Pt 1. CCEF’s ‘Counseling Abusive Marriages’ course — bread mixed with stones?
The God of truth, justice and wisdom doesn’t want His children fed bread mixed with stones. CCEF (Christian Counseling and Education Foundation) is offering a new course in 2015: Counseling Abusive Marriages. It starts running quite soon: Jan 29th. Their announcement encourages pastors and Christian counselors and others who might deal with cases of abuse in marriage to take this training. CCEF has a widespread influence in the church through its annual conferences, counseling ministry, school of biblical counseling, and its writing and publishing ministry (The Journal of Biblical Counseling, book publishing). We at ACFJ appreciate the fact that CCEF is addressing abuse in this new course. However, as outlined in this post series, we have some very serious concerns about the course content.
My information about the course come from the Course Description and from CCEF’s blog interview with Darby Strickland, the course instructor. Transcriptions of these two documents are in blue. My comments and scripture quotations are interspersed in black. I’ve added some paragraph breaks in the course description for ease of reading.
The Course Description begins: Shockingly, abuse occurs in one quarter of all marriages. From my understanding of the statistics, the ‘one in four’ refers to the studies which show that one in four women, at some point in their lifetime, experience abuse from an intimate partner. This is not the same as saying that abuse is currently happening in one in four marriages right now. Nor is it the same as saying that one in four marriages will have abuse occurring at some time during the duration of that marriage. Be careful with statistics. However, it’s good to alert the church to the fact that abuse is much more prevalent in marriages than many people think it is.
Fueling these dynamics are distorted and dangerous beliefs that require us to have a distinctive counseling approach. True; if counseling is given in cases of abuse, it needs to be very different from the counseling that is given in other situations. But let’s think about this idea of ‘fueling’ a bit more. Who is doing the fueling? Where is the subject, the agent of the verb “fueling”? It’s invisible. That’s a red flag. Side note: I’m going to closely dissect some of the words used in this course announcement. The reason I do this is that when anyone writes or speaks words which they claim state truth about abuse, abusers, and abuse victims, they must give very, very careful attention to what they say or write. Why? Because there is an ever present danger that poorly chosen words will add guilt and pain to victims who read them, and enabling power to abusers who find them.
The organization G.R.A.C.E. recently talked about this phenomenon in their report on BJU’s handling of sexual abuse (p. 46). As you read this screen shot, please bear in mind that what G.R.A.C.E. says about sexual abuse applies just as much to domestic abuse. But first, a cartoon that explains it pretty well:
I am a survivor of domestic abuse and I’ve heard the stories of countless other survivors. We survivors are the canaries in the coal mine; we are able to detect toxic messages of victim-blame way before those who have not experienced abuse are able to detect them. It’s not haughty of me to say that, it’s just a fact. And it’s why counselors and church leaders need to listen much more attentively to feedback from survivors of abuse, especially when the survivors’ feedback is “Ouch! What you’re saying is hurtful to victims!” I detect toxic attitudes in this CCEF course. And I’m going to show the non-abused reader how and why I detect them. So dear reader, if in reading this analysis of mine you start to think that I’m doing what Gandalf did when Bilbo Baggins greeted him with “good morning” —
“Mr. Baggins, do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”
then please know that I am not being a Gandalf here. I’m not being too “close.” I am going to demonstrate that CCEF has not done a good job in choosing their words, at best. And as we go through the CCEF material, you will have a chance to see for yourself whether my close reading was worthwhile, and whether there is something deeply troubling about the way CCEF views abuse, abusers and victims. Their course description says: Fueling these dynamics are distorted and dangerous beliefs that require us to have a distinctive counseling approach. Who is doing the fueling? What or who is the subject of the verb “fueling”? Is it ‘the marriage’ that is fueling the distorted and dangerous beliefs? A surface reading would suggest so. But marriage is an abstract noun, not an agent. Marriage means two individuals, and in domestic abuse, one of them is an abuser and one of them is a victim. If we are to understand that the individuals in the marriage are doing the fueling, then the implication of this course description is, both are doing it. Now, without doubt, abusers have distorted beliefs: they believe they are entitled to exercise unholy power and control over others. But because the