What Is She to Do?

The following article was written by Dr. Adams 25 years ago. It is provocative and deals with an issue every pastor must be ready to face. We present it now in hope of provoking thoughtful interaction not only with Jay’s article but with the Scripture he cites. ______________________________________________________________________________________________

Okay, so I’m ready to bite the bullet! I’ve avoided the issue long enough. Not because there wasn’t an answer, but because of the answer itself. I simply didn’t like it. I had been hoping I could come up with a different or, at least, slightly modified answer. But I haven’t been able to.

Every week, it seems, someone writes, phones, or otherwise tells me about an instance of it. Evidently the problem has grown in proportions or, at least, people are more willing to talk about it than ever before.

Just what am I talking about? Wife-abuse, that’s what!

Millicent was “head over heels in love.” She met Phil at Bible college, they dated on and off for the better part of a year and then, upon graduation, they decided to marry. In every way Phil was her ideal: captain of the football team, well liked on campus, you name it. It’s true, there had been some early warning signs; Sally pointed out certain flaws, noting especially his temper whenever he didn’t get his way. “But Sally,” though her best friend, “is jealous. And, anyway, Phil has never shown any signs of violence toward me.” That’s how Millicent reasoned. As she now looks back, however, she says, “I saw things the way I wanted them to be!” Too frequent a story to ignore.

One thing I no longer fail to ask during premarital counseling sessions is, “Have either of you seen even the slightest evidence of uncontrolled temper in the other?” (I don’t use the word “violence” because few people seem to describe their actions, or those of their loved one [prior to marriage], by the term, no matter how vicious the action.) If I get even a hint that there might be something there, I will spend time probing until I am satisfied that either there is nothing to it or the problem will be dealt with in counseling before marriage (for help in this see the section on anger in The Christian Counselor’s Manual). It is far easier to deal with the problem at this point than later on and far less agonizing for all concerned. Don’t fail to include this matter in premarital counseling. You will be glad you did.

“That’s all well and good, but what about those who are already married? What does the Christian counselor do when he encounters a case of wife-abuse?” The first question to consider, as in all counseling, is whether the abuser is a Christian or at least professes to be one. This is altogether important. If he is a member of a Bible-believing church, then you may take one course of action; if he does not profess Christ, then you would take another. In either case, you are able to offer him help: in the latter case help will be the presentation of the Gospel, while in the former case, instruction in the way of overcoming anger and violence through the sanctifying work of the Spirit. An unbeliever cannot overcome his anger in ways that please God (Romans 8:8). Even if he does overcome it out of fear of the consequences, out of compassion for his wife, out of embarrassment, etc., he will not be doing so in a way that honors Him. It is not your task, as a preacher of the Word, to reform him; you are called to evangelize him. By leading him to Christ, you can not only help him overcome the immediate problem but place him in a condition to overcome all sorts of problems as well, in ways that do please God. Before trying to change his behavior, then, help him to make that basic change which will allow you from that time on to help him at a deep level. Never settle for superficial change.

You must tell him that wife-abuse is sin, a breach of the sixth commandment, with which he must deal at the root by the redeeming work of Christ. Such behavior simply may not be glossed over as inappropriate or even harmful action that must be replaced by more appropriate, helpful ways of handling anger. The very sin itself (which you must remind him is sin against God as well as against his wife) is clear evidence that he needs to be saved; only in the solution to that root problem is there any hope of making any lasting or eternal change. Take advantage of the situation to help bring him to Christ.

“What if he doesn’t trust Christ as Savior?” you ask. Then, he, being an unbeliever, may be taken to the legal authorities (1 Corinthians 6 deals with this); for his own sake, for the sake of his wife and anyone else involved, the state may be called in to restrain and, if necessary, punish him. Clearly, the wife should be informed about this option; indeed, it is often the only one available.

“What about divorce? Separation?”

