What does Dallas Theological Seminary say about Divorce and Redemption in Cases of Spousal Abuse?
What Does The Bible Say about Divorce and Redemption in Cases of Spousal Abuse? is Part Two of the Dallas Theological Seminary video podcast series on domestic abuse. DTS created the series as a basic introduction to the larger topic of domestic abuse for students and alumni, as well any one else who might find it useful. [Here is my critique of Part One of the podcast series.]
The video is a very mixed bag. Some things the presenters say are good; some things are terrible. A mixture of good and bad is what we quite often find in Christian teaching about domestic abuse. It is our experience that when people get it partly wrong, they hurt and confuse victims, and they unwittingly condone and enable abusers — and so the injustice continues.
Dallas Theological Seminary is not alone in getting it partly right and partly wrong. I could have done a similar review of material produced by CCEF, and I may do so some day. My general points in this review might apply to many seminaries and many Christian counseling educational organizations. (Hint #1: if the cap fits — wear it! Hint #2: if your organization wants to avoid being critiqued on this blog, you might like to learn some lessons from this post and overhaul how you are talking about domestic abuse.)
The discussion panel on this video are the same as part one:
Darrell Bock, Executive Director for Cultural Engagement at the Howard G. Hendricks Center for Christian Leadership and Cultural Engagement;
Gary Barnes, a Professor in the Biblical Counseling Program at DTS who also has a part-time private practice as a licenced psychologist specializing in marriage and family;
Debby Wade, a marriage and family therapist and a licensed professional counselor. She has a private practice (Authentic Christian Therapeutic Solutions) where she specializes in working with intimacy issues and couples, and marital work.
The video is titled “What Does The Bible Say about Divorce and Redemption in Cases of Spousal Abuse?” but I think it should have been titled “What Does Dallas Theological Seminary Say about Divorce and Redemption in Cases of Spousal Abuse?”
My method for this review is as follows:
- I will quote from the transcript and make comments as I go.
- I will give bold font to the good things the panel say, things which will help victims.
- I will underline the things the panel say that I consider bad, unwise, triggering or dangerous for victims.
- My quotes will be in the order they occur in the video, but I will not use ellipses [. . . ] as that would be too distracting to the format.
- I will not quote all of the transcript as it is quite long; but I will do my best not to misrepresent what the panelists say.
- My comments will be given in purple.
So, grab a cuppa. This is a long post but you have all weekend to read it 🙂
Gary Barnes: The calling for marriage does not mean to put yourself in harm’s way in marriage. So yes, God hates divorce but he also hates violence. He hates abuse. He hates control for self-serving purposes. And so if a person is ever at risk in their sense of safety in their own home then they need to have an option from that. Like we said, it could be a friend, could be a local shelter.
The saying ‘”God hates divorce” ought to be eliminated. What we should be saying instead is: “God hates treacherous divorce, but He does not hate disciplinary divorce.” (for argumentation, see this post and my book Not Under Bondage which you will find in our sidebar to the right.)
Darrell Bock: Now what’s an indicator that space may be necessary? Is it the sense of not being safe in the home? Is it the level, the threat level becoming high enough that really, really is an indication that there just needs to be a cooling off?
The notion that abuse will be stopped or resolved by ‘a cooling off period’ is a wrong-headed notion. Abuse does not stop just because you let the abuser cool off. Despite the appearance that some abusers give that they are overheated and lose control, abusers are typically very much in control of their actions and they exercise abuse in all seasons: whether they are hot or cold or warm or tepid.
Gary Barnes: Well obviously any, any physical harm is — okay, this is not safe, this is not appropriate. Just like the woman on the interview spoke of: If anybody else in my life was doing to me what my spouse was doing to me, would I allow that? Would that be okay? And so I think that’s a good guideline to ask yourself. But don’t just limit it to the physical. Think in terms of being controlled, whether it’s with the use of words, whether it’s a character assassinations or even ‘the look’. So there’s a look that we all have that we give to someone when we are maybe angry or upset or frustrated with somebody. But that’s not the same as a look of I’m going to control you and if you don’t do what I’m expecting you to do, things are going to get bad for you.
