“He’s abusing me.”
“I love her and wouldn’t think of harming her.”
This is a marital scenario that pastors and elders face from time to time. Where do we go from here? We have two biblical pillars that must control everything.
The Bible tells us that it is a sin to abuse anyone and to “pass by on the other side” when we hear a cry for help.
The Bible also tells us that it’s a sin to falsely accuse and to find someone guilty who is innocent.
But how do we establish the truth here, minister to these two professing believers, and fulfill our obligations to honor and please God?
We question each individual and ask for their side of the story. But we basically end up back with the first two sentences of this post. What now? Where do we get wisdom for obeying God in this scenario?
Obviously the Bible condemns abuse in all its forms, but it does not give us any detail about how to recognize the signs, what are the usual patterns of denial, what steps should be taken for a victim’s short-term and long-term safety, how to respond to the PTSD that sometimes results, and so on.
So what do we do?
Do the pastor and elder just try to guess the right things to do even though they may never have faced this situation before? They might consult other pastors and elders, but they will probably find most of them either haven’t faced this before, or else they’ve made an absolute mess of it when they did and don’t want to get involved again.
What’s next? We’re praying for wisdom and insight but the Bible and the Christian community do not seem to have the wisdom we need. But did God not promise to provide wisdom if we lacked it and asked for it (James 1:5)? Yes, he did. And he does. But sometimes he provides the needed wisdom for obedience to him from outside the Scriptures and from outside the Christian community. He gives wisdom generously to all. (e.g. here, and here).
There are men and women—psychologists, counselors, social workers, etc.—who have dedicated their whole lives to helping the victims of marital abuse. Some of them have handled many hundreds of different cases. Unlike pastors and elders who may get a case like this once a decade, it’s all they do, all day, every day. Most of them are not Christians and therefore cannot fix the heart of the abuser or fully comfort the heart of the victim, but their compassion, insight, and wisdom in these situations put most of us to shame.
They have studied hundreds of abusers and victims. They know how abusers operate. They know their strategies and tactics. They know their defenses, denials, and doublespeak. They know how they make their victims feel guilty. They know which buttons they press when they talk to pastors, elders, and other authorities. They know the multi-layered damage victims suffer (even when there has been no physical contact). They know when and how to intervene. They know how to extract victims from danger and when. They know how to defend and protect victims and their children. They know the PTSD that often follows and the steps to take to rebuild identity and confidence. They know the signs of false repentance in an abuser. In sum, they know how to separate truth from lies, and they know how to distinguish what helps from what harms.
Do Christians and churches not need that so-called “secular wisdom” (which is actually the gift of a generous God) if we are to obey God fully in this situation? This wisdom is more than filling in details. It is fundamental and foundational to any effective counseling in this situation. This wisdom is more than “helpful.” It is necessary. It is vital. It is imperative. It is heaven’s answer to the prayer of James 1:5. We should be thankful that God is continuing to impart such gifts of wisdom to the human race for the good of his people. I know many victims of abuse are.
Do we accept it wholesale? Of course not. Evolutionary, feminist, and humanist theory can be found throughout this field of knowledge. But the Bible is 100% sufficient to screen and filter this knowledge so that we only let in what is in accordance with God’s truth. With the Bible always in our hands and in our hearts, we can work with psychologists for the good of victims.
There are many books and papers written by psychologists and others who have devoted their lives to serving the victims of domestic abuse. If you want the quickest sample of this presented at a popular level, watch this TED talk, Unmasking the Abuser, by social psychologist Dina McMillan. Her understanding of the deceitful and desperately wicked twists and turns of human motivation, personality, evasion, and manipulation, provide one of the best “commentaries” on Jeremiah 17:9 that I’ve come across. And, of course, there are also wise Christian psychologists, like Diane Langberg (a faculty member at Westminster Seminary), who have studied and counseled in this subject area for many years and that we would make our first resort.
To the person who still insists that this is merely helpful wisdom, but it’s not necessary, I would ask: “At what point does something helpful become a moral obligation to pursue and provide?” Or to put it another way, “How helpful does something have to be before it becomes necessary?” I’ll unpack that question further in a future article.
And if you want a conservative Christian defense of this approach to the sufficiency of Scripture, how it honors the Bible and God’s intent for it, and especially how to reconcile the spiritual antithesis with common grace, read Westminster Seminary professor Dennis Johnson’s excellent article, Spiritual Antithesis: Common Grace, and Practical Theology.