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 clear cut. 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.

[September 22, 2022: Editors’ notes:

—For some comments made prior to September 22, 2022 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 September 22, 2022 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 September 22, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (September 22, 2022), 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.

40 thoughts on “A Lesson in Things Not to Say to an Abuse Victim”

  1. Amen!
    Most pastors will make the statement ” Physical abuse is wrong and unacceptable” — but very few will follow that to its logical conclusion!
    Praise the Lord for this blog. 🙂

    1. Katy – We all should carry one of those big, obnoxious sounding horns and whenever one of these people says certain words, we blast it. “Well certainly I believe that PHYSICAL abuse is….” — Hooooonnnnnnkkkkkk! “What in the world! I said that physical abuse is…” Scrrrrreeeeechhhhh! “Will you stop blasting that thing! I’m trying to….”

      1. Yes, yes, yes! Let’s go further, and use them horns as verbal abuse stoppers! Every time someone puts down, makes unilateral commands, orders, diverts, accuses, defines motivation, etc….HOOOONNNKKKK!!!!

  2. Living and seeing this first hand…I just called yesterday and told the church (my husband and I attended together) that I no longer wanted to be on their list of members. This church turned against me and my children completely. They did more damage than good! The “lay” counselors (that counseled my husband and I) even testified on my husband’s behalf and the elder that put myself and my children in a hotel lied to our custody evaluator and said he didn’t believe it to be abuse after all and that he investigated it thoroughly…that is a big crock!!! This same elder is the one that told me i should csll the authorities and report my husband. They in their spiritual pride and arrogance didn’t want to deal with it!!! I’m loosing hope in the church!!!!

    1. J – I hear you. I have lost hope in the “church” as well — but not in the true church. Christ’s people are still here, but increasingly it seems that we have to go “outside the camp” to find them. They aren’t a bunch of rebels who just aren’t “into organized religion,” but they are people like the blind man in John 9 who was put out of the Temple by the religious leaders of the day. Of course it was outside the temple that Jesus found Him — Jesus had become the real Temple! Your story of your experience with that elder and local church is sadly typical of what we hear every day.

  3. I am so glad this ministry is here and watching out for those of us who have tried for years to “fix” an abusive marriage – all the while wilting within and slowly dying. Thank you for holding accountable those who publish and speak their points of view in a public manner. Thankfully, God is healing. God alone is my refuge, my rock.

  4. Thank you for this post and for your work! I got really emotionally triggered at church recently when my pastor preached on divorce from Matthew 5. Predictably he stated that people can separate “for a time” if there has been “physical” abuse. It seems the only type of abuse that is real is the physical form. They don’t get that physical abuse is always precipitated by emotional or psychological abuse. So a woman can leave for a time, but then what?!!!!!!
    It is sooooooo frustrating to listen to and I’m not sure what my role should be in educating people about the nature of abuse. Currently, we are in a 5-week series on the family based on the theme of Home Remodeled. The series topics were printed in our weekly bulletin and the title of the 5th week sermon is “Love it Don’t List It-Choosing to Stay” and I fear that there will be a superficial acknowledgement of abuse in discussing divorce. Yes women can leave for a time to escape an abusive situation but no real answers are given as to what should happen next.

    1. KarenR – Boy, too bad we don’t have email lists of churches! We could send them posts:) Yes, your pastor like so many needs a real wakeup call on this issue. Sometimes it seems that the wakeup call comes in the form of one of a person’s own children being the victim of abuse.

    2. Karen – That sort of study is exactly why I stopped participating in the Men’s Group at my church, for several years. Their primary focus did not align well with my understanding of scripture on the topic of marriage and divorce. It took a while before I could start attending, again, without feeling constantly triggered. Now, I’ve become sort of the unofficial heckler of the group…the guy who can be counted on to point out inconsistencies…the places where bumper-sticker theology doesn’t align well with either real life circumstances or sound biblical doctrine.

