A tale of two tables: Public Christianity, common conversations, and our place at the table

One of the most telling things about many of the conversations I’ve participated in and watched around the ABC expose on domestic violence in churches in the last week is around the place we Christians seem to want to occupy at the common ‘table’ and the way we then operate our own ‘table’…

A tale of two tables

Bear with me. I’m going to use the table as a metaphor for where these conversations happen. Let’s assume for a moment that the public square is like a dining table; lots of people with ideas clamour for seats. For a long time, in Christendom, the institutional church had one of the prime positions (if not the prime position for a while) at this table. We set the agenda; we were the hosts; it was assumed we would look out for the common good. Over time our place at the head was contested, and we moved away from the head but remained in a position of influence. We were still heard. Now. Well. The table is both ‘secular’ in that our voice doesn’t get a particularly special place, ‘pluralistic’ in that many voices — institutional, and even religious — are welcomed, but there’s increasingly an expectation that religious beliefs are a bit out of touch and probably don’t have much of a place, and we’re tolerated so long as we’re prepared to put our money where our mouth is and act to bring change according to an agenda set by the host.

There’s a second table in this metaphor. It’s the table that we run. The one where we invite other people to be part of discussions; where we are the host, and where we should be particularly interested to invite people that the rest of society ignores. Historically this has been where the church has been an excellent force for social change; because the conversations at this second table have informed our participation at the first. But mostly because this table is where we see the power of the Gospel to generally bring people together as family; where the worldly games of status and power get put aside (incidentally, this is why Paul is so keen to rebuke the way status games are creeping in to the share meal in Corinth)… Our literal table is meant to be different as an expression of this metaphor. If the first table is the public square, and the banquet is the communication that happens there; the second is our Christian community and the conversations that happen there. How we approach the first table as leaders or the ‘institution’ shapes the tone of the second, and who feels welcome (because in fact, how we approach the first table should reflect who is speaking at the second).

The dilemma is that not only have we lost our place of honour at the first table — now it’s a place where we’re increasingly losing our dignity. We’re now viewed with the sort of suspicion reserved for the slightly delusional great-uncle at a family gathering. There’s now increasingly a belief that we’re not just delusional but harmful and unwelcome. So we protest like that same great-uncle would about being shunted down the line, replaced by new in-laws, out-laws, and Johny-come-latelys. We’ve lost a bit of status and dignity. We’re really worried about losing our seat; and so we act out a bit, yell loudly about our historic contribution, and forget that a big part of our value was what we brought to table one from table two; that those contributions were noticed and gave us legitimacy. And yet, we do still get seats at the table; our lobbyists are heard, and invited onto TV panel programs, so too are pretty exceptional representatives of the clergy and the church; who are invited to contribute to discussions.

I’m not the first to use these two tables as a metaphor; Jesus was. But more recently there was a great article in Cardus’ Comment Magazine that planted this idea for me. Here’s a bit from Luke 14, where Jesus has been invited into the house of a Pharisee; to dine at the table of a ruler of the pharisees. This is the public sphere; and Luke tells us ‘they are watching him carefully’… it’s the sabbath. And Jesus heals a man with dropsy; an outcast. A man whose illness and physical disfigurement would’ve excluded him from the sort of power and influence his host enjoyed. And at this table, there’s a competition for top spot…

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honour, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honour, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” — Luke 14:7-14

It feels to me like we Christians are getting bumped down the pecking order in that table of influence; further and further away from the place of honour. And we keep grabbing a seat that’s about where we think we should be and being dropped a peg or two; and the way back up isn’t to noisily defend our honour; but to act with honour and dignity; to present ourselves as more lowly than we actually are… and there seems to be a connection between this picture and the one that immediately follows of hosting a banquet. This is a picture of the sort of literal and metaphorical hospitality we should be offering in this world; of our priorities in terms of the sorts of people whose voices we should be concerned about at our table. 

When it comes to the Domestic Violence conversation, here’s where I think our approach to the dilemma we’re more broadly experiencing around our place at table one kicks in. We’re so keen not to be the crazy uncle, we’re so keen to keep our place at the table, that we lash out at anybody who has the temerity to suggest that there is anything at all wrong with us that should keep us from the conversation. Like the crazy uncle who keeps turning up in his underwear and thinks there’s a great conspiracy to get rid of him when all the rest of the family want is for him to wear pants and behave with common decency; and to stop trying to sit at the head and dictate the conversation for everybody else.

This is what it looks like to me when we keep going after the ABC for ‘bias’ or as though there’s an anti-Christian agenda behind this story or its use of stats (which I do believe were a very minor part of the investigation and the story, they were just the controversy used to sell the story). And News Ltd isn’t helping (nor is our ongoing desire for the institution to be vindicated by the court of public opinion). They’ve found a wedge in their ongoing stoush with the ABC and they’re using the figure of the great uncle to score points against another voice at the table. Every time we try to land a blow on the ABC we’re failing to ‘turn the other cheek’ or to respond to curse with blessing. Every time we clamour for a spot at table one by asserting our dignity and our rightful place there, we’re making table two seem less hospitable to the victims in our communities.

We may well have been misrepresented — certainly the headline and hook sentence of that first article (probably written by a sub-editor, not the reporters) was unhelpful, and Media Watch has rightfully critiqued the ABC’s coverage for that… but what we’re not considering in our attempts to maintain an honourable position at table one, is what the cost is to our ability to run our second table; to being hospitable and welcoming to those we should be hospitable and welcoming to.

Table two should be our primary concern. Table two is the table where we should be making space for the victims; the vulnerable, and the oppressed. And so many of those women, on social media, are reporting that our concern to maintain face and dignity at table one — institutionally — to protect the brand — is coming at a cost of them feeling welcome at table two. Our leaders have been so quick to share criticisms of the ABC article, its methodology, its headline, its use of ‘research’ (and I use those quote marks deliberately because on the one hand we’re dismissive of the year long investigation of actual stories in Australia, and on the other hand I think research from America a decade ago is of questionable value in assessing the Australian scene anyway); and this, in my observations, has been from a desire to maintain the dignity of the church and keep us getting a place at the table. I think it’s a wrong strategy. I think it’s harmful for our table one status; and disastrous for our hosting of table two. And we need to assess our priorities. And the way to do that is to listen to the people who are at our table with us — or should be — the victims; be that in the stories Julia Baird unearthed, or the many victims who’ve come forward on social media. One of my Facebook friends, Isabella Young, is a victim and an advocate for victims in the church; she said the other day:

“This appears to be turning into the rest of the church versus the abuse victims unfortunately. I really don’t care what those stats say, what I do care about is that no one is discussing the individual points raised in the article or documentary. But we all like a fight don’t we?”

 

Our job is to be the hosts of this other table that is utterly different to the table of the Pharisees — the tables that operate in the world of power and status. Jesus returns to the idea of places of honour at banquets a bit later in Luke’s Gospel.

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” — Luke 20:46-47

This is a picture of the status hungry gone rogue — people who in pursuit of their own honour also devour widows houses. People who should be hosts but are wolves and abusers of the vulnerable. That’s what we’re not to be; people who are so concerned with our own dignity and place at the public table — these ‘feasts’ — that we are destroying our ability to be hospitable to the vulnerable.

I reckon that’s a key to this role we’re meant to play as generous hosts to the vulnerable, who are then able to represent the vulnerable well as advocates in other spheres. I suspect the closer we are to the head of table one — the more proximate we are to worldly power — the harder this passionate advocacy is to achieve; much like it would have been harder for Jesus to challenge the Pharisees if he was one. Our relationship to worldly power should be the same, I suspect, as his relationship to the Pharisees; an expectation of crucifixion for calling out when that power is being abused. It’s hard to do that if we’re at the head of that table, or our relationship is too cosy, or if we want to be treated with dignity and respect; rather than seeing our mission as speaking on behalf of those at table two. Our table.

Here’s the thing. Realising that we’re not at the head of the table, or in a place of honour, any longer at table one is vital for our ability to do public Christianity; or participate in the public square; with dignity. Self-protection is a lot like aiming for a place of honour that we don’t deserve; having others protect our dignity is not an opportunity for us to say “I told you so” — if it happens it is nice, and we should be thankful, but turning the other cheek means we don’t use another person’s testimony in our favour to hit back.

