Note: The “Biblical counseling” being critiqued here is actually nouthetic/admonishing counseling. There are many people who counsel Biblically who do not counsel this way.
This is the third and final installment in a series of articles of commentary on Caroline Newheiser’s lecture “Lving with an Angry Husband,” which you can listen to at this link here (and I especially encourage you to listen to it if you think I may be misrepresenting what Caroline says).
In her lecture, Caroline Newheiser explains the “right way” for a woman to ask for help with her angry (cruel) husband, and how church people should help.
First, she should ask the right way
Again, I’m astonished.
There are prerequisites, apparently, for how a woman seeking help with an angry husband—a husband whose cruelty is endangering her and her children and causing them to live in fear—is supposed to approach others for help.
Who she should and shouldn’t tell
She shouldn’t tell her mom and her sister about “what a jerk [she’s] married to” (31:25). Aside from the use of the word “jerk,” why in the world shouldn’t she tell her mom and her sister, assuming they’re safe people, about the cruel and dangerous man who is her husband? What is family for except to love and help each other in need? She should, in fact, tell them!
But according to Caroline, she should instead seek an “objective counselor.” What does Caroline mean? A counselor who will see the wife’s “sin” of being afraid of her angry husband as equally bad with her angry husband’s cruelty and terror? “Objective counselor.” Caroline uses the term twice without definining it. A counselor who might decide that the husband isn’t really an angry man after all, because he acts so cool, calm, and collected in the counseling office while the wife is shaking and seems very confused and obviously fearful? (“Here, here are some Bible verses for you to memorize about fear.”)
She should limit the number of people she tells, says Caroline. (32:58) She shouldn’t stand up at women’s prayer meeting and say, “Please pray for my husband; he’s in such sin.” But why not? Why shouldn’t she do that, if she’s married to a raging man? Why shouldn’t she ask for help anywhere she can? If she trusts the women at women’s prayer meeting, why not tell them all, hoping one of them will actually hear and care and help?
Oh, I see. Because we’re afraid of gossip. One of the worst of sins.
“The way you decide what’s gossip and what’s not,” Caroline says (32:38), “is you’re telling a person who needs to know who’s in a position to help.”
But what if I make the argument that everyone in the church needs to know about a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a devilish man who wears a mask on Sundays, who is destroying his family? What if I make the argument that every Christian should be in a position to help, even by simple awareness and prayer, if nothing else?
This kind of evil thrives in secret. It depends on leaders and teachers like Caroline telling the oppressed to limit the number of people you tell because it’s gossip if you stand up and talk about it in church.
It is not. It is not gossip to talk about it to the church. It’s high time we did, so that the horrific crimes like what Caroline told us about at the beginning of her lecture can be curtailed in the church, so that men who treat their family members with cruelty can be exposed.
The attitude the wife should have when she asks for help
“When she’s speaking about her husband, she shouldn’t be slandering or speaking evil about him. We all know that difference too.” (32:28)
No. No, I think there are many who don’t know the difference.
Some people think that if a woman says something that might injure her husband’s good reputation—even if she speaks the truth and even if it is a completely undeserved good reputation—that is slander. This should have been clarified but wasn’t.
Some people think that for a woman to speak about the evil a man has done (and there is great evil in our churches!) is “speaking evil” about him.
But that is not true.
“It’s like ‘Rar rar rar rar.’ She’s railing on this guy.” (32:35) Railing? Is that really the word you wanted to use? Maybe not, because here is a blog post about railing (here called “reviling”) that I think could benefit those who want to truly help rather than harm those who are in a desperate situation at home. It is the angry cruel husband who is the railer, not the wife who is seeking help!
Instead, Caroline uses a soft and gentle voice to indicate how a woman should ask for help with an angry husband (32:40). A desperate or angry voice won’t do. She doesn’t indicate if the people of the church should refuse to help a woman who doesn’t approach them correctly with the gentleness and meekness and demureness they think she should have. But it could be that after hearing this, they’ll assume that a woman who approaches them in the “wrong” way needs to go back home and learn a few more lessons before asking for help.
