Abuse in the Family
The principles here deal particularly with physical, verbal, or emotional abuse in the family, though the assessment of root cause would apply to any relationship in which anger in one’s heart increases to the point of abuse, the common pattern for this problem. Both husbands and wives are recipients of abuse.
To set the stage for discussion on the issue of abuse in the family, these questions should be asked and answered in accordance with God’s Word:
1. Is a person responsible before God for being and doing what God desires, even if his wife or her husband is not willing to be or do what God desires of him or her? Yes (see Biblical principles below)
2. Is it all right for a husband or a wife to disobey God’s Word if his wife or her husband is disobeying God’s Word? No (see Biblical principles below)
3. Is it all right for a husband or wife to disobey God’s Word in order to pressure his wife or her husband to obey God’s Word and be a good wife or husband? No (see Biblical principles below)
4. Are there any biblical exceptions to these principles? No (see Biblical principles below)
Conclusion: Neither is it all right for a person who is being abused to disobey God’s Word in order to attempt to make his or her abuser obey God’s Word and be a good husband or wife. In other words, a godly answer to an abuse situation will not encourage the one being abused to disobey God’s Word in order to deal with the problem. (Many approaches to abuse do just that.)
If abuse involves sexual immorality, however, other factors come into play in its resolution. For example, those living together outside of wedlock are living in sin and should separate for that reason. Also, when abuse involves sexual intercourse with one’s child, adultery is then a factor which must be addressed, and there may be governmental issues involved as well.
As one seeks for a biblical evaluation of and answer for the abuse problem, the following are Scriptures which should be read in order to glean the principles which they give:
1. All are to be continually filled with God’s Spirit and consequently to thank Him for all things which happen in their lives.
2. Wives are to be submissive to (place themselves under) their husbands in everything whether their husbands are loving or not. The only biblical exception is when she is asked to violate Scripture herself—cf. Acts 4:19, 5:29).
3. Husbands are to sacrifice for their wives, whether their wives submit to them or not.
4. Husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies.
5. Wives are to respect their husbands.
I Corinthians 7:1-5
1. A husband should have regular sexual relations with his wife when she desires.
2. A wife should have regular sexual relations with her husband when he desires.
Matthew 5:31-32, 19:9
Between a believing husband and wife (cf. I Cor. 7:10-“the Lord”), there is only one biblical ground for divorce: sexual intercourse outside of marriage (adultery). Other than that, a believer who divorces and remarries commits adultery.
I Corinthians 7:10-15
1. A believing husband and wife are not to divorce. (The words clearly mean divorce [not just marital separation], because the woman who disobediently divorces in v. 11 is considered “unmarried” in that verse. [That the exception clause of Matt. 5:32 and 19:9 is not under consideration here is clear from the fact that the woman who divorces in v. 11 is not free to remarry as she would be according to Matt. 5:32 if porneia had been the grounds for her divorce.]
2. A believer married to an unbeliever is not to divorce him or her.
1. A Christian wife is to be a “husband-lover”—a friend to her husband.
2. She is also to be submissive to him.
I Peter 3:1-7, 13-17
1. A wife is to be submissive to her husband even if he is disobedient to God’s Word, whether he is an unbeliever or a believer.
2. She is to be pure and respectful.
3. She is to have a gentle and quiet spirit.
4. A Christian husband is to live with his wife in an understanding way.
5. He is to honor her as a fellow heir of the grace of life.
6. It is rare (Grk. 4th class condition in v. 14) that one will suffer for doing what is good, but if he or she does suffer for righteousness, he or she is blessed and is to accept the suffering as from God. [There are no grounds here for divorce.]
I Thessalonians 5:18 (cf. Eph. 5:20)
One should give thanks both in and for all things. [God is working them together for good (Rom. 8:28).]
1. When another person is angry to an extreme (whether at something else or at some person), a gentle answer (given in a loving spirit, cf. Prov. 25:15) will help the extreme anger dissipate—like water on a big fire.
2. When a person is angry in a normal range, a harsh word (lit. “word of pain”—a word which causes pain) will stir that anger up higher, like gasoline on a campfire. [The one biblical exception to this is suffering for righteousness’ sake (I Pet. 3:13-17).]
Conclusion: If the anger of another person becomes greater in one’s presence, it indicates (in all cases but the one rare biblical exception) that one is giving a “word of pain” in his or her response to the other person and is partly responsible for contributing to the other person’s increased anger. This unloving word of pain can even be an unloving attitude on the edge of a “neutral” word or be seen in body language which the other person knows well.
With these principles in mind, the external aspects of dealing with abuse in the family will be addressed first.
1. Church discipline is a possible external biblical way to deal with an abuser. (Matt. 18:15-17) Here, the one being abused should first lovingly confront the abuser concerning his or her unloving words or actions. If there is no repentance, others should be brought in, until the abuser is brought before the church and disciplined. In this case, however, the one being abused should have the confidence in his or her own heart that she or he is not part of the problem. For example, if one person is already upset about something else in life, and the other person sticks him or her with a pin, and he responds violently, the person who stuck the other with a pin should not be calling on others to censure the first person. He or she should concentrate on dealing with his or her part of the problem—provocation.
2. Involving the police is another external action biblically permitted in order to deal with the abuser. (Rom. 13:1-7). Again, however, the one being abused should have confidence in his or her heart that she or he has not been part of the problem.