Realising we’re not the host of the public conversation also guides the way we contribute to the conversation; its not our conversation to run, it’s not our job to define terms, or to be defensive; our best ‘defence’ is who we host at table two, and how we speak for and look out for their interests. That’s where we gain credibility; that and in our humility which is expressed in treating our host and conversation partners with respect even when they wrong us; even when they’re trying to trap us; even if ultimately they’ll crucify us. That’s what Jesus was doing in Luke 14, even as he implicitly rebuked the Pharisees by healing the crippled man on the sabbath; as he explicitly rebuked them by suggesting his host and guests had their approach to hospitality and honour wrong, and building a table for “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” is what Jesus came to achieve; the table he builds is the table of his kingdom; these people are tangible pictures of those who know they need God and salvation in Luke’s Gospel — Jesus has previously proclaimed ‘it’s not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick’ (Luke 5:31), and these are the people Jesus explicitly said he came to liberate in Luke 4. This is the sort of table we’re to be building in our own communities; and our efforts in the last few days, in many cases, have been deconstructive rather than constructive. 

Once more on the domestic violence in church thing: answering some common objections to the ABC’s coverage

Julia Baird’s piece has been in the wild for a couple of days; and there’s an ongoing cloud of ‘suspicion’ hanging over it in conversations online; particularly around the stats the piece uses from some American research from 2008, which have been ‘exposed’ by Andrew Bolt. Apparently, I’ve been told a handful of times today, if we want to get to the ‘truth’ we need to listen to Andrew Bolt, not Julia Baird, because somehow he is pro-Christian and she is anti-Christian.

Which blows my mind.

This whole thing about the US data blows my mind; it’s a red herring in the post-mortem of the article fuelled by people who don’t want the story to be true, or who reject (perhaps rightly) the implication that a certain stream of theology drives abusers. The truth in Baird’s story is not found in the secondary sources she uses to frame her story, but in the primary sources that drive it — the stories of real women. Real victims. Who have suffered in our churches because their husbands have twisted the Bible and got away with it, or worse, been tacitly supported by church leaders… worst still, some of them have been church leaders!

I think the better understanding of Baird’s point is that a certain stream of theology can create an environment in which abusers flourish… but these stats are not at all the bit of the story that I’d be emphasising. It’s a shame that they have been so closely tied to the introduction of the piece when the same conclusion could perhaps have been produced from the stories of women interviewed without the foreign data (and perhaps this comes down to our modernist hang ups and suspicions about the power of personal story in certain segments of the church).

I don’t think the idea that ‘sporadic church attenders’ were described as the most prevalent abusers in some 2008 data is the point, or the impetus behind, this story. Which Julia Baird unpacked in this interview on The Drum, where she also describes the research behind this story, and summarises the findings:

“I’ve found countless stories; I’ve spoken to dozens and dozens of women who within the church have experienced abuse at the hands of their husbands, who were twisting Scripture in order to enable and justify their abuse, who have then turned to their pastors and told them what’s happened. They’ve not been believed; they’ve been turned away; they’ve been told to submit and endure.”

“I found a great defensiveness in talking about it and a very piecemeal approach to looking at it; you know there might be the odd task force or protocol, or some counselling available, but there’s no real urgency, no real listening to the women. It’s what one woman… describes as ‘an abuser friendly culture’ within churches, and there is a question of grooming, there is a question of an emphasis on what’s interpreted as male control, and male rule, and it’s meant that the victims have been sidelined, and in some cases abused for many years.”

“This is part of the problem when I speak to a question of urgency, is a lack of serious collection of data about this. What we do know is from a Queensland study discovered that one in five perpetrators go to church. There’s American research that suggests that evangelical men who go to church sporadically are more likely than any other group in the community, religious or not religious, to assault their wives; and it should be added to that that those who go to church regularly are less likely to, so there’s a real disconnect between people who are passing through, or on the periphery, or who don’t have a depth of faith which is an interesting part of the discussion.”

These stories this week come from stories from real women in real churches; and by all accounts they continue to flood in to Baird and others. And there’s a bunch of people missing the point and raising these common objections.

1. “Andrew Bolt’s opinion pieces are ‘knock down’ arguments against the ABC piece and we should point people to them”

Andrew Bolt is a strange bedfellow for the church on this issue. He’s not a Christian (by his own claims). He has a particular political agenda when it comes to domestic violence (so wants the focus on Islamic communities and indigenous communities). And he has a commercial/political interest in denigrating the ABC as being ‘left leaning’ (and so, by extension, institution hating and anti-Church etc).

Let me do a Bolt and play the man for a second. Bolt is not a journalist. He’s a commentator/opinion writer. What he writes is just that, opinion and commentary. There is a difference between opinion writing and news/feature writing in terms of ethics, fact checking, burdens of proof, etc. He does purport to be ‘fact checking’ the ABC piece by digging in to the American data both the American article and The Drum interview quote, and then he uses this ‘fact checking’ to suggest Baird’s entire premise is faulty.

I suspect, in the world of news, things went in a different direction (and you get a sense of this from The Drum). It seems to me that it’s the dozens and dozens of women Baird spoke to that constitute her investigation; and its those stories — first hand accounts — where the weight of Baird’s argument sits. The data from another place  (America) in another time (2008) is interesting corroborating evidence; and were one to question the veracity of the conclusion of Baird’s piece, which seems to be similar to the US evidence, one would actually have to ask Julia Baird and co-writer Hayley Gleeson, if their conclusion was also carried by the dozens and dozens of primary sources they interviewed. Given that the data is essentially used to corroborate these sources, I suspect that is the case. But I might be wrong.

2. The stats quoted are wrong/misleading/from the US/from 2008/say the opposite of the article.

And this leads to the next point. Those stats could have not been in this story at all and it would probably have been stronger and more compelling; it would have made a much more compelling case against the church (if that was Baird’s agenda) to not point people to the articles that say regular church going men are the least likely to perpetrate abuse (which Baird offers voluntarily in The Drum video), and which is in the piece (though apparently that bit was subject to an edit for clarity).

The weight of the article in our time and place, and for our churches, does not sit with statistics from 10 years ago in America; but with the very real testimony of real women from our communities. Plus, stats on domestic violence are almost impossible to collect. How do you do it? How do you ask a woman currently in an abusive relationship to reveal that she is? In what context is that possible? How do you ask people who’ve escaped to come forward if they carry a sense of shame (and possibly even ‘guilt’ associated with victim blaming culture)? Who funds this sort of research?

It’s incredible that we have this story built from interviews with dozens and dozens of victims in the first place. And those should be enough; especially if there’s a particular pattern caught up in church culture of ‘enabling and concealing domestic violence’. If we think the ‘sporadic churchgoer’ thing is where the emphasis is, we’ve probably missed the most useful point (though this is still useful anecdotal evidence, and we’ll get to that below).

Why are we majoring on a minor? Making this the point of ‘truth’ on which the story is made or broken; the vast amount of the work, and the content of the piece, is in the bringing together of these stories. The bits about whether our theology has a causal relationship to those stories, or it’s just our practice that contributes to the harm, is where the rubber hits the road. Surely? These are real women; and this is how statistics and sampling works: there will be more of them.

3. What about male victims of DV?

This is literally the biggest red herring in this discussion. I’m sure that men are abused in relationships. Women are sinful too. But this story, fundamentally, is about whether church culture perpetuates abuse through the weaponising of key verses about women, from the Bible. Here’s a bit from the original piece:

“Abusive men commonly refer to several different parts of the Bible.

First are the verses — cited by Sally’s husband Peter, above — telling women to submit to their husbands and male authority, under the doctrine known as male headship.

Second are verses that say God hates divorce.

And third are those in 1 Peter that tell women to submit to husbands in a very particular way, as they follow instructions to slaves to submit to even “harsh masters””

Abused men are not being abused by the twisting of those verses; they’re not coming forward to Julia Baird to tell their stories of the church perpetuating their abuse. It’s just not this story. And this story is not other stories. This story is not the exclusive final word on domestic violence in Australia

4. Why not focus on all the Christian men who aren’t abusing their wives (and the stat from the quoted report that says men who attend church regularly are the least likely to offend).

