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I met with a pastoral team and their staff because of a list of accusations from some hurt folks, which was categorized as being abusive. The specific allegation was spiritual abuse, which I have written on—and many other articles on abuse. The pastoral team and staff wanted to know what abuse in their situation meant. It was not a conversation with a group of resistant folks; they were teachable and inquisitive.
They wanted to know what they were doing wrong and how they could change, but they were confused about the word “abuse.” After discussing a few of the backstories from the hurt folks, it became apparent that there were sin problems that the staff had to confront. Those confronted struggled, as you might imagine, and disagreed with the sins that the leadership brought to them.
The confronted said they had exhausted all avenues to reconciliation and labeled the pastor as an abuser, and began to broadcast their grievances on a public platform. They did not mention the sins that they were confronted with but only talked about a systemic pattern of abuse from the church leadership, specifically the pastor. Their language was mostly, though not totally, vague, e.g., spiritual abuse, toxic environment, etc., and they only shared their side of the story, never bringing to light any of their personal culpability.
These believers buy into what some call the “abuse construct.” They see abuse as a container, and you can put virtually anything in the abuse bucket. They are mostly borrowing from the world, and when you borrow from the culture and develop constructs that have much of the world’s assumptions in it, one of the next things that will happen is an ever-expanding list of items that they will place into the construct.
There is only one construct for what is happening in this church, and it’s a sin construct. A person either sins or they do not. Within a sin construct, you have the clarity to figure out what happened in any context or relationship, and there are valid biblical processes to work through those sins if both parties are willing (Romans 12:18).
This church may have sinned against this family. Perhaps the leadership was sinfully angry, for example, when they confronted the family. I do not know. I do know it’s possible because I have done this when confronting others. According to many witnesses from the leadership team, the confronted were sinning. Both groups agree that the “other side” sinned, which I would not dispute. I’m sure both sides did. It’s rare for one side to be pure while the other is not.
The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him. The lot puts an end to quarrels and decides between powerful contenders. A brother offended is more unyielding than a strong city, and quarreling is like the bars of a castle (Proverbs 18:17-19).
Because abuse is a trigger word, many will read what I’m saying and assert that I’m dismissing what happened to them. That reaction is part of the problem with this elasticized construct that we call abuse. Because anything can go into the “abuse construct,” as soon as I say “what happened to you does not fit into that construct,” the reactor responds aggressively and without wisdom or clarity.
I would never suggest that any hurt person is not so or that what they say is untrue. Love believes all things, and so do I upon first hearing it. The issue for me is not the legitimacy of the complaint but the processes for working through what happened. It is cruel to disbelieve a person out-of-hand without investigating what happened to them.
It can also be cruel to throw virtually any offense into an abuse construct. When you label any sin (or non-sin) as abuse, you will complicate the problem more than you should, and attempts toward resolution and reconciliation are less likely to happen.
Some counselors and victims of sin use abuse, as Robin DiAngelo talks about white fragility. Her thesis is that all white people are racist. Your acceptance or rejection of her perspective merely proves her point: you’re a racist. Do you think her approach will move ethnic groups toward reconciliation or drive people farther apart?
Those who loosely and sloppily define abuse as anything from micro-aggressions to domestic violence create “abuse fragility.” When you bring the culture into our world and take your cues from them, it will rarely go well. We can do better than that because we have a better way of talking about what is wrong with us. I know it’s archaic and unsophisticated, but you cannot improve on it. The word is sin.
The big, fat basket word for what’s wrong with us is sin, and inside that construct is every possible infraction from fallen humanity. In this sense, we can agree with Robin DiAngelo; if you’re alive and kicking, you’re a sinner. You don’t have to be kicking; you only need to be alive. If you deny it or accept it, the conclusion is the same: we are sinners (Romans 3:23, 5:12). The more vital problem that we have to engage in is our desire, ability, and courage to delve into the complexity of this three-letter word. I’m speaking of the sin construct.
One of the most significant issues with the abuse construct is that there is not a lot of complexity to the label. It’s relatively straightforward for the abuse construct adherents: you’re an abuser (and it does not matter what you did). Those who hold to that presupposition have no qualms about calling anything abuse.
I’ve read from a biblical counselor that a sign of abuse is a spouse doing the finances or opening your mail. I do understand the counselor’s intent. And I do understand the potential problem if you’re beholden to the abuse construct. For example, my wife is an abuser. She handles all of our finances and opens my mail most of the time. My children open my mail, and everyone in our family knows the password to my mobile phone. If I wanted to play that hand, I could say that I am the victim of abuse. Don’t you think we should add a pinch of complexity here?
