Thank you, Cindy, for tackling this excellent question from one of our constituents!
Cindy Burrell is the owner of Hurtbylove.com, a web-based ministry for women in abusive relationships. She is also the author of “Why Is He So Mean to Me?” and her newest book, “An Extraordinary Ordinary Life: A Testimony of God’s Faithfulness.”
A former abuse victim wrote to say: “I would be interested in how to go back and educate my ex-church leaders on abuse so they can hopefully help other women that may have this issue. There was just a lot of ignorance on their part.”
As I am sure you know, dear writer, you are not alone. Many abuse victims have been guilted, shamed and shunned by those within the Christian community as they have traversed the long road to recovery from abuse. I appreciate the courage it takes to consider educating the well-meaning – but ignorant – leaders within the contemporary church.
What are some of the primary suppositions to which most pastors and Christian counselors often adhere when dealing with abuse in marriage? They may look something like this:
- The abuser has a good heart. He must be responding out of hurt rather than selfishness. We must presume he wants to do the right thing.
- By exhibiting a gentle, quiet spirit and through her prayer and faithfulness, the abuse victim holds the power by her example to change her abuser.
- Couples counseling will improve communication, create accountability and facilitate positive change.
- God hates divorce, so it must be avoided at all costs, even if abuse has poisoned the relationship.
“The abuser has a good heart.” If that is so, that truth should be evident in his attitudes and actions, and if not, then he is a danger to his wife and children, and their physical and emotional safety should take priority.
“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.” (Matthew 12:33)
“An abuse victim holds the power to change her abuser.”
“In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives,
as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior.” Peter 3:1-2
Commentary authorities agree that the husband described here is not a believer, nor is there any reason to believe that he is an abuser, so this Scripture does not apply to an abusive situation. Furthermore, wicked pretenders are not necessarily swayed by prayer, kindness and gentleness; in fact, they are empowered by it. The truth is that none of us inherently has any power over others’ behaviors. But we have a responsibility to assess the gravity of those behaviors and determine whether our spouses are seeking to live in the light of God’s love or not.
“By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.” I John 3:10
Couples counseling will improve communication and facilitate change.
Couples counseling is the wrong approach when abuse has permeated the relationship. It provides abusers with a forum from which to sell their twisted version of truth using a combination of diminishment and lying. A couples counseling setting rarely identifies the abuser for what he is, but rather the process will almost always insist upon some form of compromise, placing an expectation on the victim that she should give more rather than reclaiming what has been lost, while the abuser is expected to give some as a sign of his “effort.” It often urges the victim to remain in the household so that the couple can work on their relationship in the interest of “saving the marriage.” This is backwards. Emotional and personal safety should always be the highest priority.
Furthermore, when dealing with abuse, only individual counseling should be considered. With a counselor who understands the abuse dynamic, this provides the victim with the freedom to speak her truth without fear and receive the emotional support she needs. If the abuser wishes to seek help for his failings, he should, but on his own volition. Most often the abuser will only participate in couples counseling to shore up his image and sell his version of truth. In a one-on-one counseling setting, an abuser will virtually always lose interest or deem the process unhelpful. He may try to put on a good show for a while, but in most cases he will become impatient before long because he likes things the way they are and has no genuine desire to change.
We can see clear warnings regarding this type of person in the book of Jude, the one-chapter book written by Jesus’ half-brother that is loaded with powerful truth. Jude wrote:
“Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints. For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” (v. 3-4)
Contending for the faith (and marriage) requires a willingness to see those who have infiltrated the church – pretenders and liars who exploit the grace of God to facilitate their “licentiousness.” Their very lifestyles deny the lordship of Jesus. These are not hurting, misunderstood individuals, but Jude describes them as…
“…men who are hidden reefs in your love feasts when they feast with you without fear, caring for themselves; clouds without water, carried along by winds; autumn trees without fruit, doubly dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up their own shame like foam; wandering stars, for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever.” (v. 12-13)
This is a powerful description of self-serving, worthless people who stealthily carry out their agenda of wickedness within the body of Christ, yet many pastors and Christian counselors refuse to see these people for who they are. They are showmen, liars and pretenders who know exactly what they are doing and appreciate the opportunity to hide themselves among genuine, God-fearing people.
