Worship & nonViolence

I don’t remember how she found us. We were living in a large city. She was a complete stranger to us, but there she was at our door. She was bright, articulate, had a great job, and knew more than one language . . .

And her husband was physically and emotionally abusing her.

I remember feeling helpless as she described her situation. It was as if she had been trapped, literally, by her husband. I doubt that she married him with the belief that “Hey, I’m going to marry this guy even though he is going to abuse me.” In other words, domestic violence is not planned. As those who experience domestic abuse may tell you, it does not simply occur with those who are poor or of a certain race. It is no respecter of persons. No matter one’s education, occupation, social status, race, ethnicity, income, religion, and not even being of a certain gender eliminates the possibility of experiencing domestic violence. None of these characteristics is an inoculation preventing domestic violence . . . not even being a follower of Jesus Christ or being in full-time Christian ministry.

To be honest, I have no idea what happened to that woman. I regret that on that day, I simply heard this woman’s story prior to her drifting away into the throngs of people, but on this day, as a Christ-follower, a Pentecostal, and a minister, I want to address this difficult but real subject.

You see, she was not the only woman I have met who has experienced domestic violence, be it emotional and/or physical. Except for this aforementioned woman (of whom I do not know well enough to say), all of them have been Christ-followers. In one of our places of ministry, we followed a minister whose wife had called the police due to domestic violence but later dropped the charges. In other locations, a couple of women indicated that they did not realize they were experiencing domestic violence until they had stumbled upon stories or research in which they saw their own reflection.

Concerning the latter, these women’s experiences, from what I have read, were not the exception. I actually think it is common for many humans to believe, “Bad stuff just won’t happen to me,” which is argued in Ronnie Janoff-Bulman’s theory on shattered assumptions. When “stuff” begins to happen, we may tell ourselves a particular story to protect ourselves and/or avoid a contrasting, albeit more painful, reality. Then one day, the story, in which we worked so hard to find shelter, is shattered. Somehow . . . some way… we come in contact with an alternate story that forces us to see our lives through another lens, and . . . well . . . the story fits. While we may initially be shocked, saying, “No, it cannot be,” we find ourselves strangely drawn to this other view. The more we study it, the more we clearly see, “This describes me.”

Such an experience may occur in little or large ways in our lives. For instance, if you are a minister, your story about domestic violence may be, “Domestic violence does not transpire in my church,” or “It’s her own fault for not leaving.” The first story is similar to, “Bad stuff won’t happen to me,” which is an assumption about one’s own world that says, “It does not happen in my world”— that is, the church world. The second story is residual of a just world theory, which was proposed by Melvin Lerner. It holds that “When people do bad, bad stuff happens; when people do good, good stuff happens.” One version of this philosophy is how we criticize victims (be it sexual assault, domestic violence, loss, various traumas, etc). We think (implicitly or explicitly) that it was something the other person did that contributed to the assault, violence, loss, trauma, etc. Christ-followers, we are guilty of this when we say, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Translation: it’s her own fault for staying. Or when women hear, “You are sinning against your husband. If you would be kind to him and submit to him . . .” And . . . Yes . . . ministers still say these things . . . Just talk to a domestic abuse survivor in the church.

The situations of domestic violence are incredibly complicated.

In some cases, the woman has no money—she must leave with only the clothes on her back. How many of us would have the courage to do that? Others may have a little bit, but it is not enough on which they can live. Who will take them into their home? Fortunately, I have known some women who have said, “My friends have offered to help me.” Still others fear the stigma of divorce that exists in the church, which may generate for the woman shame and guilt for even thinking of such an option (see Domestic Abuse in the Church a ‘Silent Epidemic’).

Unfortunately, domestic violence may end . . . tragically. Leslie Morgan Steiner in her TED Talk says that the final act of violence for many women is death (see Why Domestic Violence Victims Don’t Leave). We do not like to think about that, do we? We prefer to believe that law enforcement or will programs protect the victims—another story we may tell ourselves to keep our world safe; the reality is: only so much can be done by these agencies.

