Domestic Violence in Theology and Ministry (Greystone Module)

women abuseThis online or residential module examines the complicated theme of domestic violence within the world of Holy Scripture, and considers the nature of abuse in marriage and family from the perspective of theological anthropology and the vocation of the Church. This module weaves together theological ethics, the use of Scripture, pastoral theology, and applied theological anthropology. Topics include the nature of abuse within a theological anthropology and the Exodus paradigm of redemptive history, the complications of relational sin, justice/righteousness and mercy, divorce theory, forgiveness and reconciliation in pastoral theology, and child abuse.

SCHEDULE DETAILS: Fridays, weekly from March 2-May 25, 2018, 1:15-3:15 pm (Coraopolis/Pittsburgh site communal lunch offered—and encouraged—from 12-1 pm). N.B. Two Fridays in April (April 13 & 20) will be designated reading dates, with NO residential meetings or online lectures for those weeks.

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.

How to be a friend to someone facing abuse: Guest Post by Alice Childers

a-cord-of-three-strandsOpening Remarks to the Guest Post

The words of our enemies aren’t as awful as the silence of our friends.

Daisy Coleman

Last weekend, I watched the documentary Audrie and Daisy, which explores the ‘public square of shame’ of young girls who have been sexually assaulted. While this documentary is a powerful expose of rape culture (in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence towards women is normalized), it is also a disturbing portrait of secondary victimization via bystanders. When a victim of some kind of gender-based violence (whether that be physical or psychological) reports her abuse, the response of those around her can either be a source of great comfort and empowerment or they can be themselves a form of violence.

The devastating effects of secondary victimization are well-documented (see Chapter 8 of this book for a start). However, also worthy of attention is what some call the ‘friendship protection hypothesis‘. In short, when the friends, family, and acquaintances of a victim and officials tasked with responding to sexual assault, bullying, or other kinds of intimate partner violence believe, support, comfort, encourage, and assist, victims of such crimes, good things happen. Not only are victims better equipped to heal from their trauma, but they are less likely to be re-victimized.

Mark and I had the great privilege of meeting two ladies, one a survivor of spousal abuse and the other her friend, at the inaugural Lydia Symposium a few weeks ago. Both drove a long distance to attend, and having heard their story, we asked the friend to write a guest post for us in response to the question: What does it mean to be a friend to someone facing abuse? We are grateful to be able to publish her account in her own words here.

How to be a Good Friend to Someone Facing or Leaving an Abusive Relationship

Walking with someone who is coming out of an abusive relationship will not be like any other situation you have faced.  At least, this is what I have found.

I have learned throughout this experience with my best friend, that there are a number of things she needs.

First of all, she needs to be believed. This may sound trivial, but there will be many people who will not believe her, or will minimize what she says or what she has been through.

She also needs to hear you say you will never leave her.  You should show her this with both words and actions.  For my friend and me, this means having my cell phone near at all times, especially by my bed at night, when her fear is often the greatest. She needs to be reassured and listened to.  Her fear is very real and at times almost unbearable. You can be that calm voice to reassure your friend she is not alone.  She will have triggers, memories that come back which have been suppressed, sometimes for years, because of the fog she has lived in.

Listening and praying, reading scripture and reminding her of truth; these are ways my friend has needed me.  Encourage your friend and let her know this did not happen overnight, and won’t change overnight.  Patience is key.  Leaving an abusive relationship is a huge life change for her. But you being there as a faithful, consistent presence will make the journey so much easier and better for her.

Incorporating things which might give a sense of normalcy to her life, is another important thing I have learned. Planning fun times like shopping, going out for coffee or a movie, or whatever your friend enjoys, is another way you can help her feel like she is moving on.  Laughter, music, time with other friends or family can all be a blessing, as well as healing, for her. Supporting her in different ways will be essential.

Leaving an abusive relationship is a very courageous thing to do.  But it is also scary and creates more fear in your friend’s life. Validation is so important.  Love her.  Respect her. Treat her with dignity.

My friend is not a victim anymore.  She is a survivor.

I believe one of the most important things to give her is unconditional love. I have spent many days listening, praying, and often, crying with my friend.  She has had so many emotions; grief, anger, despair, shock, betrayal, and a host of others.  Unconditional love is vital.  She will need it in your hugs, and by holding her hand when she finds out yet another lie.  Through it all, you can tell her and show her that you will stand with her and weather the storm together.

As a friend who has walked closely with someone who is leaving an abusive marriage, I can tell you that God has taught me in a whole new way, what it means to bear another’s burdens.  Don’t be surprised when your friend is accused or not believed, over the one who is abusing.  Even you, as her friend, may be ridiculed or talked about badly if you support her.  All the more reason you must stay with her and stand by her side.

Supporting my friend has been humbling and life changing for me, in a very good way.

It truly is a privilege to be the hands and feet for my Savior.  At times, to be the anchor, and to remind her of God’s precious truth and His sovereignty over all these things.

How can you help a friend who is facing or leaving an abusive relationship?

Take her hand, look into her eyes, and tell her, “Friend, we will get through this together.  I am here, and God will see us through.”

Alice Childers


Milton, Poet and Provocateur

Announcing a Greystone Theological Institute event this Thursday:

John-Milton-portrait-008Greystone Study Day: “John Milton, Poet and Provocateur” at Greystone in Coraopolis (Pittsburgh), July 28, 9:30 am – 4 pm.

This one-day seminar will feature Dr. David Head’s survey of Milton’s work as a poet followed by a close examination by Dr. Mark A. Garcia of the bewildering yet influential seventeenth-century models of gender as well as Milton’s controversial teaching on marriage and divorce, which factored significantly in the work of the Westminster Assembly.

Cost: Donation only. Donations help cover the costs of running free events and programs. (Thank you for making your donation here.)