The good news is, most marriages are salvageable. This is when you are talking about believers, of course. When it is unbelievers, then things get harder. But if we’re talking about believers, then the power of the gospel is sufficient, more than sufficient, to save even the most difficult of marriages with the most intractable, dug-in problems. And in fact, marriage is a wonderful opportunity for this to occur, because marriage is an environment that makes it hard to accommodate your own selfishness. It forces you to face it.
The bad news is, we’re all sinners. That’s why the first point is such good news. But for the good news to be the good news, the bad news has to be understood well. We have to face squarely the way our own sin distorts the way we look at marriage problems, in our own personal life and as church leaders.
Sometimes I think that things I have heard and believed my whole live are obvious, just because I have internalized them so thoroughly. Just last night I was talking to my wife about a conversation with someone else, a Christian, and she related to me how novel the doctrine of total depravity was to this person. She told me it was the same to her when she first heard it as a teenager. All of a sudden a bunch of things made sense that never really had before. The radical corruption of our natures must be constantly kept in mind as we deal with anything in life, for it will affect everything. Walter Marshal says, in the Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, ch. 1:
Men show themselves strangely forgetful, or hypocrititcal, in professing original sin in their prayers, catechisms and confessions of faith, and yet urging on themselves and others the practice of the law, without the consideration of any strengthening, enlivening means— as if there were no want of ability, but only of activity.
But the funny thing is that it is the very nature of this problem to conceal itself. If you’re not told it’s there, you’ll never understand it for yourself, because the very nature of the problem is such that it robs its victim of the ability to understand things. It affects our thinking as well as our will and our emotions. And though it begins to be corrected by regeneration, it continues to be a problem for us throughout our lives. So when we deal with marriage problems, we must constantly keep this fact in mind: the radical, pervasive effects of sin on the thinking and choices of everyone affected by it. It causes us to self-justify, to magnify the faults of others and minimize our own, to deflect, to blame-shift, to minimize. It causes us to choose the easy way out of problems rather than the hard way of self-improvement and change. When faced with a choice between causing huge problems in our own lives and the lives of those around us on the one hand, and taking a hard look at our own sin on the other, most people, even believers, unless forced by external restraint, are going to choose the first. Our sin is just that self-deceptive, and just that painful to look at. It’s like a cancer in the brain, one of whose side-effects is to make itself invisible.
The fact that throughout history states have regulated marriage should be sufficient to prove to us that marriage affects a whole lot of people besides just the two in the marriage. That’s why restrictions of various types have always been in place to keep people from divorcing easily, except in ways of which the state approves. These restrictions often worked in favor of the man, making it easy for him to divorce but hard for the wife to leave. Now this isn’t fair, but “fair” has not been the major concern of most governments that have ever existed. The concern rather was stability. Men and women are both sinners, but the nature of the curse works itself out differently in the two. The natural tendency of the woman is to undermine and attack the authority that is over her, and the natural tendency of the man is to respond to this with force and brutality. The stability of society has always favored the brutality of the man over the undermining of the woman, and this is not by accident. It did not create just societies, but it did a fair job of creating stable ones.
I’m not saying any of this because I’m in favor of that solution to the problem. But the nature of the problem has to be squarely faced if the problem is going to be solved. The power of the gospel is much superior to the power of brute force. But we still have to be honest about the nature of the problem.
This gets me to the issue of abuse. In Justin Holcomb’s article that I mentioned previously, he claims that the great majority of perpetrators of abuse are men, and the great majority of victims are women. This is the way the problem is usually presented today, that abuse is what men do to women. But Holcomb’s statement has a couple of problems. First, while he says the majority of perpetrators are men, he doesn’t really have any way of knowing this. All he can know is about reported abuse. Men are also reluctant, for lots of reasons, to report abuse. Further, much of what he defines as abuse is never going to hit the crime statistics. Here, he commits an equivocation between abuse defined as physical violence and abuse defined more broadly. Verbal abuse, which he makes very clear needs to be included, is very rarely a crime. Certainly, anecdotal experience tells me that women abuse men verbally quite commonly, and evidence from the Scriptures support this as well. Proverbs 14:1, 21:9, 21:19, 25:14 and 27:15 all talk about a contentious, angry, brawling woman, and how difficult it is to live with such a one. So if the Bible talks about someone like this, then it’s a reality we have to deal with.
For all these reasons, when accusations come as a result of marital conflict, the wise church leader needs to proceed with caution. The temptation is to scapegoat, to tell an easy story where all the blame lands on one evil person who then gets sent out of the camp and the problem is solved. Add to this the natural influence that women have been given by God over men, the natural impulse that good men have to protect the weak and vulnerable, and the natural competition that men experience for the affection and attention of women, and the temptation to listen to and believe false accusations is huge. We know that false accusations happen. There have been plenty of high-profile examples in the news. There is also the story of Potiphar’s wife in the Bible. Even if most accusations are true, justice requires that we investigate, for this is what the Bible always requires (Exodus 23:1-3; Deuteronomy 19:16-21 for example), and even a small number of false accusations is no good justification for trampling on the innocence of those victims of false allegations. The great weight that the Bible puts on investigating for false claims and of severe punishment for perjury tells us that these things happen, and women are no exception to the rule. Deuteronomy 19:21 specifically warns us against pity in the case of false accusations!
The Bible puts as much weight on destroying a man’s reputation as it does physically assaulting him. The ninth commandment is not a lesser commandment than the sixth.
A Christian society rightly detests the abuse of women, and a false accusation thus carries tremendous power. The idea that a woman would be reluctant to use this tremendous power against a man she was furious at runs contrary to our understanding of original sin, of the nature of the curse on male-female relationships, and contrary to what the Bible itself says about sinful women. People get so angry at each other in marriage sometimes that they will kill each other. Why do we think they would be hesitant to make false accusations?
Therefore, all allegations of domestic abuse need to be taken very seriously, and that means carefully investigated. Reflexively believing every accusation that one side makes against another is not taking the allegations seriously. Allegations need to be evaluated by wise men in the church, hearing both sides. Criminal matters should be investigated by the police, and their findings should be given serious weight. But police make mistakes too. The responsibility is on the church to do their best prayerfully to determine the truth.
Our society has been in full-on attack against traditional families for decades now. A statist government attacks everything that is a competing center of power and security, and that includes families. Government statistics therefore need to be viewed with extreme caution. Social science statistics are notoriously unreliable and studies strongly reflect the political biases of the scientist, 90+% of whom are leftist. Further, even Christian advocacy groups that agitate for a particular cause need to be likewise viewed with great caution, since their bread and butter is all on the side of amplifying the nature of whatever problem they seek to address. The Bible has plenty of wisdom to address these things, and the Bible teaches us to be wise to the ways that people sin, to carefully evaluate our own motives, and to thoroughly investigate accusations against others before we believe them.
And, believers sin against each other. Believers commit abuse. Believers commit violence against people. Believers commit every kind of sin, as the Bible amply testifies to us. And believers repent. Because of the power of the gospel, which is tremendous, greater than any force on earth, marriages of believers are almost always salvageable.
Even an actual example of abuse need not end a marriage. The consequences of ending a marriage are tremendous and long-lasting. It hurts everyone involved. It causes trauma for generations. This is why the Bible is so adamantly against easy divorce. No responsible church leader will ever quickly recommend divorce. He will hear the situation out. He will recommend counseling. He will see whether even physical abuse was a one-time thing which was repented of or whether there is a pattern over time.
Physical abuse is certainly grounds for divorce, as Paul permits divorce for abandonment, and the church has long interpreted this more broadly than simply being physically gone, but also when the spouse has de facto abandoned the marriage. A refusal to provide for his family or severe substance abuse would also qualify. Also qualifying would be if the man was in prison for a stretch, since by his actions the man has abandoned his family. Physical abuse of any severity should be reported to the police, and that will usually result in a de facto abandonment, via prison or a restraining order.
