When Home Hurts: A Book Review

by Sam Parkison December 2, 2021

It is very likely that When Home Hurts: A Guide for Responding Wisely to Domestic Abuse in Your Church (Christian Focus, 2021) by Jeremy Pierre and Greg Wilson will prove to be the most important book I’ve read all year. At the time of my writing this, it is the beginning of November, which means there are still two months of reading ahead of me, and this prediction could prove untrue, but I find it unlikely. As a pastor, I have a deep heartache for the sinful circumstances that have transpired in our body in the past couple of years, which have eventuated in this work’s place on my bookshelf. But I am nevertheless profoundly grateful for God’s grace in giving me and my fellow pastors the opportunity to grow in wisdom and care for Christ’s precious flock.

Brother pastor, even if your church is not currently experiencing the same kind of circumstances that contributed to my reading this book, may I gently and firmly urge you to prioritize reading it as soon as possible? Rather than offering you a generically styled book review, let me offer four reasons why every pastor should read When Home Hurts.

1.) Pastors Must Show the Heart of Christ

The wise care of abused church members is an indispensable aspect of pastoral care. It is a nonnegotiable application of the heart of Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, invites the weary, exhausted, broken, and sinful into his compassionate heart when he says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30). Those thusly invited includes those who labor under the cruel yoke of oppressors in their home, who are heavy laden with the suffocating reality of constant fear and anxiety, most often imposed on them by the very people who bear the responsibility of embodying to them the heart of Christ (i.e., husbands and fathers).[1] It will not do to hide behind lack of knowledge or expertise as a justification for staying in the dark regarding this area of ministry. It will not do to blame the dearth of (actually) helpful pastoral care classes you received in seminary. Frankly, pastor, those excuses amount to just about nothing. We have been charged to shepherd the flock of God, which he purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28). We have been charged to shepherd the flock of God that is among us (1 Pet 5:2), which often includes abusers and abuse victims. Surely, we are fooling ourselves if we think that these half-baked excuses are acceptable to him.

Let’s determine right now to kill that self-protecting impulse to plead blissful ignorance. The painful fact, brothers, is that we often hide behind a lack of knowledge simply because it is more convenient to us. We say, “we can’t be everything, we aren’t professional counselors or police officers.” No, but we are under-shepherds charged to reflect the heart of our Good Shepherd who wields a staff to guide and protect the flock (and fend off wolves), and we must do the same. We say, “but there are professionals out there who are far more knowledgeable than me.” Yes, but God has not providentially arranged for them to pastor our members. He had us in mind for such a time as this. Caring for the abusive and abused members of our church is not optional. When Home Hurts is the third book I’ve read from cover to cover on domestic abuse, and it is far and away the best one specifically for pastors in search of wisdom for this crucial component of their vocation.

2.) The Dynamics of Abuse are Unique

In one sense, abuse is a sin just like any other sin: it is an offense to God and it rightly elicits his wrath; its solution is the shed blood of Jesus Christ; it ought to be confronted by members and pastors, confessed and repented of by the perpetrators, and forgiven by others, etc. In another sense, however, the sin of abuse (or “oppression,” to use Scriptural terminology) is uniquely insidious. Notice this definition of abuse they offer on page 39-34:

Abuse occurs as a person in a position of greater influence uses his personal capacities to diminish the personal capacities of those under his influence in order to control them. Because God made people as embodied souls, these personal capacities are both physical and spiritual. Abuse is identified from two directions: (1) the manipulative intent and behavioral forcefulness of the one in a position of influence, and (2) the diminishing effect on those under his influence.

Thus, Pierre and Wilson distinguish between relational sin in general, and the sin of abuse or oppression in particular. Every believer, though definitively justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, nevertheless must mortify the sinful flesh perpetually in this life. Sin exists in every Christian household, and since the Christian life is one of repentance, it should not be uncommon for confession, repentance, and forgiveness to be liberally extended in every direction in the home. Most often, sin rears its ugly head when members of a household sinfully put their desires or preferences before those of others. This is relationally damaging if left unrepented of, and should be addressed squarely and soberly for the good of all those involved. This kind of sin Pierre and Wilson describe as “me before you.”

Abuse, however, is uniquely insidious in that it desecrates the personhood of the abused and dehumanizes both abused and abuser. This kind of sin shows up when one person uses his God-given strength/authority/influence not only to please himself, but to diminish the strength/authority/influence of the victim in the process. In contrast to normal relational sin that might be described as “me before you,” Pierre and Wilson refer to the sin of abuse as “me over you.” It involves a kind of manipulation that diminishes the capacities of the victim (and therefore minimizes their agency and dignity). This can happen in a number of ways: be it physical attacks, physical intimidation, emotional manipulation, financial manipulation, relational control, verbal assaults, and more (most often, domestic abuse is manifested in some combination of these things). The unique characteristics of this kind of sin means that we shouldn’t be naïve in our approach: a great deal of care is needed, and Pierre and Wilson are incredibly helpful at laying out a practical path for recognizing and confronting this sin.

3.) The Church is Full of Sinners and Suffers (including Abusers and Abuse Victims)

Domestic abuse is far more common than you think, and your church probably isn’t an anomaly. The statistics are pretty breathtaking. Even the most conservative estimates make it incredibly unlikely that your church has no abusive homes represented in the membership. Yes, this is true even if your church is gospel-centered. Yes, this is true even if your church is confessional, or richly biblical, or even (believe it or not) reformed.

At the time of my writing this, our current elder team consists of six godly men—three of which hold theological Masters degrees, and the other three of which hold PhDs in theology. We are located near a seminary, which means we have many theology students and professors in our membership. We are a bookish people. We care about doctrine. We care about biblical literacy. We are about practicing all of the biblical “one anothers.” Confession of sin is routine in our church. We love one another with theologically informed love. And those of our members who aren’t swimming in immediately in this “seminary pool” quickly develop a taste for theology as a means for worship. And we aren’t embarrassed one bit about any of that.

But you’re reading these words because none of these wonderful aspects of our church demographic have kept sin—and specifically, the sin of domestic abuse—at bay. And why should it? This is a fallen world, and even with practices like biblical church membership and discipline, sin—including the sin of abuse—persistently shows up. And the important thing to note is this: some sins aren’t obvious to pastors who don’t know how to look for them, but that does not mean they should not learn how to.

And yes, pastor, reading this book when you “don’t have to” may burst your bubble. You may find yourself in a situation where your happy ignorance is ruined, and families you thought were healthy are actually in deep trouble. Which means, reading this book when you “don’t have to” may create a lot more work and a lot more stress in your life. Please, brother pastor, don’t let that be a reason for not reading it. Be inconvenienced. Imagine the answer to prayer your reading this book might be for the sisters and children in your congregation who are suffering in isolation! If that is not motivation for us to delve deep, we may need to find ourselves a new vocation.

4.) Pastoral Care Isn’t One-Dimensional

When Home Hurts is deeply pastoral and instructive in its application of distinct biblical impulses. Often, pastors feel conflicted in these kinds of situations because they can bring healthy, biblical values into tension with one another. On the one hand, it is virtuous to be charitable and transparent; love “believes all things,” after all, and so when men in the congregation respond to allegations of abuse with apparent contrition and seemingly humble “clarification” regarding how difficult their wives are to deal with, we feel the impulse to believe the best about them and minimize the severity of their wives’ allegations. False allegations are possible, after all, and we should have an allegiance to the truth over and above everything else. On the other hand, it is clear in Scripture that God has a deep hatred not only for unequal weights and measures, but also the oppression of the weak. Pierre and Wilson understand all of these dynamics, and they are not at all prepared to sacrifice any portion of Scripture for another. They are rather clear in laying out a prudent path forward, with all the uncertainty in mind, in light of the fact that false accusations of domestic abuse are incredibly rare, and safety of potential victims should come first. The truth of the situation will come to the surface in the process of securing safety for the potential victims and expressed concern for the potential abusers.

The common factor that distinguishes domestic abuse as abuse is the pattern of controlling and manipulative behaviors that reinforce the self-entitlement of the abuser and diminishes the capacities and dignity of the abused. Domestic abuse is a direct assault on God in the sense that it is a desecration of the imago Dei, and it is doubly egregious in marriage since it is an assault on the one-flesh union that God intends to be a living parable of the gospel. Though abuse is always intentional, it is very often perpetrated by individuals who have been so self-deceived that they are unaware of the sinful intentions of their own hearts. Which means sometimes, simply taking people at their word is actually profoundly unloving. You don’t have to pretend like abusive husbands are self-consciously lying when they insist that their wives are insane or mentally unhealthy or the problem to their marriage. Most of the time, they sincerely believe this, and they are sincerely wrong; sin has radically warped their perception of themselves and those around them. Which is to say, this kind of sin brings about a lot of confusion, and Pierre and Wilson are a great help at showing how to bring light to murky situations. For all these reasons and more, I heartily commend this book to you.

[1] Since, statistically, the overwhelming scenario for domestic abuse is husbands/fathers abusing their wives/children, I’m simply reflecting that scenario with my language here. However, I recognize and grant that abuse can exist with different relational arrangements, though this is circumstantially rare.