What is Abuse?
Very few people know what abuse really is, though everyone seems quite ready to give advice to its victims. If you believe that abuse is physical battering, you have some learning to do.
Abuse is fundamentally a mentality. It is a mindset of entitlement. The abuser sees himself* as entitled. He is the center of the world, and he demands that his victim make him the center of her world. His goal is power and control over others. For him, power and control are his natural right, and he feels quite justified in using whatever means are necessary to obtain that power and control. The abuser is not hampered in these efforts by the pangs of a healthy conscience and indeed often lacks a conscience.
While this mentality of power and control often expresses itself in various forms of physical abuse, it just as frequently employs tactics of verbal, emotional, financial, social, sexual and spiritual abuse. Thus, an abuser may never actually lay a hand on his wife and yet be very actively terrorizing her in incredibly damaging ways.
Abuse in any of its forms destroys the victim’s person. Abuse, in the end, is murder.
When I was working at a local hospital I was often given additional duties outside of my job description and frequently felt overwhelmed. A co-worker watched me running from station to station and said, “You need to learn to play stupid. It gets you out of a lot.”
On Heaven Connect, writer SJ Heald addresses overstepping authority in spiritual warfare. One of her points is that we should never think we are smarter than a demon. She notes that Law 21 in The 48 Laws Of Power, a book by Robert Greene, states, “Play a sucker to catch a sucker, seem dumber than your mark.” She assesses, “Con artists take people in by pretending to be less intelligent than the person they are conning…….Demons will act like imbeciles if it causes us to get puffed up in the head thinking we’re intelligent and powerful.”
While I certainly didn’t feel powerful AT ALL in my marriage, at first I did feel intelligent and needed.
My ex husband does have a poor vocabulary, misuses grammar, and possesses about a third grade reading level. But, I was mistaken to think he is a dummy.
I was a devout church-goer when I met R, and he knew that. He claimed to be a new believer, unable to read well and without a solid Christian within his circle of association. He needed me to help him understand these scriptures that were so foreign to him. He claimed his desire was great; he wanted to know Jesus, but his lack of education felt like an insurmountable barrier. (He didn’t use that word.)
I’m not sure if I was so desperate for love or if he was feeding my pride, but I disregarded evident facts and ran, just as I did at work, to be the one who would stand in the declared gap. I noticed the Bible on his end table but ignored the paintings of demons on his walls. I brushed off the fact that one of his co-workers was a youth pastor and more qualified than I to expound scripture and teach the mysteries of the gospels. I reasoned that he simply didn’t realize yet those paintings were offensive to God. It was all new to him. Perhaps he was too embarrassed by his poor language skills to ask another man, someone working under him, to explain things he thought should be obvious.
After we married he asked me to take care of the bills and balancing the checkbook. It was a struggle for him. It was confusing and stressful. However, the situation that created was one of complete irresponsibility on his part. He would play the ATM like a slot machine. Eyes glazed, he would return to pull the lever, waiting for the money to drop out. All the while I couldn’t keep the bills paid. He routinely took out large sums and would feign ignorance. He had called the 1-800 number first or had checked the balance at the ATM before withdrawing, and he pretended to not comprehend those balances didn’t reflect pending actions or checks that had not yet cleared. The fact that he kept cutting his hours back, thereby cutting his paychecks, and he was horribly in debt, the amount of which he had lied about during our short engagement, did not deter his visits to the money machine. I increased my workload. I cut back on everything, including groceries. Nothing helped. When I finally tried to seriously talk to him about his spending, he blew up, screaming in my face, “I was making it before you came along! If we’re not making it, it’s your fault! You’re the one handling the money!”
Since marrying me, he’d cut back to working part-time; he’d bought a new truck; he was wearing new clothes; and I was paying down the debt he and his last wife had incurred. Since marrying him, I was working so many hours my performance decreased and my professional reputation suffered; my car was falling apart (I eventually lost it); my children and I were dressing poorly and lacked adequate clothes for winter; I was deeply in debt though I’d been debt free when I met him; and I was borrowing against my life insurance policy.
He knew exactly what he was doing. He was no dummy! I’d been conned by the 21st law of power!