But the Bible only provides for divorce via abandonment when the spouse is an unbeliever. The church should therefore be involved, to certify that the man’s abandonment is of the nature of unrepentant sin. Extreme care should be taken not to twist this provision into a catch-all that is used to justify any divorce.
But what any spouse should recognize is that even if that spouse has grounds for divorce, that divorce is still going to be incredibly painful, for them and everyone around them. That doesn’t mean it’s always wrong. The Bible provides grounds for a divorce for a reason. But people should count the cost, and the church should help them do this. If someone is considering divorce, the church’s goal should always be to slow them down, so they do not act in the heat of the moment. Wise church leaders will help people count the cost, to really think through the matter Biblically and carefully. A separation might be a very good idea in some cases, to give people a chance to cool down and think it through, and the Bible provides for this as well (1 Corinthians 7:5, 10-11). But divorce is a terrible thing, and the weight of the church’s efforts should all be on reducing it as much as possible.
41 thoughts on “Most Marriages are Salvageable”
This was removed from Acquila before I could comment there. Here is the comment I was about to post. You may moderate it out, but I at least want you to hear how wretchedly wrong-headed and dangerous I believe this article to be. It truly pushes me almost past the point of Christian charity:
1. Make noises about the “power of the gospel” to solve just about any problem
2. Make an appeal to rationality and balance, and set the burden of proof high enough to keep that balance safe from counter argument
3. In service of (2) above: reject all scientific methodologies as tainted by unbelief, leaving the field clear for you to deploy your biblical examples, which you also will interpret for us.
End result: status quo maintained. Despicable.
Thanks for the comment, and thanks for reading. Those aren’t “noises” I’m making. I actually believe in the power of the gospel.
You haven’t actually addressed any of my argumentation to show me where my approach is unbiblical, or where the article falls short of Biblical truth. I know this is an extremely charged issue, but if you’re going to tell me I’m wrong, don’t you need to actually show me how I’m wrong?
I don’t reject all scientific methodologies. But they are not in the driver’s seat, and we should not make idols out of science either. Scientific consensus is contrary to Scripture on a number of points these days, so believers should approach cautiously, just as we always have had to do when it comes to the “wisdom of this world”.
I try to put the burden of proof right where Scripture does. Again, if I have failed to do this in some way, I would like to see how, specifically.
Thanks again for reading, Christopher.
Matt, I’m an abuse survivor involved in raising awareness on abuse and domestic violence, both in church settings (including within the PCA denomination) and in state and local government settings. I’d like to highly recommend and request that you read A Cry for Justice by Jeff Crippen (a Reformed pastor) for a Biblical approach to this subject, both the book by that title and the excellent blog at http://www.cryingoutforjustice.com. Another great resource is Lundy Bancroft’s book, Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. I’ll make a couple of quick points just to start: 1) Abusers often put on a guise of Christianity and leverage the Church to assist in abuse and manipulation, appealing to rhetoric about forgiveness and redemption while reviling their victim behind closed doors and maintaining a complex, evil web of power and control using multiple tactics which may or may not include physical violence. Someone who does this is not a Christian, however much he may profess to be, and the sin patterns involve point to 1 Cor 5 as the appropriate approach to take with such a person. 2) Rather than protecting victims and placing the blame on the abuser where it belongs, churches much more often fulfill the abuser’s agenda, placing pressure on the victim to reconcile and return to an unsafe situation using rhetoric like yours in this article. As time goes by, it is the VICTIM who is most often scapegoated by the church– if she would just submit better, pray harder, work more toward reconciliation, and quit bothering the church and making a commotion, the problem would go away, and surely it can’t be that bad to begin with– ol’ John is such a great guy, friendly, godly, serves the church, etc. Mary might just be mentally unstable– poor John. This is how these scenarios play out over and over again. 3) I am glad that you affirm abandonment by an unbeliever, including via abuse, as Biblical grounds for divorce. Abuse is often hidden for a long time with the victim blaming herself and trying very hard to save the “marriage,” which was often fraudulent in the first place, so when somebody finally comes to you for help, it is very unlikely that she’s just looking for some easy, light justification for divorce– she needs strong affirmation, unequivocal support, and encouragement from the church to get out of that situation. Can the Gospel save and transform an abuser? Sure, but it’s extremely rare. If it happens, it’s miraculous, obvious, and not due to human persuasion. God can and does heal cancer, but you get the chemo anyway. Please seek understanding on this subject.
Thanks for the input. I really do appreciate it, especially considering your background. And I am aware of Jeff Crippen and his approach. I’ve written a few articles already outlining my problem with his approach. While Crippen has some useful insight, much of his distinctive approach is unbiblical and is contrary to my own denomination’s rules of discipline (and I expect the PCA’s as well). In response-
1: Yes, there are hypocrites in the church of all stripes. We are given Biblical ways of dealing with them. But we cannot read people’s minds. And 1 Corinthians 5 does not give us a methodology of dealing with anybody and cannot be used in contradiction to all the other OT and NT passages that tell us about hearing both sides, of evaluating evidence, of not being rash and hasty in decisions, about not showing favoritism to either the strong or weak appearing party (see Exodus 23:1-3). This is my concern- not to coddle or protect abusers. Domestic abuse is a real and terrible problem in the church, and the way many churches have dealt with it is indeed scandalous. But most Reformed denominations, including the RCUS, have procedures already outlined that are based on very Scriptural wisdom and reflect the experience of many centuries, and they should not be discarded.
The major problems with the way churches have handled these things have grown out of the very same mentality that Crippen advocates- that an “expert” can just know that someone is an abuser without following good procedure. So the pastor can just “know” that a guy is a good ol’ boy who would never beat his wife. In the prominent cases we all know about, if their churches had just investigated the allegations according to Biblical principles, the problems would have been revealed and stopped.
2) Certainly evil people can seek to misuse Biblical truth. The solution to that is not to throw out Biblical truth. The whole weight of the Scriptures is on the side of seeking restoration of sinners and reconciliation between people, not just kicking people out. And the Scriptures never put abuse in some special category of sin to be treated differently than other sins. In fact, there is really very little sin that one person commits against another that isn’t abusive in some form, and people sin in patterns. This is the other thing I’m opposed to, is this very broad definition of abuse that can frankly take in practically any behavior at all, and then making these very broad brush statements about all “abusers”. Are there people like the ones you describe? Of course. And they need to be dealt with firmly and put out of the church if they do not repent. But we’re not God. We can’t see people’s hearts and we don’t know better than His word, so we need to follow it in how we approach these things, always doing so humbly and considering our own weakness and frailty.
Galatians 6:1 for example warns us when working on restoring the erring brother to consider ourselves lest we fall into temptation. Many passages say similar things, that in situations of church discipline we have to be especially careful of our own pride and the many temptations that exist in such situations.
And once again, if the church leader just does not believe that he can read people’s minds or see their hearts, but carefully and seriously investigates allegations, then the very problem you speak of here will be dealt with.
3) False accusations do happen, and the Bible talks about them many times. Women are sinners as much as men. So an allegation of abuse has to be treated the same way as any other allegation. The accuser needs to be respected and taken every seriously, and that means that her allegations are carefully investigated. But just because an accusation is made does not deprive the accused of his rights. That is unbiblical.
So if someone comes to me and accuses her husband of abusing her for many years, I have a solid Biblical obligation to hear both sides, to support not just her but him too, to expect both sides to respond Biblically, and to seek repentance and restoration, because this is what the Bible everywhere and always calls us to. If she is in physical danger, we will get her safe immediately, and encourage her to involve law enforcement if civil crimes are alleged. But the Bible still says what it says.
It was the church that taught the world to care about these things, not the other way around. It was the Bible itself that taught us to value the weak, the downtrodden, the oppressed, not secular psychology. Don’t forget that.
I understand that there are procedural differences with censure and excommunication in different churches, but I think it’s easy to conflate the biblical basis for showing mercy to victims with the biblical basis for dealing just punishment to perpetrators. The first permits and even encourages credulity; the second requires substantial evidence.
