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The Abuse Pendulum Part 1

Truth In Love 370

How do we understand the current context of abuse cases in our churches?

Jul 4, 2022

Dale Johnson: I am thrilled today to have with us, Dr. Jim Newheiser. He’s a director of The Institute for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship known as IBCD, which is one of our training centers here at ACBC and he’s the director of the Christian Counseling program at RTS Charlotte. He’s also a full professor of Christian Counseling and Practical Theology at RTS Charlotte. Dr. Newheiser serves as a board member for ACBC and also on the Biblical Counseling Coalition. For 25 years. Dr. Newheiser served as a teaching pastor at Grace Bible Church in Escondido, California before taking over the Christian Counseling program at RTS Charlotte in 2016. He now oversees all the counseling degree options, including the 66 Credit hour, M.A. in Christian Counseling. Dr. Newheiser teaches many of the counseling courses as well as some practical theology courses there at RTS Charlotte. Dr. Newheiser has been married to his wife Caroline for 42 years and they have three adult children.

Dr. Newheiser, thank you much for joining us today and talking about this very important topic.

Jim Newheiser: Very glad to be with you, Dale. 

Dale Johnson: Now we’re going to jump in and talk about this issue of abuse, and listen, this issue, and rightfully so, to some degree is exploding everywhere. When we talk about this issue of abuse, number one, it is very, very sensitive and, again, rightfully so. Number two, we have seen that some really, really failed and maybe even us included, we’re going to talk about that some today as well.

I want us to look at this idea of abuse, Dr. Newheiser, if we can, obviously, from a biblical perspective, I want us to see through that lens. But I also want us to be tender toward those who have experienced some level of abuse. And I want us to evaluate this on some level in ways that we can do better, as we approach this issue of abuse. I want to set this in the context of understanding that we have proper expectations, but we’re never going to be perfect on this. We are finite people who don’t know everything that there is to know, not everything there is to know about abuse and sometimes we don’t know abuse that’s happening in the counseling room. And so, we have to give ourselves a little bit of grace as we approach this. But we want to be as clear as possible. We want to be as insightful as possible as counselors because some people are walking through unbelievable difficulty in abusive situations in abusive relationships. And so, we want to be as keen as possible to do what we can to care well and to help in situations like this.

Now, I want to begin if we can with this topic of abuse and I want to get your estimation here, Dr. Newheiser on why you think right now abuse is such a hot topic.

Jim Newheiser: Well, Dale, in recent years the lid has been blown off of the amount of abuse going on in families in the churches. And sometimes the failure of the churches to deal with this in terms of discipline and protection. There’s also been problems, of course, with church leaders where there’s been sexual abuse. And there has been on the part of many churches, a failure to protect the victims, a failure to hold people accountable. I think what was hidden before in terms of how much abuse there is right now is come to the fore. And so, the awareness level is high, and in addition to people being extraordinarily upset over the mistreatment of mostly women, and children also. I think the outrage recently has been over the failure of people in spiritual authority to hold perpetrators accountable and to protect victims. And there’s a massive amount of evidence and of course, some are now going back for decades supporting the reality of those failures. And so, here we are, and it’s a tough time.

Dale Johnson: Yeah, it’s no doubt a tough time, and I want to make a little bit of clarification. I think it’s unbelievable that the position that we find ourselves in right now and some of that is, you rightfully articulated. We’ve made mistakes and we have to own some of those mistakes. Now, one of the things I want to make clear is we have a tendency in situations like this to run to the polemics, run to the polls of extreme and we have to be very cautious and I think even the way that you’ve approached this in some blogs recently that we’ve posted on our website at on this pendulum swinging back and forth as it relates to abuse. We have to be cautious and careful to understand that. Listen, in this whole process, there have been evil actors. There’s no question about that. But we have to understand there are degrees of culpability with some folks in this whole realm of abuse. I mean, some people have bad intention, no question about that. Some people intentionally hid things that they ought not to be hiding, they should bring to the light, even those who are spiritual leaders. But then, there are some people who had no intention of further harming. Maybe they didn’t know what was going on at the time, they didn’t have knowledge to make some sort of decision and they fall into this category now, as people look back hindsight 20/20 and there’s a lot of assumption here that there was manipulation involved and that sort of thing. We have to approach this issue of abuse with tenderness and care on both sides before we heap culpability on the heads of different people. So we have to be cautious here.