[The panel watch a segment of a video showing a survivor talking about how her church sent her and her young child back to a violent man.]
Darrell Bock: Okay now that pretty poignantly poses the dilemma. I go and share with someone in the hopes of getting help and instead what I get is resistance. I guess the natural question is what do you do then? You’ve made your effort to release the secret and it has flopped. Now what do you do?
Gary Barnes: You go up the chain. You hit a bad spot on the chain, don’t give up, don’t quit – and this is where moving outside your circle sometimes may become necessary because some people live in a circle that’s so tight that there literally may be one place to go – you may only have one pitch. This is where [you need to pursue] the support groups that exist.
Yes, when a victim has sought help and been knocked back or judged, the advice to persevere — to go up the chain — is helpful. But Barnes fails to recognize that ‘up the chain’ there may only be more of the same or worse! And he totally fails to denounce the Christians who are disbelieving and being judgmental to victims and sending them back into harm’s way. He does not show any outrage about the church’s flabby response to domestic abuse.
Furthermore, he subtly blames victims when he talks about ‘some people live in a circle that is so tight’. Hello? Very often the reason that circle is so tight is because the abusers make it so! There is no attribution of blame to the abuser here: the syntax Barnes employs makes abusers and controlling churches utterly invisible: the subject of the verb ‘live’ is ‘some people’— such a vague expression — victims will feel blamed by it, but abusers and controlling churches get off scot free because they not named specifically as the ones keeping those tight circles tight. This kind of linguistic tactic which makes the perpetrators invisible is far too often employed when talking about abuse.
Debby Wade: I think certainly if you’re not being heard, be willing to find someone that will hear you. And I know that’s so easy for us to say that this is what they need to do when they’ve been so squelched and so broken that they feel like if somebody doesn’t hear me that these people that I think that I can trust don’t hear me, their fear is that nobody will hear them. So I would give that encouragement.
This was good because it honored how squelched and broken victims often feel, and how hard it is to reach out for help when you fear people will disbelieve and reject you. But to tell the victims to ‘be willing to find someone that will hear you’ puts the burden on the victims. Hem hem: victims ARE willing to find someone who will hear them —that’s why they reach out for help! But the people who will hear them and believe them are very few and far between. Wade tells the victim to be willing to find someone who will hear her. Once again, the victim is told what to do. Told how to feel and think. Can I say we are sick of this? What about telling the church and the bystanders what to do? What about dressing down all the flaccid Christians who think they get it but they don’t have a clue? What about rousing the church to outrage about the injustice that victims of abuse are being dealt?
Darrell Bock: sometimes isn’t it true that what happens to a victim is that they tend to blame themselves for the situation that they’re in and so all that does is reinforce the attitude that they have that well maybe this really is bad but maybe I am really a cause.
He’s right that victims tend to blame themselves. But he implies that the victims themselves are at fault for this. Victim: you are reinforcing your attitude that you are the cause of the problem! I’m telling you, victim, you need to stop doing this! Again, this evacuates the abuser from the picture: he’s once again conveniently invisible! FACT: it is the abuser who is blaming the victim — brainwashing her to believe that she is the one at fault. This needs to be stated as plainly as the nose on your face, so that victims do not cop the blame for blaming themselves. If that sounds circuitous, imagine the circles victims are going through: round and round in this crazy-making labyrinthine maze where the abuser blames them and counselors and ‘c’hristian experts blame them too. . .
Gary Barnes: All the more reason to get a reality check from someone outside that can help you with that way of thinking.
Yes; but I doubt that these DTS counselors will give you a reality check. Instead, they will tangle you up in crazy-making double messages by encouraging you one minute, and blaming you the next. Flee, dear victims, from this toxic miasma!
Darrell Bock: Now, let’s talk about churches that are put in this situation, particularly churches that might have a very strong stand on divorce. This is a hard move for churches to make because the reality is if you do advise a separation, oftentimes that is the first step towards a divorce. I think the statistics are there to say that that’s often what does happen, that oftentimes you don’t – you aren’t able to pull it back together. So you’ve got that risk and sometimes you’re faced with two bad choices and the judgment to make is which choice is the greater good or which choice by opting not to act leads you in the worse situation. Is that a way to think about this?