agent and author of the fueling is left vague here, the agency — the responsibility and guilt — of the abuser is made invisible. And the victim is implicitly tarred with the same brush as the perpetrator. But should victims be tarred with the same brush of having ‘distorted beliefs’? This is sin levelling, and it’s wrong. Maybe the victim has some distorted beliefs, but they’ve been distorted by the abuser(s) and by wrong teaching that is so widely prevalent in the church when it comes to abuse. So right here we have a subtle or potential slur on the victim’s character. And it bothers me that CCEF and Darby Strickland do not see this. And what about ‘dangerous beliefs’? The abuser’s beliefs are certainly dangerous to the victim. But are the victim’s beliefs dangerous to the abuser? No. The victim’s beliefs may be somewhat dangerous to herself, inasmuch as they keep her running on the mousewheel trying to change her husband by her respectful and quiet demeanour. But she does no domestic terrorism to her husband! She does not ruin his health and life by keeping him walking on eggshells in fear of the next episode. To say something that can be interpreted to mean that the victim has dangerous beliefs on the same order as the abuser’s dangerous beliefs, is to contradict the Westminster Shorter Catechism Question and Answer 83. Perhaps the sentence ‘Fueling these dynamics are distorted and dangerous beliefs that require us to have a distinctive counseling approach’ could be referring to the distorted and dangerous beliefs that are widely promoted by the church and by Christian counselors, such as the idolatry of marriage that forces women to stay married to abusers, the assumption that the victim shares in the blame, the default to couple counseling for all marriage problems. If counselors and the church are the agents fueling these distorted and dangerous beliefs, why was this not made clear? Why was it left unsaid? This is very unsatisfactory, particularly since there is so much latitude for interpreting the thing as a slur on the character of victims. To continue the course description:
In this course on Counseling Abuse in Marriage you will learn a working Biblical counseling model that will assist you in your conceptualization of abuse as well as providing guidance for how to wisely minister in these difficult and overwhelming situations. You will learn about physical, spiritual, sexual and emotional abuse and how Scripture provides wisdom for both the sufferer and perpetrator. I’m glad to see they recognize spiritual, sexual and emotional, not just the physical stuff. And I’m pleased they use the word ‘perpetrator’ — calling a spade a spade is good. You will walk away with tools for assessing the extent and severity of abuse, plans for providing protection, strategies for church engagement as well as practical counseling approaches for ministering to both the oppressor and the oppressed. Hold it right there for a second! “Ministering to the oppressor” is a wee bit of a red flag for us at ACFJ. What kind of ministering will they be recommending? The kind that John the Baptist did?
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father [we are believers!],’ . . . Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:7-10)
The kind that Jesus did?
Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? (Matthew 12:33-34)
Let’s hear what Darby Strickland, the Professor of this course, said about the course on CCEF’s blog interview of her: [bolding added by me]
My experience with these marriages has led me to see the goal of counseling as redeeming worshippers from oppression, so the course is centered on this theme. When God’s people were enslaved in Egypt, God sent Moses to Pharaoh to say, “Let my people go so they may worship me.” We are meant to worship the Lord. But in abusive marriages, there are two people who cannot fully live as worshippers. One is the oppressor who is enslaved to the desire to be served, instead of serving the Lord. And the other is the oppressed who is trying to serve and follow the rules of the oppressor. Both spouses need help so they are free to worship the Lord. Many thanks to our reader April Kelsey for contributing the next three paragraphs. (readers may like to know that April is currently writing a series of posts on the Biblical Counseling Movement — we highly recommend it)
Darby takes the position that she does after citing the story in Exodus. The Israelites were the oppressed; Pharaoh was the oppressor. Yet the invitation to worship God was never given to Pharaoh. Moses didn’t go before Pharaoh offering care and resources to help him see the light. Moses went proclaiming the dire consequences Pharaoh and his people would suffer if he did not immediately release God’s people from bondage. Yet, Darby never clearly equates the abuser in a marriage relationship to Pharaoh. Instead, she suggests (in a very subtle way) that both abusers and victims are under oppression — which is not the case at all! And to even suggest such a thing in counseling only serves to further empower abusers and give them an ‘out’ for their behavior.
