimes followed Jesus, at other times they were furious with him and sought to kill him. Jesus’ arrest and execution were no surprise to him. He foretold it many times to his followers; he could see the direction that he was going.

Jesus did not choose suffering for suffering’s sake. In the garden of Gethsemene he asked that the cup of suffering be taken away. Jesus was put to death because he lived a life that was focused on God. He did not compromise his message to save his own life. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead was a miraculous affirmation of Jesus’ message. The way Jesus lived is a model for us as we choose life over death. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)

Choosing life can mean coming face-to-face with the forces of death. People who work to end violence against women sometimes have hostility directed against them. People who intervene in situations of violence are at risk of violence themselves. The pain of working to end violence against women is endured for the greater good of seeing changes in people’s lives. In the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, there is resurrection. Sometimes it’s not a resurrection that we see for ourselves, but something that we trust will happen with God’s help.

The apostles and people in the early church also followed in the footsteps of Jesus. They tried to create communities based on the teachings of Jesus. The writer of the letter to the Ephesians urges his readers to be imitators of God and to live lives of love. He talks about Christ uniting diverse people, and breaking down the dividing walls, “the hostility between us”. (Eph. 2:14)

The writer of Galatians proclaims that: “…for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:26-28)

Like the early church, Christian communities today try to follow the teachings of Jesus. We try to create communities that are safe spaces, where violence is not tolerated. Through works of justice and healing, we try to break down dividing walls of hostility between male and female, races and cultures. We are concerned about violence, whether it happens in a white middle-class suburb, in a house on a reserve, in the inner-city home of someone who is a refugee, or in a rural farmhouse. Being one in Christ Jesus means that we hold each other accountable for how we live our lives. It means we can work together, confident that we share some similar goals.

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Human beings have thought deeply about the meaning of suffering. Is it good or bad? Is it sent by God as a lesson or a punishment? Is it something God wants to end? Why did Jesus suffer? Are we supposed to suffer like Jesus? Theologians have come up with many different answers to these questions as they read the Bible and reflect on theological traditions and their own life experiences.

It is no surprise that the theme of suffering is examined carefully by feminist theologians. Violence produces suffering.

Suffering has always been part of the human condition. Some explanations about suffering have not been good news for women. For example:

  • suffering is sent from God to punish us
  • suffering is send from God to help make us stronger
  • suffering makes us into better Christians because we turn to God

Too often, discussions about suffering are vague and general, rather than talking about the actual suffering of human beings.

In the 1900s some theologians began to talk about suffering in a specific way. They named the suffering that people faced: disease, neglect, hunger and torture. They believed that our theology must look at the causes of suffering. Not all suffering is the same. People suffer from the results of an earthquake, for example, which is really beyond human control. Yet they also suffer from sickness if there is poor sanitation, or from the cold if they live in substandard slum housing. That is within the realm of human control, and the suffering is a result of political and economic decisions of individuals and groups.

Feminist theologians believe that it is important to name the causes of suffering. For our theology to be relevant, it must grow out of our context. In feminist theology, words such as rape, assault or battering are used. Most theology has been written by men, and has not taken the reality of women’s suffering seriously.

Feminist writers emphasize that women suffer not simply during an actual event of assault, but for years afterwards. Afterwards the terror continues through anxiety, nightmares and flashbacks. They can’t live in the world the same way.

Traditional theology has at times spiritualized suffering. Suffering is spoken of in a detached or abstract way, suggesting that “this is good for us” or “it will make us better people.” Many Christian hymns spiritualize suffering by suggesting that we should “bear patiently the cross of grief or pain” because it leads to a heavenly reward. This type of theology does not offer much comfort to women who are suffering from violence.
Feminist writers refuse to spiritualize violence. Instead they look at what suffering really does in women’s lives. Feminist theologian Christine Gudorf writes:

But it is certainly dangerous – and also cruel – to assume that suffering inevitably leads to real life, to joy, to meaning, to wholeness. For suffering destroys. It kills, it maims the body and the spirit, it produces despair and evil…. History continues to demonstrate that if there is a lesson to be learned from suffering, it is that many violated persons become violent, that those treated inhumanely often become inhumane, and that some, when left without hope, kill themselves in despair. Suffering both kills and deforms. The message of the gospel is a hope-filled response to this truth – not a negation of it. (Victimization: Examining Christian Complicity, p. 72)

Violence against women leads to profound emotional and spiritual pain.

