Harmony in the Home

Family Violence Committee
Convention of Atlantic Baptist Churches

If you hold to my teaching you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. John 8:31b-32

The family is an institution ordained by God and designed for the care and nurture of His children. In modern Canadian society the family is confronted with many pressures both from without and within. Confusion exists in defining roles and responsibilities of family members in the current changing social, political, and economic environment.

The Family Violence Committee is pleased to provide this Bible study exploring God’s design for marriage and family life. We cannot hope to advocate for healthy family living without a clear understanding of Scriptural principles. This study is designed to facilitate the search for God’s truth in these areas–to examine Scripture carefully and honestly, guided by the Holy Spirit and motivated by a sincere desire to live our lives in accordance with God’s will and purpose.

As you undertake this Bible study, whether individually or as part of a group, we encourage you to do so with an open mind and with the prayer that God’s Spirit will be your counsellor and guide. We pray that you will be able to set aside cultural and ideological biases which may cloud the issues and distort the truth.

Most of the study was written by Janet Atwood. We are grateful for her willingness to use her gifts in this area for the cause of Christ. Chapter 3, “A Biblical Perspective on Marriage and Family Life”, was written by Dr. Elizabeth Legassie. Rev. Doug Hapeman edited the manuscript and provided the design and layout. All members of the Family Violence Committee made a valuable contribution during the development of the project.

We acknowledge the staff at the Convention office for their cheerful assistance in the production and distribution of this resource. Additional copies of the Bible study, other materials prepared by the Family Violence Committee, and related resources may be obtained by contacting the Convention office (506) 635-1922.

Dr. Lois P. Mitchell, Chairperson, Family Violence Committee

This Bible study looks at Scripture as it pertains to the home. It provides a setting for discussion of God’s purpose for relationships in the home. The study makes a specific focus on issues of domestic violence and abuse, exploring how the misuse and/or misunderstanding of Scripture have supported a cultural tradition which allows or even encourages family violence.

Through the opportunities for dialogue, participants will come to a better understanding of the home and in particular issues of abuse in relationships. The study seeks to show the home to be, as God intended, the first place of our witness and ministry for Him.

The purposes of the study are:

  • To clarify the biblical perspective on marriage and family;
  • To help church leaders facilitate discussion of family violence;
  • To bring an awareness of the reality and dimensions of family violence in Christian homes;
  • To encourage participants to examine patterns in their own homes;
  • To create a climate of understanding through small group encounters in which participants may share their pain and find support;
  • To raise awareness of the Christian community’s responsibility to provide a ministry with victims and abusers;
  • To motivate and equip those who desire to be involved in a healing ministry with hurting families.

Note to Leaders

The material can be led by either lay or professional leaders. It is advisable to have a small group from four to eight members.

For effective interaction and discussion leaders should be familiar with some ground rules of small groups. Confidentiality is of particular importance.

Participants are encouraged to have their own copy of the study. If this is not practical, leaders are urged to provide participants with photocopies of the question sheets. People are more likely to address a paper than risk offending the leader. For example, saying “I don’t like the way this is worded” is less threatening than disagreeing with the leader who raises the question.

The study does not include statistical information or definitions of abuse except in a general sense. For such information leaders should consult other publications, e.g. Understanding the Dynamics of Family Violence: A Ministry Handbook, published by the Convention of Atlantic Baptist Churches. It can be obtained by contacting the Convention office at 506-635-1922.

The introductory material in each chapter is background information, which should be read by participants prior to the meeting. It is not intended to be read at the meeting.

Many questions are included with each lesson. There may be too many for one session, and in consultation with the group, the leader is at liberty to carry over some questions to another session.

Unless otherwise noted, Scriptures used are from the New Revised Standard version.

Special note: Should it become apparent that a case of abuse is being suffered or perpetrated by a participant, leaders are urged to encourage the person to seek expert counselling. There is a legal obligation to report any suspicion of child abuse. In the meantime the leader and members of the group should remain helpful and supportive. It is important for the individual not to feel abandoned by the group. At the same time, however, the group cannot be the primary source of counsel.

Why a Bible Study on Family Violence

Grim statistics indicate that family violence has been and continues to be a problem of epidemic proportions. Rapid changes in society and the erosion of moral values make today’s families increasingly vulnerable. Christian families are not immune. Because the misuse of Scripture may be at times a contributing factor to family violence, the church has a responsibility to take a more decisive leadership role in ministry with victims and abusers.