When we see a victim lying at the side of the road, this is not the time to start a “He said…she said…who started it?” investigation. Rather, some of us must be moved with pity to bandage her wounds immediately, pouring on oil and wine. Mercy comes first, then justice. There’s nothing in the Bible to suggest–even with no evidence but the victim’s eyewitness testimony–that we are not free to believe her and give the love, care, and mercy that we would give our own mother, sister, or daughter. The Church can show this mercy with discretion, without committing any injustice in prosecuting later charges. To avoid conflicts of interest, it may be helpful to have some charged with showing mercy while others investigate, but withholding care in favor of investigation is not a charitable, merciful option.
In God’s Providence, many terrible things happen, which can never be successfully prosecuted, but successful prosecution was never given to us as the ultimate definition of reality. How much harm will we do if we demand proof before charity?
Might we sometimes be found out as gullible, if some woman at some point proves willing to run the typical community gauntlet of doubt, blame, shame, and even hostility to maintain an accusation of abuse over time? Well, we might. (And that would be a hard case to judge since victims sometimes retract charges out of fear, or to avoid the grievous pain of maintaining them before a hostile community.) But this is where it’s right to ask how much we love our own reputations when someone else may be suffering. It’s right to investigate our own hearts as much as any others, uncovering our biases to see who and what we love most when allegations are brought.
I totally agree with all of that. If someone came to me with a terrible account of suffering and victimization, absolutely, that would be the first thing. It would be showing compassion and listening and making sure she was safe. Of course. I don’t know when I ever said anything else. I’ve dealt with these situations as a pastor and that is what I have done.
That’s not what I’m objecting to. I’m objecting to kicking the accused out of the church without giving him any opportunity for defense or due process. And I’m objecting to the idea that ALL cases of abuse, especially as broadly as some define it, should automatically end in divorce, or that it’s wrong to work toward reconciliation.
If a man’s been beating his wife up or sexually abusing his wife, they should immediately separate and probably divorce, and law enforcement should be involved. Repentance should be sought in the case of the abuser, but that doesn’t mean the marriage can be fixed. But in a lot of other cases that are labeled as abuse, divorce should not be immediately sought, but instead repentance and reconciliation.
“That’s not what I’m objecting to. I’m objecting to kicking the accused out of the church without giving him any opportunity for defense or due process.”
But that’s NOT what you argued. You argued that “Most marriages can be salvaged”. Under that heading, you suggested that research on abuse should be dismissed out of hand due to ideological biases in the social sciences, that women are likely as abusive as men due to their natural tendencies to manipulation, and that in most circumstances the power of the gospel is sufficient to fix all but the most egregious abusive relationships.
“And I’m objecting to the idea that ALL cases of abuse, especially as broadly as some define it, should automatically end in divorce, or that it’s wrong to work toward reconciliation.”
No. You were arguing that MOST cases of abuse should NOT end in divorce, on the basis of an appeal to the “power of the gospel.”
If this isn’t what you were saying, then your writing was poor and your argumentation was flawed. If you were saying that we should expect and facilitate reasonable people working together to build and maintain a covenant relationship in spite of being sinners (i.e., working toward reconciliation), then you get my hearty amen, with the caveat that you need to be much much much clearer and more careful, and you probably need to retract this article and write a new one. If you wanted to seek the responses of actual victims of abuse and include those in your writing, then that would probably help everyone, yourself included, to get better clarity on these issues.
Christopher: “But that’s NOT what you argued. You argued that “Most marriages can be salvaged”. ”
You might want to re-read the first three sentences of the article.
And yes, especially if you are including emotional or verbal abuse, women are as likely to abuse as men, since they are as likely to sin against other people as men, and yes, I would need some Scripture to back up contrary assertions, not statistics from people who reject belief in sin or a soul.
And yes, the power of the gospel is indeed sufficient.
“Christopher: “But that’s NOT what you argued. You argued that “Most marriages can be salvaged”. ”
You might want to re-read the first three sentences of the article.”
Rereading those first sentences. I quoted you as saying , “most marriages can be salvaged,” but what you really said was “most marriages are salvageable.” So… basically the same, and this doesn’t change anything about my point, as far as I can tell.
I addressed the matter of “the power of the gospel” elsewhere, in another comment. I believe you are taking the Lord’s name in vain, and I call you to repentance. As for percentages, they’re really beside the point. You haven’t really addressed the substance of my comment, which simply to point out the real and important difference between what you’re telling Valerie you were arguing.
It’s important to understand that emotional and verbal abuse are not “saying something mean” or “name-calling” or getting angry now and then. (Some abusers don’t experience emotion normally, and don’t even have tempers.)
Emotional-verbal abuse (AKA psychological abuse, or psychological torture) is a kind of intimidating, threatening, coercive, and controlling aggression that actually results in real harm done to the victims–PTSD, anxiety disorders, clinical depression, nightmares, fight-or-flight adrenaline/cortisol hormonal imbalances, etc.
Emotional abuse creates a life filled with the constant threat of harm and danger, even without leaving a mark on the victims’ bodies. Living in constant vigilance and threat creates a constant concern for life, health, welfare, and safety that is not at all like living with normal marital conflict. Emotional abuse is like life in a foxhole or a prison camp, except that it’s a suburban kitchen.
Think of the woman whose husband walks toward her in an intimidating way until he can lock her in a room or out of their home. Think of the woman who listens to her husband describe the ways he could kill her if he wanted to, who spins the gun on the table to see if the barrel will point to her, who forbids her to get medical care or have basic hygiene or safety needs met, who makes rules for the purpose of preventing her from getting enough sleep or enough to eat, who cuts her off from the friendship and community that humans need for good health, who doesn’t let her leave the house, who prevents her from having the security of family and community and a means of communicating with them, who requires her to submit to sex when she is actually physically ill and needs to see a doctor, who requires extreme levels of overwork that a normal person cannot even imagine. I’m talking about malevolent, evil, intimidating aggression that never stops except to cover its tracks.
There’s a scale of degrees for sure, but emotional abuse and psychological torture are very gravely harmful. Against this reality, “women are as likely to abuse as men” comes across as trite and even cold. I’m not saying it’s meant that way, because I sincerely doubt it, but when the victim of this kind of cold aggression and constant threatening is a soldier, or a political prisoner, or a Christian pastor under an oppressive regime, we see the harm, we feel it dreadfully in our bones, even.
But when it’s a wife, or a wife and children, those who could show mercy or withhold it sometimes fall back on equating emotional abuse with “that time that my non-abusive, non-deranged, non-evil wife got mad at me ’cause I forgot to pick up bread at the store, insulted me, and then later said she was sorry”. Yeah, pretty much not at all the same thing. And I know for sure that we are not talking about the same thing when you say things like…. “Couldn’t this describe every marriage?”
I was experiencing psychological aggression that was so severe and so intimidating that I had a hard time holding onto memories and even remembering appointments. Making decisions became overwhelming. I could not decide on basic, daily things, because I was watching and listening to see what I needed to do today to keep everyone safe. I had severe insomnia out of fear of what he could do to me or to a child, even when I didn’t have any good evidence of any crimes being committed. I was constantly vigilant, I had panic attacks, I had nightmares that he was killing me or one of the children. A couple of times I was out running errands when I suddenly couldn’t remember where I lived, or what my house looked like, or I got into a building and couldn’t remember whether it was winter or summer or what year it was. The tension in my hands was so high that I had great difficulty writing out a check or answering the phone.
The first crime that got reported led immediately to the peace and safety of separation and divorce, which started a snowball effect that gave kids the courage to speak, and the eyewitness accounts of multiple people (over a dozen people) showed long-term criminal aggression–including physical and sexual abuse of children. And all those crimes were happening while I was being asked–by the church–to constantly risk our lives because living with an evil, aggressive, malevolent person was–as far as we all knew, including me–“only emotional abuse”. “Only” emotional abuse, so not that serious at all.
