By Brian Mesimer
Paige Patterson’s comments on handing abuse in a Christian relationship are concerning. Spoken at a conference in 2000, they were recently rediscovered by Jonathan Merritt in a Washington Post expose. For clarity’s sake, I will reproduce the entire quote below:
I had a woman who was in a church that I served, and she was being subject to some abuse, and I told her, “All right, what I want you to do is, every evening I want you to get down by your bed just as he goes to sleep, get down by the bed, and when you think he’s just about asleep, you just pray and ask God to intervene, not out loud, quietly,” but I said, “You just pray there.” And I said, “Get ready because he may get a little more violent, you know, when he discovers this.” And sure enough, he did. She came to church one morning with both eyes black. And she was angry at me and at God and the world, for that matter. And she said, “I hope you’re happy.” And I said, “Yes ma’am, I am.” And I said, “I’m sorry about that, but I’m very happy.”
In fairness, there is more to the statement than this. Patterson’s point appears to be that this intervention actually brought about the repentance of the husband. And yet there has been an understandable negative reaction to Patterson’s comments. Taken for what they are, Patterson’s advice comes across as at best unwise, and at worst, reckless.
And yet can he be proved wrong using Scripture? This is not as obvious as it immediately seems.
Evangelicals tend to recognize two legitimate biblical reasons for divorce. The first is in the case of sexual fornication (Mt. 19.3-8). The second, and more relevant to our purposes, is found in 1 Cor. 7.15, where Paul speaks of allowing believers to separate from unbelieving spouses in the case of their willful desertion and abandonment from the marriage. And here many will declare the case closed. Physical abuse constitutes desertion and abandonment of the marriage covenant, and the perpetration of such a crime allows the believer to divorce.
Except this is not exactly what the Apostle says. In the second case, Paul is speaking specifically of instances in which unbelievers leave believers. This does not technically include cases of abuse between believers and believers. And although it is very possible that one can construe domestic violence as de facto abandonment, that this is so is not patently obvious from the text. Furthermore, it is actually quite rare for the abuser to want to leave the offended party. Come at a true abuser with this verse, and the response you will hear most often is that, of course, they do not want to leave. So we appear to have reached a dead end.
Given this, it does not seem possible to prove Patterson’s method wrong from this verse. Fortunately, 1 Cor. 7 is not the passage to use when dealing with primary interventions in cases of domestic violence, for divorce is neither an immediate nor practical possibility in any circumstance. Rather, I submit that a primary problem with Patterson’s remarks, among others, is a failure to properly execute church discipline.
This becomes clearer when we understand exactly what was going on in the situation Patterson is referencing. A parishioner is speaking to an ordained elder in God’s church about an unrepented sin in her husband’s life. Presumably she has already tried other levels of intervention with her husband. Following Jesus’ command in Mt. 18.17, she has taken the sin to the church.
What should have been required of the church in this moment? Presumably a process of attempted repentance, rehabilitation, and restoring of the offended sinner. This could involve a plethora of specific interventions, beginning obviously with separating the wife from the husband in the near term in order to insure basic safety (1 Cor. 7.11), but also to include prayer, counseling, church discipline, dealing with law enforcement, intensive discipling, the provision of protection and care, and other similar reactions. Ideally, the abuser permanently changes through this process.
And if this process fails, then more permanent measures need to be considered. These include excommunication (Mt. 18.17-18; 1 Cor. 5.2) and perhaps lawful divorce. Once a believer has failed to consistently and willfully repent of grievous sins and has been put under the bans of excommunication, it is reasonable to consider them to be an unbeliever. And an unbeliever who abuses their spouse seems to now fit into the requirements for divorce as found 1 Cor. 7.15 (a possibility considered by John Murray in his exegesis of this passage).
But this is not what this woman received from her pastor. Instead, she got what most people get when faced with abuse—a misappropriation of responsibility for resolving the problem.
And this truly is the most common response to abuse of any kind, from both perpetrator and abused. In the perpetrator, this usually comes off as a form of blame shifting or denial: “I only hit him because she drives me crazy.” In the abused, you tend to see an unhealthy assumption of responsibility: “I must have been abused because I’m bad and deserve it” or “if I do this, then I can fix it.”
In the case of Patterson’s advice, what we see is a very subtle deflection of responsibility for solving the abuse back onto the woman. Instructions such as “go home,” “be submissive,” and “he may get a little more violent” place the weight of effort in dealing with the abuse on abused party, as if by stoic suffering they can solve the problem. While there is some biblical precedent for the idea that righteous living in marriage can be an effective evangelization tool (1 Cor. 7.14; 1 Pt. 3. 1-2), nothing in those passages indicates that this responsibility includes something as extreme as being abused. This is because solving this kind of problem is not the abused’s responsibility, “for how do you know, wife, whether you will win over your husband?” (1 Cor. 7.16). So when the church places this kind of responsibility on its members, it runs the risk of tying up heavy burdens on their backs.
Behind all of this lies a minimization of the sin of physical abuse. This manifests itself in many ways. In failing to separate the husband and wife immediately, the church first becomes compliant in the sin by making it easier for the sinner to go on sinning. Further, such action assumes that abuse can be resolved by simple measures. This is not so, for abuse is different from other sins in that it closely resembles an addiction. It is often repeated, follows predictable cycles, and is very difficult to root out entirely. Someone who has hit their spouse has already shown themselves to be unable to control their sinful impulses and cannot be trusted to change on their own. In opposition to this, the Lord does not minimize but maximizes this sin by threatening to destroy anyone who destroys God’s own temple (1 Cor. 3.17).
Why this matters should be obvious. In an age of Trump and Weinstein and #MeToo, failures to appropriately discipline gross instances of sin and thereby protect the vulnerable greatly compromises the gospel witness in places where this is lamentably unnecessary. But it also compromises the church’s representation of Jesus’ ministry to the abused. Far too often our concerns in this area are too narrowly focused on ethical questions—i.e. should the abused separate from the abuser?
But Jesus’ concerns are much grander. For in properly administered discipline, Jesus not only separates the abused and the abuser, but he separates the unrepentant abuser from the entire church, and by analogy his own body (1 Cor. 5.11)! Such corporate solidarity is a grand and public statement of Christ’s mission in the world, and cannot go unnoticed, by either the world or the vulnerable church member. If we wish to avoid these kind of scandals in the future, taking church discipline seriously must become a priority.
Brian Mesimer is a graduate of the University of South Carolina, Columbia International University, and Reformed Theological Seminary. His interests include practical theology, current events, and the relationship between psychology and theology. He and his wife live in Columbia, SC, where he works as a counselor.