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A Time for Choosing

Biblical Counseling, Southwestern Seminary, and Standing with the Weak, Oppressed, and Abused

When I was in elementary school I lived with my alcoholic mother who regularly abused and neglected me and my twin brother. One afternoon I dropped some eggs on the floor, infuriating mom. She picked up a mop to begin cleaning the mess, but as she moved across the floor she realized how angry she was and started to hit me over the head with the mop handle. Most of the blows hit the very top of my head, but the one that hurt the most landed right across the side of my face. I still remember the avalanche of pain and the taste of blood as it dripped into my mouth.

That terrible memory is the first thing that entered my mind when, several weeks ago, I heard the—now infamous—clip of Dr. Paige Patterson saying he was happy about the two black eyes a wife received from the fist of her husband. As one who has felt the intensity of blunt force on my face, I felt terrible that a sister in Christ had to hear such words.

I realize that Dr. Patterson has explained that he was speaking of being happy that an abusive man felt conviction over his sin, visited church, and came to Christ. And yet, Dr. Patterson’s comments are still unhelpful and wrong on several counts.

First, his comments made it seem like we should be happy when something bad happens. This is not true. The Bible makes clear that while we can be happy in trials because of the good things God will do in and through them, we are never to be happy at trials (James 1:2-4). Instead, we are always to maintain our Christian witness concerning the utter wickedness of sin.

Second, the Bible instructs Christians to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). Christians never have any excuse for a cavalier response to anyone in pain—whether that person is experiencing the pain of abuse or anything else.

Third, Christians have a responsibility to protect the weak from harm. To mention just one example, the prophet Isaiah commands, “Learn to do good; Seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17). As grateful as anyone should be when an abuser repents and comes to Christ, the high rates of recidivism for abusers require all Christians to spring into action to protect the victims of abuse regardless of the professions of faith of their oppressors.

Finally, the biblical teaching on complementarity, that men are to protect women, rules out any lack of sensitivity towards women who have been victimized by men.

Dr. Patterson did express regret over his comments. That is a cause for gratitude for all Bible-believing Christians, serving as a clear indication that the climate in our contemporary context requires Christian leaders to back down from such harmful comments. Even though Christians should be grateful for that climate and for the expressions of regret it produces, we also must admit that it is not enough. Such expressions fall far short of a true reckoning with the biblical data that rules such harmful comments out of bounds. Such mild expressions fail to come to terms with the real and profound hurt caused by the words and actions of people who should know better. The Christian community is right to expect more, and to demand better.

None of these comments even considers the report in the Washington Post about a young woman who was raped, was interrogated about the details of her victimization from Patterson and several other men, was encouraged not to report this criminal act, and then was subjected to disciplinary action from the school. I have no first-hand knowledge about those alleged events, but I write these words sitting in the same room with my wife and young daughter, and simply do not have words to communicate my devastation that something so terrible happened to someone just like them. If anything approaching that situation is accurate, the watching world is right to be outraged.

As Christians, we must look at this situation and see it as a clear time to choose. The world is watching. Our families are watching. Our churches are watching. We must stand with God himself against the victimization of the weak. We must communicate to the world that our churches are safe places for anyone who experiences the mistreatment of oppressors. We must show our wives, our daughters, and all of our children that they can trust us with their care. If they learn they cannot trust us on these matters, then they cannot trust us at all. They will never—and should never—trust us with the message of a crucified Messiah.

I shared last week that, one year ago, The Association of Certified Biblical Counselors decided that our annual conference on biblical counseling in 2018 would address the topic of abuse. We also chose Southwestern Seminary as the host of that conference. We could not have known that the very theme of our conference would be a source of such tremendous controversy at the very place we had been planning to gather for an annual meeting with our international association of counselors.

Like so many others, I was watching with great interest as the Southwestern trustees met to determine the path forward for their president. I was disappointed by the decision of the trustees that sent a confused message to all those who have been hurt by the abuse of another. Since that decision, we have been working very hard on an alternative location for our conference this October 1-3. I have communicated  with the leadership of Southwestern Seminary, and let them know that ACBC will no longer be convening our annual meeting at their campus. Instead, our conference, Light in the Darkness: Biblical Counseling and Abuse will now take place at Countryside Bible Church, which is also in the Fort Worth area. The leaders of Countryside have done a remarkable job working with us on short notice to provide a venue where a crucial conversation about how to protect the victims of abuse can happen without distraction. I am eager for you to join us for this important event.

One afternoon in the first grade, my mother got angry with me for crying out for my dad. She shoved me into a glass table that broke and scratched my face. Some days later, I met with a social worker at my school who asked me about the pronounced scratch. I told her what happened, but she kept asking me about it over, and over, and over again. Even in the single-digits of life, I could tell she thought I was lying, but couldn’t tell why she thought that. Later, she came to my house and interviewed me, my brother, and my mother together. In that meeting, with my mother sitting there, she asked again about the scratch. This time, out of utter self-preservation, I did lie. Looking past her and seeing a swing, I pointed and said that I had fallen off of it. She looked at me with a face that demonstrated that her suspicions had been confirmed.

I don’t know if you have ever felt weak, alone, scared, and helpless. But I have. That day was one of those times, and I haven’t forgotten it. In my life I am committed to working so that nobody under my influence ever feels that way. It is of great personal importance to me that you never feel alone. I want you to know that ACBC is an organization that cares for you, and wants to help. We stand with you. And I am eager for you to join us—at Countryside Bible Church in Fort Worth, Texas—to learn how a Galilean man, who was abused for your salvation, can comfort you in the midst of your own abuse and shine his light into the darkness of your pain.

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Heath Lambert