BCC Staff: Today we finish a two-part blog about domestic abuse by Dr. Jim Newheiser. He continues to evaluate common statements you hear about ministering to those who’ve experienced domestic abuse. We trust you will be challenged and equipped by what he offers.
- If you feel that you are being mistreated or controlled, leave the relationship.
- A valid concern: This statement is made because there are so many women who stay in dangerously abusive relationships when they have every right to seek safety and refuge.
- The harm that can be caused: Those who are seeking to protect victims of abuse sometimes fail to distinguish between the degrees of sinful mistreatment that can take place in a marriage relationship. The message some women get is that if your husband is to any extent controlling, manipulative, or angry, then you are in an abusive relationship and you need to get out. Women are told that an angry husband has broken the marriage covenant, and they have the right to divorce. I affirm that a battered wife has every right to get away from a violent husband and that his failure to repent and to live at peace with her can eventually lead to the breakup of their marriage (1 Cor. 7:15). Sadly, however, I have seen women who are in difficult, but not violent marriages—in which there is often anger on both sides—who use the claim of abuse to divorce their husbands on less than biblical grounds. The reality is that marriage brings together two sinners, and because of the fall, many marriages involve a struggle for control as described in Genesis 3:16. In many cases, both partners are guilty of sinful anger, which Jesus calls murderous (Matt. 5:21-22).
- It would be better to say: Wisdom needs to be exercised in distinguishing between degrees of sin in an allegedly abusive situation. Just as the act of adultery is a greater threat to a marriage than a lustful look (Matt. 5:27-28), there is a difference between physical assault and a harsh word. Because Jesus declared, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt. 19:6b), every effort should be made to preserve marriages and to help both men and women who have fallen short of perfectly keeping the marriage covenant to change. Church leaders shouldn’t swing from the extreme of sending women back to abusive situations to the other extreme of encouraging the breakup of marriages which might be restored. A man who refuses to repent of controlling and angry behavior may be put through a process of church discipline which will often give the time and space needed for the abuser’s heart to be more clearly revealed.
- There is nothing you can do to change an abuser.
- A valid concern: This statement is making the point that there are some men who are so stubbornly sinful that no matter how nice you are to them, they will continue their angry abuse. It is made to refute the false counsel some women have been given that if they simply could learn to be kinder and quieter, then their violent husbands would stop hurting them. However, Scripture does describe some men as violent, hard-hearted, and refusing to receive correction (Prov. 16:29; 29:1,22).
- The harm that can be caused: On the other hand some so-called experts have asserted that there is nothing a victim can do by changing her behavior to change the abuser and his behavior. While I agree that in many cases it is true that changed behavior will have no effect on a wicked, hardened man, the Bible explicitly gives hope that the Lord can use the godly behavior of a victim to soften the heart of a sinful spouse. First Peter 3:1-2 says a disobedient or unsaved husband might be won by his wife’s treating him better than he deserves. Proverbs 15:1 tells us that a gentle answer may turn away wrath. I know that these verses have been misused to wrongly send women back into dangerous situations, but it is also true that God can use the Christ-like behavior of a wife to reach an angry husband. Again, a distinction needs to be made based upon the degree of sinful anger (and the resultant danger), rather than quickly saying that a situation is hopeless and that the woman ought to give up and move on. If there is any doubt as to whether a woman is in danger, I would encourage church leaders to err on the side of safety by helping her get away (hopefully temporarily) and then work with the husband to gauge true repentance before trying to restore the marriage and bring the couple back together again.
- It would be better to say: The gospel gives hope that sinners can be forgiven and transformed, and those in whose lives God has worked will show signs of true repentance (including patience). Saul, the murderous persecutor, was transformed into the great apostle of grace. First Corinthians 6:9-11 tells how sinners of every kind have been cleansed and changed by the power of the gospel. We believe that abusers who had been characterized by the wicked deeds of the flesh can become servants who bear the fruit of the Spirit. Abusers are often masters of manipulation (i.e., worldly sorrow). A truly repentant man will hate his sin more than its consequences; he will be more concerned about the rights and safety of others than about his own rights, and he will be patient as those whom he has previously hurt learn to trust him (see 2 Cor. 7:9-11).
As biblical counselors face challenging issues, it is easy for the pendulum to swing from one extreme or the other. I agree that in the past we have not done enough to protect victims of abuse. We need to be careful, however, not to overreact by failing to distinguish between degrees of sin, by falsely accusing people of abuse, or by contributing to the breakup of marriages that might be saved by gospel truth.
 One example of this in recent years has been how some have swung from an over-emphasis on the imperative/effort/law-keeping for sanctification to an almost exclusive emphasis on the indicative/gospel/grace of sanctification (while neglecting the third use of God’s law for believers).