A History of Family Violence

Family violence is not a modern day phenomenon. It has been a part of history, since the very first family when Cain killed Abel. Secular history and Old Testament Scripture reveals a patriarchal culture which perpetuated attitudes of male domination or “ruling over” (usually women and children). This patriarchal system became institutionalized in both civic and religious circles. By virtue of gender, a man could take precedence over women and children.

This teaching has been espoused by some Christian writers in books relating to the family. Mary Vander Vennen writes,

Girls are socialized to be responsible for the feelings and well being of the family. In church and in most Christian literature they are taught that the ideal woman is receptive, obedient, serving others quietly preferably behind the scenes. And–here is the irony–this is based on and justified by appeals to certain passages of Scripture. Perhaps rather than wonder how abuse can exist in the church in numbers not too different from society at large, we should be surprised that there isn’t more.(1)

The Nature of Family Violence

Family violence is a pervasive problem that takes many forms and knows no boundaries. The abuse hurts women, men, and children of every age, race, religion, and socio-economic level. Unless the injuries from the violence are so severe that they cannot be hidden, abuse often remains hidden in the privacy of the home, which ironically is intended to be a safe environment in which to live and grow.

Family violence can include physical, sexual, psychological, emotional, social, or financial abuse or neglect. The most vulnerable in our society, those without power, tend to become the victims. Wife battering, child abuse, and elder abuse are the broad categories used to describe the most common dimensions of family violence, but abuse can also be expressed in subtle verbal forms such as sexual innuendos, judgemental remarks, blaming expressions or put downs that undermine a person’s self-esteem. This verbal abuse is expressed in many contexts, and yet it often goes unchallenged within relationships.

The effects of family violence may progress through succeeding generations. An abused child may grow up to be an abusive parent. Emotional and sexual wounds do not leave visible scars, but they go on hurting and disabling the life of a victim long after any physical injuries have healed.

Family violence is any form of abusive behaviour that violates the dignity and respect of a person, young or old, who is part of the family. Christian families are not immune. Statistics indicate that family violence among Christian (even Baptist) families mirrors the ratio reflected in the general population.

Societal Changes Impact the Family

The technological revolution is changing the home and society. While it brings many advantages for the practical side of life, it also raises fundamental ethical and moral questions that we can no longer evade–questions for which we have no easy answers nor substantive experience or background from which to draw.

As the post-Christian world goes through change, traditions and values held for centuries are increasingly questioned and rejected. It is an awkward time for the family. Simplistic answers requiring unquestioned obedience are not always satisfactory.

The rising tensions in society bring about complex and difficult problems for which, in many situations, there are no obvious solutions and little available support. In his book, “Families at the Crossroads”, Rodney Clapp explains,

We work with one set of people, pray with another, and shop and play in all kinds of neighbourhoods and communities. For many nuclear families extended family live at such a distance that only empathetic telephone support is available.(2)

Deep long standing relationships become rare. Families without good support are left to flounder on their own resources. Such a confusing, fluctuating society puts enormous pressure on the family. It is no surprise that such pressures often result in abuse and violence to members in a family.

A Silence in the Church

The church often has failed to deal effectively with the problems of abuse and family violence. A number of reasons exist for this history of ineffectiveness.

  • Christians generally behave no differently in their intimate relationships than do non-Christians.
  • Present leadership may lack the necessary training, knowledge, and motivation to deal with family violence.
  • The entrenchment of patriarchal doctrines, practices, and theological stands to which pastors, church leaders, and theologians adhere makes any review risky and unpleasant.

By its adherence to patriarchal doctrines and its silence on the issues of abuse, the church has been accused of condoning family violence and even perpetuating its cycle. As long as the church continues its silence, it allows the abused family and those who are witness to it, a damaged and incorrect model of God. This erodes trust in the church and its credibility to deal with important issues.

A Ray of Hope

In recent years some denominations, including the Convention of Atlantic Baptist Churches, have begun to examine the prevalence of abuse experienced by church members. Present church leadership is demonstrating a greater sensitivity to the issue of male dominance and its implications within the home. It is an important beginning which hopefully will lead to a significant healing ministry for the family in the future.

