Debate: Can a Victim Leave an Abuser?

I have been posting more on narcissism and spiritual abuse on my Facebook. Yesterday, I posted the following meme:

I wrote:

Words like “submit,” “obey,” “honour,” “forgive,” “reconcile,” “love”…were never meant to be used as chains. ⛓ You have permission to end a relationship with someone who is unrepentantly harming you. No matter how they are related to you, and no matter what they tell you God wants you to do. You have permission to protect yourself from abuse. Always.

This sparked a discussion with a friend I will refer to as Etienne, who started off the discussion by saying:

You didn’t find that teaching in the Bible. 
To find what love looks like look at how God treated Israel through the old testament, right up until He died to save those who were/are literally abusing Him.
If you want to see what selfishness and “toxic” look like, view the same passages from the opposite perspective.
The love God commands us to give, constantly requires us to set aside the justice we was to receive in order to give mercy and grace.

As I often do, I took a moment to write out my candid thoughts to myself in long form on notes, before taking a few breaths and responding to him. What I wrote to myself was:

“You did not find that teaching in the Bible”

…actually, I did. All throughout the Bible, we see God’s people following Jesus’ teaching, “whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next,” (Mat. 10:23). Jacob left his emotionally abusive father in law Laban. The Israelites fled from the deceptive and abusive king, Pharaoh. David fled from his verbally and physically abusive king and father in law, Saul. Abigail went behind the back of her stubborn and un-listening husband Nabal. Elijah fled from the unrepentant and moody King Ahab.

God instructs us to forgive our enemies. Forgiveness is something that happens inside. But reconciliation cannot happen when there is not true repentance. Repentance means a change of behaviour: and a change means at a certain point, harmful behaviours need to stop happening. Like David, there’s a time to just get out of town when one fears one too many times for their own safety.

Your choice of God as a symbol of someone who puts up with abuse is poorly chosen. Here is what God did in His relationship to Israel: he pointed out their sins; he stated that there would be consequences for their sins; he followed through on those consequences; when they repented, He forgave and reconciled; this cycle continued numerous times; eventually God identified that they were not truly repenting (no change in behaviours) but only trying to avoid consequences; His warnings became more severe, and he saw less and less hope in the cycle; Finally, God told Israel that He was formally divorcing it; God enacted a separation, by sending them to Babylon; when some repented, God made a new covenant with only the faithful Israelites; God sent His Son to make a way of salvation for those who repent; God follows through on His final consequence, of Hell, for those who persist in wounding Him by their sins and self-destructive actions. We are told that the same applies to Christians: “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.” (Heb. 10:26-27).

Properly read, the Bible is on the side of victims, not abusers.

***

When I decided to talk with Etienne, I decided that it was actually best for him to clarify his rather confusing post first. I was not entirely sure what he was advocating. And so I gave him an invitation to make himself more clear by writing:

Myself: So it would seem that you do not agree with the statement, “You have permission to end a relationship with someone who is unrepentantly harming you.” Do you find this unbiblical, or incorrect, or both? Thank you for your comment.

Etienne: First, I’m not saying that abuse is ok. Abuse is not ok.
Second “love, respect, submit, unity, etc are not chains to hold one to bad relationships, if they are treated that way, that’s a great sign that there is abuse or at least very wrong thinking going on.
I am suggesting that pursuing ones “rights”, “protecting myself”, etc are the real chains in this scenerio.
Look at what the Bible teaches about how God thinks relationships work, it’s never pursuing justice for self. Pursue justice for those around you, but for yourself, pursue learning to give grace and mercy.
This is a hard lesson for every believer, but if it can be learned; they will be free of the chains that put themself first. That’s a lot of freedom.
Another way to describe it, don’t think of God’s commands as chains that restrict out freedoms, think of them as fences that protect us from harm that we don’t fully understand. Inside that fence we are completely free, and far safer than going beyond the fence.

***

At this point, it was bedtimes for my family, and I had work in the morning. I did not pick up this discussion until the afternoon. This gave a few other people a chance to chime in.

