I began the previous blogs with an acknowledgment that the church and biblical counselors have often failed victims of abuse by not listening well and failing to protect them from harm. I acknowledged that many church leaders need to repent of their failure to “rescue the weak and needy; [and] save them out of the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:4).
I include myself among the church leaders who look back (in my case, over 40 years of ministry) and realize that I did not understand the many kinds of abuse and the degree of harm many women were experiencing. Furthermore, I did not do enough to help them find safety. I have had to go back to several women to seek their forgiveness for not helping them as I should have. I am thankful for the gracious responses I have received. My ignorance was not an excuse.
In my previous blogs, while affirming the importance of understanding the destructive nature of abuse and protecting victims of oppression, I expressed concern that in their zeal to correct the failures of the past, some have swung too far in the other direction, which can lead to further harm and injustice. I gave several examples of what I believed to be unbalanced overstatements. In each case, I described the good intention behind the statements, the harm caused by imbalanced thinking, and a more balanced way of addressing the same concerns. In this blog, I want to raise two other ways in which the abuse pendulum may have swung to an unbiblical extreme.
Some assert that because Scripture has been weaponized against victims of abuse, the Bible should not be quoted when counseling them.
1. Some valid concerns: Scripture has been “abused.”
- Oppressive husbands have been browbeating their wives with Bible verses, usually the passages demanding submission (Ephesians 5:22-24; 1 Peter 3:1-2). Selfish, violent men who seem to have no concern for their responsibility to love their wives sacrificially as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25-30) use the Bible as an excuse for compelling their wives to submit to virtually every category of abuse, including verbal, sexual, financial, etc.
- Clergy and counselors have misused these texts (especially 1 Peter 3:1-2 and perhaps Hebrews 13:17) by sending oppressed women back into dangerous situations, having been told that if they were more submissive, then the abuse would stop. Some men are so hard-hearted that no amount of wifely kindness will move them.1In the preceding context, Jesus is the model for those who are oppressed, but in the face of His humble silence, His oppressors did not relent from harming Him (1 Peter 2:21-24). The abused wife is not required to endure such oppression. Such abusers will even take advantage of their spouse’s eagerness to please in order to impose further oppression.
- Some counselors have been too quick to launch into biblical exhortation before compassionately listening to the counselee’s story of suffering (Proverbs 18:13; James 1:19).
- Counselors also have been guilty of focusing merely upon the victim’s sinful responses to abuse rather than bringing the comfort which Scripture offers to a sufferer.
2. The harm that may result from the unbiblical extreme — What then will you say instead?
If the advice we give does not come from the Bible, then from where will it come? Victims of abuse desperately need comfort and wisdom. Which wisdom is more effective and helpful than the Bible? Some Christian counselors dispense the advice of secular abuse experts rather than looking to the Word of God. While there may be some common grace wisdom to be found among secular counselors, no human wisdom compares to God’s Word, which offers divine healing and transforming power for the victim of abuse.“The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the LORD are true; they are righteous altogether. They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much pure gold. Sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:7-10 NASB).
3. It would be better to say, “Rightly weaponize Scripture” (Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12).
- The counselor should be quick to hear and slow to speak (James 1:19). Counseling should begin by listening carefully and compassionately to the sufferer. Every effort should be made to understand their situation and how it has affected them emotionally and spiritually (Proverbs 20:5; 18:13).
- While all Scripture is infallible, not every passage is equally appropriate in every situation. The devil misused God’s Word when tempting Jesus (Matthew 4). It is also possible for us to misuse Scripture (i.e., preaching submission to a victim of battering). Be careful. On the other hand, Jesus answered the devil’s misuse of Scripture not with silence but with Scripture properly applied.
- The Bible can and must be powerfully weaponized in appropriate, helpful ways. Among the pieces of the Christian’s armor is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17b). Likewise, the author of the epistle to the Hebrews proclaims, “For the word of God is living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12a).
- The woman who has been oppressed and is fearful needs the hope and comfort God’s Word gives to sufferers. The Psalms speak to every kind of human experience and emotion.“Be gracious to me, O God, for a man has trampled upon me; Fighting all day long he oppresses me. My enemies have trampled upon me all day long, For they are many who fight proudly against me. When I am afraid, I will put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise. In God I have put my trust; I shall not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?… You have taken account of my wanderings; Put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in Your book? Then my enemies will turn back on the day when I call; This I know that God is for me. In God, whose word I praise, In the LORD, whose word I praise, In God I have put my trust, I shall not be afraid. What can mankind do to me? For You have saved my soul from death, Indeed, my feet from stumbling, So that I may walk before God in the light of the living” (Psalm 56:1-4, 8-11, 13).