This Bible study is an attempt to show concern for the issue of family violence so that Christians, by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, may become instruments of healing and hope to those who suffer. It is hoped that it may be a tool to help break the church’s silence, enabling it to become a place of compassion and support to those in hurtful relationships.

It has been written with the prayer that the Scriptures and historical traditions will be understood in such a light that they will no longer be found as a justification for oppression but as a means of bringing freedom that will bring “good news” for all of God’s family.

A Historical Perspective of Family Organization

Through the generations the shape of the family has changed by the culture and social pressures of the times. In the ancient world the concept of “family” was more of a clan, including cousins, aunts, and uncles as much as brothers and sisters. In more recent times the “traditional family” has been thought of as a father (bread winner) and mother (homemaker) with two children. The family continues to evolve as women increasingly pursue professions outside the home.

The Family in the Old Testament

The Old Testament family was a multi-generational group of relatives and servants living together. Such households could number more than 50 members (according to Genesis 46:22, Jacob’s family numbered 66). An Israelite family would appear to us as a small village in which the members lived with barely no separation between their private life and their public world.

The Hebrew family was comprised of multiple groups at whose head was a patriarch. He may have had several wives each with children, as well as concubines with children. Servants and their families lived in the household. It was also possible that the sons of the father might be married and living on the paternal estate.

Within this extended structure members relied upon each other for mutual aid and support, which was vital for their safety, economic and emotional security. Anyone cast out (as Hagar was in Genesis 21) lacked protection and had no means to law and justice.

The words “family”, “house”, and “household” as used in the Old Testament do not represent the same ideas as the terms do today. In Hebrew society the “mishpahah” (family) was the fundamental social unit. The family was located within a larger “house.” These houses in turn were united by marriage and kinship to form clans (Joshua 7:17). Several clans constituted a tribe, and the collective tribes made up the nation of Israel.

In the Old Testament society the “family” was relatively less important than the clan or tribe. Within this complex structure it is impossible to discuss the line between the family in our sense of the term and the “mishpahah” or “bayith” of the Old Testament. Expectations of family were obviously different than we have today.

Marriages usually were arranged by the father with a bride-price (dowry) offered by the groom’s family to seal the covenant between the families. The dowry established prestige for the husband and transferred authority over the woman to him. (Genesis 34; 1 Samuel 18:25; Leviticus 27). Arranged marriages served economic, political, and social purposes which were more important than any romantic objectives.

Israelite marriages were regularly polygamous. An Israelite could marry as many wives as he could afford. Consequently, the rich had a large number of wives (See Gideon in Judges 8:30; 2 Samuel 3:2-5; 5:13 and Solomon in 1 Kings 11:1-4). Poor men contented themselves with one wife although cases were not rare in which a common man had two wives.

Theoretically all wives stood on equal footing among themselves with reference to their husband. In reality the relationship was different. Barreness, loss of youthful charm, and other blemishes not only robbed the wife of the love of her husband but also drew ridicule and abuse from the other wives (for example, read about Peninnah the rival of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1).

Virginity before marriage on the part of the woman was mandatory. Absolute fidelity was expected since the man obtained his wife under strict and fixed regulations. If she was found not to be chaste, she was burned (Genesis 38:24) or stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:13-21).

The Family in Puritan Times

In Puritan times sentimentality was not a primary value for those who chose spouses. Affection was expected to develop after the wedding, not before. Puritans were prone to emphasizing the danger of inordinately loving spouse or children in the fear of putting a relationship higher than their love for Christ.

In the rearing of children, Puritans were capable of a strict rigidity. It was a common belief that after the age of two a child’s salvation required that its will be broken. Some of their parental disciplines may be considered by some today as being excessive and abusive. Christians today generally do not think the Puritan model is an acceptable blueprint for the family.

The Family in the Industrial Revolution

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, households were predominately places in which husbands, wives, and children worked together. Generally, in farm settings, they worked collectively to produce what they consumed. It was a self-sufficient economy where the survival of the household depended upon the involvement and participation of each member.

Once the Industrial Revolution began, people went out from the home setting to work in factories and businesses. Producing products for others to consume, they earned wages which enabled them to buy the consumables they needed.

These changes brought significant changes to the family. Husbands left the home to earn a living for their wives and children. The home lost its setting as a self-sufficient unit of production where the members lived and worked together and evolved more into a centre serving as a retreat from the world.

