Today Dr. Heath Lambert, Executive Director of ACBC (Association of Certified Biblical Counselors – formerly “NANC”, National Association of Nouthetic Counselors) sent out a Statement regarding their upcoming annual conference, which purports to support and minister to abuse victims. He seemed especially concerned about how their counsel will come across, in the wake of disgraced pastor Paige Patterson’s recent remarks regarding abused wives and the subsequent scandal (one of many involving the evangelical/Reformed Church and their cover-ups on abuse).
Having been both on the inside as a nouthetic counselor and subsequently re-victimized by an ACBC-affiliated group (one of whom graduated from the same seminary as Lambert), I wrote the following open letter to share some of my years of experience in counseling and talking to survivors of spiritual abuse:
“Dear Dr. Lambert, and Board of ACBC,
It is with great sadness and concern that I respond to your Statement emailed to me on 5/23/18 regarding your upcoming Annual Conference “Light in the Darkness: Biblical Counseling and Abuse”.
As I’m sure you are aware, the very organization of which you serve as executive director, and proponents of the nouthetic counseling model at large, have been notoriously inept at providing the care, counsel and protection that women in abusive relationships and particularly marriages have most needed. The recent scandal over SBC leader Paige Patterson’s comments dismissing the severity of abuse Christian women often endure in their marriages was hardly uncommon or an anomaly; rather, it was simply the public nature of his insensitive (and unbiblical) comments that created the controversy.
Unfortunately, his opinion that Christian women in abusive marriages should simply “stay and submit” (I am paraphrasing for the sake of brevity) appears to be, by and large, the opinion adhered to by many, if not most, Reformed conservative churches in the United States and the counselors certified by your organization in particular. It grieves and concerns myself, as well as many others in Christian abuse-survivor advocacy ministries, that ACBC is holding a conference on counseling abuse cases when we know of so many hundreds of women who have been grievously harmed by the “counsel” some ACBC advocates and practitioners promote.
Specifically, from the many testimonies I and many other counselors and writers have received, both male and female, it is modus operandi in churches adhering to the nouthetic counseling model to counsel, then pressure, and finally try and coerce female victims of marital abuse (whether physical, emotional, or both) to “reconcile” with their abusers at all cost. Lip-service is paid to the need for the abusers’ repentance; but when it is not forthcoming (more specifically, the right words are said within the counseling room, absent any real admission of guilt or changed heart) the woman is unilaterally “pursued in love” – in an Orwellian phrase literally meaning stalked, harassed, and even blackmailed with threats of excommunication – into “reconciling” with the man who has adeptly learned to play the game in front of spiritual authorities. Nothing has changed; he has thus become more empowered by his spiritual leaders; and the woman is more smashed down than ever – being admonished that this is “God’s will” for her life. The marriage must be preserved at all costs; even at great cost to her emotions, sanity, even life. By submitting to this unbiblical pattern of the marriage covenant, she thus demonstrates willingness to accept (and even enable) a sinful representation of the one-flesh relationship of what marriage is supposed to be in front of her children. Unsurprisingly, the cycle thus repeats itself in subsequent generations.
I would highly recommend to you the 21 sermons preached on the evil of marital abuse by respected pastor Jeff Crippen (Unholy Charade; A Cry for Justice: How the Evil of Domestic Abuse Hides in Your Church) as well as my own book, Fractured Covenants: The Hidden Problem of Marital Abuse in the Church. I would also like to refer you to the works of Lundy Bancroft (particularly his Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men). While not a Christian, Bancroft is widely considered the foremost expert in the field of domestic abuse and unpacking the heart-motivations and psychology of psychologically abusive men. At least one pastor, one of the few who has had the courage to speak out about the evil of domestic abuse (and how it is broadly swept under the rug) has stated publically that Bancroft has done more to help women in abusive marriages than anyone in the Church has. This should not be so. As Rachel Denhollander recently stated,
“The Church is the least safe place for victims of abuse.”
