On Disciplining Abusers And Protecting The Sheep

Few things are as distressing to cops, nurses, and pastors (or chaplains) as domestic violence. A cop will tell you that responding to a domestic violence call is never pleasant and often dangerous. In cases of domestic violence emotions run high. People do not think clearly. Drugs and alcohol are often in play. Such situations are volatile. They can also be difficult cases for ministers, elders, and deacons to address. Abusers come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. It can be a real shock to find out that fellow you thought to be an upstanding member of the men’s Bible study has been abusing his wife for the last three years. She hid it well. She did not call the police. She became skilled at covering up the marks with make up and, when that failed, she became equally skilled making self-deprecating excuses (“I fell,” “I’m so clumsy”). Eventually, however, it was too much and she finally called the police and news of the abuser’s arrest filtered back to the ministers, elders, and deacons.

How should they respond? The first thing they must do is to accept the reality of the situation. Our first instinct might be to deny what is before our eyes. Perhaps the pastors, elders, or deacons wondered if something might be happening in the family but he seemed like such a “stand up” guy and her explanations seemed plausible. After all, who are we to pry into other people’s business? Yet, respond they must. Abuse of wives by husbands (and abuse of husbands by wives) should be intolerable in the church. What is abuse? It appears in many ways: verbal, psychological, emotional, and physical (including sexual). One who abuses his spouse does so for a variety of causes: sin, emotional or psychological problems (stemming directly or indirectly from sin). In my experience such abuse is usually learned. Quite probably a man who abuses his wife grew up in an abusive home and was, quite likely, abused himself. A man who strikes his wife is, except in the most extreme cases of self-defense (e.g., she attacks him with a weapon), is already deeply troubled to say the least. O. J. Simpson is a classic case. Certainly his own childhood was far from ideal. He became a skilled liar, manipulator, and serial abuser. People who knew him knew that he abused his wife. She called the authorities repeatedly and predicted that he would murder her. Because of his fame and his charm, Simpson escaped significant punishment for his abusive behavior until her prophecy came true.

If skilled professionals (e.g., cops, nurses, and physicians), who deal with such cases routinely, are capable of failing to address the danger in which Nicole Brown Simpson founder herself, how much more difficult might it be for ministers, elders, and deacons to see the symptoms and address the problem? We (ministers, elders, and deacons) need to learn the symptoms and signs of abuse and must become prepared to take concrete steps to help.

The second thing church leaders (as defined above) must do is to distinguish the civil/legal from the ecclesiastical. It is not the church’s role to administer civil justice but church authorities must be prepared and willing to call civil authorities when confronted with evidence of a civil crime. Church members are are also members of civil society. Ministers, elders, and deacons are citizens, with unbelievers, of the common sphere. As such they have duties to the common sphere and the laws of the city and state in which the reside. Abuse of one’s spouse is moral crime but it is also a civil crime and when it is discovered, authorities should be notified. We do so on the basis of Peter’s instruction in 1 Peter 2:20, “For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure?” (ESV). In this particular instance he is instructing the congregation about how to relate to their economic superiors but he draws an implied analogy with civil authorities in 3:13–17:

Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil (ESV).

Verse 17 raises the possibility that Christians may run afoul of civil authorities not for the sake of Christ, not because they have given witness to Christ, but because they have broken the civil law and have put themselves in jeopardy. In that case Peter offers no mitigation.

In this case we see how not only how right but also how eminently practical it is to distinguish between the two spheres of God’s kingdom: the secular and the sacred. We do not want the civil minister (Rom 13) telling us what to preach but neither do we want the sacred minister interfering with the execution of justice in the civil realm. There have been some notorious cases of such. One that comes to mind is the meddling of a minister in Moscow, ID in the case of serial pedophile, who has been diagnosed as a “fixated pedophile.” In that case, the minister not only sought to mitigate the punishment but also later conducted a wedding ceremony while knowing that the pedophile intended to have children. The couple has a child to whom the pedophile has admitted a sexual attraction. See the latest update here. Distinguishing between the two spheres would aid in all cases of abuse committed by church members, whether in a Protestant sect in Idaho or in a Romanist congregation in Boston.

