If the abuser shows signs of repentance, what should pastors do? And what if there is no repentance?
If there are signs of true repentance, what can pastors offer the abuser? Do many abusers have access to the right type of ministry to help them with long-term growth and accountability? [Emphasis added, and slightly paraphrasing Anonymous’ comment.]
This question was recently asked by an Anonymous commenter at Morven’s Blog.
Any pastor can find out, by a few simple phone calls or an internet search, whether there is a Men’s Behaviour Change Program in his local area. This is what he should be directing the perpetrator to even if the abuser is showing some signs of true repentance. It takes much hard work to change entitlement thinking and habits that have been entrenched for perhaps decades. Change is not quick; for an abuser it may be a project that lasts the rest of his life.
And if there is no Men’s Behaviour Change program in his local area, the pastor should make it his business to lobby for getting one set up. Let him motivate the men in his church to make this the business of the church to work with secular agencies to see if they can get a Behaviour Change Program started locally. But these programs must be run by trained and accredited professionals and conducted according to Best Practice guidelines as per the secular domestic abuse service system provision in your State. No wanna-be’s should imagine they can take it on.
But secular education (= Behaviour Change Programs) cannot bring regeneration to spirit that is dead in sin. We are all born in sin, and we all must be regenerated by the Holy Spirit of God if we are to be true Christians. Jeff Crippen has argued cogently and extensively on this blog about the fact that abusers cannot be regenerate men. They are not Christians. If they were, they would repent of their wickedness, and they would be feeling true convicting guilt for the pain they caused their victims. But they don’t; they sleep soundly at night without pangs of conscience. The only thing they worry about is “Will I be found out? Will I have to pay a price for my behaviour? And how can I avoid paying that price?” These thoughts show they are still only thinking about me! me! me!. They are not thinking with a mite of empathy about how they have hurt their victims.
So a Behaviour Change Program can be useful, but it won’t bring a man from death to life. It won’t make a dead person come alive in Christ. Only God does that. It is His electing and unfathomable grace which mysteriously works like the wind through the trees, and we don’t know where it comes from or where it is going, that brings a soul from death to life in Christ. And we certainly can’t systematize or manipulate the activity of the Spirit by rituals, prayers, baptisms or any other outward actions on our part. I would guess (and it’s only speculation, because I’ve never heard of this happening in a real case) that an abuser who is dead in his sins may come to life in Christ by the Spirit’s working, in conjunction with and with the provocation of participating in a Behaviour Change Group. So there is good reason to send an abuser to such a group, but it won’t guarantee true change — true conversion and repentance.
And what if there are no signs, or dubious signs of repentance? What does leadership do? No sign of repentance equates to lack of safety for the woman since nothing has changed. How does the leadership provide that safety?
My answer to this question is as follows, but I’m open to suggestions and improvements. Bear in mind that the three points below are often also appropriate for cases where the perpetrator is showing some signs of true repentance. An abuser can continue to repent (change his mindset, habits and behaviour) while he is separated from his wife. In fact, her drawing the line of firm separation is often the stimulus that finally prods him to really consider change. Let him change, if he seriously intends to, while his wife is safely recovering without him pestering and bullying and manipulating her. True repentance will be testable by the way he conducts himself during a long separation. And sadly, the vast majority of perpetrators seem to only fake repentance; they never truly repent. So testing their repentance while their wife is not permitting them back is usually the best way to test whether it’s phoney or genuine.
So, having given that qualification, here is what I think leaders can do when there are no signs, or dubious signs, of the perpetrator’s repentance.
(1) 1 Corinthians 5:11-13
“Purge the evil person from among you.” (ESV)
= Put the abuser out of the church. Forbid him attending services while his victim(s) are associated with that congregation. Let him be the one who has to find a new church, not her! That’s if he actually bothers to find a new church; some abusers will just slink off into the world and drop all their Christian colouration, once they are treated firmly enough by true pastors.
(2) Assist the victim (if she wishes) to obtain protection orders, find safe or safer housing, make statements to the police so they can lay charges, etc..
(3) Teach like “billy-oh [Internet Archive link]“1 from the pulpit about the nature and tactics of abuse, so the rest of the congregation is less likely to be enlisted by the perpetrator, and the victim will feel protected, believed and understood by her church family.
Jeff Crippen’s sermon series is the best available; it consists of 21 sermons. Let the pastor have 21 weeks off from sermon writing while he plays these each Sunday morning to his congregation! And with the time he saved not having to write sermons, let him minister to all the victims who come out of the woodwork!
Now that’s a win-win situation, is it not? 🙂
1[March 16, 2023: We added the link to a page with a definition of the slang term “billy-oh”. The Internet Archive link is a copy of that page. Editors.]