If you are a minister, how often do your congregants hear about domestic violence?

Would you believe a congregant who told you, “I am experiencing domestic abuse”? In a study conducted by LifeWay in 2014 a survey of 1000 ministers, 42% rarely or never spoke through sermons or large group messages about domestic violence (see “Pastors Seldom Preach about Domestic Violence”). LifeWay published results of another study in February of 2017, which was conducted in 2016 of a survey of 1000 ministers. (see “Good Intentions, Lack of Plans, Mark Church Response to Domestic Violence”). The article notes the following: 47% of the ministers stated that they are not aware of domestic violence in their church, and 15% say there is no one who is a victim of domestic violence in their congregation while 37% say that one of their congregants has been a victim of domestic violence. As a Pentecostal, I was particularly interested in the following statement in the article:

“Lutheran (70 percent), Methodist (63 percent) and Presbyterian/Reformed pastors (62 percent) are most likely to believe domestic violence took place if a church member files for divorce and cites domestic violence as a cause. Baptist (49 percent) and Pentecostal (40 percent) pastors are less likely.”

At the same time, 87% of all the ministers surveyed strongly agreed with the statement, “a person experiencing domestic violence would find our church to be a safe haven.” The contrasting messages become apparent when one survivor is quoted in the article telling of how her church had to investigate to see if her report of domestic abuse was true. The issue is: the victim often does not have time to be investigated—the person needs help now. Besides, as the article stated, investigations place the survivor at more risk.

It saddens me that ministers of my tradition are more than likely to not believe the survivor. What does such disbelief communicate to the victim? My voice is not respected? My voice is not equal to the other? Does it point to our preferred assumption about the world, “Bad stuff does not happen in my world—my church”? For me, this communicates our theology. If we do not believe the survivor, are we communicating something about God? In the same way that God’s act of ministry of sending the Son conveyed God’s love, we need to ask, “What are we teaching about God through our own acts of ministry?”

As I ponder this, I turn to a biblical story of an act of ministry that defied the culture of the day, and in so doing, it says something powerfully about God to us as well as our own acts of ministry.

The account of which I am referring is in John 4 where Jesus is having a conversation with a Samaritan. This conversation is enlightening, particularly when one considers where John chooses to place it in his Gospel and when one understands, as Thomas Torrance asserts in Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, that both chapters 2 and 4 reveal Jesus Christ as the Temple. In chapter 2, we read of Jesus’ cleansing the Temple. This cleansing occurs after the writer informs us, “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (1:14) and after John the Baptist announces, “Look, the Lamb of God” (1:36). As Melissa Archer notes in a paper presented at the Society for Pentecostal Studies in 2017, just as God’s glory was in the tabernacle, so it is now in Jesus—he is the Temple. He also is the spotless Lamb so that unlike this Temple, he does not need to be cleansed. Since he is the Temple, no one will be hindered from worshiping God—no matter one’s race, ethnicity, or gender— an issue that John seems to continue to press in this conversation at a well in Samaria in the middle of the day.

We are first confronted with Jesus’ challenging of the culture in verse 4 with the phrase, “But he had to pass through Samaria,” indicating the unlikelihood of a Jew passing through Samaria. As scholars note, Jews often chose to travel around Samaria, up through the Transjordan in order to avoid contact with Samaritans.[1] The Samaritans descended from a remnant of Israelites who remained after the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C., who thereby married foreigners who had been brought to the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrian rulers; hence, there was an antagonistic relationship between the Jews and the “half-breeds,” the Samaritans. It seems that the phrasing “had to pass through,” then, implies that God is calling Jesus to go through this undesirable region.

Pentecostal Rodolfo Galvan Estrada, III helps contemporary readers grasp the undesirableness of this region in his paper presented at Society for Pentecostal Studies in 2017, “John 4:23–24: The Spirit and Ethnoracial Tension in Worship.” Estrada writes of the history of violence between these two groups. This violence particularly surfaces in verse 20:

“Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you people say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.