Stripped of economic and political functions, families were left to concentrate more on relational needs and emotional support. It brought a challenge to families to love and trust one another and live in harmony in the private world of their home.

The Family in Today’s World

As the Industrial Revolution dramatically influenced the family in the nineteenth century, events taking place today are having equally as profound effect on the family.

In the medical field life as we know it is being altered. Reproductive technologies enable conception to take place outside the bodies of those who have produced the sperm and egg. Genetic engineering is being used to correct disorders and diseases even before birth. While used for great good, these same technologies are raising unprecedented ethical considerations.

The information highway technology is bringing rapid changes to the work place. With the rise of home offices, more wives and mothers of young children are becoming part of the work force by working from their homes. This makes additional impact on the roles of male and female, adults and children.

Though society has changed the way families function, views toward the family have been affected at a much slower pace. Margaret Eichler in her book “Families in Canada Today” suggests that the view of the family as a unified structure rather than a diverse structure largely ignores recent changes. For instance, when people remarry the new marriage is regarded as basically the same as a first marriage which is then analysed in terms which were developed for a first marriage. This view allows ugly aspects of relationships, like wife battering or child abuse and incest, to be ignored.(3)

It is only within the last hundred years that wife assault has been considered illegal. Prior to that time laws regulated the extent to which men could physically punish their wives. One example of this was the “Rule of Thumb” termed in 1767 by the English codifier of common law, William M. Blackstone, which permitted husbands to enforce domestic discipline in their homes as long as they used a switch or stick no broader than the width of their thumb. It was applied not only to wives but also to children and apprentices. All members of the household were seen as property to do with as the man saw fit.

In Canada it was not until 1968 that cruelty became grounds for divorce in the Federal Divorce Act. Prior to this date a woman would have to have visible proof that severe physical/mental abuse was endangering her life before she could claim for alimony. An Ontario Chief Justice wrote,

a husband may subject his wife daily and even hourly to such treatment as makes her life a veritable hell on earth and she is without remedy if she is robust enough to suffer it all without impairment of her physical health or her mentality.(4)

Our culture is in the midst of a debate about the structure and function of the family and the role of men and women within that structure. This change is most evident in the personal struggles of people who try to determine a path through an area they thought was well charted but where suddenly the sign posts have all disappeared. How should men and women complement each other? Does the complement insist on the subordination of one sex to another?

In a pluralistic, post modern world the church and society will inevitably hold different perspectives. Christians, however, cannot ignore the rapid social changes that give rise to such debates nor cling to a flawed historical perspective of what they perceive to be a biblical “traditional family.”

Christians must view the home and its members through the teaching of Jesus. God created the family to be a witness to His love and sovereignty over our lives. Through obedience, sacrifice, and the power of His Holy Spirit, we must resolve to bring each family member into a knowledge and understanding of His kingdom.

A Biblical Perspective on Marriage and Family

In the very first chapter of the Bible we have the makings of a family: “Male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number'” (Genesis 1:27b-28a {NIV}).

The Beginnings of Family

In the first chapter of Genesis we read that God created man and woman to be in relationship with each other. From reading Genesis chapters one and two, we learn much about God’s intent for the relationship between man and woman. Together they were to have dominion over other living creatures (Genesis 1:28a), they were to be companions (Genesis 2:18), and their relationship was to be one of joy and delight (see Adam’s joyful exclamation when presented with Eve in Genesis 2:23).

The couple relationship was to be the primary relationship, taking priority over all other human relationships, including the individual’s relationship with hisher parents (Genesis 2:24). Couples were to be shamelessly naked with each other (Genesis 2:25). It becomes clear that God’s original intent was for a man and woman to be in intimate relationship with each other.

God’s Intent: Mutuality, Equality and Intimacy

From the first two chapters of Genesis we realize that both male and female were created by God in his image (Genesis 1: 27) and both differed from the animals in that they were living souls (Genesis 2:7 KJV and Genesis 2:18,23). They were created different, one male and one female, yet they were created equal. God’s intent was that they be equal. Together they were to rule over the other living creatures and together they were to have children.