3. Another possible biblical response to dealing with the external aspects of abuse is for the one who is about to be or is being abused to remove himself on herself from the abuser’s presence for a brief time (in order to let him or her cool down for an hour or two), without violating the marital covenant or other biblical principles—that is, without divorcing or moving out of the home. (Prov. 22:3; 27:12) This is advisable even when the one being abused has been part of the problem.
The biblical counselor should not stop at dealing with the externals of abuse, however. He should also kindly, yet courageously, deal with the root of the problem: the existing anger of one person which increases to the point of abuse upon the provocation of the other. In other words, abuse is almost always a double-responsibility problem. Without the angry individual, it does not develop. But also without the provocation of the other individual, abuse does not develop either. This can be said with some confidence biblically because “a gentle answer (from a loving heart, cf. Prov. 25:15) turns away wrath”—makes it diminish instead of increase (Prov. 15:1). The one rare exception is suffering for righteousness’ sake (I Pet. 3:13-17).
In abuse situations, therefore, the biblical counselor has two people to counsel, not just one. Sadly, though, usually only one person comes for counsel, and that is the person being abused, not the abuser. There is hope even in this situation, however, because even if only the one being abused is present for counsel, he or she can be helped to understand her or his part in the abuse—provocation—and can let God’s Spirit work in his or her life to become part of the solution (“a gentle answer”) rather than part of the problem (“a harsh word”—a “word of pain”).
This is not usually the kind of news which the one being abused wants to hear. But it is true nonetheless, and it will enable this couple to address the root of the problem of abuse, even if only one of them is willing to do so.
For the one being abused, then, the answer is to consistently confess as sin his or her own unloving attitudes toward the abuser, to be filled with God’s Spirit and God’s love, and to become an open channel of that love to the abuser through apology for his or her own provoking attitudes and through consistent praise, support, encouragement, and sacrificial cooperation.
2 If in a family abusive words or actions are directed toward a child, the parent who is not angry but loving can become a gentle answer into the situation and can become the source of God’s love openly expressed to the potential abuser, just as Abigail became in the midst of David’s rage, as he intended to slaughter all the males in Nabal’s house. (I Samuel 25)
It should be remembered that, according to Scripture, physical, verbal, or emotional abuse are not grounds for divorce. And one should not attempt to deal with the sin of abuse by himself or herself choosing the sin of divorce without biblical grounds. That is not God’s answer to the problem. (Remember, much abuse existed in the First Century when the New Testament was written.)
It is for this reason that many suggest marital separation as the answer to abuse. The problem here is that it calls on the separating spouse to violate his or her marital covenant in several ways (after all, these people are still married), and it also calls on him or her to disobey other commands of Scripture. To demonstrate this, evaluate marital separation as an answer to abuse by the following.
Husband, go ahead and separate from your wife because of her abuse if at the same time you can also consistently:
1. Be loving your wife in a self-sacrificial way while not giving up your loving headship in the home (Eph. 5:25, I Cor. 13:4-7)
2. Be nourishing and cherishing your wife as your own body. (Eph 5:29)
3. Be having regular sexual relations with your wife when she desires, so that neither of you are tempted to infidelity. (I Cor. 7:3-5)
4. Be living with your wife in a truly understanding way. (I Pet. 3:7)
5. Be genuinely honoring your wife as an heir together of the grace of life. (I Pet. 3:7)
6. Be giving a gentle answer from a loving heart when she is angry. (Prov. 15:1, cf. 25:12)
7. Be thanking God from your heart for everything that He is allowing in your life. (Eph. 5:20, I Thess. 5:18, cf. Rom. 8:28)
Wife, go ahead and separate from your husband because of his abuse if at the same time you can consistently:
1. Be submissive to your husband in everything as to the Lord. (Eph. 5:24, I Pet. 3:2, Tit. 2:5)
2. Be having regular sexual relations with your husband when he desires, so that neither of you are tempted to infidelity. (I Cor. 7:3-5)
3. Be a husband-lover, a real friend to him. (Tit. 2:4)
4. Be genuinely respectful of your husband and of his position as head of your home. (Eph. 5:31, I Pet. 3:2)
5. Be having a gentle and quiet spirit in your heart toward your husband and toward the Lord. (I Pet. 3:4)
6. Be having chaste and respectful behavior toward your husband. (I Pet. 3:2)
7. Be giving a gentle answer from a loving heart to your husband when he is angry. (Prov. 15:1, cf. 12:25)
8. Be thanking God from your heart for everything that He is allowing in your life. (Eph 5:20, I Thess. 5:18, cf. Rom. 8:28)
Should the idea be advanced that these principles are nice for mature Christians but that younger or more immature believers should not be expected to apply them to their lives in an abusive situation, the answer is, “God is faithful [to even the most immature believer], who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also that you may be able to endure it.” (I Cor. 10:13) God’s way of escape is never to be disobedient to His Word.
It is hoped that the foregoing principles will help the Christ follower see that the root answer to abuse in the family is not divorce or marital separation but is dealing with one’s own part of this double-responsibility problem, and that even the one being abused, by dealing with his or her unloving provocation, can help the problem diminish and disappear as he or she consistently confesses sin and openly expresses God’s love back to God, to the abuser, and to the family.
Only in the strength of the Holy Spirit can this be done (Eph. 3:16), but that is the kind of life to which a Christian is called.
Insights and concepts adapted from The Heart of Man and The Mental Disorders by Rich Thomson.