I think this is one of the most cruel letters from a pastor to an abuse victim that I have seen. While it is very similar in ways to others I have read, it is remarkably deceptive in a number of ways. The “love” words it uses. The selective and dishonest quotes it lays on her. And the not so veiled threat of “obey us or else.” Names have been removed and replaced with [wife] and [husband] for the protection of the victim. The victim/survivor who sent it to me has given full permission to publish it. Her abuser used emotional, spiritual, sexual, and economic oppression against her over a period of many years. Keep that in mind when you read what this “pastor” and his elders say to her here. Many, many thanks to her from all of us.
Oh, and this is not some isolated, independent pastor and church. This is a mainline, conservative Presbyterian denominational church — the PCA — that applauds itself in the seminary preparation of its pastors.
So, here you go. As for me, let me say that reading this was like reading a letter from the prince of darkness, a cunning liar working to enslave. I was very tempted to insert my comments into the letter but decided it would be best if you read it for yourselves and put your comments here on the blog. I will provide just a few questions to provoke our thinking as you read it.
- Who is a Christian according to this pastor?
- What does “redeeming a marriage” mean? Is that a biblical concept?
- How often does this pastor claim to know the thoughts and feelings of the victim?
- How many abusive, oppressive marriages, according to this pastor, must we expect the Lord to “redeem”?
- What kind of authority does this pastor claim to have over the victim?
- Do you see guilting statements leveled at the victim?
- Is marriage an “inviolable bond”
- Who is the pastor accusing of “abandonment”? The abuser or the victim
- For all of his talk of how grieved he is for her, does this pastor really “feel” for her?
And one final point as you begin. This letter quotes a paragraph from the PCA Position Paper on Divorce and Remarriage. That paper recommends that abuse is abandonment and grounds for divorce. BUT THIS PASTOR AND ELDER BOARD ONLY QUOTED ONE PARAGRAPH THAT SOUNDS LIKE IT SUPPORTS THEIR CHARGE AGAINST HER! They conveniently left out the rest of what the Position Paper said. That is rank deception and spiritual malpractice. We will include the rest of that committee’s statement at the end of this post.
Dear [wife’s name],
We grieve, along with you and [husband], at the present state of your marriage relationship. We know, both from Scripture and experience, that marriage is hard. Even as Christians we sin against one another. Even as Christians we hurt one another. We acknowledge that the emotional wounds that are inflicted in this most intimate of human relationships are real, painful and deep. We believe that even the best Christian marriage is comprised of two redeemed sinners who will inevitably sin against the One before whom our vows are made and the one to whom our vows are given. Your marriage is no different. Sin has occurred, both willfully and unintentionally, as both you and [husband] have acknowledged.
We also want you to know that we have appreciation for how someone can feel so hurt, so overwhelmed, so alone, so utterly hopeless after years of living in a situation that they believe there remains only one option open to them—leaving.
Yet we also believe that a Christian marriage, no matter how shaky its foundations or deep the patterns of sin, can be redeemed and restored by the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not that the gospel is a magic wand, nor will necessarily repair things overnight, but we believe it provides the resources we need to walk the hard road of repentance, reconciliation and restoration. When someone has been living within a dysfunctional marriage for so long, often doing so in secret, it is very easy to assume that nothing will ever change. That is our natural human response; understandably so.
This is one reason why God has placed us in community with one another and under the shepherding of those who are entrusted to care for us. One of the roles that our church community and leaders play in our lives is to remind us and call us to respond to life and circumstances in a way that lines up with the gospel we profess. Sadly, in your decision to withdraw from your marriage you have also withdrawn from your church family and the counsel of those who care deeply for you and [husband].
We acknowledged that you have been sinned against in your marriage. [Husband] has acknowledged this to you and to us. He has expressed remorse and repentance. He has sought counsel and accountability. In saying this, we in no way want to minimize the pain you have experienced. But we also understand that it is easy to respond to sin against us with our own compounding sin.
And it is for this reason that there is a certain difficulty in writing this letter to you. But our hope is that you will see this letter as a demonstration of our love for you by warning you of the seriousness of your actions. We understand that only God can evaluate the human heart, but we must tell you that the decisions you have made are not consistent with how the Bible describes a follower of Jesus Christ.
The marriage relationship we enter into before God is an inviolable bond. Sadly, because of sin, this can be and is broken by adultery. We are grateful that there have been no reports in your marriage of such serious sin that could in fact become grounds for permissible divorce. However, there is another sin that can occur that is tantamount to divorce, and that is abandonment. Our view is that Scripture teaches that abandonment is not necessarily grounds for divorce, but rather effectively is a divorce. In other words, when one leaves or abandons a marriage for unbiblical grounds, they have essentially created a divorce.
When you initially left months ago, we were hopeful that it would be a temporary season that would provide clarity and a willingness for both of you to begin moving towards reconciliation. Sadly, it has not. In fact, as the months have passed it appears to us by your actions that you have only grown in your commitment to abandoning the marriage and not seeking reconciliation.
