4 Traps to Avoid When Speaking of Domestic Abuse
Let me begin by saying unequivocally that there is never any justification for any kind of abuse—physical, sexual, verbal, psychological, emotional, economic, social or spiritual—within marriage or for that matter within any relationship; also (just to make the point explicit) abuse doesn’t have to be physical to be abuse; all abusive behavior is sin; and victims are justified in taking steps to avoid or protect themselves from such abuse. Make no mistake: those who abuse others are earning for themselves the wrath of God.
So as Christians if we care for the welfare of all people, especially those of the household of faith, this is an issue of theology, morality, and pastoral care that we can’t ignore, put off, or answer lightly.
That said, however, this article is not about domestic violence. Rather, it’s a reflection on easy traps to fall into when thinking, writing, speaking, or responding to domestic abuse—and I say "easy" because they’re traps I’ve often observed, and might have fallen into myself. Also, while this is not a review article, I will engage with a helpful new book on the topic: Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence by Justin Holcomb and Lindsey Holcomb (Moody, Chicago, 2014).
I want to talk about four traps that await us when we try to understand and respond to domestic abuse. They are: a tendency towards totalizing; seeing abuse as a gender issue; misapplication of the Bible; and avoiding the Bible’s teaching about men and women.
1. Tendency Towards Totalizing
The first trap is what I’ve called a tendency towards totalizing. What I mean by “totalizing” is when a part becomes the whole, or the particular becomes the rule. This can happen in a number of ways.
We can make the individual the universal. So, for example, the experience of one victim becomes the experience of all victims; or what is helpful for one becomes what is helpful for all; or what is offensive for one is considered offensive for all. Alternatively, one abuser becomes the archetype for all abusers; or one poor pastoral response becomes the measure of all other efforts.
No doubt, there are some common dynamics in all or most abusive relationships, and so they can be approached with a certain universality. Likewise there is often a deep resonance between victims. But all people and all relationships are different and change over time, so we can’t address the particular needs of any situation with a one-size-fits-all approach. The same is true with resources: what helps one person will not always help another.
Is It My Fault? recognizes this and stresses that all situations are different, and that each victim is ‘the expert’ of their own situation (pp. 63, 22). This means that while speaking and writing in generalizations is probably unavoidable, in reality we can’t speak for all or about all—whether victims, abusers, affected children or even those who try to help.
Another totalizing tendency is to regard all domestic violence with the same level of censure and condemnation, when in reality there’s a range of behaviors that could be regarded as abusive, and some are more serious and injurious than others. Indeed some are punishable by law. Some require urgent intervention and protection, and some may have more scope for forbearance and wise but firm discipline and counsel. Avoiding this totalizing tendency is not to deny that sin is sin, but to recognize that our expectations, pastoral care and discipline must be proportional to the problem.
A third totalizing tendency is the term “domestic violence” itself. Not only does it risk not capturing many forms of abuse that are not physically violent, but also if we use it solely for abuse between husbands and wives, it obscures other types of abuse that also occur in the family or home: child abuse and sexual abuse, sibling abuse, elder abuse, and so on. That is, abuse between a couple is not the sum total of domestic abuse. This is why ‘spousal abuse’ and ‘intimate partner abuse’ are more accurate terms. Despite the title of their book, ‘intimate partner abuse’ is the Holcombs’ preferred term (p. 210), and the one I will use here.
2. Gender Issue
The second trap to avoid is regarding intimate partner abuse as a gender issue. This is, in fact, another totalizing tendency. It views partner abuse as only men abusing women, and (sometimes, a step further) doing so because they are men and their victims are women. Abuse becomes an emblematic issue of male power and misogyny.
But there are several problems with this, the most obvious of which is that it is not always men who are abusers and women who are victims. In fact, the evidence is that in Australia almost one in three victims is male.
Moreover, what makes intimate partner abuse against women wrong is not that it is done by a man but that it is done at all. It is not the maleness of the perpetrator that makes it wrong or the femaleness of the victim. It is not even that there is a gender difference between them—that would overlook the similar incidence (or worse) of intimate partner abuse within same-sex relationships. It is not gender that makes intimate partner abuse wrong. What makes it wrong is that anyone would seek to control, demean and/or exploit another person in a repeated and systematic way—especially in the context of an existing or previous sexual relationship, and (in the case of Christian marriages) having promised before God to serve the other person’s welfare wholeheartedly, exclusively and for life.
This is one of my main reservations with Is It My Fault?, because although the subtitle is Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence the strong impression is that “those” who suffer are only ever women. Granted there is a handful of passing references to men as victims and some sections where generic terms like ‘victim’ and ‘abuser’ are used, but women are mentioned as victims and/or men as perpetrators on almost every page, whole chapters focus on the Bible’s teaching on women, and women and violence, the foreword says the book addresses the “noxious misogynistic miasma” in churches, and the otherwise helpful appendix ‘Making a Safety Plan’ is explicitly directed at women (not men).
