Questions Concerning Prof. Engelsma’s Treatment on Spousal Abuse
by J. Parnell McCarter
Prof. David Engelsma of the Protestant Reformed Churches of America has spoken and written on the topic of “spousal abuse”, such as presented at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5eBSHUgoNU and http://exprc.freeforums.net/thread/627/spousal-abuse-follow . The views he expresses here appear to be growing in acceptance in the reformed Christian community, so it is proper that Christians be aware of the views and approach them with a Berean spirit. In this article I lay out questions I have regarding what Prof. Engelsma states, as well as explain our background doctrinal differences and how I believe those doctrinal differences play out on this issue. All married people must inevitably have opinions on the topics he covers because he touches on issues regarding marital relations.
There are areas of creedal agreement and disagreement I have with Prof. Engelsma. Regarding agreement, both Prof. Engelsma and I would profess agreement with the Three Forms of Unity. However, in reality Prof. Engelsma and his denomination (Protestant Reformed Churches of America) do not agree with the Three Forms of Unity in their original form, but in an amended form, whereas I agree with the Three Forms of Unity in their original form. Specifically, Prof. Engelsma and his denomination disagree with Article 36 of the Belgic Confession which is why they have an amending note rejecting the Establishment Principle (see http://www.prca.org/about/official-standards/creeds/three-forms-of-unity/belgic-confession/article-36), whereas I agree with Article 36 of the Belgic Confession. The rejection of the Establishment Principle by Prof. Engelsma and his denomination has implications far beyond the narrow area of church-state relations, because embedded within it are issues relating to the nature of God’s authority via human agency and the nature of Fallen man. Furthermore, Prof. Engelsma and his denomination reject the Westminster Standards in quite a number of critical areas, whereas I fully subscribe to these standards. As it especially relates to the topic of spousal relations, Prof. Engelsma and the Protestant Reformed Churches of America hold to this view: “The Bible gives one ground only for divorce, namely, adultery. And there is no remarriage for a divorced man or woman so long as the spouse lives” - http://www.prca.org/resources/publications/articles/item/4163-marriage-divorce-children . In contrast, here is what the Westminster Standards say on the topic:
“…In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce: and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.…Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments, unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage; yet nothing but adultery, or such wilful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage; wherein a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it, not left to their own wills and discretion in their own case.- Westminster Confession, Chapter 24
“Q139: What are the sins forbidden in the seventh commandment? …unjust divorce, or desertion;…” – Westminster Larger Catechism
Upon thorough analysis, these creedal differences between us will almost inevitably lead to differences of view on the topic of spousal abuse. So at one level, the basic question I ask is this: are the original Three Forms of Unity and Westminster Standards correct (as I believe) or are they incorrect (as Prof. Engelsma believes)?
So with this background regarding our basic doctrinal agreements and disagreements, here are some of the questions I have of Prof. Engelsma’s treatment on spousal abuse:
1. In the video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5eBSHUgoNU Prof. Engelsma speaks of “rape within marriage” and defends use of this term. In the United States, a husband could not be charged with raping his wife until 1979. Here is further historical information on the topic:
“In his History of the Pleas of the Crown (1736), Sir Matthew Hale made the following pronouncement: But the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband which she cannot retract. As Hale had held the office of Chief Justice for five years, there can be little doubt that what he wrote was an accurate expression of the common law as it then stood, even though he had died some 60 years before the publication of the work. Hale’s justification for his statement was that, on marriage, the wife gave up her body to her husband and gave her irrevocable consent to sexual intercourse. That Hale’s pronouncement was accepted as an enduring principle of the common law is evidenced by the first edition of Archbold, A Summary of the Law Relative to Pleading and Evidence in Criminal Cases (1822), which simply stated: ‘A husband also cannot be guilty of a rape upon his wife.’
Is traditional English common law consistent with scripture in asserting that “rape” cannot occur in marriage, or is the modern view which Prof. Engelsma has apparently embraced consistent with scripture?
This is no small issue for every man married to a wife.