***

Sally (One of my friends): But you still haven’t answered whether a person should be able to leave an abusive relationship. I’ve seen people weaponize those commands to shame a person for leaving an abusive spouse. You didn’t pray hard enough, you didn’t trust God enough, you didn’t follow the commands correctly. Instead of acknowledging their abusive partner didn’t follow God’s guidelines for a relationship, how God never wanted his child to suffer at the hands of someone who is supposed to be a partner and love and care for and with them, they put the blame on the victim.

Etienne: I’m not going to answer that, God has already answered that, if you care what He thinks, you can find His words pretty easily.
All I’m saying is that responding to sin with sin, is sin.

Sally: So if a woman is being beaten by her husband, you would shame her for fleeing to safety because God would want her to stay?
I am honestly trying to understand.

Sally: Also to ask me to find the proof to your point is lazy. In no other discourse it is acceptable to say I’m right, look up the evidence to prove my point yourself. You are required to provide the scripture that explains your points.
If your lawyer goes to court and says “Your honor, the evidence is all there. Just look yourself.” You’d loose. If your doctor said “This is what your disease is, the evidence is all there. Research it youself.” You’d upset.
If a cop pulled you over and gave you a ticket and said “what you did all just happened. Remember it youself” you would fight that ticket.
It is the responsibility of the person asserting a notion to defend it, not the person questioning it.

Etienne: The answer to your question is, no. I would not shame her.
Unfortunately, it’s the wrong question.
The right question is, “if a woman is being beaten by her husband, what does the Bible teach?”
Then you must break it down into its parts,
One, what does the Bible teach about abuse, and how husbands should treat their wives?
Two, what does the Bible teach the believers response should be when someone is sinning against them?
In regard to “look it up yourself”, if you want an opinion poll, Facebook is the place to bring your problems; however, if you want to know what God says, that’s best by far if read yourself.
If you’re new to the Bible, an easy way to start is a Google search with something like “Bible passage abuse” or “Bible passage response to sin”.
After you have the relevant Bible passages in mind, reading some commentaries is helpful to some, talking about them with some mature believers is helpful to others.
Looking for people who tell you what you want to hear or else you’ll reduce their statements ad absurdum is not going to be helpful to you in finding the truth.

Myself (when I resumed the conversation the next day): I am glad to hear you say that “abuse is not OK,” and that Biblical commands to love, forgive, etc. should not be used to legitimize staying in an abusive relationship. 
…however, I am a bit confused, because you seem to be saying exactly the opposite in the rest of your comment, and elsewhere. You are saying that “rights” and “self protection” are really a form of bondage. You seem to be saying that an abused Christian has no rights, and should not flee, even to protect themselves. This stance should be understood as “freedom” I am just repeating your words back to you. Is this not what you meant to say?
You seem to be trying to have it both ways. What do you actually believe? Can an abused person leave an abuser? Or not?

Etienne: what I’m trying to say is, responding to sin with sin, is not ok.
So, find what God says is the correct response not what popular option says is right.
You have the tools, you probably have the relevant passages memorized.
After the Bible is read, it’s just a matter of interpretation and application.

Myself: OK, so what you are saying is that it is a sin for an abused person to leave their abuser? I disagree with that. 

Let me show you some biblical examples of Godly people leaving situations of danger and abuse by the person in authority over them:

Jacob left his emotionally abusive father in law Laban. The Israelites fled from the deceptive and abusive king, Pharaoh. David fled from his verbally and physically abusive king and father in law, Saul. Abigail went behind the back of her stubborn and un-listening husband Nabal. Elijah fled from the unrepentant and moody King Ahab. On several occasions, Jesus left an angry mob, sometimes mid-sentence. Paul left cities before he was killed. The early Christians fled Jerusalem, and from there, city to city. These godly people followed Jesus’ teaching: “whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next,” (Mat. 10:23).
These people did not “return evil for evil.” David in particular had reason and opportunity to exact revenge, but he did not. However, he also did not stick around to see if next time Saul’s aim would be better. Christians are not to retaliate: but there is a time to leave. It is not sinful or evil to simply walk away. In fact, this is what we are told to do.
I re-affirm that it is not a sin for a victim to leave an abusive relationship. I think these passages are a strong support of this pattern, and can provide others if you would like.