He didn’t perform household or vehicular maintenance. He didn’t know how, and he didn’t read well enough to figure out a manual. All burdens of all responsibility were placed on me because, in his words, he, “just isn’t a very smart man.” That also meant I was to blame for everything that went wrong because he thought I was taking care of it and he depended on me.
Interestingly, when he abruptly left our home in a rage, abandoning me sick and now a stay at home mom with four minor children, he took all of the account numbers and passwords, our social security numbers, and a nice little private bank account I didn’t know about until after he left. Suddenly this “stupid man” who couldn’t even use a phone book was hacking into my accounts! He filed taxes on his own, claiming head of household with the children as his dependents for the final year we were married. He stole mail, including a check, depositing it via the ATM without signing it, which created a legal loophole and made it difficult to retrieve the stolen funds. He was always one step ahead of me. He, the man with a third grade reading level, walked out of our marriage with nearly every tangible item we owned and zero debt. I’d lost everything except the debt.
I’d been conned.
During the divorce proceeding, I testified dates, times, and places of abuse. My children testified separately, corroborating my story of patriarchal terrorism. But, R played stupid. He stuttered. He didn’t know what we were talking about. He was confused by all of it. No one could have believed that this stunned, ignorant man could be so willfully vindictive and violent. And, the judge didn’t. The poor dumb man received compassion and mercy from the bench, and his victims received demands to negotiate and “get over it.”
My co-worker’s words haunt me, “You need to learn to play stupid. It gets you out of a lot.” My ex had played stupid; he played me; and it got him out of everything.
Here are some gems from Psalm 119
53 Hot indignation seizes me because of the wicked, who forsake your law.
69-70 The insolent smear me with lies,
but with my whole heart I keep your precepts;
their heart is unfeeling like fat,
but I delight in your law.
78 Let the insolent be put to shame,
because they have wronged me with falsehood;
as for me, I will meditate on your precepts.
84-88 How long must your servant endure?
When will you judge those who persecute me?
The insolent have dug pitfalls for me;
they do not live according to your law.
All your commandments are sure;
they persecute me with falsehood; help me!
They have almost made an end of me on earth,
but I have not forsaken your precepts.
In your steadfast love give me life,
that I may keep the testimonies of your mouth.
94-95 I am yours; save me,
for I have sought your precepts.
The wicked lie in wait to destroy me,
but I consider your testimonies.
104 Through your precepts I get understanding;
therefore I hate every false way.
113 I hate the double-minded,
but I love your law.
118-119 You spurn all who go astray from your statutes,
for their cunning is in vain.
All the wicked of the earth you discard like dross,
therefore I love your testimonies.
129-130 Your testimonies are wonderful;
therefore my soul keeps them.
The unfolding of your words gives light;
it imparts understanding to the simple.
133 Keep steady my steps according to your promise,
and let no iniquity get dominion over me.
150-151 They draw near who persecute me with evil purpose;
they are far from your law.
But you are near, O LORD,
and all your commandments are true.
155 Salvation is far from the wicked,
for they do not seek your statutes.
158 I look at the faithless with disgust,
because they do not keep your commands.
I believe the Bible allows divorce for domestic abuse and the key text for this is 1 Corinthians 7:15. But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. For God has called us to peace.
This verse has been generally assumed to relate to simple desertion: that is, when an unbelieving spouse walks out, abandoning a marriage with a Christian spouse without taking out a divorce that would bring legal finality to the arrangement However, in the Greek text the word “depart” (chorizo) means “to place space between, to separate” and it was one of the standard terms for legal divorce in the first century.