This one was a doozy. Lyle Shelton from the Australian Christian Lobby tweeted this at Julia Baird after her 7:30 segment aired last night. In fact, he had a series of digs at the program.

Now. I think this is a fundamental and egregious exercise in missing the point. The point of this story isn’t about the men who don’t abuse women in the church; but about the men who do. It’s not about those who have a real and active faith in the crucified Jesus, but about those who want to twist words about him to keep controlling and abusing their wives. It isn’t about sheep; but about wolves. And inasmuch as it is about the church it is about how we shepherd the flock and keep wolves from the doors.

Lyle followed up that tweet, and Julia Baird’s reply, with this one; in a further exercise in missing the point.

 

Men who abuse women in churches are not the the church’s fault, necessarily, but dealing with them, if a wife comes forward for help, is the church’s responsibility.

Pastors are called to be shepherds; that is literally what the word means. Biblically shepherds have a couple of responsibilities — feeding the sheep and protecting them from wolves. That means part of the job of a pastor might be to weed out wolves who are masquerading as sheep in the flock — the ‘sporadic church attender’ who is twisting the Bible to abuse a vulnerable member of the flock would be a pretty clear example of a wolf. Here’s a thing Jesus says:

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” — Matthew 7:15-20.

Here’s what Jesus then says about himself, and what a good shepherd does for the sheep when confronted by wolves…

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” — John 10:11-13

Now. In the context, in both these cases, I think he’s first talking about the Pharisees — those he’ll also accuse of ‘devouring widows houses’. In the John passage he’s also drawing on some imagery from Ezekiel… where shepherds don’t just give their sheep to the wolves, they become wolf-like — and some of the stories about people in ministry being abusers is pretty shockingly evocative of this sort of imagery.

The point is, there’s a very real passing of the shepherd’s baton (or crook, or cross) from Jesus to the church at the end of the Gospels as Jesus commissions Peter to ‘feed my sheep’ (and this continues into the epistles). And these stories must surely help us in the task of being better shepherds — especially if we’re talking about wolves, not members of the flock, but people who pretend to be; those who come amongst us to twist the word of God in order to lure vulnerable people to their destruction… these sporadic church attending abusers are not Christians; they’re not following the example of teaching of Jesus. They are predators.

Domestic violence is not necessarily the fault of the church, but being good shepherds of the flock is our responsibility; and that means weeding out the wolves, and changing the culture that allows them to prey on our sheep; it certainly is our responsibility not to feed a sheep to a wolf. Which is very much what some of these stories Baird’s piece shares sound like…

5. The ABC is anti-Christian. This proves it.

This one bothers me. The ABC publishes more pro-Christian content through its religion and ethics platform than any other media outlet. John Stackhouse, a Christian academic, was on Q&A this week. Baird herself is a Christian. It’s particularly ironic when Bolt makes this claim in order to further his political agenda that has the church as some sort of moral guardian in his own civic religion. Baird might be anti-complementarian, but her piece is not anti-Christian.

“Unlike the Koran, there are no verses in the Bible that may be read as overtly condoning domestic abuse.

To the contrary, it is made clear that God hates violence and relationships must be driven by selflessness, grace and love.

There is no mainstream theologian in Australia who would suggest that a church should be anything but a sanctuary, or that a Christian relationship be marked by anything but love.”

That’s her foundational assumption; it’s not a huge leap to go from there to see that part of the thrust of her piece is that those who are abusing their wives and using the Bible to do so aren’t following the basis of Christianity, and it’s a mystery as to why the church has been not so good at being on the front foot on this, or understanding the urgency. If I’d heard dozens and dozens of stories from abused women in churches, I’d see this issue as urgent too… urgent enough to use my media platform to blow the lid off…

6. Why not keep this in house? Shouldn’t we be dealing with this issue behind closed doors? It’s denigrating the name of Jesus.

You know what denigrates the name of Jesus more than anything else.

Cover ups.

People who appear to be more worried about our institutional reputation than the lives and well being of those we’re supposed to be caring for. You know what Paul says in Ephesians 5:

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.” — Ephesians 5:8-13

The question is how committed to the light we are; and how bright we want it to be, and how much we trust that these instructions aren’t just wise but Godly. How prepared are we to expose darkness even if it costs us in order to transparently have nothing to do with darkness. Our reputation to outsiders matters; and what’s scary for me is the implication that many abusers may actually be leaders in our churches. Have a squiz at 1 Timothy 3 and its qualifications for being an ‘overseer’; I’ll bold the bits that are particularly interesting in this context.

Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.” — 1 Timothy 3:2-7

How do we have a good reputation with outsiders if we deal with stuff like this in house, in a climate where people are suspicious that all we want to do is protect the institution at the expense of the people?

7. Julia Baird is biased against conservative evangelical churches and has an agenda, she fails to show how women in leadership would solve this problem.

Well. This one might be true; Julia Baird’s pro-women’s ordination track record is pretty clear, and it’s not immediately clear other than in some arguments about a diminishing patriarchy (and the inclusion of women’s voices) being part of what stops the church ‘enabling and concealing’ domestic violence… listening to women does seem like an essential thing but not at all outside the parameters of complementarian theology… and I’d suggest elders like the men Timothy describes her would be a big help in fighting against wolves who are infiltrating our churches. But this objection is the one I tried to address at some length yesterday; it’s such a misguided response to her service in bringing these stories to our collective attention.

Because let’s be clear; that’s what might be behind sporadic church attendance; church being used as a mechanism to control vulnerable women by crafty wolf-like men. Let’s not pretend there’s any way you can understand and be following the example of Jesus and beating, abusing, or controlling your wife in the way the stories Julia Baird has uncovered; and let’s make sure that’s clear by, as the church, being utterly committed to weeding out wolves and handing them over to be dealt with by the appropriate authorities while we tend to those God has placed in the care of our communities.

Quibbling over the data, or whether Julia Baird has a particular axe to grind (or possibly it’s a well honed axe that she’s swinging again) is missing both the trees and the forest here. This isn’t an area where complementarians and egalitarians should be at each other’s throats trying to play the blame game; but one we must urgently address; and there’s the means to do this in the theology (and practice) of both camps. Ironically; this is the take home message in both the academic paper the Baird piece links to, and the one by the same author that is quoted in that paper. It’s a shame all the people looking for a smoking gun didn’t focus on that bit. The author, Steven Tracy, concludes with three challenges to complementarians, and three to egalitarians, and then this closing statement. This seems to be the point of his peer reviewed and published paper… let’s focus on this for a while:

“Domestic violence continues to be a hideous global social problem. Secular feminists and many egalitarians assert that patriarchy is the ultimate cause of all abuse against women. While there is considerable evidence that patriarchy contributes to much domestic violence, the etiology of domestic violence is far too complex to support any single cause hypothesis. Furthermore, patriarchy must be carefully defined when assessing its impact on abuse, for a wide spectrum of “patriarchy” exists today, from authority based traditional patriarchy to shared authority “soft patriarchy.” While all forms of patriarchy can and do contribute to domestic violence, it appears that the models of patriarchy which give husbands the greatest levels of power and authority are most likely to stimulate domestic violence.

Furthermore, recent social science research which reveals an inverse relationship between church attendance and domestic violence among conservative Protestant men challenges both patriarchalists and egalitarians to modify their understanding of gender roles and abuse and to work together to combat domestic violence.

 

 

 

Domestic Violence, the ABC, and the spirit of the Reformation

The ABC ran a longform piece on domestic violence in churches that take a ‘complementarian’ approach to gender roles in marriage yesterday, ahead of a story that will appear on 7:30 tonight. The piece is written, in part, by ABC journalist Julia Baird, and the response within the virtual circles I mix in has been fascinating… especially given stuff I’ve written recently about women, the internet, and the Spirit of the Reformation.

This might just be my observations, and I might be biased, or have an agenda, or whatever… but I’ve seen quite a few blokes (especially in ministry) getting defensive (or going on the offensive — and yeah, there’s Andrew Bolt’s response), and so many women gently suggesting that getting defensive isn’t the response in this moment on this issue.

In the Bible, wisdom is personified as a woman; perhaps we should take our lead from that and listen to some wise women sometimes? All the time? Perhaps Julia Baird is a voice worth listening to?

