Domestic Violence is very much on the agenda in the Australian public square. As well it should be. We, Australians, have a problem. We’re not alone. It’s a problem shared by many throughout the world — across ethnic and religious lines. A problem, it seems, that is fairly prevalent within our churches.
Here are some statistics about domestic violence in Australia.
- 23 per cent of women who had ever been married or in a de-facto relationship, experienced violence by a partner at some time during the relationship.
- 82 per cent of domestic violence cases are not reported to the police
- Of women who were in a current relationship, 10 per cent had experienced violence from their current partner over their lifetime, and 3 per cent over the past 12 months.
- Thirteen women have died from domestic violence in Australia in the first 7 weeks of 2015.
It’s a problem that leaders of churches — and members of churches — must face up to, and bring to light. Especially when the Bible is used to justify violence within the context of marriage. Sydney Morning Herald journalist Julia Baird has published two recent articles in the Herald, highlighting the problem in her own patch – the Anglican Church in Sydney (Submission is a fraught mixed message for the church, and Doctrine of headship a distortion of the gospel message of mutual love and respect). Baird is a former member of the Anglican Synod who has long argued against the Anglican approach to gender, complementarianism, so she has an agenda that is being advanced by these stories. I say this because too much of the knee-jerking about these articles has appeared to be responding to the link Baird posits between this position and violence, and not enough has unequivocally condemned any church that seems to allow, through its teaching on gender and marriage, domestic violence to continue unchecked. Often the responses have demanded ‘evidence’ of an epidemic of violence within the church. Baird’s second piece profiles a few stories she has heard in response to the first, and this was followed by this harrowing account from a survivor of domestic violence. It is uncomfortable reading, but necessary reading.
“My then husband was supposedly a Christian, a very pious, rather obsessive one. He was a great amateur preacher, very encouraging to his friends and evangelistically inclined. He led Bible studies. He wanted to train for the ministry.
He just had one little problem. He liked psychologically torturing me. And dragging me by the hair around our apartment. And punching me – hard, whilst telling me how pathetic I was. He gave me lists with highlighted sections of Bible passages about nagging wives and how I should submit to him. I was subjected to almost the full catalogue of abusive behaviour.”
This story was posted anonymously to the SMH, for legal reasons, but I know who the author is and have no doubt whatsoever that it is true.
We. Complementarians. Have a problem. If we want to continue to maintain the Biblical view of marriage relationships (because, lets face it, the Bible clearly limits ‘submission’ on the basis of gender to the marriage context, and within the church context — relationships entered into voluntarily by people of both genders — not to all relationships and social structures), if we want to maintain this view that men and women are different but equal, and when the two are united as one in marriage this involves something the Bible calls ‘submission,’ then we need to be very careful about how we describe submission, and how far we see this voluntary orientation-in-relationship extending. We need to be clear so that wives do not think submitting to their husbands means letting them physically or emotionally abuse them.
Here are some of my thoughts, working through some of the bits of the Bible that feature in this space. I’m not an expert, but I do think, as a leader of a church, I need to both speak out on this issue and work out what the Gospel of Jesus compels us to do in this space. I’d love help with this. I feel pretty ill-equipped to tackle it.
What God thinks of domestic violence, and abusers
Domestic violence, like other forms of abuse, happens in darkness. It is darkness. Sin. It is horrific. It’s a shattering of something that God created and designed to be a good gift to his people. And more than that. A picture of his steadfast, gracious, covenantal, sacrificial, love for his people. I don’t understand why Christians seem reluctant to believe that such violence and abuse happens within church communities. Communities consisting of consistently broken, sinful, people. It shouldn’t surprise us that people sin. And as people who follow Jesus — who trust in him to deal with sin — we should want to drag this stuff out into the light, rather than covering it up.
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. — John 3.
That is what Jesus does. It’s what he’s on about. Bringing evil to light.
There is no possible Biblical justification for domestic violence. None. It is evil.
There is no justification I can think of for Christian pastors to follow the advice of a prominent American pastor that she should “endure verbal abuse for a season”, and “endure perhaps being smacked one night”, before seeking “help from the church.” It is never loving to allow someone you love to do evil — it is loving to bring evil to light, to help the person you love to see the world as it is, to see Jesus as he is — the one who judges evil. There’s something especially serious about people who call themselves Christians who refuse to have their sinfulness brought into light —and, just to be clear again, domestic violence is sinful. It is so far removed from God’s design for his world, his character, and any Biblical definition of love, that we cannot possibly find any way to describe it as anything else.
“Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.” — 1 John 3
This is not to say there is no forgiveness from God for abusers — should they see their abusing as the sin it is, and bring it to light, turning to Jesus. The radical good news of the Gospel and the transformation God offers to those who follow Jesus, who are transformed into his image by the Holy Spirit, is real change for offenders. For criminals. Real hope. Domestic violence is a crime. A crime according to our laws, a crime against the abused, and a crime against God. But if the abuser truly hears the Gospel there is real hope for forgiveness from God, and for real changed behaviour. Abusers can become people who love like Jesus loves. That is what being a follower of Jesus looks like.
“ And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” —1 John 3
“ Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us…
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. —1 John 4
Real love. Real love in the real world is love that reflects the real living God. This is a profound critique of false versions of love. But this sort of real, sacrificial, others-centred, love is what love is. And it couldn’t be further removed from perpetrating abuse or violence in a marriage.
What marriage is
Marriage is meant to be a picture of God’s love for us in Jesus. This is from the end of one of the most contentious passages in this space — one that is occasionally (wrongly) used by abusers to justify their abuse (and we’ll get to that).
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” — Ephesians 5
Over and over again God’s relationship with us is described as being a marriage — God’s people are his bride. He loves us. Sacrificially. He submits himself to abuse on our behalf. But he is not the abused spouse, in this picture, he is acting from a position of strength to protect his beloved. The abuse is from those who would see him killed. Scandalously, we, his bride, were once amongst that number. The bits of Bible I’ve quoted so far have all come from John, which is deliberate, because John explains this shocking truth at the start of his story of Jesus’ life, and I reckon his prologue is the key to understanding everything else John writes about Jesus, the Gospel, his letters, and even Revelation.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” — John 1
See how this links his words about Jesus bringing light into darkness, defeating darkness (like in John 3), see how this idea that through him we become God’s children (like in 1 John), but the thing that blows my mind a bit is the idea of his own not receiving him, what happens to Jesus is violence from people who should love him. In John 18 and 19, Jesus is slapped around by the religious people who are meant to be the ones receiving him with love, he is denied and abandoned by his disciples, who are meant to be the people who love him, Jesus is flogged, and then the crowd — the people he came to save, yell “crucify, crucify,” and he is put to death.
Ignoring, for a moment, domestic abuse involving the abuse of a husband by a wife — and I’m not denying that this happens, or that it’s a real problem — the Bible paints a picture of Christ being the loving, faithful, husband of his wife — the church, and he does not dish out abuse on his bride.
If we take accept that marriage is ultimately designed be a reflection of God’s self-giving love — both within the Trinity and displayed in his love for his people in Jesus — then we can’t possibly see any reflection of that love involving abuse within a marriage.
Jesus, the husband, does not abuse his bride. He suffers abuse for her sake as an act of love. He does not abuse. He submits to be abused, so that his bride is protected. The bride does not protect him, or submit to abuse in order to save him.
Whatever Christlike submission to abuse looks like — and this is sometimes (wrongly) invoked to encourage abused wives to bear with their abuse — it involves someone operating from a position of incredible strength, wilfully not exercising that strength for the sake of others. It is not a physically weaker person allowing themselves to be abused by someone stronger. It is a strong person taking the blows of people who think they are strong, for the sake of the weak and oppressed.
And just to be clear— abuse is sinful, and it is never ok for a Christian spouse to abuse their partner, and it is never ok for abuse to continue, and allowing abuse to continue is not submission to your spouse but allowing them to remain in darkness.
In John’s logic, Jesus is not abused by the church —who in believing in him become his children, not the baying crowd.
But he is abused on their behalf.
He uses his strength to shield his children from death and judgment. His submission is an act of love and it is never at the cost of those he submits for In John the whole time we read what he’s saying about Jesus we’re meant to remember that this is God’s powerful creative Word, in the flesh, this is light and life. This is power. On display.
