A Christian wife should endure abuse by an unbelieving husband the same way a missionary endures persecution, according to John Street, chair of the graduate program of biblical counseling at The Master’s University and Seminary (TMUS) and an elder at John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church (GCC).
Street makes this claim in a series of lectures on “advanced biblical counseling” posted online in 2012 by TMUS.
His teaching is especially relevant in light of recent exposés by The Roys Report, revealing that John MacArthur shamed and excommunicated Eileen Gray for not allowing her child-abusing husband, David Gray, back into her home. Evidence shows that GCC leaders knew that David Gray was abusing his children before Eileen’s excommunication and that a GCC pastor had urged Eileen to submit to the abuse. Street’s lectures likewise suggest that encouraging victims to remain with their abusive spouses is a matter of policy at MacArthur’s institutions.
In the lectures, Street claims the “abused victim is the key player in reaching and changing the abuser.” So, just like a missionary risks harm to himself and his family, an abused spouse should do the same.
Street also criticizes secular and “integrationist counseling,” which combines psychology and biblical principles, for focusing on physical safety of abused persons as a primary goal.
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“If saving the body is the ultimate goal in counseling, to be consistent, we would have to make that the ultimate goal of Christians across the board,” Street said in the 2012 lecture.
“So that would mean, a lot of our missionaries who are in locations around the world, where they are under bodily threat, we’re going to have to pull them home and put them in a protective situation because husbands, wives, children are under bodily threat. What does that say about Christians in countries like China where the church is openly abused and physically harmed?”
Rather than ultimately seeking to prevent harm, the goal of biblical counseling “is to seek to glorify God in order to win the abuser over to righteousness,” Street teaches, and “to be God’s kind of person, even in the midst of your trial.” He adds, “Jesus Christ did not come to help us escape all the hardships of life. In fact, through those hardships, this is where we learn to obey.”
In another online lecture, Street also claimed it’s wrong for a Christian wife with an unbelieving husband to separate from her spouse because of abuse. The only exception would be if the wife believes she is in imminent danger of being killed.
“Is it wrong for a wife to separate from her husband, or for that matter a husband to separate from an unbelieving wife? Yes, if her goal and purpose is to just simply get out of the trouble, I think it’s wrong,” Street said.
“Her goal must be first to please God,” he continued. “She needs to be with him, or he needs to be with her, in order to win their spouse over to righteousness. Sometimes it means hardship. Sometimes it means abuse. This is always the risk. . . .”
However, Street offers one exception: if a husband has convincingly shown he is “out to kill” his wife and the church government has been “brought in to play.” In that case, Street allows separation, noting, “A dead testimony is no testimony at all.”
When it comes to an abusive situation where both spouses profess to be believers, as was the case with David and Eileen Gray, Street teaches that church leaders and members should rely first on church processes to hold the abusive spouse accountable. Church leaders should call in police only if those processes fail or if there’s imminent danger of death.
“If he’s unwilling to change, then formal church discipline is the key here, or as we said before we may have to bring in civil authorities in this situation,” Street said.
Diane Langberg, a psychologist and leading trauma expert, said what Street teaches in the lectures “does not look like Jesus Christ.”
Jesus, she said, regularly focused on care for the vulnerable and “did all sorts of things to protect them and welcome them.”
When a husband abuses his wife, she said, “it’s dragging her down into hellish things.” And allowing the abuse to continue—as Street teaches—does “terrible damage” to the abuser’s soul as well as the victim’s, she said.
“They’re helping to damn the man,” she said.
Street chairs the Master of Arts in Biblical Counseling program at TMU, where John MacArthur is chancellor. Street joined the TMU staff in 1999 and preached about counseling at GCC as early as 2001, church sermon archives show.
In 2002, Street presented two seminars on counseling during the church’s Shepherds’ Conference just months before GCC excommunicated Eileen Gray because she wouldn’t take back her abusive husband David Gray.
Also teaching on counseling that year were Carey Hardy and Bill Shannon—GCC staff pastors who were later written up by Los Angeles police over their alleged mishandling of David Gray’s abuse.
