If you’re active on the Internet, especially in Baptist or reformed circles, you have been exposed to the discussion of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson’s comments regarding a woman suffering spousal abuse. This conversation, of course, has triggered a great deal of anger, multiple discussions, and many condemnations. Patterson has since issued an apology for making unwise statements.
Without getting into the political Internet rancor regarding Patterson, the SBC, SWBTS, and all the rest, I want to simply point out an example from biblical narrative of a wise response to abuse from one in a position of authority. This is not all there is to say, but it came from my daily Bible reading, and it is a good start.
David was in the service of King Saul. Saul was insanely jealous of the people’s response to David, and from time-to-time, Saul had been overcome by rage against the young man who had slain a giant. But Saul’s son, Jonathan, loved David.
AT one point, David feared for his life because of Saul. And So David came to Jonathan to ask for help.
1 Samuel 20:1-4- 1 Then David fled from Naioth in Ramah and came and said before Jonathan, “What have I done? What is my guilt? And what is my sin before your father, that he seeks my life?” 2 And he said to him, “Far from it! You shall not die. Behold, my father does nothing either great or small without disclosing it to me. And why should my father hide this from me? It is not so.” 3 But David vowed again, saying, “Your father knows well that I have found favor in your eyes, and he thinks, ‘Do not let Jonathan know this, lest he be grieved.’ But truly, as the Lord lives and as your soul lives, there is but a step between me and death.” 4 Then Jonathan said to David, “Whatever you say, I will do for you.”
David expressed his fear, a genuine fear for his physical safety. Jonathan expressed surprise, but when he saw that David was serious, Jonathan pledged to help. From this point, David and Jonathan did the best they could to expose Saul’s intentions regarding David, and this all eventually led to Jonathan helping David to escape from Saul’s murderous intent.
Note that, in this situation, Jonathan did not say to David, “Saul is your authority, so you have to submit to his abuse.” And no biblically thinking Christian gives such counsel. There are certainly times in Scripture where Christians are called on to suffer bravely for Christ, but these commands are in the context of Christians who are in inescapable situations—slaves under harsh masters as an example.
What then should a Christian spouse facing abuse do? First, the one abused or fearing abuse needs to get to a place of safety. You must be aware, however, that often abusers become even more dangerous as you seek to leave the home. Thus, getting away may require careful planning or the involvement of the police. Second, if physical abuse has occurred or genuine threats of harm have been issued, this is a violation of the law. The threatened or abused spouse should contact the police for help. Third, the abused spouse should reach out to the elders of the church to which they belong as a member. The elders can offer prayer, counsel, and support as the abused spouse attempts to deal with the situation. If the couple are both church members, the elders can begin the process of biblical church discipline, calling the abusive spouse to repent of sin.
As a pastor, I would not encourage any person suffering abuse or genuinely fearing physical abuse of any kind to return to an unsafe environment. Instead, I would counsel much of what we see David do with Saul. David got himself to a place of safety and used a go-between to help him in his dealings with the crazed king. When the threat was not repented of and change had not been made, David remained apart from the abuser. David did not attempt to hurt Saul. David simply remained apart from Saul so long as Saul intended him harm.
Obviously, there is more at stake in a modern marriage. The presence of the church and of the legal authorities is a significant part of our situation. But I think that we can see, even in this narrative, a wise principle. If you are endangered by an authority over you, get away and get help. In marriage, this does not assume an immediate move to divorce. But it most certainly assumes an immediate move to safety and a call for repentance.
If you are abused or threatened with abuse:
- Get to safety (this may require planning and careful timing).
- Contact the police (the police can help you get to safety).
- Contact your church elders.
- Seek reconciliation through repentance on the part of the abuser.
- Communicate from a place of safety or through a go-between if necessary.
- Remain in a safe place until credible repentance occurs.