When Mark Bagwell started Golden Corner Church in Walhalla, South Carolina, twenty-two years ago, he was shocked by the prevalence of domestic violence among the people he sought to reach.
“A huge number of the people I was counseling—within just a short time of even the first meeting, I would start discovering that they had been abused,” Bagwell, now Golden Corner’s care pastor, told SBC LIFE. That reality “broke my heart and started bringing about a great passion” to confront the problem.
Consistent with Golden Corner’s vision of “loving God, loving people,” Bagwell educated himself about ministering to domestic violence victims. Today, along with other area ministers, he works in conjunction with a local women’s shelter to help abuse victims. He was quoted last year as an advocate for battered women in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles on domestic violence by Charleston, South Carolina’s Post and Courier.
Bagwell is among a growing coalition of Southern Baptists encouraging pastors to place more emphasis on combatting domestic abuse—a common, but often overlooked, problem within churches.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more than one in three women (35.6 percent) and one in four men (28.5 percent) have “experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.”
Yet 42 percent of US Protestant pastors “rarely” or “never” address domestic violence in their churches, according to a 2014 LifeWay Research study. Another 22 percent speak to the issue only about once per year. Among pastors who address domestic violence, 75 percent believe it is not a problem in their churches.
Does Scripture Condone Abuse?
The Post and Courier’s series claimed part of the Palmetto state’s domestic violence problem “is rooted in the culture of South Carolina, where men have long dominated the halls of power, setting an agenda that clings to tradition and conservative Christian tenets about the subservient role of women.” Commentators in an April 23 Baptist Press article took issue with the implication that traditional Christian beliefs contribute to domestic violence, and Bagwell identified a possible reason for the paper’s confusion.
While Bagwell has never heard a Christian leader suggest domestic violence is acceptable or that men should dominate women, he said abused women have told him their husbands misuse biblical commands regarding a wife’s submission to justify their abuse. Bagwell, fifty-two, suspects such misuse of Scripture is a residual effect of men in previous generations “inside and outside the church who felt like their role [in marriage] was a domineering role.” Though such men generally did not condone violence, many believed they had a right “to discipline their wife verbally tremendously.”
John R. Rice, an independent Baptist writer and evangelist, may have expressed something of the sentiment Bagwell referenced—though Rice also affirmed a husband’s responsibility to provide for and protect his wife. In his 1941 book Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives and Women Preachers, Rice wrote, “God expects women to feel their duty to obey their husbands, good or bad, saved or unsaved. Nowhere in the Bible is a wife’s duty to her husband conditioned on the kind of character he has or the way he treats her.”
Despite errors of the past and misleading media accounts today, sociologists have noted marked happiness among families that strive to follow the biblical pattern of male servant leadership at home. A 1999 study by sociologists Bradford Wilcox and John Bartkowski identified what they labelled “the evangelical paradox”: Evangelical husbands and wives “act in ways that parallel or are in fact more progressive than other Americans” in their sharing of household duties and cooperative decision-making processes.
The only two differences between evangelical couples and other American married people, Wilcox and Bartkowski wrote, are “(1) that evangelicals are more likely to report that husbands take the ‘lead in spiritual matters,’ . . . and (2) that evangelical men and women are more likely to report higher levels of marital satisfaction.” There is “no evidence that evangelical men are more likely to abuse their wives physically.”
Do’s and Don’ts for Pastors
Consistent with biblical teaching on marriage, Bagwell offered several do’s and don’ts for pastors regarding domestic violence. When both partners in an abusive relationship come to a minister seeking help, it’s best to pray for the couple, affirm their desire to break the cycle of violence, and send them to a trained professional, Bagwell said—unless the pastor has training himself in handling domestic abuse.
“I’ve heard of too many situations where a pastor is trying his best to give biblical, sound counseling to someone,” Bagwell said. “But if that abuser is sitting in the same room with the one he or she abuses . . . they’re going to dominate, even if it’s subtly,” and possibly seek to intimidate the abused spouse later.
Pastors should always have another person present—preferably a woman—when counseling an abused wife, Bagwell said. He urged pastors to do all they can to assure abused women of God’s love.
The staff of South Texas Children’s Home Ministries (STCHM), a ministry partner of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, compiled for SBC LIFE a list of actions pastors can take to help both abused spouses and abusers. STCHM is part of the Baptist Coalition for Children and Families, a national advocacy group founded by Baptist-affiliated children’s homes across the nation. Among STCHM’s suggestions:
- Provide literature on domestic abuse to church leaders and victims. Literature for victims should be placed in the women’s restrooms, where abused wives can take it without their husbands seeing.
- Educate church leaders about signs of domestic abuse such as obvious physical bruising, a spouse who stays quiet in social circles, name calling and humiliation by one spouse, and a sense of control by one spouse over who the other sees and talks to. In some states, child protective services will provide free training on recognizing signs of domestic violence.
- Provide or refer abused persons to professional Christian counseling.
- Offer Bible studies on dealing with anger, low self-esteem, marital difficulties, and parenting challenges.
- Make church members aware of community resources related to domestic violence.
Law enforcement authorities should be called regarding spousal abuse “when the problem is clearly outside the scope of the pastor to reasonably handle the interactions taking place,” said Darin Griffiths, an STCHM marriage and family therapist. Churches should, he added, develop support networks for people at risk of becoming abusers so their actions do not escalate to criminal offenses.
All instances of suspected child abuse should be reported to law enforcement immediately.
“A Spiritual Warfare”
Another important aspect of ministering amid domestic violence is addressing it from the pulpit, said Joanna Berry, STCHM vice president of family and international ministries.
“When clergy and church leaders are silent on the topic of domestic abuse, this can be interpreted as an attitude of indifference to family violence,” Berry said. “Victims may be encouraged to adopt the same attitude toward their own suffering,” leading to thoughts that “being hit is no big deal, and it’s not really worth mentioning.”
One pastor who takes seriously the charge to address domestic violence is Fernando Hernandez of It’s a Challenge, a congregation in Brownwood, Texas, that cooperates with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. After growing up in a violent home, Hernandez fell into a life of drugs and violence as a teenager. He began living with his future wife at age seventeen and did not break the cycle of violence until he committed his life to Christ several years later.
Hernandez started It’s a Challenge in 1991 as a ministry to troubled families and established it as a church last year. Ministering for twenty-five years among families plagued by domestic violence has helped him identify common factors that contribute to spousal abuse.
A desire for vengeance after feeling humiliated, pent-up anger regarding a mother’s infidelity, and observing a violent father all increase a man’s chances of abusing his wife, Hernandez told SBC LIFE.
Many abusers “carry so much hate that they’re like walking time bombs,” Hernandez said. “. . . They’re blind to what they’re about to do because the Bible says hate puts darkness over them.”
Some abusers have medical or psychological problems and need pastors to connect them with healthcare professionals, Hernandez said. But many times the problem is spiritual. In such instances, a pastor should fast and pray about the root cause of a man’s violent behavior, he said.
Whether help comes through medical care, counseling, church ministries, or supernatural intervention, Hernandez said ultimate deliverance from violent behavior is a gift of God.
“This is a spiritual warfare,” Hernandez said.