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020 Counseling Cases of Domestic Abuse {Transcript}

About This Transcript

To close out season 2 of the Care & Discipleship Podcast, Craig Marshall sat down with Jim Newheiser (Director of Biblical Counseling at RTS Charlotte) and Tom Maxham (pastor of Grace Bible Church, Escondido and staff counselor at IBCD) to discuss the tenuous situation of dealing with domestic abuse when counseling a couple. This episode is a response to a listener question and addresses a very relevant issue in the church today. The counselors discuss how to respond not only to physical abuse but also how to think through verbal and emotional abuse. They detail the various ways in which churches tend to make mistakes regarding verbal and emotional abuse and articulate a proper response.  They also engage with the book The Heart of Domestic Abuse written by Chris Moles who will be speaking on the issue at the 2017 Summer Institute and Pre-Conference.

Craig Marshall:
Hello and welcome to the IBCD Care and Discipleship Podcast. I’m Craig Marshall and with me today is Dr. Jim Newheiser who’s IBCD’s executive director and also the associate professor of Christian counseling at RTS Charlotte. We also have with us today, Tom Maxham who’s a pastor at Grace Bible Church in Escondido, and he’s one of our counselors here at IBCD and also on the advisory board.

Today we’re going to be talking through some issues regarding a really difficult topic, the topic of abuse. This is based on a question that we received from one of our listeners. Let me read the question and then the guys will just kind of talk through some of the issues involved in this. The question says how should my wife and I counsel a marriage where the husband is verbally abusive? He says he wants us to talk with his wife but she says when we do so he yells at her for it.

It’s one of those situations where when they meet together everything seems fine, but then on the way home he unloads on her. They also notes that the man is enslaved to alcohol and is currently in recovery, but he does continue to drink sometimes. It sounds like they’re increasingly aware of this volatile situation and then wondering also as they’re counseling them together if some of what they’re doing making the situation worse. How do they handle that?

Guys, as you hear that and especially this idea of verbally abusive, what comes to mind of how we should approach it?

Tom Maxham:
To begin, God’s word is not silent on the topic of verbal abuse, emotional abuse. In proverbs 12:18 it says, “There’s one who speaks rashly like the thrust of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” In proverbs 11:9 it says, “With his mouth the godless man destroys his neighbor.” God is well aware of the severity of verbal abuse and he likens it here to the effects of physical abuse. If you talk to women who’ve been legitimately verbally and abused over the years they’d said, “Rather he hit me than to put me through this kind of thing.”

God is well aware, but I think the church can grow and mature and be much more aware of how to handle these things. We can handle the typically marriage issues and we can handle the physical abuse, but there is lots of room for growth in the area of handling verbal and emotional abuse. God knows and God’s words are efficient for it, we just need to develop that area. It is happening, people are speaking on it, there’s a book out called The Heart of Domestic Abuse by Chris Moles and it is an excellent resource for this very topic.

Jim Newheiser:
I think when you are addressing abuse of all kinds, a good place to begin is in Matthew 5 where Jesus says, “If you hate your brother, you’re a murderer. If you call him a name you deserve the punishment for a murderer.” As Tom said, the Lord takes these sins very seriously, and yet, there is a degree, there’s a spectrum of how bad this is. It’s like in the very next section Jesus said if you’ve lusted you’ve committed adultery. A man who has literally committed adultery, or worse, raped somebody or something, that’s one absolute end of the scale. The guy who was walking down the street and saw a girl with shorts on and glanced and looked away, he was still in that range but it’s a much different degree.

The same way with abuse, you have murder. I heard literal case where someone is angry and killed the other person recently, a friend. You can have your physical violence in beating somebody, you can have all the other end of the scale where you’re angry. When I get sinfully angry I just don’t make eye contact with my wife and I don’t talk much which is highly unusual. You’ve got to do some data gathering to find out exactly what’s being said or done in order to know what you’re dealing in terms of the safety of the other people.