What I’m describing is called verificationism: the process of believing something and then verifying your view with any data that will support your presupposition. If you’re looking for it, you will find it. If you only have an abuse construct, then all signs—finances and mail—will have one conclusion: you are an abuser. Perhaps someone is abusing you. Perhaps it would be more helpful if you started with another construct, which provides a better way to understand what is happening.
Suppose you presuppose that virtually anything can be abuse, i.e., your spouse doing finances or opening your mail. In that case, you’re going to find abuse everywhere, especially with someone who bothers you. Isn’t this happening in our culture? Two people will look at the same video, and one of them will say it was an act of racism, but upon further investigation, you realize it was not.
If you’re looking for it, you will find it, which is why you need a better construct than abuse, which brings us back to the best one of all time: sin! Alternately, the progressive Christian builds a presuppositional window with a word cloud of labels that are signs of abuse. E.g., micro-aggressions, pride, control, manipulation, finances, passwords, opening the mail, and violence are some of the labels pasted to their window. Some of the words could mean abuse, and some of them could mean something else.
If the presuppositional window that I have described is the one you’re looking through, then whoever is on the other side of that window could be guilty if they do some of the things from your abuse construct. Do you see a problem with this? I pray to God that you do, and you are tenacious about keeping your “presuppositional window” biblio-centric.
How you label others will set the trajectory for how you react to them. I have no desire to become the word police, but there is a reason we have the Word of God. Words do matter, and it’s vital that we use the right ones when thinking about what others have done to us. For example, my sister-in-law murdered my brother, but she did not abuse me. Think about that statement as you juxtapose it with a spouse opening your mail.
Though we need to think with complexity, this tension is not complicated. She committed murder; it was a sin. To be specific, it was a sin crime. Sin is the construct, murder is the specific sin, and in the civilized world, it’s a crime. There are things that we should do to murderers, and because this was a crime, the civil authorities should adjudicate the matter, which they did.
Then there was me. After you peeked into my heart, you would have seen all sorts of things—some were sinful, and others were not. I was saddened, hurt, tempted to revenge and bitterness, and I went back and forth between righteous and unrighteous anger. There was no need to talk about abuse here because it was not helpful. I would need you to help me another way, working through legitimate sins and temptations.
The more significant issues with the abuse construct are that it obliterates objectivity and truncates comprehensive soul care. Once a person plays the “abuse card,” you automatically have a sinner in one corner and a victim in the other. You rarely have the “victim-sinner construct” that permits a competent soul-care provider to get into the complexities of relational conflict at a granular level.
One of the most significant hindrances to this kind of soul care is that some folks will upload what I just said as accusing the victim of the sinner’s sins. They are not hearing what I’m saying. If they are beholding to an abuse construct and all its fallibilities, they will have a hard time engaging the fuller counseling complexities.
Are there counselors and pastors who blame the victims for what the abuser did? Absolutely, and it’s shameful. Are there abusers who manipulate incompetent or novice counselors into believing they are not guilty while blaming their victims? Absolutely! No rational person should argue these points. Does awful counseling justify not doing counseling competently? Absolutely not! We must do the hard work of conflict resolution, but it’s only for those who can do this kind of heavy lifting.
What we should do is shrink the abuse construct. I’m not opposed to keeping it, but it fits inside the sin construct, and it’s not full of things that should not be there. We have a sin construct for all sins, and it’s adequate. From this new presupposition, we can help folks with the specific sin that is happening and all of its complications. I trust you saw the irony when I said, “This new presupposition.” Historic Christianity has always had the “sin construct.”
We only make messes when we step away from the clarity of God’s Word, borrow teaching from the culture, and “biblicize” it so that it sounds right to us. The problem is that it does not ring true, and it’s making our lives more complicated. We’re following the Robin DiAngelo playbook where everyone is a racist. In our situation, we will quickly label anyone as an abuser. Once someone says it, you cannot say anything against it, or, like the DiAngelo adherents, they will come for you.
The wiser approach is to create better labels for our problems. There is physical violence, which is what my sister-in-law did, and it was a crime, too. There were a host of sins associated with what she did. My brother complicated the matter, too. I have no issue talking about his role in his death, though he’s not responsible for it. I’m more interested in finding the truth than separating sinners as though one is pure and the other is not.
One of the biggest culprits here is a lack of understanding of the difference between empathy and sympathy. It’s all about the prepositions—in or with. Empathy means “in,” while sympathy means “with.” If you don’t understand the difference, you will make an empathetic error.
To illustrate, an empathetic person will jump “in” the quicksand with the victim, and both of them will drown. The sympathetic counselor will not jump in but will be “with” the victim, standing outside the quicksand, seeking to pull them out of the trouble. This person has more compassion, competence, and courage.
Yes, compassion! But it’s not compassion to empathize with a person who is drowning. If you care well, you will have the competency and courage to pull them out, which will not hurt them, which is the greatest act of compassion that you can provide for them.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).