Typically, perpetrators of abuse do not walk out of their marriages – they want to stay in the relationship because they enjoy the power, privilege and control they obtain therein. Because the abuser rarely walks out, the victim of abuse thinks 1 Corinthians 7:15 does not apply to her. She thinks, “He hasn’t deserted me so I have to stay with him!” However, when correctly understood, it is the verse which gives her freedom.*
In my book Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion I defined domestic abuse as a pattern of conduct by one spouse which is designed to obtain and maintain power and control over the other spouse. And here at A Cry For Justice, we define domestic abuse (see our sidebar to the right) in this way:
Domestic abuse always includes emotional and verbal abuse and may also include financial abuse, social abuse (restricting the victim’s contact with family and friends), sexual abuse, physical violence, and spiritual abuse — twisting scriptures to justify the abuse. Abusers who never use physical violence (and there are many) are still very frightening and controlling to their victims. They exercise a pattern of deceit and coercive control that may be composed of many ‘little’ things but the total effect is soul destroying and very confusing to the victim, which is how it is designed to be. Confused people are easier to control. Post-separation, many of these abuses may continue, with the added element of legal abuse which can lead to protective mothers sometimes losing custody of their children to the abuser.
The perpetration of domestic abuse effectively pushes away the other spouse and divides the marriage. The fact that many victims eventually leave abusive relationships testifies to this pushing away. Perpetrators usually protest that they want the marriage to continue, but their evil conduct conveys the exact opposite – it effectually pushes the other spouse away.
When applying 1 Corinthians 7:15, the key question is not “Who walked out?” but “Who caused the separation?” Would it be sensible to say that David was the sinful rebellious one when he left Saul’s court? No, he left because of Saul’s abuse. David left, but Saul was the cause of his leaving. If we translate the word chorizo as “separate” we see this more clearly: if the unbeliever separates, let him separate. The unbeliever is doing the separating; the believer is commanded to let it be done. This tells the believing spouse (and the church) to allow the marriage to be over, because the unbeliever has destroyed the covenant. It permits the victim of abuse to take out a legal divorce.
Let there be chorizo = let there be separation = let there be legal divorce, because the word chorizo means both separation and divorce.
In Not Under Bondage I also show that since the brother or sister is not under bondage, the victim of abuse is free to remarry a new partner (unlike the instance in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 where marriage to a new partner was forbidden).
This idea isn’t new
Before no-fault divorce came into vogue, there was a ground for divorce under English law called “constructive desertion.” Constructive desertion was deemed to have occurred if one spouse so ill-treated the other that the victim was justified in leaving the abusing spouse, having been driven to do so. The act of desertion was understood as having been caused by the abuser. The concept of constructive desertion was recognized by Puritan theologians who saw it in 1 Corinthians 7:15. My interpretation of that verse is not new, it’s just been lost (buried under male-privilege?) for several hundred years.
What if the abuser is a professing Christian?
In all abuse, efforts may be made to bring an abuser to repentance. However, it is important to be aware that most victims of abuse have already made many efforts in this direction before they seek help from a pastor or other professional. Indeed, the victim has usually borne too much for too long and the pattern of abuse has become deeply entrenched, the victim’s health may have been badly affected and continuing traumatic stress disorder is common.
1 Corinthians 7:15 applies to marriages where the opposite spouse is a nonbeliever. If an abuser is a professing Christian, efforts may be made to bring the abuser to repentance but pastors need to be aware that a victim will have made many such efforts privately with her abuser already before she discloses her situation to church leaders or counselors.
It is naive and dangerous for pastors to recommend couple counseling for cases where they even suspect domestic abuse. Couple counseling is not appropriate in domestic abuse (also see here and here). It is far better to err on the side of caution and not advise couple counseling if domestic abuse is suspected, because couple counseling is likely to expose the victim of abuse to more danger. In domestic abuse, the victim’s safety and well being must be the first priority of anyone who is seeking to bring help (see here). And pastors need to be aware that there are many counselors who say they understand domestic abuse but they don’t really get it and they give harmful counsel to victims and/or get enlisted by perpetrators.
It may also be dangerous for pastors to confront suspected abusers without having permission from the victim first, and even then, they should get advice from expert domestic abuse practitioners before confronting a perpetrator, as many victims who are just waking up to the fact that they are being abused underestimate their level of risk from the abuser, and can be starry eyed about the abuser changing if only he is told by the pastor to shape up.
Most pastors do not have sufficient training and understanding of the dynamics and safety issues in domestic abuse to wisely confront a suspected perpetrator of abuse, to recognize and resist the abuser’s invitations to collude with his abuse-supporting narratives, and to see through his lies and half truths. This is an indictment on the church as a whole and seminaries in particular. And even those Christian organizations and authors that purport to be offering such training, are, in my opinion, often falling very far short of what it required. We wish they would hear feedback from the survivors of abuse, but they seem in many cases to be ignoring us. Let’s hope that changes!