Even in the category of verbal abuse, there is screaming, threatening someone’s life, doing things in public places. There are degrees as opposed to someone who got loudly grumpy about the other party being late to a meal. I think when it comes to the person who is guilty, taking them to Matthew 5 where Jesus explains the nature of hatred in your heart and sinful words to recognize, as Tom said that the Lord looks at what you’re doing as he looks at physical abuse. I understand there are degrees in the spectrum, but that’s how much God hates this. Seriously, he takes it in how much it is wounding the other person.

I’ve often had cases where you have somebody who would, in his mind the man would think it unimaginable that he would strikes his wife and he’s proud of the fact he’s never done so. But then he’s beating her to a pulp with his tongue which has the power to destroy, and he needs to see that sin as God sees it as being serious. One step back behind that would be what is it in his heart in Jesus, in Mark 7 it says, “Murder comes out of the heart.” It’s not caused by other people, it’s our own sinfulness. James says, “We kill when we don’t get what we want” in James 4.

Not just addressing the behavior, count to 10 before you yell or run out of the house when you think he’s going to yell. What is in the heart that he wants, that he demands and how can he repent of that idolatrous desire which leads to the cycles of abuse.

Craig Marshall:
It seems in the church there’s a hesitancy to acknowledge sometimes the validity of verbal and emotional abuse. Why do you think sometimes we’re hesitant to go there with someone?

Jim Newheiser:
I think using the label “abuse” is frightening both to the guilty party thinking that he’s being labeled as someone who’s giving his wife a black eye when really he did something at different point on the continuum. Even from the standpoint of the church I think some church leaders would be fearful if you label that behavior “abuse”, then you might be giving license for separation or divorce which is not really where you want to go with that.

Like you said Craig, people tend to go to one extreme or the other. I’ve seen situations where a wife is told by church leadership that she needs to be quiet. I think they misapplied 1 Peter 3, they just let him keep verbally you to a pulp or pushing you around, and if you’re a better wife you wouldn’t be doing that. That is a deplorable reaction on the part of church leadership. The church leadership has the responsibility to investigation an accusation like that, to confront the guilty party with the seriousness of the sin.

Now in reaction against that there’s almost swinging to another extreme which would be like every time a man ever noticed a billboard with a girl on it his wife suddenly has grounds for divorce on adultery, that any slight expression of anger is treated the same as gross physical abuse. We have to be very, very careful, very discerning, this is where it’s so helpful to have godly church leaders involved in helping the victim of abuse to see where they are when they need to be safe. The Bible doesn’t say here is exactly the point at which you take action or it’s so bad that they need to be apart.

Tom Maxham:
To further answer that, I agree. The range of sin on the part of the verbal abuse makes it difficult, but also usually it’s the wife who’s being treated that way in most cases. Also, if the wife doesn’t respond in a biblical way, it can confuse the situation, it can make it look like she’s at fault, she’s provoking. A wife’s anger can confuse a situation, a wife’s ungodly responses can delay getting the proper help and getting the proper resolve, the proper authority being applied to situation through the church, or a wife could hide these things for years.

That said, I do think we need to do more in the area of verbal and emotional abuse. Proverbs 31 says, “Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the afflicted and the needy.” I think there needs to be more done and even more church discipline in the area of verbal and emotional abuse.

Craig Marshall:
Tom, Jim’s mentioning here this continuum and needing to get a better understanding of what’s going on. What are some helpful, I guess categories to be thinking in of possibly abusive behaviors? We were talking about the difficulty of that word “abuser” and the weight of that. What are helpful ways you can talk about these behaviors? What behaviors are we looking for?

Tom Maxham:
Part of the answer to that is you need to really understand what’s going on. You might hear a one particular behavior on its own wouldn’t rise up to the category of abuse, it could be a very irritating behavior, a controlling behavior but we might not label it abuse. As you gather more data and you put together the string of things, you put together all the different events, so the totality of it begins to make it more clear on how abusive. Like if a man hid his wife’s cellphone one time you wouldn’t call him an abuser, but if you keep seeing more and more of these things and then … So the totality helps you figure that out.

