One of the recurring themes we hear from Christians who are abuse victims/survivors is that when they went to their pastor or church for help, reporting the abuse, they were told that they must remain with their abuser or at most separate from him for a time, always working toward reconciliation.
In all cases like this, we have seen pastors and churches “shepherding” or “caring for” the victim and abuser — as they put it. And behind all of this there has been an attitude or conviction or doctrine of the church and of the pastorate and even of the nature of the individual Christian that essentially says “we will mediate Christ to you.” It is quite Roman Catholic actually. The thing is much like a formal priesthood which behaves as if the individual Christian is led and directed by the church, unable on their own to discern the voice of the Good Shepherd. And yet:
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me (John 10:14)
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. (John 10:27)
Every real Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit and is led by the Spirit (See Romans 8; Galatians 5:16ff). Every real Christian is thereby enabled to understand Scripture.
You see the very same doctrine taught over and over again all through the New Testament (and anticipated in the Old Testament):
I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie — just as it has taught you, abide in him. (1 John 2:26-27)
But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth. (1 John 2:20-21)
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)
We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 John 4:6)
But that is not the way you learned Christ! — assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, (Ephesians 4:20-21)
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. (Hebrews 8:10-11)
God has, in Christ, given the church pastors and teachers (see Ephesians 4). There are the offices of elder and deacon in the church. We are told (Hebrews 13:17) to obey our leaders and submit to them as they keep watch over our souls. And we are to give double honor to those elders who work hard at teaching and preaching. But these leaders are also cautioned to not be “domineering over those in your charge” (see 1 Peter 5:1ff).
It seems to me that one of the chief errors of local church leaders today is that they as well as many of the members, have forgotten the doctrine of the priesthood of the individual Christian. They have neglected the truth that every Christian hears the voice of the Good Shepherd and that Christ is indeed quite able to direct each one of His people in the way they should go. This is exactly what Isaiah anticipated of the New Covenant:
And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.”(Isaiah 30:20-21)
And therefore church leaders must balance their pastoral ministry to the flock with these truths. Namely, that the individual sheep has the ability to hear the Lord saying “This is the way, walk in it.” That voice, we submit to you, is telling abuse victims that they have the RIGHT before God to exercise the wisdom He is leading them in to depart from their abuser, including divorcing him.
You simply cannot just “blow off” all of these scores of Christians, for example, who have told and keep telling us that they finally had to disregard to dictates of their church because those commands were in contradiction to what they came to realize was the leading of Christ. You cannot dismiss them. You cannot say “well, ok, so you have witness after witness after witness saying that the Lord told them to pack up right now and leave, but we choose to conclude that they are all just following their own selfish desires.” Nope.
If that were the case, the stories we would be receiving from these Christians who were victimized and chose to leave and divorce their abuser would be a repeated message of “my conscience is so guilty. I am under heavy conviction. I have sinned by leaving and filing the divorce papers.”
That is not the anthem they sing.
We all would do well to follow Martin Luther in all of this, especially when the pressure of man’s tradition is put upon us and the wicked or the erring try to enslave us:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.