How do I say that emotional abuse is not even in the same category with normal sin and normal marital conflict? For a long time I was heavily pressured by well-meaning pastors to believe that only physical abuse is “really abuse” and that emotional abuse is just a normal part of marriage that everyone everywhere experiences at some point. It’s a spectrum for sure, and sometimes there are judgment calls to be made, but those judgment calls need to be made, under counsel, *by the people who have to endure whatever consequences come*. This just isn’t the tidy sort of world where most marriages like those described above are salvageable.
Apart from a miracle, a wolf lives and dies a wolf. Unless the abuser receives life from the dead, all the evidence shows that the chance is near zero that he will ever be safe toward those he perceives as weak, flawed, under his control, or belonging to him. The power of the Gospel is indeed sufficient–but the same Gospel that is life and healing to some is death and cursing to others. The Gospel does not promise that most abusive marriages are salvageable, nor does it encourage us to claim sanctification and healing for any particular person based on our own will and desire for them.
15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. ”
I Corinthians 5–
9 “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler [ABUSER] , drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’”
False converts are recognized by their willingness to abuse others and then refuse to genuinely repent and turn from evil. Once abuse and a refusal to turn from it have marked a person as an abuser, they have also marked him as an unbeliever. We must apply the Gospel and understand that God does not save everyone, nor does he sanctify anyone that he has not chosen to himself. Many of those who are wolves at heart will be wolves forever.
Your statement, “that even if that spouse has grounds for divorce, that divorce is still going to be incredibly painful, for them and everyone around them”, is baffling. Where does the Bible teach this? Why would you assume this? A just and righteous biblical divorce isn’t necessarily painful for an innocent party who’s been suffering under evil aggression, perhaps for many years. Would Abel have wept to escape Cain? Would David have mourned to escape Saul? Was it a terribly painful thing that the doors of the ark sealed the faithful in safety? Or that the Israelites escaped Pharaoh? Or that the mouths of lions were sealed? Is justice normally incredibly painful for victims–or is injustice more likely to have that affect?
God’s deliverance of an innocent victim from a guilty abuser is not an occasion for mourning. It’s not a tragedy. It’s not a failure of the means of grace. While a just divorce *might* be tinged with sadness, regret, or grief for some people some of the time, its essential character–because it is just, righteous, and biblical–is beautiful. It’s God’s mercy for the suffering. It brings safety, comfort, and healing to those who need it. It secures their peace and welfare. Because the lives of God’s people are so precious in his sight (6th commandment), a just divorce is inherently a desirable option and sometimes the only ethical option.
Prior to my husband’s arrest for child abuse, elders fed me virtually every point from the above article and so enabled my husband in the commission of many more crimes. After I attempted to expose his evil deeds, they continued to give him hearty handshakes of fellowship. Those elders were far more comfortable believing evil of me, without a particle of evidence against me, than they were believing evil against my husband even when there were 10 credible witnesses to his demented, diabolically abusive behavior. Because they despised God’s mercy in biblical divorce, they also believed that most marriages are “salvageable” (“salvage”, what a sad and even pathetic substitute for covenant-keeping). They forgot the Bible where it testifies that the wicked won’t turn from evil except by the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit, and so they enabled gross evil to continue, to fester, and even to flourish with the expectation that one day he would decide for Jesus in heart, as well as in lip service.
Please return to the Bible and see if this is how God teaches us to deal with those who report that they are suffering from unjust abuse. Is this the way the church ought to treat Abel, Joseph, Moses, David, Abigail, Esther, Jeremiah, and Paul–those ordinary, flawed, sinful, faithful people of God–when we beg for mercy and say that we are suffering unjustly?
Without evidence, you cannot prosecute an abuser, but without evidence, you cannot prosecute an accuser either. This providential Catch-22 uncovers our hearts and displays what we really love, how we really think, and how far our charity will go to comfort and protect others. In the piece above your bias is boldly proclaimed in the first paragraph of the second section. That’s just old-fashioned, Garden-of-Eden, “she started it” excuse-making and blame-shifting. Force and brutality are never, never, never a product of a wife’s undermining or resistance. Force and brutality are 100% high-handed rebellion against God, hatred against a close neighbor, and the fruit of hardened self-worship and idolatry as in James 1:13-15.
I admit that my original comment was pretty vitriolic, so I’ll follow with something a little more substantive. And thanks, Jessica, for your comment.
I suppose my main concern is for any abuse sufferers finding this post, and taking away a message that their deep and genuine love of Christ and his Church requires them to stay in an abusive relationship; that if they speak up then a colloquium of men (session, presbytery, pastor, etc.) will place an additional burden on them to prove the abuse against their suspicion, which they base in a belief that ‘all women naturally are underminers and deceivers,’ and that these men may require the victim to confront their abuser in the name of reconciliation, and with the intent to put them right back into the situation in which the abuse took place.
The “power of the gospel” is very specifically the power to confront people with their sin and to force a decision to embrace or reject Jesus’s sacrificial death and his eternal intercession. It’s the power to drive the war between old and new man with regard to the remnants of sin within us. I believe in this power. But certain people struggle with certain sins that bear directly on the types of relationships they can have. The bible says children are a blessing. Nevertheless, counseling a child molester to be a parent, or to continue being a parent, is imprudent and irresponsible, as is counseling the victim of verbal, sexual, or physical abuse to continue in a relationship with their abuser. And invoking the “power of the gospel” as justification for such counsel is using the Lord’s name in vain, dishonoring him by implicating him in another thing he hates: giving shelter to wolves who prey on the weak and vulnerable.
I hear that you want balance. You want nuance. You want people to acknowledge that our emotional responses on these issues may lead us to paint an over-simple picture and too quickly judge what undoubtedly always is a complicated situation. You want to be sure that while we give voice to the weak we are careful to preserve the integrity and the honor of the powerful. I think you’ve got the balance wrong, though. I think you fail to appreciate the seriousness of every type of abuse abuse and the real dynamics that occur between abusers and their victims. You’ve acknowledged the necessity to keep people “safe”, but you’ve limited their safety to the domain of physical harm. I think you may be uneducated in this regard.
My appeal to all victims of abuse: do not allow rhetoric like this to cause you to second guess your experience, or intimidate you in your resolve to speak up. Get away from your abuser. Seek help. Sadly, you may have to seek help outside of the church. We have a lot of work to do before we as a body, are ready to do right by you.
Valerie, our comments crossed. You’ve said what I was trying to say, but you’ve said it with so much more authenticity and eloquence. Thank you.
Thank you, Christopher.
“False converts are recognized by their willingness to abuse others and then refuse to genuinely repent and turn from evil. Once abuse and a refusal to turn from it have marked a person as an abuser, they have also marked him as an unbeliever. We must apply the Gospel and understand that God does not save everyone, nor does he sanctify anyone that he has not chosen to himself. Many of those who are wolves at heart will be wolves forever.”
Absolutely. Totally agree. If someone is abusing their spouse and is unrepentant, then they mark themselves as an unbeliever and should be put out of the church. This is exactly what the process of church discipline is intended to reveal.
Valerie: “Your statement, “that even if that spouse has grounds for divorce, that divorce is still going to be incredibly painful, for them and everyone around them”, is baffling.”
By this I mean that a divorce always involves a lot of disruption, a lot of headaches, a lot of problems going forward, at the very least. If your husband or wife is this kind of monster, then the problems with be more than worth it. But they will still be there. I’ve seen it over and over. When two people get married, they become one flesh. Tearing that apart is never fun, even if it has to be done.
I’m very sorry to hear about your experience. There’s no doubt that many churches have badly failed here. What I’m saying is that taking every accusation seriously and investigating properly would cure those situations. Your situation does not sound to me like a failure of a process of church discipline. It sounds like no discipline happened at all. The man should have been put out of the church since there were all these witnesses and all this evidence. I would not have advocated anything you describe happening in your experience. The process I’m advocating, it seems to me, would have stopped your situation far sooner than it was stopped.
And further, as I said in other places, a lot of my problem with Jeff Crippen’s approach, and others, is the incredibly broad definition of abuse. All sorts of things are defined as abuse and the one-size-fits-all procedure of immediately believing the accusation and immediately kicking out the accused are then implemented, even in situations that come far short of something like child abuse, molestation, or physical violence. That’s where I think this is so dangerous.