Jim Newheiser:
I also think one of the challenges is if you’re not a witness to it, how do you prove what really happened because you get he said, she said. Often in the counseling, if you just ask questions and watch them interact, you’ll see the anger and the abusive words come out in the session which makes it easier to recognize yes, this is the problem. On the other hand, I’ve had cases where I hear them describing a conversation or an argument they had, it was like they were on two different planets. I’ve even resorted to having people use their phone to record what’s going on.

Maybe you’re going to catch what’s happening which is beneficial, on the other hand if they know the phone is on this recording and they behave better that can be an unplanned benefit that they would be more hesitant because they know they’re going to get caught. Of course then the answer is God hearing all of these and Jesus [inaudible 00:11:34] word so it’s much more important what he’s hearing and recording than what I’m going to hear on the record. Again, proof can be a challenge.

The culture swings to extremes of even churches just saying to put up with it wrongly, but now an unproven allegation is … According to the Bible you can’t base on allegation to treat someone as guilty. As you’re investigating that’s where also you may need to bring other people in who are witnesses. That’s a challenging aspect of this.

Craig Marshall:
Is it sometimes helpful to speak to each spouse separately if these things are being alleged with some of the dynamics that are at play?

Jim Newheiser:
Yes, it can be. Actually, I’m almost thinking now more in terms of when they’re fighting and that people sometimes feel safer to… Usually when them I want them to confess their own sins and not telling each other. We’ve had a case where a woman is physically threatened. I think some of the men doesn’t understand that when you’re angry and you’ll say, “I would ever hit her.” Well she can’t know that, it smells like murder to her, and Jesus said that’s what it is. Sometimes for the sake of safety you might do that but you’re going to have to bring whatever they say and try to get the stories [to square 00:12:55] when you bring it back together.

Tom Maxham:
It’s also often wise and compassionate to have a female in the counseling mix or even have a female counsel for a season to be able to draw out what’s really going on.

Craig Marshall:
Part of which you were bringing up ties in to another question that came in, how should a wife respond to the following which is intense verbal and emotional abuse with a threat but it’s never been carried out of physical abuse. So he’s never hit her. Some of what you’re talking about it can be even just posturing, but in this particular case he’s even saying he would harm her but yet has never done so. How do you deal with that if someone tells you that that’s what happened?

Jim Newheiser:
That’s why you need to counsel them in a context of a church that practices church discipline and the elder shepherd to sheep. What you’re describing is something that she needs to go to Matthew 18 stage two and get other people to confront him using the authority of the church has given to address that problem. If necessary, stage three. Whatever. One of the most abusive things abusers so especially when the husband, is he will say, “You are not allowed to tell anybody else what I’m doing.”

Matthew 18 doesn’t say if your brother sins unless he’s your husband, confront him, and then bring two or three in unless he’s your husband or has other authority over you. I think the wife has the right to get help whether the husband wants to or not. Sometimes the husband not only will manipulate her by threatening her, “If you tell anybody, if you bring in the elders I’ll make it worse for you.” Sometimes the wife is also fearful saying, “Well if I were to tell others, all of these horrible things are gonna happen” which is something she can’t really be sure of.

If the Bible says you have a right to do this and protect your life, the life of the children, you trust in the Lord and don’t live in your own understanding, rather than just saying, “This isn’t going to work.” I had more thing to add from earlier. It’s not just the men abusing the wife, there are more cases over the years I’ve seen where the wife is verbally and even physically out of control in a very sinful way. There are also quite a few cases where they’re both going at it. It is not you have the sweet little victim over here and the mean bad guy over there.

Craig Marshall:
When situations are happening and we see that there’s a physical, especially in the context of this conversation, an emotional or verbal abuse that seems to be going on, is separation appropriate? When does that become appropriate in abuse situations?