Here is where I find it hard to give the biblical answer. If I had my ‘druthers,’ I’d say, “Yes” to either one or both of the above, but I can find no biblical warrant for doing so. Abuse is not among the legitimate reasons for divorce found in the Bible; and separation is never an option (see my book, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, for the exegetical and theological justification behind these two assertions). Of course, if a husband comes home drunk and begins to smash everything in sight, it would not be wrong for the wife to put one night’s clothing in a bag and head with her children for a neighbor’s house. That is not separation; it is akin to ducking, were he to throw something at her.

“But why is she required to remain with such a man?” Not only does the Bible hold out the hope that she may win him to Christ (1 Corinthians 7:10–14 and 1 Peter 3:1); it also has a good bit to say about enduring unjust persecution. In particular, I refer to 1 Peter 3:13, 14:

And who will harm you if you become enthusiasts for good? Yet, even if you should suffer because of righteousness, you must be happy. In fact, you must not even fear their threat, nor be upset.

As I said previously, I do not like that. It is not the response, when left to myself, I would give. But I don’t see how I can avoid it, so let’s consider it, at least in a preliminary way. First, notice that it is when and in doing good that the suffering is encountered. Suffering that one brings on himself is not in view; rather it is unjust, unprovoked suffering about which Peter is speaking. Indeed, his comment is that those who enthusiastically pursue good rarely encounter such suffering. That is the place for the counselor to begin.

I vividly remember calling at a home one summer afternoon. It was hot and sultry; the door and windows were open. As I approached the home, I could hear the wife shouting at her husband a block away. Here was a wife who represented herself in church as the poor, sweet, put-upon spouse of a vicious husband who, for no reason whatsoever, from time to time would clout her. The facts turned out otherwise: she was a regular ‘hussy’! She provoked him to anger most of the time. Now, of course, he never should have responded as he did; that was his sin, a problem with which he had to deal. But on the other hand, her sin was egging him on by her violent tongue. It is not always a one-way street; among other things, that is the insight that Peter gives us. Rarely does harm come to those who enthusiastically (not grudgingly) do good. Remember, “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1).

Then notice also that even in those rare cases, where violence was not provoked, one is not told to leave but to endure without fear (verse 14). This is the hard part, but it is biblical. How does Peter conceive of this? Well, his answer is that the believer does not shirk his responsibilities because another treats him badly. In 3:19 he says:

So then, let those who suffer according to the will of God do good and entrust themselves to a faithful Creator.

Peter is saying those who suffer must continue doing what is right, assuming all their responsibilities (in this case that means fulfilling the marriage vow, which included the promise “for better or for worse”) and leaving the outcome to God, who not only, as Creator, is capable of so ordering His world that He can work the matter out for good but also, as a faithful Creator, can be depended on to do so.

Now of course, if the husband is a Christian (a problem about which Peter is not writing), the wife always has recourse to the church. As a matter of fact, in such cases the Christian is forbidden to take her husband to law (1 Corinthians 6); instead, she is to call the elders of the church. They, in turn, should counsel her husband, giving him help that he needs to overcome his problem. There is great hope if he is a genuine Christian. He has within himself the Holy Spirit, who is capable of producing the fruit of gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22 and 24). But if he should fail to respond to all the help intelligently given, fail to change according to biblical principles, then the church must put him out and she then may treat him “as a heathen and a publican.” Practically speaking, that means she may call upon legal authorities if necessary to restrain him. For more about church discipline, please see my book, A Handbook of Church Discipline.

You don’t like my explanation? Sorry about that. Neither do I. But, until you can suggest a better one (i.e., one more biblical), I’m afraid I’m stuck with it. In all ‘high risk’ situations it is difficult to recommend endurance, the maintenance of duties, and trust as the solution. Yet, throughout the ages believers have borne up under persecutions and trials of a physical nature, even involving death, for Christ’s sake. Is my aversion to the biblical solution I have given merely evidence that the softness of our present age and the flabbiness of modern Christianity have gotten to me more than I realize? Perhaps so.

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