Equality between husband and wife may be obscured in our thinking because of the term “help meet” (KJV) or “helper” (NIV) found in Genesis 2:18b. The confusion clears when we realize (as noted by E.A. Speiser in the Anchor Bible) that the Hebrew complement for this term literally means “alongside him” or “corresponding to him”.(5)

Equality and mutuality between man and woman need not be questioned when we realize that the woman was created to be alongside of the man as one corresponding or like him in that she, like he, is a living soul created in the image of God.

Equality and mutuality in the husband and wife relationship flow as a recurring theme throughout the first two chapters of Genesis. The last verse (Genesis 2:25) makes it clear that intimacy is the result of such equality and mutuality in the couple relationship. Genesis 2:25 says they were shamelessly naked with each other, implying that they were both physically and emotionally naked and vulnerable to each other.

Intimacy is only possible when there is equality and mutuality in a relationship. One up/one down does not allow such shameless nakedness and vulnerability to occur. When one partner is more up or has more authority than the other, then the down partner has little choice and limited power in the relationship. True intimacy comes from a mutual sharing of power which places neither partner above nor below the other. Such equality and mutuality is rooted in the fact that God created both man and woman in His image–both are his children! Such equality and mutuality leads to true intimacy: God’s intent for marriage! “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31a {NIV}).

Part of God’s plan was for man and woman to have children “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28a {NIV}). God’s plan was that a husband and wife be intimate and sexual with each other. Despite the fact that the media sometimes bombards us with inappropriate sexual messages as a means of advertising products and despite the fact that some people believe that sex, even within a marriage relationship, is dirty and sinful, God’s message to the original couple was clear. In the context of an equal, mutual, and intimate marriage relationship sex is a gift of God to be enjoyed.

Effects of the Curse: Male Domination

The sin which led to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden was disobedience to God. The story is familiar and the consequences of the disobedience are familiar as well. Because the woman and the man failed to remain faithful and obedient to God, among other consequences, their relationship with each other changed significantly. A part of the curse God placed on Eve was an imposed hierarchy in the husband-wife relationship. In Genesis 3:16b we read, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (NIV). The equality, mutuality, and intimacy which had been God’s original intent were marred.

There are some who use this consequence of the fall as justification for a power imbalance between husband and wife. This is the same, however, as suggesting we should not use machinery in our gardening/farming because God intended for the toil to be painful.

The verses in Genesis 3, referred to as “the curse”, were not God’s intent. They were consequences indicative of how selfish disobedience to Him alters his perfect plan for us, including his perfect plan for marriage and family. God’s intent was clear in Genesis chapters one and two. He wants us to be in relationship/fellowship with him and with each other.

God’s Redemption from the Effects of the Curse

God is patient and loving. Following Genesis 3, the balance of the biblical record is the story of God’s attempt to bring humanity back into relationship with Him and with each other. He did this through His personal involvement with individuals such as: Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

His involvement continued through Moses and Aaron, as He guided His chosen people and gave them the Law which was intended to govern their relationships. The laws were misused. They led to self-righteousness and became a source of dispute. God sent prophet after prophet to the people of Israel. Success was limited, but persistently God called His people to Himself. God took the ultimate step in revealing Himself to humanity by giving His Son to die on a cross for the world’s sins.

The reason for such persistent and continuous revelation was that God wanted to reclaim His creation for Himself. The entire Biblical account is the account of how God created (Genesis 1 & 2), how man and woman disobeyed God causing God’s creation to be cursed (Genesis 3), and God’s ongoing and progressive revelation of Himself in order to bring an end to the curse and its effects (Genesis 4 – Revelation 22). In the very last chapter of the Bible, John’s prophetic words tell us that: “no longer will there be any curse” (Rev. 22:3a {NIV}).

Implications for Couple Relationships

As Christians we live in the world and the effects of the curse touch our lives. Because of God’s love, revealed to us through Jesus Christ, we may be set free from the effects of the curse. As Christians, individually, in our couple relationships, and in our families we are called to look beyond the way of the world which lives under the curse. We are called to a better way–God’s way. God’s way for couple relationships, as revealed in Genesis 1 and 2, is mutuality, equality, and intimacy.

By His example, Jesus, showed that women were of value. He healed women, He conversed with women, He defended women and He had women among His followers. By the standards of His day, Jesus showed great respect for women. In His teaching Jesus had little to say about marriage directly, however, He did stress God’s original intent for permanence in marriage when He responded to the Pharisees about divorce (Matthew 19:1-9; Mark 10:1-9).