It is wrong to say that separation is often the first step towards divorce. Abuse is the first step towards divorce. Portraying separation as the first step to divorce is another way of subtly laying blame on victims who make the choice to separate, and it also calls into question any church that advises or condones that separation. Bottom line: the victim would not be separating if the abuser did not abuse.
Bock is clearly stuck on the notion that divorce is always bad. It has to be bad. It can never be good. FACT: divorce is often the very best thing in domestic abuse, especially if post-divorce the kids don’t have to see the abuser any more, or have very restricted contact with him. Then the non-abusive parent can usually do a good job of raising the kids without the awful revolving door of the kids being with the abuser, having their minds (and sometimes bodies) molested, and then coming back to the protective parent who tries to help the kids recover from the trauma and fearful confusion, only to have to send the kids back to the abuser again by order of the Family Court. It is no fun, believe me. Life is constant crisis and bandaid jobs, till contact with the abuser ends.
Barnes: You know I think of two things in response to that. Number one is we have to change our thinking about how God thinks about things because we are just thinking about the way we think instead of the way God thinks. So if I’m thinking the ultimate thing here is divorce. That’s not how God’s thinking.
I agree that most people have to change their thinking because they’re just running on their own ill-formed ideas about divorce. The victim’s heart might leap with hope, hearing these words from Barnes. . . but look at what comes next:
Barnes: Yes, God hates divorce. That’s not his first choice. God’s made allowances for it out of the hardness of hearts.
This is where Ellie and the rest of our readers will have to start madly tapping to cope with the trigger. Mr Barnes and all who echo him, please hear this:
God does not hate all divorce. He only hates treacherous divorce. He approves of divorce for abuse.
Furthermore, God did not “make allowances for divorce out of the hardness of hearts”. Jesus’ commentary on that Mosaic law is quite gender specific: it was the MEN’s hardness of heart that God was targeting in that law. He wrote the law in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 because some men were so hard hearted that they were dumping their wives, then marrying them again after the wives had been been in and out of another marriage. This law was to deal with a callous man who dumped his wife — effectively freeing her to marry other man — but then the first husband, without any conscience, wanted to take the wife back after the wife’s second marriage had terminated. The law was given to prohibit men treating their wives as disposable and re-purchasable chattels. Barnes is like so many who pontificate on this passage: they ignore the gender specifics and thus they make the evil man invisible.
Barnes: One person can’t do the work for two people to make a marriage work and if safety and sanctity of life is at risk, that’s a greater concern than divorce. And so I think we have to kind of say yes, we’re first and foremost for the marriage but we’re first and foremost for things that are even greater to the heart of God than that.
One person can’t do the work for two people to make a marriage work — Amen to that statement! And we heartily endorse the view that safety and sanctity of life are more important that keeping a marriage together. The individual’s health and safety are definitely more important than the institution of marriage.
But the comfort and relief victims feel from those blessed words is punched out of them in the very next second with a classic crazy-making double message: “We are first and foremost for X’ and “We are first and foremost for Y.” Mr Barnes, I think you need to go back to class and learn clear thinking skills.
Barnes’ delivery is reminiscent of the abuser’s Jekyll and Hyde tactics: Be nice for moment so she lets her guard down, then stab her again but make the stab so confusing that she goes away wondering if she is going crazy because she can’t make sense of what you are saying. . . Who is this man? the nice guy? or the cruel one? . . . She thinks she must be wrong for feeling hurt and confused — he said something so nice! it was like a drop of water in the desert!
Barnes: The other thing that I think the church could really do well on is to think in terms of the long term. This is a long-term need and if we can just make space for this to be addressed adequately, let’s not just say either you go back into the home and just put up with it or else you get divorce. You could have a long-term structured separation. See, when you look at the statistics on separations that lead to divorce, those are unstructured separations, with the right kinda supports around and each person and sometimes that separation might need to be where it’s unknown where the victim is, just for their protection.
This time the bad statement comes first and the good statement comes second.
