Does the Bible Excuse Abuse?
In recent years, painful examples of abuse have come to light both in our culture at large and in the church in particular. Perhaps just as troubling as the abuse itself has been the way that those in power – including those with ecclesiastical power – have at times responded to that abuse. Sometimes people wonder if the existence of abuse in the church (or the examples of abuse being overlooked by church leaders) means that the Bible itself excuses abuse. In preaching through 1 Peter recently, the question was raised: “Do passages like 1 Peter 2:18-3:6 (which call Christians to endure injustice and oppression) excuse abuse or prohibit Christians from exposing abuse?” This is a difficult and delicate question as addressing it touches on raw experiences of real people. However, it is also a pressing question as studies show that something like 20-25% of women experience abuse (and sadly, our churches are not exempt from these statistics). So how can we speak to those trapped in abuse who may think that passages like 1 Peter 2:18-3:6 prohibit them from speaking out about their suffering?
We must start by setting these texts in their context. The book of 1 Peter is designed to help us understand who we are as God’s people, and specifically what it means to be God’s “elect exiles” in the face of persecution. And because Peter specifically has situations of persecution in view when he addresses our social spheres and relationships (whether that is with civil government in 2:13-17, with masters and servants in 2:18-25, or with husbands and wives in 3:1-7), he’s doing something different than what Paul does with those same spheres and relationships in parallel passages. What is the difference? Well, in Ephesians and Colossians, when Paul gives what we call the “household codes” his goal is to help Christians understand how those spheres and relationships are supposed to function. But when Peter speaks into those same spheres, he is specifically addressing how we should live when those spheres are not working as they should.
And because things are not always working as they should, Peter is often using the “worst case scenario” to show how we can live as elect exiles even when things are not functioning properly. You can picture it like this: Peter is speaking to people like Corrie Ten Boom. You’ll remember that Corrie (and her loving sister Betsy) was rounded up into a horrible concentration camp during WWII. They were experiencing abuse, injustice, and persecution that most of us cannot even imagine. And they had no way of stopping the abuse. There were no authorities they could appeal to or objections they could raise. They were powerless, humanly speaking. But even in that dark place of oppression, Peter shows that the gospel can still be powerfully at work. He shows that even in situations that are so severely broken, people like Corrie Ten Boom could still show the world what Jesus looks like by rejecting personal vengeance, overwhelming rage, or bitter resentment. And God could still be glorified as His beloved daughters began to look more and more like His beloved Son Jesus Christ through the sanctifying sorrows of their sufferings.
In that light, do you see how 1 Peter 2:18-3:6 speaks a powerful word of freedom to the powerless and oppressed? But do you also see what a perversion it would be to make those passages excuse abuse? We must always interpret Scripture with Scripture, and when we do that, we find that God hates abuse and has commanded us to expose it to the proper authorities so that we might promote life. And 1 Peter should be read in light of those commands. So briefly, what does the Bible say about these issues?
God opposes oppressors
When the Bible address abuse it often uses the language of oppression or affliction. Any amount of time in God’s Word will quickly make it plain that God hates oppression and opposes oppressors. In the Old Testament, God announces the inauguration of His work of redeeming His people from Egypt with these words: “I have surely seen the affliction of my people…and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them” (Exodus 3:7-8). In Luke 4:18, Jesus announces the inauguration of the ultimate work of redeeming His people from sin when he says that he has come: “to proclaim liberty to the captives…to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” Paul commands believers to: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:11). God hates oppression and opposes oppressors, and we are called to expose their dark deeds by God’s Word.
God opposes oppressors through His appointed representatives
How does God work to oppose oppressors and abusers? Ultimately, we know that all wrongs will be made right in the final judgment (just read the final verses of Revelation 6 to see how that scene will play out) but we know that God’s judgment of injustice begins even now. The Bible teaches that God opposes oppressors through His appointed representatives. Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 make it clear that civil government is appointed by God to punish evil and promote good in society. Passages such as 1 Peter 5:1-4 and Hebrew 13:17 make it clear that God has appointed elders and ministers to guard and protect the flock and to maintain discipline and purity in the church. How can God’s appointed representatives carry out their divine commission if evil is not exposed? If we refuse to expose oppression and abuse, we are rejecting the God-given authorities which God has given for our good. Making use of the protections and oversight of God-given authorities is not a contradiction of God’s command to be subject to the authorities (1 Peter 2:13).
God opposes oppressors by promoting life
Finally, God’s consistent promotion of life rules out the possibility of hiding abuse and oppression. The Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 135-136 helpfully reminds us that the 6th commandment (“thou shalt not murder”) requires us to promote and preserve our own lives and the lives of those around us. If a wife finds herself or her children in a dangerous situation, then God’s command to promote and preserve life should serve as an encouragement to approach the proper authorities (both in society and in the church) to preserve herself and her children from harm.
There is much more that could be said on this vital topic, but here is a summary of what we have seen so far.
- God hates oppression and promises to execute judgment on all oppressors and rescue for His people who experience oppression.
- Peter helps us to see how we can be faithful and how God can be glorified even when all doors for appeal are closed to us.
- But the Bible also makes clear that God has appointed proper authorities to whom we should appeal if we can.
- God’s command to preserve and promote life should encourage us to expose the dark deeds of abuse even when doing so is difficult.
When all these truths are brought together, the answer to our original question becomes clear: God’s Word should not in any way be twisted into saying that Christians should hide abuse or oppression. Jesus came to “set at liberty those who are oppressed” and He calls the church as His people to stand with the suffering and the abused. As Isaiah 1:17 says: “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.”
This is a complex issue and we have only just scratched the surface. And though we have dealt with these questions as theological and exegetical issues, if you are experiencing abuse yourself, then these are painfully personal and emotional questions as well. If you are suffering under abuse or oppression, take comfort from God’s Word. Psalm 9:9 says that: “The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.” God is with you, and He has given you His Word and His church to walk with you and help you. Do not allow someone else’s sins against you to keep you in the dark. Come to your God-given shepherds to find help and support (and if that sounds too overwhelming, find a godly older woman who could perhaps come to the elders with you and support you). You are loved by God and in the end, He promises that: “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.” (Psalm 103:6).
Ben Franks is a licentiate in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and is currently serving as a Pastoral intern at Ketoctin Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Purcellville, VA. A native son of the PCA, he has done mission work in England with the EPCEW and served with churches in the PCA and OPC. He studied at Patrick Henry College, completed his B.A. in Classical Christian Education through Whitefield College, and earned his M.Div from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. His writings have been published in the Puritan Reformed Journal, the Confessional Presbyterian Journal, and the Banner of Truth Magazine.
Podcast: "Sorting Out Abuse"
"The Right to Be Believed" by Matt Holst
"Beware the Spell" by Michael Ives
PCRT '89: Whatever Happened to Sin? with Becky Pippert, Roger Nicole, and Sinclair Ferguson
Our Ancient Foe, edited by Ron Kohl
 I’m indebted to Darby Strickland for this insight, which she explores in her wonderful book: “Is It Abuse? A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims.”