The third thing to do is to confront the matter ecclesiastically. When was the last time anyone was disciplined for abusing his wife? We know it occurs but is it ever a matter of discipline? Typically we distinguish between private sins and public scandals. When a man is arrested, charged, and convicted of abusing his spouse that is the public scandal. Such a person should also be disciplined publicly. We should make it known to members and to the watching community that we do not condone, wink at, or tolerate abuse but rather we recognize it for the sin it is. As in all cases, we discipline with the hope of seeing repentance and restoration to the church.

Finally, we must not try to justify it. Recently I was made aware of a Facebook post in which someone attempted to justify the use of violence by husbands against their wives as a form of discipline. This is the poisonous fruit from the wicked tree of Patriarchalism, i.e., the notion that the father or husband is the “federal head” of the home and represents his family before the Lord as a priest. In Patriarchalist circles (e.g., such as advocated by Theonomists, Reconstructionists, and Federal Visionists) the seeds of abuse are already present. In Patriarchalism, one’s wife is reduced to an appendage to her husband, even to property with which he may do as he will. There is a logical, internal coherence between League of the South affiliations in these groups and Patriarchalism. The truth is that Jesus is our only High Priest and Mediator, as we confess in Heidelberg Catechism 31:

31. Why is He called Christ, that is Anointed?

Because He is ordained of God the Father and anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption; and our only High Priest, who by the one sacrifice of His body, has redeemed us, and ever lives to make intercession for us with the Father; and our eternal King, who governs us by His Word and Spirit and defends and preserves us in the redemption obtained for us.

There were Patriarchies in the history of redemption but they were typological and expired with the death of Christ. Further, the Mosaic law protected wives and children from abuse. In the New Testament, with the fulfillment of the types and shadows, we see certainly the older notion of households, i.e., extended and corporate families (as distinct from the modern nuclear family) and household baptisms but we do not see evidence of patriarchalism. We even see female heads of households and property owners (e.g., Acts 16).

The church is to care for orphans and widows (James 1:27). An abuser has essentially orphaned his children and abandoned his wife. He has turned his vocation as a caregiver and protector on its head and corrupted it. Where the husband is meant to be a source of strength and safety, he has become weak and a source of fear and violence. If so, the church must step up and step in. Wives and children of abusers must be able to see in the church a refuge, a place of safety and help. Abused church members are the most vulnerable of all of Christ’s lambs and to them we owe a duty of special care and protection.

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  1. I’m not a Calvinist, but I’m thankful to see you speaking out against abuse & abusers. I’d like to encourage you to speak to a women’s domestic violence shelter about the different types of abuse, & how to help. Thank you.

  2. I know something of the Moscow, Idaho group of which Dr. Clark speaks. Its leader was one whom I was long told “had the answers” on reforming marriage and the family. But I do not gloat over someone being taken down a whole bunch of pegs.

    So many in the world, who may be aware of what conservative Christians are saying about marriage and family, know only those who enjoin the wife’s submission, but are clueless about the command that husbands love their wives as Christ loves the church. In the Westminster Larger Catechism, the exposition of the Fifth Commandment spills more ink over the sins of superiors (including fathers) than over the sins of inferiors. In family life, authority is a stewardship just as it is in church and state. And too many of us are not good at stewardship.

    • I completely agree. The more I dove into complementarianism and its literature the more I became uneasy. That was some time before the Trinitarian controversy too.

  3. You are so right it is hard for people to take (not just physical abuse) I have witnessed situations where a pastor did not inform his elders of serious sin issues of one of his members couple. He played Lone Ranger for years and then when his session found out they made excuses for him. Such a vicious cycle and really the epitome of a good old boys club and have an over realized ecclesiology (to high a view of the church) where the fallen sinful nature is somehow soft peddled when it came to church officers. Followed by a situation where the real victims were essentially accused of being bitter or unforgiving.