The Gospel doesn’t make sense if Jesus doesn’t have the power to come down from the Cross whenever he wants. If he is not fully God. As Philippians 2 describes his submission:
“Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!”
Verbal abuse. Physical abuse. These are not simply a violation of the wedding vows, these are the wilful destruction of the marriage relationship, and everything that it stands for. Domestic violence is especially pernicious because of what marriage is — a committed, one flesh, relationship between two people. Marriage is an expression of the oneness of God and the love of God. It’s not the be all and end all for humanity, but it is a special human relationship that expresses something good and true about God, and about love.
On ‘headship,’ ‘submission’ and abuse
And this, I think, is where ‘submission’ and ‘headship’ — those words Baird has turned into pejoratives in this space — actually should function to prevent abuse ever happening in a Christian marriage if it is understood as a relationship that God intends as a metaphor of his eternally enduring sacrificial love for his people, which is displayed so powerfully at the Cross.
Here’s the really contentious verses from Paul in Ephesians 5, and Peter, in 1 Peter.
In 1 Peter, starting in chapter 2, Paul explores what it looks like to submit like Jesus did — to live in a way that displays the Gospel.
“To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
“He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives” — 1 Peter 2-3
While these verses have been weaponised by abusers to justify their abuse, I don’t think submitting to your husbands means allowing them to sinfully abandon and destroy their marriage vows. And I think it’s absolutely clear from the logic of the passage that this ‘submission’ is for the sake of winning people to Christ, it assumes that the husband in this case, is a non-Christian, and there’s a strong suggestion that any particular abuse Peter is referring to here is caught up with first century husbands not being especially happy that their wives have abandoned their household gods — religion was typically a family matter — in order to follow Jesus. Peter, at the start of this series of injunctions to live like Jesus says “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us,” and then provides a series of examples that apply this principle to people in their existing relationships. The other thing to notice in Peter comes a few verses after the wives bit, it makes it clear, I think, that Peter isn’t calling for any difference in behaviour based on gender, Christian husbands are also called to adopt the same approach as Jesus…
“Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” — 1 Peter 4
The idea of mutual submission being at the heart of a Christian marriage is pretty strong — I’d say it’s linked to the nature of the self-giving, mutual, eternal, love of the persons of the Trinity towards one another. But this sort of love also allows for voluntary roles in which submission looks and feels different, without the equality of the persons being undermined. And this is at the heart of true complementarianism.
So here are more of Paul’s words from Ephesians… I’ve bolded the bits that I think we often miss when we try to use these as justification for abuse, or the weaponising of ‘headship’ or ‘submission.’ (It’s interesting, isn’t it, how similar Paul is to both Peter and John here).
Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved childrenand walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talkor coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light…
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for herto make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”
Here’s what I think are some of the implications of the above — I’m keen to hear if I’ve missed any, especially if people have experience in this area, these are simply what I think are necessary implications of what the Bible says.
- We cannot possibly, as the church, desire to keep domestic violence in the darkness.
- We cannot possibly, as the church, desire stories like the one in the Herald, or in our own churches, stay untold or hidden, for the sake of protecting our brand.
- We cannot possibly side with, or be seen to side with (even by our failure to condemn) the perpetrators of violence, rather than the victims. Christians will have no fear of their sin being brought into light, but rather will welcome it as a chance to repent and be transformed.
- There is no possible justification for domestic violence in the Bible and we need to say that clearly, over and over again, until people believe it.
- The first step for people experiencing domestic violence is to get out of the situation where the violence is occurring. To separate. And to seek help. This will involve the police — because domestic violence is a crime, and in the case of one or both of the spouses being Christians, will involve the church dealing with both parties, especially to care for and protect the abused.
- Separation isn’t divorce, and divorce, as a response to persistent, unrepentant, domestic violence is something that the Bible allows because it is such a clear abandonment of the wedding vows (1 Cor 7) and represents a complete destruction of the good thing God has made.
- What the on the ground reality of these implications looks like will be different based on how much transformation occurs in the relationship — and the key to this transformation is the Gospel of Jesus, and the love of Jesus, which creates people who love like Jesus. There is no real blanket rule on how this works beyond bringing the abuse to light, this doesn’t necessarily mean publicly broadcasting the abuse, but it does mean making it known to those who are in a position to end it.