[March 16, 2023: Editors’ notes:
—For some comments made prior to March 16, 2023 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to March 16, 2023 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to March 16, 2023 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (March 16, 2023), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]
UPDATE Sept 2021: I have come to believe that Jeff Crippen does not practise what he preaches. He vilely persecuted an abuse victim and spiritually abused many other people in the Tillamook congregation. Go here to read the evidence. Jeff has not gone to the people that he spiritually and emotionally abused. He has not apologised to them, let alone asked for their forgiveness.
This is very good, as I have seen first-hand the problem of forced repentance, just so there can be reconciliation. A simple “I’m sorry” is taken for true repentance, only to have the spouse and family re-victimized. I also agree that a long separation will allow that to play out and reveal whether the “repentance” is real or fake. Telling the abuser to find another church may very well be the best thing to do, because it could be that they will most likely not stay in a church for long. However, there are those who will go forever, just to try to prove that they are Christians (and “innocent, just being falsely accused by their victims”), by attending church. But, we know that being a church-goer does not a Christian make! Those who attend just for appearance sake, never change and are not really listening anyway. They are only there for their own selfish purposes and to try to dupe the body of Christ where they attend, that they are “really nice guys” who just have bad wives.
I am beginning to think that the church is one of the best places an abuser can look for a victim. He comes all dressed up, Bible in hand, like a meek lamb, “just wanting to know Christ and lead his family”. What godly submissive woman wouldn’t want a nice guy like that? There are signs one can look for to tell if this is what is happening, but that is a blog post for Barb or Pastor Crippen!
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Chilling true story: I knew a man who worked as a psychiatric nurse, working in triage with people who presented to the Emergency Department having nearly committed suicide. He recounted to me that a male patient once told him, “I’m feeling this down because my girlfriend just ended our relationship. Well….I guess I’ll just have to head off to some church and look for a new girlfriend. You find the nice girls at church, you know; they’re kind, caring, faithful….”
What is being discussed here is the cavernous difference between compliance and change. Many, perhaps most, abusers will jump through a few hoops to get what they want. (Remember, an abuser will do anything to keep you, but nothing to take care of you.)
This isn’t rocket science. Is it really that hard to love someone you love, particularly if you are suddenly, profoundly aware of the magnitude of the pain you have caused people whom you profess to love? When we are truly in Christ, aren’t we made new? I’ve seen it happen in the lives of addicts and prostitutes and criminals. Are abusers somehow exempt?
Even in a long separation, some abusers are simply waiting to find the right key to get back in the door of the relationship and, once they do, they eventually revert back to their terrible old selves — happy that they found the key. Some abusers have written to us asking what they are specifically supposed to do to get their wives back. What they are often really saying is, “What do I have to do to prove I’ve done enough?” They want a check-off list. Wrong attitude.
Unfortunately, both churches and victims are often willing to accept compliance as evidence of change. They are not at all the same.
• Real Change is Voluntary; Compliance is Obligatory.
• Real Change is Sincere; Compliance is Half-Hearted.
• Real Change is Lasting; Compliance is Temporary.
Also, there is a web-based ministry called “MEVAC” (“Men Ending Verbal Abuse Control”) that is a great place to refer abusers if they’re serious about breaking the cycle and doing the work. Feel free to refer abusers here: MEVAC — Men Ending Verbal Abuse and Control [Internet Archive link]
Admittedly, the ultimate frustration comes from the overwhelming majority of churches intent on pushing abusers and their victims back together in the name of saving [a] marriage with the tiniest evidence of change. For this reason, I know many abuse victims who have left their abusers and their churches simultaneously. We all know why.
Right on, Cindy. Thanks very much. That says it all.
Thanks, Cindy! Spot on.
The checklist mentality, yup, it’s a problem. I published my Checklist for Repentance, but I mean it to be used by survivors and true pastors, not by perpetrators. The last thing a pastor should do is hand an abuser my “Checklist for Repentance”! That might just give him suggestions and clues about how to pretend phoney repentance even more plausibly than he does already.
And I’m copying your phrase “the cavernous difference between compliance and change” into my “Sound Bites” file, for future use somewhere or other. Bless you, sister!
My pastor actually asked me what I expected my husband to do (my “list”), to get back in and if I expected him to “never yell” or “scream” or “falsely accuse” me, or “be angry” or “fill in the blank”…. I said, “Yes, I expect him to never do those things again, because to get back in, he will need to be a new creation in Christ. Hence, the old behavior will have passed away.” I knew if I shared a list, there would just be compliance, until I let him back in, and then it would just all start over again. Not my way of handling things anymore. There must be true repentance. There is a real indicator of what will happen in the future (without true repentance), and that is whatever has happened in the past.