To clarify, I think the situation you’re describing is reprehensible, and all those elders will be held accountable by God for their negligence. In my denomination they would all have been deposed from office and brought under discipline themselves for ignoring the situation.
As for your issue with the first paragraph of the second section- I understand you don’t like what I said, but is it wrong? Can you demonstrate from Scripture that it is wrong?
>>>>>The natural tendency of the woman is to undermine and attack the authority that is over her, and the natural tendency of the man is to respond to this with force and brutality.<<<<<
I guess the real question, for me, is where does the Bible teach this? The Bible teaches that force and brutality are common in unregenerate hearts, male and female. They may be expressed apart from any provocation at all. Who was more forceful and brutal than Jezebel? And what did Naboth do to offend her?
What did the neighboring countries due to provoke the king of Assyria? Or Hitler? Saul was the king and David was his subject, but did Saul go after David with force and brutality because David had been undermining and attacking him? Is this really a biblically revealed dynamic of abuse, or did Saul go after David with force and brutality because Saul was a forceful, brutal man in his heart? (Saul was also abusive as a father, as a general, and as a magistrate.)
The Bible tells dozens of clear and carefully detailed stories of abuse. The idea that the victim initiates the bad treatment and the perpetrator reacts from a common, natural tendency doesn't appear as far as I know. All I see is that sinful behavior is the fruit of sinful desire–the self-love, idolatry, autonomy, and rebellion that characterize the whole fallen race.
As written, this suggests that women can generally avoid force and brutality by never undermining or resisting. This is a common myth–and it's one that the woman can very easily believe. I know I believed it, and I know victims of abuse who've said that they were willing to do almost anything to make it stop. Victims avoid anything remotely undermining or resistant as self-preservation, if nothing else.
There are those who think that the woman can manipulate her husband into good, safe behavior by submitting more completely and absolutely to increasingly onerous and burdensome regulation. There are also those who think that the woman can manipulate her husband into good, safe behavior by being more assertive, more courageous, and more carefully resisting more carefully and with more wisdom. But both parties share in common the belief that the man's force and brutality are not produced by his corrupt heart, but by his environment and the people in it, particularly "the woman thou gavest me".
The Bible teaches this in Genesis 3:16, when the curse is pronounced on both. That sets up the dynamic. That doesn’t mean that is precisely what is playing out in every situation, but there is a tendency. Proverbs discusses this frequently as well, as I quoted in the article, the brawling, contentious woman. That’s a real thing. There’s also the seductive woman using her influence to destroy the man. Yet Proverbs is not at all misogynistic- Wisdom is personified as woman as well. The point is, men and women are different, and sin in different ways, and the Bible teaches this constantly. It’s why husbands and wives are given different exhortations in marriage by Paul, because they have different sin tendencies to overcome.
Nothing the woman does causes the man to sin. His sin is his own. I never said otherwise. But the nature of gender relationships does cause both the man and the woman’s sin to take shape in particular ways. Not in every case, but in many, and church leaders should be wise to that. That’s what I’m saying, and I believe the Bible amply supports me. You’re misunderstanding my argument. I am not saying abuse is always provoked or that evil men can blame their evil on someone else. Far from it.
My argument is not that we should be aware of how women cause men to sin. I’m saying we should be aware that women themselves sin, and how they sin, and one of the ways they can sin is by lying about men, and we have to take that seriously. One of the ways women sin is by rejecting the real authority that men have in the home, and calling it abuse, when it isn’t. That’s why we need to hear both sides out carefully.
I agree with most all of what you said. I think you may be reading my post through the lens of other controversies. I would never counsel a serial child molester to have children or even to get married. He should be put to death.
“I suppose my main concern is for any abuse sufferers finding this post, and taking away a message that their deep and genuine love of Christ and his Church requires them to stay in an abusive relationship; that if they speak up then a colloquium of men (session, presbytery, pastor, etc.) will place an additional burden on them to prove the abuse against their suspicion, which they base in a belief that ‘all women naturally are underminers and deceivers,’ and that these men may require the victim to confront their abuser in the name of reconciliation, and with the intent to put them right back into the situation in which the abuse took place.”
I specifically state that physical abuse is grounds for divorce. Verbal abuse may be, if there’s a severe, long and unrepentant pattern. I’ll state it again. But Crippen defines abuse so broadly that frankly no marriage would survive the scrutiny.
All sin is abusive. So I’ll ask you, and ask Valerie as well- can you give me examples sinful behavior of one spouse toward another that would NOT be grounds for divorce?
As marriage is a species of human relationship, the counsel of Romans 12:10 is a good standard for judging ourselves–
“Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.”
What righteous person will not have occasion to say, “I did not show love to you just now, nor did I honor you”? Whether male or female, we are in the habit of confessing that we have just now loved ourselves better than any others, but the sin in our stumbling, halting charity doesn’t sever the covenant.
A great deal of harm has been done by those who equate emotional abuse (psychological torture) with normal marital conflict and then claim that they are six of one and a half dozen of the other, but I don’t think Crippen is one of them. He does a good job describing abuse at A Cry for Justice–
The definition of abuse: A pattern of coercive control (ongoing actions or inactions) that proceeds from a mentality of entitlement to power, whereby, through intimidation, manipulation and isolation, the abuser keeps his* target subordinated and under his control. This pattern can be emotional, verbal, psychological, spiritual, sexual, financial, social and physical. Not all these elements need be present, e.g., physical abuse may not be part of it.
The definition of domestic abuser: a family member or dating partner (current or ex) who has a profound mentality of entitlement to the possession of power and control over the one s/he* chooses to mistreat. This mentality of entitlement defines the very essence of the abuser. The abuser believes he is justified in using evil tactics to obtain and maintain that power and control.
* Sometimes the genders are reversed.
He’s not defining abuse so broadly that no Christian marriage could survive the scrutiny. Christians love others and are learning to prefer them to themselves. While we are corrected by Romans 12:10 and other passages all the time, we are slaves to God who by the power of the Holy Spirit are continually putting off our old lives to put on new ones.
The experience of marriage to a Christian shouldn’t be the immediate cause of PTSD. We have empathy when this happens to soldiers and those put in prison for the Faith, but too often a cold shoulder and the pietistic disdain of Job’s friends when the harm is caused by a spouse. But truly, truly, the Fall broke us. We are now fragile, body *and soul*, and the wounds of emotional abuse and psychological torture are more painful, more destructive, and harder to treat than any surface bruises on the physical body.
I know that some have asserted that emotional injuries disappear into nothing with sufficient faith and obedience, but this is one of the forms of the prosperity gospel that the Book of Job is designed to correct. Job’s suffering wasn’t just on the surface, or even mostly on the surface.
He is defining abuse so broadly that anyone who doesn’t like their husband could find plenty in there to define his behavior as abuse.
The Bible is sufficient, and it tells us to hear both sides, to proceed with caution, to always pursue repentance and restoration. Labeling someone “abuser” doesn’t change any of that, and the Bible has no separate category for “abuser” for how sin is handled.
WLC on the 6th Commandment, with proofs, shows that we are required to protect and defend life and health, not wait for the investigation of a legal case before acting to protect. The necessity for self-defense and the defense of others puts abuse in a different category, as to proper immediate respose, from gluttony, covetousness, or unbelief, which are not alleged to be causing any ongoing harm to any innocent victims.
And specifically, I’m asking for Biblical defense of the idea that you should always believe the accuser and never allow the accused to defend himself?
Sometimes an abuser must be removed immediately for safety’s sake. A parishioner who is carrying a bomb has got to go, a person caught molesting children has got to go, even on the strength of one witness. The 6th Commandment sometimes requires immediate action, but the initial action undertaken to protect the flock isn’t necessarily the end of all justice.
A righteous person who’s been falsely accused can bring charges against his accuser. Why not? Of course, he may be justly outraged that he’s been falsely accused, but hopefully he will understand that sometimes elders have no other option but to protect one or more members of the flock from a potential threat. (Who complains if an alleged murderer is locked up upon probable cause to await trial?)
