This question is the question we get asked most often, by almost everyone involved including the ecclesias themselves. How can ecclesias respond when there is a report of abuse?
Firstly, there is no silver bullet. Don't expect fast results. Don't set false expectations. Every case is different - different dynamics, different people with different needs, whether they are the people being abused (usually a wife and her children) or whether it is the person who chooses to use abusive behaviours.
Secondly Christ made a priority of relieving oppression and called us to lead sinners to confession and repentence. These are distinct and often separate responsibilities and they are usually urgent - we need us to devote our energy to them and give of ourselves as members one of another.
Respect the report. It is unlikely to be confected. Expect what you first hear about is just the tip of the iceberg.
Respect the oppressed. Don't ever use language to suggest it is a marriage issue, or an issue between husband and wife. Be careful not to signal this even with our choice of language (e.g. by suggesting there is a need for "fairness"). Remember the oppression has emotional effects and usually also affects the children including teenage and adult children. Accept that respecting them and the report may require confidentiality even to the point of not discussing the details of the report with the abuser.
Respect the person using abusive behaviours. Ensure that they understand that they are a respected member of the ecclesia and the ecclesia is committed to caring for them. Avoid accusations unless there are safety or other urgent issues involved and instead explore with the person how the symptoms (e.g. she is afraid, she has left the marital home, she has no money) came about - what behaviours might have led to that? What was happening to cause them? And from them, sometimes, it is possible to explore how unChristlike behaviours are being shown, and it is possible to discuss what Christ's teaching calls us to.
The ecclesia should think about safety issues before they arise. The ecclesia should be led by the victim or survivors' fears about safety, accept any fears are real and take steps to mitigate them. We must include in our consideration emotional safety as much as physical safety. Even though there may be low risk of physical violence, putting couples back together again before new behaviours are seen almost always perpetuates the abuse, drives it undercover and ensures we never ever get it hear about it, even when it escalates. We ought to always consider supporting the victim to get help from police, domestic violence services or other authorities to obtain restraining orders which prioritise safety and ensure there are consequences of continuing the abuse through behaviours such as intimidation and stalking.
The ecclesia should help the person using abusive behaviours to work out how he can behave safely and be accountable for his actions. The ecclesia should expect the person who uses abusive behaviours to develop their own plan to maintain safety for themselves and their loved ones then hold them accountable to it and be ready to use ecclesial discipline as a real consequence, even if reporting to the police is not an option (it is best that there is a police or court order in place).
Considering that the emotional and mental safety of the victims often require hard decisions - asking the person misusing power and control to meet at another meeting (remembering that their home ecclesia is still responsible to help them) so that the victims can receive spiritual development and fellowship without fear or risks. Again, police or court orders could well include requiring the affected person to stay away from the ecclesial meeting place for the protection of the victims - often if the police put this condition in place, the ecclesia and their affected member need to find suitable ways to support their spiritual development despite the limitations.
Professional help: It is vital we focus on relieving oppression. The effects of oppression usually are traumatic and separation leads to grief for the loss - loss of company, loss of hopes for the joint venture and being heirs together of the hope of life, just to name a few. Professional help should always be sought for victims and for people who use abusive behaviours. Where acceptable to them the ecclesia should seek to align it's support of both victims and those who use abusive behaviours with the help they are getting from professional counsellors.
Control through joint parenting: People who use abusive behaviours often use children in various ways to control their partners. Custody arrangements should be agreed and Family Court consents (or similar requirements in other countries than Australia) should be documented so there is no room for manipulation of these arrangements. The ecclesia should support this process including mediating and recognising the best interests of the children, including their spiritual development.
Children's care is expensive and the income and resources of the family should be available to support this. Again the ecclesia should make sure this happens and that both parents are accountable to ensure it is complied with including with consequences. Again it should not be necessary to go to external mediators or courts to agree these processes and the ecclesia should accept it is their responsibility to judge in these matters and again, seek court consents where appropriate so that neither party can renege on the agreement reached.
Intimidation: Often elements of the oppression are obvious and unavoidable.
Usually we find that intimidation and controlling behaviours continue or escalate following separation. The ecclesia should require accountability for these behaviours with consequences.