While Scripture does permit a “season of separation” for prayer, by mutual consent, it does not permit an extended, unilateral leaving of the marriage. Some might argue that there is allowance for separation without divorce, but a careful reading of Scripture does not support such a position. 1 Corinthians 7, verses 10 and 11, are key verses of instruction to two spouses, both of whom are believers:
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
In these verses, Paul tells the Christian wife not to “separate from” (chorizo) her Christian husband, and likewise tells the husband not to “divorce” (aphiemi) his wife. In the context of Greco-Roman practice, the verbs used for “to separate from” and “divorce” are used synonymously. The critical point here is that Paul is telling them not to “divorce” each other. In other words, Paul uses Greek words which in this context are referring to divorce, not separation as we know it. Here is what one highly-regarded New Testament scholar, Gordon Fee, writes concerning this important passage of Scripture:
Much has been made of the use of the verb “to separate oneself from” (chorizo), in distinction from the verb used in vs. 12-13, “to divorce” (aphiemi). But that probably reflects our own urgencies for greater precision. Divorce in Greco-Roman culture could be “legalized” by means of documents; but more often it simply happened. In this culture divorce was divorce, whether established by a document or not. Either the man sent his wife away (=”divorce” in the sense of v. 12), or else either of them “left” the other (=”to separate”)…Ordinarily when the wife “divorces” she simply leaves her husband (“is separated” from him); the same verb is used in v. 15 of a pagan partner of either sex who leaves, and occurs regularly in the papyri for mutual divorce (agreeing “to separate from each other”). On the other hand, a man ordinarily “divorced” his wife (“sent her away”); nonetheless in v. 13 the wife can do the same.
This is how our own PCA denomination position paper addresses these verses:
We tend to interpret verses 10-11 in terms of modern day separation rather than divorce. But the Bible does not deal with the idea of separation as a “half-way house” step as we know it. Perhaps the biblical writers were so committed to the permanence of marriage that they did not want to study ways to effect temporary separation. But more likely, it was the fact that separation in first century society was de facto divorce. That these verses were clearly referring to divorce is evidenced by the fact that the believing wife is called “unmarried” (agamos) in verse 11.
In short, what we believe Scripture teaches is that there are only two conditions Christian spouses can live in: married or divorced. There is no space for those who remain married yet live separated/estranged. Such a condition is not marriage, but is in essence a divorce.
Again, we cannot emphasize enough our understanding of and compassion for the level of pain and disappointment you have experienced in your marriage over the years. We believe that repentance and forgiveness must happen. We believe that sinful patterns and behaviour must be addressed. We do not believe, however, that the action of leaving your marriage is an acceptable, biblical, God-honouring response to these difficulties.
As a church community we expect each of us to respond to sin — our own and others — from a position of brokenness and humility, seeking repentance where necessary and granting forgiveness where required. [Wife], our call to you is to faithfulness to your vows before God, trusting that his grace is sufficient and that his gospel offers full provision for what you need. Our call to you is to begin to take the necessary steps towards reconciliation and healing of the breach. Our call to you is to come under the care and counsel of brothers and sisters who love you in Christ and desire to see you and [husband[ flourish and strengthened.
[Wife], we love you, and even though it would be easier to do nothing, we hope that this letter will be seen by you as evidence of our love and concern for you, and of our love for the honor of Christ supremely.
On behalf of the Session,
_____________, Pastor/Teaching Elder
And here is “the rest of the story” that this pastor and his elders deceptively and dishonestly failed to include in this letter. This is from the PCA position paper which you can find on ourresources page or through PCA History (see pp 227-228).
- Applying Paul’s instruction about desertion today
Are there other forms of — separation‖ today that may be considered equivalent to this leaving of the marriage of which Paul speaks? Specifically, what about cases of habitual physical abuse? Has that person deserted his spouse to the extent we may label it de facto divorce? We must be careful not to open the floodgate of excuses. On the other hand, we need to recognize the reality of the ―separation‖. We should allow Sessions the liberty to discern with much prayer what would be the proper response in particular circumstance. Several considerations incline us to agree with those of our authorities who have maintained that desertion can occur as well by the imposition of intolerable condition as by departure itself. We are struck by the fact that, taking Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7 together, it appears that the Lord concedes the necessity of the abolition of marriage in certain cases precisely so as to protect a blameless spouse from intolerable conditions. Further, taking into account both the general principles of Biblical ethics and the Scripture’s characteristic manner of ethical instruction, viz. the statement of commandments in a general form to which is added case law sufficient to indicate the manner of application, it seems to us that those Reformed authorities are correct who have argued that sins which are tantamount in extremity and consequence to actual desertion should be understood to produce similar eventualities (cf. Larger Catechism, Q. 99, A. 6).
What is more, a husband’s violence, particularly to the degree that it endangers his wife’s safety, if unremedied, seems to us, by any application of Biblical norms, to be as much a ruination of the marriage in fact as adultery or actual departure. This is so precisely because his violence separates them, either by her forced withdrawal from the home or by the profound cleavage between them which the violence produces, as surely as would his own departure, and is thus an expression of his unwillingness ―to consent‖ to live with her in marriage (1 Cor. 7:12-13; Eph. 5:28-29). Further, insofar as the ―passivity‖ of the blameless spouse is an important prerequisite in Paul‘s permission of the dissolution of marriage on account of desertion, it seems right to note that in the case of physical abuse, for example, the blameless spouse is similarly victimized. Finally, credible alternatives to this point-of-view seem to us to be wholly lacking Scriptural support. It is all very well to recommend separation as a temporal expedient to protect a battered wife, but perpetual separation amounts to a Roman Catholic doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage and could scarcely be justified as a Biblical alternative to divorce.