Legalism: The Great Friend of the Abuser

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.


[January 23, 2023: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]

(Matthew 23:16-23  ESV)  (16) “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’  (17) You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred?  (18) And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’  (19) You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?  (20) So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it.  (21) And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it.  (22) And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.  (23) “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.

I still do not completely understand the mentality and motivation of the “Christian” legalist. But I do know that such people and their alleged “biblical” systems are no friend to the oppressed. As we have been reading the comments this past week in particular about how the legalist flatly prohibits divorce for abuse, citing various Scriptures in a “biff-boom-bah-there-my-case-is-proved” manner, the evils of legalism have been illustrated and emphasized. The religion of the Pharisees is indeed alive and well today.

What is legalism, anyway? Let me see if I can try to define it. Legalism is a mentality that fundamentally believes we earn merit with God through our deeds. It is completely opposed to New Covenant salvation in Christ which is by faith (in fact it is actually completely opposed to the nature of real circumcision even in the Old Covenant).

(Romans 9:30-32  ESV)  (30) What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith;  (31) but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law.  (32) Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone.

The Christian’s works are the result of faith and repentance. They proceed from a regenerate heart. The Christian obeys the law of God because he now loves the law of God, that law having been written upon his heart by the Spirit (Jeremiah 31:31ff). Legalism turns things right around and puts the cart before the horse, claiming that it is the works that must come first (though many legalists will say that faith in Christ is essential too), and then justification will follow.

Now, this mentality of legalism not only leads a person to the empty pursuit of trying to earn his righteousness before God, but in addition it radically colors his entire concept of Scripture. His hermeneutic (i.e., system of biblical interpretation) is necessarily going to be skewed by his “works” approach. The legalist gives the wrong answer to the following question that Paul knew his countrymen were asking:

(Romans 10:3-7  ESV)  (3) For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.  (4) For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.  (5) For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them.  (6) But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'” (that is, to bring Christ down)  (7) or “‘Who will descend into the abyss?'” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).  [Emphasis added.]

The legalist, thinking that a right standing with God is dependent upon our performance, approaches Scripture through this lens. He is always looking for works that he can put on his “to-do” list so that he can make God happy with him. But he goes further. He concludes that based upon his performance, God IS happy with him.Oh, down deep inside himself there are all kinds of doubts of course, but if you listen to him expound you will find a man who is quite full of himself and his own righteousness. Once more, just look at the Pharisees and you will see what I mean.

And then the legalist continues. Now he sets about working to bring others into this bondage. He takes Scripture and, driven by his “do this, don’t do that, touch that, don’t touch that” religion of works, he sees the Word of God as a compilation of just so many do’s and don’ts. And he loves it when he discovers still another law to keep. He makes up these laws even where there are none to be found. And this is why we are warned against the legalist by the Lord:

(Galatians 4:28-31  ESV)  (28) Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.  (29) But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now.  (30) But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.”  (31) So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.

And again:

(Galatians 5:1-7  ESV)  (1) For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.  (2) Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.  (3) I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.  (4) You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.  (5) For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.  (6) For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.  (7) You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?

It is in this legalism then that Christians who are married to an abuser are being further abused and terrorized within the church. Legalists take the Word of God and, through their “works”-quest system of interpretation, forget entirely about God’s empathy and compassion for the oppressed. They ignore the weightier matters of the heart that God is truly concerned with and keep to the bald, naked, context-less meaning of the words. If Jesus, for example, says “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9) — then, BOOM! There it is. Another rule for the list. Another prohibition. No regard for the context and the real heart of the Lord in that passage. No regard for the suffering of the oppressed. Just a bare, naked law. And the legalist loves it so. He sets out on his mission to lay his load upon the backs of others, even though in reality he would never bare that burden himself.

This is what is happening in all of this terrible business among Christians today in which abuse victims are being told that God does not allow for divorce for the reason of abuse. But, I believe, Jesus would say — “You have heard that it was said that divorce for abuse is not permitted, but I say to you come out of such bondage and be free.”

Today, oppressed victims are still being oppressed by the Pharisee. I propose to you that any pastor, Christian, or church that teaches abuse victims that they cannot divorce their abuser is infected with legalism. Jesus told us to beware of this leaven. Many, many pastors standing in pulpits and many, many “eminent” saints who are the “pillars” of local churches are in fact legalists. They do not understand justice, mercy, and compassion. Neither do they understand the true nature of evil and its tactics. As a result, their preaching and teaching has enslaved many. Their message is, “yes, the Red Sea is parted, the Angel of the Lord has passed over and laid the Egyptians low. But it is God’s will for you to stay right here in Egypt and suffer as slaves for His glory.”