2. Prof. Engelsma cites I Corinthians 7 as evidence that a husband can commit rape on his wife. Can he cite any reformed theologian before 1900 who agrees with him and provide the basis for their argument? How precisely does I Corinthians 7:4 (“The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud ye not one the other, except with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency. ”) support the view that a husband can criminally have sexual intercourse with his wife? Does it not imply precisely the opposite?
John Calvin comments on this passage: “Unless by mutual consent He requires mutual consent, in the first place, because the question is not as to the continency of one merely, but of two;” In other words, Calvin points out that sexual intercourse cannot be stopped unless both spouses agree to it. So is it not patently absurd and contrary to God’s word to suggest that sexual intercourse when one spouse does not want it is criminal? Is Prof. Engelsma not engaging in malfeasance as a church officer by promoting the concept of marital rape? Is the abuser here Prof. Engelsma in twisting scripture to fit modern humanistic shibboleths?
3. In the video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5eBSHUgoNU Prof. Engelsma asserts that “verbal abuse is every bit as destructive as physical abuse if not more so”.
He later proceeds with the following syllogism:
Prop. 1: verbal abuse is every bit as destructive as physical abuse if not more so
Prop. 2: physical abuse warrants marital separation since it is proper for the endangered party to flee for physical safety
Conclusion: verbal abuse warrants marital separation
Does Prof. Engelsma’s assertion that “verbal abuse is every bit as destructive as physical abuse if not more so”, especially as it relates to justification for separation of a married couple, have scriptural warrant? How should we think of it in light of Matthew Henry's treatment of Proverbs 21:9 as it relates to the topic of desertion below? (“It is better to dwell in a corner of the housetop, than with a brawling woman in a wide house.”):
So is it correct that even if one does have a vexing spouse, God does not give license for departure from the household? Where is the scriptural support for the proposition that “emotional abuse” should be treated as equivalent to “physical abuse” as a basis for someone to engage in spousal separation?
4. In the video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5eBSHUgoNU Prof. Engelsma cites for support of his views certain “recognized experts in the field of abuse...” Specifically he mentions “Crippen and Wood”. I looked up and found that their full names are Jeff Crippen and Anna Wood. Crippen is a Baptist currently living in Oregon and Wood is a Baptist who lives in Alabama, and they have co-written the book described at https://www.amazon.com/Cry-Justice-Domestic-Abuse-Church/dp/1879737914 . Prof. Engelsma does not refer to any pre-1960 reformed theologians, but instead to these two. Is this where reformed Christians should be looking for how to think on this topic? And what resources have they primarily been studying to come up with their views?
Anna Wood, the “expert” to whom Prof Engelsma refers, has written the following:
“Maybe you aren’t really sure if your husband is an abuser. Ask yourself these questions: Do you walk on eggshells around your husband? Have you changed your beliefs, the way you speak, act, or dress, or what you like or dislike, not just to please him but because you had no choice but to do so? If you are constantly stressed when you are around your husband, if you must do whatever he says or accommodate his wishes no matter how bizarre, if he gets angry for little or no reason, if you’ll do anything to keep from setting him off, the chances are very, very great that you are in an unhealthy or even a dangerous relationship. Domestic abuse is a sin. Domestic abusers may masquerade as Christians but no true Christian abuses his family. If you are married to an abuser, do whatever it takes to protect yourself and your children, including leaving if you need to.” - https://feminasolagratia.wordpress.com/category/domestic-abuse/
Is Anna Wood Biblical here, and is someone who holds this view someone reformed Christians should be following? Is she not advocating “willful desertion” which is a heinous sin condemned by scripture according to the Westminster Standards? Setting the husband aside, does Anna Wood understand that she must not only love Christ, but also fear Christ and obey His commandments? Is there not a proper fear element involved in man’s relation with God? Is Anna Wood’s dispute perhaps really with God and not the man she regards as an “abuser”?
So why is Prof. Engelsma siding with Anna Wood? Could it be that this is a logical outworking of his rejection of the Establishment Principle, which is an implicit rejection of Christ’s full authority as exercised through human agency?
