My theolinguistics students and I are currently wrestling with a significant aspect of religious language: conceptual metaphor. A conceptual metaphor is a figurative comparison in which one idea is understood in terms of another. Metaphors are indispensible in religious language precisely because they are vague. They ‘allow us to refer to what really exists, while conceding that our knowledge of the relevant aspects of reality [like the nature of God] might be incomplete’ (source).
As part of this discussion, we have been looking in particular at what happens when a metaphor is decontextualized from a religious text and then recontextualized. In this process, the metaphor is detached from the context in which it occurred, then inserted into new contexts. Ana Deumert explains,
The replicated text might look the same, but it will not mean the same, and although it carries with it certain meanings from its earlier uses, it also acquires new meanings.
Take, for example, the metaphor of the CHRISTIAN LIFE = BATTLE. Our minds might immediately turn to Ephesians 6, but our language indicates that this metaphor has been recontextualized in numerous ways. As a mother, one such recontextualization I’ve become particularly sensitive to is PARENTING = WAR. Consider the opening sentences in a post from CBMW from last year:
Parenting is war. There is, and we can’t say this with enough emphasis, nothing more war-like in the spiritual realm than parenting.
In one way or another, every child will fight this battle with his parent. The earlier you win that battle, the better, both for your sanity and your child’s. You can win it when your kids are toddlers, or you can wait and try to win it when they’re teenagers. Victory comes a lot easier when a child is two, and it’s more quickly accomplished at that age when you use spanking, appropriately and lovingly applied, to enforce it.
And over at Desiring God, a more recent post offers a more subtle development of the Biblical metaphor, closer to the original, though the association between children and one’s enemy is likewise perpetuated.
But if we understand that spiritual warfare is taking place, we may not run as quickly from their rudeness, or at least not in the same way. Having expected it, we may enter into it with correction and kindness. We may not be annoyed that she took a swing at her sister; rather, we may be shocked that she shared her Skittles. When we know we’re wrestling demons, disobedience doesn’t surprise so much as obedience does.
Even these more cautious developments of the Biblical metaphor deserve critical attention. Given that God uses the metaphor of a parent (father and mother) and child to illuminate His relationship with us, the PARENTING = BATTLE metaphor is one we should be particular skeptical of. As Christians, we are no longer at war with God. As Reformed believers, we believe our children are part of the covenant community. And given evidence that the metaphors we use not only reflect the way we see the world but even shape the way we act, it’s time we stopped talking about our children as enemy combatants.
A cornerstone of presbyterianism is its Book of Church Order (or BCO, variously titled depending on the denomination). The Book’s procedures and standards are designed to facilitate order, equity, and consistency in how the various denominations govern themselves, especially in handling questionable doctrine or sinful behaviour. As with any organization, without this important polity manual, powerful figures are more likely to dominate to the detriment of the (at least relatively) weak. Yet no human system is perfect, and every self-conscious Presbyterian would insist that no BCO should be in conflict with the church’s core mission. If such a conflict is discovered, there is a process available for revision. Peter Coertzen explains the significance of a ‘route of revision and appeal’ for any set of procedures, noting that
the order which is created must be theologically accountable and as such must also be applied responsibly …. that is within the parameters found in the Scriptures.
The aim of this article is to examine the extent to which the Books of Church Order facilitate our obedience to the second of the two greatest commandments in Scripture: Love your neighbour as yourself.
Love Your Neighbour as Yourself
In a 2012 edited collection entitled What Does the Scripture Say?, Christopher Chandler investigates the exhortation to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ from Leviticus 19:18 and how it was applied by Jesus and His followers. Chandler writes:
That they [the Pharisees] ‘acquitted the guilty and sentenced the just’ and ‘banded together against the life of the just’ could readily be taken as references to their unjust practices in the courts. The latter phrase is a quote from Ps 94:21a. This psalm calls upon God to judge the injustice of those who ‘slay the widow and the foreigner’ and ‘murder the orphan’ (94:6) and who ‘condemn the innocent to death’ (94:21b).
Chandler’s thesis is that, first, for those living in New Testament times, loving one’s neighbour was understood as the doing of justice to one’s neighbour in a court setting. And second, that this commandment emphasizes loving vulnerable neighbours in particular. Chandler’s analysis raises these questions: Who is our 21st century vulnerable neighbour? To what extent do our church court systems love him/her? How can we do better?
