Reformed Christians, both the laity and the officebearers, must become aware of the evil of abuse in marriages in their fellowship. They must judge it to be the gross, destructive sin that it is. They must deal with it in the right way, delivering the abusive husband from his sin and delivering the abused wife from her misery.
I address the abuse of wives by their husbands. This is not because there are no instances of the abuse of husbands by their wives. There are. But women are far more likely to be abused by their husband. The experience of every pastor will confirm this. Besides, what is said about abused wives will apply also to abused husbands in most respects.
There may be disagreement with aspects of this article. There should be no disagreement with the assertion that abuse is a real problem in the Reformed community, including those of which we are members. It is killing some wives, as also the children in these homes. There are abusive husbands who are under the wrath of God at present and who will be damned, if they do not repent.
The evil is not only a concern to other churches, but also to our own.
The Nature of Abuse
Abuse is a husband’s deliberate, continuing, systematic, relentless destruction of his wife, whether her soul or her body, and usually both. Abuse is not necessarily physical, although invariably there is at least the threat of physical abuse. Often, abuse takes the form of the psychological and emotional destruction of the woman by name-calling, criticism, and belittling. Such is the unrelenting degradation that it convinces the wife that she has no redeeming quality, whether in the kitchen or in the bedroom.
By abuse, I do not mean, and no one means, the occasional outburst of anger, or other unkind treatment of one’s wife. These actions are sinful, but they do not constitute abuse. Abuse is a pattern of marital life.
Verbal abuse destroys the woman, even when there is no physical abuse. It is sin, and the sin is murder. It is violation of the sixth commandment of the law of God, “Thou shalt not kill.” Lord’s Day 40 of the Heidelberg Catechism explains the sixth commandment thus: “that I neither in thought, nor in word or look, much less in deed, revile, hate, insult, or kill my neighbor”. The positive requirement is that we “love our neighbor as ourselves, to show patience, peace, meekness, mercy, and kindness towards him [or her], and, so far as we have power…prevent his hurt”.
The biblical basis of the Catechism’s inclusion of reviling and insulting words — “verbal abuse!” — in the sin of murder is 1 Corinthians 5:11 and 6:1. According to 1 Corinthians 6:10, no reviler, that is, verbal abuser, “shall inherit the kingdom of God”.
Because the children witness the abuse of their mother, and are terrified by it, the abusive husband on his part is the murderer of his entire family.
What folly! For “he that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hateth his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church (Eph. 5:28, 29). The explanation of this folly is that the husband, at least, the husband in the church, confuses his headship with absolute lordship as though he is entitled to his wife and may do with her as he pleases.
The truth is that the husband is “head,” not dictator, or tyrant. He may not treat his wife as he pleases but as Christ treated, and treats, His wife, the church (Eph. 5:25). This is love — a love that gives oneself to and on behalf of the wife. This is love that not only does not abuse, but also that does not even use. It nourishes and cherishes.
The Calling of the Church
The church must treat the sin of abuse, as it treats all other sins, by strong, sharp, pointed preaching. This preaching exhorts the positive calling of the husband in marriage, but also exposes and condemns the sin of abuse. It promises the reward of grace to the man who lives with his wife in love. It also threatens hell and damnation to the impenitent, abusive husband. Such preaching will hold before the husband the behaviour of Christ towards His church, which marriage is the real marriage and the model for our own marriages (Eph. 5). It will call the man to speak lovingly to his wife, as Solomon spoke to his wife: “Thou art fair, my love” (Song 1:15, 16). The believing woman will gladly submit to such a husband. The Christian husband does not abuse his wife into submission; he loves her into submission.
The Reformed institution and practice of family visitation is another means by which the church discovers abuse and deals with it. The elders must make inquiry into the condition of the marriages in their fellowship, by pointed questions about headship and abuse, about submission and rebellion. Where necessary, they must resolutely follow up on instances of weaknesses.
In the church, all the members have a calling to help with regard to abuse that comes to their attention. Often, an abused wife will first reveal her distress to another female in the congregation. This female must exercise the office of believer and help her sister. Likely, she will call on the pastor for his aid. The pastor must then take hold of the sin, comforting the abused woman, which includes believing her, and confronting the abusive husband. He must see to it that the husband does not punish his wife with an increase of abuse, because of her call for help to another member of the church or to the pastor. The refusal of a member or of the pastor to give help, perhaps out of fear of the consequences for himself, is despicable cowardice. Refusing to help the abused woman, he refuses to help Christ Jesus (Matt. 10:40-42).
Important as deliverance of the abused wife is, prevention of abuse is equally as important. Even though she dates a young man in the church, a young woman must be on her guard against marrying an abusive man. He will show himself to be abusive by attempting to control her, by speaking cruelly to her or about her, and simply by not being loving to her. He may even hurt her physically in anger: hitting, pinching, becoming enraged, threatening violence. If she sees signs of abuse, she should break off her relationship with him. Quickly!
Parents must carefully scrutinize their daughter’s suitor with a view to spotting abusive characteristics. Marrying in the Lord includes more than marrying a boy from the church.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
For the woman who finds herself married to an abusive man, there is deliverance. There is also deliverance for the abusive husband. If he is to escape damnation for hating his nearest neighbour — his wife — and if he is to live the basic Christian life of loving his neighbour — his wife — he must be brought to repentance. The elders of the church, as well as fellow believers, must admonish him. If necessary, the elders must discipline him, to the point of excommunication.
Deliverance of the abused wife consists of compassionate help by the church, usually given by the pastor. He must listen to her; he must believe her; he must encourage her with the gospel of Jesus Christ. If her husband is also a member of the church, he must guide the consistory in firm admonition of the abusive husband, which is more than a brief rebuke in order to send the man quickly back to his wife, so that he can continue his abuse, and probably increase its severity.
In some cases, the evil behaviour of the husband has contributing psychological causes that require the ministrations of a competent counsellor, preferably a Christian.
Spousal abuse is an abomination to God and the church!
This article is, in the main, a summary of a booklet on the subject of abuse by myself presently being published by the Byron Center PRC and by the RFPA. Copies of the booklet are available from the Byron Center PRC c/o Harlow Kuiper at email@example.com or c/o Sid Miedema at firstname.lastname@example.org and from the RFPA at www.rfpa.org
Written by: Prof. David J. Engelsma | Issue 49