This is a painfully true and tragically sad statement. While it may be coated in the most spiritual-sounding language possible, the reality is that abuse, whatever its form, is by and large minimized by proponents of nouthetic counseling and victims are urged to “forgive and forget” absent any real repentance on the part of their abusers. This does not promote healing; nor does it reflect the heart of Christ, Who is a Protector and Defender of the Innocent (Isaiah 1:17; Proverbs 17:15) and will not even hear the prayer of a man who sins against his wife (1 Peter 3:7). Both the Mosaic Covenant and the New Testament Epistles make clear provision for wives who are mistreated by their husbands (see Pastor Herb Vander Lugt’s God’s Protection of Women: When Abuse is Worse than Divorce or chapter 3 of my Fractured Covenants for a thorough exegetical treatment of the subject). Conversely, what is largely taught in churches that subscribe to nouthetic counseling is that no abuse, including physical beatings and even including adultery, is ever grounds for divorce. The Permanence Doctrine? Since when are Calvinistic doctrines more important than people’s lives?
Neither John Calvin himself nor the Early Church Fathers took such dogmatic a view. Part of the problem, which I believe your conference should address in October, is faulty training at the nouthetic counseling course level. When I became certified as a nouthetic counselor in 2011 (through the Institute for Nouthetic Studies – INS), I completed 185 lecture hours (mostly delivered by the respectable bastions of nouthetic counseling Jay Adams and Donn Arms), as well as having read many thousands of pages of required books. The problem of marital abuse merited less than 10 minutes in one lecture, and was largely brushed aside as something a woman should talk to her pastor about, and if it persisted, he should send “two of his biggest deacons” over to the house to set things right. Emotional abuse of all types was dismissed: “Emotional abuse does not exist, because emotions cannot be abused.” Please let me assure you that emotional abuse does very much exist; is incredibly damaging; and is patently unbiblical. Please see my articles “Carrying the Wounds of Emotional Abuse”, which was originally published by Biblical Counseling for Women but deleted after I committed the unpardonable sin of fleeing an abuser and exposing him publically, and “The Culture of Abuse in Christian Slavic Marriages”, published by the Biblical Counseling Coalition (I was a part of this sub-culture for over 20 years). Interestingly, it was for the latter – in which I spoke about Lyubka Savenok, the young Russian woman murdered by her husband after being counseled by her pastors to “reconcile” with him, that I was censured by the elders of my then-church and essentially blacklisted by many in the nouthetic counseling movement.
Will your conference directly and honestly address glaring questions (When does an abused woman have biblical grounds for divorce? What is repentance? How do we gauge it? What recourse does an abused woman have?) or will you side-step them, as I have so often observed your leaders do? Using spiritual-language and cherry-picking verses absent of hermeneutical context can so easily be done to not only control the narrative, but manipulate how one’s followers think – and counsel others. We know this from the famous writings of George Orwell, and history itself. Please, I beg of you, do not send your followers back into the pews of their churches with a handful of verses, only to exhort desperate women to “reconcile” with their (usually unrepentant) abusers, in order to “glorify God”. I have seen this over and over, and it not only presents a grossly distorted view of the marriage covenant, but it destroys lives and misrepresents the Christ Who meets us in our pain. Inadvertently, ACBC often grooms hundreds of unqualified “counselors” back to their churches to inflict secondary pain and guilt on abused women. Never have I seen victim-shaming to the extent I have seen it coming out of the nouthetic counseling movement, and I say that both as a former insider and as a formerly victimized wife.
Please do not read this as an indictment of the nouthetic counseling movement as a whole – as a church elder I know once said, “Things are rarely completely black and white; good or bad.” The older and wiser I get, the more I realize this to be true. Nouthetic counseling and experienced individuals from within the movement have indeed helped a great many people, and for that I am grateful. Countless marriages have been saved by godly men and women, on equal footing, going to a wise counselor to help them get their relationship on track. In the area of substance abuse, in which I specialize (my first book, Redeemed from the Pit, is considered a valuable resource among nouthetic counselors), the biblical principle of “putting off” destructive and sinful behavior and “putting on” healthy and God-honoring behavior in its place is well-applied with those struggling with life-dominating addictions. Many have testified to the help that God has graciously provided, through the Scriptures. But many have also testified to the immense hurt done to them by nouthetic counselors, especially inexperienced ones.
