Sadly, I have been witness to a discouraging pattern in local churches as they handle cases involving abuse. It begins as church leaders are made aware of a situation in which a husband is acting abusively towards his wife, and it has been going on for quite some time. The abuse may include any or all of the following: coercion, threats, outbursts of anger, or some degree of physical force. Typically, church leaders get involved late in the situation because the victim is in fear of reporting her abuser, or perhaps thinks she is somehow to blame for his actions.

Church leaders often initially treat these cases as typical marital conflict, treating the sins of each party in a more or less equal way. They fail to make a sufficient distinction between the wife’s “misdemeanor” sins of provocation or disrespect, and the husband’s “felonious” sins of murderous anger. Abusive husbands intensify this problem as they manipulate the situation and focus their counselor’s attention on the wife’s faults.

As the church intervention progresses, the relationship between the husband and wife continues to deteriorate. In spite of the husband’s promises to change, hateful outbursts of anger, intimidation, manipulative control, and even violence persist. Church leaders realize the seriousness of the husband’s sin and take steps to put pressure on him and to protect his wife and children. They counsel the husband separately with the hope that he will truly repent and the marriage can be reconciled. Sometimes at this stage the church leaders agree that a physical separation may be necessary for the safety of the wife and children.1In many cases it would have been wiser to have taken concrete steps to ensure the wife’s safety much earlier than this.

When the pressure is ramped up, the husband willingly participates in counseling and is outwardly compliant towards church leadership. The wife, on the other hand, begins to be influenced by certain friends, family, and various victims’ advocates (online and in print) who tell her that her church leadership has failed and that she should divorce her husband. Her heart becomes hardened and eventually she announces that she is done and plans to leave.

Because the husband claims to be repentant and appears compliant to church leadership, and the wife refuses to be reconciled, the church leadership initiates a process of church discipline against the wife for divorcing her husband without biblical grounds. The wife and victim advocates publicly label the church leadership as heartless enablers of abuse and threaten lawsuits. Gossip infiltrates the church and further divisions ensue.

My question is, what can be done to break this tragic pattern? Surely the church can protect the helpless while also upholding the sanctity of marriage. It would be my desire that church leaders might consider the following suggestions:

  1. Church leaders need to be well informed regarding the multiple, deceitful ways in which abusers harm their victims and manipulate those in authority. Claims of abuse need to be taken seriously, investigated thoroughly (Prov. 25:2), and acted upon expeditiously (Prov. 31:8-9). Pastors and counselors who press in on abusers know that they will reveal themselves by their words. The sin that lies in their hearts will expose them (Luke 6:45; Gal. 6:7-8).
  2. Even if the wife is responding imperfectly to her husband’s sinful anger (Prov. 22:24-25), her more common marital sins of selfishness and careless speech should not be treated as equivalent to the sins of violence, harsh verbal outbursts (Prov. 11:9; 12:18), physical intimidation, and manipulative threats made by her husband. Abusers need to come under the discipline of the church and victims must be protected. Err on the side of safety.
  3. Both the abuser and the victim need godly counsel. It is usually best to counsel them separately at first so that the wife’s abuser will not intimidate her during the session. She needs protection and healing. The abuser needs strong admonition and accountability. I highly recommend Chris Moles’ The Heart of Domestic Abuse, which takes a tough love approach with an abuser while also offering hope that he can be changed through God’s Word and Spirit.
  4. An abuser’s claim to be repentant should be carefully tested and proven over a period of time. Many abusers are skilled at working programs and saying what counselors and church leaders want to hear. The Scriptures below contrast the characteristics of worldly sorrow that results in death with the qualities of true repentance that leads to salvation (2 Cor. 7:10-11).2I have written elsewhere that in some cases spousal abuse may be considered abandonment of the marriage covenant (1 Cor. 7:15). A professing Christian who abuses his spouse without truly repenting should be disciplined by the church, which would result in him being regarded as an unbeliever. See Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage: Critical Questions and Answers.