God hates divorce, so every effort must be taken to save the marriage.
The church’s ultimate trump card in the marriage counseling battle is the doctrinal teaching that God hates divorce, which has become the primary motivating force from which most Christian counselors operate. This premise compels most marriage counselors to pursue every means possible to “save the marriage.” It is long past time to dispense with the notion that God hates divorce, for divorce was provided in the Mosaic law for legitimate cause. This aspect of the law has never been amended, not even by Jesus.
Deuteronomy 24 identifies the process.
“When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house, and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife…” Deuteronomy 24:1-2
Therein are the three aspects of a lawful divorce: 1) legitimate cause, 2) the provision of a writ, which released both parties to marry, and 3) permanent separation which is translated as “sending away” or “putting away.” The Hebrew word is “shalach.”)
Take this understanding to the book of Malachi, from which the “God hates divorce,” doctrine is quipped.
“This is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand.
Yet you say, ‘For what reason?’ Because the Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. For I hate putting away (“shalach”), says the Lord, the God of Israel, and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the Lord of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.” (Malachi 2:13-14, 15b-16)
The prophet conveys God’s anger toward men who were “putting away” their wives. These were not legitimate divorces. These women were being “put away” without cause, without provision, and without a writ so the men could take other wives – and idol-worshippers at that (“the daughter(s) of a foreign god” [v. 11]). Without a writ, these women were not free to marry, and the men were committing polygamy. (Malachi 2:15b-16)
That’s the truth. God does not hate divorce, but the act of “putting away.” God did not change the lawful directive on divorce. These men were dishonoring it by abandoning their innocent wives for their own selfish purposes. God was actually defending women.
“Divorce” in the New Testament
In the New Testament, the term for “putting away” in the Greek is “apoluo.” This is the same word the Pharisees used when they tested Jesus, asking (paraphrase), “Is it acceptable for us to “put away” our wives for any cause at all?” Jesus responded by asking, “What does the law say?” to which they responded (paraphrase): “That we are permitted to give our wives a writ of divorce and send them away.”
It seems that “putting away” wives, presumably to take other wives, was a common cultural practice. Yet Jesus essentially tells them that their hearts are wrong and they are dishonoring marriage and their wives. Furthermore, He says that the man who put away his wife caused her to commit adultery. Why? Because she was still married, but she needed material help and may have been compelled to marry even if she was legally bound to her husband. The responsibility for this moral failing was laid at the feet of the Pharisaical offenders. (Matthew 5:32)
Finally, let us be reminded of the sanctity of marriage. The Apostle Paul provides us with the godly marriage model.
“Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body.” Ephesians 5: 22-30
There is no room for abuse here, but rather a call to beautifully balanced mutual love, respect, nourishment and cherishing that is a reflection of the love relationship between Christ and His bride, the church.
These are just a handful of the issues that the contemporary church and many pastors and Christian counselors often fail to understand.
In closing, I offer a quote by Valerie Jacobsen:
““Taking marriage seriously” means taking the vows seriously and having real consequences for breaking them.
“The idealists and perfectionists who are trying to turn “marriage” into a protected space for all manner of evil are not “taking marriage seriously” in any biblical sense.”
My hope, dear inquirer, is that this information provides a foundation of truth upon which to build and share. However, we must recognize that those who are heavily invested in these commonly espoused principles may not be open to anything that threatens their belief system or requires them to change the way they address people in unhealthy marriages. It is not always easy to reveal to well-meaning people that they are unwittingly“…teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” Matthew 15:8
Additional resources and reading recommendations:
“Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities” by David Instone-Brewer
“A Redemptive Look at Three of the Most
Commonly Misappropriated Scriptures on the Subject of Divorce” a three-part series of articles by Cindy Burrell
“God Is My Witness: Making a Case for Biblical Divorce” by Cindy Burrell