Here is the real problem that I believe underlies the failure of those frequently using the term abuse to provide a clear, biblical definition: the preference of the term abuse dislocated from sin, moves abuse out of the moral and spiritual realm and into the psychological. In other words, it tends to shift the serious matters at hand from that which is properly clerical and refers them to the clinical.
Last summer I wrote an article voicing my concerns about a motion brought to the 87th General Assembly (GA) of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). Now an overture related to abuse is on its way to the 88th GA this summer in Philadelphia (you can download a pdf version of the overture below). I will soon be interacting with the language of that overture in detail. Here I would like to explore the recent discussions about abuse and why we must not leave the term undefined, ill-defined, or without biblical qualification. I will also discuss one of the concerning trajectories for the church in its present approach to discussing abuse.
Importance of Definition
During the 87th GA last year, at least two commissioners asked some version of this vital question: “What is your definition of abuse?” No one provided a succinct, working definition. Why was this? Precise definition of terms is vital for a variety of reasons. When discussing important topics like this one, everyone needs to know precisely what is being talked about. In matters of righteousness and justice, there is no room for ambiguity. Clarity of definition is not terribly popular today, but this is nothing new. J. Gresham Machen wrote this in 1925, “Indeed nothing makes a man more unpopular in controversies of the present day than an insistence upon the definition of terms. Anything, it seems, may be forgiven more readily than that.” How should we define abuse?
Should we use the UN’s definition? “Abuse is physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person.” According to this statement, abuse can be “emotional…actions…that influence another person.” This is a terrible definition because it is dangerously broad. The organization G.R.A.C.E. seems to indicate that an assessment for abuse would be warranted “if your organization has been notified that women do not feel comfortable in the culture and environment of your organization.” Is discomfort proof of abuse? While it could be, this is dangerously subjective. Diane Langberg, while teaching at a presbytery conference in the OPC in 2021 said in the question-and-answer session that, “the basic meaning of abuse is to mistreat somebody.” Will the OPC do any better? The overture coming to the 88th GA from the Presbytery of Ohio defines abuse as “misuse of power of various kinds.” We must do better.
Reconsider the statements above. Some use recklessly broad terminology and some inexcusably vague. Webster’s 1828 dictionary lists the following for the noun form. Abuse:
“Ill use; improper treatment or employment; application to a wrong purpose; as an abuse of our natural powers; an abuse of civil rights, or of religious privileges; abuse of advantages, etc; A corrupt practice or custom; Rude speech; reproachful language addressed to a person; contumely; reviling words; Seduction; Perversion of meaning; improper use or application; as an abuse of words.”
Left unqualified, abuse can be an exceedingly broad term. Consider this: by the above definition, overeating, losing your temper, a mean tweet, lying, adultery, murder, binge-watching Netflix, corrupt worship, and keying someone’s car all fall into the category of abuse.
To put it most broadly, all abuse is sin, and quite frankly, all sin is abuse in some way or another. But every fair-minded person knows that there are different kinds and severities of abuse. As such, all sins of abuse occur along a spectrum. It can range from relatively trivial (a mean tweet) to outright evil (murder/adultery). Frequently inserted to this discussion are categories including but not limited to emotional, physical, sexual, and spiritual (a topic for another day). In addition to different kinds, we can also identify different severity. For example, a spouse committing adultery is evil; a minister of the gospel committing adultery is far worse. For these reasons, not only does abuse need a clear definition, it ought not be a standalone term, especially in debates within the church. Instead, following the method of the Westminster Catechisms, abuse should be regarded as an aggravation of an underlying sin that renders it more heinous (WLC 151). 
With these matters of definition in mind, here is a most important question: by what standard can we determine the definition, kind, and severity of abuse? By what standard ought we to determine the correct response to various abuses? It must be the Word of God, for Scripture alone is the infallible standard for identifying, exposing, and dealing with sin. We must be biblical both in our definition and our method to account for the kind/severity spectrum of sins aggravated by abuse. Let us consider some passages of Scripture in search of a clearer understanding of the issue at hand.
