Domestic Abuse is the Test Case for Our Theology (and we are failing)
Do you know why scientists conduct experiments? They do it to test their theories. They formulate a hypothesis in an attempt to explain some event or process observed in nature. Plants grow toward the light. Why? A hypothesis is offered, but then it must be tested. If the hypothesis is correct, then such and such should happen if we do so and so. If gravity is what we think it is and acts upon all objects to accelerate them at the same rate, then a heavy object and lighter object should hit the ground at the same time.
I propose that a proper and accurate understanding of the mentality and tactics of domestic violence and abuse is the test case for the interpretive theories of many biblical texts.
That is to say, if our interpretation of a Scripture passage is correct, then when we apply it to a real-life scenario of a domestic abuser and his victim, our application will make sense! We will find ourselves exercising justice and mercy for the victim, not injustice and, well, cruelty. The abuser will also be dealt with justly, his sin will be exposed rather than enabled, he will be called to repentance, or he will be expelled from Christ’s church.
Many, and perhaps even the majority, of evangelical churches, teachers, and Christians have long held to interpretive theories that flunk the test when applied to cases of domestic violence and abuse.
What do we mean when we say they flunk the test? Simply this – they make no sense at all! They render injustice to victims and increase their suffering, when in fact God Himself says many times that we are to do justice and mercy to widows and orphans and strangers in the land. At the same time, these interpretive theories (all offered in the name of the Lord and supposedly possessing His authority) enable wicked, evil, abusive men in their oppression of victims. But very few people are throwing away their bad theories! Instead, we say “well, I know that the heavy object and the light one looked like they hit the ground at the same time, but they didn’t.” In other words, we ignore the experiment results and cling to our beloved theories. The earth is flat, I tell you!
This is what David Instone-Brewer meant when he wrote: “The trouble with most theologies of divorce is that they aren’t sensible. They may give a reasonable account of most of the texts, in a forced way, but their conclusions just aren’t practical in the fallen world we inhabit.” (Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, Kindle edition, location 101, IVP 2003). Traditional theorists would hammer him for this statement – “Well, of course our results may not make sense! They are the Lord’s ways!” Which is a pretty good “out,” right? A response like that is akin to proving my bear repellant works because there aren’t any bears around! But all Instone-Brewer is saying is – the application of our interpretations of Scripture should make sense. They should be consistent with the character and attributes of Christ. If they are not, then we must reject them.
So, let me ask you – answer for yourself – are the following applications of common, traditional interpretations of Scripture on divorce and remarriage consistent with the character of God?
- A woman is told by her church that she cannot divorce her husband, even though he beats her and the children
- Another woman’s long-time abusive husband divorced her and lives with another woman now, but her church tells her that Christ forbids her to remarry as long as he is still alive, else she will be guilty of adultery
- A wife’s husband refuses her medical treatment, has never cared about providing for her or the children, and craves pornography. She is told by her Christian friends that the Bible does not permit her to divorce him. Furthermore, she is told that the biblical doctrine of headship and submission means that she should go back home, work harder at being a more godly wife, and trust that the Lord will watch over her.
And there are other interpretations of Scripture that abuse also tests. For example, the nature of sin and the psychology of the sinner. Why are we so ignorant of the conscienceless, sociopathic mentality? The Bible certainly is not silent on this, but we act surprised when a woman tells us that her widely-esteemed “saintly and godly” church-member husband is a wicked, cruel, power-hungry terrorist at home. Apparently our understanding of the sinful human heart is flawed.
And then this final note. Is it possible that the evangelical church has fallen prey to a cult of Hollywood-like personalities whom we esteem too highly? That is, a relatively small number of Christian leaders who tend to perpetuate traditions that are equated with Scripture? I do not mean that such personalities are cultists, nor am I accusing them of not being Christians (though some are surely not). I simply mean that long-held traditional interpretations of Scriptures that are being used to keep abuse victims enslaved need to be rejected. It is time to change the game! And you know what? If we will, we will find that we will be getting back into the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I believe Christ has been calling us back to that Way for a long time.
But here is a warning for any of you who decide to “buck” tradition (I heard this line in a movie recently and wrote it down) – “The first man through is going to get bloodied. Bucking tradition is never popular – it is a threat to our comfort zone.” But through the door we must go!