Now, one of the things that we can see very clearly in all of this, you sort of alluded to, but I want you to go a little bit further here, where we talk about our failures. We, in conservative churches, have failed. I don’t think there’s a question about this. We have made mistakes, the Bible makes clear that when we see ourselves as a collective group of the people of God and we see failure happening that there should be some form of collective repentance. That is certainly true. And the way we acknowledge that is by acknowledging some of our failures. So, talk for just a second, if you can, about the places that you see conservative churches have failed regarding this particular issue of abuse. 

Jim Newheiser: Yeah Dale, I appreciate your effort to make a difference between those who have covered up abuse really out of malice and those who out of, I would say, culpable ignorance failed to do as well as they should. And so, there are people who knew about horrific acts or even participated in horrific acts, and they should never be in ministry again. That’s one thing, but I’ll give you just my own background. My training began biblical counseling in the 80s and at that time, there was the rise of no-fault divorce and feminism and rejection of biblical complementarianism. And so, when Jesus said what God has joined, let no man put asunder in Matthew 19, we felt a need to protect marriage and there are often people who for completely unbiblical reasons, just marriage was a bit tough, then they married a guy they realized maybe their soulmate could be somewhere else or whatever they’re thinking. And so, there was a great emphasis upon protecting marriage which is a biblical principle, and I think with reference to abuse they would almost make fun of you know the term that would be used the legal court like “mental cruelty” or something like that. And kind of the way I was taught to think initially was that if there’s not blood or broken bones or bruises that it’s a conflict they need to work out. I think all of us have learned over the years in the biblical counseling movement including those of us in ACBC that you can harm somebody terribly and Proverbs talks about you destroy something with your words. And even in cases that I have faced where there is in some of the terms used even by the secular experts. I think, in common grace, they identify behaviors of manipulation using the children’s money, keeping someone from talking to family and friends, keeping them from getting help, misusing the biblical headship in the family on the part of a husband. And so, these things, and sometimes in a great degree were going on, and I can say personally, in my quest to defend marriage, I’ve had to go back even to women and say, “The pressure I put on you to stay if I was handling a case like this now, I realize, well, I can’t tell you to leave. I don’t think I can tell you you’re not free to leave.” And even First Corinthians 7 seems to picture a situation where a woman leaves but doesn’t remarry and I assume there’s some reason she didn’t want to.

My usual experience in these cases had been that Christian women really try a long time to stay before they think about leaving. It’s not that they take lightly, oh, I’m gonna go be happy, which is the worldly thing. But there are godly women who sometimes have gone, many miles of trying to make things work. And so, I think in the past, I can say for myself, that in the effort to protect marriage and I think, another thing we’ve been concerned would be to protect the reputation of someone being accused. We did not do well enough at protecting victims. We did not do well enough at holding accountable even to the point of church discipline those who are the perpetrators. And this is where I especially feel a burden that we as ACBC or a training and certifying organization and I don’t think we did well enough. And again, I started in a training role as a fellow in the 90s, I can confess that I don’t think I did well enough. I don’t think most of us did well enough equipping people we were training to recognize the victim of abuse to recognize the behaviors of an abuser, the manipulations of an abuser, and encouraging people of their biblical right to be safe from horrible mistreatment even if it’s not physical violence. And like I said, I’ve had to go back to people and they’ve generally been very gracious about that. And so, I agree, there’s some that are in right now in the news that it was virtually criminal and certainly disqualifying with malice, I don’t think you or I have been in that category. But I think those of us who claim to be biblical counselors and experts and trainers if we’re ignorant, it’s culpable ignorance because we’ve got the Bible and the Bible also does speak of holding people accountable and other kinds of mistreatment. So, I think we should admit where we fell short and we should strive to be better. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, amen to that. And those are just a few of the ways I think we could definitely acknowledge some of our failures in the conservative church. I want to get in just a second to talking about some of those failures specifically in the biblical counseling movement and you alluded to some of those. But first I want us to revisit even this idea of authority. When we talk about authority, it’s really important that we understand God has delegated aspects of authority to human stewards with that be government, church, or family and all of those are given caveats to obey those authorities in the Lord. And that’s a caveat that sometimes I think we forget it’s not at all cost and so we have to acknowledge that as a limitation as well.

