Abuse Does Not Take Away Use

In my online forays, I’ve observed it’s increasingly common for people to explicitly reject a doctrine, or the notion of orthodox teaching in general, on the basis of its abuse. You’ll often read something along these lines: “I grew up in a church that had a heavy emphasis on doctrine X (depravity, judgment, sola scriptura, etc.). My pastors and elders used that doctrine to berate people, cow them into submission, or excuse horrible evils.” So now, whenever they hear doctrine X, they can’t accept it because they know (feel) it’s a tool being used to control them or bring about another harmful result. In fact, some will go further and elevate this reaction into a principle of theological methodology: if a doctrine could be or has been used to hurt or damage, it must be rejected out of hand.

I understand the impulse. For those who have been beat down with the Bible like it’s a weapon, or doctrines like they’re billy clubs, when they see someone pick them up—even as agents of healing—some post-traumatic stress makes sense. It can be hard to distance or differentiate a doctrine from its uses, especially if that’s all you’ve ever known. It doesn’t matter if someone’s trying to offer you an oxygen mask; if someone used one to choke you out in the first place, you’re going to flinch when you see it.

Everything Gets Twisted

Any doctrine can be distorted or misused to harm others. Tim Keller makes this point in The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism when speaking about the way Christianity has been distorted throughout church history. Many would look at the way Christianity has been used to justify horrible evils as evidence of its inherently flawed character. Keller points out, however, that even universally praised values like reason, freedom, and equality have been the battle-cry of unjust regimes like the reign of terror in revolutionary France. Instead of providing evidence of Christianity’s falsehood, maybe these abuses point to the (Christian) fact that something is so wrong with the human heart that we can take anything, no matter how good and true, and use it for wicked ends. This is true not only of doctrines we’re more culturally apt to reject (like judgment, original sin, or inerrancy), but also of those we typically find appealing.

For instance, we tend to like the idea of a gracious, nonjudgmental God. After all, a deity who loves and affirms us unconditionally, mess and all, seems kind and gentle, almost impossible to imagine as a tool of oppression or power. Yet criminals also use this doctrine to justify themselves. If God doesn’t judge, then how dare we? If God would never punish, then how can we punish oppressors? In the same vein, I’ve seen people excuse glaring character defects like pride, narcissism, harshness, and insensitivity on this premise: “It’s just my personality; God made me the way I am.” Well, your “personality” stinks because you’re a jerk.

Or take the classic teaching on forgiveness. Christians are told God is a forgiving God, having forgiven all our sins in Christ at the cross. We’re then told to forgive those who sin against us as Christ has commanded. Unfortunately some have taken this teaching on forgiveness and used it to force victims to “forgive” their abusers in ways that essentially brush over sin and ignore the reality of justice.

Pick almost any doctrine (creation, fall, grace, and so on) and you’ll find some way it has been abused and applied improperly. Given this reality, if our main criterion for accepting or rejecting a doctrine is whether it can be used to harm others, we’ll be left with a mere two-word creed: “I believe.”

Abusus Non Tollit Usum

One of the most important rules I’ve learned in my theological studies is abusus non tollit usum—”abuse does not take away use.” Basically, fire can destroy, but it’s also good for cooking or keeping your home warm; an oxygen mask can still save your life, even if someone choked you with one; scalpels still cut out cancer, even if someone got injured with one. In the same way, doctrines can still be good, true, beautiful, and helpful despite the ways they’ve been abused or misconstrued in the past.

As always, Jesus points the way forward. When correcting the Pharisees and Sadducees’ distortions of scriptural teaching, he didn’t do it by throwing away God’s Word. He quoted it and pointed to its true meaning (Matt. 9:12-13; 12:1-8; 19:4; 22:29, 41-45). In the Sabbath controversy, he didn’t deny the Sabbath command but brought relief with a renewed, deeper understanding of what the command was always about—human flourishing. Or take Paul, who didn’t reject Torah when he corrected the Judaizers who said Gentiles weren’t full members of the covenant by faith alone but needed the practice of Torah as well. Paul didn’t discard Torah; he went back to Torah to make his argument (Gal. 3-5).

Though difficult, Jesus teaches us that we must strive to distinguish true doctrines of the Christian faith from their distorted applications and expositions. You may end up rejecting some some bad theology as you hold firmly to precious truths. I’d encourage you to search the Scriptures, though, before rejecting something only on the basis of your negative experience. It may take some years of books, conversations, good churches, and perhaps a good biblical counselor, but it’s worth it not to reject some key truth of the gospel just because some wicked teacher ruined it for you.

  • http://thesidos.blogspot.com/ Arthur Sido

    This is excellent. I run into this attitude a lot “Well I have seen doctrine x, y or z misused so based on that I reject it”. I see it especially in complementarian/egalitarian discussions. The solution to someone misusing or abusing a doctrine is not to abandon it but to hold to the proper application more firmly and boldly while condemning actual abuse (as sometimes “abuse” is a convenient excuse for “I don’t like this teaching”)

  • Nell

    I agree with your basic premise.