Feminist theologians are critical of theologies that urge women to endure and to accept suffering as God’s will for them. Instead, they emphasize a message of liberation. They draw on a rich biblical liberation tradition: Moses led the people of Israel from suffering to freedom. Jesus healed the woman who was considered unclean. He saved the life of the woman caught in adultery. He spoke to the Samaritan woman. Jesus treated women with dignity and respect; he heard their stories of suffering and tried to help them out of their suffering.
Jesus, the Son of God, suffered on the cross. This is a central image in the Christian faith. Many theologians have encouraged Christians to suffer patiently like Christ suffered. This does not offer hope to women caught in webs of abuse. Generations of women with broken bodies have sat in pews and listened to a theology that did not offer good news to them in their suffering.

Jesus did not choose suffering every time people were hostile to him. When he was persecuted, and people wanted to arrest him, he left that place and moved on. When the people wanted to throw him off a cliff, he walked away through the crowd (Luke 4). Jesus begged in the Garden of Gethsemane that he be delivered from suffering. In the end, he endured suffering because he believed he was being faithful to God’s purpose in his life. Scripture tells us that Jesus was unique, and that through his death, death was conquered for all time because he died for our sins.

Suffering in and of itself was not something that Jesus sought out. So much of Jesus’ ministry was spent trying to help those who suffer; he fed hungry people, healed sick people, welcomed outcast people.

In the Old Testament, the story of the Exodus is a central message. God heard the cries of the people in slavery and bondage, and sent Moses to free them and bring them to the Promised Land. The message of the prophets was that God wants to end the suffering of widows and orphans and people who are poor.

Women who are being abused are not choosing their suffering, it is involuntary. Nothing good can come out of it. Enduring a beating hurts everyone: the woman who is getting beaten, the man who is sinning, and the children who witness it. If Jesus was in the room he would intervene, he would help the woman end her suffering. Feeling Jesus’ love means that women can walk out the door to safety.

Some women stay in abusive situations because they hope their marriage will get better. Maybe their husband will see the light, and stop hurting them. Feminist theologians join with social workers in saying that suffering is not an effective way to change an abusive situation. There are many other options today that are more effective than suffering. Leaving a violent situation forces the person who is abusing to face what they are doing, so that they can get help. In violent relationships, violence usually gets worse over time, not better.

God does not intend women to suffer violence. The word gospel means “good news”. Christian faith must bring good news to women trapped by violence. The church should concern itself with preaching and empowering women to leave situations of violence.

It is a cruel reality that many women cannot avoid suffering from abuse. They feel trapped in the abusive situation, or the person who is abusing them stalks them even after they have left. These women cry out to God, “Why am I suffering?” This is a question that has troubled theologians since biblical times.

Some theologians believe that Jesus was a divine response to human suffering. God sent Jesus to suffer with us so that we would not be alone.

Other theologians suggest that Jesus’ purpose on earth was not just to be with us in our suffering, but to challenge the status quo, and to work for justice for those people who were marginalized and rejected by society. Jesus came to show us a way of living that was respectful and loving of all people.

Feminist theologians have lots of different ideas about what the Bible is saying to us today. They are united, however, in suggesting that God wants us to work towards a world where there is no violence. These theologians have a vision of the church being a shelter and support for women as they leave abusive relationships. That’s good news!

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Feminist theologians make a connection between church teachings and women’s suffering. Traditionally, the church has taught that women should be obedient to men. Feminists name this “patriarchy”.

The essence of patriarchy is an unjust imbalance of power. Patriarchy puts men in a hierarchy above women. Man is seen as the “head” of the woman. The Bible reflects the patriarchal attitudes of the society which existed when it was written.