There’s a difference between what’s *proved* and what’s *real*. Sometimes, there will neither be enough evidence to prove the abuse allegations nor enough evidence to prove that a false accusation has been made. We can’t know every secret thought or achieve perfection in judgment, and this is God’s good providence. He hides much from us to remind us that we are only creatures.
Even without evidence sufficient to convict an abuser, an alleged victim must go free without any charges laid against her unless there is evidence against her. The same standard of proof applies to her as to him.
If there is a present and obvious threat that the victim feels under, then a separation can be pursued until things are worked out. That’s not what Jeff Crippen is talking about though. He’s saying, put him out of the church immediately, don’t talk to him, don’t pursue repentance and reconciliation with him. Crippen just knows when he’s dealing with an abuser and doesn’t need any evidence other than his own expertise. And he knows that abusers never change. And he knows that women almost never make false accusations. So, a woman’s accusation plus Crippen’s “expertise” is all that’s needed to excommunicate a man forever with no hope of reconciliation. And this is what he teaches others.
So if all you’re talking about is the need for a separation while allegations are sorted out, fine. That’s not what I’m having a problem with.
The Gospel confronts our belief that if we get together and work with aggressive malevolence, we can work it out. It confronts our belief that abuse is salvageable most of the time, if we just apply our best tools in the right way.
When Lazarus lay dead in his tomb and everyone was weeping and wailing, that situation was *not* salvageable until Jesus called him forth, raising him from the dead. When you know genuine abuse (psychological, physical, sexual), then you know it’s not the work of a Christian soul but the product of a malevolent, God-hating heart. You *know* it cannot be cured in any way except resurrection life from the dead.
Paul was cured and maybe Nebuchadnezzar. But Cain wasn’t cured. Pharaoh wasn’t cured. Goliath wasn’t cured. Saul wasn’t cured. Nabal wasn’t cured. Amnon wasn’t cured. Athaliah wasn’t cured. Sennacherib wasn’t cured. Herod wasn’t cured. Judas wasn’t cured. Sodom wasn’t cured. Whole abusive cultures have been wiped out, uncured.
The Psalms say a lot more about trusting God to deliver us *from* abusers and about God’s promise to justly judge abusers than they do about abusers becoming safe if we give them the Gospel and change their environments through strict obeisance, better boundaries, constant accountability, and other forms of external massaging.
Better submission tends to make abusers worse. Better assertiveness tends to make abusers worse. I know for sure that in my case boundaries and accountability made him far more devious, and that these “wise” (but not biblically wise) things gravely increased the danger and suffering for my children. He knew I would call 911 if I saw a crime committed, so he poured out all the more hatred and vengeance on the children when I wasn’t looking.
Abuse is produced by the heart of a murderer. It’s not a normal situation that could maybe benefit from more accountability and better communication skills. The solution is to flee. Flee, because the Sixth commandment allows and demands it. Flee because God can save an abuser just as easily when his victims are safe as when we are in danger. Malevolence presents real, true danger, even before the first and final physical blow is struck. Abuse is truly *not* a safe situation for adults, let alone children.
I believed *so many* wrong and unbiblical things about abuse, and the result was far greater suffering for the people I love best–and (what fills me with regret) far less true benevolence and the potential for far greater condemnation for the abuser, since he committed so many aggressions against God’s people for so long.
My expectation that sooner or later the Gospel would definitely cure him was presumptuous (John 3:8) and caused grave harm to everyone. (And I do mean everyone. If it seems I must hate him, I love an enemy who was once very dear.)
When I said that it is salvageable most of the time, I made clear I was talking about believers.
There’s this bait and switch going on all the time in these discussions. I don’t know why you keep bringing up your experience as if that’s some kind of refutation of what I said. I already said a situation like that would be grounds for divorce and excommunication. I don’t mean to belittle your situation at all- it was clearly very traumatic. But it’s a mistake to read everything that might be called “abuse” through the lens of your experience. But yes, the elders would have to investigate and take some time trying to work through it. Because the only way you can tell whether a professor of faith is a real believer is how he responds to rebuke and correction. You cannot assume that because someone commits grievous sin, even for a period of time, that means they are not believers. And you cannot pronounce yourself an “expert” that can spot whether someone’s regenerate or not. Remember David.
What I’m objecting to is this argument where a truly horrible situation like yours is brought up, and then statements are made on that basis about what we should do with “abusers”, except abuse has been defined far more broadly than that. Any pattern of words that harm (meaning any sinful words, spoken more than once or twice), used to try to get someone to behave differently than they are (literally describes every single marriage) is defined as abuse, and then treated as if it’s the same as the kind of thing you’re describing.
They do this all the time over at ACFJ, where someone in the comments will give some vague story about how their husband is mean to them sometimes but says he is sorry, and the elders say they should keep working on it, and everyone over there tells the person her husband is an abuser and she should not listen to her elders but to these people on the Internet.
These are actual people’s lives they are diagnosing with very little information, in a blog comment space. Those are families with children that they are ripping apart.
Nobody has claimed that an accuser always should be believed, or that the accused should not be allowed to defend themselves. What I claim is that one can set up processes, and place burdens of proof in such a way as to prevent the disenfranchised from speaking or being heard. It all feels very reasonable to you that allegations be “investigated”, but to someone in an abusive situation, your “scrutiny” may feel like a continuation of the abuse. Knowing that they will face that scrutiny, often by people who are close to or allied with the abuser, often is a non starter.
I’m glad you acknowledge that physical abuse is grounds for leaving a marriage. It frightens me that you fail to recognize the equal extent and seriousness of the harm words can bring. Manipulation, intimidation, gas-lighting, etc, especially in the long term, and well before any outsider would find themselves in the position to recognize a “pattern”, carry serious psychological and emotional consequences. There is good research on what this sort of abuse looks like and how it differs from healthy disagreement within healthy relationships. But you’ve written a lot of that out by dismissing “soft sciences” like sociology and psychology.
I feel like I’ve said what I need to say here, unless something new comes up. Let me close out by saying that yes, I’m in a healthy Christian marriage. I’ve done things in my marriage that I consider abusive. I’ve been on my knees to my wife, sometimes asking forgiveness for harm she had not yet recognized. It *is* possible to distinguish between this sort of covenant-honoring labor to deal with sin and covenant-breaking abuse that excuses it.
Christopher, Jeff Crippen is saying that the accuser of abuse should always be believed and the accused should not be allowed to defend themselves, and that he should be immediately kicked out of the church, and that abusers never change, and that reconciliation should not be pursued, and that they should immediately divorce without trying to pursue repentance and reconciliation. This is for any accusation of abuse. That is what A Cry for Justice is all about.
Look at this thread, and read Barbara Roberts (Jeff Crippen’s co-author on A Cry for Justice) repsonses to me. This is exactly what she’s arguing for- “pronto excommunication” when an accusation is made.
See this, Christopher:
The sort of experience you’re describing is indeed the behavior of an unbeliever. It would certainly be grounds for divorce and excommunication.
But Crippen’s definitions, and many others I have seen, are far broader than that. Consider on that site how he and Barbara Roberts labels anyone who disagrees with him, like me, an abuser. This is all he ever talks about, and he constantly labels anyone not on his side as an abuser.
And apart from a miracle we all die as wolves. So there’s no grounds for treating the abusive person as a different category of sin. If the process of discipline reveals the person as unrepentant, then they are to be treated as such until they amend their ways. None of this changes the Biblical requirements for discipline and for pursuing repentance and reconciliation.
9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites,
10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.
11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God. (1Co 6:9-11 NKJ)
I read Crippen’s first book and follow him on Facebook and have had some private interaction with him, but I haven’t read the ACFJ site much, and none of the comments. I don’t read blogs much, but a friend posted this today, and I really wanted to respond to it. I appreciate how gracious you’ve been to let me do that.
