Is It Abuse?
Is It Abuse? A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims. By Darby Strickland. P&R, 2020. 360 pages. Paperback, $19.99.
If pastors, counselors, and church members could only read one book on the subject of abuse, I would recommend they read Is It Abuse? by Darby Strickland. The author, a graduate of Westminster Seminary and a counselor with CCEF, has produced a truly exceptional book. The book has already been helpfully summarized in two reviews by Daniel Patterson and Joseph W. Smith, so I won’t bog down this reflection by rehearsing all the details. In a nutshell, Strickland's aim is threefold:
1. To help those who haven’t experienced or witnessed abuse gain a better understanding of what abuse is and why it happens.
2. To equip readers to identify when abuse has taken place (whether that abuse is physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual, and/or financial).
3. To offer wisdom and resources for helping those who are suffering from abuse.
I found three aspects of Strickland's book particularly useful. First, She roots her understanding of both the problems and solutions to abuse in Scripture. So much of the literature on abuse either replaces the Word of God with the wisdom of the world, or it reflects a one-dimensional and superficial interaction with the Bible which offers victims easy answers and black-and-white conclusions. Strickland, however, shows a deep understanding and intimate familiarity with the way in which biblical passages, categories, and stories fit within the whole of Scripture. She then brings this biblical awareness and wisdom to bear in ways that help us understand, identify, and address abuse.
Second, the author draws on her years of experience in counseling to provide clear examples and illustrations of abuse. These sections are especially helpful for those who haven’t experienced or witnessed abuse, as they depict the distorting and damaging impact of domestic abuse. They also help build confidence for counselors, as they show how someone with more experience navigated these hard conversations with women who had been abused.
Third, Strickland supplies practical inventories/questions that the pastor or counselor can use when working with victims of abuse. These tools (together with the extensive practical helps offered in the appendices) make this book an invaluable resource for those who are actually called to work with victims personally.
For all of these reasons, this book is well worth reading. Overall, I think it is a resource that will bless the church. In light of the increased attention which has been given to abuse in our churches and in the broader culture, I think this book can be particularly useful for local pastors and church sessions who are grappling with how to respond to these issues. '
However, there are a few areas where I would want to balance out some of the book’s conclusions or emphases.
The primary caveat or caution I would offer is that Strickland (at far as I understood her) seems to assume that an abused wife will most likely need to leave her abusive husband. While it seems obvious to me that a woman who is in imminent physical danger should be encouraged to separate from her abusive husband to protect herself or her children—during which time the church and the state step in to assist—I think we need to be much less quick to encourage divorce in cases of abuse. My reservations about this grow out of at least two concerns.
First, there is not a clear consensus in our churches about whether or not abuse is an acceptable grounds for divorce. This uncertainty is particularly evident in subtler cases when the abuse in question is emotional and/or spiritual, not physical or sexual. For those of us in the Reformed tradition, The Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 24, Of Marriage and Divorce, paragraphs 5 & 6 summarize the biblical grounds for divorce:
5. Adultery or fornication committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract. In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce: and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.
6. Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such willful 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 (emphasis added).
Many pages have been filled unpacking and debating these paragraphs, but the heart of the debate here is over what is included in the second grounds given: “willful desertion.” I’m personally sympathetic to the argument that abuse—as carefully defined by Strickland—can be included here, but not everyone would agree with that. In short, this is an area where those who take a more narrow understanding of the grounds for divorce—or who are working with a Session who holds a more narrow view—would want to be aware of as they read the book.
My second concern or reservation requires a bit more explanation. Strickland helps us to see that one of the ways that abusers oppress their victims is by systematically dismantling their agency. Therefore, one of the ways to help an abused woman heal is to help restore that agency through reminding her of her true worth and identity in Christ. However, I worry that Strickland might at times allow the biblical priority of restoring agency to turn into an unbiblical priority of encouraging autonomy. Specifically, I’m concerned that some might read Strickland’s book and wrongly conclude that the church can only step into a situation when and how the wife dictates (see pages 294-295 for one example of a passage that might lean in this direction).
My concern is that a woman who is suffering abuse—a reality that is already deeply disorienting and isolating—would forgo the biblical protection and wisdom of her God-appointed Elders as she grapples with how to respond to abuse. I understand that victims of abuse will need great patience and sensitivity. These are not easy struggles to bring into the light, and that struggle can be amplified when a woman has to bring such intimate and shame-filled concerns to a room full of men who are leaders in the church. But there must come a point where the shepherds step in to shepherd. This becomes particularly important both when there are children in the home and if the future of the marriage is in question.
This is where my two concerns come together. Even if you understand “willful desertion” as a phrase that can encompass abuse, the Confession very wisely qualifies that “willful desertion” as being such “as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate[.]” In other words, a woman, even if she is being abused, should not simply decide when she thinks the marriage has run its course. To do so would be to forfeit the wisdom of the church and the support offered by brothers and sisters in the faith. It would also short-circuit the work of the elders who are called to shepherd both her and her husband. If an abusive husband proves himself to be an unbeliever who has broken the marriage covenant, I can certainly envision scenarios where a Session might support a wife’s decision to divorce her husband. Nevertheless, that is a decision that should never be made apart from God’s ordained leaders in the church. As the Confession also notes: “the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage[.]”
Overall, the book helpfully highlights the complexity and subtlety of the issue of abuse. What I want to avoid is a simplistic reading of Strickland’s book which assumes that our task is simply to label a relationship as abuse, and then to pursue divorce as the common “solution” to the problem of abuse. While there will be situations where abuse in a relationship ends that relationship and where divorce may be the right way forward, we should be slow to give the impression that this is always the right way forward.
There are many qualifications and nuances which could be given to what I’ve written above. No doubt some will read this review and conclude that I’m naively narrowing the grounds for divorce while others will conclude that I’m wrongly broadening them beyond what Scripture teaches. I am open to being instructed from God’s Word, but at this point in my understanding I want to guard against simplistic or “one-size-fits-all” answers to such complex issues. I don’t believe that Scripture removes divorce as a possibility in every instance nor do I believe that Scripture allows us to rush to divorce without seeking careful guidance from the church in which God has placed us.
Nevertheless, I think Strickland’s book is a resource that will greatly aid churches (and church leaders specifically) as they seek to encourage and shepherd victims of abuse. Tragically, leaders in the church have at times amplified the pain of abuse victims by ignoring or responding poorly to their plight. Sometimes this has been done selfishly and maliciously, but I suspect it has most often happened because pastors and elders don’t always know how best to respond to these difficult and delicate situations.
I’m grateful that Strickland has given us a resource that we can read through and discuss, something that will help prepare us to shepherd Christ’s sheep well. May the church reflect the tenderness and justice of our God who stands against oppressors and comes to the aid of the oppressed.
Ben Franks serves as the Senior Pastor of 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"
"Does the Bible Excuse Abuse?" by Ben Franks
"The Right to Be Believed" by Matt Holst
"Beware the Spell" by Michael Ives
Knowing Sin by Mark Jones
Note: This article originally appeared on the author's blog in July 2021.