That is another Gospel, and it is no Gospel at all.

[January 23, 2023: Editors’ notes:

—For some comments made prior to January 23, 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 January 23, 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 January 23, 2023 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (January 23, 2023), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]

33 thoughts on “Legalism: The Great Friend of the Abuser”

  1. Thank you for another helpful post. I especially like the comparison with your last line.

    But it is God’s will for you to stay here in Egypt and suffer as slaves for His glory.

    Far too many people believe that way, but God is always on the side of the abused & hurting.

  2. The “legalism” I have faced was more like this. “We are God’s and because of that, we must do this and that and the other and dress like this, don’t show your arms and walk like this and don’t eat this, don’t go to the doctor, do this instead and then….(on and on) and that is how we show the world we are saved and different from them, so they can see the Gospel and be saved too.” So, they never said that those things were to be done in order to be saved, and in fact denied that you were doing them to be saved, but were to do them because you were saved. This is a real twisting in some ways, because what they say is right, but you still feel like you are somehow trying to earn at least good standing with God in order to maintain your rightness with Him. Then, if you address it as “legalism”, you face the accusations of “just being rebellious” or “not wanting to conform to God’s standards”. “You are an ungrateful servant, not wishing to serve Christ as you should.”

    As you said above in your post, we have outward workings of good works, because God has saved us, but I believe they are done out of love and gratitude, not out of necessity or strained diligence and / or obedience. We love Him, because He first loved us. Thanks for the good post!

    [Paragraph break added to enhance readability. Editors.]

    1. ….you were to do them [the good works] because you were saved….

      That’s the kind of legalism I strike in many churches. And yes, because they believe they are saved by faith (and maybe they are) they deny any charge of legalism. But the taste of the thing is the same: coercion, lack of joy, being pernicketty, and fastidious about trifles. And the young ones who want to love and serve God take it all so seriously, and try so hard….it breaks my heart to see so much effort being wasted over secondary and tertiary issues.

  3. Yes, this post nails it. It is legalism and insidious because it causes the church to do exactly the opposite of what it should.

    It’s not an easy thing, though — there are really two kinds of legalism, “front-door” and “back-door”. The “front-door” stuff is easy to contend with because it’s very clearly anti-Scriptural. These are the people who will tell you that you are hell bound for going through a divorce. This is so clearly a “works Gospel” that it’s fairly easy to ignore. The “back-door” stuff is more difficult, though. This is the “if you are saved and love Jesus, then you’ll hang in there”, the implication being that if you don’t hang in there you never were a real Christian to begin with.

    The trouble is, we can’t escape the “back-door” stuff because the idea of works proving our faith is Scriptural. So that brings back into focus the question of what are our works, and what bad deeds are evil enough to demonstrate we aren’t really believers. And some would count divorce among those bad deeds. It’s a curious thing that I think is driven far more by tradition than Scripture due to such a small percentage of Scripture being about the subject of divorce. I guess some people think that Christ was so clear and unambiguous in His condemnation of all divorce except adultery (and to be fair, in almost every modern translation it does read that way) that to defy His teaching aligns us with the devil. We are, in effect, demonstrating that we were never believers to begin with.

    So I completely see the logic of the “back-door” legalism. The problem is, “back-door” or not, condemnation by legalism feels exactly the same. I remember saying to the Elder at my church “you’d better be right about your doctrine of divorce, because if you are wrong you are causing people to suffer at YOUR pleasure, not God’s. And you are wrong.” He just looked at me grimly and didn’t say anything. What could he say?

    I think at least one huge contributing factor to all of this is the entitled spirit of our culture that thinks because we have access to Scripture, then we are all qualified to interpret it. The “floodgate of iniquity” that Luther worried would happen if the Bible was in the hands of the common man has certainly happened. Everyone feels they can read God’s Holy Word, pray, and then go around clobbering anyone they see whose behavior does not match what they feel God has told them. Gone are the days when we would turn to people who spend their whole lives devoted to studying and understanding Scripture — the wisdom of R.C. Sproul on the doctrine of grace or Instone-Brewer on divorce must equally content with thousands of blogs and home Bible studies by people who’ve never stepped foot in a seminary or know who Thomas Aquinas is.

    And yet, the church historically has had the doctrine of divorce wrong for centuries, so I sure am glad we DO have access so when a brave soul takes the time to understand Biblical knowledge and correct our misunderstanding about how the audience of the original text would have understood it, we can see for ourselves how it fits together and makes sense. On the whole, Luther was right to push for us to all have access, but we also should heed his warning. A little humility would go a long way, and with the very Word of God an extreme amount of humility is required. The price is very high when we are wrong.