500 years ago this year, Martin Luther was so motivated by the inherent brokenness in the system of the church he loved and served, and by the cost of its corruption on the vulnerable (through the sale of indulgences), that he nailed 95 things he believed the church was doing wrong to a wall and kick started a movement we now call ‘the Reformation’ — the great irony is almost all the churches this ABC piece specifically mentions (apart from the Catholics) trace their history back to this moment. We should, according to our narrative, welcome voices that call for us to consider how our theology and practice are coherent, or not, and when our practices are damaging to vulnerable people in our world. We should be committed to a ‘priesthood of all believers’, where we expect God to raise up and use all sorts of people to speak truth to the ‘establishment’ (be it church or state)… and we should welcome criticism as the chance to consider whether or not more reform might be necessary.

We, more than other religious traditions, should welcome this sort of criticism as an opportunity for self assessment and reform (and it’s probably worth noting that Baird wrote part 1 of this series about domestic violence in Islam). We have a chance to respond to the publication of a thesis like this the way the Catholic Church should’ve responded to Luther. We should see Baird as a sister in Christ who is so moved by the injustice she has witnessed in this investigation on domestic violence in our churches that she has used her platform with the national broadcaster as a ‘Wittenberg door’. We should see this not as an ‘attack on mother church and all we hold dear’, but as a cry for reform from someone who has, by her account, heard dozens of the sorts of stories she shared in her piece yesterday in the course of her investigations.

And yet; today, on the Christian interwebs, I’ve seen countless heartbreaking examples of the counter-reformation; people expressing suspicion of Baird because she’s an egalitarian who is out to get us, or the ABC (and Baird) hate Christians and is out to get us.

I’ve seen it called ‘a hit job on Christians,’ a ‘conflation’ of her theological agenda with an emotive political one, a ‘smear of the church in general, and Christian men in particular’… I’ve seen people cite Andrew Bolt’s hatchet piece on the article as a voice for Christian values, when he doesn’t claim to be a Christian, but Baird does…  and I’ve seen so much discussion that wants to make the point that Baird draws on (peer-reviewed) publications about statistics in the US for part of her argument, and these stats aren’t from our own context and she hasn’t completely summarised the sources (while she has provided links to them).

It is awful and depressing. I get that people feel horrified by the idea that we blokes in leadership might be complicit in this problem (or that it might be as bad as the article suggests). I feel horrified. I get anger and denial as responses; that’s part of the grief cycle. It’s just important we don’t stay there, or we’ll repeat the mistakes of the ‘establishment’ in reformation history… we’ll try to shoot the messenger and that’ll only bolster the message (that churches led by blokes are more likely to be hostile and abusive to women).

Here are some key quotes from the article (which is largely first hand accounts of abuse and the response from churches in Australian churches from real people).

“There is no mainstream theologian in Australia who would suggest that a church should be anything but a sanctuary, or that a Christian relationship be marked by anything but love.

But church counsellors and survivors of family violence report that many abusive men, like Sally’s husband, rely on twisted — or literalist — interpretation of Bible verses to excuse their abuse…

What is clear from the women interviewed by ABC News is that they do not resent the church — they urgently seek its reform.”

We need Julia Bairds like we needed Martin Luther. We need to listen to the stories she is telling from real women in our churches about how our real theology has been used to create bad practice, but also to see how it is clear from her piece that bad practice ultimately comes (from the perpetrators) from wolves who twist the words of God to create their own bad theology to justify their insidious practice. Her point is that if we aren’t clear about our theology and practice we provide cover for wolves — ‘false teachers’ — the kinds of people the Bible warns us we should be looking out for.

Baird’s piece is certainly a result of her egalitarian convictions but it doesn’t require egalitarian convictions to agree with her in her observations of the problems, or to listen to the stories she tells and ponder how we might reform from within before a reformation movement happens without us.

I’m thankful for Julia Baird. I wish the church had a thousand more journalists like her. I don’t believe that complementarian theology causes abuse, or that egalitarian theology is the silver bullet (here’s a post I wrote specifically about gender and abuse a few months back); but she is certainly right that the abuse of complementarian theology can be used to keep people in abusive situations. Neither complementrianism or egalitarianism will provide a model that protects people from abuse; Jesus will. And how we respond to the calls of reformers is a chance for us, like it should have been for the Catholics, to keep reforming so that our theology and practice are more closely tied to the God revealed in Jesus, and the way of life demonstrated by him.

In churches where men are in positions of responsibility and ‘authority’; where disclosure of domestic violence in relationships within the church will likely be to these men, and where there’s control and abuse being perpetuated using twisted theology, how we respond to this sort of piece matters; it communicates something. It’s an opportunity either to perpetuate the exact cultural problem that allows wolfish abusers to operate under the cover of darkness or behind closed doors, or to reform the culture.

I fear too much of the conversation about this article online has been defensive and about theological differences, where we could, and should (and many have) simply been welcoming this call for reform and heeding its advice (and the accounts of many Christian sisters who have been abused) to bring about real change in how we approach this issue. We might as a reformed church (and by this I mostly mean protestant churches in Australia that hold to broadly complementarian gender roles), bang on about remembering our history and celebrating 500 years of the Reformation; but we’ve possibly missed the essence of the Reformation (a pursuit of Christlikeness through reforming practices and institutions that have become broken by our sinfulness and the enshrining of broken traditions as norms).

What if instead of being defensive we welcomed the light being shone on this issue (and the one shining the light, even if we disagree with her brand of torch).

What if we used this as an opportunity to produce clear statements about our approach to domestic violence, and how the cross of Jesus shapes Christian marriage and also our sense of leadership (what the strong do for the weak)?

What if we’d used this to clean our laundry rather than accusing Julia Baird of either airing the dirty laundry or throwing mud at our clean clothes?

What if we’d used this to thank Julia Baird and celebrate the way she has used her gifts and her platform to both bring this attention into the light (ala Ephesians 5 — which is about more than just marriage), and to attempt to reform the church out of a love for both Jesus and his bride?

What if instead of expressing dismay at ‘shoddy statistics’ we’d simply said ‘this is awful, we commit to working to change’?

I suspect we’d be bringing honour to Jesus and we’d be committing ourselves to healthy change and a healthy expression of how men of God relate to women of God who bring wise counsel… maybe we’d be practising what we preach…

Some positive links.

A graphically expressed third way on gender stuff in a messed up world: Complementarian? Egalitarian? Or the Cross?

Men and women are, on average, or typically, physiologically, anatomically, and hormonally different. To deny this is would be odd because the evidence is pretty concrete. Here’s a thing from the Australian Bureau of Statistics from 2011/12:

The average Australian man (18 years and over) was 175.6 cm tall and weighed 85.9 kg. The average Australian woman was 161.8 cm tall and weighed 71.1 kg.

This size and weight ratio, on average, means men are physically bigger and stronger. There are exceptions. But this average also means that men who throw their weight around are a danger to women, and we know this and talk about this beyond the church when we talk about violence against women, rape culture, and the patriarchy. Some approaches to gender issues want to deny or minimise this difference and the effect it has on the world assuming that equality or equity is the answer to this problem.

You might have seen this graphic.

Now. I like the sentiment there. But this other version an important corrective; acknowledging that sometimes inequality is a result of systemic injustice.

 

At the moment Aussie Christians are talking about gender equality in the church and home. And I thought of these pictures and wondered how applicable they might be. I reckon both of these graphics are a bit naive when it comes to problems of gender inequality and the solutions both in the church, and in the world.

Let me demonstrate this graphically with my own little picture. In the interests of using images that I own the rights to, let’s assume that the ultimate good, or what it means for humans to flourish, is represented by the ability to watch my old soccer team, Kustard FC, compete in a grand final (in an equal world this would be a mixed sport perhaps, but bear with me), so the ultimate expression of ‘gender equality’ is everybody enjoying the same view of the game.

An unimpeded view of the looks like this. No fences. Right behind the goal mouth.

 

 

When we talk about gender equality in the church and the world it’s worth acknowledging what we’ve said up front; the different physical strength of men and women, and a few other issues, means that over time men wielding influence and power has become systematised. There’s no fence in this picture; there’s people. Men. This is the patriarchy. A group of 175.6 pixel high, 85.9 pixel wide men using their size and weight to secure their own ultimate good at the expense of others.

Now. This is where it gets interesting for Christians.