Also, is there not a real danger for women in the conflation of what Anna Wood and Prof Engelsma place under the category of verbal or emotional abuse with that which falls under the category of physical abuse? If there is much crying of “wolf” for that which is really not a wolf, then when a woman cries “wolf” in the case of real physical danger, then might it tend to be ignored when it should not be? Obviously, the woman as the “weaker vessel” needs to be protected when there is real physical endangerment. Also, by conflating that which is truly proven with that which is not, is there not also danger?
5. Here is more information on Anna Wood who Prof Engelsma cites as the “expert” he looks to on these issues (not John Calvin, not Matthew Henry, not …, but Anna Wood):
Christian Woman Speaker at Tamar Weeps
Montgomery Alabama 36116
Christian Woman Speaker
Montgomery, AL 36116
Speaking Ministry Details
More About Anna Wood
My name is Anna. Along with Jeff Crippen, I am the co-author of A Cry for Justice: How the Evil of Domestic Abuse Hides in Your Church. I’ve spent my life walking the broken pathway of abuse. I know its lonely, craggy, pathways far too well. My father was an abusive drunk. My mother became emotionally and verbally abusive when I was around 9. I was molested. I married into abuse. The horrors of abuse once defined my life. Now Jesus does.
I can’t say with certainty when God saved me, only that He did. I grew up in church, and believed myself to have been saved at age seven. Whenever God’s justifying work was actually done in me, I praise Him that it was. Broken bit by broken bit, God has worked on mending me. Daily He’s delved into my angry, broken heart, exchanging the ashes of a destroyed life for the beauty of His holy one. I’m a work in progress as we all are but, praise the Lord, He’s patient. He’s working on me still.
The lessons I’ve learned in the fires of abuse aren’t easy lessons. They’re lessons of dependency on God alone, of trust in His faithfulness in the blackest darkness, of hoping in His goodness when all hope was seemingly gone. As God comforts us not to make us comfortable but to make us comforters to others, it is my desire to come alongside abuse victims in their pain, and also alongside the church as she learns about abuse and how to minister to abuse victims, in order to share His glorious healing truth.
Soli Deo gloria!
Is it not highly irresponsible of Prof. Engelsma to look to Anna Wood as the expert he follows?
6. Prof. Engelsma for the most part seems to brush aside reformed theologians of past centuries and their treatment on the topic of desertion. Is this not a serious flaw in his treatment? What should we think about the following in relation to Prof. Engelsma’s treatment?
Calvin's Commentary on I Cor 7:10-11
10. To the married I command. He now treats of another condition of marriage — its being an indissoluble tie. Accordingly, he condemns all those divorces that were of daily occurrence among the heathens, and were not punished among the Jews by the law of Moses. Let not, says he, the husband put away his wife, and let not the wife depart from her husband. Why? Because they are joined together by an indissoluble bond. It is surprising, however, that he does not make an exception, at least in case of adultery; for it is not likely that he designed to curtail in anything the doctrine of Christ. To me it appears clear, that the reason why he has made no mention of this 399 is, that as he is discoursing of these things only in passing, he chose rather to send back the Corinthians to the Lord’s permission or prohibition, than to go over everything in detail. For when persons intend to teach anything in short compass, they content themselves with a general statement. Exceptions are reserved for a minuter and more extended and particular discussion.
But as to what he subjoins — not I, but the Lord — he intimates by this correction, that what he teaches here is taken from the law of God. For other things that he taught he had also from the revelation of the Spirit; but he declares that God is the author of this, in respect of its being expressly taken from the law of God. If you inquire as to the particular passage, you will nowhere find it in so many words; but as Moses in the beginning testifies, that the connection between a husband and wife is so sacred, that for the sake of it
a man ought to leave his father and mother. (Genesis 2:24.)
It is easy to gather from this, how inviolable a connection it is. For by right of nature a son is bound to his father and mother, and cannot shake off that yoke. As the connection of marriage is preferred to that bond, much less ought it to be dissolved.