    Yes we must understand what forgiveness means but we must also remember forgiveness and trust are not the same thing. 1. We can’t forgive at the level of Jesus. 2. Many Christians who have been deeply wounded, yet by grace have been given a true heart of forgiveness. These Christians have forgiven their enemies, but then many a fellow Christian around them proceeds to bind their conscience by utterly conflating forgiveness and trust.

    There are people and situations where a person gives true (with love,by faith and by grace) forgiveness yet for good & sound reason cannot yet trust (and may never this side of heaven) that person or persons they have forgiven. Further more at times there may be lifelong brokenness of trust and estrangement of human relationship as a consequence of long habitual patterns of sin. If one has been a Christian long enough, one has witnessed this.

    Just one Example: A Christian woman is habitual beaten and sinned against by marital unfaithfulness. Divorce proceeds or begins to proceed. Husband later claims repentance, yet again. Well meaning brothers and sisters begin to declare to this wife that not only should she forgive, but yay she must again trust and unite in relationship.
    Yes the ideal is reconciliation/restoration. However, that wife is within Biblcal grounds to no longer be in relationship with her husband. Yes she has no justification to be bitter, hateful or unforgiving, but there is no Biblical requirement in every case like this to reunite with estranged husband. That husband even if in sincere repentance may in this life experience life long consequences for his long pattern of sin. People who are habitually unstable and untrustworthy cannot just expect people to willy Billy trust them. Often in situations like this other Christians actual make the wife (or real victim) the bad guy and falsely attempt a binding of her conscience- “honor the Lord and your husband, your not being Christ like or loving enough”…..etc. This fallen world is strewn with Wolves who use the Christian grace of forgiveness as a get out of jail free card to excuse their habitual patterns of untrustworthiness.

    Romans 12:18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
    We must not conflate forgiveness and trust.

  4.  “There is something wrong with your character if opportunity controls your loyalty or integrity. For grace is the mother and nurse of holiness, not the apologist of sin.” 
      –Charles Spurgeon


    Romans 12:18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
    Again, we must not conflate forgiveness and trust, they are two different things and there is not a Biblical requirement that they must alway go together.

    This is one of the most misunderstood concepts by so many Christians, regardless of the theological tradition they come from.

  5. Dr. Clark thank you so very much for this extremely valuable post.

    I wonder if you would ever write a booklet on this topic? After the Mark Driscoll debacle and with his new “The Trinity Church” launch (now underwritten by Robert Morris), it appears his continued mis-representation of Christianity flourishes. (Did you hear about Mark’s dreadful abuse of the flock (sheep beating) – especially women? See “Real Marriage”. )

    Domestic abuse is a topic long overdue to be boldly and Scripturally unpacked; especially clarifying the two-age model. Many families get ensnared due to seeking out remedies to marriage problems, too. It is often assumed, if the label is “christian” then it’s godly, safe and god’s will.

    I know many lambs devastated by bad theology.

    My heart goes out to the elders/deacons. I know some who simply cannot imagine the power and import of abuse signs. It’s not their fault. They never encountered such evil in their own life, how could they even approach empathizing unless real education is pursued on the unpleasant topic? Even then, it’s nothing like real life experience.

    Patriarchalism is alive and well in American evangelicalism; megachurch celebrity leaders; New Apostolic Reformation (which is like Grape-Nuts) an off-shoot of Pentecostalism (another problem with the detecting god’s will obsession).

    Driscoll’s new mission statement is to renew marriages for Jesus; posing as a wise father figure.

    We need a book, Dr. Clark. (As if you didn’t have enough to do? )

  6. I’m the co-author of A Cry for Justice: How the Evil of Domestic Abuse Hides in Your Church. I blog about domestic abuse, and I’m working on a new book about how the church has responded to those who have been abused. I am a Reformed Baptist and I married an abuser. The bottom line is that most church leaders are not educated in domestic abuse. They do not understand the dynamics of it. And too often, they simply don’t want to be involved. That was, except for one pastor, true for me and it’s been true for the countless women (and a few men), our sisters and brothers in Christ, who shared their stories with me. Please keep speaking out about this. I’d also love to quote you in a future book, should you be interested. Soli Deo gloria! ~Anna Wood

    • Anna,

      “The bottom line is that most church leaders are not educated in domestic abuse. They do not understand the dynamics of it. And too often, they simply don’t want to be involved.”