The instruction for women to obey their husbands is found in a number of places in the New Testament (Eph. 5:21-6:9; I Cor. 7; Col. 3:18-4:1). These texts are referred to by scholars as “the household codes” because they talk about the relationships in the household: slave/master, husband/wife, father/son. These codes came out of the context of the early church.

Jesus came preaching love and justice; he treated women with respect, and included women among his followers. After Pentecost, when Christianity spread around the world, many of its converts were slaves and women. These people were attracted to Christianity because it affirmed them as people. It was customary at that time for whole households to practise the religion determined by the male head of the household. If women and slaves became Christians while the master didn’t, this caused tension in the household. There was concern in the early church that if women and slaves challenged the authority of their masters in the private sphere of the home they would soon begin to challenge the government as well. This is one reason why Christianity came to be seen as a major threat to the social order. This led to Christians being persecuted and martyred.

Feminist historians show that the household codes emerged out of this context. Christian leaders were concerned for the safety of the community because of the hostility Christians were facing from powerful men in society. For this reason they counselled those who knew freedom and equality in Christ to live within the patriarchal structure in which they found themselves.

Feminist biblical scholars point out that, even within these household codes, however, there is no license to abuse. The writer of Ephesians commands: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). The model for the husband/wife relationship is to be the relationship of Christ to the church (Eph. 5:23-24).

It is clear from Jesus’ teaching and ministry that his relationship to his followers was not one of domination, but servanthood. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. He taught them those who would be first must in fact be last. Therefore, according to Ephesians, a good husband will not dominate or control his wife but will serve and care for her. Husbands are called to love their wives as their own bodies (Eph. 5:28-29). Physical battering is a blatant violation of this teaching.

In the Ephesians passage just quoted, the instruction is primarily for husbands. Nine of the verses are directed towards husbands’ responsibilities in marriage, one refers to both, and only three of the verses refer to wives’ responsibilities. Yet contemporary interpretation often misuses those passages to make women subservient without talking about the obligation of men.

Many Christian women are reluctant to leave situations of abuse because they promised to stay with their husbands “for better, for worse, until death do us part.” These vows, made before the community and God, seem to bind women in situations of abuse. But marriage is a two-way street. Traditional marriage vows also instruct the husband to “love, honour and protect” his wife. When a man chooses to emotionally, physically, sexually or spiritually abuse his wife, he is breaking his marriage vows. He is cutting off his relationship of love to her. For a woman to leave an abusive home does not mean that she is breaking the relationship. She is only acknowledging the fact that the relationship was, in fact, broken by the person who was abusive.

Divorce does not break up families. Abuse breaks up families. Divorce is the public, often painful, acknowledgement of an already accepted fact. In many cases divorce may be the necessary intervention to generate healing and new life for everyone involved.

Obedience of women to men is linked to woman abuse. The church must be careful to preach good news, emphasizing the gospel message of love and respect in mutual and equal relationships.

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Feminist theologians have a lot to say about forgiveness. They are critical of the church’s teachings on forgiveness because they believe these teachings have not been helpful for women. They propose a new way of looking at forgiveness; a perspective that grows out of the experience of survivors of abuse.

There are two main criticisms of traditional theology. First, the church has taught that forgiveness is an obligation. Second, forgiveness has been used as a way for those who have abused to sidestep the issue of accountability.

Feminist theologians observe that the church often tells survivors they must forgive the people who hurt them regardless of whether a confession or apology is forthcoming. There is no doubt that scripture sets high standards for human behaviour. For example, the Lord’s prayer says “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and Colossians 3:13 says “. . . just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must forgive”.

Scripture is an invitation, a goal towards which we work. We do not love everyone as ourselves, but this is a goal we work towards. We realize that, in this world, we probably will not reach our goals. And yet, the church demands much higher standards from survivors of violence. They are expected to not only forgive the people who abused them, but also in many cases to live with them. When people hold scripture up to survivors of abuse and say, “You must forgive, you must reconcile”, it is asking them to do something they cannot yet do and it feels abusive.