Today, Street is one of two faculty members profiled for the graduate program and the university’s doctorate in biblical counseling, and is an author of three of the seven books TMU recommends to its counseling students. He’s also president of the board of trustees of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors and a former adjunct professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention.
It’s unclear whether the 2012 recordings reflect material students still learn at TMU. Current program information doesn’t list a class with the same title as the recordings, and Street did not respond to detailed questions TRR sent in an email.
‘Secular people . . . are going to take over’ if police are called
In the first recorded lecture, Street upholds church discipline as the first mechanism for dealing with domestic abuse and local authorities as a last resort.
Street states that “churches without a strong membership policy will never—let me insist upon this, never be able to deal with abuse in the home because proper church discipline really cannot be enforced.”
Street doesn’t mention alerting police until after more than 40 minutes of instruction. And at the end of the session, he describes calling police as an option “if worse comes to worst.”
In the second lecture of the series, Street tells students they are not legally required to report spousal abuse to police “unless, of course, you are aware that there is some imminent danger. . .so that it doesn’t result in somebody’s death.” But he said, “Beyond that, it’s up to our conscience what needs to be reported.”
Street also warns that biblical counselors “run some risk” in reporting to authorities “because secular people with secular minds are going to take over and they’re not going to handle things in a biblical way.”
Street also alleges that women’s shelters, which he characterizes as “very feminist and very anti-marriage,” cause more harm than good because they teach women to take steps that make reconciliation with a spouse less likely.
He says the shelters show graphic films of abuse to women and children, “literally scaring them to death. And what they end up doing is elevating the fear of man to almost a panic level. . . . They’re heavily invested in not seeing that marriage work.”
He adds that the shelters also teach women to get a job, which requires leaving their children in daycare centers.
In response to Street’s teaching, Langberg pointed out that all government is secular by nature. “Do we disobey all the laws?” she asked rhetorically.
And it’s even more important to separate from an abusive spouse in a home with children to prevent harm to the kids, she said.
“Children are obviously little people in formation,” Langberg said, and when they see one parent abusing the other, “they’re being terrified, they’re being traumatized over and over and over again.”
“Love does not put up with evil,” she added. “It doesn’t just submit to evil.”
Street claims boundaries result in violence
Rather than encouraging abused women to set boundaries and protect themselves, Street encourages them to “submit” to their abusers.
Street is very critical of domestic violence shelters, which teach women to set boundaries. Street calls this approach “assertiveness training.” Elsewhere in the lecture, he says setting boundaries can exacerbate the cycle of violence.
“When the secular abuse literature talks about a woman regaining control, translated, that means she’s got to take control of the home and the kids and the finances,” Street says in the lecture. “And if she remains in the home, that counsel is going to cause all kinds of strife to escalate, which results in either divorce or death by one of them.”
Street also says that when a woman sets boundaries with an abusive husband, such as by moving out and keeping her location secret, it just enrages her abuser and “precludes any kind of restoration.”
The situation often “becomes so violent” couples can’t live together, he says. Then couples grow apart while separated and reunification becomes less likely.
Street also claims that separation doesn’t increase the safety of abused persons because just as many women are killed by a partner they’re separated from as by a partner with whom they’re living.
Street cites statistics from the University of Washington as a basis for his claims but does not name the study.
The Roys Report asked Street for the name of the study, but he did not respond.
A 2006 Washington state review of domestic fatalities states victims of domestic violence are at greater risk when they try to separate. It cites statistics showing about half of domestic homicides happened while a victim of domestic violence was trying to leave or after the victim had already left.
However, the study concludes that domestic violence victims are still at risk when separating from their abusers partly because separation doesn’t always mean they cut off contact with abusers.
In addition, “communities do not adequately hold abusers accountable or prevent their ability to abuse again,” according to the review.
In contrast, a 2018 study of domestic incidents where police were called found that former spouses were less likely than current spouses to assault their victim. Former spouses were more likely to stalk the former spouse or violate a protective order, according to the study.
That study also found that victimized ex-spouses were less likely than current spouses to be visibly injured or shaken up.
