Unmasking the Domestic Abuser in the Church

Wisdom for Pastors Series (Pt 4) What a Pastor Should Not Say to an Abuse Victim

I picked up a Puritan and Reformed Publishing booklet yesterday at the Christian bookstore which is entitled Divorce. It is written by a rather popular Christian author named Lou Priolo who is the director of the Center for Biblical Counseling at Eastwood Presbyterian Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He is a nouthetic counselor, having been a fellow of the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors for 20 years.  I do not like nouthetic counseling, particularly when it is applied to abuse situations.  It is far too “black and white” in its pronouncement that sin is always the root of anyone’s problem (I mean, “their” sin, such as the “sin” of the abuse victim) and that any Christian with Bible in hand is competent to counsel. Absolutely not true.

If an abuse victim picked up Divorce, she/he would be launched into a sea of false guilt. Priolo begins by listing the consequences of an unbiblical divorce.  He uses that adjective unbiblical consistently and one initially thinks that yes, he is correct. Unbiblical divorce (like a man running off with another woman) is a sin and has negative consequences.  The problem is that Priolo never addresses abuse as a grounds for divorce and in fact makes numbers of statements which will lead the reader to conclude that an abuse victim is required by God to remain in an abusive marriage.  Here are the consequences he opens with:

  1. You will be confirming to all your brothers and sisters in Christ that you have a hard heart.
  2. You will bring shame to the name of Christ by your divorce.
  3. You will be subject to God’s discipline.
  4. You will multiply your misery by the guilt and bitterness you will inevitably experience.
  5. You will cause much hurt and potential harm to others.

Now, yes, sinful rebellious violation of one’s marriage covenant does have these very results. The problem is however that Priolo does not clearly identify the abuser as the one who is guilty of these things.  Rather, he is pointing to the spouse who is contemplating the action of divorce.  Filing the paperwork in other words.  He says:

“But you are making me out to be the bad guy and my spouse to be the good guy.”  No one (he continues) is the good guy in marriage, for we are all sinners. You got married knowing that your spouse was a sinner.  You promised to stay married in spite of his or her frailties…. Suffice it to say that divorce is the gift that keeps on giving.  It will continue to bring misery both to you and to those you profess to love for years and perhaps generations to come.”

Horrid, horrid stuff.

Priolo then goes on (after guilt-tripping the abuse victim massively even further) to examine common “excuses” for not staying in a marriage.  Here are just a couple of them, and they are really hard to stomach.  Actually, what is hard to stomach is Priolo’s take on them:

  1. “That man has killed all the love I ever had for him.”  Priolo responds, “If you are telling me that you no longer love your spouse, you are seriously breaking the second greatest commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  Your husband is your closest neighbor.  You share your life, your children, your home, your table, even your bed and body. Indeed, you are ‘one flesh’ with him.”
  2. “It is not good for the children to have to live in a home with so much conflict, hatred, and disharmony.”  Priolo’s response?  “No, it isn’t good. But comparing the harm of living with parents who are seriously at odds to the harm of breaking their family apart is, generally speaking, like comparing catching a cold to getting double pneumonia.  The effects of one are far less severe than the effects of others.”
  3. “He has lied to me repeatedly.  I will never be able to trust him again.”  Priolo’s in-your-face response?  “Where is it written that you must trust your spouse to stay married to him?  Besides, since your husband has asked your forgiveness, it is your responsibility to forgive him for lying. It is his responsibility to earn back the trust that he has lost as a result of his deception.”  In other words, Priolo is saying that you must forgive him BEFORE he shows the fruit of true repentance.  Wrong!

It would take an entire book to refute the errors of this booklet.  It is hard to imagine another such book I have read that more perfectly exemplifies all the things that are wrong in the evangelical church when it comes to dealing with abusers and abuse victims in its midst.  If any pastor desires to learn what NOT to say or do when an abuse victim comes to him, I think Priolo’s work would be the place to go.  Is that being to harsh on Mr. Priolo?  I think not. Because as is so typical of nouthetic counselors, may God have mercy on the abuse victim who goes to such a counselor, because that counselor certainly will show them none.  And if that sounds too harsh, let me close with one more of Priolo’s gems:

“Chances are that the difficulties you are going through that are tempting you to throw in the towel on your marriage are not nearly as intolerable as you have imagined.  ‘You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin’ (Heb 12:4).  Your selfish discontentment is exaggerating your troubles in your mind.  The truth is, if you proceed with an unbiblical divorce, you will be the one putting the knife through the heart of God and yet another nail in the hand of your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

And so I ask, who is being harsh here?  Priolo’s message to victims of this horrid evil of abuse is (my summary) – “Quit your whining and toughen up! Has he shot you or stabbed you yet? You just think you can’t take anymore!  Now go home and honor Jesus!”

No, Mr. Priolo.  You go home.  Put your pen down and take heed to our Lord’s words:

Matthew 12:7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.




  1. anon

    This sentiment is actually more common that one might realize. I haven’t read the book, but the whole ‘he hasn’t actually shot you or stabbed you, so get quit your whining and complaining and suck it up’ usually paired with ‘be a better wife and maybe he wouldn’t abuse you in the first place’ are things I’ve heard about and read in other places.

  2. anonymous

    And there are plenty of books that say you are never to divorce and if you do, it’s as though you are stabbing Jesus in the heart and sending yourself to hell. This is partly how and why a battered woman will take up praying for death, hoping to die, so she might escape the abuser, but not do the unthinkable — divorce — which is equated up their as though it is the unforgivable sin, guaranteed to send you to hell.

    In the OT there are verses about vows and how one is to fulfill their oaths. It talks about if a woman is still a child in her father’s house and she makes an oath but her father does not undo it, then it stands. Same with if a woman is married and she vows something, if her husband doesn’t object to it, then it stands. What about vows sworn to God? It says in the OT that you are to honor your vows and perhaps maybe in the church wedding vows a person didn’t vow, unconditionally, ’till death do you part’ but outside of church between the supposed husband (abuser in his luring stage) and deceived wife, there were regrettable, unconditional vows spoken. I felt like I had to honor such or be sure to go straight to hell. I was so stupid.And I paid so very dearly and drastically.

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