• Counseling and Abuse in Marriage: A Wise Christian Response

    Posted on June 26th, 2009 bob.kellemen No comments

    Counseling and Abuse in Marriage

    Part I: A Wise Christian Response


    Recently a pastor asked me how a church should deal with “abuse in marriage.” Marital abuse is one of the most traumatic issues an individual, couple, family, and church can face. Discussing it raises hotly defended convictions. How should God’s people respond to “abuse in marriage”?


    First Things First: Listen and Learn


    While “abuse” can surely be “both ways” (a wife to a husband or a husband to a wife), for this discussion we’ll emphasize how we can respond when husband is abusing his wife. When a wife says to you, as her pastor or her spiritual friend, “My husband is abusing me,” where do you start?


    “Abuse” is a word fraught with emotion and emotions tempt us to jump in “Peter-first”—like the Apostle Peter. We’re tempted to speak without thinking. However, even in this highly charged situation, we must step back and define the fuzzy word “abuse.”


    Abuse can be emotional, mental, spiritual, sexual, or physical. It can happen one time in the heat of a passionate exchange, or it can become a habitual way a husband mistreats his wife. So our first calling is to explore lovingly, caringly, and wisely exactly what is occurring.


    Respond with Compassion: Empathy


    We’re not simply on a “fact-finding mission” asking questions like “Joe Friday” from the old Dragnet detective television series, “Just the facts, Maam.” We must enter this situation, this person’s story, and this person’s soul (compare 1 Thessalonians 2:8) with empathy (Romans 12:15).


    As we listen to this woman’s story of spousal abuse, she must know our compassion and our passion. In compassion, we weep with her as she weeps. In passion, we express righteous anger over the evil of the abuse she is suffering.


    It’s a horrific thing to be abused by one who has vowed to love you. Satan attempts to use abuse to shatter a woman’s sense of self, sense of trust, and sense of reality.


    Satan also uses society, including Evangelical Christian society to “victimize the victim.” Male pastors in particular (I’m an ordained minister so I am speaking to myself also) must be very careful to guard against abusing the abuse victim. We must show ourselves trustworthy or we will silence a wife’s courageous decision to verbalize her abuse. 


    Yes, the time will come when we explore her response to the abuse. Yes, the time will even come, if we enter into marital counseling, when we explore how she relates to her husband. But we must be extremely careful lest we ever convey, “You caused this abuse.”


    Nothing ever excuses a husband’s abuse of his wife. Nothing ever “causes” a husband to abuse his wife. (Later we’ll discuss couples counseling for abuse.)


    Respond with Passion: Bold Love


    Of course “empathy and compassion” without “passion and action” can be like saying to a person in need, “Go your way, I’ll be praying for you.” So to “compassion” we must add “passion”—righteous anger that wisely responds to the abusive situation with bold love.


    We must immediately help the abused wife to establish safeguards against further abuse. This will look different depending on the nature of the abuse. It is crucial to involve “others.”


    “Others” can include the Body of Christ. The pastor and other church leaders, including men who know the husband, can intervene by lovingly but firmly confronting the abusing husband.


    “Others” can include godly, strong women in the church who will, if necessary, provide a safe, supportive place to stay for the wife (and children if there are any—an abusive husband is often also an abusive father). An angry, abusive husband, exposed by his wife, could very well explode with rage when he learns his wife has talked with “outsiders” about the abuse. Sending a wife back into that situation without considering protective options is naïve.


    “Others” could include the “authorities” (compare Romans 13). Police may need to become involved. In some situations the court system may need to be involved. A restraining order may need to be obtained.


    Many times I have seen the combined support of the Body of Christ and of civil authorities bring protection to an abused woman. Even more than that, I have seen such combined action begin to bring true healing to an abusive situation.


    It is never an easy decision as to whether or not we involve civil authorities. Each situation is unique.


    If the husband shows signs of true remorse and repentance, that influences our next step. If he is willing to receive counseling is a vital factor. We must factor in whether or not the husband has shown a history of an inability to control his behavior. We must seek to discern whether the husband is simply trying to appease and pacify us. We must listen well to “both sides” and seek to “weigh the evidence” in a “Solomon-like” way.


    Where Do We Go From Here?


    First, we listen carefully and soulfully to a wife’s traumatic story of abuse.


    Second, we empathize with her pain over broken vows to love and cherish.


    Third, we act with bold love as we address the situation face-to-face with the abusing husband and as we provide a safety-net for the abused wife (and children).


    Safety first.


    To the goal of safety we must always add the broadest goal of God’s glory. God is glorified when an on-looking world sees grace triumphing over sin. God is glorified when marriages change.


    In our next post we’ll explore marital counseling for abuse.


    In a future post, we’ll also explore the hotly debated issue and contested question, “Is ‘abuse’ biblical grounds for divorce?”


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