    1. Jeff S – yes, this matter of assurance of our salvation is vital in so many ways. Many Christians have it all wrong. If you go to a church that embraces Arminian theology and thus believes you can “lose” your salvation, then just ask those folks what sins, what degree of sin, etc., takes you across the edge and constitutes a loss of salvation. Guess what? You will get no agreement at all. They don’t know. There can be very similar confusion among other Christians who would claim to be at least partially Reformed in their theology.

      But Scripture answers the question of assurance for us very plainly —

      (Romans 8:6-14 ESV)
      (6) For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
      (7) For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.
      (8) Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
      (9) You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
      (10) But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.
      (11) If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
      (12) So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.
      (13) For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
      (14) For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

      Is there a battle? That is the issue. Am I putting to death the deeds of the flesh by the Spirit and that is the issue. That is to say, when sin crops its ugly head up in my mind, is there another dynamic that immediately rises up to oppose it and strive to slay it? An unsaved person does not have the Spirit of Christ in them and knows nothing of this fight. So the question really is, what is the “according to” that is increasingly defining my life? The flesh, or the Spirit? Am I being led by the Spirit of God to love Christ, to love His Word, to be grieved and repentant when I sin, or not? That is the root of this matter of assurance.

      1. The problem is —

        Is there a battle?

        —can only be question when we agree upon what is sin. So you and I would say that there is no battle against the fleshly nature when it comes to an abused spouse divorcing, because there is no sin. And to a person who believes this is sin (and that you are teaching people to sin), the idea that you would be so misled leads people down the path of believing we have forsaken Christ.

        What makes this even worse is that I DID do battle, and my battle was entirely flesh versus flesh. In my heart, I knew I was never battling God, but rather the church. And that really made me question myself, because if my divorce was sin (as was being alleged), and I was not battling God over it, then what did that say about my status as a believer?

        So again, it comes down to dealing with one camp believing the Scripture teaches one thing and the other believing something else.

        The other thing about this is that it seems clear to me that you can be battling the Spirit and not even realize it. I have a friend who was involved in a particular sin for a very long time (years), didn’t think he was in sin, and if you’d have asked me back then if he was a Christian I’d have said “probably not”. Fast forward and he is a growing, very Godly man who is no longer engaged in that sinful behavior. The process of sanctification in his life is so clear (now), and it doesn’t at all appear to be anything he did to make himself more Godly, but the Holy Spirit moving in his life. And yes, I do think he was a believer back then, but God wasn’t finished with him yet.

        I think for me, the humble thing is to not always assume I know the whole story, to present the truth to all as I see it with gentleness and respect, recognizing that I may be wrong about anything that isn’t the Gospel, and to not break faith over something unless it is a major, major issue (like the deity of Christ or something that I obviously can see as unrepentant sin such as abuse, to pick and example we can relate to here here).

        One of the hardest aspects for me as a believer who strives for humility and gentleness toward all is that my divorce was absolutely a judgement on my ex-wife. I HATE judging others, and she was the one person in this world that I’d been closer to more than anyone else. It is hard to look at the person you’ve loved so deeply and say “you are no longer my wife because you have unrepentantly and repeatedly broken you promise to me.”

        But maybe being able to do that and see I was not being legalistic is part of my growth as a believer.

        Thank you for this discussion, because this whole topic has been one of my deepest struggles. I was reduced to tears, agony, and fear after so many conversations with the Elders at my church because I’d think “I am not battling God in this but they are so certain — am I just lost and unable to see it because my entire Christian walk has been a lie and a trick of Satan?” And when I say “I am not battling God”, I mean that I never felt out of touch with Him. I certainly wrestled with the Scripture as I sought and prayed to really understand His heart in the matter.

        I remember sitting in a parking lot, curled up in a ball on the ground sitting beside the tire of my car in tears as I talked to one of the Elders, and he had nothing at all to tell me. Legalism hurts. When you cannot have empathy, something is wrong. Very wrong.

      2. So I realized something after typing up that last post [comment], but decided to leave it all intact because I think it’s a good example of how legalism really hurts. But what I realized is this — between my wife and I, as we were going through all of the mess, I was burdened and wrestled with Scripture, prayed, prayed, prayed, and tried to submit to Godly authority. I really wrestled. I wrestled more than I’ve wrestled in any thing I’ve ever done, and I really, REALLY wanted to understand the heart of God in the matter.

        And she never did. And I’d did not realize that until just now. Her fight was with me, but she never turned to Scripture, prayer, or even the church. Or if she did, I never saw it. It certainly did not characterize her walk.

