This October 1-3 the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors will host our annual conference on biblical counseling on the theme of abuse. We have entitled the conference, Light in the Darkness: Biblical Counseling and Abuse. Our desire is to help the church grow up in the wisdom of Christ about how to care for people hurting in the aftermath of abuse. Recent events have underlined the need we have as Christians to grow in God’s wisdom about abuse, but my decision to focus on abuse this year was an intensely personal decision.
I have been the victim of physical abuse. I know what it is to have someone you love use size and strength to hurt you repeatedly. I know what it is to run through snow in bare feet to flee violence. I have heard the sound of gunshots from my mother’s gun, which were intended for me. It is a terrorizing feeling to return home from school day, after day, after day, and not know whether your mom is drunk and you’re in trouble, or whether she is gone and you’re fine—for a few hours. I would never want anyone to spend two seconds in the kind of fearful hell that I dwelt in for a decade.
I also am married to my incredible wife, Lauren, and our lives are filled up with the joy of our three beautiful children: two sons and a daughter. They are my four favorite people in the world. I would give anything I have to protect them from the kind of harm I experienced, and would move heaven and earth to keep them from being the kind of perpetrators of violence that I knew in my home.
So the urgency of a conference on abuse is personal. But it is also biblical. The Bible is crystal clear about the need to protect weak people from harm.
Deuteronomy 27:19—“Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.”
Psalm 12:5—“Because the poor are plundered, because the needy groan, I will now arise,” says the LORD; “I will place him in the safety for which he longs.”
Proverbs 24:11-12—“Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.”
Isaiah 1:17—“Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”
Amos 5:24—“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Zechariah 7:10—“Do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.”
That is far from an exhaustive recounting of the biblical statements requiring the protection of the weak, but it is enough of a start to demonstrate that all of the many voices today crying out for the protection of the weak learned to speak that way from a gentle Father who demands that his creation be treated with dignity, love, and care. All Christians must stand together against any form of abuse. To fail to do so is to fail to stand with our creator God who commands that the strong protect the weak.
It is this commitment to reflect the Father’s care for people that is behind Article III., D. in the ACBC Standards of Conduct, which says,
Biblical counselors must care for counselees in protecting the weak from harm. Counselees can be harmed by others and can inflict harm on themselves. Biblical counselors avoid sinful language and behavior that brings harm in to the lives of their counselees. Biblical counselors understand that it is impossible to protect the weak from every danger in a fallen world and yet they endeavor to protect counselees from exposure to the harmful treatment of others through false teaching, unbiblical counseling, harsh speech, abusive treatment, and any other manifestation of sinful relationships. And they actively seek to protect counselees from harm through their own persistent sin.
Protecting the weak from harm (whether it has to do with sexual assault, other forms of physical violence, or verbal mistreatment) is biblical.
Another passage in Scripture, however, can raise some concern as it relates to this conversation. It is 1 Peter 3:1-2—“Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.”
Let me make a few observations about this passage, how it fits in with the current conversation Christians are having about abuse, and how it fits in with the biblical conviction to protect the weak.
First, this passage speaks a relatively clear word about a wife’s responsibility when married to a husband who does not obey the Word. The heart of God behind this passage is that the respectful and pure conduct of a godly wife be on display to a man who needs the grace of Jesus Christ. Christians who are committed to the Bible as the Word of God are not allowed to pretend this passage does not mean what it says just because that teaching is controversial. God uses the faithfulness of believing spouses to bring unbelieving spouses to faith in Christ (1 Cor. 7:16).
That gets to the second observation. This teaching, which is part of the larger framework of biblical teaching on the importance of a wife’s submission to her husband (Eph 5:22-24, Col 3:18), is not popular today. Everything about God’s design for marriage cuts against the grain of a secular age that allows people to live any way they want and would allow men and women to do anything they want with God’s institution of marriage. God designed marriage to be a glorious depiction of the gospel, with the husband loving his wife as Christ loves the church and with the wife affirming the leadership of her husband (Eph. 5:22-24; Col. 3:18). This teaching is countercultural and indeed unpopular in many places today. It is nonetheless designed by God for our good and for His glory (Eph. 5:32).
Third, and perhaps most importantly, this clear teaching which is at odds with the spirit of the world, is not at odds with the Spirit of Scripture. The same Spirit that inspired 1 Peter 3:1-2 is the same Spirit that inspired all the biblical passages about protecting the weak. That means biblical counsel which encourages women to be submissive to their husbands is not at odds with biblical counsel that works strenuously to keep women safe.
To say it a different way, a woman does not stop affirming her husband’s leadership when she reaches out to civil authorities and to her church family for help in any situation where she needs protection and safety. In fact, the best way for her to be a submissive wife is to first be submissive to God who provides government, like local police, for the protection and care of his people (Romans 13:1-4). This reality means that when women are experiencing abuse they should reach out to the authorities and when any of us know they are experiencing abuse, we should reach out to others on their behalf.
The issue in our day is not about whether divorce is the right way to handle issues of violence against women (or men!). Christian teachers can be completely consistent on keeping women safe, even while disagreeing on the nature of and reasons for divorce. This is a good thing because so many of us with experience in this area know that there is nothing about a divorce that necessarily keeps a woman safe. Without a practical plan for protecting the weak, pursuing a divorce can even increase the danger.
The real issue is how we keep the victims of abuse safe, and we can keep victims safe and away from abusers no matter our differing views on divorce. We do that by knowing the laws about reporting the suspicion or accusation of child and spousal abuse and by following those laws in good faith. We also do that by offering tender concern and care for the abused and by helping the abused to find hope and healing through the gospel. We must do all we can to provide ongoing counseling and support for the abused.
How can we grow in our wisdom to ensure that those among us who are injured and scared can find people in our churches who know how to speak with wise grace, act with boldness, and engage the governing authorities so that as many people as possible are protected from harm?
Answering that question is not only the purpose of our ACBC conference, but, in many ways, is also the purpose of my life.
For more information about the 2018 ACBC conference on Abuse, click here.
For more information about Heath Lambert’s story, click here to watch his 2014 CCEF Plenary Address in which he shares his full testimony.