11. But if she depart That this is not to be understood of those who have been put away for adultery, is evident from the punishment that followed in that case; for it was a capital crime even by the Roman laws, and almost by the common law of nations. But as husbands frequently divorced their wives, either because their manners were not congenial, or because their personal appearance did not please them, or because of some offense; 400 and as wives, too, sometimes deserted their husbands on account of their cruelty, or excessively harsh and dishonorable treatment, he says that marriage is not dissolved by divorces or dissensions of that nature. For it is an agreement that is consecrated by the name of God, which does not stand or fall according to the inclination of men, so as to be made void whenever we may choose. The sum is this: other contracts, as they depend on the mere inclination of men, are in like manner dissolved by that same inclination; but those who are connected by marriage are no longer free, so as to be at liberty, if they change their mind, to break in pieces the pledge, 401 (as the expression is,) and go each of them elsewhere in quest of a new connection. For if the rights of nature cannot be dissolved, much less can this, which, as we have said already, is preferred before the principal tie of nature.
But as to his commanding the wife, who is separated from her husband, to remain unmarried, he does not mean by this that separation is allowable, nor does he give permission to the wife to live apart from her husband; but if she has been expelled from the house, or has been put away, she must not think that even in that case she is set free from his power; for it is not in the power of a husband to dissolve marriage. He does not therefore give permission here to wives to withdraw, of their own accord, from their husbands, or to live away from their husband’s establishment, as if they were in a state of widowhood; but declares, that even those who are not received by their husbands, continue to be bound, so that they cannot take other husbands.
But what if a wife is wanton, or otherwise incontinent? Would it not be inhuman to refuse her the remedy, when, constantly burning with desire? I answer, that when we are prompted by the infirmity of our flesh, we must have recourse to the remedy; after which it is the Lord’s part to bridle and restrain our affections by his Spirit, though matters should not succeed according to our desire. For if a wife should fall into a protracted illness, the husband would, nevertheless, not be justified in going to seek another wife. In like manner, if a husband should, after marriage, begin to labor under some distemper, it would not be allowable for his wife to change her condition of life. The sum is this — God having prescribed lawful marriage as a remedy for our incontinency, let us make use of it, that we may not, by tempting him, pay the penalty of our rashness. Having discharged this duty, let us hope that he will give us aid should matters go contrary to our expectations.
Matthew Henry's Commentary on I Cor 7:10-11
In this paragraph the apostle gives them direction in a case which must be very frequent in that age of the world, especially among the Jewish converts; I mean whether they were to live with heathen relatives in a married state. Moses's law permitted divorce; and there was a famous instance in the Jewish state, when the people were obliged to put away their idolatrous wives, Ezra 10:3. This might move a scruple in many minds, whether converts to Christianity were not bound to put away or desert their mates, continuing infidels. Concerning this matter the apostle here gives direction. And,
OPC Issue Paper on Desertion which includes Scriptural Exegesis and Historical Review
https://pohopc.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/divorce-desertion_committee_final_report.pdf (Note: I am not a member of the OPC, but of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, but this is a thorough treatment on the topic worthy of consideration.)
7. In the video Prof. Engelsma defines “verbal abuse” as “degrading words that destroy her [the wife] emotionally…she does not know she is…Specialists in abuse call this ‘loss of personhood’”. He then relates this modern psychological jargon to the term “railer” or “reviler” in I Corinthians 5:11 and 6:10. I Corinthians 5:11 reads: “But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.”
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon references Proverbs 25:24 as having a word with same essential meaning as a “railer” in I Corinthians 5:11: “It is better to dwell in the corner of the housetop, than with a brawling woman and in a wide house.” The Greek Septuagint uses the same word for “brawling woman” as found in the Greek New Testament for “railer” in I Corinthians 5:11 and “reviler” in 6:10.
Given this relation, why does Prof. Engelsma target men as the primary violators of the sin of being a railer when scripture itself does not do that? Indeed, could one not make the case that it is more typically a female sin in the context of marital relations, based upon what is indicated in Proverbs?
