Ask Pastor John: Confronting Emotional and Verbal Abuse in the Home

Confronting Emotional and Verbal Abuse in the Home

In a previous episode, we talked about the difference between unholy anger and holy anger, and you, Pastor John, talked about anger as a marriage killer. Today we look more closely at anger and its destructive force inside the home. An anonymous woman who listens to the podcast has written us a pretty sharp question. Here it is: “Pastor John, thank you for the years you have faithfully invested in this podcast. Over those years I don’t believe you have ever spoken on emotional and verbal abuse inside the home. At what point do emotional outbursts from an adult in a home call for church discipline or for the involvement of the local church leadership? I’m talking about verbal putdowns aimed at children and cuss words, and raised voices used in anger to force an opinion on the home in a consistent pattern. I want to keep this in the general level because I want you to offer general categories to use.”

It’s pretty obvious that this woman has carefully crafted the description of the behavior she’s asking about. In other words, she asked me to provide categories to think about, but she, I think, has done a remarkable job (and I’m sure it did not come quickly) of providing them already herself. So first, let me reread her key sentence and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Then I want to give some Scripture that throw what she says into such serious relief. Finally, I want to close with a few other aspects that she may or may not be thinking about, but I think are also important.

Good Questions

Here’s the sentence which describes the kind of behavior she’s asking about. She says, “I’m talking about verbal putdowns.” (I’m going to make a comment after each key phrase because she has chosen her words very carefully. I’m going to tell you what I think is meant — or what I would mean by them and I think she means by them.)

“I’m talking about verbal putdowns,” she says, which is the opposite, I’m saying, of language that builds up and offers grace. She continues, “aimed at children.” I would add that aimed at anyone this would be a problem. This introduces the added long-term damage as well as the cruel use of power.

She continues, “and cuss words.” I add, which introduces the dimension of ugly and dirty intensity. She continues, “and raised voices used in anger.” I add, which names the emotion and heightens the sense of fearfulness and attack. She adds, “to force.” I add, which identifies a sense of coercion rather than appeal or persuasion.

She continues, “to force an opinion on the home.” I interpret, which suggests it’s not just shared convictions that are at stake here, but opinions that don’t necessarily have any moral weight and are still being — with such high-level intensity of anger — forced. Then she finishes with, “in a consistent pattern,” which points out that this is not an occasional outburst but an ongoing and unrepentant pattern.

God’s Verdict

Now that’s a pretty carefully crafted definition of a pattern of behavior called verbal abuse or emotional abuse. I, for one, really appreciate that kind of care in crafting a question. She clearly does not want this to be treated or dismissed as an ordinary run-of-the-mill or minor conflict as might crop up more in a good marriage now and then. I don’t dismiss it that way or treat it that way.

The reason is the text that follows. So let me just read some passages of Scripture, and every one of them could be correlated with the particular points that she was making about the spouse’s behavior who is speaking that way and acting that way.

Now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. (Colossians 3:8)

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31–32)

Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. (Colossians 3:19)

All of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8–9)

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. (Ephesians 5:25)

Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. (Ephesians 5:28–30)

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29)

Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you — I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner. (Philemon 1:8–9)

A Serious Problem

We could, of course, go on. These passages mark every phrase of her sentence as a serious spiritual, moral issue whether from a husband or from a wife. So, my short answer is this: the behavior (as she defined it and as I tried to interpret it and illuminate it) is enough to warrant a spouse turning to the elders of the church for help. This could possibly be for discipline (depending on the spouse’s response) and possibly for excommunication. That’s a pretty serious statement about that sentence.

Here’s what I want to add. I think it may be helpful to point out (and I’m sure she knows this, but all of our listeners may not think in these categories, and it’s pretty radical what I’m going to say). There should be in every Christian marriage a web of relationships in the church, in the community, and among friends that can exert correcting, rebuking, and healing influences.

Among Christians this can happen. There should be a web of relationships. And I know there are not a lot of healthy communities and/or as many healthy churches as we would like — I get that. I’m talking about what ought to be and what a young couple should pursue. There should be a web of relationships which should exert correcting and rebuking and healing influences before there is the need for official involvement of the elders.

The New Testament is shot through with commands to ordinary laypeople to exhort each other, rebuke each other, correct each other, and pray for each other regularly. It’s amazing how many marriages painfully limp along with nobody able to do that. That’s tragic. I would say to every young couple — and I know it’s too late for many couples who are so far gone in the dysfunctional relationship that they won’t ever do this without a miracle. But I would say to every young couple from the beginning: immerse yourselves in a web of relationships, a small group, a set of friends, who are close enough to you that they can know when problems are happening in your marriage.

Find People to Trust

I would even say that a husband and wife should get permission from the other to have one or two people that they are willing to have the spouse share absolutely everything happening within the marriage. Not that they always would share everything, but that the trust level is high enough that they are allowed, at their own judgment, to make that call.

For example, years ago my wife and I were having enough trouble that we did this. I gave Noël the permission to say to one or two other women absolutely anything about our marriage without betraying me. I said, “It will not be a betrayal. I give you permission to say absolutely anything to her, and I trust you not to do so in a way that would be destructive.”

She did the same for me. Noël has given me permission to say to one or two other men absolutely anything about what’s going on in our home, and she trusts me not to say things that would be destructive or damaging.

I realized this requires an enormous amount of trust both between the spouses and with the friends, and I would say ultimately in God. This takes a great deal of courage for friends to then turn around and confront the husband or the wife. But that’s the kind of web of relationships I’m talking about. Then, if all of that involvement of other friends does not bring about the repentance of the kind behavior we’re talking about here, then the involvement of the elders will not at all seem precipitous. All things will be established in the mouth of two or three witnesses.

Find other recent and popular Ask Pastor John episodes here.

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including A Peculiar Glory.

(By Desiring God. Discovered by Christian Podcast Central and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Christian Podcast Central, and audio is streamed directly from their servers.)

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