At 39:30 Caroline says, “As we think about this poor lady, put yourself in her position. What would it take for her to tell someone about out of control anger? Assuming she’s not the one who likes to rag on him.” Do you see what she’s doing there? She sets up all these hoops to jump through for the traumatized wife to “do it right,” and then she adds that jab, which will put more doubt in all these counselors’ minds.
At 58:53 she says, “I want to remind these ladies who are in this situation not to complain, not to grumble against one another, right?” Well, yes, you already said that earlier in the part about how the wife has to come for help with the exactly perfect attitude.
But then . . . the next words . . . “And not to hide sin. . . . We are not hiding sin. We are not lying. [Then changing to a role-play voice.]
‘How’s it going?’
‘Where’d you get that broken arm?’
‘What happened to your face?’
‘Oh, it’s nothing.’
That’s lying, ok?”
Can you hear the groans emanating from behind this computer screen right now? They’re MY groans. I’m groaning and nearly crying tears of hot anger over how no matter which way this abused and fearful woman turns, she is going to be blamed for doing it wrong, even in the case of a husband who breaks her bones.
What the counselor should do
Of course all of the admonitions about what the wife should and shouldn’t do are really being given to the counselors, for them to admonish her about. In addition to that the counselor should . . .
At 30:25 Caroline says, “In the passage where we read that someone in the church should be wise enough among us to handle disputes among believers. there should be Christians who can do this.”
So this is disputes we’re talking about here? I thought it was “living with an angry husband.” Tim and I have handled “disputes,” but we’ve always handled them without ever raising our voices at each other. “Handling disputes” is most certainly not what this lecture was supposed to be about.
“We could spend time exploring why he’s angry, but we’re using the Scriptures, not just digging into the past.” (32:10) I’ve noticed that when “Biblical counselors” (actually nouthetic/admonishing counselors) refer to the typical counseling practice of finding out about a person’s past, they often use the term “digging into the past,” apparently to disparage it as if it’s a ridiculous and futile exercise.
And then, “The counsel should be directed toward restoration, not ‘let’s get on his case because he’s a bad person.’”
Seriously? Those are the only two options?
Apparently so, because there is no mention of the possibility that this man may need to be put out of the church like the man in 1 Corinthians 5, or that he is like Alexander the coppersmith, whom Paul warned Timothy about. There is no mention of even the remotest possibilty that he might be a wolf in sheep’s clothing or a root of bitterness exalting himself like a god to the detriment of everyone around him.
None. No acknowledgement that maybe he really is a bad person. Maybe he really is. Maybe he really needs someone to get on his case.
Tell the wife who she is
At 56:58, Caroline says, “We need to tell these women truth about who she is.” Oh, yes! That’s one of the things I do a lot. I remind my friends that they are eternal souls of worth and value and are not the pieces of garbage their cruel husbands have made them out to be.
Oh, but that isn’t what Caroine is saying, actually. Instead, she says, “She needs to hear that she’s a helper to her husband and it’s all right to get help for her marriage.”
Well, uh . . .
It’s a heavy burden to put on a woman, the burden of responsibility for her husband’s cruel anger. But that’s what this message delivers.
The Matthew 18 process with an angry (cruel) husband
Caroline does say that church people should help. If someone in church hears a husband talking down to his wife (36:22), he should speak to him directly and point out what he’s doing.
Again I want to emphasize that throughout this entire lecture, the examples Caroline Newheiser gives are examples of a woman whose life is in danger, and often her children’s lives as well. Every example she gives is an example of a cruel and violent man.
However, for some reason that is beyond my ability to grasp, she seems to think that with a man such as this, the Matthew 18 process of “going to a brother” should be practiced.
Steps one and two of the Matthew 18 process
So the wife who is the target of the cruel husband’s anger is supposed to take the first step of the Mattew 18 process herself (36:05), by speaking to him gently as described in Part One of this commentary.
The next step, of course, is to take one or two others along to speak to him. And all this time, the wife and children are in grave danger.