Darby’s perspective puts the abuser and victim on the same footing, as two people in the relationship who are not able to worship the Lord: one who is obsessed with being served, and one who is obsessed with serving his/her spouse. This is definitely sin levelling. It’s as if both abuser and victim are equally to blame for their inability to worship freely. Darby says they both “need help” and both need to recognize abusive patterns. It’s as if Darby assumes abusers are completely ignorant of how they’re behaving and the counselor’s job is to help the abuser ‘see the light.’ The problem is, most abusers know what they are doing and don’t care. Like Pharaoh in Exodus, their hearts are hard. They may nod along with counselor and attempt to show progress, but 99 times out of 100 they will be manipulating things behind the scenes to continue to get what they want. The victim, too, is probably not ignorant of abusive patterns; but the victim’s adherence to those patterns is a matter of survival, not obsession. Yet Darby concludes that the couple (i.e., both people) need care and support from the Church to rectify the situation.
I hate to jump to conclusions, but it smells to me like this course will be advising counselors to do the kind of ministry that John the Baptist and Jesus didn’t do: [adapted from my recent post Biblical counseling for (1) abusers & religious hypocrites; and (2) victims of abuse]
“You oppressors are enslaved to the desire to be served rather than serving the Lord. You are worshippers (i.e., believers) who need to be redeemed from oppression. At present you are not free to worship the Lord. You need to be free from enslavement. Let me counsel you how to be free, so you can to serve the Lord rather than serving your own selfish wish to be served by your victims.”
“And you oppressed folk are serving and following the rules of your abusive spouse, rather than worshipping God. You are meant to worship the Lord. You obviously haven’t been trying to worship the Lord because you’ve been serving your abusive spouse’s demands. . . What’s that you say? Did I hear you say, “We have been trying to serve and worship God!”? I disagree: I think you were serving your oppressive spouse. I saw some of the ways you relate to your spouse, and you’ve told me about how you relate to him. You’ve been wrong. You’re messed up. Let me help you straighten out your worship by offering you this counseling program. It will REDEEM your worship, and you can’t get better than the R word, can you?”
The paradigm is wrong
CCEF say they acknowledge that abusive marriages exist and they want to help address the problem. But we have to ask ourselves, “Are they only saying that to be culturally sensitive?” Because their approach, practice and philosophy — so far as I can tell from the published material on this course — still has the erroneous and biased assumptions characteristic of most Biblical and Nouthetic counseling, namely, that every counselee’s problems are presumed to be due at least in part to the counselee’s own sins and a major part of the counselor’s job is to help the counselee see their own sins so they can be confessed and repented of. This paradigm portrays the abuser’s problem as that “he can’t see his sins, and he needs to be shown them.” But the abusers sees, he just disagrees. He knows what he does is wrong, he just doesn’t care. He believes he’s entitled to do it. And he’s very dedicated to that belief. He wants to keep it. And he goes to great lengths to resist dropping it. He lies in a thousand ways to conceal how much he wants to maintain his belief that he’s entitled to abuse others. He loves his lies; they keep his fortress safe. Revelation 22:15 speaks about those who love and practice falsehood, so we shouldn’t deny that there are people like this. They don’t just utter a lie here or there; they practice falsehoods as a way of life, as a full body disguise. This is exactly what the domestic abuser does. His lying involves going to great lengths to make himself an object of pity and to throw up many smokescreens so that people don’t see his belief and how entrenched it is. What’s more, this paradigm fatally ignores (or at minimum, downplays) all the effects of trauma on the victim — the person who has been oppressed or has suffered adversity not of their own cause. And it relegates to the remotest parts of the Biblical Counseling solar system, the notion of elucidating and honoring the victim’s responses to the abuse. Fact: Victims make a lot more rapid progress towards safety and recovery —
- when their responses to the abuse are elucidated and honored
- when their false guilt and self-blame is removed by right teaching (which could take place in counseling, or on a teaching blog, or from the pulpit, or from good books)
- when their Christian liberty is respected rather than over-ruled by Pharisaic leaders
- when bystanders (e.g. the local church) recognize and resist the abuser’s snow-job attempts, and fully believe and support the victim
- when the church obeys Proverbs 22:10 —
Drive out a scoffer, and strife will go out, and quarreling and abuse will cease.
In Part 2 of this series we’re going to be looking at the redemption model of the course, and whether God’s Word shows that oppressors often get redeemed. And we’ll be examining the possibility that I might be treating CCEF too harshly.