For too many Brazilian women abused by their spouses, the answer church leaders have given to their suffering is Ephesians 5:22: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands.”

“It’s the cruelest phrase in the Bible,” one woman told journalist Marília de Camargo César, as she records in O Grito de Eva (Eve’s Cry). “[Church leaders] teach it in a twisted way, without taking into account the historical context, traditions, culture,” she explains, identified in the book only as Professor Regina.

Three out of ten Brazilian women suffer domestic violence at some point in their lives. The country has high rates of violence against women, ranking fifth in the world. Last year, a national hotline received calls from an average of 245 women each day reporting some kind of violence. All this in a nation where women comprise m ore than half (58%) of evangelicals.

Recent allegations of abuse in North American churches have generated discussion in the Brazilian church around the issue, but churches and denominations have standard procedures or adopted best practices for addressing domestic violence. Yet in an environment where many survivors don’t report violence because of shame and fear of retaliation, evangelical churches have the opportunity to be places of shelter and guidance for hurting women.

Given these realities, CT invited six evangelical leaders who are experts on the subject to answer the following question: “What should church leaders do when a female congregant says she has been a victim of abuse or violence?”

Answers have been edited for clarity and style.

Marília César, journalist and author of the book O Grito de Eva, São Paulo

Church leadership should encourage the person to report it and, if possible, accompany them to the police station to file a report.

Church leaders should then arrange for people, preferably women in the church with experience in this kind of violence, to walk alongside the victim, giving her emotional support and, if necessary, refer her to the appropriate health or mental health professionals.

The perpetrator, if he is a member of the church community, should be called to account. There are churches with therapeutic work that bring men together for a kind of group therapy to deal with abusive behavior and toxic relationships, but unfortunately, these initiatives are still not very common.

Churches need to address this issue more openly and more often until it becomes unacceptable for pastors and members to have to live with situations of sexual abuse in their congregations.

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Alex Stahlhoefer, doctor of theology and professor at the Lutheran College of Theology, São Bento do Sul

The first response must always be to welcome the woman suffering. Jesus instructs us to weep with those who weep and to be consolers and comforters. We shouldn’t start by asking them about the details of the violence but should first offer emotional support so that they can express their pain, distress, and fears.

After that, it’s important to deal with the support network. Who will offer her shelter and safety? Can she return home? Who will accompany the victim to the police station to press charges? Care must be taken with the confidentiality of the information, as the victim is already fragile, and we can spare her from the unnecessary judgments of people who don’t need to know what happened.

If the abuser is a member of the congregation or a leader, the church must also take care that they do not use a position of leadership to coerce people to testify on their behalf or spread rumors about the victim’s image in order to diminish their responsibility.

A serious church should have a written statement, approved by the leadership and disseminated to all members, on how the church proceeds in cases of abuse and violence. Creating a culture where violence is not tolerated and where reports are taken seriously helps to create a healthy and safe environment for women.

Jennifer Carvalho, coordinator of the Imago Dei Mission and of the Cosmovision and Sexuality Study Group, Natal

First, church leaders need to be careful not to re-victimize the victim by asking inappropriate questions, asking too many details, or suggesting that they contributed to the abuse. It’s also important to identify whether the abuser is someone close to the victim, to keep her safe from him—if possible, the woman should be taken in by someone she trusts. In the event of rape, within 72 hours after the crime, the victim should be referred to a hospital for medical assessment. By law, victims under the age of 18 must be taken to the hospital.

After that, victims should be advised about the need to report the case to the police station and also be offered psychological and pastoral counseling.

If the abuser is part of the congregation, church leaders should start the disciplinary and removal process and direct him to hand himself in to the police and to start psychological treatment. Only after a few years, with psychological support and trained leadership, can it be assessed whether there has been genuine repentance. His reintroduction to the church, however, will probably not be possible, and the leadership will need, with discernment and study, to create another alternative.

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If the person who committed the abuse is a church leader, the previous guideline applies concurrently with a realignment of the church regarding what happened. In addition, there needs to be extensive training about the abuse and its consequences, the publication of a sincere apology, the care of the victim, and an investigation to find out if there have been other cases—so that other possible victims can be cared for.

People will be encouraged to report if the church is welcoming and aware that abuse exists and if this sin is combated from the pulpit to the office.

Yago Martins, pastor of Maanaim Baptist Church, author, and YouTuber, Fortaleza

Unfortunately, many fellow pastors believe that they can only take action after investigating the story very thoroughly, interviewing the husband, and checking all the accounts for any contradictions, to find out whether the woman’s complaint is true or not. In this process it is also important to report the matter to the civil authorities, deposing leaders (if the abuser is someone in this position), [enacting] ecclesiastical discipline, and caring for the victim.

Even if the wife’s testimony alone doesn’t prove that the abuse really happened, the mere testimony should be enough for church leaders to protect the wife from her husband. Protection first, investigation later. I have personally dealt with false reports of abuse in my pastoral ministry, but I don’t regret for a minute having welcomed and protected someone who brought a report that in time turned out to be false. It’s better to offer protection that later turns out to be unnecessary than to run the risk of dismissing such a serious complaint and leaving someone at the mercy of an aggressor.

Douglas Baptista, pastor of the Assemblies of God and president of the Education and Culture Council of the General Convention of the Assemblies of God in Brazil (CGADB)

In the creation act, the divine image is distributed without distinction between men and women (Gen. 1:27). The Bible teaches the equal importance of both (1 Cor. 11:11–12). The Christian marriage model requires the husband to lead his home in the same way that Christ leads the church—that is, with a vital interest in his wife’s well-being (Eph. 5:28–29). The husband must love his wife as Christ loves the church. This implies practicing some kind of sacrifice (Eph. 5:25). The wife must be treated with love and not with violence, threats, or authoritarianism. The husband must care for his wife in the same way that he cares for himself (Eph. 5:28). This means protecting his wife and providing her with a dignified life. This care is not limited to material provisions but includes affection, consideration, and honor, among others. These actions must be sincere and permanent, both in public and in private (Col. 3:19).

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According to the biblical model, no woman should be subjected to a toxic relationship. This type of abuse happens in different ways: verbally, physically, emotionally. For this reason, a wife should be aware of her husband’s aggressiveness and whether he becomes more aggressive when he is contradicted. When this happens, the first step is to immediately seek help and report any signs of violence to your leaders and the civil authorities.

If the abuser is a member or leader of the church, the case must be dealt with firmly to stop the abusive behavior. It should also be noted that sometimes women deny or do not see the situation of abuse, or try to justify the violent actions of their husbands. Therefore, it is essential to offer a support system, making women comfortable to approach and receive help.

Norma Braga, theologian and image consultant, São Paulo

Christians must realize that abusers are masters of the art of deception and abusers can be husbands, fathers, pastors, or youth leaders. Healthy leaders will act as protectors of women and children, who are usually the most likely to be victims.

The best prevention against abuse is to foster a Christ-centered culture in the church. It’s not enough for our theology to be accurate. In many cases of sexual abuse, even child abuse, the perpetrator is not reported to the police because “brother doesn’t go to court against brother”—but this argument is a distortion of the Word. In the event of a crime, the church needs to step back so that the state can deal with the case; it’s the state’s sphere, not the church’s.

Abuse among us Christians is even worse, as it is usually justified with odious readings from the Bible, which leaves deep scars on the soul. We need to go back to our origins, to the truly humble leadership of the Lord Jesus, who didn’t use the sheep for his own gain but sacrificed himself for them.

[ This article is also available in Português. ]

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