For Estrada, the words of the Samaritan woman portray “a memory of violence” and point to the trauma “that Jesus’ Jewish ancestors had inflicted upon her community” in 128 BC when a Jewish priest burned the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim in retaliation for the Samaritans supporting the Syrians in the war against the Jews in the 2nd century BC.[2] Estrada writes of this conversation:

“Jesus is urging Jewish and Samaritan communities to understand that worship in the Spirit is primarily characterized by the rejection of violence and anti–social behavior that their mountains have symbolized and ethnic relations fostered.”

In other words, true worship, worship in the Spirit, rejects any kind of violence.

While not all victims of domestic violence are women (1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the United States have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner; see National Coalition Against Domestic Violence), domestic violence, or violence of any kind, points towards asserting power over the other. This is unlike Jesus who does not exert power over humanity but demonstrates that the divine is with humanity, as seen in the hypostatic union in the person of Jesus; thus, by the divine becoming human, humanity is lifted up into the divine life.

Not only is this evidenced in the hypostatic union, we see this through Jesus’ own act of ministry to the Samaritan woman as mutuality is displayed. It is apparent in this chapter that both Samaritans and women have experienced others exercising power over them. Pentecostal Craig Keener notes that Jesus not only breaks a moral boundary but he also crosses gender and socioeconomic boundaries.[3] This is indicated in verse 9 by the woman’s words after Jesus asks her for a drink:

How can you—a Jew–ask me, a Samaritan woman, for water to drink?”

It is also seen in verse 27:

“Now at that very moment his disciples came back. They were shocked because he was speaking with a woman.”

A woman!?!?!

Keener explains, “Jewish men were to avoid unnecessary conversation with women,” and such behavior was “unbecoming for a scholar.”[4]

And . . . she is not just any woman but a Samaritan!?!?!

It has been suggested that Samaritan women were identified by the Jews to be “menstruants from their cradle” in Niddah 4.1.[5]  As J. Ramsey Michaels notes, this implies that they were always perceived to be unclean.[6] However, uncleanliness is not a concern for the divine-human one. As the divine Temple, there is no need to be concerned about being defiled by the unclean (such as were other priests or religious leaders; see 4:9;18:28) because Jesus cleanses others as the Lamb of God and is the Temple that does not need to be cleansed. He is the presence of God. The Fourth Gospel emphasizes in this chapter that in Jesus—the Tabernacle—the boundaries that are in play concerning who and where people may worship God are absent. The exertion of power over is not present in God’s presence. In essence, there is no violence in true worship that is done in spirit and in truth . . . worship that is done with our whole being  . . . in all we say and do, not just on Sunday morning with other congregants. Can this be said among our congregants? In our sacred spaces of our relationships?

Today, may I be one to participate in Christ’s ministry of mutuality, of respect, of dignity, of protection, of safety, of kindness . . . saying “No” to domestic violence and sexual violence no matter what history has practiced, be it in the culture or in the church. May I worship in spirit and truth with my whole being, living out the coming of your kingdom, . . . right here  . . . on the earth . . . as it is in heaven.


[1] See W. Hall, Harris III, “John,” in NET Bible®, First Edition Notes, edited by W. Hall Harris, III, et al. Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies, 1996–2005. CD-ROM, John 4:4, n 7; Gary Burge, The NIV Application Commentary: John, The NIV Application Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 140. Herman Ridderbos, The Gospel According to John, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans, 1997), 153, 72.

[2] W. Hall Harris III, “John,” in NET Bible®, First Edition Notes, edited by W. Hall Harris III et al. (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies, 1996–2005), CD-ROM, fn8.

[3] Keener, Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003, 585.

[4] Ibid., 596.

[5] Niddah,” Come and Hear, http://www.come-and-hear.com/niddah/niddah_31.html#31b_45 (accessed April 26, 2013).

[6] J. Ramsey Michaels, The Gospel of John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, edited by Gordon Fee (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans, 2010), 239-40, n. 35.

The photo is provided by Pixabay


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s