Jim Newheiser:
I was thinking in terms of what biblical basis do I give for saying someone is free to get away from a dangerous situation. One thing that came to my mind was Paul escaping to the wall of the city when people sough his life. We have the right biblically to have physical safety if somebody is trying to destroy us, kills us, harm us physically, we have the right to get away from that. I will also say that you want to err on the side of safety, that if the wife, assuming it’s the wife, it could be the other way around. But if the spouse who si being verbally threatened or abused feels themselves, herself to be in danger, I think err on the side of safety rather than telling them to stay too long and deeply regret when something awful happens.

In the case of physical threat, I would err on the side of getting safety for the purpose of dealing with the hard issues and the guilty party hoping for restoration especially if physical abuse is taking place. If you make the broad statement, verbal abuse is a ground for separation. There are not many marriages where neither party has ever been angry over decades, and that could be stretched way too far.

I have seen cases like the I gave where one spouse is following the other one around the house and shouting at them and won’t let them sleep. Again, like Tom was saying in an example, hiding cellphone and just being cruel, I think that that’s where it’s so helpful to work with godly counsel and church leadership saying, “Have I reached the point? I’ve done Matthew 18 stage one, we’re in stage two, I’m getting church leaders involved. I feel overwhelmed and unsafe in the situation, I wanna save my marriage, I- I- I care about my spouse, but I’m absolutely overwhelmed.”

I can’t define exactly where that line is, but if the person for the sake of their own safety, they’re afraid of getting shot or beaten to death, I’m open to that as a temporary option. I’m also very concerned that if I open that door that somebody will crack it wide open to what I would not think would reach the level of separation. You have to see what is your motive here. Is your motive you want to honor God and try to save your marriage? Or is your motive that you’re just uncomfortable and you don’t like being uncomfortable and you think you could get relief by escaping? That by itself is not a biblical grounds for separating.

Craig Marshall:
There can be a place for putting space and to show the consequences of that type of behavior is not acceptable, the church leadership is trying to show that clearly. Also to create space again for seeing is there really a godly sorrow about this type of behavior that keeps happening, but without doing a Carte blanche saying, “If someone says something mean to you, you definitely can do that.”

Jim Newheiser:
All those examples you gave gets back to the spectrum of how bad is this. There are some situations where you would definitely advise them to be apart physically and the church would be acting in terms of discipline all the way down to situations much less severe where you would discourage them from separating physically with the concern that they might like it instead of pressing on and fulfilling the covenant that they made.

Tom Maxham:
God has given two formal means of authority over this situation, one is the church and the other is the governing authorities. Regarding the victim, the abused person going to the church, what I see is they wait too long. They could wait years, decades, and they need to go at the first signs of these things, but God has also given the protection of governing authorities. Romans 13 says there no authority except from God and they are there to stop the evil doer.

Jim Newheiser:
One situation where the government may need to be called in is if crimes are being committed. Obviously a physical or sexual abuse of a child we have no option but to report it to the government. Even in the context of domestic abuse I think that if someone is attacking, threatening the life, physically harming another person, it is appropriate to address that to the sphere of the state. Sometimes the person who is the victim of this is fearful, “But if I report him then he will me. If I report him he will divorce me or we will lose all our money” whatever their concerns. Sometimes you needed to help them to work through that decision and to trust the lord.

You just did an example earlier that for someone who’s guilty with this behavior … If their love of Christ doesn’t motivate them to be gracious then we’re kind of back to the first use of the law for unbelievers that then punishment may get their attention, that God has designed the rod for the back of fools not just children but adult fools too. It may take consequences imposed on the church level including approving of a temporary separation to get this guy’s attention, or even the government coming and saying, “You can’t slug your wife, and you’re gonna get to spend a night in jail, and you’re gonna pay thousands of dollars to get you out of here. And you’re gonna potentially go to trial.”

Again, ideally people for the right motive like I love the lord, I love my wife, I want to change, but the threat of punishment is something God has also built in to both the church and the state as a means of controlling wicked behavior.