        That is a good revelation, and I am thankful for it, Jeff C.

      3. Jeff S,

        ….the humble thing is to not always assume I know the whole story, to present the truth to all as I see it with gentleness and respect, recognizing that I may be wrong about anything that isn’t the Gospel

        I find myself at a very similar point. My own understanding has grown so much over the last several years that I see things quite differently today relative to 15 years ago. I think about how dogmatic I was back then and realize just how ignorant I was.

        Nothing like realizing how wrong I once was to teach me humility for today…. 😉

        And let me join Cindy Burrell in saying, “Bravo!” The legalistic path really does require less work, less faith, and less walking in the Spirit than the path of grace and liberty, to which we are called. Not that I’ve got it all figured out….I don’t….but I’m growing….

  4. Bravo, Jeff C.

    Legalism is truly a refuge for the lazy, the oppressive and the Spirit-less. It’s evil grip compels us to miss out on the wonder and mystery of relationship with our God and Savior — tragic on so many levels.

    1. This is a great post and replies. I have learned some things from Jeff S’s reply and can see myself. It is such an awful feeling to struggle with wondering if you are just fighting God or fighting the church’s inaccurate and twisted view.

      I think that the thing I cling to is my not wanting to hurt my abuser, in light of how much he has hurt me. I think without Christ I would not care whether I hurt him or not, because it would all be about getting out and getting recompense. For me, I truly do not want to displease my Savior. I truly need to know that I am doing what He would have me do, even if it means staying in the fight and / or abuse for now and allowing Him to ordain all the circumstances that force either my abuser’s hand or mine to divorce. I know that probably sounds really bad to all of you, but I have been so spiritually abused, that I am having a hard time just maintaining ground at this point and I just need to know more than anything that I am not going against God. It is not that I don’t believe the teachings here on divorce, because I do, and it gives me comfort and strength. I have studied it out for myself and I guess the real point is, that if it were sin, then we would all be forgiven anyway. We are not judged on whether we did everything right, we are judged on what our intent was and motives were. We are only judged on whether we have put our faith completely in Christ for our redemption, or if we are adding onto it by our works in any way.

      I don’t know what God will have to do to show me that it is okay to just leave. I have separated myself and our children from him, so in that sense, I have a safety system in place, but nothing done legally.

      [Paragraph break added to enhance readability. Editors.]

      1. Anonymous, I know what you mean. Everything that you articulated is what I felt not too long ago. I still feel the effects of spiritual abuse, mainly because the ex ramped up the spiritual abuse after separation, but now that I am divorced, I feel totally at peace and wonder why I thought it would be such a struggle. It was much easier to go through than I had imagined, easier than even the initial separation. I guess the struggle we face is a reflection of how much we want to do God’s will and how much the teaching of marriage being permanent and both parties being responsible has been ingrained into us.

        Thank you for sharing a part of your journey, and I trust and pray that God will show you the best way forward. Already you seem to have come a long way in regaining your freedom and establishing justice in your family.

      2. Anonymous, I completely understand! No, it doesn’t sound bad to me at all.

        I am thankful you have removed yourself and your children from harm’s way. I am glad you so want to remain in the center of God’s will.

        Looking back at my own experiences, and thinking how I would advise someone else….the main thing I would advise someone else to do differently from what I did is to push back harder sooner….to be less patient.

        Yet, at the same time, I can honestly say I have no regrets.

        Every step of the way, I was earnestly seeking God and pursuing His perfect will as best I understood it. Every step of the way the Holy Spirit drew me to Himself and taught me.

        And when the marriage finally ended in divorce, I had complete peace about it. Yes, there was still considerable stress and concerns about child custody issues, etc. However, the divorce decision was not the heart-rending issue I might have expected it to be. God gave me complete peace that I had fully lived out my covenant vows in faithfulness and was completely released from all covenant obligations.

        So, yes, I do understand….and admire your courage and integrity.

        The Lord’s timing is worth waiting on….keep trusting Him….

        God bless you!

      3. Anonymous, my heart really aches for you. It took alot of courage for you to be honest and share what you are struggling with and where you are. I remember feeling as you do, believing that perhaps my choice to leave an abuser may be more sinful than the abuse itself. I’m also learning what it means to enable sinful behavior, and that sometimes when I choose to do nothing, I am enabling the sin of abuse.