Because we have a different sense about what the world should be to our patriarchy loving or patriarchy hating neighbours, that comes from our story, and an explanation for why, instead, the world is the way it is. It starts in the beginning.

Creation.

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” — Genesis 1:27-28

I’ve bolded them to emphasise that this is plural and the plurality in sight is ‘male and female’ people as created by God. They are blessed; not cursed. This blessing is caught up in, and enables their partnership. We Christians believe that at creation men and women were created to flourish together in partnership. To share in the task of bearing God’s image, ruling the world together, cultivating and keeping the sanctuary of God’s garden-temple and expanding it as we multiplied his image-bearing presence across the face of the earth. In Genesis 2 we see Eve, woman, created as a helper for Adam, man, because he can’t do his job alone, and the Hebrew word used for ‘helper’ ezer is elsewhere used of God in a military context coming to the aid of Israel, and means something more like ‘necessary ally’ than ‘servant’.

It was meant to look like…

Curse

But things broke. The ideal was lost in the fall (Genesis 3), amidst a bunch of curses (not blessings) in response to Adam and Eve’s sin (and the Serpent’s deception), God says:

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
    with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
    and he will rule over you.” — Genesis 3:16

We were made to rule together, but now, and this is the pattern of life in the world in the Bible’s account of our humanity, man rules over woman. Over, not with.

So now, as a result. Here’s what happens when the average woman (161.8 pixels by 71 pixels) would also like to ‘watch the game’ ie flourish.

 

The ‘patriarchy’, or the problem of gender equality isn’t a problem where there’s just a fence impeding the view of the women; it’s a problem where men are impeding that view because they are bigger and stronger and it’s to their advantage. The worst form of this probably should be depicted with men trampling all over women because of their strength, not just blocking access to the ultimate good, but abusing women to secure something bad and treating it as good (eg abuse).

This ‘patriarchy’ is not what life was meant to look like; it’s not how men and women were made to live together. This is ‘curse’, as Genesis 3 puts it. This is the new ‘natural’ order of things. It is not good. It is not what God made life to be. It is not the ideal. We might think that because it is normal the best thing to do is to find other things for the women standing behind these men to do. Perhaps they could help them flourish and enjoy the game by giving them a back massage. Perhaps they could play a ‘different’ role, or find a ‘different’ sort of flourishing in order to let men rule. This feels a lot like having the curse be our norm.

So we’re left with three options to respond to this as humans, and as Christians, to deal with this patriarchy. Classically as Christians we see two options, the middle two. We reject the first (rightly), and I want to suggest we should embrace the fourth as we follow the example of Jesus.

Option 1: Embrace it (Chauvinism)

So when men like the four blokes on the right decide that they aren’t just going to secure a better ‘flourishing’ life for themselves by nature of being themselves and benefiting from the system, but rather they’ll use their strength to take advantage of others, trampling on them to secure an even better ‘view’… This is chauvinism. It’s abuse. It’s not just curse it’s sin.

The Changed Status Quo (Curse + Sin)

When sin happens on top of curse we get an even more messed up view of the world. When people take advantage of a power inequality for their own ends it amplifies the problems of a systemic inequality (a broken system). The world now looks like this. Part sinful abuse, part cursed system. Not what it was meant to be.

 

 

Christian Options

Now. Let’s for the sake of graphical clarity make Christian men and women colourful, and assume the status quo in the cursed world is part cursed system (patriarchy) and part abusive (chauvinism), that our challenge as Christians is to avoid sinful abuse (chauvinism) and overcome the curse (patriarchy) while living in this world.

Option 2. The Egalitarian Option (full equality)

Egalitarians stress the equality of all people; men and women; and our shared task in the world as God’s image bearing people. It is idealistic in that it looks back to the world before the fall, and the world as promised beyond the fallen world (the new creation) to establish an ideal for how men and women should relate.

Here’s how an egalitarian approach plays out with the status quo in place. And yes. It’s getting confusing. But let me explain what is happening. This is a set of coloured characters we’ll call ‘the church’ operating as equals, overlaid (in the main) over the status quo.

On the left you’ve a Christian man and woman operating where both the their access to a ‘flourishing’ life is blocked by a some abusers who have elevated themselves at the expense of others. The next four people are Christian men and women operating as equals in an unequal society, it’s easy for the man. He just has to be himself, and he gets to flourish without it costing him anything (he can see the game). The women notice no change, they just aren’t being abused; the patriarchy is still in their way. The last two men and women don’t have the patriarchy in front of them because those members of the patriarchy represent that proportion of the population who recognise the inequality and so have become egalitarians… it’s only when the systemic stuff is removed that that last woman on the right has access to the ‘flourishing’ life. It only works for the very privileged (particularly for middle to upper class western white women). It does offer an answer to the unprivileged, but because the diagnosis and the treatment are disconnected from (at least what the Bible describes as) the disease, it’s not totally effective in the face of the patriarchy. It relies, basically, on powerful people either being overthrown, or voluntarily giving up their power when confronted with it. This is why egalitarianism fails; in fact, it’s why I don’t think the Bible puts forward egalitarianism as a solution to the status quo.
Egalitarianism — the equality of men and women — is the world’s naive, or optimistic, solution to the problem of cursed life in the world; it’s a solution that comes without truly understanding that the problem is that life in the world is cursed, and that we can’t fix the curse ourselves just by pretending it isn’t there. It recognises a truth about our equality in dignity and value, and is less likely to accept the parameters offered to us by curse and sin. But it often settles for equality or equity as solutions, and doesn’t totally acknowledge that our difference is real, and that sin and curse have exaggerated the impact of that difference. It is an attempt to respond to a broken world by creating a new one (and in some sense, it does look forward to the new creation, but perhaps optimistically over-realises that picture in this world). So for Christians to adopt it just strikes me as missing the heart of the diagnosis, and the solution, that come with our story. As I’ve argued recently, the antidote to inequality is not equality, equality is a middle ground, a neutral, the positive antidote to inequality is service. A neutral option in a broken status quo won’t cut it (though it’s better than perpetuating or amplifying that brokenness).

Option 3. The Complementarian Option (equal but different)

Here’s one way Christians have approached the relationship between men and women in this world. Charitably it assumes that men and women are different (including physiologically) for a reason, and this difference manifests itself in different roles that do not negate our equality; and that somehow, as we operate as church and family in a fallen world, it makes sense for the stronger man to lead and the woman to help and support men in their work in the home or the church. This assumes that the best way to fight against patriarchy, abuse, or the broken status quo is to team up in a way that relies on strong leadership that challenges the status quo. Uncharitably, and sometimes in practice it assumes that the pattern of the curse is normal.

When it comes to the graph below, where the Christian men and women are in colour, it assumes that if you make a man a Christian it’s good to stand behind him and support him. That the man has a particular role to play in life in the world, as a Christian, and that the woman has a different role, reclaiming the task of ‘helper,’ only, the task looks perhaps different to the way it looked before the fall. Perhaps this difference is because the world is different, and a greater threat to the flourishing of women — but it’s possible that sometimes a Christian bloke is just as likely to get in the way of a woman’s flourishing as a non-Christian bloke.

So. Graphically, the way this plays out is that a complementarian man probably stands between a woman and an abuser (a bit like Jesus standing between the pharisees and the adulterous woman they wanted to stone), so that’s what’s going on with the the first two figures. But, in the next two figures, there’s some reasonable evidence to suggest that complementarian theology can misfire so that men are either abusive without realising it, or claim to be Christians in order to abuse women with some sort of divine support; this isn’t what is at the heart of ‘complementarian’ theology, but many Christian women escaping domestic violence say they were kept there by a theology much like it. In the next (the fifth) little vignette along, we see a complementarian woman standing behind a non-Christian patriarchal husband in order that by her way of life she might save him (eg 1 Peter), and then, in the last two, we see where in complementarian marriages and church structures (so ‘authority’ in the church), men and women model a different way of relating that is not abusive, but nor does it allow women access to the ‘full picture’ of human flourishing (unless to flourish as a woman is somehow tied to helping the flourishing of a man, not to a shared task). For many it’s hard to see the difference between this last category of relating and the patriarchy/status quo. Some though read this model back into the garden of Eden, and it’s hard to unpick then how much sin and curse have changed the way we view and experience the default.

