By Brad Hambrick
If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.
How can we tell if an abuser is changing in meaningful ways? What are the key qualities that should serve as markers to show us change is happening? We will discuss four.
1. Humility: How do you know when you are talking to a humble person? They ask good questions and listen. When we don’t listen well we are trapped in our own way of interpreting life. Bad listeners are by definition self-centered. Blame-shifting will stop as humility emerges.
2. Patience: When a humble person hears the pain their abuse has caused, they do not rush or demand a gracious response. Until an abusive person can say, “I created a destructive environment in our marriage for years. You are learning to see me as a safe person. It is hard for me to be patient, but it is harder for you to trust. I am willing to accept that and focus on needed changes in my life,” they are not patient.
3. Accountability: Why does most abuse happen in homes? In a word, privacy. Privacy kills change and fuels sin. Transparency kills sin and fuels change. An abusive person desiring to change will be honest with at least three types of people: (1) a pastor or elder, (2) a counselor with experienced with abuse, and (3) members of the church discipline restoration team.
4. Robust Repentance: The abusive individual must not construe repentance as “groveling.” Complying with church discipline is not “going the extra mile.” Accepting the consequences of one’s sin is not being a martyr. To portray these evidences of genuine change as groveling is to recast repentance into the old self-centered narrative and is a major red flag for the recurrence of abuse.
We need to ask two more questions. What if the abusive individual is married and does not repent? What if the abusive individual is married and their spouse is slow or unwilling to trust their spouse’s repentance?
First, if the abusive spouse does not repent, then the church should remove them from membership, and support the abused spouse in whatever decision they need to make for their safety.
Even if a church does not believe that continued abuse fits the abandonment clause of I Corinthians 7, their choice is not between one holy and one unholy option. The choice is between empowering an abuser and supporting a victim pursuing of safety. Child custody and removing financial leverage often require taking legal steps. A victim of abuse should have the support of their church in taking the steps necessary to ensure their safety. If questioned by the abuser or another church member on this, the response should be something like:
“It would be hypocritical for an abusive spouse to condemn their spouse for separation while not addressing their abusive behaviors. As a church, we do not view prolonged separation or divorce as worse than refusing to change abusive behaviors. Unfortunately, those were the only options the abusive spouse left to their family. In abusive situations, we do not tell the victim what they ought to do. We believe that is a matter of conscience and wisdom. We do support the victims of abuse in the choices they need to make for their own safety and the safety of their children.”
If church discipline has been done well, the actions of the abusive spouse are public enough for this type of statement to be made to church members who are concerned about the church’s stance on marriage.
Second, if the abusive spouse repents and manifests evidence of change, but the abused spouse is slow to trust, the church should advocate for continued patience on the part of the formerly abusive spouse for as long as safety arrangements are not causing greater distress for the children. It is hypocritical to expect forgiveness and trust in a shorter amount of time than it took the abuser to come to repent; which includes the months or years before the church became aware of the abuse.
The assessment for the children’s well-being should be made by an experienced child therapist. The church should position itself with the best interest of the weakest and most vulnerable at the forefront of their concern; in this case, the children.
In these questions, we face one of the realities of abuse: abuse reduces the number of ideal options and multiplies the number of choices we wish we didn’t have to make. Here, again, we enter the world of the oppressed. When abuse is present no one likes the options before them, but we can be a refuge for the oppressed and, however uncomfortable that may be, it is good and godly to be such.
This article is adapted from Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused. Access this free training at ChurchCares.com.
*Please note the curriculum is not intended to be legal counsel or to provide holistic training for counseling or pastoral care on the issue of abuse but is an accessible tutorial on how to respond with pastoral and ethical excellence. The curriculum gives a theological foundation for the topic, brings understanding on the issues connected to abuse disclosure and reporting, and gives practical wisdom by which leaders can navigate complex situations.
Brad Hambrick serves as the Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina.