Note: I put the term “Biblical counseling” in quotation marks not because I believe it’s wrong to counsel with the Bible. (Just the opposite is true, in fact.) But rather, because a certain group of people (nouthetic/”admonishing” counselors) have co-opted this term to apply to their style of counseling, when other counseling that uses the Bible (sometimes called “Christian counseling”) could also be called Biblical counseling.

*****

Recently I listened to a lecture from Caroline Newheiser from the Institute of Biblical Counseling and Discipleship (IBCD) summer 2017 conference (link). I wanted to hear it for two reasons: In this talk Caroline was teaching other “Biblical counselors” (that is, nouthetic/”admonishing” counselors) how to counsel on the topic “Living with an Angry Husband” (link), and this information is pertinent to my interactions. And also, Caroline is the wife of Jim Newheiser, who is now the Director of the Christian Counseling Program at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC (about whom I’ve heard some interesting things) and a respected teacher in her own right.

Since the friend who had told me about the lecture hadn’t been able to finish listening to it because it was so upsetting to her, my introduction to it was at least somewhat inauspicious.

The first twelve minutes

But Caroline started well.

She actually spent the first twelve minutes of an hour-long lecture speaking about the terrible problem of angry and violent husbands. She told of news stories about . . .

. . . a man who had killed his wife who had an order of protection against him. He had previously dug a hole and told her he would put her in it if she didn’t stay with him.

. . . a man who had critically injured his infant son.

. . . a man who was accused of murder after his wife died of burns.

And more. Several more.

Then she described other ways angry men abuse their families (though she never used the word “abuse”). He might have an unpredictable temper, threatening to hurt or kill the wife, children, or pets. He might destroy property, drive recklessly, and brandish weapons.

And more. She talked about more.

She talked about a husband who exercises his control through the silent treatment or refusing to allow his wife to have friends or go to church. She talked about how he will manipulate her guilt and fear as a means of control.

She told us that far more policemen are killed in the line of duty for domestic violence than any other type of call. For law enforcement, domestic violence calls are the deadliest calls of all.

She told a story about a church that had established a house for battered women next to the church, but the husbands too easily found out where their wives were, so the building wasn’t safe to use.

For twelve minutes she went on about how very dire this situation is. Her outspokenness was encouraging.

And yet I was puzzled. The title of the talk was “Living with an Angry Husband.” But Caroline was describing situation after situation in which a woman should not live with this husband at all, but should escape. If she didn’t escape, according to Caroline’s own examples, she or her children could very well end up severely harmed or dead.

Comparing with the Texas gunman

Because Caroline referenced many news articles she had found in just a week’s time, I was reminded of a news story that came out some months after she spoke—the Texas gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley, who killed 26 people in a Texas church this past November 5th.

Devin was an angry husband.

Devin Patrick Kelley

Here was a man who fit right in with Caroline’s news articles, except that his violence was great enough to make national news, not just local.

His 25-year-old ex-wife, Tessa Brenneman, said in an interview that during one interaction, “He had a gun in his holster right here and he took that gun out, and he put it to my template [sic] and he told me, ‘Do you want to die? Do you want to die?'” 

Tessa Brennaman (formerly Kelley)

That was just one of several such accounts. In 2012 Kelley had admitted even to fracturing his infant stepson’s skull.

So in my mind I had these two things in juxtaposition:

— On the one hand, the news articles about murderers who are domestic abusers, with Devin Patrick Kelley as Exhibit A.

— And on the other hand, what Caroline Newheiser had to say about “Living with an Angry Husband.”

I’m all ears.

Failing to distinguish between an angry husband and a husband who gets angry

As I continued to listen to a lecture that increasingly confused me and generated many double takes and and “what in the world”s and caused me to take off my glasses and rub my temples, I finally understood that this is the distinction Caroline didn’t draw. Throughout the lecture the examples she gave were of angry husbands who would fit right in with Devin Patrick Kelley, gun brandishing and skull smashing—the cruel ones who caused their families to live in fear.

But the advice she gave, throughout the lecture, almost exclusively applied only to wives who are married not to “angry [cruel] husbands” but to husbands who sometimes get angry. She referred to them once as “the everyday run-of-the-mill aggravated husband.” (23:40) But that was when she was giving advice, not when she was describing the problem.

I have a wonderful husband and often refer to him here on my blog as a man of wisdom and grace that I’m very thankful for. But through the years, there have been two notorious sets of circumstances under which he would get angry. One was when I would do something genuinely stupid (which, alas, has been the case a few times through the years, like the time I threw away the key to the lawnmower . . .). I would say to my friends, “I can tell when he’s upset with me because when he’s talking I can see his dimple.” Was I ever afraid of him during those times? No, never. Instead his great self-control and gentleness melted my heart.

The other circumstance was when he would undertake house repairs that would go awry, especially plumbing repairs. His voice would get very tense, even shaky, as he would describe the new problem he had run into in the twenty-minute job that was taking all day. Sometimes I would help by handing him tools and such, but often I would want to just get out of the room.