Furthermore, Proverbs 25:24 in no way warrants a spouse to leave the home, but just the opposite, as addressed in 3. So why does Prof. Engelsma take it in this un-Biblical direction?
8. Prof Engelsma asserts in the video that “invariably the abuser will lie to church authorities and deny it”. But is Prof. Engelsma not himself guilty of being a false accuser and false judge when he states the following:
“When a wife takes action or seeks
help alleging abuse, abuse on the part of the husband is almost always, indeed
invariably, a reality. A consistory may safely believe
the woman. Naturally,
the woman desires to maintain her marriage and family intact…“How
does one approach a husband about sin he has denied from day one, but whose wife
has left him because of alleged abuse? In a situation in which it is unknown
whom to believe, will this cause more harm to young children who are still in
the church? As a matter of right terminology, if a husband and a wife are
living separately because of the husband’s abuse, the wife has not left the
husband, but the husband has driven the wife away. In the case of the husband’s
denying the abuse, the consistory must determine guilt. They do this by closely
questioning the man, by questioning the man
and the woman together, and, if necessary and possible, by questioning the children who may be members of the family. Involving the children in the questioning will be harmful to the children, but the fault lies not with the consistory but with the abusive husband. Even when the husband persists in denying abuse, the consistory will be able to determine that the wife is telling the truth and that the man is lying. Unless in the extremely rare case the consistory is inclined to doubt the woman and to believe the man, the consistory will then charge the man with both the sin of murder (in abusing his wife) and the sin of lying.” ( http://exprc.freeforums.net/thread/627/spousal-abuse-follow#ixzz63JaNnF5l )
“Since abusers are so secretive and deceptive and seemingly good people in public, what are some of the signal symptoms of an abused wife that the church can look for? Abusers of their wife are all the things that this question suggests. They present an appearance in society and in the church that impresses everyone (except the wife and children). This is a reason why, when the wife finally cries out for help, the response of society and church is that her complaint cannot possibly be true. They blame her rather than the abusive husband, thus adding to her misery. This is why, as the rule, the church ought to accept her complaint as true, and doubt her husband’s denial of the wife’s charge against him.” Does the above have the marks of even-handed justice? How can the church authorities make a determination if there are no witnesses and the spouses disagree? And why does Prof. Engelsma lie by saying “When a wife takes action or seeks help alleging abuse, abuse on the part of the husband is almost always, indeed invariably, a reality”? Is Prof. Engelsma wiser than God who inspired the book of Proverbs and paints a different picture of the reality of human relations? Is it not an unjust judge who would convict a man of murder and lying on such insufficient evidence?
9. Per the video Prof Engelsma looks to “experts and specialists” to find out what makes the supposed abuser tick. He says they say the reason is “entitlement”, and Prof. Engelsma agrees.
In order to understand the theoretical underpinnings of what Prof Engelsma says here, it is necessary to look at humanistic psychology resources such as http://stoprelationshipabuse.org/educated/what-causes-relationship-abuse/ , which says:
“Relationship abuse is a choice and it is a learned behavior. For these reasons, it is difficult to say that relationship abuse is caused by any one single factor. However, the following beliefs and attitudes are common for abusers:
· Sense of entitlement
· A belief they should have power and control over their partner
· Belief that they can get away with it
· Learned experience that being abusive gets them what they want
· Belief that their lives should take priority
… Throughout history, societies around the world have systematically devalued and oppressed women. In the United States, steps to make intimate partner abuse illegal began only in the twentieth century. Many continue to see men’s violence against women as a historical problem, but the reality is that 1 in 3 women worldwide and in the United States continue to be abused and raped by a partner. It wasn’t until 1993 that marital rape was considered a crime in all 50 states. Having a common understanding of the causes of domestic violence can help communities develop more effective responses to victims and perpetrators. Such an understanding helps us to avoid offering conflicting responses that could undermine efforts to protect victims and hold batterers accountable.
Feminist theory sees men’s violence against women as a result of a
patriarchal structure. “Patriarchal means of control are often subtle and
deeply entrenched, with the most violent forms not emerging until patriarchal
control is threatened–as when individual women leave or threaten to leave relationships
or groups of women assert their rights.”