        A turning point for me became clearer when I realized I was allowing my children to be repeatedly exposed to the abuse, which took many different and twisted forms. Our God is a God of grace and compassion, and I don’t believe He would ever judge any one of us for trying to protect ourselves and children. I think we as survivors / victims can take on so much blame that we really do think we will be judged for leaving an unrepentant abuser. A very wise counselor reminded me that God doesn’t need me to stay in an abusive situation in order for God to do His work in the abuser (my ex).

        When Jeff S shard this….

        “you are no longer my wife because you have unrepentantly and repeatedly broken you promise to me.”

        Sadly, Amen. That is where the responsibility lies….with the unrepentant person, not with us who choose to remove ourselves from harm’s way and sinful choices.

        You are not alone, Anonymous. God will give you the strength to do whatever you need to and is safe.

  5. With this tucked in your field of miracles, I can’t see that you need support from a church, a pastor or pastor’s wife, or anything (though it is nice to get it, but one can’t count on it).

    I encourage you to go forward with your divorce, knowing all is right between you and God!

    1. So then when it came to choosing to leave and divorce an unrepentant abuser, I started out trusting a person, church and Pastor for guidance, not realizing he / they did not have any knowledge, skills, understanding or grace about abuse. It’s taken a long time for me to let go of trusting an institution’s “preference” and mis-interpretation of Scripture rather than feel like I have permission to question their authority and seek out the truth.

      This all sounds very familiar to me. I really, REALLY wanted someone objective to tell me what to do – I knew I wasn’t objective. You hear so much about unity and trusting church leadership, it’s hard to know when it’s acceptable to defy and go your own way (though my “own” way was the way of our loving merciful God). I mean certainly we know that Scripture is the only ultimate authority and sometimes people have to stand against the church (otherwise there would have been no Reformation), but it felt so self-serving to stand against the church when I was so invested in the issue. And how could I really trust my own motives? In the end, I guess while a lot of other people felt perfect peace with their decision, I must admit that I did not. I basically felt like I wasn’t going to survive, and while I didn’t trust myself to be objective, I no longer trusted my church leadership either. Absent being able to trust anyone to show me the way, I prayed for wisdom, and grace if I was doing it wrong, and with no other path I saw leading me to survival, I took the plunge. Without anyone to trust, what more could I have done?

      I will say this: because I didn’t have an objective viewpoint I trusted, I took time to live with my decision. I was fortunate in that my wife was out if the house at the time (in a recovery program) so I had the luxury of deciding to divorce without perusing any actions. In this I prayed for wisdom and asked God to show me if there was any other way. I originally was going to give it a month, but when she was unable to complete the program and I had nothing from God that persuaded me not to pursue my plan, I felt I had my answer and went with it.

      I will also say that when I asked my (secular) therapist how long I was supposed to endure my marriage, his answer was “as long as YOU can”. You hear a lot in the church about therapists encouraging people to divorce when things “get too tough”, but he never did. He never gave me advice and always made it my decision, though he was quick to tell me that he would support whatever I felt I had to do to protect myself.

      And I have to be honest, to this day I still sometimes feel I was wrong and will experience the miserable life my pastor promised me would happen. This stuff is not easy to let go.

      1. Thanks for that, Jeff S. You said:

        it felt so self-serving to stand against the church when I was so invested in the issue. And how could I really trust my own motives? In the end, I guess while a lot of other people felt perfect peace with their decision, I must admit that I did not. I basically felt like I wasn’t going to survive, and while I didn’t trust myself to be objective, I no longer trusted my church leadership either. Absent being able to trust anyone to show me the way, I prayed for wisdom, and grace if I was doing it wrong, and with no other path I saw leading me to survival, I took the plunge.

        Your story illustrates something I’ve observed for some time. Some victims say they are directly and specifically guided by God in their decision to divorce. They report having a peace about their decision, and they sometimes report they were even guided by God about the precise timing of their leaving and the actions they were to take for their safety and security at each little step of the journey. But other victims don’t have that sense of God’s direct guidance. They “nut it out” in the way you did, weighing up your options despite feeling you couldn’t trust yourself OR your church OR anyone’s viewpoint 100%.

        I’m like you. I didn’t have direct guidance. I just used spiritually informed common sense to make most of my decisions. I don’t think one way or the other is better. Either way is valid.

  6. This entire thread is so affirming….thank you, Jeff C. I’ve been following it, re-reading it and chewing on it in light of my own situation all week. I can relate to many of you who also commented. Having grown up as a PK [Preacher’s Kid] in a very legalistic church and home, it wasn’t until college that God began to open my eyes the truth of what it means to trust Him. Ironically, I attended a Baptist Christian college (GARBC [General Association of Regular Baptist Churches])….which I loved actually, and have many, many fond memories and grew in my relationship with Christ.