Who is a vulnerable neighbour?
In a way typical of many institutions, the Church of England defines a vulnerable adult
as a person who is or may be in need of community care services by reason of mental or other disability, age or illness; and who is or may be unable to take care of him or herself, or unable to protect him or herself against significant harm or exploitation in any care setting. This includes individuals in receipt of social care services, those in receipt of other services such as health care, and those who may not be in receipt of services.
This definition encompasses a wide range of people, including those with mental illness, those with disability, those fleeing oppression, and victims of psychological or physical abuse. However, context is important. Certain individuals might be vulnerable in one context more so than another. Consider, for example, the vulnerability of a young woman walking by herself down a country lane to a local shop in the middle of the day. Compare this with the same young woman in a big city, walking home late at night, on her own, through areas where violent assault is frequent.
And vulnerability is ideological, as well as physical. Consider the risk of a new Christian practicing his religion openly in a culture hostile to Christianity, with no access to churches that preach the gospel. Then compare this with a new Christian doing the same but while surrounded by mature Christians and Christ-centred churches. In short, vulnerability is not static; it moves and shifts with context, though some will remain at-risk across a wider range of contexts.
The important question to ask ourselves is: Who is vulnerable where we are?
Are we loving our vulnerable neighbours?
Most of the vulnerable people who contact me are Christian women. Most of these women have suffered spousal abuse and have sought help from church leaders, only to be turned away or treated badly. By the time they contact me, they are often desperate, and some have even left the church.
Take, for example, a woman whom I will call Hannah. Hannah’s session had fired her from her job as music leader at the church some years earlier. Their reason? She had refused to move back in with an abusive spouse. This had left Hannah with a mistrust of their ability to care for her. Hannah therefore contacted her presbytery’s clerk to seek advice about another more recent and unrelated problem with her session.
Prior to this call, Hannah had sent a letter to the clerk, the same letter I read when Hannah first contacted me. This letter documented the church’s response to her spousal abuse, her ensuing poverty, and her desire for the session to see her and to minister to her in this most recent dispute. Having read this letter and during the approximately two-hour phone call, the clerk frequently interrupted Hannah and used harsh, cruel language, bordering on shouting. He referred to her as a violent oppressor, as a problem, and as an immature child, even as Hannah cried. He told her she was a ‘pariah,’ ‘coercive,’ ‘violent,’ ‘frightening,’ ‘aggressive,’ a ‘tormentor’, an ‘abuser,’ a ‘threat to our church.’ He said, ‘I’ve read your letter. And I’ve listened to your conversation. And you’re a problem.’*
Hannah is by no means unique. One woman reported that despite the proof she presented of her husband’s repeated infidelity, her session declared her ‘hormonal’ and in need of medication to ‘help me through my rough patch.’ Another Christian woman reported that her session sent her letters threatening to strike her from the membership record for leaving her unfaithful and abusive husband. She had stopped attending church because many women in the church had sent her unkind letters, heaping burden upon burden, a problem the session refused to deal with.
And there is the case of another woman, who contacted me in late 2016. She sent me a letter from her session in which they required her to ‘repent of withholding sexual intimacy’ from her sex addict husband, who had raped her. The session was preparing to exercise church discipline against her, not him. Faced with such pressure, she withdrew her membership, losing her right of complaint.
In another case, a college student, victimized by stalking on a university campus, was invited to a Reformed church and quickly encouraged to enrol on multiple weekend-long Biblical Counselling courses. The one who issued the invitation, an on-staff church counsellor, spent long hours with her, putting deadlines on her to join the church, pressuring her to go on a six-month ‘courtship track to marriage’ and even to drop out of school and stop ballroom dancing, a hobby since childhood. All of this occurred explicitly against her Christian parents’ counsel, within the space of a few months. With the help of two pastors in other churches, they were eventually able to persuade her to stay away from the counsellor and that particular church.