It’s fair to say that complementarianism grapples with the physical reality of our difference and acknowledges the way sin has made that difference worse. It is a realistic response to the broken world, but it does, in the hands of abusers, perpetuate abuse, and it’s hard to argue that overthrows systemic curse or injustice to replace it with something better. There are many ways that because it is realistic, not just idealistic, it’s actually better than option 2, it also seems to assume the Bible has good reasons to argue for/create different roles for men and women that aren’t simply cultural but are a response to sin and curse, but I don’t think it’s the ideal because it doesn’t appear to challenge or change the cursed and sinful status quo.

Subvert it (The cross)

Let’s return to that image from the start of the post…

It would be nice to simply remove the fence; but in this case the fence is ‘the patriarchy’ — it’s a human fence created by the status quo which involves men using their strength for our own benefit.

The world is geared towards the success of men. We’re bigger on average, stronger on average, faster on average, less vulnerable to sexual assault on average, get paid more on average, take less time off work for family on average. We’re more likely to be in positions of authority and influence because of many of these factors. This is what the patriarchy looks like; and sure, sometimes men get into these positions because of the voluntary sacrificial love of women in their lives who genuinely want to help them flourish, and for many Christians the flourishing life looks different to most of these criteria. It’s possible to theologise and suggest that this is what difference should look like, and that this difference creates, through the Gospel, a particular responsibility for the husband to love and serve his wife (this is the best version of option 3 looks like).

It would be nice to simply remove the barrier (ala the boxes and fence graphic above); or to get boxes for women to stand on so that we enjoy equity when it comes to our access to the flourishing life. But this does not factor in the real heart issue behind the barrier; the barrier is people, not just a ‘system’…

I want to suggest the Gospel actually provides us with a third way that is both like option 2 in its idealism and option 3 in its realism. Men following the example of Jesus and laying down our strength and even our natural-but-cursed claim to power and authority is a different way forward that produces qualitatively different outcomes as men and women operate as different and equal in our world. It needs a funky name; obviously; and some friends online call it being an imagodeian (imago dei is latin for ‘image of God’). When I was talking about this with my boss (credit where credit is due) he suggested ‘imaginarian’ which is nice, because we’ve been teasing out how important imagination is in responding to the cursed and sinfully twisted world as people shaped by the Gospel.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,  not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

 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! — Philippians 2:3-8

Philippians 2 is the background for lots of what Paul says about gender relationships (eg Ephesians 5, and 1 Corinthians 11-14). Paul is a realist about both the difference between men and women, and the way the world makes this difference harmful to women, and he is giving us the good news that in the Gospel we have an answer to abuse and patriarchy; to sin and curse. We have the start of something new that will bring us towards a new reality, ultimately. Submission, then, which gets brought up in Ephesians 5 is both mutual (Ephesians 5:1), but also a preparedness to be served, to acknowledge that difference should play out in such a counter cultural way, and that this is the best and most counter-intuitive inversion of the patriarchy/curse and challenge to sin/abuse. Authority, then, is about casting one’s vote, or using one’s strength, for the sake of those you are serving. The cross utterly inverts human patterns of authority.

Now. Both egalitarians and complementarians will read this bit and say “he’s misunderstood us, this is what we’re already on about,” and to some extent this is true. There are good and true things in both systems… But this is how the Christian story gears us to think about gender relationships and flourishing in a fallen world, and it both realistically recognises that men and women are different, that the cursed world makes this difference particularly apparent for women, particularly when abuse is involved, so that it’s harder for all of us to flourish in this broken world.

The solution looks like this, because this is what it looks like for the stronger (on average, men) to use their strength by laying it down on behalf of those who sin and curse oppresses (on average, women). This is what it looks like to follow the example of Christ in all our relationships, or to love our wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. It doesn’t, and can’t, look like abuse and patriarchy; and equality on this side of the new creation doesn’t fight the systemic injustice (patriarchy) or sin (abuse). What this imaginarian approach looks like is perhaps more in the realm of ‘different and equal’; it acknowledges what is real, and what is ideal, and aims to recapture as much of the ideal and to live out as much of the new as possible, in marriage or church this looks like the powerful utterly renouncing the use of strength and power for personal gain or comfort, and instead using it to enable the flourishing of others as we raise them up, by lowering ourselves. This isn’t to say that women are exempt from sacrificial service (we’re all called to that in our relationships in Philippians 2), but this re-levels the playing field somewhat so that they’re in a stronger starting point in which to then give things up in their relationships too. Without us first addressing inequality by cancelling it out (giving up power that is not really ours to grasp) we actually double the ‘service burden’ on women. What this looks like concretely will be worth unpacking, but here, at least, is a visual (note, it’s a metaphor for overcoming the barrier as the strong give up strength to allow all of us to flourish, I’m not suggesting we join the circus).

3 other ways the church can counteract abuse by following Jesus

I’m not a huge fan of the e-magazine Relevant, for a lot of reasons but perhaps because I’m not sure self-description via a name like ‘Relevant’ is the best way to achieve the thing you’re describing. Also, I’m not totally sure that ‘relevant’ is what we are necessarily aiming for as Christians, in terms of our relationship with other views of the world (all of which are derived from other forms of worship). If I was going to run an e-mag I’d call it Plausibly Weird. But that’s neither here nor there, except to say that in keeping with the name Relevant the site has published this piece 3 Ways Women’s Equality Can Counteract Abuse, which essentially makes a claim that complementarianism as practiced in evangelical churches is inherently patriarchal and abusive. It seems to be also arguing that the answer to this abuse is egalitarianism.

Now. I want to say that I share many of the concerns of this Relevant article; I’m certain abuse is much more prevalent in the Reformed Evangelical church than it should be (and it’s safe to say that because any cases of abuse in the church are too many). I’m certain that some theological visions which fall within the definition of complementarian theology but are actually misogynistic (so not at all complementary) are used to harm women in our churches. I’m also so uncomfortable with the desire to resolve some paradoxes about the difference and equality of men and women in God’s design for human relationships that I see at work in both complementarian and egalitarian camps as they form around this discussion that I don’t actually want to be identified as either. But I do think complementarians are right to point to the difference between men and women, and to desire that difference be on display in our communities, and I do think egalitarians are right to point to the equality between men and women, and to desire that difference to be on display in our communities. I don’t think many communities nail these desires simultaneously, because we’re bad at living in tension, mystery, or paradox. We want resolution, and often our desire to be relevant shapes how we approach these tensions, but sometimes it’s our desire to be irrelevant (or counter-cultural) that shapes our response too. And the thing about paradoxes is that you can have both. I’ve read quite a few things in the last week or so that are totally uncharitable about complementarianism, equating it with ‘blaspheming against the Holy Spirit,’ and now with abuse. I think it’s fine to suggest complementarianism as it is practiced in our churches can provide cover for abuse, and can be harmful if it isn’t built from the Gospel, and even (as I believe) that it is just as harmful to a paradox at the heart of male-female relationships as egalitarianism (which is also, I think, a well motivated, but often flawed, attempt to articulate how we should live well together as people).

The logic of this Relevant piece is to:

  1. Define abuse as the use of power and control to cause harm.
  2. Define patriarchy as systemically enabled abuse.
  3. Define complementarianism as a form of patriarchy, and so a form of abuse.
  4. Suggests that even if complementarianism is not a form of abuse, it enables it.
  5. Suggests securing equality is the way to prevent abuse.

There are several things I like in the suggestions put forward by the Relevant piece for limiting abuse within the church (especially her second and third points), and it’s worth reading and being challenged by, but I have my own suggestions for how we might fight abuse better. I have grown up around the complementarian scene (though my experience is that healthy complementarianism looks and feels a lot like egalitarianism in most spheres); I do not recognise this scene in the description from the article (though I have seen evidence of this sort of complementarianism, and I’m not going to suggest that just because complementarianism doesn’t look like this, that it’s necessarily the answer, or the right position).

This belief gives men the role of authority over the wife and children, and only allows men to be church leaders. Women are expected to submit unilaterally to men, fathers, husbands, pastors. While many churches who subscribe to this encourage men to sacrificially lead their wives, there is still a power differentiation (emphasis mine). Men are still given the final say, and it still falls on the scale of patriarchy.