In Ephesians 5:21-33, Paul uses the example of Christ and the Church as a means of describing the relationship between a husband and wife. The relationship described is one in which wives submit to and respect their husbands and in which husbands love their wives as Christ loved the Church. For a husband to love his wife as Christ loved the church means that he must be willing to give up his life for her. According to Paul all this is to happen in the context of mutual submission–both husband and wife submitting to each other out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21).

The issue of headship, which is sometimes stressed and promoted on the basis of this passage of Scripture, is a source of confusion unless one understands that the Greek word which is translated “head” in verse 23 means “source” (as in head water) rather than denoting authority. Women are to submit to their husbands; husbands are to submit to their wives out of reverence for Christ. The difficulty with the traditional view of headship is that it has been misused to keep women subservient and in some cases to justify the emotional and/or physical abuse of women within the couple relationship. This is far from mutual submission and is not as God intended for the couple relationship. Mutual submission means that a husband and wife care about each other, respect each other, and allow each other to think, feel, and choose as persons in their own right. There are not attempts to dominate and control. With mutual submission there is respect and love, as each one regards the other’s needs.

Implications for Parenting

The Ephesians 5 passage continues to chapter 6 where Paul writes about the relationship between parents and children. In verse 4 fathers (parents) are cautioned not to provoke their children to wrath but to bring them up in the Lord. “Bring them up in the Lord” means training our children with basic, fundamental life skills–taking them from zero and helplessness and preparing them for adulthood and responsibility.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 states that we are to teach diligently our children about God and His commands. We are to talk of God’s ways when we walk on the road, when we get up, and when we lie down. In other words we are to live and model our faith daily before our children, thereby teaching them.

The first part of Ephesians 5:4 provides us with a caution. We are not to provoke our children to wrath, by angering them to the point that they become bitter and full of hate. Our task is to teach and train rather than to punish our children. We must distinguish between punishment and correction. Punishment is generally negative in its approach (put-downs, name calling, infliction of pain) and results in a lowering of self-esteem. On the other hand, correction which may include painful consequences is applied positively with respect, support, and encouragement.

When our goal is to teach our children we are in line with Paul’s injunction to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21 {NIV}). We are able to respect our children as the special gifts they are from God. Our role as stewards, rather than owners, of these gifts becomes more clear. We learn to use the “rod” (Proverbs 13:24) as it was used by the good shepherd and the rod becomes a tool for guidance and a source of comfort and security (Psalm 23:4).

Reclaiming God’s Way Through the Holy Spirit

We live in a less than perfect world, a world where spouses do not always love and respect each other, a world where sometimes spouses physically and/or emotionally abuse each other, and where children are neglected and abused sometimes to the point of emotional or physical death. In this less than perfect world in which we live, those of us who claim to be Christians may be tempted to think more of ourselves than of others. More often than we like to admit, we fail to follow God’s plan for our marriages and families. We frequently mess up, because we want our own way and want power and control over others. This sin too often permeates our marriages and families!

God has shown the better way, and it is possible for us to have marriages and families which are enriched by God’s blessing. When we humble ourselves before God, our partners, and families, we open ourselves to resources beyond our own strength. As we allow the Holy Spirit to live and work in us, the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control) become evident.

Because we are free to submit to one another in Christ, we no longer worry about such things as hierarchy in our relationships. As we seek more to serve than to be served, we value each other (regardless of gender or age) as people created in the image of God. When the Holy Spirit lives and works in us, love, respect, and mutual submission permeate our relationships–most significantly our relationships with spouse and children.

Ground Rules for Good Leadership

The basis of good leadership is the ability to communicate well with others. Good communication is not a matter merely of telling people what they ought to know. It is a two-way conduit through which information and meaning are conveyed and received by individuals. Thoughts and ideas are mutually exchanged in a way which requires a willingness to relate to the other person’s point of view without losing one’s own devotion to a perspective.

Exchanging meaningful thoughts begins with an initiator, who may or may not present hisher thoughts very well. Responsibility also lies in the ears of the listener who provides some sort of response indicating the message has been received and comprehended. One feels bad when messages are sent but not heard or so poorly absorbed that the response indicates apathy or lack of interest.

Communication at the best of times takes effort and skill. People cannot assume that messages sent are automatically picked up and understood as they were initially intended. In the long run, communication is not measured so much by what is said, but by what is done in response.

