It's a fact of life for clergy: They never know when ordinary conversations will turn into potentially tense encounters that some believers consider "counseling."
Many pastors have been trained, to some degree, in "pastoral counseling." Some may even have professional credentials. All of them face the challenge of handling tricky, dangerous moments when discussions of sin, repentance, forgiveness, prayer and healing turn into issues of safety and law.
Domestic violence is, of course, a bright red line. That often means there are complex faith issues linked to divorce looming in the background.
"Things have greatly improved in the past five to 10 years," said Denny Burk, leader of the Center for Gospel and Culture at Boyce College, on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary campus in Louisville, Ken. "Evangelical awareness has increased when it comes to mandatory reporting of domestic violence cases. I'm not sure many people were talking about that 20 years ago.
"We're not where we need to be, by any means. Lots of people in our pews, and even some leaders, still don't understand how important this is. ... At a seminary, we talk about these issues all the time."
There are cries for more change, as waves of #MeToo news have led to #ChurchToo debates. Then an anonymous source gave the Washington Post an audiotape from 2000 in which a revered Southern Baptist leader claimed that Christians must do everything they can to stop divorce, even if that means strategic silence about domestic violence. This recording had already caused debates in the past.
"It depends on the level of abuse, to some degree," said the Rev. Paige Patterson, a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention's conservative revolution in the 1980s. He is currently president of Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.
"I have never in my ministry counseled anyone to seek a divorce, and that's always wrong counsel," he said. "There have been, however, an occasion or two when the level of the abuse was serious enough, dangerous enough, immoral enough that I have counseled temporary separation and the seeking of help."
During this media storm, many Southern Baptist leaders have released statements stressing that domestic violence is a crime and that churches must always act to protect the abused and report the crime to civil authorities. The odds are high this controversy will linger, causing sparks during the SBC's annual meeting, this year June 12-13 in Dallas. Patterson is slated to give the main sermon.
In March, before the Patterson recording resurfaced, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood -- a conservative group, currently led by Burk -- released a statement stressing that domestic abuse is both a sin and a crime.
It added: "Abuse is a hallmark of the devil and is in direct opposition to the purposes of God. Abuse must not to be tolerated in the Christian community. ... The local church and Christian ministries have a responsibility to ... confront abusers and to protect the abused, which includes the responsibility to report abuse to civil authorities."
Debates about the Bible and divorce further complicate these tragedies.
In an online essay entitled "What about divorce and abuse?", Burk noted that evangelical Protestants have "never been monolithic in their views about divorce." Many of these debates center on the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus says: "What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate. ... And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery."
Later, St. Paul tells Christians in the city of Corinth that when a spouse abandons a marriage, the "brother or the sister" who is abandoned isn't "under bondage in such cases." Thus, Burk and others argue that abusive spouses have violently abandoned their marriages, making divorce permissible for believers who face domestic abuse.
These debates will continue, said Burk. But there is no need for disagreement about how religious leaders -- local and national -- should respond to domestic violence.
There are many evangelicals, he said, who "oppose divorce under any circumstances, but who also know that the protection of a woman who is being abused is an absolute necessity. ... We all want to see marriages saved, if there is any way for reconciliation to take place. But first, you have to protect the abused -- period."