Characteristics of worldly sorrow (2 Cor. 7:10b)

  1. Self-focused (1 Sam. 15:30; Gen. 4:13)
  2. Hates the consequences of sin (Gen. 4:14; Acts 8:24; Ex. 10:16-18)
  3. Self-protective (Gen. 4:14; 1 Sam. 15:30)
  4. Blames others (Gen. 3:12; 1 Sam. 15:19-21, 24)
  5. Impatiently demands trust and restoration (1 Sam. 15:30)
  6. Criticizes the disciplinary process (Gen. 4:13)
  7. Unchanged heart that does not produce fruit (Luke 3:7-9)

Characteristics of true repentance (2 Cor. 7:9-11)

  1. God-focused (Ps. 51:4a; 2 Sam. 12:13)
  2. Hates the sin (Ps. 32:5; Ps. 51:1-3)
  3. Fully accepts responsibility (Ps. 51:3; 2 Sam. 24:10)
  4. Concerned for others (2 Sam. 24:17; Phil. 2:3-4)
  5. Patiently accepts consequences (Ps. 51:4b; 2 Sam. 24:13-14)
  6. Submits to discipline and accountability (1 Cor. 10:12; 2 Cor. 7:8-9)
  7. Changed heart that produces fruit (Ps. 51:6-12; Luke 19:1-10, 3:8)
  1. Churches should handle situations in which the victim of abuse chooses to pursue divorce very gently and carefully. Abused wives often become hardened towards their husbands. They sometimes are critical and disrespectful towards those in the church who tried to counsel them. Church leaders may be tempted to react against this bad attitude by disciplining the wife for her hard-heartedness in pursuing a divorce without clear biblical grounds.3There hasn’t been adultery (Matt. 19:9) and the husband professes to be a believer who is repentant over his sin, so the wife justifies the claim that she has been abandoned by an unbeliever (1 Cor. 7:15). Wisdom and compassion are necessary for a biblical response on the part of the church as well as the woman.
  2. When a victim has given up hope of her marriage being reconciled it is prudent to ask for patience on all sides. Time should be allowed to see if the Lord might work to genuinely transform the abuser and to soften the heart of the victim. The abuser can demonstrate the sincerity of his repentance by patiently respecting his spouse’s need for time and space rather than pressing to be allowed to return home and have his full marital rights restored. The victim should be assured that she would not be pressured to go back to an unsafe situation.4I am not limiting “unsafe” merely to situations that are physically violent. There are cases in which the intimidation along with emotional and verbal abuse is so severe that the innocent party should not be expected to remain in the home. I had a case in which it was the wife who would follow her husband around the house screaming at him, not even letting him sleep at night as she verbalized her ungodly anger at him so much that his health was impacted.
  3. In spite of the counsel of church leaders (who hope that the marriage can be restored), some victims are absolutely determined to press ahead with divorce. My understanding is that Scripture does not teach that church leaders are obligated to exercise church discipline in every case of divorce. In 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, Paul tells a wife not to leave her husband, but then he says, “But if she does leave, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband.” Paul cannot affirm her decision to leave, but rather than put her out of the church or treat her as an unbeliever, he speaks to her as a Christian sister and tells her that she must either be reconciled to her husband or remain unmarried.

While we are not told why the woman in Paul’s example chose to depart from her marriage, this passage fits some of the situations churches face today. The wife wants out of the marriage because she believes that the abuser has violated the marriage covenant through his violent actions. While church leaders may hope that the abuser is really a believer and truly repentant, they cannot be absolutely sure. It is very possible, humanly speaking, that in the months or years to come he will go back to his abusive behavior.5Just as adulterers are often repeat offenders.This may serve to demonstrate that he is not truly a believer. Church leaders may rightly plea for the victim to be open to reconciliation, but if she will not, they are not obligated to put her under formal church discipline.

Instead they should show compassion for how she has been horribly mistreated and express appreciation for her previous efforts to save the marriage. They might even need to seek forgiveness for not intervening as quickly and strongly as they should have when they first learned of the abuse. They can tell her that, while they cannot give their blessing to her decision to divorce or acknowledge her freedom to remarry, they will not press charges against her in formal church discipline. They also can express that they want to continue to lovingly minister to her and her children during this difficult time.

It could be that, over a longer period of time, the husband would prove himself to be truly repentant and the wife’s heart would be softened so that they could remarry. It also might happen that the husband would prove himself to be an unbeliever6If the husband is a professing Christian who proves to be unrepentant, the church would go through a process of discipline to remove him from membership, thus putting him into the category of unbeliever (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5:11-13). This would free the wife to remarry as one who has been abandoned by an unbeliever (1 Cor. 7:15). who has no interest in living peaceably in marriage. In this case, according to my understanding of 1 Corinthians 7:15, the wife would be free to remarry.

Questions for Reflection

How have you previously handled cases of abuse within a marital relationship? What would you now do differently?

This post was originally published on Jim Newheiser’s Blog.