What Do You Do When You're Abused by Your Husband? by Robert B. Needham

By Susan Burns
July 01, 2000

I have no toleration for people who abuse others. I have friends who have suffered terribly at the hands of others physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. One friend is currently spending thousands of dollars on dental work to repair problems that are the direct result of beatings she endured years ago. I have seen women being treated shamefully by their supposedly Christian husbands in public places. I have wondered what their lives were like when they went home and the door was closed to the outside world. And I have become angry when this occurs and the men who also witness this behavior do not go to the man and tell him that his wickedness must stop.

There is a need for clear, Biblical thought about this serious problem. The Word of God needs to be applied to this issue. One man who attempts to deal with the abuse issue is Robert B. Needham, a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) in California. More than one person has told me that Needham's counsel has saved thousands of marriages. That is remarkable. I cannot say if his one-on-one counsel is Biblical because I have never been in a counseling situation with him. However, the purpose of this review is to objectively assess the counsel presented in his pamphlet, “What Do You Do When You're Abused by Your Husband?” and to determine if it is based on sound Biblical truth. To the extent that his counsel is Biblical, readers of the pamphlet should be blessed and God honored. If there are areas outside Biblical perimeters, I pray the author will prayerfully seek to bring his work into conformity with Biblical truth for the glory of the King he serves.

The first problem I noticed came from the author's (mis)use of Scripture references. He comments, “Abusive behavior always comes from an undisciplined soul. “He then cites Proverbs 15:32, 16:32, and 25:28. While these passages speak of an undisciplined soul, they do not refer to abusive behavior; and their use as proof texts for that subject appears unfounded to me. The same is true with Scripture references used to back up this statement, “Abusive behavior always includes the failure to recognize one's responsibility for disciplined, careful and righteous speech under all circumstances.” This may seem a small complaint, but I am uncomfortable when the proof texts do not prove the statements they are alleged to support.

Throughout the pamphlet, Needham indicates that abuse, if not corrected, will most likely escalate, even to the point of the abuser's murdering or maiming the wife and children (Needham does not address the issue of wives' abuse of husbands, an acute but largely ignored sin). The intent behind each of these statements seems to be to urge women to get help before it is too late for them. The conclusion seems to be that all cases of abuse will necessarily worsen to the point of physical violence unless measures are taken. This is an illogical assumption. Good writers learn quickly to avoid the use of hyperbolic language: never say never, always, etc. Not only is the use of such language illogical; I believe it can be particularly detrimental in a counseling context. I am concerned that making these statements to a woman who is emotionally upset and angry with her husband could fan her distress into a full-fledged hysteria. Years ago when I sought help for a troubled marriage, each time I used “always” or “never,” my godly counselor immediately stopped me and said things like, “Now, Susan, are you certain he does it always”; or “Susan, are you sure he has never done this?” I had to back down from those statements. I can only imagine what a woman who is unhappy with her husband would do if her counselor used always/never language!

Furthermore, Needham uses a very broad definition of abuse. According to his definition, I think every person who was ever created would have to say that he is not only a victim of abuse, but an abuser himself! Is it responsible to say, given this broad definition, that every instance of abuse could, in fact, result in murder and maiming?

Needham presents a checklist of characteristics that he believes are common to abusers and states: “[B]ut if more than a few [of the characteristics] apply in your case, clearly you may conclude that your husband is abusive and that you need help if your marriage is to survive and grow” (4). He lists thirty-three characteristics of abuse; some are of physical abuse (shoving, bullying, rough handling, slapping, hitting, grabbing body parts, etc.). But the author's elements of emotional abuse far outnumber the elements of physical abuse. “Emotional abuse” is a subjective term that often leaves specifications of abuse up to the “victim” who can say, “I feel emotionally abused when you do this.” I will give but one example from Needham's list: “Does he [the husband] consistently disregard or discredit your views, feelings, interests and preferences?” If a husband watches a ballgame and eats pizza when the wife wants him to go shopping with her and take her to a nice restaurant, is this emotional abuse? This can become very significant, because emotional abuse can, according to the pamphlet, eventually lead to physical abuse and murder and, thus, could be a legitimate ground for separation.

Having established his definition, he urges women to seek help. This help is for women who are physically abused and/or emotionally abused. He insists:

“Do not, repeat, do NOT make the fatal error of telling your concerns to a family member or close and sympathetic friend, church officer, or even your pastor, unless he has been specifically trained to counsel biblically. Well-meaning [sic] friends and counselors often lead women to either under react, overreact, or improperly react to an abusive situation” (18).