Equality alone won’t solve our problems — and the heart of what’s good about complementarianism (what it aims to get right (though it often misses)) is that it realises that equality alone (in an unequal world) isn’t enough; that what is required of men in the church (and for the world) is more than equality; it’s generous service. Equality is about justice; generosity goes beyond justice to love. This is where I think the answer to the problem of abuse in the church is actually found in the bolded sentence above; I want to argue that a properly ‘sacrificial’ relationship (marriage or church) involves a power differentiation; but that differentiation falls in favour of the powerless, not the powerful. The solution is about understanding that sacrifice goes beyond equality; because that’s what we see in the Gospel (it’s also what we don’t see in abuse, or in churches where leadership is about power).

My job as a church leader, and a husband living the Christian story, at least as I see it, is to show my wife and my church that I would lay down my life for them — giving my strength for them — because I actually consider them more valuable than me. This is the burden of Christian leadership. Though they are, in nature, my equals, I’m to give my power for their benefit, to see them flourish. If I don’t want to do that, then my options were a) don’t get married, and b) don’t be appointed as a leader of the church.

If you are a man appointed as a ‘leader’ of the church, I think this is your job too (it’s also the job of anyone who has ‘strength’ or power within the context of the church, so if you’re a woman who leads in any capacity including in churches where women are ordained (ie non-complementarian churches, this is how I think the Bible depicts leadership, and orients us towards power).

1. See Jesus as the model for relating to each other; and the Gospel story as the story our relationships are meant to display

The world teaches us that power is a good thing, and evil or abuse is a twisted application of power; where one party (or group) takes that power and uses it to keep themselves in power. We see this all the time in interpersonal abusive relationships (family violence, etc), but this also happens systemically as people build institutions and processes that serve their own interests.

What we’re told by the world — and what the Relevant piece picks up as wisdom, is that the opposite of power, or abuse, is equality.

Equality is the opposite of power and control, and leaders in the anti-domestic violence movement have long been proponents of equality-based relationships. — Ashley Easter, ‘3 Ways Women’s Equality Can Counteract Abuse,‘ Relevant

Equality is certainly better than abuse. But equality isn’t the opposite of abuse. It’s the absence of abuse. It’s the middle; the ‘mean’ between two extreme approaches to power. It’s certainly better than evil, but it’s not necessarily good. The most loving use of power is not simply to give excessive power that you’ve accumulated to others as an act of creating equality (which is important), but also to use whatever power you have left for the sake of others. That’s, for example, what it appears Zaccheus (a powerful and privileged guy, even if he was short and unpopular because of his abuse of power) does when he follows Jesus; he doesn’t just return what he has unjustly accumulated, but is generous with all that he has:

“But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything,I will pay back four times the amount.” — Luke 19:8

If we take the story of Jesus seriously and apply it to our relationships, and to how we approach worldly power, then there’s a much better good than equality — and I’d argue this is to be the good at the heart of our relationships and systems — it should shape how leadership works in Christian relationships (and all the stuff on how these relationships are to be structured in the New Testament are reflections on what it looks like to be Christlike in these relationships).

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,  not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus — Philippians 2:1-5

The assumption of equality in our union with Christ drives Paul’s logic in this passage, but the product of this realisation that we are equal is not to pursue systems that are focused on equality; but for us to ‘in humility’ pursue inequality. I think this is particularly the task of those who have power to give up for the sake of others, not so much for those who are already considered, or experience, being beneath others. The pattern here is where the subjugated are raised up precisely because the powerful lift them up.

The world as it is — the status quo — has distributed power to particular groups of people; typically men, typically those who are highly educated, typically from dominant racial and cultural groups within a place, and we often give positions of authority to people who we perceive to be powerful (really, this means people just like me). This presents a bit of a problem in the church if there’s a sense that to be given authority or power is to be invited to lead just like the world leads; via the application of power. The challenge for people like me is not to pursue equality — but to lower myself so that my experience is not equal at all, but one of servanthood. So that I can speak of myself like Paul does as he reflects on what it means to follow the crucified king:

 For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honoured, we are dishonoured! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment. — 1 Corinthians 4:9-13

 

2. See Jesus as the model for approaching power and leadership; and so Christianity as a race to the bottom, not a race to the top

The Relevant article argues that doing away with any difference between genders (or rather sex and gender) at the level of roles in church community and in our relationships (egalitarianism) is the way to prevent abuse; it’s certainly a way that might do what it argues, especially in terms of undoing unjust systems (though I think abuse happens when people’s hearts cause them to cling to and wield power). It’s arguably closer to getting the answer right than the alternative it critiques… but I’m not sure it is the only way, given point 1, or the best way to approach power and abuse in relationships where ‘leadership’/headship falls to one gender (and whether that’s the case Biblically is beyond the scope of this piece to demonstrate/unpack).

Inasmuch as I think the Bible asks us to be mindful of the difference in roles (and mindful of equality in personhood)it seems to me that it says in this race to the bottom, Men should aim to get there first on behalf of their wives (so that our marriages reflect something); and so we should lead in sacrificing/serving. And this is true too within the body of Christ — the church — our leaders should be exemplary sacrificers. Servants. Not power-hungry authorities who abuse, or do anything that looks like abuse. We should long for our leaders to be models of the Gospel; examples for all of us. But also, we should all want that of ourselves — the role we’re all called to play in the church is to be imitators of Jesus… and this is what Jesus does with power in the example we’re asked to imitate:

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! — Philippians 2:6-8

It seems to me that this self-sacrifice — this race to the bottom, not the top — if it was displayed by men in marriage and church leadership (well, in all our relationships) would not so much be about equality but about service and love. That’s not to say women can’t also follow this example, they should, but the challenge of leadership is to use whatever the world might consider strength to provide a context in which those the world views as weak can live the lives they were (re)created to live.

I think this would be a better antidote than equality than the one the Relevant piece offers… though I share the concerns the piece raises about the current state of play in some outworkings complementarian theology, which seem to equate leadership with being elevated into a position of power and influence, rather than seeing people placed in a vulnerable position of service/sacrifice.

“Since abuse is motivated by power and control, and patriarchy is a system based on power and control, it is not surprising that abuse is prevalent in these [complementarian] circles. Even writer Jason Meyer from The Gospel Coalition (a mainstream Complementarian parachurch organization) states that Complementarianism asks women to “take the most vulnerable position,” and can “quickly become a dangerous position when [these] views get distorted.”

If it feels like those not leading Christian community, but those being led, are in the most vulnerable position — if it feels like, to use a Biblical metaphor, the sheep are more in danger from the wolves than the shepherd — or that they’re in danger from the shepherd — then something has gone very wrong with our theology and our practice.

If this is how complementarianism is described and understood in its most honest and vulnerable moments, then there is something very wrong with it as a theological system.

Christian leadership imitates Jesus, and as such it is not about power being used for one’s own benefit, but about power being given up in sacrifice for others such that it looks like (or is) the laying down of one’s life for their good. That’s what a shepherd does when confronted with a wolf (though power, at that point, is also used to turn wolves away from the vulnerable sheep, and this is why, I believe, the Bible does conceive of a role in the church for people the world might perceive as strong. To stand between the wolves and the sheep, not to lord their strength over the flock). In a world where abuse happens; and a world where feminism is required because equality doesn’t exist except in theory, we need people who give their worldly strength for the sake of the abused and the vulnerable; not to make the abused and vulnerable feel abused and vulnerable in a different pen.

3. Listen to voices that are excluded by applications of power that look more like worldly power (the sword) than like Jesus (the cross); and make sure they get heard

This is a big role for the powerful in the eyes of the world, not just all of us. We operate in a world where privilege does seem to sit with educated, wealthy, white, men. The insights from feminism and elsewhere about patriarchy and how power forms self-perpetuating systems are worth listening to; but if you’re a white, educated, wealthy man who is used to listening to other people just like you, then you’re going to be blind. And if you’re the people occupying positions that look like the positions of worldly power in our world (and so speaking), you’re going to be the blind leading the blind to more blindness. Power often blinds us to the plight of the oppressed (that’s why privilege has become such a big talking point lately, and why it’s natural for white men in leadership to be suspicious when privilege gets raised as a rhetorical device… privilege is fundamentally about bias, and bias is often unconscious and a product of systems and cultures).