Another woman was placed under church discipline for failing to ‘resume sexual submission and co-habitation’ with a spouse who admitted to stalking, drugging, and sexually assaulting her for years. She eventually withdrew her membership. In her words,
I tried for many months to get the elders to follow the church order and release my membership to another [church session]. I followed the church order, and they totally ignored it; it was a situation of unwritten rules applying to me and the obvious and recorded rules of the denomination having NO bearing upon the elders themselves. Even when I articulated my last desperate request, that I resign my membership, they told me I had no authority to do such a thing.
Yet another Christian woman reported how she had shared a humiliating story with her pastor and his wife regarding her husband’s abusive sexual behaviour. After this portion of the ‘counselling’ session, her pastor commanded his own wife to stand up so he could ‘swat’ her on her rear. Apparently, the pastor wanted to prove that the woman was overreacting, that ‘for years, he had swatted his [own] wife on her rear, even among friends and in public.’ What, then, was the big deal? This woman also left that church, losing her right of complaint.
The above cases are only a small sampling of what has happened recently in the PCA, the OPC, and the URCNA, what women have reported to me and what I have at times witnessed. In all cases, I have, where possible and appropriate, contacted church leaders with the information I have received to request a response, viewed documents, and/or contacted other witnesses for corroboration.
These stories were difficult for me to hear and are no doubt uncomfortable for you to read. Some have argued that stories like these have no place in the public eye. But we must hear them. We must resist the temptation to make these accounts more palatable. To stifle the stories of these women is to deny the reality that in all these and other similar cases, the church and its court system has failed to love our vulnerable neighbours. These women have been abandoned by leaders who in many cases are ignoring their cries for help and in other cases either don’t understand their Books of Church Order or even deliberately use it to their own advantage. Often these are leaders who mean well and may even be trying to help but are misguided ideologically or practically. Often they appear to be men who ultimately can’t see past themselves and their own interests. Right now, at this moment, Christians are struggling all over the United States, all over the world, under the weight of the injustice that they carry and re-carry, many of them with no human help.
Vulnerability and the Books of Church Order
I have searched for statistics regarding the frequency with which women, who are often vulnerable, file complaints in various Reformed Christian denominations. I suspect one would have to go to the historical records office of each denomination and comb through presbytery records and sessional minutes to arrive at such statistics. However, despite this shortfall, I am fairly certain, as are pastors I have consulted, that few women file complaints in the church courts without some advocacy.
One obvious reason for the paucity of complaints filed by such women is the imperviousness of the various BCOs and their procedures to laypeople, particularly vulnerable laypeople. Return with me to the case of Hannah, the woman verbally abused by her presbytery’s clerk. This remarkable woman attended five presbytery meetings and filed and refiled two different complaints multiple times after they were rejected on various grounds over several years. In multiple instances, the leaders involved did not explain to her the reasons her complaints were ruled out of order. In fact, they made these clear only after I pressed them to do so. And even after Hannah made it over the first hurdle, filing one of her complaints successfully, she was passed from commission to commission as various members delayed and/or resigned, necessitating the appointment of new members, requiring that both they and Hannah start from scratch. In the end, her hard work was in vain as both her complaints were found out of order. Frustratingly, the judgment about the phone call with the clerk contained numerous factual errors which I sought to correct with no reply from the committee.
But there are other reasons why vulnerable Christians are unable or unwilling to file complaints. There is the issue of time constraints. For at-risk members of the church, their immediate priority is often the physical safety of themselves and their children. On most occasions, those experiencing trauma are unable to prioritize filing a complaint within the various limited time periods the BCOs stipulate. By the time many of the aforementioned women managed to get their bearings, the narrow window of complaint had closed.
Remember also that many women in need of help have already been wounded and bullied by their own sessions, some of whom treat delicate, personal matters with great disrespect and callousness. Women have reported suffering from panic attacks and multiple health concerns as a consequence of both the abuse and secondary abuse they have suffered. For some, contacting further church leaders constitutes a great risk, one they simply do not believe is worth taking, particularly without an advocate. Understandably, most withdraw their membership, losing their right of complaint. After a time of recovery, some women have reported contacting multiple church leaders in their presbytery, who turned them away.
The Sisyphean System: How can we do better?
