What We Believe
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Is It Abuse? A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims, by Darby A. Strickland. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2020, 353 pages, $19.99, paper.

According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, “one in four women experience severe physical violence from an intimate partner.”[1]

That statistic is cited in Darby Strickland’s excellent new book Is It Abuse? A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims. Strickland goes on to point out that these numbers do not change inside the church—even the evangelical church. Indeed, one study found that religious leaders believed one-fifth of couples in their churches were violent— “and 9.3 percent of the surveyed pastors had counseled five or more abused women during the previous year alone” (28).

Such startling figures make this urgent reading for pastors, church leaders, counselors, and other concerned Christians; but of course, Strickland offers more than mere statistics.

Published by P&R in September, Is It Abuse? makes an invaluable resource, offering wise counsel to sufferers, abusers, and those seeking to alleviate abuse—though Strickland prefers the more biblical term “oppression.” As she writes in her introductory note, “I hope to equip you to think biblically about oppression and to teach you how to be a trusted guide for those who are enslaved and ensnared” (15). And indeed, she fully meets these goals. With a counseling degree from Westminster Theological Seminary and seventeen years of experience at the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF), Strickland has given us a book that is, in her own words, “both biblical and practical in every chapter” (15–16).

As a long-time OPC elder in a church with many families, I found it tremendously useful and illuminating. One eye-opener is its dissection of the motives behind abuse and oppression. As Strickland points out, it is less a matter of anger and violence than of control, entitlement, and rampant self-centeredness. Rather than “losing their temper” due to some past trauma or outside influence, “oppressors are not out of control; they seek control. Oppressors are driven by their selfishness and their desire to dominate their spouses”—by an intensely narcissistic resolve to have all their needs met, all the time: “Oppressors do not oppress because they are wounded or weak; they wound so that they can make their world the way they want it” (34).

Another vital takeaway is the extraordinary patience required of anyone trying to help wives escape domestic violence. (And yes, Strickland shows it’s almost always female spouses who are thus victimized.) These women are often so exhausted, so confused, so badly gaslighted—so shamed and guilty from lies, attacks, and accusations—that they cannot even see the reality of their situation. It sometimes takes years of counseling before there is movement toward freedom—and if the counselor pushes too soon, an abuser may sense he is losing control and intensify his hurtful tactics.

Along the same lines, Strickland is often brutally honest about her own missteps in counseling—and this again serves as a wake-up call to church leaders. Too often an abusive husband, being skilled in control, can manipulate a counseling session so it looks like everything is the wife’s fault (which he’s already made her believe anyway). And just as Strickland recounts her own successes and failures, she likewise shows common errors churches make in addressing abuse, together with real-life examples of their right reactions—plus a hands-on appendix called “Ten Ways to Educate Your Church.” One common thread in all this is that many oppressive husbands are at the same time active and respected in church, perhaps even actual leaders and teachers—and this makes their victimized wives very hesitant to come forward, naturally fearing they will not be believed.

That particular appendix is one of six, addressing such practical issues as “Red Flags During Dating,” “Abusive Argument Inventory,” and “Who Are Domestic Abuse Experts?” Other helpful resources include case studies, many questions for personal reflection, and screening questionnaires for both victims and helpers.

But perhaps the book’s strongest aspect is the way it grounds its discussion in Scripture. In addressing abuse and abusers, Strickland applies such texts as 1 Peter 3:7; Ephesians 4:29–32 and 5:25–30; 1 Corinthians 13:4–8; and the oppressive tactics of the Pharisees as lambasted in Matthew 23:1–12. To help victims, Strickland cites Psalms 10:1 and 118:13; and for helpers, Colossians 3:12, Galatians 6:2, Ezekiel 34:15–16, and Luke 4:18. It’s amazing what bold and challenging new applications these well-known passages accrue in the context of domestic abuse.

Especially noteworthy is Exodus 6:9 in which the Israelites were unable to hear Moses’s message “because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery”—as well as a lengthy exegesis of the less-familiar bramble parable in Judges 9, which Strickland sees as a prime example of oppression: Brambles, she writes, “don’t protect (see Isa. 9:18). They don’t bear fruit (see Matt. 7:16). They consume the goodness of anything around them (see Isa. 5:6). … Their very existence is a curse (see Gen. 3:17–18), and the ground they inhabit has to be burned (see Heb. 6:8)” (77).

But by far her strongest use of Scripture is the frequent invocation of Christ’s character and ministry. In part, this is a model for helpers—but mostly, it is hope for victims. Rather than shaming with guilt and accusation—a frequent abuser tactic—Christ forgives, exonerates, and sanctifies. Though he actually possesses all the power oppressors really want, “He is the complete opposite of an oppressor in every way. Oppressors wield power and are unwilling to sacrifice it, … as they seek to build their own kingdoms.” Jesus, by contrast, “sacrificed everything for us. He demonstrated what kind of king he is when he put aside the strength and power of a king—not out of weakness, but out of meekness and for the benefit of those who are truly weak” (231).

In this way Is It Abuse? not only opens a much-needed window on this vital topic, but also demonstrates to victims and helpers how to get out through that window and into the light.

Endnotes

[1] Darby A. Strickland, Is It Abuse? A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2020), 27–28. All subsequent in-text page numbers are from this book.

Joseph W. Smith III is an elder in New Life Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Montoursville, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, January 2021.

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