- All Scripture points us to Christ, who has suffered as we have and who has compassion upon us in our suffering and offers the help we need (Hebrews 4:15-16; Mark 6:34).
- God’s Word offers the wisdom that the victim of oppression needs. For example, women who are being abused have the right to get help from the church, which should be ready to bring discipline upon the abuser (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5). Likewise, Scripture reveals the role of government in prosecuting those who are violent and offering legal protection for the innocent and oppressed (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:14).
- God’s Word can rightly be used as a weapon to expose the abuser’s sin and to bring conviction with the help of the Holy Spirit. Contrast how Christ has sacrificially loved His bride, the church, with how the husband has abused his poor wife (Ephesians 5:25-30). Remind him of God’s care for the helpless and warn him of the judgment which the Lord will bring upon those who oppress the weak and innocent. The Lord examines the righteous, but the wicked, those who love violence, He hates with a passion. (Psalm 11:5; also see 2 Peter 2:9).
Some say power and authority must be resisted and overthrown.
1. Some valid concerns: Authority and power have been misused
Many have rightly pointed out that control and oppression are at the heart of abuse and that the misuse of authority causes great harm to victims of abuse. Many husbands abuse their power by selfishly oppressing their wives. Scripture does not require women to submit to such oppressive behavior. Some women have been further harmed when church leaders failed to use their authority and power to protect the oppressed, sometimes even sending them back into dangerous situations with an exhortation to simply work harder at complying with their husbands’ demands.
2. The harm that may result from the unbiblical extreme — Some reject biblical authority
Many react against the misuse of power by rejecting biblically established authority structures in the home and the church. Some even go so far as to blame biblical teaching on marriage roles for causing abuse.On the other hand, many ladies with whom we have worked affirm biblical teaching on male leadership in the home and are grieved at their husband’s failure to live up to the biblical standard. Just as the misuse of Scripture does not imply that we shouldn’t counsel from the Bible, the misuse of authority does not lead to the conclusion that we should no longer respect the authorities which God has established. We have seen cases of power reversal in which the former victim insists upon having an improper degree of control, perhaps out of fear of being mistreated again. In addition, her husband may be ready to abdicate his role in decision making in hopes of getting his wife back or for fear of upsetting her. Even worse, some abuse experts even encourage victims to use past oppression as an excuse for sinfully vengeful responses to oppressive authority figures.There is a sad irony that some in our culture who claim to defend those who haven’t had a voice would silence the voices of entire categories of people, including husbands and church leaders.
3. It would be better to say, “Promote a biblical model of marriage”2This section assumes that there is evidence that the abuser has repented and that wise efforts are being made to restore the marriage. I do not favor encouraging women to go back to situations in which they may be unsafe. I would encourage women who have been oppressed in the past and are considering reconciliation to work closely with experienced female advocates and church leaders.
Rather than going from one unbiblical practice to another, the answer to the misuse of authority is to help couples who are seeking recovery and reconciliation after abuse to reshape their marriage according to the scriptural model. The husband must learn to become a Christlike leader who humbly and sacrificially loves his wife. They learn to work together as equal partners in marriage. For example, if the husband had made major financial decisions unilaterally in the past, now he will show respect to her as his helper and co-heir of the grace of life as they make important decisions together (Genesis 2:18; 1 Peter 3:7; Proverbs 31:11-12). This transformation will typically take time as the husband learns a new way of thinking and acting and as he patiently waits for his wife’s trust to be restored.3This assumes that the husband has been brought to repentance (which, sadly, is rare (but not impossible) and usually takes a long time) and that the wife (ideally having received wise counsel from church leaders, including a female advocate) has concluded that it is safe to move towards reconciliation.
As biblical counselors face challenging issues, it is easy for the pendulum to swing from one extreme to the other. I recognize that both the Bible and authority structures have been misused (weaponized) by abusers, counselors, and church leaders. However, we need to be careful not to overreact by failing to give God’s Word its necessary place as a mighty sword of truth in our counseling and by following scriptural principles of authority in the home and the church.
Questions for Reflection
- How can Scripture be misused in counseling?
- Why is it important to use Scripture in all our counseling?
- What is the biblical answer to the improper use of power and authority?
*This is part of a series of four blogs about domestic abuse by Dr. Jim Newheiser. The next blog will be posted Friday, November 12.
This blog was originally posted at BCC, view the original post here.
To read ACBC’s Statement on Abuse and Biblical Counseling visit our Committed to Care website.