Of course, there would be nothing wrong if the book was solely directed towards women victims. Such books are surely needed: women are more often victims of intimate partner abuse than men, and the Holcombs are well-qualified to write such a book given their professional and academic backgrounds in helping abused women (pp. 16-17).
But men are also victims, and the fact they are less frequently victims than women does not make their suffering any less serious or the sin of their female abusers any less grievous. Sadly, my fear is that reading this book would only add to a male victim’s sense of emasculated shame, alienation, helplessness and pain, and make it even harder for them to get help. If it is hard, and it is, for women victims to be believed (especially if they’re married to seemingly upright Christian men), it is significantly harder still for male victims (especially if they’re married to seemingly sincere Christian women).
Also it will be much harder for men to be believed or expect they will be believed if our Christian subculture reinforces gender stereotypes of female victims and male abusers in sermons, blogs and books. Is It My Fault? falls into this trap. Tragically, then, our commendable efforts to address abuse towards women might have the unintended consequence of empowering women abusers and increasing the burden on abused men.
But this will be less likely if we remember that the evil at the heart of intimate partner abuse is not gender distinction and difference, but the attempt to control, demean and exploit another person, and thus deny their equal dignity and worth as someone made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27; 9:6; James 3:9).
3. Misplaced Bible Application
As Christians we rightly look to the Scriptures and the gospel for understanding, answers and hope for the problem of evil. But the third trap I’ve noticed is that in our eagerness to apply Bible texts to intimate partner abuse we can miss the meaning of a text or its place in the Bible’s overarching story. Consequently, the wisdom or comfort of God’s word is muted.
Is It My Fault? is not immune from this, as the following examples show.
The first concerns the recurring themes of “disgrace” and “grace.” The book claims that many victims have a sense of “disgrace” from their abuse, and the authors want to contrast and overcome that “disgrace” with God’s grace. Clearly, this is a good intention—but their use of the two ideas lacks clarity.
Their point is this: “Disgrace is the opposite of grace […] but God uses the gospel of grace to eliminate that disgrace and heal its effects” and “God, in His grace, declares that you will be healed of your disgrace” (p. 82).
However, what this seems to do is confuse the disgrace of sin with what they have called the “disgrace” of abuse. The former is disgrace we have all earned and should rightly feel from our own sin, and which can only be removed by the grace of the gospel. The latter is a sense of shame that comes from being treated shamefully and sinfully. However, because the victim of abuse is not responsible for that sense of shame, there is no actual disgrace for the gospel of grace to “eliminate”. In this way, the recurring theme in the book that God’s grace meets the ‘disgrace’ of abuse doesn’t quite fit. It also tends to obscure the distinction between the grace of the gospel received through faith in Christ, and God’s compassion for those who suffer (e.g. pp. 82-3).
A similar problem arises with the discussion of Jesus’ substitution in our place. It is clear that the Holcombs believe in the penal substitutionary death of Christ on the cross, where he bore the wrath of God in our place (p. 88). However, in their eagerness to apply the cross to the experience of victims, the difference between Christ’s suffering and ours gets confused, and his suffering rather than his sin-bearing suffering becomes the focus. The result is statements like these:
The deepest message of the ministry of Jesus and of the entire Bible is the grace of God to sinners and sufferers. (p. 81)
It is true that people suffer in all kinds of ways. It is also true that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection paint a picture of suffering that leads to glory. This undergirds a central theme found throughout the New Testament that suffering can be redemptive. In fact, Paul says that “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12), and he told the first churches that “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). (pp. 127-8)
Certainly, easy answers and platitudes cannot speak to the answer of the “why” of suffering. But perhaps the cross can. Because whatever pain and suffering you are experiencing right now, Jesus has also faced. He knows intimately the depth of desperation you are feeling.
But this is the crucial difference: He suffered so that you wouldn’t have to. (p. 163)
But there are two main problems here. First, Jesus didn’t suffer so we might not suffer: he suffered death in our place so that through faith in him we might escape the wrath of God. He suffered for our sins so that we might not have to suffer for our sins.
Second, contrary to the suggestion in the second quote, our suffering is not redemptive. Indeed if it were, this might be a reason for victims of abuse to accept avoidable abuse: an idea rightly and explicitly rejected elsewhere in the book (p. 163). In fact, the Holcombs’ important insight that “Scripture does not encourage people to endure avoidable suffering and it does encourage them to avoid unnecessary suffering” (p. 128) is denied the moment we allow that our sufferings might be redemptive. Only Christ’s sufferings can lay claim to that!
The reason victims of intimate partner abuse do not have to suffer abuse is not because Christ suffered in their place; it is because abuse is wrong—full stop! Sin is never God’s will. He hates evil and is justly wrathful against those who misuse power and practise violence (Mark 10:42-43; 2 Tim. 3:3; 1 Pet. 5:3). The Holcombs clearly believe this, but at points they seem to confuse Christ’s human sufferings as one of us (because of which he is able to sympathize with us) with his substitutionary suffering for us (because of which he is able to redeem us).
