Biblical Counseling, Domestic Abuse, Victim Safety, Heath Lambert
The Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC) will be holding their annual meeting this fall addressing Biblical counseling and abuse. Leading up to this event I thought it might be a good idea to look at how Biblical counseling addresses domestic abuse.
Heath Lambert is the Executive Director of ACBC and spoke on Restoration After Abuse. In this speech, he discusses two extremes of how Christians respond to abuse. Christians will either tell a victim to get out of the abusive relationship or they will tell the victim to submit more and pray more. He then offers a lengthy response on how to help a victim to restore relationship yet keep her safe.
And so that’s the tension. We want to aim for restoration. We want to believe that this abusive man can change and their marriage can be restored, but we also need to be sure that we’re doing what we can do to keep this woman safe. And so that is the tension, and I think the way you resolve it is with a couple of different things.
One is: violent men have to be separated from their wives and their families for a season in order to establish trust. There has to be some kind of separation here. Usually that’s going to mean the people in the church, if it’s possible, removing him from the home, giving him a place to stay so that the wife and kids can operate in their home in an as uninterrupted a way as possible. If that’s not possible, and if you have a very violent man who’s not listening to reason, then you might have to have the wife and her kids come stay with a family in the church or with a family member or some place else safe. But there has to be some separation so that we can figure out what’s going on and so that we can establish trust. In the early stages of dealing with this, one of the principles that I’ve observed is that a husband only sees his wife during times of intense counseling. (bolding added)
And so you’re out, you’re staying somewhere else, you’re staying with a friend, you’re in an apartment or your family is out staying some place else, and the time you’re with your wife is when you’re meeting for counseling or to work on the problems. And you should have a situation where you’re getting intensive counseling certainly in the early weeks where two, three times a week you’re meeting together to deal with the urgent issues that have come from this revelation of abuse. (bolding added)
I will address the potential of setting up a stalking situation later, but the first issue with this scenario that stands out is when a violent husband is separated from his wife the only time he is to see her is during intense counseling. No, no, NO! Couples counseling is good when there are relationship issues. Abuse is not a relationship issue! Abuse is about power and control by the abusive partner.
Couples counseling implies that the problem of abuse lies with both partners. Abuse is always the perpetrator’s problem, not the victim’s problem. Abusers may sabotage counseling sessions by attempting to get the counselor on his side. On the other hand, if the counselor is siding with the victim, the abuse may increase as the abuser tries to regain power and control of the relationship. A victim may not feel safe to speak up about her experiences for fear of retaliation, and an abuser will not be totally honest about his actions. Couples counseling is neither the best option nor the best practice when abuse is present.
A victim needs to seek individual counseling to deal with the trauma of her abuse. Likewise, a perpetrator committed to change needs to seek counseling that specializes in treating abusers.
Heath Lambert’s counseling solution continues on with:
Slowly, over time you can begin to increase the amount of supervised time that a couple spends together. We will be together, but we’ll go out with some couple friends of ours who know about the problem who are working with us. Or maybe a Christian couple who is coming with us to go to the park and our kids can play while we sit and talk. And then after that’s gone on for a while and you’re making progress, then you can slowly increase the amount of unsupervised time. This would be where a husband takes his wife on a date. They go out to dinner, they go out to do something fun together, and they’re alone, but they’re alone in public, and they’re alone for a shorter amount of time so that we can continue to evaluate this kind of thing. Eventually, you want to slowly begin to reestablish the couple in the same house. And I say you slowly want to do that, and that might be the husband comes home from work, has dinner, helps put the kids to bed, but then goes and stays where he’s been staying for a while. Slowly establish them in the house.
Then maybe he spends the weekend, and we’re just establishing that this seems that it’s going well. Through all of that we’re watching two things: we’re watching one, the comfort level of the wife. She knows this guy. She knows him better than anybody else. And if she is saying, “I feel really good about this. I think he’s different,” then that really is a judgment that matters. And on the other hand, if she’s saying, “Something’s not right. He’s acting strangely,” then that is a judgment that really matters as well. So we’re watching for her response and paying attention to that. And then, the other thing we’re watching are signs of repentance from him.
The point there is to give some indicators of what it looks like when someone who is guilty of sin is really turning at the level of their heart from that sin. We want to be as Christians watching this man to see is he demonstrating these marks of repentance. If he’s not, we have a problem, but if he is, we can start to feel good about these slow, steady steps towards restoration, but also keeping this woman safe in the midst of this process.
Back to the potential stalking situation….This scenario is focusing on a violent abuser. Does the counselor even consider the fact that when a violent, controlling abuser is separated from his victim he will probably do all he can to find her? Abusers don’t give up their victims that easily. Are they that naive that a violent abuser will easily agree to separation?
Lambert suggests that everything is done purposefully to ensure the victim’s safety. How is the progression of monitored date nights to moving back in together keeping the victim safe? Who is ensuring that the violent husband is following all the steps? Is there a third party spending the weekend at the home during home visits to make sure the violent spouse is non-violent? This is a recipe for disaster.
In the world of victim advocacy, safety plans are developed with victims for the purpose of the victim to identify ways to keep herself safe. A good safety plan is tailored to an individual’s unique situation. The scenario above is far from safety planning!
I am guessing that Heath Lambert is considered the expert of Biblical counseling since he is the Executive Director of ACBC. I strongly question his qualifications as an expert in abusive behavior and abusive power dynamics if this is his solution when dealing with a violent offender. This leaves me extremely concerned for how Biblical counselors will be trained in October to assist victims of domestic abuse. More importantly, I am concerned about the safety of domestic abuse victims who go to any “Biblical counselors” for help.
If you are experiencing domestic abuse and would like help please email us at SpiritualSB@gmail.com. Or, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 to speak with a victim advocate.
**Updated to add: I plan on writing more about how Biblical counseling addresses abuse. If you have experience of going through Biblical counseling to deal with domestic abuse and would like to share your story, please email us or send us a private message through our Facebook page. You may share anonymously and share as little or as much as you would like. We want to honor your story.
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