Treating An Abuser As A Non-Believer
“Is My Abuser A Christian?” If you read Jeff C’s book, he gives you a pretty straightforward answer: “No”. He makes the case that an unrepentant, habitual abuser is not a Christian. His reasoning is that abusive behavior is not consistent with a regenerate heart- we are called into a new kind of life and the old has passed away. While all believers sin, the sin we are talking about (a sense of entitlement and a complete lack of empathy) simply is not characteristic of a real Christian. This is not to say that a Christian may not take an abusive action, but ultimately he or she will not fall into a habitual, unrepentant pattern of abuse.
I’m not writing this to answer that question, though- I will leave that to Jeff, who is a great teacher of scripture. I’m writing this as someone who struggles and wonders why that question is so tough for me (and maybe it is tough for you too?). Why is it hard to just label my ex a non-Christian and move on? And is it wise for me to focus my attention there? I know that some have no problems with this (the behaviors of their abusers were so horrific and ungodly that there really were no questions). But I think there are some of us dealing with more subtle forms of abuse who really question ourselves.
I must admit, my heart does not want my ex to be an unbeliever. In fact, I guess you could say I WANT to be wrong about the divorce if it would mean that her soul is safe. I want there to be some mitigating factor that excuses her behavior as a believer. I spent years married to her in a context of believing that we worshiped together, evangelized together, and studied scripture together. To go from that image of her to one where she never knew the Lord and it was all a lie- that’s a hard pill for my heart to swallow. In fact, I find my head and my heart in disagreement on this.
I really do think dwelling on this kind of a question can be unhealthy. I suppose part of the “defogging” that I’m going through means getting a truer look at my ex, but these things take time. The hardest thing about the divorce for me was that I was judging her as unworthy to be my wife. I have a very difficult time judging another person, even when his or her behavior deserves it. So when taking THAT step is so hard, am I emotionally prepared to go the distance and say the she absolutely is not a Christian? Honestly, I just don’t have the emotional capacity to make that “judgment” of her. And really, I shouldn’t have to- I don’t think the focus of abuse survivors leaving destructive marriages should be focused on the guilt of their spouses. The focus should be on what they know beyond a shadow of a doubt- that they are experiencing pain from their spouses that is too great for their marriages to withstand.
So I propose that if we struggle to assign the status of “unbeliever” to an abusive spouse, can we at least meet in the middle? Can we say something like “The state of her soul is in The Lord’s hands, but because she has behaved like an unbeliever I must treat her like one in order to protect myself?” I think that is a lot easier to understand and say on an emotional level, and it does not require us to feel like we are judging our spouse at a time when we are just trying to get in touch with our own emotions.
Maybe to some this seems like an unhelpful exercise in labels. Perhaps. It’s just that I’ve heard enough about how if my divorce was valid then she must not be a believer. It felt like a huge burden to make sure I knew the state of her soul before I could seek freedom, and I don’t think that’s the right question to be asking at a time of emotional duress. We ought not to put victims in place of judges over their spouses, but judges over their own needs and boundaries. The question is not “How evil/bad is your spouse?” but “What do you need in order to feel safe, physically, spiritually, and emotionally?” Once we take care of that need and begin to get away from the fog, then we can start asking (and answering) the weightier questions about our ex’s.