The bad statement is bad because it will most likely set the victim up for a long haul of more trying by holding out the carrot of hope, and because it implicitly pressures the victim to go along with this idea of a ‘structured separation’. We know full well from so many examples how rarely this works, how pompously and naively the church often thinks it is competent to structure this separation, and how easy it is for abusers to feign progress towards reformation so that the plan can be dragged out, and all the counselors and bystanders preen themselves on the progress that is being made. They love to cite the success stories they’ve been part of, the marriages they’ve seen redeemed, but where are they in reality? [my asterisks represent fairy dust]
The mention of the victim’s address being kept secret from the perpetrator is a good one. At least that indicates that Barnes has some understanding of the risks of post-separation abuse and violence.
Darrell Bock: So they aren’t chased down and the control kicks in.
Mr Bock, please hear this: Your sentence makes the abuser invisible. Please permit me to remind you of some basic grammar:— An active verb such as “kicks” requires a noun as the agent doing the acting. In your sentence, you make it sound like ‘control’ is doing the kicking. That means the abuser is not there, not choosing, not an agent. Your syntax covertly implies that the abuser is somehow the passive recipient of the agent called ‘control’ — the control just kicked in and he couldn’t help himself!
The correct way to say it would have been something like this: “So they can’t be chased down by the abuser who still wants to exert control and wants to take vengeance on the victim for having escaped the control.”
Gary Barnes: I worked with one couple where that structured separation occurred over a two year time period and they actually were reconciled but it took that much time with each of them going through separate individual steps and stages before they could begin to have even structured contact while they were still separated. So that’s – we don’t have to just think of those two options (1) well you either have to go back in the house so go back in, or (2) divorce — and we don’t want you to divorce so just stick in the house and stick it out.
Darrell Bock: you’re talking about separation where the support of the church and the community at large is important, because they can help really working with both partners in one way or another to try and take the time that’s necessary to let things settle down and also get a handle on what’s going on and then begin the process of trying to rebuild what’s been damaged.
‘Let things settle down’ – I shall tell you what will happen when this is the approach that churches use. Abusers will feign repentance and work on recruiting allies, and victims will have second thoughts and starting wondering . . . “Was it really that bad? Maybe I’m too sensitive. 😦 Calling it ‘abuse’ seems fairly harsh! What if it’s not abuse? Maybe he really wants to change! What if I’m supposed to lead him to the Lord?” e.t.c.e.t.e.r.a.
‘Trying to rebuild what’s been damaged’ is bad terminology. It is yet another statement where the abuser’s responsibility is elided, so it could be taken to imply that the problem is a mutual problem, the responsibility of both parties — they wrecked it; they have to rebuild it — while the church stands round and tells them what to do. Supportively, of course! Cue Debby Wade:
Debby Wade: And I think certainly for the men — for the men in churches to come around and support the abuser in a way of making sure that he is going to be on a redemptive path and that he is going to be willing to seek out healing and to look at the internal issues. You know where’s the anger, where’s the fear, what’s the need of control about? And that you know believers come alongside him and walk with him and be willing to confront what is not okay behavior. What’s not appropriate behavior for a spouse?
Excuse me, can you please show me all these churches where the men are able to recognize and abuser’s lies and resist an abuser’s invitations to sympathize with him and collude with victim-blaming narratives? Can you please show me an abuser who is willingly transparent (not pretend transparency and fake repentance done with a hidden agenda) about his not-okay behaviors, let alone his not-okay attitudes? This is utter foolishness to think that most men in churches are clued up enough to call the abusers on their games and lies.
Wade: So that the reconciliation plan is one for both of them and the healing would have to take place for both of them. And then, we always hear ‘hurting people hurt people’, so part of it I would think would also be for the abuser to be willing to look at what is the trauma or the pain in the past that he may be living in, still living with, that causes him to need that kind of control and be abusive.
AARGH! I dealt with this horrible notion in my critique of Part One of this podcast series.