Economic abuse: Frequently we see that a sister has no access or control of the family's resources and assets - they are not in joint names, and she has no or little access to finances for basic day to day requirements. Further, there is often risk that the oppression can be continued by the person using abusive behaviours through the control and use of finances without agreement from the rest of the family. The ecclesia should require accountability for the joint assets and resources of the family - full disclosure and access must be put in place (e.g. documenting all assets and changing bank authorities so there is joint access) as well as requiring that all substantial use of family assets and resources are a shared decision (sometimes this will require the ecclesia to judge, and it should as 1 Corinthians 6 demands).
These are the common forms of oppression that are seen post-separation. There may be others in each case which also the ecclesia should not overlook.
The ecclesia should think ahead and ensure that obvious events which are occasions of risk or escalation - ecclesial activities, holiday times, family arrangements, sunday school, school and school milestones, baptisms, weddings and funerals - as just a few, are thought about by the care teams and the ecclesia takes responsibility for making wise decisions about these that do not continue the oppression, but which minimise the risk of further oppression and escalation.
Show compassion - go out of your way and communicate in person where possible, or at least on the phone. Avoid text messages. Avoid spiritual abuse.
Appoint care team members as the primary communication people to ensure there is sensitivity in all communications, and an understanding of the current situation - ensure they have knowledge and experience - this is no place for novices.
Avoid trying to communicate between the victim and person who uses abusive behaviours except when needed (e.g. for arranging custody handovers). Couching the needs of the victims as their requests to the abuser tends to suggest that if they comply they can expect a reward, for instance. Caring for the needs of one's partner or children, however, is something we have promised to do - it is not something we should be specifically rewarded for. Communicating the needs or demands of the person using abusive behaviours to the victim often is acting as a channel for the oppression and we risk being complicit in the abuse.
Instead, the ecclesia can couch the needs of the victim in the terms of what the ecclesia believes is needed to alleviate the oppression, and that the ecclesia would be disappointed if this was not recognised, and in some cases, may even take disciplinary action.
There is a common misconception that it is necessary to get the parties together so that they can resolve their difficulties, or so that she can make her needs clear to him. This usually will just enable the oppression and abuse. It is often a dangerous thing, and usually shows a lack of understanding of the dynamics of abusive relationships. It should be avoided.
Recognise the downtrodden and support them - they generally need encouragement to believe in themselves and regain confidence in their abilities like their ability to live independently, to parent, to manage money and to make other life decisions. We should support their brave decisions - decisions to separate, decisions not to be controlled, decisions to have trust in God that He will work in the life of the abuser and those supporting him to lead him to confession and repentance, and to regain her trust so that they can once again be heirs together of the Grace of Life.
SET A DIRECTION AND MAKE A PLAN
A plan provides context for everyone involved. It helps provide respect to the victims and the abuser. It doesn't mean confidentiality is breached, but the objectives and the approach that the brothers and sisters involved are using is appreciated by everyone and we can patiently wait for this prayerful work to bear fruit, by God's grace. Of course, when a plan is not working after a sufficient time, we should always be willing to reassess our approach.
A plan should provide for the needs of the victims. A plan should provide for the needs of the person using abusive behaviours. A plan needs commitment from all involved and suitable resources, perhaps even financial.
When an ecclesia lacks suitable resources (brothers and sisters who have experience with domestic violence situations, for instance; or, brothers and sisters with the necessary time to devote to the needs of others) they should be willing to look for external help - brothers and sisters from other ecclesias.
We hope this contribution to the subject of what ecclesias can do is helpful.
If you are reading this while considering how to deal with a case and you are unprepared contact us, or one of the Christadelphian counselling services on the Resources page.
If you are reading this and realise you are unprepared for such a situation if it arose in your ecclesia take the time to prioritise learning about domestic violence - listen to the discussion forum, read the discussion paper, read other of the blog articles on this site. Above all, participate in an open discussion of the problem amongst your ecclesia, families and friends.
By God's Grace may we be successful in relieving oppression as our Lord would have, and leading sinners to confession and repentance as he calls us to do.