If survivors of abuse do not forgive immediately and completely, people in the church can start blaming the victim. She becomes the problem, in their eyes. The abuse would go away except for her stubbornness. The broken relationship can even be seen as her fault.

There are strong theological messages that reinforce the idea of forgiveness as obligation. Communion services often emphasize that unless you have “made things right” with people with people, you should not take communion. The Christian survivor may feel anger and resentment towards the person who hurt them, and be unable to forgive them. This can lead to feelings of profound unworthiness to take communion. They are being asked to do something that they cannot do; forgive immediately and unconditionally as God forgives.

It is significant that when Jesus was on the cross, he asked God to forgive the people who hurt him. God can forgive any time; human beings often require more time for the forgiveness journey.

Often churches tend to sidestep the issue of accountability. Women are encouraged to keep their abuse private and to forgive the offending person. Too often the church doesn’t ask for confessions, remorse, repentance, restitution, and reconciliation. These are all things that make forgiveness feasible.

Sometimes church leadership and communities have told women that they should forgive even while trauma is happening. Women have been told to forgive the offending person, and return to the abusive situation. This type of theology has perpetuated cycles of abuse.

Forgiveness is healthy when it includes discussions about changing behaviour and making justice. Forgiveness, is always an invitation to a new way of life.

Too often churches spiritualize forgiveness, and treat it as if it something just between a person and God. Someone who has abused comes to a pastor and asks for forgiveness. If they receive an assurance of forgiveness, this may mean that they feel absolved, and have no need to approach the person they have hurt. It can be a way of avoiding taking responsibility for their actions. Forgiveness should be about facing your actions, and making them right, not magically making them disappear.

Traditional theology – which tries to coerce the survivor into forgiveness regardless of how they feel about forgiving, and which allows the person who has offended to avoid accountability – does a disservice to the real meaning of forgiveness. While quick forgiveness may provide a “quick fix”, it does little to address the profound brokenness at the root of abuse.

A pastor may experience pressure from the people who have offended to rush into forgiveness. They may want to be forgiven quickly so that they don’t have to face the results of what they have done. The survivor herself may also really desire to forgive quickly, in the hope that forgiveness will bring healing and resolution to the pain of the experience. However, premature forgiveness, or shortcuts that avoid the deeper brokenness, do not serve the survivor, the person who has offended, or the wider community. Indeed, that type of “forgiveness” can enhance the power of the abusing person and place the survivor at great risk.

Forgiveness is a long process in the Christian community, and it is often extremely painful. While God may be able to forgive immediately, human beings, if they do forgive, do so over long periods of time.

An essential prerequisite for forgiveness is that there must be a naming of the injustice that has been done. Naming can happen when those who have offended listen carefully as survivors tell them how the abuse has affected their lives. Unfortunately, this does not often happen. People who have offended often deny, trivialize or minimize what they have done. They often refuse to believe that their actions have had any harmful effect.

Naming can also happen within the context of a court setting. The judge or jury in a court case can listen carefully to what happened; they can declare that what happened was wrong and harmful. This can also happen within a counselling relationship. It is an exceptional case when it is enough for the survivor alone to privately name the abuse for what it was, and to clearly see the harm that was done.

It is difficult for a survivor to forgive if she experiences indifference, opposition, or ridicule from the person who has committed the abuse, from the legal system, her church community, or her family as she attempts to name what has happened. Survivors must be empowered by their community and their theology to clearly name the evil that was done to them.

Churches should be a place where sin can be named. Words like incest, rape and sexual assault, which are not commonly spoken in church, need to become part of the Christian religious vocabulary. In order for survivors to find the courage to name what was done to them, they need to be in communities that will not blame them for their abuse.

In addition to naming the abuse, survivors must decide not to allow the abuse to continue; they must move from being a victim to being a survivor. Empowering a woman who has been abused means helping her to claim her history. The pain she has suffered is a part of her story, and she will never forget it. This memory will be a key to her survival; it empowers her to not allow it to happen again.