Now several things that you mentioned. I happen to be reading in the book of Job this morning. And one of the things that you see with the counselors in the book of Job is they say a lot of true things, they say a lot of right things about God, but one of the key aspects is they forget the context in which they’re speaking or they don’t know the context in which they’re speaking. And that was for a number of reasons, they didn’t listen well, they didn’t hear fully what was going on, they made assumptions, and that sort of thing. And so, we can say a lot of right things, we say it in the wrong context and therefore, it’s not a proper outcome that’s pleasing to the Lord. That sounds to me a lot like what you’re describing, where we have a desire in the conservative church, especially in the context of no-fault divorce and so on, we want to uphold marriage. We want to ask people to endure and to walk faithfully and that sort of thing. And that’s not bad counsel, that’s good counsel. Those are true things but maybe not in the right context, particularly when we look at this issue of abuse. Give me some thoughts that you have on that. 

Jim Newheiser: Well, you know, it’s only you mentioned that the first time I thought that in some time I’ve been like Job’s counselors and that really hurts me to think that people were hurting and suffering, and I did not sympathize with them as I should have or now I’m told I need to empathize as well… I think there is some truth to our having failed in that way, you put it very well saying true things but not adequately understand the context of their suffering. I also really appreciate your point that I find that abusers tend ironically to be experts in Ephesians 5:25, and they misuse it to demand absolute authority over their wives. In terms of, even how the money is spent, how the children were raised, and who she can talk to, but nothing of what that authority was given for. Ironically, these are the same men who have never read Hebrews 13:17, which has that they’re to submit to the church authority or Ephesians. They’re experts in Ephesians 5:22, I should say of wives submit, but they themselves are not submissive to the authority over them. They don’t use Ephesians 5:25, their authority to serve and to love, and it’s really caused harm.

One of the worst things about this debacle has been that, especially when the secular experts will say that claims of male authority are the cause of abuse, and then they’re even Christians who are almost saying, well now, we need to reject complementarianism and embrace egalitarianism because of the misuse or the abuse of authority by certain men. And I can see how some of these men acting like selfish jerks could lead to that reaction. That’s the pendulum you were talking about. The answer is not to obliterate the roles that God is established, but it’s to enforce them, holding them accountable to treat their wives the way the Bible says they’re supposed to in a self-sacrificing, Christ-like love and not being domineering and selfish. People who claim to be complementarian, and it causes a lot of the problems in the present by their horrible example. I think all we can do would be in our own marriages and in our counseling to model what that headship really is. To acknowledge that submission does not mean that a wife has to subject herself to horrible mistreatment and has no recourse in terms of church authority or even civil authority. And then we as church authority need to take it seriously these accusations, these concerns and hold men accountable.

Dale Johnson: Amen. I think that’s so true. Now, I want us to circle back and talk about some of our failures in the biblical counseling movement. I think we have to be honest here, and I think we would acknowledge that there was no intention to mislead, mistreat, or manipulate folks. That’s not the intention. As we say, I think sometimes we may want some of the right things, but we’re wanting to apply a different truth to a false context or wrong context.

As I think about this, I think they’re my own context in the Southern Baptist Convention. I mean, we are certainly, you know, paying some of the prices for this manipulation this not dealing with abuse right now. Our own convention is not doing well. So, I want to talk a little bit about some of these failures that you see in the biblical counseling movement. And again, you’ve been a part of the movement for quite some time in its 45 years of history. And so, I think you give some pretty good context for where we’ve been, where we are now, and hopefully, where we’re going.

Jim Newheiser: Yeah, I think one thing we probably need to talk about would be the biblical basis for someone who’s under oppression to have the freedom to get away from the oppression. I love the story of Abigail in First Samuel 25 and when her husband defied David and the whole family is about to get killed because of Nabal’s foolishness, Abigail went against Nabal, her husband’s wishes, took significant family resources to feed David also verbally to placate him. This was completely against her husband’s wishes, but it was to save her family’s lives, her household, and she’s not portrayed as some rebellious when she went against her husband, she was portrayed as a great wise woman, a hero of the faith, amazingly, bringing David to renounce a sinfully made vow, and that would be an example.

