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Domestic Violence - The Church's Response

Twitter and the blogosphere have gone berserk the last few days over comments that Paige Patterson, the president of Southwest Theological Seminary and former presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention, made in an interview in 2005. Here’s the quote:

“I had a woman who was in a church that I served, and she was being subject to some abuse, and I told her, I said, “All right, what I want you to do is, every evening I want you to get down by your bed just as he goes to sleep, get down by the bed, and when you think he’s just about asleep, you just pray and ask God to intervene, not out loud, quietly,” but I said, “You just pray there.” And I said, “Get ready because he may get a little more violent, you know, when he discovers this.” And sure enough, he did. She came to church one morning with both eyes black. And she was angry at me and at God and the world, for that matter. And she said, “I hope you’re happy.” And I said, “Yes ma’am, I am.” And I said, “I’m sorry about that, but I’m very happy.” And what she didn’t know when we sat down in church that morning was that her husband had come in and was standing at the back, first time he ever came. And when I gave the invitation that morning, he was the first one down to the front. And his heart was broken, he said, “My wife’s praying for me, and I can’t believe what I did to her.” And he said, “Do you think God can forgive somebody like me?” And he’s a great husband today. And it all came about because she sought God on a regular basis. And remember, when nobody else can help, God can. And in the meantime, you have to do what you can at home to be submissive in every way that you can and to elevate him. Obviously, if he’s doing that kind of thing he’s got some very deep spiritual problems in his life and you have to pray that God brings into the intersection of his life those people and those events that need to come into his life to arrest him and bring him to his knees.”

Are you appalled? I know I am. Now, remember, this quote is from almost 20 years go. We’re now in the era of #metoo. But, it is still quite disturbing. As a family physician, I saw plenty of families affected by domestic violence and I would NEVER counsel a woman to go back to a man who had abused her, not even for a night.

And Patterson isn’t the only one who has said things like this. In a video in 2009, John Piper (of Desiring God) said this about a woman in an abusive marriage: “ If it’s not requiring her to sin, but simply hurting her, then I think she endures verbal abuse for a season, she endures perhaps being smacked one night, and then she seeks help from the church.” No. Just no. (Piper did clarify his statement several years later. You can decide what you think of it.)

Russell Moore (President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC) tweeted “The Bible teaches, in my view, that divorce is ethical in cases of sexual immorality (Matt. 5:32) or abandonment (1 Cor. 7:25). Abuse makes a home unsafe and constitutes abandonment.” and “A woman being abused should leave the house and call the police. The state should prosecute the abuser and the church should discipline him.” I agree with what Dr. Moore tweeted. The responses are the problem. A number of people responded that abuse does not constitute grounds for divorce. Others believe that an abusive spouse must not actually be a Christian, thus allowing for divorce according to 1 Corinthians. Others quoted “God hates divorce” from Malachi 2:16, stating that the spouses cannot divorce.

What is going on here? In the first two cases, we have pastors who are advocating that abused spouse actually stay with their abusers if only “for a season”! In the third, the commenters are claiming that, while the abused spouse may separate, s/he may not divorce. Is this really happening in the Evangelical church today? Apparently so.

Conservative evangelicals are reading the Bible very woodenly and literally. In many cases, they are not taking into account the context or the audience for whom the text was originally written. 1 Corinthians was not written as a marriage manual, but to provide some guidelines to people who were becoming ascetics in an attempt to become more spiritual (and it’s more complicated than that). Malachi is using the example of divorce in warning Israel about breaking covenants. So, while divorce is never an optimal outcome of marriage and even Jesus enjoined us not to do it (Matthew 5:31-32), marriage is not an idol to be worshipped. And, the Bible is not a rulebook in which we try to parse out every little tiny rule and regulation.

The Bible is our guide to know Jesus. Beyond that, it is to teach us the Great Commandment, found in Matthew 22:37-40 “Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”” This is what the Bible is all about! Love. The Bible is not a bludgeon to get everyone into line. It shows us the way to Jesus, who is love.

When we read the Bible with an eye to love, all of our priorities are on how to take care of the people in front of us. In the case of domestic violence, the goal is to protect the victim. That means to remove them from the abuser (and call the police if the abuse is physical). Loving the abuser means to not allow them to continue to abuse by removing victims and then to get them some help. It also means to understand that one day of crying about how sorry they are does not mean that they will not abuse again. The abuser need much counseling to work through their issues before they are ready to be in a family again, if ever. And the victim may or may not eventually choose divorce. From a practical perspective, domestic violence is a complicated subject and can’t be solved with one or two Bible verses. (If you are dealing with a family with domestic violence issues, please contact the nearest domestic violence shelter or organization. They have experience and can provide lots of resources for the family.)

What struck me about all of these people talking about domestic violence is the lack of love. When one person is being hurt by someone else, it’s immaterial whether you think that divorce is acceptable in this situation or not. It’s time to love both people involved, although that love will look different for each one. It's time for our Evangelical leaders to start showing some love for families affected by domestic violence. That's the way of Jesus.



P.S. The Wartburg Watch has some excellent posts and links on this topic.

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