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Three Lessons The Church Can Learn from the NFL

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This past month we all watched with horror the video where National Football League player Ray Rice punched his girlfriend in the face and dragged her unconscious body out of the elevator like a sack of potatoes. Day by day public outcry grew over the NFL’s initial treatment of the incident and the lack of serious sanctions against Rice. 

Thankfully public pressure prevailed and NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, reversed his position.  He was humble enough to issue a public apology. He said he was wrong in the way he handled the incident and committed to do better in the future regarding the entire National Football’s League handling of domestic abuse cases.


October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The Church as well as Christian counselors can learn three crucial lessons from the NFL.

1.  Abuse is just as real and prevalent in the church as it is in the NFL, and like the NFL, we have been unwilling to properly deal with it.  A recent survey conducted among Protestant Pastors on their awareness and handling of sexual and domestic abuse in their congregations showed that the majority of faith leaders (74%), underestimated the level of sexual and domestic violence experienced by people in their congregations.[1]

Even more distressing was that the survey found “62 percent of surveyed pastors who would help struggling couples with marriage counseling could 'potentially lead to devastating consequences for the safety and health of the victim and others in the home.”[2]

As a Church we have often valued the sanctity of marriage, the prohibition against divorce, the practice of male headship and submission of wives, over the safety and sanity of the individuals within that family. 

In a recent USA Today article, former General Manager of the Chicago Bears said, “Teams did not discipline players in ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of domestic violence incidents during his 30 years in the league, and he regrets his role in the failure to take action.”   Angelo said, “We knew it was wrong, but for whatever reason, it just kind of got glossed over.”[3]

In the same way the Church has glossed over the ugliness and reality of abuse within. It’s time we publically admit we’ve gotten it wrong.

2. Like the NFL, the Church has often protected the perpetrator rather than the victim. We have not created a culture where victims feel safe to disclose what’s happening at home and often when they do, we have not believed her. Nor have we validated her pain. 

Or, when we do believe her we foolishly encourage her to try harder to be more loving and submissive and that somehow God will use her suffering to bring her husband to his senses. We have failed to assess for her safety or teach her how to speak up, implement consequences, and stand up against the abuse in her home.

A number of women have told me that they begged someone in church leadership to speak to their husband about his destructive behaviors. Instead, we have failed to put into action the discipline principles that the Bible outlines for dealing with those who refuse to repent for their sin against others.  These passages call for increasing the pressure and accountability on one who will not take responsibility for their wrongdoing.  It calls for the church to sanction and distance themselves from someone who refuses to repent in the hopes that as they feel the pain and shame from the group, they will be willing to change.

Sadly, most churches do not implement discipline with destructive husbands and therefore a Christian woman is left without the social support and peer pressure that God provided.

In addition, like the NFL, we have not prioritized educating our leaders or equipping them to handle abusive situations wisely and biblically.  We have not educated parents, couples and teens on healthy and unhealthy relationships and how to spot early signs of abuse. This must change.

Martin Luther King said, “It was not the words of our enemies that hurt the most but the silence of our friends.” 

The NFL has committed to do better.  The church also can and must do a better job of providing real help to victim and abuser as well as educating our members about what abuse looks like in all its forms.

3.  After the video of the Ray Rice incident was released, social media began a tweeting frenzy. More and more people began to pay attention. They started to see that this single incident represented a much bigger problem throughout the NFL and society at large. 

It was peer pressure that got the NFL Commissioner’s attention.  It was peer pressure that refused to let abusive incident die in the news.  It was peer pressure that demanded Rice be disciplined. It was peer pressure that woke up a nation to the reality of domestic abuse.

There is a good deal of research on the effects of positive peer pressure. When bullies are confronted by strong men and told, “We don’t act that way around here,” or “We don’t treat our women that way,” it yields positive results. The apostle Paul tells the church, “don’t fellowship with certain kinds of people who say one thing but do another” (1 Corinthians 5:11-13). Paul is advocating peer pressure to help someone come to repentance.

I encouraged a client of mine to disclose to her small group the abuse she was experiencing at home.  When she did, the couples surrounded her and her husband with truth and love.  The men said to her husband, their friend, “We don’t treat our wives this way, it’s always wrong. No excuses.”  And they said to her, “If you are ever afraid, you call us, night or day.”  It was the love and support of the men from this group that kept her husband accountable and focused on learning new ways to manage his temper and how to love his wife.  She also felt heard, valued, supported and safe.

This month I am posting a massive amount of information, videos and articles during Domestic Violence Awareness Month on my website. Please tweet, share, and create a push of positive peer pressure to the church leaders in your sphere of influence in order to open their eyes in the hopes that this epidemic of violence at home can be stopped. 

We must exert consistent and relentless peer pressure for Christian leaders to do better.They need to prioritize educating themselves about abusive relationships and how to handle them.  We must refuse to allow them to minimize or cover-over abusive behaviors of any kind.  The Bible says, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly, defending the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8)

[1] Broken Silence: A Call for Churches to Speak Out, June 2014

[2] The Devastating Issue Pastor’s Aren’t Discussing

[3] USA Today Weekend, Friday October 10, 2014, Article NFL Silent on ‘hundreds’ of abuse cases, Angelo says.

Posted on March 27, 2013