      This is so so very true! Further more it applies to a lot of abuse beside just spousal or child abuse. Situations like image/ facade building in the church where crooked deceivers dupe others financially and emotionally, etc. I have seen these emotionally loan sharks first hand, only to witness pastors and elders do nothing. It is beyond disheartening to see even solid reformed churches refuse to exercise church discipline. Historically reformed doctrine has always seen true and proper church discipline as a true mark of a true church. It seems that unless it’s a case of porn or marital infidelity true church discipline and holding people accountable (which is the loving thing to do) is hardly ever done.

      Frankly I can well understand why people often have a low view of the institutional church. Often times those who wait the flags of “seeking justice” are in reality the furthest from it. Thank God for His unwavering faithfulness in the Lord Jesus Christ that he gives us. Christ is our true and Ultimate Shepherd, all others are very fallible under Shepherd’s at best who must be held to the standard of God’s Word. The priesthood of all believers is not just a Biblical idea, it must be practiced by us pew sitters.

      I look forward to reading your book and checking out your blog.

      Thank you!

  7. Hello Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for writing this. I have been, on-and-off, researching the so-called “biblical patriarchy” movement for about three years now. It started when, out of curiosity, I read a book about “femininity” published by Vision Forum–a now defunct organization that was founded and headed by a man who (right around the time I finished the book, actually) was accused of sexually abusing a young woman over a long period.

    Since then I have paid attention to articles and blog posts about “patriarchy” and abuse in the church, and noticed with dismay that the extreme views of that camp are creeping into certain Reformed and Presbyterian denominations/churches. Though I believe the sexes have different and complementary attributes, which come out in how they relate to each other in marriage and in the church (i..e., no women elders), I know longer call myself a complementarian because that word now carries so much extrabiblical baggage.

    It also bothers me very, very deeply that some Reformed and Presbyterian apologists and teachers that I greatly respect promote that pastor you mention, the one in Moscow, and endorse his materials, apparently out of ignorance of the people who have testified to having suffered under his leadership (or perhaps they’re just dismissing those victims as talebearers or something).

    One thing I wish you’d touch on is another form of abuse that takes place in churches–spiritual abuse. And while corners of the Reformed blogosphere have been rightfully abuzz about pastors like Mark Driscoll and the harm they do their congregations, it seems like less attention is paid to sheep who attack their shepherd. My father is a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church (CRCNA) and was the victim of a horrendous clergy killing last year, and far from helping him heal from the abuse he (and I) endured at the hands of the elder and other “friends” who turned on him, the classical and denominational officials involved are prolonging the torment. It’s truly disgusting; while in the past I was unhappy with the CRC’s doctrinal drift, I didn’t necessarily think it worth giving up on. After all, the SBC was in really bad straits at one time and Al Mohler brought it back. But now it’s not just defiance of the Scriptures and the Reformed confessions that I see. It’s also corruption, callousness, and cruelty, and at all levels–congregation, council, classis, and corporate there in Grand Rapids. After going back and forth on it for some time I finally wrote the council of our previous church and asked them to terminate my membership. I want no part of the CRC any longer.

    All that is a bit of a digression from the main topic; my point is just that abuse takes many forms, and it’s not just women and children (and occasionally men) in the pews who are victims.

    (For more on what happened to us see my sister’s blog, veritaspraebita.wordpress.com.)

  8. Great article Dr. Clark! I appreciate the emphasis on Christ’s body becoming involved in the protection of the weak and vulnerable.