      1. Jeff – It’s become sort of an odd relationship, but, I think, a healthy one. I feel that I’m ministering to them by asking them think a little deeper than catchy slogans. They feel they’re ministering to me through my pain.

        I’m actually not hurting nearly as much as they assume…I’ve had years to heal and a healthy measure of God’s loving grace. They just have trouble understanding why I would keep objecting to off-hand comments like, “Well, of course God isn’t for divorce!” unless I was still emotionally hurting.

        Of course, my reason is that I know what they don’t yet know…that they’re missing a key understanding of God’s heart, and I hope to help them grow in that area.

        The good news is that everyone continues to be patient and loving through this sometimes bizarre process. It has actually grown my confidence in their love toward me, even if we still struggle on the understanding part… 🙂

    3. Separate “For a Time” if there has been physical abuse.

      So is the separation only during the time the victim is in the hospital or does she get a day or so afterwards to recuperate at a friend or family’s home before she goes back for more? When this verse was thrown up to me, this is the question I wanted an answer to. It is amazing the ones that can cast stones or set limits on victims, but can’t or won’t answer that question. None of the items that were throw at me connected so my “for a time” was not suppose to happen. Internal scars and bruises weren’t suppose to count.

      I have heard several sermons lately with the “superficial acknowledgement of abuse” and the words “but we don’t want to get that started just for one person”. “Divorce for abuse.” I can’t imagine those words will ever be spoken. My position is that in a church of 500, there are others experiencing abuse of various kinds, but because of this attitude are not speaking up. I want them to know that it is ok to tell the truth. It is ok to make decisions beyond “separation for a time”. It is ok to do so before the hospital or the grave are the next place they go.

      1. Preach it Brenda R! You know that in a church of 500 (a world totally foreign to me) there are more abuse victims and their abusers. Separation time lengths? Hmmm….well….hmmmm…..you know, just separation. That’s about as much commitment as you will get from these guys.

      2. How long a separation?

        How about…NOT IN THIS LIFETIME!

        And we can trust God to judge whether we will both be in Heaven in the next lifetime…and also trust Him to have removed all sin and to wash away all sorrows and all tears!

        Thanks for sharing, Brenda R!

      3. The crazy thing about the idea of separation “for a time” is that a man who abuses his wife physically or otherwise is likely to re-offend. A study conducted in 2002 indicated that the recidivism rate from the time of the physical abuse contact involving police 62% of men had re-offended within 2 years. I think the statistics still hold that one in four women are involved in intimate partner abuse….so in a church of 500 people assuming that there are 250 women over 18 there are over 70 dealing with abuse. So the “for a time” argument is really pretty scary. It’s like sending a woman and her children back into the lion’s den.

      4. I would say that was pretty significant. Well worth our Minister’s time to research and speak about the danger of abuse in any form. That elephant in the room just keeps getting bigger.

      5. Just to clarify, KarenR, the one in four statistic is a lifetime incidence statistic. Thus, one in four women in the western world who have ever been partnered, experience domestic abuse at some time during their lives.

        So in a church near you, if there are 100 women who have or will in an intimate relationship, 25 of those women will be abused by their partner at some stage during their lives.

        But in that church on a given Sunday morning, not all of those 25 women are suffering abuse in their marriages right now. Some of those 25 women are experiencing abuse right now, some of them have experienced it in the past but not now, and some will experience it in the future.

        The one in four rate is higher in many other countries, and from what I can remember there are a few countries where it is a bit lower (Japan, so far as I can remember, may be one of them.)

    4. We are an army, no longer silent, of victims and survivors who are sick of the superficial acknowledgement of domestic abuse.

      I am sick of abuse being relegated to —
      a paranthesis
      a footnote
      a passing remark 4/5ths of the way through a sermon on marriage.

      I am sick of abuse being seen as only “grounds for separation for a time”.

      Tell me where the true stories are of that “separation for a time” working out to real repentance and reformation of the abuser. I could count the stories I’ve heard like that one one hand, and in some of those I think the marriage didn’t really change all that much — the victim is still at least half in the fog and the abuser still has major character defects.