Unfortunately, many nouthetic counselors have proven themselves woefully inept at providing any kind of helpful, godly, or compassionate care when it comes to areas such as depression, or spousal abuse (which is a completely separate issue from marital counseling, make no mistake). Even the beloved pastor of many Reformed Christians and nouthetic counselors alike, John Piper, laughingly stated in a “Desiring God” interview that a wife who is physically abused by her husband should “endure being smacked around for a season”, and then perhaps go to her church leaders for help. (He has since partially retracted that statement, begrudgingly allowing that she may have justification at points to go to the local authorities, i.e. the police.) This is a frightening, almost sickening minimization of domestic abuse, which is all too common in Reformed churches.
Please understand, Dr. Lambert, that the scars of emotional/verbal/psychological abuse take far longer to heal. Humiliation (especially in front of the children); false accusations; screaming fits; degradation over everything from failure to parallel park to undercooking the potatoes; constant criticism; dealing with a man with narcissistic personality disorder and anger issues so deep he refuses to see himself as the problem; a one-verse-fits-all-‘well-you’re-the-spiritual-leader-of-your household’ response from church leadership coupled with “God hates divorce” (failing to exegete the rest of that verse, which discusses treacherous treatment of one’s wife) – this is the reality so many of us Christian women currently deal with, or have in the past. It is a hell I would not wish on my worst enemy, only compounded by the local church’s re-victimization of the woman and failure to confront the abuser and put him out of the Church, as Scripture commands (Psalm 74:10; Luke 6:22; 1 Cor. 5:11). And yet, when we women who have for so long been on the receiving end of this treatment speak out and expose the sin, as Scripture commands us to do (Ephesians 5:11), we are called “bitter” and accused of “sin” and “slander” (which, by definition, must be false. It is statistically very unusual for a woman to make up an abuse allegation – the truth is frightening enough).
The charge of “bitterness” when we finally find the strength to stand up for ourselves, speak out, and, absent repentance (which is extremely rare in the cases of pathologically abusive men) seems to be a trump card pulled out as a conversation-stopper when an inconvenient truth (especially one belying a pattern in the Church) is brought to light. While I received much support from within the Christian community during the ordeal of leaving my unrepentant abuser (and subsequently being harassed and blackmailed by my former religious community), and also notably by several male, high-ranking members of the nouthetic counseling sphere who were extremely sympathetic, by far the most hateful and vitriolic message I received was from one of your own – a female ACBC conference headliner, ironically enough, divorced from an abuser (and re-married) years before. Christian charity restrains me from revealing her name. The hypocrisy at times is astounding, and because abused Christian women with a voice are increasingly willing to search the Scriptures for themselves, we are often seen as a threat to your agenda.
Which, it is increasingly clear, is itself unclear.
In your Statement, you wrote:
“This entire situation should remind all Christians of the urgency required in protecting the victims of abuse.”
I quite agree, Dr. Lambert. So why is there no real action, or meaningful “confrontation” going on? In Massachusetts, where I live, pastors (like teachers) are mandated reporters. When I reported sufficient, but not exhaustive details of the abuse; when my adult daughter cried out (twice) to our former (ACBC-affiliated) pastors for help; when my 18-year-old son documented with them details of both the physical and emotional abuse inflicted against him, why was the abuser protected and enabled? Why was I cast in the light as the villain, for speaking out? Do the confines of patriarchal authoritarian teaching so silence the (female) victim, that no behavior, regardless of how ungodly, will be seen as the “deeds of darkness” for which it is? What are they teaching in seminaries these days? How is ACBC really equipping its followers?
I thank God that my current pastor and the many Christian counselors and friends God has brought into my path see abuse for the destructive evil it really is. While I qualitatively respect the nouthetic counseling field for the good it has done, I prayerfully hope that you will reconsider your doctrinal approach to confronting and rectifying the epidemic problem of marital abuse (in its various forms) that exists within the shadows of evangelical Christianity.
Your sister in Christ,
Marie O’Toole (formerly Marie Notcheva)