Craig Marshall:
As we’ve talked through some of these things just bringing it back to that initial question where you’re counseling a couple. Things seems fine when you’re talking to them but you’re finding out that he’s yelling a lot and it seems like there’s a good reason to think that maybe he’s being verbally and emotionally abusive to her. How would you proceed with that couple when you’ve just heard that after the fact from her?

Jim Newheiser:
I have to find out from him. The first who plead his case sounds right until someone else comes along and examines him, and sometimes he’s going to tell a story where she was yelling too and she was provoking him and pushing his buttons, and she’s good at it. One way that she wins an argument is to make him yell. I’m not saying that’s always the case but it could be. Sometimes you almost need either to reproduce the argument in the counseling room which happens more often than you might think, or you almost need a recording because you’re not sure what really happened.

If you have proof that it really happened you admonish the guy from the word or god, you admonish the unruly. You threaten him with church discipline, you plead with him to connect his life to the gospel as a person who’s received much grace. He’s a fool to be dealing with her according to judgment and law, and if necessary it goes to other levels. Again, it depends what is meant by yelling, but actually screaming hateful threats at your wife I think does merit the involvement of church leadership to try to stop that behavior.

There are so many nuances and details of data in a case like this. I can’t say with a broad description this is exactly how I would handle it, there would be a range of options based upon the kind of church you’re in, based upon their relationship, the fault of each party, et cetera.

Craig Marshall:
There’s the other factor there about being enslaved to alcohol, [inaudible 00:23:38] it sounds like that’s probably involved in some of the anger. That’s another sin that’s going to be needed to be taken seriously with the leadership of the church to make sure he understands that.

Jim Newheiser:
Right. A lot of times the alcohol too would be … He made promises to stop, in which case apart from the question of whether he should be drinking it all is he’s breaking his word. If this has been a problem especially, if it has fueled the angry outburst, then there might be in counseling some kind of agreement insistent upon of him eliminating that from his life because he can’t in faith partake of it, and it’s causing harm. If he loves the lord, and he loves his wife, he doesn’t want to do something that’s going to potentially lead to that.

I’ve actually been in cases just like that where I can’t say from the Bible absolutely or not you will ever have a beer the rest of your life. If frequently when a person starts drinking he can’t exercise self-control, and then it leads to a loss of restraint, and like the city with the walls broken down and a man who has no control over his spirit. Well with alcohol it knocks your walls down, then you better stay away from it. That could be enforced by agreement with the wife, the counselor and the context of the church keeping him accountable.

Tom Maxham:
A man is to nourish and cherish is his wife, Ephesians 5. His job is to look out for the wellbeing of his wife. If he’s doing anything to create this kind of fear in his wife he’s doing the opposite of what proper biblical leadership is. It’s usually generated by a desire for control, and desire for control is rooted in fear. It’s going to be the gospel, it is the only thing that’s going to take a man who’s very insecure and very fearful and have him become restful in the gospel, and become a meek and a gentleman. As the love of God pushes out that fear he won’t have the need for control, he’ll see God is in control of all of the events of his life and know that that’s best, and then the behavior changes at the heart level first.

Craig Marshall:
There’s so much hope in gospel for both the one who is being abused and treated poorly, and that God’s design for the church is to care for the victimized, then there’s also so much hope for the one who is enslaved to things like control and fear and anger. It’s an amazing opportunity and excited that the church has the opportunity to enter into these kinds of situations and see God powerfully work. Jim and Tom, I want to thank you both for helping us this week talk through a difficult topic. Statistics say that this situations of domestic abuse are prevalent in our churches and something we need to be thinking through.

We’re excited in 2017, Chris Moles is going to be doing a pre-conference for us for the summer institute based on his book, the Heart of Domestic Abuse. I want to encourage you to be thinking about, maybe bring in some members of your church to come and hear how to approach this issue. For more information about the pre-conference for 2017 summer institute, it can all be found on our website or in the podcast show links with this episode. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you next time.

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