      The boastful glowing stories we hear recounted from pulpits about miraculous marital turnarounds are, I suspect, almost always cases where the abuser snowed the church leaders but didn’t really change, and the victim is suffering in fog-bound silence, even more oppressed and depressed than ever, having trusted an ignorant pastor’s advice, succumbed to his pressure, and gone back to the abuser whose feigned repentance soon evaporated behind closed doors.

      And I say boastful because that’s how they sound to me. The preachers who spout this stuff seem to be boasting of their own pastoral success more than anything else. It sounds like this is what is going on in their heads, though they would never admit to it: “Okay, fellow Pastor… you say you’ve brought two failing marriages back together? Well I’ve brought five!”

      I’m creating a great big banner and taking it down the main street of Christendom; it says:

      1. Barbara – It appears that many of these kinds of pastors, especially if they are the pastor of a “growing” church, somehow overlooked Jesus’ own words about “will He find faith on the earth” or “Narrow is the way, few are they who find it,” or the church described as the “remnant,” and so on. In their minds they have been able to overcome all this. Or if they don’t have the numbers yet, they are sure they can get them. So they tell these kinds of miracle stories with the marvelous happy endings. The thing is a sham, but they turn their sham in to the NORM. Suddenly it becomes normal to expect the wicked to be totally transformed, and victims of the wicked are put down if they doubt that it will happen. Victims are just an annoyance for the average church program. Those programs need and feed upon glowing stories of wicked people becoming saints. Of course Christ does transform the wicked into saints! He did it for us. But Scripture in no way tells us that this transformation, this great salvation of sinners into the children of God is commonplace and is something that we should be telling everyone to expect in the majority of cases. Hardly. And yet abuse victims are told that the expected outcome in their case is that their abuser is going to be saved and changed. And that is just wrong.

      2. That is how I have felt. I am just an annoyance. If I would just go away, that would solve that problem. We’d never have to bring it up again.

  5. Very good post, Jeff! I appreciate your willingness to continue “cutting to the chase” as you have here.

    I especially like this, “…but the acid test question is, ‘do you believe that I can divorce my abuser and it be approved by the Lord?'”

    I’d even take it a step further to ask, “Do you believe that divorce is sometimes the most godly course of action and God’s perfect will for some circumstances?”

    If they waffle or hedge on giving a yes answer to this question, then they have not yet fully grasped God’s heart of redemption toward His children who are enslaved in a covenant of abusive bondage.

    1. Joe,

      You are so right when you ask, “Do you believe that divorce is sometimes the most godly course of action and God’s perfect will for some circumstances?”

      Scripture is clear that children should be trained in godliness, not indoctrinated into abuse. Leaving such a situation takes a lot of courage, but I believe that it is an act of faithfulness to the Lord, despite the critical comments from those who have never seen what harm living with abuse does to children. It doesn’t seem like R. C. Sproul or John MacArthur have even considered that there are often children involved. Perhaps they try to ignore that inconvenient fact because if they did, their position would be even more obviously ridiculous!
      I thought that those men were supposed to be deep thinkers-looks like they haven’t put much mental effort in how to handle domestic abuse. Better if they would remain silent than speak about what they don’t know.

      1. Amen, Widow. The most Godly thing to do, if you have children is to protect them from abuse no matter what it takes.

    2. ‘. . . take it a step further to ask, “Do you believe that divorce is sometimes the most godly course of action and God’s perfect will for some circumstances?”

      If they waffle or hedge on giving a yes answer to this question, then they have not yet fully grasped God’s heart of redemption toward His children who are enslaved in a covenant of abusive bondage.’

      Amen. Spot on, Joe.

      1. We are always to stand against evil. When evil stands on the other side of the door from us, we are to keep our foot pressed up against the back of that door, and not let it in. Isaiah 59:15 tells us what happens to us as victims, when we stand against the evil. It says:

        “Truth is lacking and whoever departs from evil, makes himself a prey.”

