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Toward a Biblical Discussion About Abuse
In early 2022 Kevin DeYoung posted an article at TGC titled Toward a Better Discussion about Abuse. As far as titles go, I really like it. That Christians often have poor discussions about abuse—not just online but in real time about real people who have been or might be harmed—is one of the main motivating factors for Thesis 96. I have also been saying that the main reason for that poor discussion is a matter of worldview. DeYoung’s article is as good an example as I have found of that reality.
The worldview of DeYoung is on display not so much in what he says as in how he says it. First he says the things that have to be said in order to be taken seriously. Then, he says the things that he really wants to say, all of which advocate for those in authority, like himself. The structure reminds me of how the abuse conversation often goes wrong (I almost said, gets abused). Instances of abuse are treated as mutual, 50/50 matters. Rather than holding a physically/emotionally/spiritually abusive husband 100% accountable for his behavior, the wife gets blamed with 50% (if not more) for lack of love, submission, etc.
Similarly, DeYoung says 5 things “that need to be said” and then says 5 things “we need to be careful about.” In other words, keep everything balance. We are all equals here, so let’s keep responsibility equal. But, are we all equals? Not just in theory, but in practice and real lived experience?
Let’s consider the position from which DeYoung writes. He never says this explicitly, perhaps taking it for granted that people know who he is and what he does. He is a pastor with “over twenty years of ministry” (and is also a seminary professor). So when he goes on to say, “I believe most pastors deserve the benefit of the doubt,” he is speaking as a pastor for pastors. In other words, he is writing as an advocate for pastors. Which is all fine and good. Pastors sometimes need advocates, and it seems DeYoung perceives an imbalance of power in which pastors are not getting treated fairly. So he wants to tip the scales back to balance.
The fact is, however, that DeYoung has a lot of power. He can put his words into thousands of inboxes with the click of a button (and maybe even hundreds of thousands). And who is he using that power for? He writes,
“To help people see God for who he is, we must correct abuse where it exists, without overstating the problem, without calling all authority into question, and without damaging the reputations of those who don’t deserve to be pilloried.”
The worldview comes into focus, and it is questionable whether it really is balanced and better. He is advocating for a re-balancing that benefits those like himself. Correct abuse, but don’t overstate, don’t question all authority, and don’t damage reputations unfairly. We could say, fair enough, reputations should be protected. Westminster Larger Catechism q. 145 speaks to the need protect “the good name of our neighbors, as well as our own.” But look at the scales: where the article starts with 5 statements balanced by 5 other statements, it ends with a 3 to 1 ratio: correct abuse, but don’t overstate, don’t question all authority, and don’t damage reputations unfairly. I find that startling, because an imbalance of power is dressed up in clothes that look like a balanced perspective.
“A power imbalance exists in all forms of oppression. One person or group dominates and controls the other. Ecclesiastes 4:1 captures this so well: “Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.”1
Abuse can only happen within an imbalance of power. Which is why abusers love to use and abuse the balance card. “Yes, I did wrong, but so did she.” By definition, abuse is never balanced. So a “balanced” conversation about abuse is, in my estimation, an oxymoron. And neither is it biblical.
“[T]he One we follow did not use his equality with God to his own advantage. He emptied himself, poured it all out and became like us so as to serve us…Humility is the mark of Christ. It is the way of power used rightly.”2
Jesus addressed the matter with his disciples quite directly in Luke 22:24-27:
“A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.”
The disciples wanted the scales of power weighted in their favor. DeYoung wants the scales of power balanced. Jesus upset the scales entirely. Should our discussions about abuse not do the same? Brad Hambrick said something similar shortly after DeYoung’s article came out, and it’s a fitting way to end because he emphasizes the imbalance that DeYoung’s “better” discussion creates.
Quote from Brad Hambrick
If the debate [about abuse] remains adversarial, who loses? Answer: everyone, but especially current victims who are considering whether they can trust the church to help. If the concerns of the 2-7% reign over the concerns of the 93-98%, current victims realize the church is not prioritizing their care and safety. When this happens, the church is not the refuge for the vulnerable that God intends his church to be.
Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church, by Diane Langberg.
DASA Committee Report by the PCA Ad Interim Committee on Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault. This is an outstanding work for all Christians and churches, not just the PCA. The section on “biblical and confessional foundations for understanding abuse” is an essential read for anyone wanting to help Christians have a biblical discussion about abuse.
In Thesis 96 I have two statements that speak to the issue of power dynamics. What do you think? Do you agree or disagree, and why?
It is always in the interest of those in power to deny the reality of things like power imbalance, privilege, bias and systemic power.
Such denials and deflections prove the reality they seek to deny.
Diane Langberg, Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church (Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, MI), p. 178.