Then, Caroline says (37:00), if there are “continuing issues” with this cruel man, “then tell it to the church” (by which she means church leaders for some reason, rather than the whole church as indicated in Matthew), because “these are the shepherds who have the responsibility to care for the sheep, and they won’t know what’s going on unless someone tells them.”
So apparently the church leaders aren’t even supposed to know about the angry husband’s cruelty until step one and step two of the Matthew 18 process have both been followed? Is that really what she means?
There is a mention here (38:24) of the role of the government, “God’s instrument of protection,” when wives are threatened and the angry husband “doesn’t care what the church leaders think.” No mention of what to do if the angry, cruel husband pretends to care what the church leaders think while he continues to terrify his family members at home.
Practicing radical hospitality
I’ve heard stories about what a disaster it is for women when they’ve tried to get help from the church, and Caroline acknowledges that (45:00). “This is where the church steps up,” she says. “I will go with you.”
That sounds good . . . except I think, “And then what?”
But she doesn’t follow through with this one. Instead she goes on to make a bold recommendation: that the wife and children should be hidden in a church member’s home from this dangerous man, an undertaking that she calls “radical hospitality” (47:20).
Yes, this is a good idea, very good, in theory, but in reality I don’t think I’ve known of any churches that have done such a thing. However, almost every city has safe houses run by domestic abuse shelters, gated and guarded, and this might be a more sensible choice. But Caroline doesn’t mention this possibility, apparently because everything is supposed to be done within the church.
Right after she says the church should put the wife in a place where the angry husband cannot find her (45:55), she tells the story of how her very own great-grandmother was killed by an enraged husband, because he figured out that his wife was hiding at her great-grandmother’s house.
That might put a bit of a damper on a church family’s desire to help in this way. But it certainly does highlight how dangerous these husbands can be.
But of course all this is dependent on the church actually believing her . . .
And one of the fears mentioned only a minute later (48:50) is that when the abused wife reports her husband to the church leaders, they won’t believe her. Caroline says, “I could tell you stories of how many women have come up to church leaders and said, ‘I’m desperate; he’s out of control,’ and they don’t believe her . . . and more than likely if they’re buds, the husband’s going to hear about it. And then we get into these really dangerous situations, potentially.”
Ok, I see that she gets it. She’s explaining it exactly the way it goes down.
But . . . what?
How is this to be resolved? When the church people don’t believe the wife?
There is no answer. This is left hanging.
The one-two punch at the end
After mentioning the fear of the future (52:10), Caroline tells the story of a young woman who was able to leave her “violent household” (yes, she said that), and though she lived in poverty for a while, was able to get more education and a good job. So, she says, “you get a woman out of this environment where she’s betlittled, screamed at, called names,” and you show her God’s love, she can learn how to start over.
Good. That’s good. That’s really good.
So then . . .
Caroline’s very last point, at the end of the lecture (59:40), right after admonishing abused women not to lie about their broken bones or bruised face (above), was “Let’s not use the husband’s anger as a reason to escape the covenant of marriage.”
Was she saying that woman she used as a good example there, an example of breaking free . . . that she was still married?
I can only assume that must be the case. But it makes no sense.
Caroline Newheiser’s lecture, in trying to offer helpful ideas for a woman married to an angry, cruel husband, instead ends up offering confusion. She does describe how bad the problem is, but ultimately offers no viable solution. Overall, the takeaway message for counselors and others is (1) that the wife is ultimately responsible to take care of all her own sin first and to approach her husband and then the church leaders in the perfect way in order to help her angry, cruel husband overcome his anger and cruelty, and (2) that the angry, cruel husband will not be punished by the church, but will be “restored.”
My prayer is that more and more people who love our Lord Jesus Christ will realize how very dangerous is this kind of “uncertain sound” teaching and will instead take action against the wicked wolves in sheep’s clothing who are proliferating more and more in our churches. This, with the protection of the oppressed, will be one vital way our Lord will be glorified in our congregations.