Flowing on from this, I also have questions about the Holcombs’ identification of shalom (peace, universal flourishing, wholeness) as God’s original purpose for creation. Violence, they say, is the greatest enemy of shalom, and therefore against the purposes of God, and the reason that victims should seek help (pp. 112-14, 139). This is good as far as it goes.
But because of their abuse, victims may not feel entitled to seek their own peace, and so it may help them to know that shalom is not the final goal or purpose of creation or even redemption. The ultimate goal and purpose of all things is the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31; Phil 2:10-11; Rev 4:11, 22:3-4). That is, something beyond our needs and experiences—something to do with God, not with us. The victim of abuse then who seeks to avoid abuse and receive justice is not simply (and rightly) seeking their own experience of shalom, they are seeking the glory of God himself, who abhors evil and is glorified by righteousness. They are not putting themselves (or even their children) first. They are seeking the glory of God.
I’ve explained these examples at length to show how well-meaning attempts to bring God’s word and the gospel to bear on abuse can end up not being as helpful as they might be, because our attempts cloud or misapply what the Bible has to say. However, lest you get the impression this is a common or fatal flaw in the Holcombs’ book, it is not. For the most part the book’s attention to and application of Scripture is thoughtful and helpful. My point is simply that in our eagerness to identify with and minister to victims we must take care to handle God’s word well.
4. Avoiding the Bible’s Teaching
The fourth trap actually flows on from this last point. It is the temptation to go softly (or not at all) in stating the Bible’s teaching on the relationship of wives and husbands, and in so doing prevent God’s word speaking in all its fullness to the issue. I realize that we might do this from the very best intentions. After all, male abusers (Christian and otherwise) have been known to cite the Bible’s teaching of ‘wifely submission’ and ‘male headship’ to justify their abuse or as part of their abuse. Female abusers too can cite the same injunctions in abusing their husbands—sometimes even while extolling ‘wifely submission’! In both cases, God’s good word has been twisted and enlisted in wicked spiritual abuse.
But in withholding this teaching or being ambivalent about it, we withhold the very answer God has provided for both victims and abusers. If God’s pattern of marriage is being misused and turned into a tool for evil then the way to deal with this is not to be silent on the biblical teaching but to affirm its goodness, identify its abuse, and instruct in its proper application. The human heart is only changed as it is rebuked, corrected and instructed by the word of God. Likewise, true comfort only comes from receiving the pure word of God.
Is It My Fault? is a mixed bag at this point. It is strong on the equality of men and women before and after the fall (p. 47), but weak on the different God-given roles and responsibilities given to men and women before the fall, and silent on the impact of the fall on the woman’s response to her husband (see Gen. 3:16; cf. 4:7). When the discussion moves to the New Testament the picture is even more ambivalent—evident, in part, in the eclectic list of scholars quoted: some complementarian, some egalitarian, some somewhere in between!
On balance though, while they say they don’t wish to “erase creational differences [between men and women] which should be embraced and celebrated” (p. 105), it seems to me that they end up doing something close. Nowhere do they identify what these differences are. They set aside the “difficult” texts about the different ministries of men and women in the church on the basis of “contextual and cultural issues” (pp. 102-3). They replace the different roles and responsibilities of husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 with “mutual submission” and, presumably, identical roles (p. 111), and otherwise focus on Christ’s self-sacrificial love for his bride, the church, with respect to the terrible incongruity of this with a man abusing his wife. And there is no discussion of Paul’s instruction to wives in this passage except to reject its misuse by abusive husbands.
As I’ve said, this passage (and others) can be misused and misunderstood, and so we need to take care not to perpetuate these errors. But we won’t be able to do that if we avoid or dilute the Bible’s teaching about men and women—their equality and their different roles and responsibilities. We not only need to show negatively how misusing these texts is against the word of God; we also need to show positively what it means for wives to submit themselves to their husbands as the church submits to Christ, and for husbands to be loving heads after the model of Christ by self-sacrificially leading, cherishing, nourishing and protecting their wives.
One Final Trap
If the truth be known, there is probably no perfect way to think about intimate partner abuse, talk about it, write about it, or respond to it. No mere human words can offer the comfort, deliverance and healing that victims need and crave and deserve. No mere human words can adequately condemn abuse or convict an abuser of their sin or change their heart. Perhaps thinking or hoping that mere human words would ever be enough is a final trap to avoid.
Intimate partner abuse is a terrible evil and inflicts terrible suffering wherever it occurs. Whether inside or outside the church, and whether directed against women or men, we must do everything in our power to prevent it. But in the face of such evil and suffering we must not forget that the only true and lasting answer rests in the love and kindness and justice of God.
Claire Smith is a member of the Equal but Different Steering Committee. She and her husband Rob attend St. Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral in Sydney, Australia. Her book God’s Good Design: What the Bible Really Says about Men And Women (Matthias Media, Sydney, 2012) includes a chapter about intimate partner abuse.
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