You have the example of Paul escaping those who are oppressing him in the book of Acts through the wall of the city. Even Jesus in John 10, when it wasn’t his time that he got away from people seeking to harm him. So, I think there’s a level of danger, and again, it goes beyond, merely the physical. I think that when the Proverbs describe how with his tongue, a man destroys his neighbor, I’ve heard of men saying things that I would rather be physically beaten in some cases than some of the things men say and do in the manipulations they make. And so, I think we should have taken those more seriously and, you know, I’ve had more cases of women hanging in there longer than I would have encouraged them to then giving up too quickly. But to acknowledge their freedom in those situations. Also, we’ve learned some common grace, common-sense practices that if a woman is in the room with a pastor and her husband, there are only two men there and the husband is intimidating and so, she needs a woman in the room and it may mean that she needs to be in the room without her husband, to be able to tell her story because of that intimidation factor.

So, there’s a lot we’ve just have learned, and again, I would say on my part, it’s culpable ignorance. And I look back and I say, how could I have not known some of these things before? And now we need to be proactive and teaching, better teaching even recognizing indications that a woman is being mistreated that sometimes when you hear, how something comes out and this could even be sexual abuse by someone in authority or physical abuse by a husband. Often there are very small indications initially, they are confused and the popular term now is gaslighting or something and I think we need to realize if you’re the one to whom she begins to share these things there’s a big responsibility to take these concerns very, very seriously and to become an advocate for that person to just make sure they are safe and that they’re getting the godly counsel they may need, and the protection they may need because sometimes there are just minor indications.

I know of a true story one time where the secretary in a pastor’s office, many years ago, saw a woman come out of a private session with the pastor, just looking extremely uncomfortable and unhappy, and the secretary had the sensitivity to speak to the woman privately, and just say you look really uncomfortable there, and it was revealed actually the pastor had been praying for this woman while fondling her breasts and he’s been like this with others. But yeah, the secretary I think it was wise to ask the extra question because she said something may be wrong. People are being mistreated don’t wear badges saying, “My husband is screaming at me all the time, and won’t let me spend money.” And then we need to be stepping in quickly, not to assume guilt but to understand, to protect. And, of course, if it’s something that is a criminal matter, then to report. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, well said, we’re getting a little long today but what I want to do is I want to make sure that we revisit some of these ideas. I want to talk about some of the positive developments because I think we have learned to some degree based on some of our failures.

And listen, this is one of the things that I talked to my sons specifically about is, “Boys, listen, it’s okay you’re going to fail, you’re going to do things that are not well done that sometimes with intention sometimes out of ignorance. But what makes you more foolish is if you don’t pay attention to the ways in which you fail and learn from those and grow from those.” I think that’s important for us here that we can take some evaluation, pay attention even if it is out of ignorance relative to our culpability here, that we pay attention to these things that we acknowledge that we grow in these and I think you’ve done a good job of helping us see just some of the ways that we’ve maybe made mistakes and not handled some of these situations well, and really our culture has gotten itself into quite a bad situation relative to abuse. And at the church of all people, we need to do better at this.

Dr. Newheiser, thanks for talking about this issue. 

Jim Newheiser: I just want to add one thing that’s really important and that is what you said about admitting we got it wrong. I think for some of the women where we failed in the past to protect them well. They’re not looking for us to do penance or go to purgatory, but I think it could mean a lot to them, just to say, we now recognize that we should have done better, that these are the things we did wrong that we take responsibility. We repent, it was not with malice, like you said, but ignorance is not an excuse when you know that not many be teachers, brother, because we will encourage stricter judgment. I think if we go humbly and say we’ve learned, I think they find great comfort in saying in the future we really want to do better and we affirm what you’ve been through. I found that the women with whom I’ve spoken have been very gracious and encouraging. We’ve done that. So, I think taking a humble posture is important and I think it can do a lot of healing.

Dale Johnson: Agree, brother. And listen, I want us to continue this conversation, as we talk about the even repentance in this way in ways that we’ve grown learning from some of these mistakes. Since we’ve run out of time today, we’ll try and do that next week. Thank you, brother.

Helpful Resources:

The Abuse Pendulum —a four-part blog series by Dr. Newheiser

To read ACBC’s Statement on Abuse and Biblical Counseling visit our Committed to Care website.