Below I have posted some preliminary notes for my graduate students in biblical counseling (the course on Counseling and the Law). Even though we have a book now on the subject, it does not come close to exhausting all ways in which legal issues will interact with counseling in the church. The notes below are for the purpose identifying places in which one can err in responding to allegations of abuse (again, this not an exhaustive list of places where one may misstep):
Evidence: What happened? It is far more difficult to obtain an accurate understanding of the events of someone else’s life and conflict than is commonly believed. Just as a matter of illustration: The bedrock of legal work is the question of evidence. To that end, the law has created a very complex series of rules developed over hundreds of years to evaluate the reliability of types of evidence and the purposes to which potential evidence can be used. The law school course to introduce one to the subject of evidence is one year long. That does not exhaust the question, it merely introduces the topic. However, counselors, pastors, internet pundits, and those who merely wish to voice an opinion are unshakably committed to determinations which may be fundamentally defective.
Interpretation of Evidence: Once we obtain a bag of facts, we must make sense of that information. For instance, some tells you X on day one, Y on day two, and the X variant one on day three. Is this evidence of lying, of confusion, of increasing honesty? Is evidence of anger proof of malice or fear? Is torment and sorrow one experiences the result of a physical malady, unrepentant sin, the pain of being harmed by another, some combination of three or otherwise? When faced with apparent repentance, is it real? Has there been a change, or are the tears merely a manipulative ploy?
Ambiguity of terms: The word “abuse” is notorious vague and rhetorically charged. The word gets used to describe horrific evil conduct and the unfortunate and seemingly unavoidable difficulties which will exist between human beings. A word that can refer to a savage beating, and an occasional improvident word creates a basis for substantial trouble.
If we have obtained a perfect understanding of history and causes for a conflict in another person’s life, we have only come to the door of how to respond thereto. Since I am writing as a biblical counselor, my primary concern will be a biblical response. It seems to me there are a minimum of three principles which must be considered and balanced.
The importance of marriage: The Bible places a far higher premium on the maintenance of marriage than is common within our culture and even than is common within our churches.
The doctrine of suffering: The Bible does not consider suffering, even profound physical suffering to be the worst possible outcome. We are expected to prefer loyalty to Christ over suffering even death. We rightly esteem martyrs who made the choice to suffer torment and death over disloyalty to Christ. Christ suffered unspeakable horror rather than sin. In our personal lives we may find ourselves in positions where we suffer greatly. Since this proposition seems contrary to our presuppositions about life, I will provide one quotation to prove the point:
18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
1 Peter 2:18–25 (ESV)
The duty to alleviate the suffering of others and to protect the weak and vulnerable: The fact that we may be called upon to suffer unjustly does not mean that we have the right to permit others to suffer unjustly when lies within our power to alleviate the suffering of others. Christians have been noted for our care for alleviating suffering where possible, and not just because the person who suffers is friend, family, or fellow Christian. Both the history of the Church and the breadth of Scripture make this proposition unquestionable. Lest this point be overlooked:
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’
Matthew 25:41–45 (ESV)
This certainly does not exhaust the issues which may arise when considering how to respond to a situation of potential abuse. And, when we are attempting to understand the conduct and response of others who have responded to allegations (whether true or false) of abuse, the difficulties are compounded. Indeed, when we see another injured by the response of a church, we may have a responsibility to respond thereto. If one pastor learns that another pastor has misused pastoral authority in a manner which fails to uphold the totality of biblical direction, it is morally incumbent to seek to stop the injury.
A plea: These matters are so very difficult, even the best intentioned and most experienced persons will fail. We are by definition limited beings with limited wisdom. When we fail, we must seek to restore, to undo, to correct. The absolutists of all stripes who believe themselves to necessarily be right bring along their own sort of injury:
8 Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9 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 (ESV)