Abuse in the Bible
Technically speaking Eve is the first culprit of abuse in Scripture when she misuses God’s Word in Genesis 3:2-3. Adam joins the ranks of abusers by way of neglect due to his silent abdication (Gen. 3:6). He then horribly mistreats his wife by offering her up to divine judgment in order to save his fig-leaf covered skin (Gen. 3:12). As covenant head, he was also responsible for plunging all humanity into an estate of sin and misery. As such, the sin of Adam became the source for all sin in human history, which makes it a kind that is extremely severe.
Judges 19:25 describes abuse of the most vicious kind and severity. This dark chapter describes unimaginable evil committed against a vulnerable woman. She was exposed to a perverse mob by a shameful, spineless man. Most English Bibles translate the original word aw-lal’ with abused, “And they knew her and abused her all night until morning; and when the day began to break, they let her go” (NKJV). I will return to this heinous event later. The other OT occurrences of this word with the closest usage are in 1 Samuel 31:4/1 Chron 10:4 (Saul not wanting to be abused by the Philistines), and Jeremiah 38:19 (Zedekiah wanting to avoid either mocking or mistreatment).
In these four texts, three of which use aw-lal’, the action under scrutiny is the misconduct by those in a position of influence with responsibility for their actions. While Eve was queen of creation, most importantly Adam was the head of natural humanity. The perverse mob in Judges was subject to the Law of God and had covenant responsibility to care for the stranger (Ex. 22:21, 23:9, see also Ezek. 16:49). Compounding the evil was the deplorable conduct of the Levite and the master of the house in Gibeah. For Saul and Zedekiah, they were both concerned about the serious maltreatment that would result from being handed over to reckless groups of sinners.
The New Testament twice uses the term katachraomai for abuse. In both occasions, the sense communicates the need to avoid the misuse of something given, whether material blessing in the world (1 Cor. 7:31) or apostolic authority/power (1 Cor. 9:18). The New Testament also describes the worst occasion of abuse that occurred in history, namely, the gross maltreatment and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. With respect to Him we find abuse reach its most egregious kind and severity: corrupt religious and civil authorities condemned the righteous Man; Jewish citizens mocked, spit upon, and beat Him (Luke 22:63-65); Roman soldiers scourged and crowned Him with thorns (John 19:1-2). To make it all worse, His disciples also forsook Him (Mark 14:50) and Peter denied Him (Luke 26:75).
How then should we define abuse? A friend of mine and fellow OPC minister offered this simple and helpful suggestion: the sin of abuse is “when someone intentionally uses his power to inflict serious harm upon another person.” This definition wisely includes the elements of purpose (intent), effect (serious harm), the victim (another person) and the aggravation of the breach/misuse of responsibility (power).
A Concerning Trajectory
In almost all the discussions about abuse that I have encountered, I have rarely heard mention of the Law of God. Here is an important question: under which commandment do sins of abuse rightly fall? Before reading further, I would like you to answer that in your mind. Most of the people to whom I have posed this question have referenced the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder.” It often tragically includes the seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” However, we must not overlook the relationship of this category of sin to the fifth commandment.
The fifth commandment establishes the framework in which all social ethics can and must occur. For life, purity, work/property, truth, and contentment to thrive, all must preserve the honor and perform the duty that belongs to everyone in their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors, and equals (WSC 64). This is true for family, church, and society at large. Affirming that sins of abuse fall within the scope of things prohibited in the fifth commandment requires consideration of the categories of that commandment, namely, superiors, inferiors, and equals. This creates quite a dilemma for those seeking to deconstruct authority, especially within the family and church. Why? Because for the sin of abuse to be truly heinous—and it is—it requires a category of relational and positional inferiority/superiority (WLC 151). The trouble is that this is anathema in our egalitarian, feministic, and psychologized age.
