What is Abuse?

June 30th, 2019 by posted in Counseling, Marriage and Family, Suffering

So, What is Abuse?

The counselor cannot assume that a counselee is suffering actual injustice simply because the counselee presents with such a complaint. The topic is also difficult because the definition of abuse is so subjective. And, over the past few years the perimeters that have fenced in the definition have expanded from physical abuse to now verbal and emotional abuse. In fact, some counselees we see have gone so far as to define abuse as anytime their spouse disagrees with them. When your children talk about a mean teacher, many times it is simply because the teacher disagrees with them.

I am concerned that in much of what we currently call abuse, we are being driven by the culture, more than shaped by the Word. Could the cultural terms that are used incorrectly interpret how the Bible defines situations/circumstances? Could our counselees, and even counselors, be mishandling the Word because they are looking at it through the cultural lens of abuse? Could we, possibly, be reacting more to the pressure of the current MeToo type movements than to the biblically defined terms which have been substituted with the term abuse?

One of the problems that the counselor must identify is how the counselee is interpreting the behavior of the so-called oppressor. Everyone is dealing with the same set of facts. Not everyone is gathering, interpreting and responding to the facts in the same way. People tend to ascribe motives to the actions and behavior of others. In the case of the counselee who feels they are being unjustly treated, this is even more acute. Even in a case as simple as children with their mean teacher, when someone does something we don’t like our response is almost always negative. The counselee is interpreting the behavior of the so-called oppressor through a lens that colors her understanding of what may or may not be true. In her case her perception is reality, even though her perception may really be incorrect. One of the greatest threats to relationships occurs when people regularly interpret each other’s behaviors negatively. When this happens even good behaviors like kindness are interpreted in a negative light.[3]

Is This True Abuse?

The often difficult task of the biblical counselor is to determine, especially in the case of unjust treatment, if and when occasional sin has become a pattern of sin. The counselor walks a tightrope of discovery. He must take the accusations of the so called sufferer seriously, while at the same time being careful not to rush to judgment without thoroughly understanding both sides (Proverbs 18:17). The problem of false allegations is real in the United States and thus it is also real in our churches. “32 states laws don’t require any physical assault. Someone can receive a protective order for feeling afraid, apprehensive or experiencing emotional distress. The case that shows the flaws in the protective order process the most is one that involved late night TV host David Letterman. In 2005 a woman who never met the comedian filed for and received a protective order against Letterman because he was allegedly beaming televised code words and seductive eye gestures at her. Because there was no requirement for a physical altercation, the order was granted.”[4]

The organization to Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE) published a Special Report on the Expanding Definitions of Domestic Violence that is helpful in our understanding of the expanding definitions of oppression that our counselees are reading and hearing about. From 1997 to 2003, it is estimated that states enacted 1,500 new domestic violence laws, an average of 30 per state over the 7-year period.[5] While the definitions of abuse at one time almost exclusively referred to physical violence, the broadening definition now includes psychological injustice. “The most common strategy has been to define violence in terms of its alleged psychological impact. This is done both by expanding the definition of physical assault to include emotional distress, and by establishing new categories of offenses that are defined in large part by their psychological impact”[6] Many offenses that are now considered unjust oppression or abuse are indistinguishable from normal life activities. The National Victim Assistance Academy, supported by funds from the Department of Justice, has listed “extreme jealousy and possessiveness” and ignoring, dismissing, or ridiculing the victims’ needs” as examples of domestic violence.[7] The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has published a list of actions that it asserts to be examples of intimate partner violence, including “getting annoyed if the victim disagrees,” “withholding information from the victim,” and “disregarding what the victim wants.”[8]

Some laws, such as the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act include the word coercion in their statutes, yet they apply no definition for the term. “It should be noted that the word “coercion” is not defined in the proposed law. So if a person attempts to persuade a partner about where to go for dinner, what TV channel to watch, or what clothes to wear, such actions could be construed as coercive.”[9] The Special Report concludes,

This Special Report documents how domestic violence laws have defined domestic violence in increasingly broader—and more elusive—terms. In many states, domestic violence is now defined in expansive and essentially limitless terms such as “annoyance,” “fear,” or even “any other conduct.” Some groups are working to expand definitions even farther to encompass the constructs of “power and control,” an effort that defies comprehension by traditional legal norms. When almost any action can be construed as “abusive” and an allegation becomes essentially irrefutable, we have reached the point of criminalizing everyday partner interactions. What remains is an over-extended criminal justice system that finds itself incapable of helping the true victims.[10]

Because American Christians are often more products of their culture than products of Scripture, these expanding definitions present the counselee with pervasive and persuasive models by which we are to understand life and living. They are pervasive in that they are in the intellectual, academic, and government milieu in which we are immersed. They are persuasive in that they are generally argued from experience that seem to appear true.

Please do not read here that I am dismissing reprehensible behavior of oppressors. What I am calling for is that we apply standard, proven data gathering techniques to these situations as we would any other. What is actually going on? What are the biblical definitions for what is going on? Where do we go in the Scriptures to deal with these issues?

[3] John Mordechai Gottman and Nan Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, second ed. (New York: Harmony Books, 2015), 21.

[4] John Macdonald, False Allegations of Domestic Violence: More Common Than You Think, Law Office of John E. MacDonald Blog, (June 14, 2077), https://www.aggressivelegalservices.com/false-allegations-of-domestic-violence/, Accessed January 24, 2018).

[5] Miller N. What does research and evaluation say about domestic violence laws? A compendium of justice system laws and related research assessments. (Alexandria, VA: Institute for Law and Justice), 2005. Footnote 28. http://www.ilj.org/publications/dv/DomesticViolenceLegislationEvaluation.pdf (Accessed October 12, 2016).

[6] Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE), “Special Report on the Expanding Definitions of Domestic Violence”, (Rockville, MD. November 2010), 3.

[7] Coleman G, Gaboury M, Murray M, Seymoor A (eds.) 1999 National Victim Assistance Academy. https://www.ncjrs.gov/ovc_archives/nvaa99/welcome.html, Accessed January 16, 2000.

[8] Saltzman LE et al. Intimate Partner Violence: Uniform Definitions and Recommended Data Elements. (Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control. 2002). p. 62. http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/pubres/ipv_surveillance/00_Preliminary_Matter.htm , (Accessed October 19, 2017)

[9] Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE), “Special Report on the Expanding Definitions of Domestic Violence”, (Rockville, MD. November 2010), 7.

[10] Ibid. 8.


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