    However, when leaders stay silent about child sex abuse when it occurs within their particular tribe, then perhaps we can understand why some people blame the doctrine.

    Cardinal Dolan recently made a comment that one of the Catholic churches biggest problems is the number of people who left because they were sick over the clergy abuse scandal.

    Sometimes, it is difficult to distinguish between doctrine and the actions of abusive/silent leaders.

    • http://speakingtruthinlove.org Dale Ingraham

      Nell, very well said. In the documentary film ‘All God’s Children’ one of the survivors says “Every time I would try and think of God, all I would see was the face of my offender”. How sad and yet that is the reality for many survivors, especially those who were abused by religious people. It is almost humanly impossible to separate the evil of their offender from the goodness of God. Since in many cases the victim’s abuser was one of the key people teaching them about God, the two realities become so intertwined that nothing seems to make sense.

      I did think that the article itself makes some good points, but it is easy to see how survivors could be left with the feeling that people still don’t ‘get’ the depth of the struggle for victims of abuse.

  • Pingback: Abuse Does Not Take Away Use – Justin Taylor()

  • Pingback: Morning Coffee | Hacking Agag()

  • Pingback: Broken Links | 2013-09-06 | BROKEN FOLLOWER()

  • Matthew

    Good stuff. I learned this important truth from Randy Alcorn. He helped me understand that as Christians when see abused docrtine, or imbalanced doctrine, we must train ourselves to respond to truth, rather than react to the lie. When we react to the lie, we follow our impulse to ping to the other extreme, throwing out the baby with the bathwater. But by responding to truth we don’t automatically adopt the antitheses of an abused doctrine, but rather seek out where scriptural “truth” actually lies. Often times it’s somewhere in the middle, and rarely is it on the other end of the spectrum.

  • http://evangelicaloutpost.com James Arnold

    I was harassed by latin-speakers when I was a child, so your use of latin is offensive and I reject it.

  • Pingback: Saturday Shout-Outs: Kansas City, Pine Bluff, & Ministry Links | H.B. Charles Jr.()

  • Pingback: If the Religious Leader is Abusive, Does that Prove His Doctrine to be Wrong? | iconobaptist()

  • Lou G

    While it may be true that abuse doesn’t take away use, the steward of said doctrine has a moral responsibility to enunciate the boundaries. It’s one thing to state that the oxygen mask, which is created and designed to save can be abused and used as a weapon. Such an abuse, given the history and track record of airflight, as well as the improbability of accidental abuse that may occur unwittingly by the inexperienced, would not necessarily require caveats and instructions guarding against this type of abuse in every instruction sesson.

    However, to use one of the author’s other examples, utilization of fire would and should always contain a caveat or warning against the potential for unintended abuse or harm, given a combination of the potentiality, probability, and severity of such action occuring in general use.

    In sum, it is true that abuse doesn’t take away use; however, the presence of a track record of abuse or harm may necessitate a greater degree of precision and care in communication of use.
    Which is why doctrines like complimentarianism (and several others) will always need to include careful nuancing, caveats and great precision in a culture such as ours, marred by well-known past abuses.

  • http://Identityfulfilled.com Joseph

    False doctrine will always destroy you spiritually and sometimes it can even do tremendous physical harm. It is a sad commentary when man twists adds to, manipulates and abuses God’s word. Is it any wonder the Bible promises stricter judgement to false teachers.
    “The Tragedy of False Teaching” featured current event blog at identityfulfilled.com

  • http://www.joyfield.org Ian Smith

    One of my favorite renderings of this phrase in English, courtesy of Professor Jerry Root at Wheaton College is ‘The Abuse Does Not Nullify the Proper Use.’ If I recall, he attributed it to Plato, I wonder if this could be substantiated.

    “Abusus Non Tollit Usum” has so many uses in Christian circles beyond theology. Example: ‘Western missionaries are more expensive and less effective than native missionaries, so we shouldn’t send missionaries from America anymore.’ Response: ‘The abuse does not nullify the proper use–there are still ways in which Western missionaries can be more effective than native missionaries such as in theological education, bible translation, pioneering missions etc.’

    Example 2: ‘Traditional evangelistic methods are offensive and out of touch with our times.’ Response: ‘Sure, handing out chick-tracks and writing bible verses on our cars might not be as effective as in yesteryear (was this ever effective?) but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to engage strangers in spiritual conversation and share our faith boldly.’

    Example 3: ‘Denominations are just bureaucratic organizations where angry men set up policies that divide us, so our church shouldn’t be part of a denomination.’ Response: ‘Denominations are one of the most effective mechanisms for planting new churches and sending missionaries–like minded churches working together are more effective than individual churches struggling to make an impact on their own. Establishing a framework for cooperation can be a good thing as long as it allows churches to remain flexible enough to follow the Spirit’s prompting.’

  • Pingback: Links 5 – 8/9/13 | Alastair's Adversaria()

  • Sue

    This is not what Tim Keller says. He completely disagrees with this point. He cites C.S.Lewis as writing,

    “I don’t think the old authority of kings, priests, husbands, or fathers, and the old obedience of subjects, laymen, wives, and children was in itself a degrading or evil thing at all. I think it was intrinsically good and beautiful as the nakedness of Adam and Eve. It was rightly taken away because men became bad and abused it. To attempt to restore it now would be the same error as that of the Nudists. Legal and economic equality are absolutely necessary remedies for the Fall. and protection against cruelty.”