But neither I nor the children were ever afraid of him.

In fact, that’s why we have other words for this kind of anger. Like aggravated (the one Caroline used) or frustrated or upset or irritated. Words that describe more or less normal reactions to living in a world with difficulties and challenges.

That’s so different from an “angry husband.” A solid definition of the “angry husband” as “a husband whose anger and cruelty causes his wife (and often children) to live in fear” would have helped for foundational grounding at the beginning of Caroline’s lecture. But it didn’t happen.

I believe Caroline didn’t intend to sound an uncertain call with this lecture, but because of this problem and others, that’s what she did. Because of confusing an angry husband (whose cruelty causes his wife to live in fear) with a husband who gets angry (but with whom there is no fear) her lecture snapped my neck around so many times I nearly got whiplash.

For just one example, she advised to speak gently to your angry husband, telling him you want to help him, “and a lot of husbands will respond right away to this.” (29:50) So I’m thinking, ok, in that place she’s not really describing an “angry [cruel] husband”; she’s describing a husband who gets angry sometimes (aggravated, frustrated, irritated, etc). But no, she then immediately followed that with “Do you think he’s happy when he’s full of rage and slamming things around?”

What? What?

I can’t even imagine my husband—who, as I described, would get angry sometimes—ever doing something like that. If that were to happen, I would be in fear and would huddle in the farthest corner of the house I could find or get away if I could.

So when he’s doing that, the wife is supposed to speak gently and ask how she can help him? Will she not be in danger of losing a couple of teeth . . . or worse? Is this what Devin Patrick Kelley’s wife should have done when he was holding a gun to her head?

I felt this confusion and this kind of mental whiplash here and there throughout the lecture. I wondered if the women who sat under Caroline’s lecture felt it too.

Jumping into “look at your own sin first”

But back to the chronological order.

After the twelve minutes of unqualified exposure of the wickedness of these violent men, Caroline spent a while talking about what marriage should be, with the expected explanations about roles, etc.

Then, to my absolute shock—in fact, my mouth dropped open—in reference to what is commonly called “resistive violence” (fighting back), she said at about minute 14:35, “Sorry, but I have to talk about the wife’s role in this.” She made reference to a “screaming match going on” and talked about how the wife’s anger is one of the “deeds of the flesh” in Galatians 5.

What? What?

Can you run that one by me again?

Devin Kelley’s ex-wife said in her interview that when he told her he had cracked her infant son’s skull, “I was so angry.”

She was angry because her infant son’s skull had just been cracked on purpose.

“We know that it takes two to have a fight,” Caroline said at 16:43. “Remember Galatians 5:15, ‘But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.’”

What? What?

She’s comparing the wife’s pushing back against the anger as equal with the angry husband’s anger—the kind of anger that produces the cruelty that had been described in the first twelve minutes? My head began to feel like it was going to split, and we were only 15 minutes into an hour-long talk. Things were not looking good here, folks.

At 17:10 Caroline says that though on the one hand some marriages have the “screaming lady,” other marriages have a wife who is “filled with bitterness and hopelessness.”

And I thought, “Yes, that sounds about right. Bitterness (meaning grief, of course) and struggling with hopelessness (which is one big reason I write about hope often). Of course an angry husband would bring his wife to such a state. That’s what the church is supposed to be here for—to offer help and hope.”

But ah! to our astonishment we see that by her tone of voice and choice of words, we are actually in some measure being encouraged to look down on the woman struggling with bitterness and hopelessness! Caroline charges these wives of angry, violent husbands, of wanting—of all things—to give up on the marriage. “She’s turning to what she thinks is the answer, to escape and get out of the marriage, with justification, is perhaps how she thinks about it.”

No, Tessa Brennaman Kelley. It didn’t matter that he cracked your infant son’s skull or held a gun to your head. You cannot be angry, and you cannot give up on your marriage. Apparently you should have still been his wife when he took assault weapons into that church and killed 26 people. Stand by your man.

And my head is down in my hands again and I’m rubbing my temples.

How Caroline can on the one hand describe situations that are the stuff of nightmares, covenant-breaking experiences that cause such trauma a person can take many years to recover. . . .

And on the other hand issue these rebukes? They’re gently spoken rebukes, granted, but they are rebukes nonetheless. At minute 21:40 she again says, “We’ve got to have a look at the wife’s sin first.”

When I thought she was finally done talking about the wife’s sin, she picked up on it again at 26:55, so while she talked I needed to take off my glasses again and hold my pounding head and heave a heavy sigh. . . . It was at 26:55 that she said the wife needs to deal with her own sinful anger by getting “that great big log” out of her own eye, according to her interpretation of Matthew 7:3-5. “You can’t deal with his sin if you’re full of anger yourself.”

Oh?

If Tessa Brennaman Kelley was angry about Devin Patrick Kelley bashing her son’s skull, that means she couldn’t have taken the steps necessary to deal with what this criminal was doing? Apparently that protective anger she felt for her child was a “great big log” in her eye?