    But, I thought the rules were ridiculous….for instance, we couldn’t listen to any kind of music in our dorm rooms except Christian, and then only certain Christian artists (I broke that rule, lots); we had to wear dresses to class unless it was below 0 degrees [Fahrenheit, approximately -18 Celsius] outside, wind chill included. We were not allowed to go to many movies, even during summer break (I did anyway), of course NO drinking on or off campus, etc…. I felt that none of the rules were substantiated by Scripture, but I realize I could have chosen differently and am just being honest that I made contradictory choices despite signing the contract. We had to sign a contract that we would “follow the college’s rules” upon acceptance to the college. None of those rules [were] put into place because the behaviors were sinful, and that’s what didn’t make sense to me.

    The rules were there based on “institutional preference”. And that’s where I’m going with this. Even though I didn’t like many of the rules, the College made it very clear that what it was asking of us as students was based on their “institutional preference” and not as a “Biblical mandate”. That was actually a light bulb moment for me — when the Christian College differentiated between the two, and made it clear that the rules were there so the College would be represented by it’s students differently. I understand the desire to represent Christ to the unbelievers….be in the world but not of the world….but how does wearing a dress or not attending a movie reflect that? (Those rules are legalistic in and of themselves, imo. And incidentally, today none of them exist at this same College, except the drinking standard — no drinking.) But what I’ve been able to take away from this was that I was taught to trust the church or institution more than trusting in God.

    So then when it came to choosing to leave and divorce an unrepentant abuser, I started out trusting a person, church and Pastor for guidance, not realizing he / they did not have any knowledge, skills, understanding or grace of abuse. It’s taken a long time for me to let go of trusting an institution’s “preference” and mis-interpretation of Scripture rather than feel like I have permission to question their authority and seek out the truth.

    I believe many of us who are survivors, especially women, struggle with this and are kept “under control” by oppression with church leadership who does not understand or accept the doctrine of grace and how to support and protect the victims but rather imposes generations of “institutional preferences”. And to save face. Thanks, Jeff C, for such great clarity on this issue.

    1. Thank you very much, Rebecca. Sometime, if you would like, I would be extremely interested in hearing more about your experiences growing up in the GARBC. I have been told that they have left some of the old legalism behind now, and I imagine there have been and still are some fine Christians in their ranks. But I am always anxious to learn from firsthand witnesses about how abuse can be fostered in such churches as that. Were you ever exposed to John R. Rice and the Sword of the Lord [Internet Archive link]1 publications? If you prefer, you can email me at Totally up to you though. No pressure.

      1[January 23, 2023: We added the link to Wikipedia’s Sword of the Lord page. The Internet Archive link is a copy of that page. Editors.]

      1. Jeff C, I’d be happy to share! Thank you for asking. When I have a bit more time, I can share more information. But just briefly: in my dad’s church, we were American Baptist, which was historically more liberal than the GARBC. There were a few AB pastors who stayed in this branch to try to combat the push toward liberal agendas, as was described to me….but what the “liberal” agenda was back in the 70s and 80s, I don’t know.

        My dad and the deacons were extreme Fundamentalists, as Bob Jones University was the background from which my parents came. I do remember the “Sword of the Lord” publications. However it was Bill Gothard and his seminars that were more-so promoted for many years. As a teenager, we had to attend. A local university’s facility was rented out so area churches could attend the video production’s weekly seminar, once a year. This went on for 5 or 6 years.

        I wanted to also add the explanation that the reason I ended up at the College I did was because I didn’t have much of a choice. It was [either] a Christian college or be on my own — financially, personally. The more I asked “why” in almost any setting, the more I was accused of being “rebellious” and “disrespectful” of authority. Being the “free spirit” of the family made me more determined, ultimately, to learn the truth rather be oppressed. Despite that being imposed upon me, God used my college experience for tremendous good. There were rocky moments, I am blessed to have been there and am so glad for those years.

        Lastly for now, it is by the grace of God that my parents and I now have a wonderful relationship, even when we don’t agree….especially my dad and I. We are both stubborn and strong-willed. 🙂 But that has served me well when I’ve allowed God to use it for good. They are tremendously supportive of me and my children as I go through this divorce. I have had to learn how to teach them what I’ve learned, and with grace….which I haven’t always done well. Over the last 4 years, they have come a very long way in dropping their legalistic “forgive and forget, marriage-is-forever-no-matter what” mentality, while respecting my choices and supporting those. That — is who God is. My folks are in their early 80s….they are just not used to a (young mid 40s 🙂 ) women taking charge of her life and fighting for a cause, no matter how just and necessary the cause may be. And, accepting abuse as grounds for divorce. They are much less opinionated, but I’d never expect them to never voice an opinion. And that is how I’ve grown as well, understanding that I’ve needed to be willing to explain and educate them over and over, even if they don’t understand right away, isn’t popular in the Baptist world, or when they didn’t agree. Stay the course and trust God’s leading and guidance.