Why do these stories continue to happen? Why do we assume the worst of people suffering? Why are we too often like Eli in I Samuel 1:10, a man who walked in faith yet reacted in sweeping and cruel judgement to the hurting woman who cried out to God? At the heart of all of these cases are ideological issues that need our collective attention and correction. God saw Hagar’s abandonment by Abraham and Sarai in Genesis 16, and He sees all those with similar burdens. There are vulnerable people in every congregation whom it is a church leader’s privilege and duty to serve. Leaders, learning how to love your at-risk neighbour involves educating yourself about trauma and its effects, about disability, about mental illness, about chronic illness, about dementia. It means abandoning such mindsets as that a victim of abuse can or should just “get over it.” It means leaving behind the notion that those with no medical expertise should try on their own to repair a person’s physical body or mental self. It requires a commitment of care to your brother or sister for life–and not just until they become too inconvenient, until you can no longer handle their hurt.
I hope to consider these ideological issues elsewhere. But the focus of this post is this: Loving our vulnerable neighbour requires adapting our systems and our attitudes to meet their real needs. More specifically, this post has sought to make explicit the compounding issue of the church court system, which often fails to protect those who are vulnerable, and which makes it harder for pastors to help those who need it most.
How can we improve the system? Consider the following possibilities, as a start:
Amendments to the Books of Church Order, appropriate to the needs of at-risk people. These might include:
a. changes to time restrictions
For example, the PCA BCO 43-2 gives a 60-day time frame in which a member in good standing can file a complaint. The EPC BCO 13.4 specifies the narrowest window of those I examined, that of 15 days. The OPC BCO IX.2 is the most generous I have seen, stipulating a 3-month window ‘unless it is shown that it could not have been presented within that time.’ This last clause is particularly encouraging to see, if it actually facilitates justice for vulnerable people, and, if so, could be a step in the right direction for other denominations.
b. guaranteed access to a neutral adviser
The PCA BCO 43-5 states a complainant may obtain the assistance of a communing member of the PCA, but there is no guarantee of such assistance. OPC BCO IX contains no mention of assistance for a complainant, though a person accused is entitled to counsel from another OPC member in good standing (BCO IV.A.3). In most cases, it seems, a complainant is on his/her own unless she happens to know a sympathetic party in the denomination, which is not very likely when it comes to those at-risk.
c. a more accessible version of the BCO
The language of most BCOs I have encountered is exclusionary and automatically gives church leaders an advantage. By that, I mean the language is difficult to make sense of without regular use and guidance. Leaders in the church who are required to consult the BCO as part of their position are automatically in a position of privilege over those for whom the process of complaint may be their first encounter with the BCO.
The establishment of a past-case review, similar to that found here.
Vulnerable adults often leave the church before they can make a complaint, in order to protect themselves and their children. As a result, the church court is not notified of cases where discipline (or more) is needed. One possible solution might be to consider the following model:
In Southport, UK, at the United Reformed Church General Assembly in July, 2016, a group known as the Safeguarding Advisory Group (SAG) reported on the progress of a project, known as the Safeguarding Past Case Review. This project was commissioned by the Missions Council in November, 2015, to bring detailed proposals before the Council ‘on issues of abuse in the Church.’ Phase One involved reading 1,556 ministers’ files and classifying them according to level of concern and urgency of response and referring them if necessary. SAG reported on trends within the resulting 54 referred ministers’ files.
SAG also introduced Phase Two in March,
open for anyone who believes that they have been inappropriately dealt with by the Church to be listened to. From April to October 2016 this phase will encourage those who feel they have been carrying a burden to share that with specialist listening teams.
At URC General Assembly in July, 2016, SAG reported these findings and plan to the wider body along with their hope that Phase Two would commence that same month. Whether or not the Safeguarding Past Case Review will bring about positive change in this particular denomination remains to be seen. Regardless, this is a significant step forward and one other denominations should considering emulating, as a matter of urgency.
3. Appropriate training of church staff and congregants.
Such training might include better equipping staff to use the BCO wisely, to minister to at-risk individuals, to identify those in need, to spot abusive behaviour, and to respond appropriately. Of even greater priority is firm grounding in the theology which lies at the heart of cases involving vulnerable people.