Gelles (1997) Intimate Violence in Families
· The feminist gender politics model theory about domestic violence holds that male control over women is present in many areas, ranging from intimate relationships to economic life. Most men do not abuse women, but any man can be a perpetrator. Additionally, any woman can become a victim: there has been no specific personality trait found that makes a person more likely to experience abuse–the primary shared trait of victims is being “female.” Victims of relationship abuse are often forced to stay in those relationships because of fear, lack of support, and victim-blaming by friends and larger communities.
· Exchange or “choice” theory builds on the feminist model, suggesting that men choose to behave abusively toward their female partners because they can get away with it and because doing so gets them what they want in the form of power and control. Ultimately, men abuse women because they can…”
Now Prof. Engelsma obviously does not go anywhere near this far, and he does acknowledge that the husband is head over his wife. But why is Prof. Engelsma leaning at all on “experts and specialists” instead of keeping to historic reformed theologians and theology? Why does he borrow concepts and theories regarding “abuse” and “entitlement” from such modern wicked sources as above, even if they are filtered through professing Christians like Crippen and Wood? Is there no danger of syncretism?
10. At https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ijEhMGBDS8&t=514s Prof Engelsma condemns churches and church officers who do not follow his view. Is this placing false guilt?
11. At https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ijEhMGBDS8&t=514s Prof Engelsma says without qualification the so called “abuser” is damned if he does not repent. Is Prof. Engelsma warranted in making such an unqualified assertion? What about Prof. Engelsma? Will he be damned for his unrepented of sinfulness, even if they are sins of ignorance?
12. At https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ijEhMGBDS8&t=514s Prof Engelsma says often professional help (specifically psychologists) from outside the church is necessary in cases of spousal abuse. He says the pastor can counsel spiritually, but the psychologist is necessary for counseling because of the expertise such has. What theology do such psychologists have? Is it reformed Christian? Does that not matter? Is it the mark of wisdom to encourage Christians to go to psychologists often steeped in un-Biblical views for counsel? Is there a Biblical basis for laying that moral burden on church members?
13. Per Prof. Engelsma’s article “Questions and Answers Regarding the Speech on Spousal (Wife) Abuse” available for reading at http://exprc.freeforums.net/thread/627/spousal-abuse-follow#ixzz63JZJgGL6 , Prof. Engelsma advises this course of action for the allegedly abused wife:
“Scripture does not permit divorce on the ground of abuse. Scripture recognizes one ground for divorce: fornication on the part of one’s husband or wife. Scripture also forbids a husband to drive his wife away from him by abusing her. But if the husband does wickedly drive his wife away from himself, there is nothing the woman can do to prevent the physical separation. In this case, even though she does not divorce her husband, who remains her husband, there are remedies at law for her physical and financial distress. The state recognizes legal separation and provides for the protection and financial support of women in such circumstances. The woman who is driven from her home and husband by an abusive husband should seek good legal counsel.Keep in mind that Prof. Engelsma has included within “abuse” the category of “emotional abuse”, as previously explained. Also keep in mind what Prof. Engelsma says regarding elder adjudication of what is truth:
“When a wife takes action or seeks help alleging abuse, abuse on the part of the husband is almost always, indeed invariably, a reality. A consistory may safely believe the woman.”
“… as the rule, the church ought to accept her complaint as true, and doubt her husband’s denial of the wife’s charge against him.”
So Prof. Engelsma is advising under the above circumstances that the woman should get an attorney and have US civil courts handle the matter. Is that consistent with I Corinthians 6, given how US civil courts embrace no-fault divorce, so called “gay marriage”, etc.? (“Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?...”)
14. Is not Matthew Henry’s treatment in his commentary on I Peter 3:7 on the necessary relation between husband and wife much more sound than that promoted by Prof Engelsma? Why would Prof Engelsma ever look to Anna Wood and not sound reformed Christian theologians and ministers like Matthew Henry, Wilhelmus a Brakel, and John Calvin? But even if Prof Engelsma does not, should not we?