My pastor also asked me for a list of what my husband had to do before he could come back. I was stunned and all I could say then was “He has to hear me.” Now that he has abused the pastor, the pastor has begun to understand what I meant — and the pastor has apologized! The pastor has my great respect although he is still learning. Now my answer would be that my husband has to start over building a relationship with me because there is nothing left. Everything I thought we had in our marriage was false since my husband did not / does not love me. Everything has changed with the understanding of my husband’s constant working for control. I now look through a new lens and so much that I did not understand has become clear — sadly, clear that there never was the love that I assumed he gave me. It was manipulation and control — abuse.
Words of a now wise woman! And there is no obligation to rebuild that which never existed. Send our compliments to the pastor. He is a rare breed these days it seems.
Unfortunately, the CONSISTENT abuser rarely actually changes his heart or mind. They merely move on to greener pastures where they CAN repeat their behavior over and over. Thank you for shining the light of reason and truth on this issue!!!!
I have a few questions. They are hypothetical and I don’t know if they ever happen but they have been knocking around in my brain for a few weeks now.
1) How long should you give an abuser to repent? Should there be a time of separation for the purpose of reconciliation or would it be wise to file for divorce as soon as possible.
2) What if he does everything on the list, is saved by God, and is a new creature? Is the wife then obligated to go back?
I don’t want to be in sin with my feelings but I honestly feel that even if he were to be made perfect tomorrow I would not want to give him a second chance. Is it sin for me to be so hardhearted against him or is it my right as the innocent party?
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I asked those questions myself, especially since there appeared to be a time when she was doing much better, and yet I still had a wall up. I was nauseous being around her and felt terrible for being that way. At the time in therapy I referred to my feelings as “scorched earth” — that the pain had been so deep that there simply wasn’t any way for a real relationship to grow again. I was submitting to the church’s direction, which meant I was accepting of being in a loveless relationship for the rest of my life — and shamed on top of that because she seemed to be doing much better and I was having trouble being in the same room. In fact, I feared my detachment was emotional abuse back at her, I hated to think that — I never ever wanted to hurt her.
Ultimately she would return to behavior worse than before, though it didn’t hurt me near as badly (the wall protected me — I now believe that wall was from God).
Even after I made the decision to divorce I prayed nightly that if there was any way for me to stay in the marriage, that God would show me. I also prayed that if she repented I wouldn’t miss it. I ended up sharing this with a friend a lunch one day, honestly one I didn’t think was on “my side” that much, but he’d at least proved to be non-judgemental so I worked with what I had. He said “Jeff, I don’t think your realize how long healing would take here — we aren’t talking about a few years. We are talking something like 15 years AFTER she takes ownership of her actions to work through the damage done to herself and to you. She’s not capable of being a wife.” I was floored because I hadn’t realized this friend had “got it” until that point. And every time I think about looking for her repentance, I think of that conversation.
This is what a lot of people in the church don’t get — you don’t go from abuser / victim to husband / wife overnight. When there is real repentance you are talking about starting from less than zero. I think the idea that a repentant abuser is anywhere close to being able to operate in a healthy intimate relationship is extremely optimistic (I believe God can do anything, but it would certainly be extraordinary).
My therapist used to work with hard-core domestic violence perpetrators. I asked them how many had ever repented. He said he could probably count the number on one hand, and he wasn’t even sure those ended up long term healthy. He said he would never, ever ask a woman to try and reconcile.
In my opinion, it is the right of the injured spouse to divorce and not seek repentance. And a truly repentant abuser would be thankful for God opening his or her eyes, would mourn the loss of the gift of marriage, and know it was time to work on healing, not trying to be a marriage partner.
I mean, how many of us when we repented and turned toward God said, “Ok God, you’re right about my sin — I’m guilty and sorry. Now, can I have all of those blessings you owe me?”
Jeff S – thank you for your reply. I have been praying for these words of wisdom for weeks now. You truly are a wonderful brother.
Thank you for saying this! This is so true!! Even with true repentance and him willing to daily walk with God, I don’t think I could ever trust. So much hurt and fear. And, only one of the four main counselors got this. And actually I didn’t get this until I read your words. I knew it was true, but did not have the “why” it was true. Thank you.
Many thanks for a balanced post. The Christian church is so out of touch with the daily reality of many wives and mothers. The test of true repentance is the pivotal point in all. If by separating, the abuser does not come to a realisation of his behaviour & that it was this that drove his dear wife away, then there is nothing the wife can do but sit pray for him. The very sad reality for the wife is to live with the emptiness of brokenness which can only be healed by the daily times of refreshing in the Word & prayer. Please keep up your good work. I am one who has benefited.
Thanks, Robyn. Blessings to you. And welcome to our little army of commenters on this blog. 🙂