      2. Rebecca – thank you. Wow, now that is an interesting mixture. American Baptist and Bob Jones / Fundamentalist / Bill Gothard! Actually I went to an American Baptist church as a teen. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the liberalism had already crept in by then. As I look back on it, the church I was in was best described as cold and dead.

        It is an incredible blessing that you have a good relationship with your parents, given all of that background and potential for alienation. And it is to their credit that they have grown to understand your situation too. It seems that so often our theology changes when it is tested in real life situations — such as having one of our children in an abusive marriage. It is also tremendous that you have come to see your own past rebelliousness, holding on to your strength and “good” kind of stubbornness while throwing the bad kind overboard.

        I have had numbers of reports from abuse victims now that their exposure to the Gothard seminars (“Basic Youth Conflicts”, was that the name?) worked to a very negative result in their lives. I can remember back in the ’70s people going to those at the Coliseum in Portland. I was oblivious to all of it, still working as a police officer and just getting on with life. I do remember one family — and another later on in our first church in Montana — who were heavily into Gothard. Neither one of those families nor their children turned out well. And I don’t mean minor problems. Major stuff.

        Legalism seems to be the great trap for Christians who most zealously want to serve Christ. But the price to be paid is huge. I am presently winding up my sermon series on Joshua and am seriously thinking about turning to a series on Galatians, or perhaps one on the religion of the Pharisees. The threat of the leaven of the Pharisees is always with us.

        Thank you again and yes, anytime you want to tell more of your story, go for it!

      3. Nope. It stands for General Association of Regular Baptists. Actually, but you have to be one of them to get away with this, I have had GARBC’rs tell me they are the “garbage Baptists”! What they meant was that the liberals viewed them that way. I talked to some of them about 3 years ago at a camp they run in Washington state east of Redmond (MicroSoft country). They were actually more moderate and I enjoyed them. They admitted that the history of their denomination had been pretty legalistic but that some good changes had happened.

  7. ….as if that reply wasn’t long enough…. Learning to extend grace and not just receive it, to my parents, as well as others, has been one of the hardest lessons for me as a survivor. I still struggle with this but recognize that this is where God is working on me, and I “needed” it.

    1. But it is so much easier to preach and tell them what to do! Yep, it takes some thorns and good wallops from the Lord to fine tune us, doesn’t it?

    2. Me too. I have almost always been hurt by the way my family have reacted to my experiences of abuse. Each in their own way have hurt me differently, and each time it comes as a shock. It’s not ever been easy, but I think I’ve managed to eventually reply to each of them in ways that are courteous, or else have just come to a settled place where I choose not to bring it up again (picking one’s battles). Often after such a conversation we just have to agree to differ, but it’s good that at least we can have the dialogue.

      1. What would you do if you couldn’t even have the dialogue?

        I am finding it hard to balance grace and boundaries. What if insisting on basic respect is too legalistic in a situation where a child is so damaged she can’t hear that because she doesn’t even know what that means. And there is no response when a conversation is started, so I made the decision that if there could be no conversation, there was no starting point for a respectful relationship. But now I am wondering if that is expecting too much. If it is, how do I resume the relationship while requesting respect?

        Secular counselors don’t understand grace, although I find that they tend to be less legalistic than the advice I’ve had from church Elders. My secular counselor thought it was good to always be available but she presumes that I am able to have a conversation (when I feel disrespected) where I can be validating and respectful while yet drawing the line at not being treated with contempt. There is no response to any dialogue.

  8. This one is probably over my head, depending upon the history of the child. I do know that a wooden approach to Scripture — “Children, obey your parents….” (Ephesians 6:1) — which would read dishonor and disobedience into a situation where not talking really stemmed from some other cause, would be a disaster. If it really is disrespect, then boundaries are in order (and consequences). I guess you really need to find out the motivation for refusing to acknowledge you and engage in a conversation?

    1. The temptation is to label it as a show of contempt. In her eyes, I am a victim that deserves to be picked on. If I could fight back, why didn’t I with her Dad? So because there’s something weak in me, she should be able to take advantage of that weakness as well. She has lost a lot of trust in people and needs to take advantage of every situation, including exploiting people.