I do understand some of the rationale behind this advice. However, our question must be, is it Biblical? I believe it is not. If a wife followed this counsel, she would distance herself from her God-given family and friends who support her. They, as well as her pastor and elders, should know what is going on. In particular, the pastor and elders are required to know. I understand Needham's concern that these folks may not be able to help or counsel her — especially if the family are not believers. I have seen cases where this has, in fact, occurred. However, if they are believers, they can help by prayer if nothing else. Further, because family and friends often know both parties, their cautioning the wife that she may be overreacting could be very appropriate, advice a trained counselor may not be knowledgeable enough of her situation to offer. In addition, family and friends and others close to the wife may have some additional good advice to give. To call talking to family, friends, and church leadership a fatal error is nonsense. Remember that the author has given this restriction to the woman whether her husband is physically abusing her or if he is just being churlish towards her!

Second, Needham says, “If correcting the problem means a period of physical separation until the husband has not only admitted his sin, but received real help in overcoming it, that is a small price to pay for the long term [sic] restoration of the marriage, and possibly the salvation of his soul” (20).

Everyone would agree that if a woman's life and the lives of her children are threatened, she must leave until the immediate danger is over. But separation should be a last-ditch move in a marriage. The God-ordained roles of husband and wife must be retained until “death do us part.” If there are problems in the marriage, the best way for them to be worked out is together in the family setting with pastoral and counseling oversight, to be sure. But to separate husband from wife is to establish a scenario where neither party learns to work together Biblically as husband and wife; it undermines the marriage itself. Apparently, according to Needham's scenario, separately the husband and wife learn their marriage skills and come back together once those skills have been learned. My contention is that only within the context of the marriage can they learn those skills. You don't learn to live together by living apart.

Nor does the Bible support Needham's counsel. The only reference to a type of separation is in 1 Corinthians 7:5: “Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to, fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.” I am not saying, nor does the Bible teach, that a woman has an obligation to stay with her husband when she has legitimate concerns for her safety and that of her children. The Bible requires self-defense. Civil action can and should be taken when necessary. However, is it wise or Biblical to allow separation in cases for something as subjective and disputable as emotional abuse?

Having given the wife the freedom to separate from her husband, Needham tells her that she is the least objective person to determine the husband's sincerity and repentance! He urges her to continue her separation “until a third party (i.e., a competent pastoral counselor), is truly satisfied that your husband has humbly accepted the counseling, has clearly acknowledged his sins, has plainly expressed repentance, has humbly sought forgiveness and has demonstrated the fruits of true repentance for a reasonable period of time” (21).

Not only does this advice remove the husband from his lawful headship position; it replaces him with someone else. This is the person the husband must convince of his repentance. The counselor becomes a de facto head of the relationship — head over the wife and the husband! Further, if the husband has truly repented, he is left bereft of means to bless his wife with the fruits of that repentance — his changed behavior. The only way you can really practice and refine your skills as a husband or wife is to work on them with the spouse God has ordained. Instead of teaching the husband how to be a better husband to his wife within their marriage context, Needham's counsel removes husband and wife from their lawful positions and replaces the husband with the “Biblical counselor”; to top it off, the husband cannot resume his role as lawful head until the counselor says so!

There are two examples in the Scripture that would serve unhappy wives well as they consider “emotional” abuse. The example of Abigail with Nabal is pertinent, as is Sarah, when Abraham gave her into the arms of other men to protect his own hide. By today's feminist standards, both women would have been justified in leaving their husbands. Both stayed and submitted to their husbands in very hard circumstances. It couldn't have been easy for either woman. But they chose the path of godly obedience and God blessed them for that obedience.

One friend who has read Needham's pamphlet has said that it is basically a manual on how to build a case against your husband and then how to leave him. I concur with her thoughts, as do several other women who have read the pamphlet. Although the pamphlet makes some good points and offers some insight, in essence the advice given is not Biblical and, in my opinion, can do more harm than good to marriages that are already strained.

Topics: Family & Marriage, Church, The, Biblical Law

Susan Burns

Susan  is the managing editor of the the Faith for All of Life magazine and the Chalcedon Report (bi-monthly newsletter). Susan has worked for Chalcedon since 1997. She lives in Virginia and is rather fond of animals, especially her many cats.

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