A number of people have asked me to reflect on various issues that have arisen in the media to do with the church and domestic violence. You may have read Julia Baird’s article or watched various TV segments about the issue, including the recent Media Watch.
The claim made by Julia Baird’s article is that the church has exposed women to domestic abuse by using its teaching on ‘headship’ and ‘submission’ in marriage to urge women to remain in abusive relationships. She also appeals to research found in an article by Steven Tracy to argue that conservative Protestant men who are irregular church attendees are the most likely to batter their wives.
For us who believe that the Bible does teach Christ-like headship and respectful submission in marriage, it’s very easy to get defensive. But I suggest the best way forward is to express our thanks to Julia Baird for bringing the issue of church and domestic violence to the front of our minds. Violence is evil, it does offend our holy God, and we should stand together defending the vulnerable and exposing violence particularly in the family of God whom He desires to be a light to the nations. Here are some of my reflections on Domestic Violence and the church.
1. Julia has reminded us by citing some tragic stories that some of God’s appointed pastors have abandoned their most vulnerable members by either not believing or taking seriously the claims of victims of abuse and either naively or callously sending women (sometimes men) back to abusive relationships.
These are real stories and even one story is one too many. I remember making the point in one sermon that “if any woman listening to this talk is being abused by your spouse, I will be the first to pack your bags and help you leave”. A woman visiting the congregation that day came up. She thanked me, and said that she was told by her former pastor to go back to her violent husband. She never went back to church again. This incident happened in a church not too far away and not too long ago. This is shocking and Julia’s concern is legitimate. In our desire to keep a high view of marriage, the church at times has not protected the vulnerable in its midst and has allowed the unacceptable attitudes of some men towards women to continue unchallenged.
2. I asked David and Ann Rahtz, professional counsellors and until recently members of MBM who served over 21 years working with hundreds of couples with a range of belief systems from a range of churches in Sydney`s west, to reflect on their experience. They write:
• “Christian” men who are already insecure, are more likely to use a theology of headship as a rationale for control/abuse; it is more likely an excuse for bad behaviour than the cause. Changing/rejecting theology doesn’t get rid of their need for power and control which leads to forcing submission to make them feel better about themselves. The hardest men to work with in counselling are the ones who rely on their theology but are emotionally disconnected from themselves. We have met men who use headship as a weapon; they may be highly biblically literate, but emotionally disconnected or unaware of their wife’s needs.
• Christian men who are serious about discipleship are more likely to be focused on servant leadership, and to accept feedback about their blind spots from pastors or counsellors.
3. I asked one woman who came to MBM to share her experience about how the church helped or failed her so that we can all learn to care for those who may find themselves a victim of violent behaviour. Here is her reflection…
After having been in a relationship for 10 years where I was the victim of very aggressive domestic violence, I became conditioned to believe that I was not to speak of it. If I did, I would be alienated and shame would come on me. I was also conditioned by my husband and his family to believe that I needed to protect my husband from the shame and labelling that would be placed on him and his family.
When I began to see that things were not getting better and our young children were beginning to be affected by the abuse, I realised I had to get out of the situation.
I shared with our church that we had very serious marriage issues but I still had the mindset that I couldn’t talk about it directly. With limited information, our church attempted to help but the help offered was not useful for my situation directly. I couldn’t at the time speak up about the extent of the abuse and I also didn’t completely understand it myself either – the control or the fear. I just felt ashamed and at fault.
My husband used this opportunity to gather a number of people around him for support which alienated me further.
It wasn’t until during my small group one week, everyone was away for various reasons except my leader and I. Through the conversation I was able to open up to an outsider for only the second time in 15 years and tell them exactly the situation I was in. She listened with no comments for some time. Then with complete compassion asked what she could do that very moment to help me and my children feel safe that night. She made it very clear that what had happened was VERY wrong. We prayed together… not for God to fix things or save my marriage but for his healing, his guidance, his justice, his faithfulness.
I could not think of what I needed or what to do so she began to make simple suggestions. Over the coming weeks and months we cried together, prayed together more and my leader did a lot of research for me. She found support for me in many ways including speaking to police and finding counselling, for my children and I. As I became strong enough to share with the rest of our group, my leader helped them form a team around me (some from our group and some not)… someone who is an amazing prayer warrior, someone who helped me with meals, with finances, with babysitting, she even helped find someone who had a place my children and I could stay in an emergency if needed. She did not for a moment listen to my husband’s stories but left that to others to support him. She made it clear she was there to support me and my children. She had my back and I knew it.
Through this I have found the biggest help came from her first listening. Not trying to give advice, Bible verses or trying to uphold the marriage – but first listening. This allowed for my individual healing to start. I have no idea what the future holds for me or my family, but I do know God does. He has placed his people in the right place at the right time and through their willingness to allow him to use them, my future; our future is full of hope.
