Unmasking the Domestic Abuser in the Church

Even the Best Bible Teachers Get it Wrong Sometimes

J.C. Ryle is one of my favorite Bible commentators. If you are following our Wednesday morning Bible studies which we livestream on the Christ Reformation Church page (and publish on youtube and sermondaudio.com/crc) you have heard me quote Ryle many times. His set of commentaries on the Gospels is excellent.

Ryle is not perfect. Like all of us he was a product of his times to one degree or another. We always need to use discernment when we are being taught by someone and compare what they are saying with what Scripture says. Here is an example of an error – and I think it is a serious error that can cause real harm – which I found recently in Ryle’s commentary on John chapter 4, the account of Jesus and the woman at the well. Here is what Ryle said at the end of his otherwise very good comments:

We must never despise any soul, after reading this passage. No one can be worse than this woman. But Christ did not despise her. We must never despair of any soul, after reading this passage. If this woman was converted, any one may be converted.

Now, there are at least two serious errors in these words. First, Ryle assumes that this woman was such a sinner that no sinner could be worse than her. Ryle assumes that the fact that she had had five husbands and was presently living with a man not her husband proves this. But we simply are not told the details. It is possible that she had been cast aside by 5 wicked men and was currently being used by a 6th.
Was she a sinner? Of course. But to say that no sinner we might encounter could be worse than her is – well…where was Ryle’s brain when he wrote such a thing! We have all said or written things that years later we look back on and wish we could hit the delete button on and I suspect this is just such a statement that Ryle regretted making once he was with the Lord.
The second error here is a result of the first. “We must never despair of any soul…if this woman was converted, any one may be converted.” Now, that is just plain stupid and I am amazed that Ryle uttered those words. Those of you who have been victims of wicked domestic abusers, sociopaths, and so on have probably been guilted and harmed by similar words. “God can save anyone. You need to keep praying for your abuser’s salvation. Where is your faith? You are a sinner too.” Blah, blah, blah.
Do you see how with just a few moments’ thinking we can see the fallacy of all this? Could God save Pharaoh? Can God save the willful reprobate who has willfully and knowingly spit on Christ’s sacrifice and all the while sat in a church pretending to be a Christian, cruelly abusing his wife in secret? Or extrapolate this thinking to its final point: can God save the devil? And yet those who throw words like Ryle’s at us seem to indicate that we should pray for Satan’s salvation.
There are things that it is impossible for God to do. God cannot and will not act against His own nature. He will never just excuse sin. If he could, why was the Cross necessary? And God cannot and will not save wicked people who refuse to repent. He will not and cannot save a child of hell who molests little children and just keeps right on doing it, enjoying it, destroying their lives and sleeping quite well at night with no conscience to bother him. That man is going to hell. It is where he belongs. He IS worse than the woman at the well. She heard Christ. She was looking for the Messiah. She believed Him when He told her He was the One. She ran back to her friends and fellow citizens and told them to come and see!
Pastor Ryle, we love your books. But you blew it on th is one.


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  1. Riley Alexis

    Thank you for being willing to call out even the revered teachers when they get it wrong. Ryle’s words were pure poison.

  2. wingingit

    I have heard from well meaning Christians that to divorce an abuser is worse than his abusing because you are “breaking up the family”.
    It always strikes me as odd that abuse is always so easily overlooked while the woman living with the consequences of abuse is eyed with suspicion.
    Even when people have seen it with their own eyes, they are always looking for “her part in it”.
    After all, she must have done SOMETHING to have ended up in such a bad situation.
    As you said, we can never really know the life that led the woman at the well to be in her situation. But I think we can assume her life had not turned out how she had dreamed it would.
    Shouldn’t women be given the same compassion and benefit of the doubt as the men in this story of the woman at the well??
    Nobody ever seems to notice that the 6 men mentioned are not broken hearted and seeking to be restored.

    • Amy

      God bless you! Love reading this truth. When will the religious ever really understand … It’s a HEART issue. It has Never been about being good. That’s the whole point of the Cross and sweet blood of Jesus. I have been forgiven much. I am a modern day … Woman at the well. Literally.
      Thank you!

  3. Amen! You said it perfectly. Thank you for the validation!

  4. walkinginlight

    And this is why I am a Acts 17:11 saint. Yes, I say saint and no longer a “sinner”. I’m sure pastor Ryle did not give this slip of tongue intentionally. We all say things at times that did not come out the way we meant it to be. But when you are a well known teacher of the word what you say has a HUGE impact in the body of Christ. It is a sad shame that so many in the evangelical (and Pentecostal) church body have taken a teaching such as this, and it used to keep so many in horrible bondage to their wicked abuser. Heaping more shame and guilt on the victim that they have not “done enough” to save the so called marriage? I say “so called” as this union is anything but a marriage in the sight of God. It is more of a legal kidnapping of the life, soul and spirit of the woman. Some of the best years of her life high jacked because of very misinformed pastors. Thank you for highlighting this from a very well known minister.

  5. Rae

    It’s my observation that Jesus had much! Compassion on the woman at the well. He knew her past and current circumstances could only be rescued by His presence. His timing is always perfect. It will be eight years ago tomorrow that Gods presence and timing was working to free this Child of God from the the hands of evil. Thankful!!

  6. Innoscent

    Last year (when I was still in church attendance), the pastor once preached on that very passage. As he portrayed the Samaritan woman as a “prostitute”, my reaction was to say out loud that the biblical record never states so.
    People take shortcuts and overlook the amazingly gentle words of Jesus to the woman as he was mindful of her dignity and suffering. If she was a prostitute how is it that people of her township even took her words about the Messiah seriously?
    One extreme or the other about this Samaritan woman at the well can lead to dangerous and misleading statements such as Rile’s ones. I’m glad that you set the record straight on these Jeff. Thank you!
    Ironically, one lesson from this story is that, like the men from that town, we’ve got to check the Word for ourselves and not rely on someone else’s account! “Beware of men…”

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