There seems to be a movement in the church seeking to dislocate abuse from the category of sin. Why would anyone in the church want to do this? Perhaps it is because there is pressure, and there seems to be a lot of momentum, for the church to seek outside help related to sins of abuse. There are claims that the church does not know how to handle abuse (more on that in another article). Here is the real problem that I believe underlies the failure of those frequently using the term abuse to provide a clear, biblical definition: the preference of the term abuse dislocated from sin, moves abuse out of the moral and spiritual realm and into the psychological. In other words, it tends to shift the serious matters at hand from that which is properly clerical and refers them to the clinical. That is not to say that pastors and elders never need help. For example, when sins occur that are criminal (like sexual abuse of children), it is necessary to involve appropriate law enforcement. However, in matters that rightly fall under the spiritual realm and responsibility given to elders, Christ’s church needs to think more carefully before outsourcing to the local counseling clinic.
The church in this nation has sadly abdicated far too much in the last century. Education has been given over largely to the State. Care for the poor, widow, fatherless, and elderly has in large measure been usurped by the State. Will the church now hand over the care of the soul to “state licensed” psychologists and become subject to them? It will be a devastating and dangerous thing if the society of the redeemed makes itself subservient to an unaccountable panel of experts, especially if they are unbiblical.
In conclusion, let us revisit the egregious sin of abuse in Judges 19. What does God call it? In Hosea 9:7-9 He says, “The days of punishment have come; the days of recompense have come. Israel knows! The prophet is a fool, the spiritual man is insane, because of the greatness of your iniquity and great enmity. The watchman of Ephraim is with my God; but the prophet is a fowler’s snare in all his ways—enmity in the house of his God. They are deeply corrupted, as in the days of Gibeah. He will remember their iniquity; He will punish their sins” (emphasis mine). God called that abuse iniquity and sin because it is wrong before Him. Sin cannot be dealt with apart from the cross of Jesus Christ, the preaching and ministering of which God has committed not to psychologists, but to His church.
The trend toward psychologizing sin is a troubling one, certainly so if this is true of the OPC. Will the overture coming before the 88th General Assembly be a helpful corrective? I will examine that question in my next article.
 J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith? The Banner of Truth Trust, 13-14. This is very similar to a statement from J.C. Ryle in the opening sentence of Knots Untied, “It may be laid down as a rule, with tolerable confidence, that the absence of accurate definitions is the very life of religious controversy. If men would only define with precision the theological terms which they use, many disputes would die. Scores of excited disputants would discover that they do not really differ, and that their disputes have arisen from their own neglect of the great duty of explaining the meaning of words.”
 Q. 151. What are those aggravations that make some sins more heinous than others?
- Sins receive their aggravations,
- From the persons offending; if they be of riper age, greater experience or grace, eminent for profession, gifts, place, office, guides to others, and whose example is likely to be followed by others.
- From the parties offended: if immediately against God, his attributes, and worship; against Christ, and his grace; the Holy Spirit, his witness, and workings; against superiors, men of eminency, and such as we stand especially related and engaged unto; against any of the saints, particularly weak brethren, the souls of them, or any other, and the common good of all or many.
- From the nature and quality of the offence: if it be against the express letter of the law, break many commandments, contain in it many sins: if not only conceived in the heart, but breaks forth in words and actions, scandalize others, and admit of no reparation: if against means, mercies, judgments, light of nature, conviction of conscience, public or private admonition, censures of the church, civil punishments; and our prayers, purposes, promises, vows, covenants, and engagements to God or men: if done deliberately, willfully, presumptuously, impudently, boastingly, maliciously, frequently, obstinately, with delight, continuance, or relapsing after repentance.
- From circumstances of time, and place: if on the Lord’s day, or other times of divine worship; or immediately before or after these, or other helps to prevent or remedy such miscarriages: if in public, or in the presence of others, who are thereby likely to be provoked or defiled.