Let me give you Jeff Crippen here. He says it more concisely than I usually do 🙂
DTS and all those kinds of counselors are MINIMIZING and EXCUSING the abuse when they attribute it to the poor, poor fellow suffering from trauma and pain. Doesn’t it seem to you that if you have been hurt in the past the right way of responding to that would be to develop an active conscience so you do not hurt others? But abusers have no conscience. And when you are the target of an abuser, the abuse is still harming you whether the abuser is insecure, or was molested as a child, or whatever. Lots of other people suffer those traumas and yet they do not abuse.
Darrell Bock: Now here comes a strange question. Should the spouses seek the same counselor or different counselors or does it depend? It seems to me that the choice of support here is also important in how it works because sometimes I think you get two different counselors, sometimes you get in a situation where it’s like the two lawyers in a legal case where you got the counselor supporting one person and the other counselor advocating for another and I’m not sure that’s the healthiest situation. So how do you sort out the best way to pursue the counseling?
Debby Wade: I would recommend two different counselors and a consent of release being signed by both parties for both counselors so that the communication can be between the counselors on staying on the same page, being able to validate what change is taking place. And then what I’ve done in cases like this periodically then the two counselors and the two parties, we all meet together and so that we’re working when we’re dealing with individual issues we’re dealing with their healing individually and then we come together, the four of us come together to work on the marital issues and what really has to be changed. Then both parties feel they have an advocate in the room and they have someone who’s there for them personally, but believe that both are for reconciliation. And whether that reconciliation means for restoration of the marriage, or whether it means that they’re reconciled that if it ends up in divorce it’s without bitterness and pursue (continue) abuse.
Two different counselors is good, and the consent of release is also a good idea, so long as both counselor are totally prioritizing the safety of the victim, and believing her. For example, the abuser may be telling his counselor that he is feeling deep sorrow for how he hurt his ex/separated partner, and is abiding by her requests to not contact her or put any pressure on her. But the victim is reporting that the abuser is frequently texting her, recruiting allies in the church to get them to pressure her to early reconciliation, and telling the children lies and distorted half-truths about her. Her reports need to be believed. Otherwise the abuser’s counselor will get the wool pulled over his or her eyes. The bottom line is, the abuser is the one who had been abusing, and his accounts are to be heard with judicious suspicion. Whereas the victim is the one who has been abused, and her accounts are to be heard with readiness to believe her, and in fact a readiness to believe that she will tell you even more about the abuser’s wicked conduct as she comes out of the fog and starts reassembling her memories.
But of course, if the counselors don’t get this, they are likely to be hoodwinked by the abuser and start distrusting the victim. And the victim will sense their distrust and will stop disclosing any more details about the abuse; in fact, her whole process of coming out of the fog is likely to be stymied because she will start doubting her perceptions and memories again and the fog will roll back in.
It’s good that Debby Wade accepts that some cases will end in divorce. But she describes a good outcome in such cases as ‘they’re reconciled that if it ends up in divorce it’s without bitterness and pursue (continue) abuse.’ This is yet another instance of eliding the fault of the abuser and mutualizing the problem so that both parties are depicted as being at fault, both are depicted as abusers. Wade’s language suggests she sees the victim as someone who might pursue or continue abuse after the divorce. Hello? She’s lumping the victim in with the abuser as equally at fault and equally likely to commit post-separation abuse.
Darrell Bock: It seems to me that’s an interesting situation because I can see where initially you might go to one counselor because that’s the person you know. But then the responsibility of the counselor in that situation is to recommend “You know, this is really better if each of you has your own person that you’re seeing.” Is that often what happens?
Gary Barnes: And it depends on where the problem is on the continuum. And there’s some cases where like what you were just describing, there’s so much that would have to happen before that could ever happen where people are coming together, maybe a year’s worth of work even. But the collaborative structured model would be the ideal thing and it may be the case that a lot of individual work would have to happen first before that joint work could happen.
Hmm, I’d like to know what kind of individual work these DTS counselors would envisage for the victim. From what they’ve shown so far, I am not confident they would be competent to help her with the trauma symptoms she might have. Nor am I confident that, without putting their foot in it, they would be able to honor and praise her for how she has responded to the abuse by seeking to protect and preserve her and her children’s dignity, personhood, and integrity despite the undermining from the abuser and the ignorant and unhelpful responses from the church and society at large.
This critique will be continued in our first post next week.