4. I know at MBM we are committed to protecting all people from domestic violence but it’s clear we need to keep improving. I know we have been helpful to many but I don’t think to all and as a result we have offered apologies to a number of women over the years including this year. As a staff we are seeking further training in domestic violence.
5. Every doctrine in the Bible has been mishandled and poorly applied. The doctrine of ‘headship-submission’, often called the complementarian position, is no different. History has shown that people have, for example, misused the truth of grace as a license to sin, the truth of predestination to not evangelize, and the truth of the sovereignty of God to not pray. And so we must accept that some pastors and Christians have wrongly and tragically sent victims of physical, spiritual, emotional and sexual abuse back to their spouses under the guise of honouring God. Still others have not recognized the cries of distress from victims for what they are, and the seriousness of what they were experiencing.
6. I don’t believe the answer is to change the teaching of God’s word but to make sure it is taught correctly. For example, Jason Meyer refers to the false teaching of ‘hyper-headship’ as “a satanic distortion of male leadership, but it can fly under the radar of discernment because it is disguised as strong male leadership. Make no mistake—it is harsh, oppressive, and controlling. In other words, hyper-headship becomes a breeding ground for domestic abuse.” As we preach on headship we must be on guard against this error.
7. The staff of MBM are resolved to root out all forms of domestic abuse (mental, emotional, physical, and sexual) in our midst. We must stand at the ready to protect the abused, call abusers to repentance, discipline the unrepentant, and hold up high the stunning picture of how much Christ loves his church
8. I do want to also celebrate one piece of research data that Julia did cite briefly which stated that conservative Protestant men who attend church regularly are found to be the least likely group to engage in domestic violence. This is good news. It is a testament that when men are serious about God and reading headship through the lens of Christ’s sacrificial leadership heeding the warnings to not be harsh with their wives, the fruit of the Spirit is present and marriages are safe havens for wives, and husbands.
9. The group cited by the research as most guilty to inflict abuse are those men who attend church infrequently. They come to hear what they want to hear and use it to serve their own ends. We pastors must be especially aware of this group and protect our flocks against their harmful influences.
10. As I look back on 26 years of being a pastor, I am aware that I have not always been consistently helpful. I have made mistakes. And so I ask you to be in constant prayer for myself and the staff team at MBM so that MBM doesn’t simply claim to be safe but actually is safe.
11. To help us be more consistently helpful, earlier this year, Emilie Gildersleeve who is a qualified Social Worker with much experience in domestic violence, with her husband Ben, approached me and offered to write up a Domestic Violence policy for MBM. We have been collaborating on an initiative we believe is a needed response to these important issues. We can do better, and we must do better. I pray this policy will help us be a church where everyone can feel safe. The policy will outline clear guidelines for all ministry staff to follow, and volunteers, in ensuring that our first response to reports of violence do not silence and minimize the suffering of survivors, and where speedy assistance is offered. The policy will be reviewed by a team of independent experts, and the Professional Standards Units of the Anglican Church before it is ratified. It will also be reviewed by several Christian women who have left violent relationships.
12. In closing, it is vital that all of us take responsibility in protecting the powerless of our church. If you know of a person who is being abused, and you remain silent, you share in the guilt of the one who is abusing. We know that speaking about these issues is difficult. We know that these scenarios are never simple, and that people experiencing violence themselves may have asked you not to say anything. Please don’t be silent. The integrity of our witness for Christ as a church is at stake, and every precious life impacted by violence is a tragedy.
13. Most of all, we want every victim of abuse reading this post and by abuse we include physical, spiritual, emotional, verbal, financial or sexual, to know that what has been done to you is always wrong, regardless of what you have been told or perhaps how we may have missed the signs you were showing us. Violence is entirely the fault of the person choosing to use it. It is never deserved, and it is not brought on by the actions, beliefs or choices a victim makes. Victims and survivors of violence are not to blame for what they have experienced. Please know that there are safe ears and open doors available to you, and that you are not alone.
14. If you are feeling immediately concerned for your safety, please contact the local Police or the Domestic Violence Hotline on 1800 799 7233.
15. If you don’t have an urgent situation, but you are concerned about the nature of a relationship you are in, you are welcome to contact Kim Morris our Women`s Minister, firstname.lastname@example.org 0431071969 or Emilie Gildersleeve, email@example.com 0403873642 or Mark Boyley firstname.lastname@example.org 0447558668 who are happy to be contacted via phone or email in walking with you and planning your next steps ahead. Please don’t hesitate to come and talk to me personally after church on any aspect that I have raised in this post or call the office 9677 0133 or email me email@example.com and make an appointment with me. May God continue to grant us grace and wisdom as we seek to be the church that is conformed to the image of Christ.
 Steven Tracy, “Patriarchy and Domestic Violence: Challenging Common Misconceptions,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50 (2007): 573-94; 581.