It is best for pastors to consult with trained domestic violence practitioners before they confront the perpetrator and perhaps put the victim in more danger. But pastors can be very valuable in helping hold abusers accountable when they do so in conjunction with the secular justice system (police, courts, parole officers) and any other specialist agencies that may be trying to hold the perpetrator accountable. And pastors can help victims by referring them to the expertise of domestic abuse practitioners (women’s centers, shelters, police). See our Safety Planning and Hotlines pages for links.
An abuser who doesn’t demonstrate genuine repentance should be treated as an unbeliever. For a digest of articles on why an abuser can’t be a Christian, see here. Rather than apply the step by step process of Matthew 18:15-17, it is more appropriate to carry out church discipline along the lines of 1 Corinthians 5 (see here). The believing spouse who has suffered domestic abuse will then be at liberty to take out a divorce under 1 Corinthians 7:15.
When it comes to domestic abuse, biblical discipline has been appallingly neglected or inappropriately employed by church leaders. But there is a line in the sand and churches must draw it when it comes to the perpetrator of domestic abuse.
It’s not okay for pastors to take a neutral stance vis a vis perpetrator and victim. Neutrality is not neutral. Neutrality effectively means you become an ally of the abuser because if you take the view that both parties are contributing to the marriage problem, then you’re effectively saying “It’s not abuse” — which serves the agenda of the abuser. When responding to domestic abuse, the proper feeling is outrage, and the only righteous stance is to fully support the victim, while holding the perpetrator accountable.
Because abusers are great at feigning repentance and enlisting allies among clergy, an abuser’s supposed repentance should be cautiously evaluated and stress-tested over time, just as Joseph tested his brothers’ repentance before reconciling with them. Repentance is not mere words, it should be demonstrated in changed attitudes and behavior — and even behavior and attitudes can be faked (for a time) without having a real heart change. See this Checklist for Repentance which can help evaluate an abuser’s repentance.
Church leaders should always check with the victim to know how she sees her abuser’s demonstrations of reformation, and whether she thinks he is really reforming or just feigning it. This principle of checking with the survivor’s perspective has been followed for years by best-practice secular programs which run behavior change groups for abusers. Clergy who are assessing an abuser’s repentance need to follow the same protocol: they should respectfully seek to check in with the survivor of the abuse (the partner or former partner of the perpetrator) at all stages, including and especially post-separation, because the abuse often escalates post-separation and the abuser may use new tactics that are even more secretive and intimidating to his partner, while masquerading as a ***reformed new man*** in the church.
Liberty, but not license
The principles outlined here don’t open the floodgates to all divorce. Allowing divorce for abuse, on the principle of constructive desertion under 1 Corinthians 7:15 is not the same as allowing divorce for any disaffection. Because abuse is defined as a pattern of conduct designed to obtain and maintain power and control over the other, my teaching cannot be misconstrued to allow divorce for the catch-all excuse of “incompatibility”, or for the occasional instances in non-abusive marriages where one spouse shows a lack of consideration for the other spouse.
* * *
An earlier version of this article was first published at Restored Relationships, and then republished on my old blog Not Under Bondage.
This version here (2014) has been improved and updated, and more links have been added.
A gem from our GEMS page. . .
‘It takes two to tango.’ UGH. I hate that saying! As a ballroom dancer it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me to hear that misquoted. Both people have to know their steps for the dance to look good but ONLY ONE person can screw up the dance by not practicing the steps enough or refusing to move their feet! (Or even worse, purposely trying to trip you!) Don’t even get me started on how the man is supposed to lovingly and firmly lead!! (And, yes, the woman should gracefully follow but she can only do so if she trusts that the man is not going to dance her right into a brick wall.) One of the reasons I love ballroom dance is because, to me, it is symbolic of the way God created a marriage to be when it is healthy. [by a survivor, calling herself 'Wondering', who left this comment at Leslie Vernick's blog.]