I believe there *are* grounds for treating a life of high-handed wicked abuse as a different category of sin, particularly when it’s perpetrated by one who hears the Law and the Gospel preached every week for many years while pretending to faith. Hebrews 10:26-29 is sobering. Engaging in continual, unrepentant aggression is very different from the Christian experience of mourning over sin, fighting it, seeking to put it to death, and working out our faith in loving, preferring, and seeking to benefit others.
I don’t agree with Jeff, if he says that abusers are never converted out of their rebellion, but I also don’t agree that abusers are remediable most of the time. The Triune God is a great and good savior, but it was an error for me to build so much of my life on the expectation that God would raise one particular man from the dead before he seriously wounded someone, or worse.
By all means preach the Gospel to abusers, by all means rebuke and reprove them. Warn them of God’s wrath to come, for sure. But all this goodhearted evangelism can be done without leaving victims in harms’ way or urging them to be prepared to live again with the fellow who’s been torturing them. Why should that be urged upon them? It’s actually not the neat solution that it might seem to be, especially not for any terrorized and terrified children.
Abuse is a broken covenant, and the invitation of God is to the wounded and innocent to go freely to safety. Scripture doesn’t urge us to hang on indefinitely, believing that if we pour in all the right kinds of human effort then this can be fixed in most cases. The invitation of God is to liberty, and the promise of the Gospel is that not all we love will be healed.
I believe that coercing wounded spouses not to divorce but to trust the church to fix it can be abusive. I believe that treating a person who alleges abuse with shaming hostility can be abusive. I know that quite a few points that this article makes would provoke deep pain in many people who are innocent of their spouse’s evil choices.
You can see I have a heavy heart about this. I am certain that God raises the dead–He raised me–but I rest in the five solas of Scripture, which means that my hopes and prayers are no longer those of a Christian who presumes that her will may be done, but of a Christian who has asked for the salvation of an abuser thousands of times and is now trusting that whatever God does will be good.
Apart from a miracle, we all die as wolves, but this means that when we find a wolf chewing on lambs, we can’t say, “This is normally salvageable. We can fix this most of the time.” Rather, apart from a miracle it can’t be fixed at all.
Maybe God saves the wolf, and maybe he doesn’t, but one of the issues we have to contend with going forward is that whatever the abuser *claims* to possess in his heart after confrontation and counseling, he has already been very skillfully deceiving us with similar claims for years, if not decades. (This is, after all, how he got the girl in the first place.)
Give him the Gospel? Absolutely! But giving him a bed back in the same little sheepfold with the same little flock would be deleterious and unwise and could even strip these wounded sheep of one of God’s means of grace for their healing.
Valerie, thank you for the conversation. It was profitable to me and I also appreciate the tone you have taken throughout. I appreciate your passion and experience on this issue.
Jeff Crippen has critiqued this post by Matthew Powell. Here is his critique. https://cryingoutforjustice.com/2016/04/25/this-is-unbelievable-matt-powell-is-at-it-again-to-keep-abuse-victims-in-bondage
I urge readers here to read the comments thread in Jeff’s post, and see how victims of abuse our outraged at Matt’s teaching.
Barbara, I fail to see why the level of one’s outrage over Matt’s blog is pertinent to anything. Furthermore, being a victim of abuse doesn’t make your theological positions always right. Let’s discuss our positions in reference to scripture, not in reference to our level of outrage. If the commenters at ACFJ read Matt’s entire post as well as the discussion he had above in the comments with Valerie and Christopher, they would realize that Jeff Crippen’s critique is unfounded. (They would also realize that Matt is gracious and pastoral and far from the “abuser’s ally” that they allege.)
But if readers of either blog want to continue this discussion, they will have to do it here because ACFJ’s stated policy is to disallow any comments in support of a teacher whom Crippen has rebuked. This is precisely one of Matt’s beefs with you guys. How can you ever get to the truth of a matter if one side is completely silenced?
I’m happy for people to read Jeff’s site for themselves, and to post your replies. Would Jeff post my responses to him in his comment section? I notice he wouldn’t even link directly to the articles he’s critiquing.
Matt, there is what the Bible says, what it’s interpreted to say and then what actually happens. Unfortunately, in the Reformed and Presbyterian circles I grew up in, there is an overemphasis on the Biblical teaching of submission and an underemphasis on the Biblical teaching of abusive authority. There is an overemphasis on being presentable and an underemphasis on loving people for who they are.
Perhaps you are different. I don’t know, but I have sought counsel with many Reformed and Presbyterian elders about specific instances of what I consider to be abuse from my spiritual leaders, my leaders in business, my parents and my government. Only when I talk about general governmental abuses do I get any kind of agreement. When I talk about spiritual abuse, abuse by bosses or abuse by parents, I’m always directed to MY SUBMISSION.
Every church I’ve been a member of considers itself responsible to deal with sin, yet the church appears to be incapable of dealing with non-physical abuse. Instead, we look at the anger of the abused, call it sinful pride or idolatry and then counsel them to repent and submit.
The problem is that you’re probably confused about what authority means. I’ll define it on your behalf. Authority is everything I’m commanded to obey. So, when you tell the wife that she must submit to her husband’s desire to have sex, you are saying that he has the authority to command sex. When you tell a child to obey his parents, you are saying that the father who tells him to pull his pants down must be obeyed. When you tell the church goer that they must submit to their pastor, it means that they must come to the mid-week prayer meeting if you command it. That’s what’s being preached from Reformed pulpits.
So, when my dad repeatedly beat me with a belt for refusing to play a piano piece for his guest, until I agreed to play, that wasn’t abusive. That was loving discipline for an insubordinate child. It matters not whether the Bible gives him the right to do that. I must obey. When an elder tells my children to clean up a table when they didn’t make the mess and the culprits have already left, that’s not abusive. If they disobeyed and were disciplined, that would be completely just. When my wife doesn’t obey my command to keep the house clean now that our newborn is two weeks old, and I call the elders. She should be disciplined for disobeying me.
Jesus said, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’” Instead of preparing ourselves to deal with the reality of abusive authority, we are like Paul, who watched the coats while Stephen is martyred.
Instead of being on constant guard against the messy victims of abuse, perhaps we should be on guard against the abuse itself, what do you think? How many sermons have you preached on submission and how many sermons have you preached against abusive (non-government and non-Pharisee) authority?
Thanks for reading, and I appreciate your perspective on this. Some of it is hard to respond to, since it has to do with perceptions about what’s going on in Reformed and Presbyterian churches in general, and I can’t really comment on that, since I don’t really have any way of knowing what all these churches do. I know what my own experience is, and I think it might be different than yours, because these days I seem to hear an awful lot about abusive authority. In my own circles I don’t really feel like there’s an overemphasis on submission to authority, but your mileage may vary. I do get very nervous when people make broad generalizations about the church in general, because this is the bride of Christ we’re talking about. Certainly if particular churches are teaching falsehood we should address that, always remembering humility and respect. But what R and P churches in general over- or under- emphasize- I just don’t know. I don’t have enough experience.
But, a few points come to mind.
The focus in the Bible is always on myself and my sin, and generally not on the other guy’s sin. So if someone treats me sinfully, which happens about a hundred times a day, my focus should always be on how I respond to that, not on how I correct the other person. So if I am the authority, the focus should be on how I use my authority in a godly way, according to Scriptural principles, understanding the very limited and ministerial nature of authority that any human being ever has over another. When I am under authority, the focus needs to be on joyfully submitting to that authority, even when it is wrong, since no human being ever exercises authority perfectly. So if your major issue is with what you believe to be abusive authority, your spiritual leaders may have been right to point you first and foremost to your own response to that authority, not to talk about all the things the other guy did wrong. In the examples you cited, some of them seem clearly excessive; others, I think it would depend a lot on various factors. When you say, for example, that the wife must submit to her husband’s desire to have sex, while I would strongly advise against any man pushing this point on any given occasion, but rather respecting his wife’s desires and situation, doesn’t Paul tell us exactly that, that both partners must submit to their spouse’s desires, in 1 Cor. 7:3-5? This isn’t really an authority issue, so much as a duty that both spouses owe to the other.