Jesus Christ as Covenant-established Legal Advocate
Those we perceive as difficult are the ones that God requires us to love the most. In loving our vulnerable neighbour, we must consider circumstances, backgrounds, frailties, and burdens, many of which we cannot even comprehend, most of which we cannot fix. Now is the time to obey our Saviour’s command to pour out a love worthy of that by which we have been called. In the early church, certain groups were particularly vulnerable as they had no male legal advocate. But as one pastor friend put it, it is Christ who is the advocate of the neglected, the voiceless, and the vulnerable. Take care, church leaders, that you do not fail those for whom Christ advocates. Jesus Christ stands before them as witness (Eph. 1:3; 2:4-6; Col. 3:1-4).
Why do we love our vulnerable neighbour? In the end, we do so not because we wish to make ourselves more palatable to secular society. We do this not because it will satisfy a longing in us to serve and in so doing become better people. We love our neighbour because Christ commands it and because to do so is to acknowledge God’s holiness and His saving work. ‘And the King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of Mine, you did for Me.”’
*I am able to quote from this phone call because Hannah began recording approximately 45 minutes in. She had not intended to record the call until it became – to her surprise – a clear example of the verbal abuse her divorce attorney had advised her to record. In fact, the clerk’s email to her before the call had been, in her words, ‘pastorly and kind’.
When I returned home from the Lydia Symposium in September, my husband came to collect me at the airport, and we spent the hour and a half drive home talking through the events of the weekend. That evening, I sent a summary of the weekend to a friend who could not be there and told him that I would struggle to write about the event without talking about my personal history. Since then, I have written and rewritten my summary of the first Lydia Symposium, each time eventually deleting it all and starting again. It has proven extremely difficult to do justice to what was genuinely a significant turning point in my life.
Against the backdrop of the still prominent patriarchal culture within the modern Christian church, considering the growing body of evidence that such a culture potentially empowers the abuse of Christian women, and in light of the many pressing questions facing Christians regarding gender and sexuality, we held our inaugural Lydia Symposium.
This inaugural Symposium featured lectures by Drs. Rebekah Josberger (Multnomah University), Mark Garcia (Greystone Theological Institute), and myself (Sheffield University and the Lydia Center). The subject matter ranges rather widely, perhaps more widely than one might expect from a Center focused as we are on the academic research and discussion of gender, marriage/divorce theory, children, and family. Here you will hear about the nuances of Torah in relation to righteousness, the significance of discourse about divorce in sermons, Matthew’s use of Hosea, the beauty and richness of God’s norms, with questions and suggestions pulled from biblical studies, theology, history, ethics, and linguistics.
The weekend began with Dr. Mark Garcia’s talk on Friday evening entitled Just Joseph: Mary, Marriage, and Matthean Mercy. Mark spoke about righteousness asmercy, the significance of Joseph acting to cover what he believed to be Mary’s shame, his act not to expose her but to take the burden of potential shame on himself.
Mark’s second talk was after lunch on Saturday, entitled, Are Women Safe in the Church? Women, Safety, and the Samaritan. He focused our attention on John 4 and the account of the woman at the well. He discussed the significance of Jacob’s well, the ambiguity regarding why this woman had five husbands (noting the common interpretation that this was due to her own adultery) but the convincing interpretation that she was very likely rejected unrighteously by her various men, and perhaps because she was barren. And then the spread of the Gospel through her, the water of life springing up within and out of her, to the villagers. Her barrenness healed. I found Mark’s work not only thorough and honest to the text but deeply moving. Are women safe in the church? I encourage you to listen to Mark’s assessment.
Dr. Rebekah (Becky) Josberger’s first talk on Saturday was entitled Torah as Protector of the Vulnerable and centered on Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Becky began her talk with common mistakes we make when reading Torah. She focused, for example, on problems in assuming that God’s law describes something idyllic, a means for living in ideal circumstances. Instead, she argued, its purpose is to give us guidelines for living in a broken world and to foster a relational knowledge of God. In her words, Deuteronomy 24:1-4, an instance of Torah,
is drawing a picture to shape a paradigm that is to guide broader attitudes and behavior – behavior that reflects Yahweh’s own righteous character to our community and to the watching world.
Becky took us through the biblical text and through similar texts of the period, arguing that rather than a passage about divorce,
The primary issue in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is not the divorce, but the abuse that the divorce represents.
