A Lesson in Things Not to Say to an Abuse Victim
The following comment was recently received by us on an older post that recounted some of the good things R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur have written in the past. (To read the old post click here.) In that post I just wanted to be fair and tell everyone that I have benefited greatly from Sproul and also a considerable amount in years past from MacArthur’s writings (Ashamed of the Gospel for example, or The Gospel According to Jesus). But both of these men have written more than once in the past that they deny abuse as a biblical grounds for divorce, and that is a very, very serious error. Sproul may have softened on his stance and if he has then we wish that he would make his changed opinion public (and we have encouraged him to do so). MacArthur on the other hand remains unchanged on this point.
Anyway, here is the comment we received and we have decided to put it in a post by itself so that we can use it as an example of some things not to say to an abuse victim. It is also an example of some typical wrong thinking concerning the nature of abuse. We hope that the commenter will take our corrections to heart.
As an evangelical and one who stands for Biblical inerrancy I share your appreciation for the ministries of both MacArthur and Sproul. However, I would agree that no person should be urged to stay in an abusive relationship. While it doesn’t quite fit into the exact wording of the Greek (pornea) which Scripture gives as a ground for leaving a relationship and remarrying, I would put physical abuse into the category of unfaithfulness in a relationship. While in both abusive relationships and in cases of marital infidelity, I would encourage couples to explore whether change and reconciliation is possible. But I do not believe that a person should be pressed to continue in such a relationship.
Alright then, this writer is a bit further along in his understanding of abuse than many others are. He does acknowledge that it is wrong to pressure an abuse victim into remaining in that marriage. However, his words then spin off in a wrong direction:
1) Physical abuse— as is so common, this fellow’s thinking about abuse appears to be limited to physical assault. His comments make no place for psychological abuse, nor emotional, nor spiritual. And that is a great error. When speaking about abuse or when speaking to an abuse victim, never throw in the adjective “physical.” We are dealing almost constantly with victims who are undergoing horrid abuse, but because it has not been physical, they remain in bondage to the idea that they cannot leave. Has it really been abuse? Listen to Scott Allen Johnson on this:
Psychological abuse (including verbal and emotional) is perhaps the most common type of force and abuse used against victims of battering and sexual offenses. Psychological abuse is also the most damaging type of abuse, and is frequently found to occur with physical and sexual abuse, but also occurs as a free-standing form of abuse (Johnson 1995, 1997, 1998).
Collateral documentation verified the majority of the offenders claimed to utilize psychological force to manipulate their victim into sexual contact vs. the use of physical violence. The importance of these findings are paramount. Clinicians, law enforcement personnel, supervising agents, and judges need to take into account that the more common type of force used by sex offenders and even by batterers is unseen, does not leave physical evidence, yet is more damaging than direct physical or sexual abuse.
Scott Allen Johnson. Physical Abusers and Sexual Offenders: Forensic and Clinical Strategies [*Affiliate link] (Kindle Locations 318-328). Kindle Edition.
Ok, does everyone have it then? Don’t say “oh sure, you can divorce for PHYSICAL abuse.” No, no, no. Don’t believe that and don’t say that.
2) The argument from the Greek word “porneia” translated as sexual immorality, fornication, unchastity is widely debated and is not the clearest scripture to cite for abuse (Matthew 5:32 and others, for example). It is much wiser to go to 1 Cor 7 where the innocent party is not under bondage if the guilty spouse leaves. Abuse is much more easily encompassed here and in fact, as David Instone-Brewer notes, the Apostle Paul probably has Exodus 21 in mind as he wrote 1 Cor 7. In the Exodus passage, a slave wife who has been denied her marital rights must be given a certificate of divorce. But all that detail aside, we must understand that there are many other Scriptures that apply to abuse as a grounds for divorce than just those that speak of porneia. In fact, the fundamental issue to get hold of if you are ever going to arrive at any clarity on this matter of abuse (including emotional, psychological abuse) as a grounds for divorce in the Bible is to understand that marriage is a covenant. Covenants have terms — the vows. To habitually and unrepentantly break those vows to love, honor, cherish, etc., is to destroy that covenant. That is exactly what abuse does.
3) This is probably the worst part of our commenter’s statement: “While in both abusive relationships and in cases of marital infidelity, I would encourage couples to explore whether change and reconciliation is possible.” That kind of a statement will put horrible and unnecessary guilt upon an abuse victim. Why? Because almost every real Christian who is an abuse victim HAS BEEN trying to make the marriage work for years! And to no avail. So why would any pastor, counselor, or friend ever recommend pursuing reconciliation? Abusers do not want to reconcile. They want to own and possess and control. And they don’t change. They lie and deceive and pretend wonderful repentance. They put pressure on the victim through winning her friends and pastor and church members as the abuser’s allies. And then after the victim yields and is duped by it all — she finds herself in the same evil bondage once again. Nothing has changed, except for the worse.
“Let’s see, have you explored if change and reconciliation is possible?” Do you see that that statement puts ALL the initiative upon the victim! Why is it her responsibility to go off on this exploration? And why would an abuser explore such a thing? The suggestion makes no sense whatsoever. In fact, the statement does the very thing that the commenter says should not be done — it puts pressure on the victim to remain in an abusive relationship.
4) Finally, I notice that the key words “marriage” and “divorce” are never mentioned by this commenter. There are allusions, but nothing clearcut. Why say “relationship” instead of marriage? And why the deafening silence of the absence of the word “divorce”? You see, when you talk around these issues like this, you leave everyone wondering if you really believe that abuse is indeed biblical grounds for divorce. And my position is that in the end, when all is said and done, an abuse victim is not going to find people standing with them when it gets right down to the divorce unless those people clearly announce that they hold to the position of divorce for abuse. Churches and pastors and church members can speak all they want about separation, about getting the victim protection, about confronting the abuser — but the acid test question is, “do you believe that I can divorce my abuser and it be approved by the Lord?” If the answer is “no,” or “well, we can talk about that later,” or….whatever — be assured that in the end such people will not fully and faithfully stand with you.
* Amazon affiliate link — ACFJ gets a small percentage if you purchase via this link