      On the other hand, I also sense a disassociation that happens where she hates being confronted because it reminds her of the abuse (she would clam up every time her Dad started browbeating her). She feels terribly powerless and rejected and refuses to “go there”. Just to engage with me about it means she will have to acknowledge that I have a point to make, and that means she has to show respect in calling before she comes, and not eating her siblings’ food, which she sees as us not welcoming her as part of the family. She feels then that she has no family, nowhere to go. She slept in the car the last time I told her to leave.

      Barbara’s suggestion of writing my concerns is something I resorted to years ago. I didn’t know that she hated it — one day, she blurted out something about my “stupid” letters I left under her door. She doesn’t acknowledge any text or emails that I write. While I acknowledge that it may be due to a lack of trust and a resentment that I didn’t leave or divorce her dad years ago, I don’t see how one can re-build a relationship without any dialogue. Oh, there is superficial dialogue, but when it comes to anything personal or an expression of my feelings, there is only stonewalling. If I don’t get a response, how can I have a relationship? But then parents of autistic kids don’t get a response and they still maintain a relationship.

      If I tolerate disrespect, then I am really allowing and condoning sin under my roof. If I don’t, I am afraid of her harming herself because of her deep sense of hurt and abandonment.

      1. Uuugh. It sounds awful. And it sounds like you are doing and have done everything possible, and it’s not your fault that it hasn’t worked. Tolerating disrespect may be okay under such circumstances, if the disrespectful actions are not all that serious. But if her behaviour is overriding your rights or the rights of your other kids, then drawing a line against it is necessary. If she sleeps in the car, or goes into self-harm to attempt to guilt you, then that is her choice, not yours. She sounds like she has copied quite a few behaviours of the abuser.

        But I don’t think there is all that much of an analogy with an autistic child. Autism is a different way of thinking and processing that a child has by default, so to speak, and parents can relate to their autistic child because they know the child is relatively unable to change their fundamental mentality. Your daughter’s non-communication is not autistic, it is deliberate and conscious, at least to a fair extent, and it is the way she is responding to having lived in a home where her dad was very abusive and wreaked havoc on the rest of the family, including making her think her mother was ‘weak’. You daughter is much more accountable for her behaviour and personality than an autistic child would be. She’s had some tough cards dealt to her in life, sure, but she’s as responsible as the next victim for how she deals with that.

        If you just accept her non-communication as the way she is, while drawing boundaries against her actively unfair conduct towards you and the other kids, then at least you are being a ‘good mother’ by accepting your child for who she is right now. She’s a non-communicator. And she wants you to accept her as a non-communicator.

        Hope I’m not telling you what seems too obvious already. From what you write on this blog, I know you must be a smart lady, and very resourceful and thoughtful.

      2. Thanks for your insight, Barbara.

        When I ask myself what God would do, it seems like He does this sort of thing all the time. We don’t come to Him on His terms, so He lets us go. He very much wants to have relationship with us, but any relationship with God that isn’t based on His terms — of making Jesus the Lord whom we love — is not really a relationship. He doesn’t browbeat us or condemn us but His boundary speaks loud and clear.

        I need to do it like He does it. I can respect her enough to let her go and respect her right to have a wall. But I also recognize that simply caving in so that I can have some contact, and therefore positive influence, is not only controlling her, it is propagating the view that maintaining the status of a relationship is more important than the treatment of the people in the relationship. If there is disrespect, it isn’t a relationship. While her disrespect is not flagrant, it is still bottom-line disrespect of feeling that the other person is not entitled to basic rights. I don’t need to worry about her either — I can commit the situation into God’s hands. And if I’ve made a mistake because of distorted perceptions due to post-traumatic stress issues, then God can reveal it and turn it around.

      3. simply caving in so that I can have some contact, and therefore positive influence, is not only controlling her, it is propagating the view that maintaining the status of a relationship is more important than the treatment of the people in the relationship.

        Well said, Anonymous! That’s a great insight.

  9. That’s a really tough one. When you talk to the child, does he or she simply leave your presence and walk away? If so, I guess the only thing to do would be write them a letter and hope they read it. Grace is a tough one here: and how you might show grace depends on the age of the child. I really don’t have any answers. But certainly it’s good to say “STOP IT” when someone is slamming you with disrespect. Abusers can be so clever at twisting our kids against us, that it’s often hard to imagine how screwed up the child’s mind has become, and what manner of evil they are thinking against us.

    1. She doesn’t leave. She just continues doing whatever she is doing and ignores me, muttering the occasional “A-ha” and “OK”.

Leave a comment. It's ok to use a made up name (e.g Anon37). For safety tips read 'New Users Info' (top menu). Tick the box if you want to be notified of new comments.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.