Particularly moving was Becky’s reframing of Malachi 2 in light of her convincing scholarship on Deut. 24. Becky took up a common misinterpretation of this passage, “You are offensive because you are divorced” and recast it as, in context, a message of God’s hatred of the mistreatment of the vulnerable.
Becky’s second talk later in the day was a kind of meditation on Torah, again not as a means of deriving “specific, limited, outward behavioral responses,” but rather, Torah as God using story to teach us about Him and how to be like Him.
I delivered my talk entitled The Discourse of Divorce on Saturday morning. I began by situating my corpus of sermons within a broader context, summarizing my philosophy of language, and then delving into the sermons themselves. I discussed evidence for a discourse of rules and evaluation, a discourse of polarization, a discourse of violence, and a discourse of female exclusion.
At the end of the day, in closing the symposium, I reflected on the ways in which the various talks worked together. My work investigated how pastors talk about divorce in the Church and the extent to which it is problematic, even dangerous. Providentially, the message from Mark and Becky was this: Despite the destructive messages you may encounter, they do not represent who you are before God. They do not represent who God is.
Our first symposium was sparsely attended, but this fostered a friendly and communal atmosphere. During breaks, we moved from the main conference room to a smaller upstairs table, where we talked and shared experiences, reflecting on what we had heard and what it meant for each of us.
The talks from our first symposium may be accessed for free here (scroll to the bottom section of the page), and we encourage you to begin with Mark’s “Series Introduction”. Almost all of the lectures are provided in audio form. But one of the lectures, my own, included visuals, so we have provided only this one in video (i.e., audio plus slides) format. I have also provided a personal video introduction to my talk which you will see at the beginning of my lecture.
As noted in the lectures themselves, this audio is being provided free of charge in order to spread the word about the kinds of things Greystone is doing. If you find any of the talks helpful, please feel free to share them with as many as you desire, but please also consider making a donation to Greystone to help cover the considerable costs of holding this event and to help the Center continue its work.
Finally, please note that the talks at our first Lydia Symposium were scholarly, in keeping with our mission. Our aim is to examine important questions facing women in the church in a careful, serious, and thorough manner. If we are to speak with authority, if our resources are to effect change, we must handle with rigour the texts we encounter.
Thank you for listening. We pray you will be encouraged, challenged, and invigorated in service of Christ, His Church, and the world.
For the past month or so, I’ve taken a necessary step back from social media and from posting on the Lydia site. This is partly due to responsibilities I have in my academic post. But also I’ve been overwhelmed and discouraged by the gravity of the issues facing women in the Christian church and more widely. And those feelings haven’t gone anywhere. A few weeks ago, I had a panic attack in my office and then, the week before last, I broke down giving a short presentation on my research to my colleagues. Last week, I attended a conference in Holland on marital captivity and learned about the global scale on which women, including Christian women, are abused, held captive, humiliated, and debased. I talked with a new friend there about the strange guilt we felt at our own deep sadness. What right had we to talk of our feelings, knowing what we do of what our sisters suffer? We who have been given so much.
I write this to say we at the Lydia Center are here, we are listening, and we are working, slowly as it may go. I delivered a more polished version of my paper on divorce sermons at the conference last week, and I am moving ahead with getting that work published. I am preparing a grant proposal to expand the work on sermons, to look more broadly at how pastors talk about divorce as well as womanhood, marriage, and the like. I have collected around 400 texts on consent which will make explicit how the Christian community talks about marital rape. Mark is continuing his research on a major volume dealing with gender and marriage from a theological perspective. The Lydia Symposium talks are now completely edited and will be available shortly. We are also slowly building up contacts which will help the Lydia Center get to grips with these complex issues. Work is slow, but it is steady. We at the Lydia Center may go quiet from time to time, but we are still here.
Last weekend, I watched the documentary Audrie and Daisy, which explores the ‘public square of shame’ of young girls who have been sexually assaulted. While this documentary is a powerful expose of rape culture (in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence towards women is normalized), it is also a disturbing portrait of secondary victimization via bystanders. When a victim of some kind of gender-based violence (whether that be physical or psychological) reports her abuse, the response of those around her can either be a source of great comfort and empowerment or they can be themselves a form of violence.