    One question that occurred to me: if abusers have abandoned their spouses, are they liable to divorce? According to the Westminster Confession, adultery and un-remediable abandonment are grounds for divorce. Would you consider abuse (which you define to include “verbal, psychological, emotional, and physical (including sexual)” abuse) to be sufficient grounds for divorce in the case of discipline, and non-repentance by the offender?

    Thanks for writing about this most important topic!

    • This is what I was thinking of in the Confession:

      24.6. “Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God has joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such wilful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage: wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case.”

      • Adam,

        Divorce is a serious matter and should not be handled lightly. It seems wisest to say that such questions should be addressed on a case by case basis.

        That the divines included abandonment is significant, since we know that they did not take divorce lightly. If a woman feels the need to call the civil authorities for protection and should a session/consistory, upon examination, conclude that civil intervention was indeed necessary and that a man is guilty of abusing his wife, then legitimate grounds would seem to exist.

        We should also heed the last clause: “in it not left to their own wills and discretion…”. Hence the need for ecclesiastical investigation and judgment. I am aware that the authorities do field frivolous 911 calls. I read a partial transcript just today of such a call. Nevertheless, we sin of abuse (as defined in the article) is so grievous and the damage it does so great, that the session/consistory (elders and ministers) ought to be most sensitive to the welfare of the family and the protection of the innocent and vulnerable. So, I hope that no one thinks that I am in any way mitigating the damage done by abuse. The deacons, whose ministry it is to care for the welfare of orphans and widows (see above) should be actively involved in meeting the practical needs of a family broken by abuse and disrupted by divorce.

    • Thank you for your response, Dr. Clark!

      Do you think that emotional abuse, for example, is a ground for divorce, even if no physical violence or abandonment are done against the victim? The reason I ask is that I have known of such instances in which “verbal abuse,” or “emotional abuse” were used as ground for divorce, and the church did not consider its own confession in these situations as providing limitations for reasons to divorce.

      • Adam,

        Obviously what constitutes “emotional abuse” is a subjective judgment. I do not doubt that it exists but it must be characterized and defined cautiously. A sessions/consistory should be sensitive to the reality of this sort of thing. Pastors who counsel (which is most of us) deal with it regularly. This is another place where it is good to be in a connectional church with courts of appeal. Should a woman, who believes that she has been the victim of abuse, fail to get relief from her session/consistory, she may appeal to a higher/broader court/assembly for relief and should that fail, she has let another court/assembly to which to appeal. Ordinarily, one of the three assemblies/courts will get it right. Most of the pastors I’ve known have been zealous to protect victims in the church.

  9. Brother,

    “There were Patriarchies in the history of redemption but they were typological and expired with the death of Christ. Further, the Mosaic law protected wives and children from abuse. In the New Testament, with the fulfillment of the types and shadows, we see certainly the older notion of households, i.e., extended and corporate families (as distinct from the modern nuclear family) and household baptisms but we do not see evidence of patriarchalism. We even see female heads of households and property owners (e.g., Acts 16).”

    God bless you. You just retooled my thinking and my theology.

    • The only question would be whether the patriarchal types were natural or volitional on God’s part. The magisterial and second reformation generally made the rule of fathers over their families, and over society in general an institution of the law of nature.

      That does not condone the abuses of “patriarchal-ism”, but should lend caution to any theology which lays aside patriarchy for the sake of patriarchal-ism.

      • Adam,

        Well, many of our older writers also thought that state-enforced religious orthodoxy was natural and that the sun revolves around the earth. Most confessional Reformed folk have learned not to repeat those errors.

        Certainly it is a mistake to say, as some Reformed folk do today, that husband/father is the “federal head” of the house. That is an unwarranted extension of the principle of federal headship. Jesus is our federal head. Full stop. The husband/father is the economic (administrative) head of the house. It’s not a radical, egalitarian democracy, but “patricarchy” was a typological principle (like holy wars, circumcision, and hand washing) that has been fulfilled and is therefore expired.

  10. Thank you for the wisdom and graciousness of your commentary and subsequent responses in the Comments section, Dr. Clark. May the Lord bless you for your speaking out!

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