        When we stand against the evil, by leaving and/or divorcing our abusers, we become prey to the abuser and his allies and anyone else who does not agree with our stand against evil.

    3. I went to a church that condemned my abuser’s actions but did not believe I had biblical grounds for divorce. It was very confusing, because they reluctantly allowed separation, but no change had occurred in my abuser, and yet I was required to pursue reconciliation. I told them it was like wearing a combat boot on one foot and a stiletto heel on the other. It was impossibly contradictory to do what they asked, and even in my confused state, they didn’t make enough sense for me to listen to them anymore. I left that church, and found sanity in another. Leaving that church was more painful than divorce. A pastor I respect called their thinking “lazy exegesis.” I tend to agree. It was like they were stuck – “you shouldn’t be abused–you can’t get divorced–you should go back to your abuser–oh, wait! you shouldn’t be abused…” So frustrating.

      1. HIF- It is like the one son who says he will do the father’s will, but then doesn’t do it. They know they need to step out and take action and back you all the way, but then they see the cost to themselves and cower away. Lazy exegesis is willful. Knowing God’s will but not doing it. So glad you got free.

  6. WOW!! I just got home from work. The 15 drive home was filled with a conversation between the Lord and I about writing a point list of “Things Not to Say to An Abuse Victim”. Then the first e-mail I see when I get home is this!!! AMAZING!
    The documented points you brought out! Oh my! I was trying to explain these to my grown sons! About a month or more ago, they proceeded to “explain” to me how Emotional Abuse is just another “psychosis” the APA dreamed up to make more money off people. sigh
    Their father sitting in a chair listening with a smug grin on his face. See, he has the blessing of the church, that “she is a rebellious woman who despises authority” and he has some of my children convinced I am crazy, Borderline Personality Disorder to be exact. Please be sure, I remained humble enough to spend a whole year at a psychologist and demanded every test, including the BPD test, and I am nowhere near crazy or BPD. My only results being, slight depression and low self-esteem.
    But anyhow, this is an awesome and timely article! Please feel free to make a list of things to not to say! Thank you so much!!!

    1. Robin M – I see that smug grin. I don’t like it. May the Lord wipe it right off his face. Thank you for your great insights. And no, you aren’t crazy!

  7. The highlighted comments of the poster is exactly the typical advice I was coming across in church circles. Your response, Jeff, is the one that is so desperately needed in church. Shout it from the rooftops!

    1. Pastor started a series today on What We Believe and How We Should Behave. I am expecting another sermon on marriage coming up real soon.

    1. I whole heartedly disagree with Ps Piper. Giving a complete subservient presentation to a man who clearly does not know God when asking his wife to have “group sex” is ridiculous. Asking her husband, how he could ask her to do such a thing while claiming to be a Christian would be in order. Of course, this man also thinks that if a woman has something she wants to discuss with her husband she should quietly ask him, “is now a good time”, which I also think is a lot of manure. Do you need an appointment to have an appointment to ask your husband a question?
      He clearly understands nothing of abuse, which I already knew from reading his books. Hearing him actually answer this question confirms the way I felt towards him. Getting “smacked once” should not only be reason to contact the church if he is a member, but the police as well. My family doctor who is a Christian told me, “Once and only once. You should not allow for a second time.” A second time could mean her life. He has seen too many die at the hand of their abuser.
      If this is how the Pastor of a very large church, 3 sites in Minnesota, responds to the question of abuse I shutter to think what the church response would be.

  8. After years of hard work (ending in physical violence and him being in jail) my pastor told me that I should go get counseling with my ex so that if I had to leave I could leave with a clear conscience. I had explained all the work and all a victim hears is that it wasn’t good enough, try harder and basically never give up because if that wasn’t good enough what is? I could never attain good enough.. it always falls on the victim and sucks her back in again and again and then people say.. “why won’t she just leave” it sickens me. The better question for me today is “why won’t he leave me alone?” he moved near me, he is in the school, the church, the town.. He is allowed to stay near me when I have tried everything to leave him.

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