Forgiveness ultimately is a process by which the survivor stops letting the experience dominate her life. It is a process of letting go and moving on. Forgiveness means letting go of the immediacy of the trauma, and the memories that continue to terrorize and limit possibilities. Forgiveness must happen according to the survivor’s timetable. Many feminist writers suggest that forgiveness is something that the survivor needs to do for her own well-being. This is in contrast with patriarchal theology that sees forgiveness as an obligation that the survivor owes the person who has abused her.

A survivor with a memory will not act as if the person who hurt her has been given a clean slate. She will be wary, and concerned about her own safety. Forgiveness does not mean losing the self, or spiritualizing the concrete things that have happened. It doesn’t mean trusting someone totally and unconditionally.

Forgiveness is enabled when there is repentance on the part of the one who has abused, which is demonstrated by an attempt to make justice. Forgiveness and repentance are linked in scripture. Justice can take the form of apologies, restitution or paying for counselling. It involves a change in the offending person’s behaviour.

Many women, however, cannot expect the person who has abused them to apologize as he may never admit what he has done. Sometimes the offending person has moved away, or has died. Sometimes the woman is too afraid to see that person again. Even if there can be no meeting, or if the offending person is unrepentant, other factors can help the survivor move toward forgiveness so that she can find healing. Healing for the survivor cannot be dependent upon the person who has offended.

Justice becomes the responsibility of the wider community. Churches, the courts and family and friends can be a place where justice happens for survivors of abuse. They can listen to her story, and try to provide restitution. The law can convict and incarcerate an offending person, a church community can condemn an action, or withdraw fellowship from that person.

Forgiveness cannot be rushed, and in some ways it is a mysterious gift of grace. It is something that happens according to the timing of the survivor. The church community must realize that it may take years before a survivor of abuse may be ready to forgive. While a survivor may want to forgive, and may want to let go, forgiveness is a gradual process. Feelings of bitterness and anger are residual, and even if a person makes a decision for forgiveness, these feelings do not miraculously disappear.

Forgiveness can be seen as a direction, rather than as a destination. Even when forgiveness happens, reconciliation is not a given. The survivor may never trust the offending person enough to renew the relationship. Forgiveness has happened in the sense that the survivor has moved past the abuse, and no longer holds it against the person who hurt them. Some writers emphasize that forgiveness is something God does it is an act of grace from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit helps the person who has offended to repent and change. The Holy Spirit also empowers the church to help in the justice-making process.

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The Church and Survivors of Violence

Violence against women happens in every faith community. Violence within Christian families can be well hidden or vehemently denied, but the facts remain that violence does happen.

It is difficult for churches to look at violence among their members. Churches proclaim that the family is sacred. They teach that the relationship between husband and wife is like the relationship between Christ and the church, and that families should be loving, monogamous, lifelong relationships. When reality conflicts with cherished beliefs, there is a lot at stake. Admitting that violence happens would mean looking at patriarchy and power imbalances, not only within the family, but also within the church and society at large.

Women look for meaning from their faith community. If they are being abused, they seek to understand why this is happening, and what an appropriate response would be. When a woman meets silence about this topic, she has to draw her own conclusions, often based on patriarchal teachings about gender relations, the ultimate sanctity of marriage and the importance of forgiveness. Depending on the church she attends, she may hear about God’s love and the equality of men and women, the call to freedom from bondage and oppression, and the importance of accountability and repentance as necessary steps before forgiveness can happen. That is a good news message.

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More Topics

God’s Order for the Family?

The Prosperity Gospel and Abuse

Can the Church do anything about abuse?

How can suffering be transformed?

What does the Bible say about submission?

What does the Bible say about headship?

Abuse and Turning the Other Cheek

Is It Christian to put up Boundaries?

Forgiveness: The Last Step

Structures of Forgiveness in the New Testament

How a Church Responds to a Person Who Abuses

How Abusers Distort the Bible