Etienne: great biblical examples!
Now keeping in mind the context and culture we’re in, how many of those examples apply to husband and wife divorcing, or friends ditching former friends at the first sign of trouble?

Myself: ”first sign of trouble”? No, we’re talking about abuse here. 
I would see them all as applying. As I said, these are examples of godly people leaving situations of chronic mistreatment and unrepentant abuse by civil or familial authority figures.

Etienne: ok, then at the interpretation level you and I differ slightly, as long as you’re being diligent before the Lord, God bless.
I will leave you with one reminder, in all interpersonal problems, the goal needs to be reconciliation; and reconciliation starts with forgiveness, not with making amends nor with justice (as the world likes to believe).

Myself: That is not correct. We are only responsible to reconcile “so far as it depends on you.” (Romans 12:18). Sometimes, as in the cases of abuse I mentioned above, that was not possible. We are to let go of bitterness every time that we pray. That happens in the privacy of our own hearts. But we only forgive and reconcile our brother/sister if they repent first. (Luke 17:3-4). We are not only allowed, but instructed to separate from those who continue to sin against us, and are not open to Godly rebuke. (Mat. 18:15-17).
I want to thank you for this interaction. God bless you on your journey, as you seek to honour Him in all things.

***

Clearly, there is much to be parsed out in the conversation. Among other things, we see fairly clearly that some people do indeed think that the Christian message states that an abused person should stay with their abusive partner, no matter what. These people seem to think vaguely that, “that’s what the Bible says,” and “that’s how God treats us”…but when pressed for specifics, they punt, go on the offensive or say, “well, you must know all the verses by now!” He shifted his position numerous times, but it seemed clear that he was still unchanging in his belief that an abused person should go back to their abuser, no matter what.

Another thing that is interesting is that I kept coming back to the word “abuse,” while he kept shrinking from it, trying to replace the word in our discussion with, “at the first sign of trouble.” This is gaslighting: our conversation was not about people giving up on one another “at the first sign of trouble.” It was about abuse. Abuse is a word in the English language that means something like, “ongoing, significant harm caused to a person.” It is not the same as, “minor annoyance.” When people try cheap tricks like this in debates, they show their true colours. I knew then that Etienne was not interested in learning anything: rather, he only wanted to justify himself and win an argument to prove that he was right.

He demanded that I do the work to prove that his view was right: which as “Sally” pointed out, was unreasonable. He was the one making a claim, and yet he provided no evidence for it. I also had made a claim, and so I provided logical and Biblical evidence for it. He retorted that my logic was not Biblical, and so I provided more Biblical evidence. He responded that these examples did not apply because the culture and times were different. Strange how culture and time only applies to verses that we find inconsistent with our beliefs. But I responded that actually, I think that these verses all spoke directly to the question at hand, at which point Etienne simply said that we had a “difference of opinion” about that.

The technique of asking for proof, then changing one’s demands when proof is given is called “moving the goal-posts.” This is another deceptive debate tactic.

Also, notice, Etienne never stated how he himself would interpret these passages. While trying to posture as someone who based their interpretations on the Bible, Etienne actually did not cite one single Bible passage. He referred broadly to “how God treats Israel,” but did not provide any specific Bible verses to analyze: this is because he had none on his side.

In a way, I should not have let him off the hook so easily. I certainly could have pressed him. How would he justify his belief that an abused person must remain with their abuser? What does he mean by that? And if he choses not to use the word “abuse,” what word would he use for continual, unrepentant, serious harm caused by an individual?

…but this is not my first rodeo. And I learned long ago that in online discussions, if someone choses to excuse themselves from a discussion, then it is just best to let them go. It is childish to try to get in the last word.

“if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace.” 1 Corinthians 7:15

These topics will be a major topic of discussion in future posts.

For a great resource on domestic abuse in the church, see Rev. Jeff Crippen’s carefully researched and groundbreaking book, Unholy Charade, Unmasking the Domestic Abuser in the Church.