This is the kind of teaching that, if taken to heart, will keep abused women from being able to take any action in their abusive situations. An abused wife could take away from a lecture like this one: “Before I can do anything to address his anger that causes me to live in fear, I have to be completely free of any kind of sin in any reaction.” This is, after all, certainly what it sounds like Caroline is saying.

Though Caroline showed what I think was genuine concern for abused women (though she never named them as such), she still laced the lecture with talk that makes it sound like the wife is the cause of the anger. Is there a rule in “Biblical counseling” (nouthetic/”admonishing” counseling) that say no matter what the counselee comes in for, you have to talk about the counselee’s sin first? It sure seems like it.

Instead, though, we can assure a wife that when a man is “an angry husband”—that is, a husband whose anger and cruelty causes his wife and children to live in fear—the wife does not bear the blame for this fearsome anger. 

Although there seemed to be some half-hearted attempts to distinguish between wives who cause the anger and wives who don’t, I know from experience that the women with sensitive consciences will take all these words to heart and figure they must be the source of the problem. Their takeaway from a lecture like this one would be, “I need to try harder.”

Speak gently to him; that should do it

Throughout the lecture, Caroline brought in Scripture, especially Proverbs. Such as Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but harsh words stir up anger.”

Based on this verse, she told the wife to treat him gently, like a toddler (22:55), in order to get his anger to calm down. What a shame that you have to treat your husband like your toddler, but she goes on to say, “I don’t think this is going to solve this man who’s got the gun over here. I’m talking about everyday run of the mill aggravated husband.”

This was one of those confusing times, because when she described the problem, she referred to a man who slammed his fist into the wall or brandished a gun or injured the children and pets or destroyed his wife’s property. But when giving advice, she switches to the husband who simply gets aggravated (which would match with my description of my husband with the plumbing problems).

I think the reason for this switch here regarding Proverbs 15:1 was that Caroline herself had to admit that this verse doesn’t hold true 100% of the time. After all, Solomon wasn’t writing prescriptive statements that necessarily apply in every situation; he was simply making observations about life. And some of these verses in Proverbs, like Proverbs 15:1, simply don’t apply to a woman in a situation with an angry husband. Caroline herself knew it.

Another example of a verse that doesn’t always apply is the one Caroline quoted next, Proverbs 15:18, “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.” That is a wise observation, but it is simply not always true. It may take two to actually have a real fight, but it doesn’t take two to be contentious and stir up strife. It takes only one: the angry one.

Many women who are reading this blog post can testify that even when they were as quiet as a mouse, the contention didn’t cease, because of their hot-tempered and controlling husband. Often, even, many wives would have no idea what their husbands were raging about.

Think of him as a Proverbs fool

Though I believe there were some mis-applications of the Proverbs scriptures, overall I think this right here was the best counsel Caroline gave in the whole lecture (at 17:45 and again at 35:00), telling the roomful of counselors that when a woman sees her angry husband as a “fool” according to Proverbs, this can give her comfort.

I’ll go a step further and say that when the wife of such a fool looks up all the verses that apply to a fool and sees how her husband fits them, this will change her paradigm. It can be both a comfort and a move toward clarity and an impetus to do something. Caroline would say that “something” would be to get help from the church, who will make an effort to “restore” him (32:15), whereas I would say the “something” could include much more drastic action than this.

Summary thoughts

Though there was more to this lecture, which I hope to address soon, right now I want to make a few summary observations:

— Anyone lecturing on “the angry husband” should, I believe, distinguish between the “angry husband” and the husband who occasionally gets angry (better labelled frustrated or aggravated). The former uses cruelty to cause his family members to experience regular and ongoing fear; the latter does not. Devin Patrick Kelley was an outstanding example of an angry husband.

— “Looking at your own sin first” is, I believe, not a wise approach to dealing with a wife living with an angry (cruel) husband. I can only imagine what would have happened if Tessa Brennaman, Devin Patrick Kelley’s former wife, had followed advice like this. She never would have escaped and gotten to safety, because she hadn’t dealt with the “log” of her own “sin” (of anger for what he had done to her son, etc).

— “Speaking gently to him to assuage his anger” is, as Caroline herself admitted, often not the right way to deal with an angry (cruel) husband. Speaking gently can sometimes even cause his anger to escalate. I believe even Caroline would acknowledge that in Tessa Brennaman’s situation, when Devin was pointing the gun at her head, the onus was not on her to speak gently enough to get him to stop.

— An angry (cruel) husband is a Proverbs fool. Yes. Looking up all the verses in Proverbs about the fool can bring clarity to a woman living with an angry husand.

And yet . . . even better, I believe, will be to look at what the New Testament has to say about anger, which is a lot. Here’s just one example from I Corinthians 5:11.

But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.

Do you see it in there? The reviler. That is the angry husband. How I wish more Christians actually paid attention to this admonition, the way Sam Powell did at My Only Comfort. That word describes the angry husband, and this verse tells how he is to be handled.

***

Part Two of this commentary series is now available to read here (link). 

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