    “In summary, the pattern of rule-and-submission is greatly muted in society because of sin. People abuse authority, so politically, all authority must be elected authority—and all individuals must have access to places of authority.”

    My perception is that men want access to places of authority, and they want elections and they want protection from cruelty via legal and economic equality.

    So why would Tim Keller and the Gospel Coalition claim this for men, and deny the same to women? Does this make any sense at all?

    Men demand functional equality and deny it to women. What kind of role model is that?

    • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy


      I’m sorry but you really seem to have missed the point of the article here. Nowhere did I raise the issue of men and women in the church, nor did I bring up the issue of political authority. You bizarrely read those in. I simply made the the point that just because a doctrine (say scriptural authority, original sin, etc.) has been used improperly, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t possibly be used as it is supposed to be. So, just because the 2nd coming of Christ has been used by some to excuse ecological irresponsibility, it doesn’t mean that the doctrine of the 2nd Coming is isn’t true, or that it shouldn’t be taught.

      I don’t think you are meaning to deny this, but your fixation on this other issue is, well…shading the discussion for you.

      I hope this helped to clarify. Take care.

  • http://Identityfulfilled.com Identityfulfilled

    False teaching and misguided doctrine and theology can destroy your spiritual walk. Any wonder why the scriptures point out that false teachers will face a stricter judgement. Don’ add to or change the word of God to accomplish an agenda. The damage could be too severe to correct.

  • Sue

    Fire, oxyegen mask, scalpel, these are symbols of a type of power. Consider guns. In some countries, the use of guns is much more controlled because of the risk of the misuse of the weapon. I don’t think we are talking about two different things.

    I just want it on record that there are cetain teachings in the NT, for example, that we submit to temporal power, and not rebel, that Americans have historically ignored. Americans revolted, Americans have a say in government, Americans, Keller included, believe that abuse is a good reason to remove something, some powerful instrument like fire or imperial power.

    I just wanted this clarifed, that for some things, abuse does mean we remove the use of that thing. It’s an important nuance.

    • Lou G.

      While I agree that nuance is important, I don’t agree that abuse justifies removing the use of something that is Biblically compelled. That would be to give into the tactics of the evil one – the accuser, who seeks to intimidate and desires for us to react in ungodly and irreverent fear.

      Like I mentioned above, I think that what abuse necessitates is precision, caveats and careful instruction that will keep others from perpetuating the abuse/misuse cycle. For instance, you mention that the use of guns is more controlled, due to risk. But guns are not removed altogether or taken out of use entirely. They are simply required to be handled with a greater degree of care, precision and caution in order to mitigate the abuse/misuse.

      My argument is for mitigation – not unqualified, continued use, nor throwing the baby out with the bathwater by banning or taking out of use completely. At the end of the day, we’re sort of just talking about applying plain logic and common sense, really, for anyone who’s ever had any leadership experience.

  • Pingback: Abuse Does Not Take Away Use | Seth's Oasis()

  • Sue

    Romans 13 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.

    All Americans are children of a revolution. Americans also have a very different attitude toward guns than we do. Americans also believe in impeaching a president if necessary. Americans have a very diferent approach to authority than Canadians. I don’t see Americans as having a scriptural approach to authority when it is social authority. But in the home, it is completely different. Women must be subject. Of course, slaves are exempt from slavery, citizens are released from monarchy, and the British Empire, and yet all this authority is compelled by scripture.

    But women are the big exception. Men don’t model submission at all. They just teach it to women.

    There is no actual usefullness to wifely submission. It does not enhance the functionality of the home, or give a postive witness to unbelievers. And any suggestion that mitigating the abuse of the power given to husbands is enough, that shows that men need to spend years of their life in 24/7 submission to a another sinful human being, and get a taste of their own medicine. Mitigation, that is all Christianity has to offer women! I hope not. Was mitigation offered to slaves? Very likely. Was mitigation enough?

  • Pingback: Links | Phoenix Preacher()

  • Becky Boyd

    I tend to agree with your premise that “Abuse Does Not Take Away Use.” But what you don’t seem to see is that when others who are like-minded with the abuser don’t correct him, but rather defend him, not because he is innocent of charges, but because he is like-minded, it starts to look like there is something inherently wrong with those of that mindset. The result is that the mindset itself would logically be rejected as tainted.

    If you want to be more effective in defending your “use”, then defend the abuseD rather than the abuseR. In other words, be more like Jesus and less like a Pharisee who demonstrated compassion where compassion was needed rather than hold up the letter of the law since the law was created FOR man, and not vice versa.

  • Pingback: How Do We Hear God? – The Gospel Coalition Blog()

  • Pingback: Vanhoozer on Enns on Inerrancy | Reformedish()

  • Pingback: My Evangelical Story Isn’t So Bad (Or, a Ramble on Experience, Biography, & Theology) | Reformedish()