Guidelines for Good Communication

Many books are written by experts in small group dynamics and communication and may be useful for further study. The following practical section gives a brief outline of some basic guidelines which will facilitate meaningful communication among group members.

Don’t Probe

There is a line between listening and probing. Listening allows people to say all they want to say. Probing may force people to say what they do not intend to say. It takes initiative away from the speaker. To ask “Why?” may force people to reveal information that they are either not ready or not comfortable to share. “Would you care to explain further?” is gentler and leaves the initiative with the speaker.

When a leader notices members are being probed, she/he should intervene by asking how they might like to answer, or if they would like to pass on this question. Encourage sharing by giving speaker feedback that will allow the speakers to perceive whether or not they have been correctly understood.

Don’t Judge

There will be times when people do not agree with one another. The question is not how to avoid confrontation, but how to manage it. Group members who come from different backgrounds and theologies may disagree, but they also can come to a perspective which says “I don’t agree with your idea, but I affirm you as a person.”

Blunt responses convey judgement and stifle open sharing. When confronted with blunt responses, speakers are likely to move from saying what is in their heart to saying safe things they think people want to hear. Find words and tone that support and affirm people, allowing them the freedom to think as they choose.

Don’t Interrupt

Know when to listen and when to speak. This practice requires sensitivity and is easier to say than to do! The greatest gift we can offer to group members is our ears and many times it is all that they need!

A good ground rule is to allow all members an opportunity to speak before anyone speaks for a second time. This may seem structured, but the goal is to encourage all to participate. Some may be prone to monopolize the discussion and will need to be controlled, so the shy, quiet members have the opportunity to share from their experience. Once the group becomes accustomed to everyone’s involvement and recognizes its importance, the structured aspect will naturally dissolve.

An occasion may arise when a person needs to share all her/his pain and feelings. Like a river overflowing its banks, everything pours out. At such a time, you will need to change the agenda so you can listen and minister to her/his needs.

Don’t Advise

Advice is cheap and denies members the opportunity of personal discovery. It is not unusual for the person offering advice to be the one who is least informed. When a leader notices that advice is being given, she/he should intervene, asking members to speak from their own experiences so that group members are free to make their own decisions on the matter.

Don’t Avoid Silence

Silence is important and gives people an opportunity to think through what has been said and their responses. Don’t be afraid of it, encourage it. Don’t rush in to fill the silence with words. When people in the group share in thoughtful, comfortable silence, a communion occurs which can build real community. James 1:19 states, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak” and is still the best advice going!

Be Positive

It is not easy for people to make themselves vulnerable in group sharing. If they are confronted with a response that sounds like a frontal attack, e.g.”I can’t understand why you believe that!”, it will discourage their willingness to be open the next time. Respond with phrasing that affirms and sounds positive without compromising your own ideas. A response might be, “I guess I never looked at it that way before. The way I see it…” and keep to your own experience.

Be Personal

Speak using the first person singular. When you use the word “I”, you own what you are saying. Since it is your personal experience you can speak with confidence. Asking shy members to speak from their own experience gives them the confidence boost they need to get started.

All inclusive words such as “we” and “they” lead the conversation to generalities and interferes with group bonding and trust. Generalities not only disown responsibility for what is said but depersonalize the message to the extent that the listener loses interest. It results in the message not being heard.

Be Honest

Take the risk to share what is on your heart, honestly expressing how you feel. Speak about what is real for you and share yourself as a total person. When sharing the Scriptures, be honest about your faith and your doubts. Honesty helps others to be open and honest too. When confidentiality is observed it builds trust among group members.

Be Punctual

As a leader, encourage members to be punctual. Tardiness gives the message that you don’t care about the group or the study. A commitment to punctuality will affirm that people not only want the group to work, but that being present and available for each other is important to them.

Be Free To Pass

Members must not be forced to answer questions. Generally people will wish to pass now and then, and on such occasions they should be given the right without question. When a member continually exercises the right to pass, the leader may want to visit with her/him outside of the meeting time to find out if there is a deeper reason for the reluctance to share.