If we never listen to those we’re called to serve and sacrifice our power for; and if we never give their concerns the strength of our voices, we’re not doing anything to fight the system, or doing anything to provide a safe pasture in which those we lead can grow and flourish.

I’m uncomfortable with complementarianism as a system in theory because it seems to emphasise different over equal (and it does this at the level of definition where it says ‘equal but different’ when it could conceivably be expressed and practiced as ‘different and equal’). My own discomfort with how complementarianism plays out in practice, in our churches come from a sense that we tend to get power wrong in ways that do fit the definitions of ‘patriarchy’ because leadership often looks like ‘using power’ in a worldly way. It doesn’t feel like the Gospel is very good news for women in some of the ways I’ve seen headship and male leadership and authority play out in churches when, for example:

  • Our practices exclude and silence the voices of women far beyond the sort of limits Paul seems to have in mind in anything he says about the roles of men and women (Paul seems to, for example, have a place for women prophesying in a church context and we have no place sense of what ‘prophecy’ is apart from a sermon in our particular circle, and yet the sermon is ‘teaching’ and the responsibility of an ‘elder’ and our system has both teaching and eldership as offices held by men, Paul also doesn’t seem to say much about the sort of church governance/decision making stuff that our ‘elders’ in my denomination do in rooms where only men speak and vote)… this exclusion also limits the ability for whoever is speaking too and on behalf of the body in preaching is a man who doesn’t listen to women such that he also speaks for them and their concerns (and this plays out in the way men speak about pastoral stuff like sex, lust, modesty, abuse, work/vocation, etc).
  • We’re not prompted, as Christians, to be leading the fight for the good of women not just inside the church and our structures, but outside the church, but instead we’re told that feminism is a dirty word and a threat to Biblical understandings of sex and gender. Especially when we take what are very limited differences between the roles of men and women in marriage and church (structures that are meant to reflect the relationship between Christ and us, and the cross) and apply those differences to, for example, the question of whether women can have careers that involve ‘authority’ (like teaching in schools, politics, the army, or the police).
  • When women aren’t given space to use their God-given gifts to serve and build up the whole body (because we’ve collectively failed to imagine church gatherings as anything more than an opportunity for the leader to speak and teach with authority, leadership as more than preaching (because of the centrality of Bible teaching (logos) in our evangelical church culture at the expense of communal life and the power of Godly example (ethos), and our limited imagination of what the logos bit is (teaching, not prophecy etc), or life as the church as anything much more than the gathering (so leadership is limited to a role, that is largely visibly exercised by a man for half an hour on a Sunday, and then invisibly most of the time while this man is shut off in his office preparing the sermon)
  • When the women we do hear from publicly in complementarian settings speaking of their ministry roles are usually the wives of a minister who are heard from when they speak at conferences or ‘ministry wives events’ about their role supporting their husbands and being mothers, and figuring out the role of the ministry wife… Many of the times I’ve been present for these moments it feels like listening to someone with Stockholm Syndrome; and no matter how benevolent a captor their husband (or church) is, they’re still a captor; and Christian authority — shepherding — isn’t about keeping sheep captive, but about giving them safety and space to flourish.

Being white and male and educated and in a position of some sort of leadership that the world might recognise as having some sort of responsibility or authority means that I, and others like me, have a voice and a platform; and to some extent the Bible seems to suggest that there is a platform that comes from leadership in the church that is expected of certain men within the church. Being a leader like Jesus, who leads by giving up power means not using this power for self-interest, or as an act of power, but using it for the benefit of others, considering them, through humility, more valuable than myself.

It means seeing the pulpit more like Golgotha than Caesar’s rostrum.

It means seeing my job as one of listening and amplifying the Gospel-driven concerns of the bit of the body of Christ I lead, and so speaking (from my ‘strength’) on behalf of this bit of the body. And this means listening to people who don’t have the power or platform to speak for themselves both in the church community, and in the community-at-large.

It means seeing church as much more than just an event I lead on a Sunday where I’m the ‘main act’, but the main act being an act of the whole body, and the life of the body being much more permanent and all encompassing than the hour the body is gathered around the talk give.

For what it’s worth, I’m a big ‘priesthood of all believers’ guy because I’m big on what Paul says about the body of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 12; there’s nothing I do as a Christian that isn’t a product of me being part of the Body of Christ, and an application of the Spirit’s power — the same Spirit that vivifies and invigorates the rest of the body. No man, or woman, in the church is an island. No leadership is exercised as an individual apart from the body, it is something done for the body, with the body, attached to the body. I also don’t think all leadership comes from holding a position or a specific role; I think we’re all called to lead each other to Christlikeness by our example, as we imitate Christ… but there are roles described in the New Testament that seem to either assume a male is doing this thing, or be explicit that a role is a role, within a particular context, for a man (ie men are ‘husbands’, ‘fathers’ and in 1 Timothy, ‘Elders’).

I don’t think the problem the church faces, when it comes to abuse, is difference, so it follows that I don’t think equality will solve the problem (so I’m not an egalitarian).

The problem is sin.

The problem is a worldly approach to power and strength.

The problem is that I, given the opportunity by birth and circumstance to wield power, or to grasp more power, will, by default, take that opportunity and use it for my own interests and the interests of my ‘system’ or tribe (the people who give me more power, or perpetuate my place in the world).

The problem is that we have normalised the cursed pattern of behaviour from Genesis 3 and haven’t figured out how the Gospel challenges that norm.

The problem when it comes to different roles in the church is that often we approach this leadership as an invitation to wield individual power apart from the body of Christ (the church), rather than as a role we play because we are given responsibility and authority by God and the church as part of the shared life of the body.

Whatever this specifically male role in marriages (Ephesians 5) and the church (1 Timothy 2) looks like it can’t look like the application of worldly power out of self interest, or to abuse others.

 

The answer to the problem is not equality, it’s not better use of worldly power, it’s the Gospel. It’s Jesus. It’s his example. It’s giving up power for the sake of others; not taking it to wield it for your own sense of the good, or for your own good.

It’s leaders and husbands who have the mind of Christ in their relationships; not the mind of Adam.

It’s leaders who follow his example.

This can’t be abusive, or even a non-abusive “benevolent dictatorship” as the Relevant article describes ‘well-intentioned’ complementarianism (unless Jesus is somehow an abusive benevolent dictator)… not all uses of power are inherently abusive; some are loving (when power is given for the sake of others), some are just (when power is used against abusers to end abuse).  Jesus does use power. He does rule, but he rules those who follow him, and he rules by laying down his life, and by taking it up again to judge those who oppress and abuse; including those who claim to be shepherds but turn out to be wolves.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. — Philippians 2:9-11

Jesus does not abuse his bride: there is no place for domestic violence in the church

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.”

Some implications

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. If seeking help involves speaking to leaders of a church they have a responsibility to report abuse, as is the case in any situation of abuse. In the case of one or both of the spouses being Christians, these situations will involve the church dealing with both parties, especially to care for and protect the abused, but with the hope that the Gospel will result in real change for the abuser.
  • 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.
  • It is clear that Christians should expect our approach to domestic violence to be, somehow, different to secular approaches — the example of Jesus is, somehow, to be brought to bear in our broken relationships. For both the abuser, and the abused. The Gospel, as it is accepted and as it becomes the basis for transformation of people and relationships (and people in relationships) will change the way we approach brokenness. The Gospel, as it is accepted and as it transforms, does not really allow such brokenness to remain in the dark, or to remain unaddressed. The profoundly challenging part of the Gospel is that when we submit like Jesus (not in a way that enables ongoing sin or abuse) we expect it to change those abusers who follow Jesus, and those who are victims of abuse. Submission, from the abused, does not mean staying in abuse, but it might mean a loving and longing desire for one’s abuser (Jesus even calls us to love our enemy) to be transformed by the Gospel, forgiven by God (and an offer of forgiveness), and for restoration and reconciliation to occur. Christlike submission means seeking this transformation and being committed to some form of this at one’s own cost (forgiveness, itself, is costly), even from the safety of separation — let me be clear again, it doesn’t mean staying in an abusive situation. Where this transformation does not occur it doesn’t mean persistence with this broken relationship beyond abandonment. But the Gospel does offer the hope of real change in the heart, and actions, of the abuser.