Spousal Abuse, Pastoral Theology, and Pastoral Practice. The First Step.

In preparation for an upcoming full Greystone course in Domestic Violence in Theology and Ministry, I’ve been working through a pile a volumes on the topic that I’ve read over the last decade or so. Some have been truly helpful, many less so, and more than a few have been misleading, even dangerous. With precious few exceptions, all of these books have been written in the mode of the counseling movement and its often frustratingly thin thinking, or written for a general audience interested in social or relationship issues. Only a negligible number are written in a mode that recognizes the issue of domestic violence as a properly theological issue requiring serious biblical, historical, and theological work. This unfortunate blind-spot–combined with the increasing frequency with which I am asked to assist other pastors, church sessions, and church bodies with domestic violence, divorce theory, and related challenges–prompts the Greystone initiative reflected in this upcoming class (Spring 2017), as well as the three-course credential to which it will belong.

For far too long, many have approached these questions within the ambit of that poorly disguised and misnomered field of inquiry, “practical theology,” where so much is “practical” and so little is “theological.” But domestic violence is in fact a rather prominent biblical theme, requiring serious exegetical labor if we will hear the Word faithfully, and it is also a densely theological subject area, involving various commitments in theological anthropology, Christology, and ecclesiology. How the material and immaterial facets of the human person relate, how to characterize and quantify non-physical forms of abuse or misuse in light of the human telos, the nature and purpose of marital and other domestic relations, and so on: they seldom enjoy a serious role in the go-to book in the minister’s library on how to think about bad marriages, spousal abuse, or personal oppression. Sociologically, I have found that much of this subject area spooks confessionally Reformed folk because the vocabulary is foreign or seems to recall pop psychology, humanistic social theories, or the no-fault divorce culture. But the eye-opener that the Scriptural witness can be as it confronts us with these questions, and learning that the Reformed tradition has been far from silent on them… this disturbs the comfortable, and in life-giving way.

The first volume in this subject area that I will note my next post is a very slim one and, like all the examples I will survey in the days and weeks to come, it has its strength and weaknesses. But before we turn to that book for the first time, there is something else that requires mention. It will embarrass me, since few enjoy pointing out personal errors, especially consequential ones, but I hope my failure will serve as a useful lesson for others, even a warning.

The Discovery, Too Late, of a Classic Profile

Recently I was able to take a small step toward righting a wrong, a wrong of my own doing from many years ago. In my first encounter with a form of domestic violence, I failed. Badly. And it has haunted me with alarming regularity ever since.

In a former congregation that I served alongside another pastor, the session and pastor of that church leaned on me for help interpreting and assessing a situation of spousal abuse. I was unprepared for what I faced, unprepared for the timely, urgent, important service I was rightly expected to be able to render. Only later, and much too late, did I learn that the characteristics of this situation were not only far from unique, but that they remain frighteningly common to the point of providing a predictable profile for abusive husbands in church contexts. In this case, as in very many, the husband was a publicly magnanimous, generous, respected, amiable, and visibly earnest or sincere fellow; he had been through some seminary education and was on a ministry track, and was being considered for church office; he wore his allegiance to (his version of) Reformed theology loudly and publicly; he was active and energetic in contexts of service and visible support of the work of the church; and he was also especially eager to develop and strengthen close friendships with those in positions of influence in the congregation, particularly the ministers.

He was also a monster, at first only behind closed doors with his wife, who was not (also rather characteristically) of the visibly active and verbal disposition that he was.

The session had already started working with them before I arrived. They became more involved through the increasingly focused counseling work of the pastor and myself and, as the marriage deteriorated and the dark reality came more and more to light, eventually I carried much of the load of the meetings. The sessions with him began with the most earnest expressions of humility, love for his wife and children, and commitment to repentance and reconciliation. As the reality became clearer, though, his tactics shifted toward minimization of egregious wrongs, the domestication of destructive sins into a more ordinary and ostensibly palatable form, the questioning of his wife’s credibility and sanity, until finally there was rather conspicuous signs of a deep-running duplicity and manipulative strategy.

There came a point–which the literature (as I later learned) consistently alerts ministers to watch out for–when the man’s veneer unintentionally cracked (through a discovered lie) and the dark reality always lurking beneath the facade suddenly peeked through. With that unintended slip, what the books say to expect started to happen: with increasing energy, and attempting to involve more and more people in his project, the husband began to turn toward me some of the ferocity that had so far been reserved for his wife. Having suggested the proverbial emperor sitting before me had just been found to be naked, I instantly became the object of scorn, ridicule, intimidation, threats, and contempt. The anger started to show, the need to keep such things hidden having ended, and the counselor started to see something of what the wife had been living with.