‘Christ did not come to help us escape’
Street claims in the third lecture that an abused wife, by submitting to her husband, can lead him to Christ.
“The way you win your husband over is not by putting repent in the bottom of his beer can,” he says after reading from 1 Peter 3:1. “It’s without a word. You don’t win him over by lecturing him into righteousness. That’s not the way you win him over. And within context here, the context is a husband, an unbelieving husband, that is being harsh and mistreating his wife.”
Street also repeats his counsel that spouses should submit to abuse.
“We learn his faithfulness through all those hardships . . .” he says. “In most abuse counseling you don’t hear that, because most abuse counselors will be very quick to get that person to escape and not teach them God’s faithfulness or the importance of their faithfulness in living out Christianity even in the midst of severe affliction.”
Later, Street describes a man he counseled whose wife was so violent that under normal circumstances, “that spouse would’ve been in jail a long time ago.”
But Street apparently never counseled the man to report his wife to police—even though she was a social worker, according to Street.
Street’s view that Christian woman should submit to abuse contradicts standard counsel among Christian survivor advocates. However, Street’s teaching is in line with Jay Adams, the founder of biblical counseling.
According to Adams, the Bible doesn’t permit an abused wife to separate from or divorce her abuser because “even in those rare cases, where violence was not provoked, one is not told to leave but to endure without fear.”
Author and advocate Rebecca Davis has written several books examining Scriptures that are sometimes used to condition Christians to accept abuse.In an email to The Roys Report, Davis claimed that Street is mischaracterizing how Christians respond to persecution. She also noted that missionaries and other Christians facing peril regularly leave places that become too dangerous.
“Yes, there are martyrs, those who give up their lives on the mission field or in their native land because of their testimony of Christ,” Davis acknowledged, and she added martyrs should be honored for that. “But if they have the opportunity to escape, are we saying that they should not? That goes against both history (so many examples!) and the Bible.”
To support his interpretation, Street quotes Psalm 119:71, which states, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn your statutes.”
But the psalmist David was literally fleeing King Saul when he penned that, Davis said.
“Trying to keep oneself safe from a maniacal abuser can be a terrifying experience,” Davis added. “It sure would be nice to have help with it. David did, with his group of mighty men and even Saul’s own son, Jonathan.
“But in the modern-day Jay-Adams-style ‘Biblical counseling’ world, a Christian woman and her children would not have any help to escape and stay safe, because that would only be ‘saving the body.’”
Langberg also pointed to Scripture she said contradicted Street’s teaching.
“When you look at the Gospels and what Jesus did and said, ‘let the little ones come and don’t get in their way’—an abusive husband is getting in the way of his wife, who is vulnerable, and keeping her from her Lord,” said Langberg.
By failing to put an immediate end to a spouse’s abusive behavior, Street’s approach teaches the spouse that what they’re doing isn’t really that bad, after all, she said.
“Part of what their training does is help a bad man be bad,” Langberg said. “It isn’t going to fix the problem. It increases it.”
UPDATE: TRR has discovered that John Street preached a sermon at Grace Community Church on July 12, 2020, in which he urged spouses in abusive marriages to be “a missionary in that marriage.” Street also praises Sarah Edwards, wife of 18th Century theologian Jonathan Edwards, for pledging to stay in the marriage even if her husband “should horsewhip me every day.” And Street disparages author Leslie Vernick, author of The Emotionally Destructive Marriage, for urging wives to set boundaries when husbands abuse them and their kids. Street says Edwards’ wife, who vowed to take abuse, was focused on glorifying God, but Vernick was focused on merely “protecting self.” Street says there’s a “theology for escape,” but adds that when to leave a marriage “takes a lot of wisdom” to discern. Street says the only grounds for divorce are unrepentant adultery and abandonment of a spouse.
This story has been corrected to accurately describe Street’s past affiliation with SBTS. Street taught a D.Min seminar at SBTS in 2018-2019 but is no longer employed by the seminary.
Julie Roys contributed to this report and freelance journalist Josh M. Shepherd provided technical assistance.
Sarah Einselen is an award-winning writer and editor based in Texas.