Be An Active Listener

William Barclay lists a number of ways people can listen. He writes,

There is the indifferent hearing, the disinterested hearing, the critical hearing, the sceptical hearing, the cynical hearing, but the only hearing that really matters is the hearing that listens, eagerly, then believes what is said and responds with action.(6)

Active listening is listening with your whole being, and after registering the message, responding to the speaker in an affirming manner. It allows the speaker to finish the message before evaluation and response are made. Active listening seeks to comprehend what is being said and to understand the person behind the ideas.

Mentally arguing with the speaker interferes with active listening. It involves making assumptions and passing judgements and diminishes the listener’s objectivity. Formulating responses while the speaker is still talking causes listeners to lose their concentration with the speaker.

Most members feel involved and important when talking. Active listening requires conquering the tendency to talk and opens listeners to messages that will broaden their understanding. Here are five ways to form active listening skills:

  • Identify with the person’s feelings by asking, “How did that make you feel?” or saying, “You must feel angry…good…sad…about that.”
  • Indicate attention to what is being said with expressions such as “That’s good” or “Oh, too bad.”
  • Convey support with comments such as “May I pray for you in this matter” or “It is okay to feel scared in such a situation.” (If you make a commitment to pray then do so. Asking for permission suggests that you are serious and intend to follow through.)
  • Respond with non-judgemental acceptance by answering with responses that focus on what occurred and not whether we thought it was right or wrong. Helpful responses are ones which focus upon behaviours, not personality, e.g. “When you were talking just now your face lit up.”
  • Avoid probing. This is especially important in a hospital visiting situation. Do not ask a person for details and reasons they may not be comfortable relating. Allow people their own agenda for what they want to reveal.

The goal of active listening is offering ourselves to help them feel accepted and understood in a relationship where they are respected and prized as persons.

Be Accountable

Accountability is a two way street. The group needs to be accountable for its members and members need to be accountable to the group. If the group makes a promise to pray for a member, the individual must be able to rely on that promise. On the other hand, the member must be accountable to the group for its ministry.

For example, in a certain group a man expressed how he would like to read the Bible from cover to cover. Other members picked up on the comment and asked his permission to pray that he would find the time to do so. They agreed to ask him at the next meeting how he made out. At the next meeting he reported that the half hour bus trip to work each morning was the only time he found. He gained the courage to bring out his Bible on a crowded bus which gave him new opportunities to express his faith. Through this situation God brought new encouragement and growth to his faith.

Maintain Confidentiality

What is shared in confidence with the group must never become public information. Breaking confidences is to engage in gossip. This kind of indiscretion denigrates people and results in broken relationships and disharmony in the group. No matter what the temptation, do not retell someone else’s story!

Confidentiality builds trust within a group. When members have confidence that what they choose to reveal will not be repeated outside of the meeting, it gives them courage to be open and honest with the group and themselves.

Leaders will need to insist on a commitment to confidentiality from everyone and remind members of their responsibility to keep whatever they have heard to themselves.

  1. Factors In The Christian Family That Contribute to Abuse. Paper by Mary Vander Vennan. Presented at Conference on Abuse and Related Issues. McMaster Divinity College. 1993.
  2. Rodney Clapp: Families At The Crossroads. Inter Varsity Press. 1993.
  3. Margaret Eichler. Families in Canada Today. Second Edition. Gage Education Publishing Company. 1988.
  4. Sinclair, Deborah. Understanding Wife Assault. A Training Manual for Counsellors and Advocates. Toronto. Family Violence Program, Ministry of Community and Social Services. 1985. 5. Speiser, E.A. The Anchor Bible: Genesis. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1964. p. 17.
  5. William Barclay. The Daily Study Bible, The Letter to the Hebrews Welch Publishing Company Inc. Revised 1976. p. 38.


Harmony in the Home is a publication of the Convention of Atlantic Baptist Churches. The material was written and produced by the Family Violence Committee, which is a special committee of the Social Action Commission.

The Social Action Commission is supported through the United in Mission Fund. Your prayerful and generous gifts to United in Mission enable Atlantic Baptists to address moral and social issues.

Dedicated to those who have been wounded by family violence and to those in the church who seek to bring healing and harmony in the home.

Family Violence Committee
Dr. Lois P. Mitchell, Chair
Rev. Doug Hapeman
Janet Atwood
Dr. Elizabeth Legassie

For additional copies write to:

Convention of Atlantic Baptist Churches
1655 Manawagonish Road
Saint John, New Brunswick E2M 3Y2

Printed in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada.
January 1996



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