(With this experience always fresh in my mind, I was recently able to warn a new friend–a minister faced with a fairly new but tragic spousal abuse situation in his own congregation–about the likelihood of this strategy finding expression in his own situation. Stunned at what he heard, he told me it had already begun.)

The senior pastor of the church later told the session he had had the wool pulled over his eyes by this man for years. He was right, and many others could have said the same about this man. But I was more at fault. At a certain point in the story, just before the man left the church (he is presently on the ordination track in the Roman Catholic Church) and some months before my time at that church ended, the senior pastor entered my office with a question and a very sensible expectation that I could answer it well. He asked,

“Does she have grounds for divorce? Is abuse a ground for divorce? I’ve always heard our Confession only allows for divorce in cases of adultery of desertion, but this isn’t that, is it?”

The correct answer is a strong yes, that even within the terms of the Westminster Confession’s teaching on valid divorce, and most importantly within Holy Scripture, abuse is certainly accounted for as it severs or ruptures, rather than merely bruises, the matrimonial bond, and thus is a valid ground for divorce. The reasons for this will have to await another post.

In this case from years ago, importantly, we were not talking about spousal disagreements, ordinary marital squabbles and challenges, her impatience with his sin or a refusal to reconcile. We were dealing with spousal abuse. The correct answer to the senior pastor’s question on that day and in that situation was yes. But I answered the question differently, in a way perhaps many others might answer it today,

“I think your understanding of the Confession is probably right. At least, that’s how I’ve heard it. It seems she should have grounds for divorce, but I don’t see it there. I have to say I don’t know, but I can’t see it. I’m sorry.”

And with that, I failed. Horribly. Not just on a point of theology or biblical interpretation, not just on a point of confessional interpretation, but in the care and protection of real people needing thick, strong, faithful pastoral care as they hold opposite roles in a living horror. I failed. I failed that senior pastor who looked humbly toward a younger man with more education than he had enjoyed and who should have known better. I failed the session who counted on someone in my position understanding the Scriptures and the Reformed tradition much better than that. I failed the congregation who rightly expects church officers to defend the cause of the vulnerable and the weak, and to protect them under the authority and command of the Lord and King of the Church, the faithful Shepherd of the sheep. I failed that wife and I failed that husband, who both needed a minister who would be ready and willing to read the situation properly and act confidently, with the proper combination of self-sacrificing resolve and patient compassion. But I didn’t. I wobbled in uncertainty, didn’t know what I should have known, didn’t love my neighbor as my own self, and failed. And ever since I left that church many years ago, and every time I have encountered the same profile in abusive husbands and/or fathers in other church contexts, I remember that man, I remember that woman, and I remember that conversation with the senior pastor in my office. And I’m ashamed.

The Return, and the First Step

Recently, I had the opportunity to meet briefly with what remains of that session, and to apologize for failing them, that husband and wife, and the congregation. They graciously accepted and forgave me. Most delightfully for me, the wife from those many years ago (since divorced) was present in the service the day that I visited, though she was not usually at worship in that congregation. I was able to talk with her at some length, apologize to her, encourage her that her suffering is bearing fruit for others through the Lydia Center, and communicate my prayers and the prayers and efforts of others who are determined to assist ministers and sessions or consistories with solid and reliable guidance through the biblical, theological, historical, and practical facets of what many have concluded is a pathological phenomenon in Reformed contexts.

It’s small as a return on an investment on her suffering. Only a pittance, really. And it does nothing to absolve me for my failure. I am still ashamed. Pastor make mistakes at least daily in the care of their congregations, sure, but this one is unusually sore for me, especially as I see “the issue” more and more, and grow in understanding its pastoral urgency. Only Christ and his righteousness can be my hope there.

But I suggest that others learn from my mistake and consider the possibility that returning back to the site of the disaster, if there is one for you as there is for me, may be the most fitting first step in our quest for greater faithfulness in attending to these issues properly. The study and the reading and the theologizing are not only more stimulating and potentially enjoyable but also may keep us at arm’s length from the real human beings who remain in our (often) rear view mirror. Instead of moving directly to the books and the important theoretical questions, perhaps we should first return to those human beings, those we may have already failed on this front, and telling them so, humbly and apologetically, assuring them that their suffering is bearing fruit through us to serve and protect others–and may our God make this so.

Next time we will survey the start of our first book entry on spousal abuse, domestic violence, and the theology and ministry of pastoral care in those contexts.