There is, in fact, several places in the Scriptures where we are taught to submit and bear with abusive authority. And there are several examples of people in the Bible who did just that, and are commended for it, and blessed through it. Joseph and David both immediately spring to mind. Joseph did not spend his time thinking about how rotten and evil his slave-masters were (which they were). He served them to the best of his ability, and was blessed immensely through it. Abigail did not seek to rebel against her foolish husband’s authority, even though she took it upon herself to circumvent it when a life-or-death situation required it. She was called very wise for doing so.
That does not mean we should never seek to be out from under abusive authority. The Bible addresses that. But while we are in this life, none of us will ever be free of abusive authority, because that is the nature of the world. I see the great bulk of Scriptural teaching to be on how we joyfully submit even to evil men, and all of us have to do it a lot, and conversely how we as authorities over others seek to exercise that authority rightly. The focus is not on how we can get away from abusive authority, or on how we can make sure that others respect and submit to our authority. Again, the focus is generally on what we do, not on what the other guy does. We should worry about our own heart, and let God judge the other guy.
With regard to the nature of authority- all human authority is limited and based on functions to be performed. A parent must protect, nurture and instruct a child, and is given the authority he needs to do this job. A pastor is called to preach the word and to look out for the spiritual welfare of his flock, and he is given the authority to that job. Human authority is always ministerial- meaning, it is tied to the function the authority is given. A father must protect and provide for his household, and to guide it in righteousness. Authority never exceeds that which is necessary to do the job. No authority is ever based on the superiority of one human being over another. I teach this constantly, in sermons, in Bible studies, in marital and family counseling, and whenever else it comes up. But it will always be a matter of subjective opinion whether I preach this one particular point as much as I should, or in proper balance with other truths. No human authority will ever be exercised perfectly, and all failures of authority are abusive, as they always hurt those under the authority. But the imperfect exercise of authority is never of itself in the Scriptures a reason to defy or rebel against it. Our obligations to obey are not absolute or unlimited, and abuse of authority in extreme situations can certainly lead to the loss of that authority, but it’s probably beyond the scope of this comment (which is already pretty long!) to explore those kinds of situations, which depend on a lot of particular factors, I think. If all abusive authority could be rebelled against, there would be no authority on this earth.
But questions of how much to preach on one thing or another are always pretty tricky and subjective. Every pastor will make different choices, and those choices will not be perfect.
So again, thanks for reading and responding. I don’t know if I’ve adequately addressed your point, but hopefully this helps you see a bit more of where I’m coming from on this subject, which really is a different one (though related) than the subject of the post.
I’ve preached many times on this subject. Here’s an example:
You said what I was concerned you would say:
“So if your major issue is with what you believe to be abusive authority, your spiritual leaders may have been right to point you first and foremost to your own response to that authority, not to talk about all the things the other guy did wrong.”
This is exactly what I was saying. Your approach to authority is to blame the victim. That is different from virtually every other area. If someone robs me at gunpoint you wouldn’t say, “well, Mr. Mark, what did YOU do?” Why is it so important to figure out what I contributed? Are you saying that abuse is okay sometimes? Are you saying abuse is okay if I’m really really provoked?
I believe the Bible teaches submission to ungodly authority only when that authority operates within its bounds. Rahab committed treason, but it was treason to a nation that had gone beyond its authority. Abigail, funny you bring her up, disobeyed her husband’s authority because he was a fool.
You cannot say that all authority is limited out of one side of your mouth, and then say that we are obligated to obey authority beyond its limits out of the other. In fact, I think you are lying. If a policeman says that you need to kiss his boot, would you pucker up? I doubt it. You know that the policeman does not have that authority. You would respectfully say, “NO”. If a policeman wants to walk into your house without a warrant. NO. You can’t claim God’s blessing on you when you submit to boundless authority. You are sinfully allowing the policeman to abuse you. If the policeman threatens you with a gun, that changes things. I believe such is the obedience commended of Joseph. Whether or not Potiphar executed legitimate authority, Potiphar had the ability to put Joseph in prison, or probably have him killed.
But, that explains a lot. As long as you trumpet that submission is required to evil and abusive authority, you will always side with the abuser, because regardless of how evil and abusive he is, it is the hallmark of the victim to submit to his abuse joyfully and cheerfully.
It is interesting that our degenerate government has a better idea of the limit of authority. Consider a case where a cyclist is told to pull over by a police officer, but refuses. “Further, the defendant had multiple opportunities to stop and address the officer’s concerns and therefore forgo the ugly situation that arose later, but he failed to do so. However, as minimally intrusive as it may seem to require the defendant to stop and talk with the officer when requested, he had a fundamental right to be left alone under the Fourth Amendment, and in this court’s opinion, was not required to stop.” You can read the rest here: http://www.sconet.state.oh.us/rod/docs/pdf/98/2008/2008-Ohio-7142.pdf
Would you bring church discipline against the cyclist for not stopping?
I think this falls in line with those who call good evil and evil good. It’s a very sophisticated ploy, but it is the same thing. By attacking the victim for not submitting joyfully to abuse, you call good evil. By refusing to stand up against those abuses (evidenced by the fact you say it’s okay to interrogate the abused) you call evil good. That has been my experience with Reformed and Presbyterian churches and why I paint them with the same brush.
No, you’re not reading what I’m saying. If someone exercises their authority over you in an abusive way, we are still required to react humbly and respectfully to that authority. That doesn’t mean that you are in any way to blame for their abuse. It just means you are responsible for your own reactions. Someone else’s sin never gives you a reason to sin, and God requires us to submit to authority, even when it is sinful authority.
Abigail is a great example. Even when she feels she has to circumvent her husband’s authority, even in such an extreme case, she still respects him as her husband and does not seek to be loosed from his authority. So too, if someone exercises authority totally outside of their rights, in such a way as to require me to violate my conscience or disobey other rightful authorities, I can and must resist, but I must still respect them as authority.
The case of the bicyclist makes the point well. There was a higher authority over the cop, saying the cop couldn’t do what he was doing. The bicyclist, knowing this, was obeying the higher authority rather than the cop. But if the law of the land was that you had to pull over whenever the cop said so, then the bicyclist should have done so. And in any case, the bicyclist should have continued to recognize the authority of the cop as a cop.
Your problem is not with me, Mark. It’s with the Scriptures.
Nero was the emperor in Rome when Paul wrote Romans 13.
18 Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh.
19 For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully.
20 For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. (1Pe 2:18-20 NKJ)
what an emotionally-driven conversation! This is such a difficult topic to address spiritually with God’s word, when the flesh finds so much opportunity to distort these things in myriads of destructive ways!
Matt, thanks for tackling this conversation head on with scripture, as it’s God’s word which is the only infallible standard for us, which He breathed out for us, and it’s ultimately not our speculations that can be the standard; especially as the wisdom of the world is frequently found to erroneously and foolishly run contrary to the steadfast word of our God, as it has been delivered to us from our loving Father, the faithful Husband of the Bride, and the Holy Spirit Who works in the Church and has sealed us with the guarantee of peaceful communion sabbath in relationship with our Triune Lord. I appreciate hearing another voice urge myself to see how I’m called to faithfully live out the gospel towards others in these areas, when the current stream of consciousness within our culture is so often in opposition to faithfulness to the Lord, and my own spirit needs encouragement and strength to fight the flesh, when the flesh is so easily able to find an abundance of provisions for its strength in the world around us.
I pray that this conversation is helpful to others, as well, in calling us to love each other as God calls us to, especially when that means loving all parties wisely, mercifully, and shrewdly, in ways that worldly “wisdom” at times will malign.
I was not aware until I was in the middle of such a situation that there was such a thing as divorce for abandonment, how that was defined, or what the limitations were. Having had the benefit of a church able to walk me biblically through this, I will say that it was a great comfort that they tried many ways over time to solve problems, so that I can look back now and say, wow, I had forgotten how hard we tried, how many approaches were offered. I have no doubt now that it was the right decision, although v painful.
Thank God for faithful churches!