The devastating effects of secondary victimization are well-documented (see Chapter 8 of this book for a start). However, also worthy of attention is what some call the ‘friendship protection hypothesis‘. In short, when the friends, family, and acquaintances of a victim and officials tasked with responding to sexual assault, bullying, or other kinds of intimate partner violence believe, support, comfort, encourage, and assist, victims of such crimes, good things happen. Not only are victims better equipped to heal from their trauma, but they are less likely to be re-victimized.
Mark and I had the great privilege of meeting two ladies, one a survivor of spousal abuse and the other her friend, at the inaugural Lydia Symposium a few weeks ago. Both drove a long distance to attend, and having heard their story, we asked the friend to write a guest post for us in response to the question: What does it mean to be a friend to someone facing abuse? We are grateful to be able to publish her account in her own words here.
How to be a Good Friend to Someone Facing or Leaving an Abusive Relationship
Walking with someone who is coming out of an abusive relationship will not be like any other situation you have faced. At least, this is what I have found.
I have learned throughout this experience with my best friend, that there are a number of things she needs.
First of all, she needs to be believed. This may sound trivial, but there will be many people who will not believe her, or will minimize what she says or what she has been through.
She also needs to hear you say you will never leave her. You should show her this with both words and actions. For my friend and me, this means having my cell phone near at all times, especially by my bed at night, when her fear is often the greatest. She needs to be reassured and listened to. Her fear is very real and at times almost unbearable. You can be that calm voice to reassure your friend she is not alone. She will have triggers, memories that come back which have been suppressed, sometimes for years, because of the fog she has lived in.
Listening and praying, reading scripture and reminding her of truth; these are ways my friend has needed me. Encourage your friend and let her know this did not happen overnight, and won’t change overnight. Patience is key. Leaving an abusive relationship is a huge life change for her. But you being there as a faithful, consistent presence will make the journey so much easier and better for her.
Incorporating things which might give a sense of normalcy to her life, is another important thing I have learned. Planning fun times like shopping, going out for coffee or a movie, or whatever your friend enjoys, is another way you can help her feel like she is moving on. Laughter, music, time with other friends or family can all be a blessing, as well as healing, for her. Supporting her in different ways will be essential.
Leaving an abusive relationship is a very courageous thing to do. But it is also scary and creates more fear in your friend’s life. Validation is so important. Love her. Respect her. Treat her with dignity.
My friend is not a victim anymore. She is a survivor.
I believe one of the most important things to give her is unconditional love. I have spent many days listening, praying, and often, crying with my friend. She has had so many emotions; grief, anger, despair, shock, betrayal, and a host of others. Unconditional love is vital. She will need it in your hugs, and by holding her hand when she finds out yet another lie. Through it all, you can tell her and show her that you will stand with her and weather the storm together.
As a friend who has walked closely with someone who is leaving an abusive marriage, I can tell you that God has taught me in a whole new way, what it means to bear another’s burdens. Don’t be surprised when your friend is accused or not believed, over the one who is abusing. Even you, as her friend, may be ridiculed or talked about badly if you support her. All the more reason you must stay with her and stand by her side.
Supporting my friend has been humbling and life changing for me, in a very good way.
It truly is a privilege to be the hands and feet for my Savior. At times, to be the anchor, and to remind her of God’s precious truth and His sovereignty over all these things.
How can you help a friend who is facing or leaving an abusive relationship?
Take her hand, look into her eyes, and tell her, “Friend, we will get through this together. I am here, and God will see us through.”
This week (I hope), I will be writing a summary of and reflection on Lydia’s first symposium last weekend. In advance of that, we at the Lydia Center owe a great debt to those who attended, listened, asked engaging questions, offered suggestions, shared stories, and laughed, talked, and cried with us. Some attended at great inconvenience to themselves, and we are grateful for your time, effort, and enthusiasm. In connection with that, in the next few weeks, we plan to publish a post from one of our attendees, whom we hope will take us up on our offer to do so.
Thank you also to those who prayed and donated to make this event possible and fruitful. Our work is not possible without you.
We also want to thank our special speaker Dr. Becky Josberger, whose talks were as engaging as they were scholarly. We hope to facilitate the dissemination of her very important work to as wide an audience as possible.
Finally, please note that we video recorded all of the talks and will be making those available as soon as possible to those who could not attend.