Spiritual Abuse and the Church: Can a Church Bind Our Conscience?
Every Christian is free before God to be led by the Holy Spirit and the Scripture. Each Christian has a conscience and the freedom to obey that conscience as he is directed by the Word of God. This was Luther’s stand before Rome:
“Since then your sere Majesty and your Lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed. Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.” (Reply to the Diet of Worms, April 18, 1521)
As many domestic abuse victims can testify, local churches, pastors, sessions, and presbyteries far too often attempt to exercise authority over the believer’s conscience which God has not authorized them to do. The most common example (for our purposes in this blog) of this excess is the church pronouncing that an abuse victim is not free to divorce her/his abuser. Or to separate from the abuser. Or dictating to victims that they must submit to everything their abuser says, how the victim should dress, the specifics of how she should relate to the abuser, and on and on the list goes. The local church, pastors, elders, and other Christians do not possess the authority to dictate these matters of conscience. They are issues which the victim has the right before God, in agreement with His Word, to determine personally.
This position is not radical nor is it unheard of. It has been taught consistently by Reformed theologians through the centuries. Here we will provide one such example. Francis Turretin (1623-87, Geneva) wrote the Institutes of Elenctic Theology, which is essentially a very large systematic theology. Turretin is very frequently quoted by people like R.C. Sproul and other leading theologians of our day. Listen then as Turretin writes in his section on the doctrine of The Church (ecclesiology), and specifically about the authority of the church (he was, of course, opposing Rome’s unbiblical ideas of church authority):
31st Question: Does a legislative power [in the church] properly so called, of enacting laws binding the conscience, belong to the church? Or only an ordaining power, of sanctioning constitutions and canons for the sake of good order? The former we deny; the latter we affirm against the Romanists.
They (the Romanists) by sinning in excess as on other points, make that power immense, maintaining that to the church belongs the power to make laws properly so called, which by themselves bind the conscience and cannot be violated without mortal sin and to which, therefore, obedience is due on account of the authority of those commanding. However, we think that no proper lawmaking power was given to the church by which she can make laws directly and by themselves binding the conscience; but only an ordaining power which can form constitutions and canons for the preservation of peace and good order which on this account do not bind the conscience by themselves and directly, but only indirectly in case of scandal; that these are not laws enacted by a prince, but only an order by ministers; not of the essentials of Christ’s kingdom, but only of the external accidents and things indifferent…
Pastors have no right to make laws properly so called binding the conscience. The reasons are first, because there is one lawgiver (James 4:12)…who has a right over the conscience and who can save and destroy, not only the body, but also the soul (Luke 12:5). Pastors are mere commissioners and heralds, who have no right to make or change laws, but only the office of promulgating them and urging their observation…. in sacred affairs the authority of the command is from God alone, its promulgation (announcement) only is left to ministers. The conscience has no one between itself and God by whom it may be known and judged. As it is known to God alone, so it can be judged by him alone. And second, it is not lawful to add to or to take anything from the divine law (Deut 4:2; 12:32). If nothing could be added to the Mosaic Law, much less to the evangelical law of Christ.
We have heard account after account of abuse victims being directed by pastors and church leaders to obey the dictates of these leaders or face the condemnation of God. “We declare that you have no right to divorce your abuser” is a declaration that adds to the law of God. Many, many other directives, given with the supposed authority of God Himself and said to be binding upon the conscience of the abuse victim (and of others in the church as well) are common. She is told how she must behave toward her abuser. She is told what she can and cannot say to him. She is directed in regard to overseeing her children. And all of these dictates go against her own conscience, yet she yields to them because she desires to please the Lord. In her confusion she does not realize that He is calling her to be free, to enact boundaries, to seek help from other sources…. and yet she remains in the bondage of these unauthorized commandments of man.
The fact is that the Word of God is what has authority to bind our conscience. Nothing else. When we, with sincerity of heart and after careful and prayerful study of the Scriptures, find ourselves free in conscience to take a particular course of action, then we have the freedom to do so. If a pastor or church leader can, by the clear testimony of Scripture, demonstrate plainly to us that our decision is contrary to the Word of God, then that is another matter. In such cases our conscience will concur and we will have peace. But no human being can pronounce his own opinion as the Word of God. This, only God can do.
And therefore I conclude that every church, every pastor, every church leader who insists that God forbids an abuse victim from divorcing her abuser is guilty of exceeding his authority and teaching as the Word of God the mere commandments of men.