Domestic and family violence is a criminal justice, health and wellbeing issue; therefore it is a faith issue. Violence against women is now recognised as one of the leading health issues of our time.
"Nobody should be more horrified by emerging stories of abuse and of grossly damaging advice from pastors than the church itself, and an honest assessment of the situation – regardless of what it uncovers, good news and bad – is crucial to finding a way forward." - John Dickson and Natasha Moore, Centre for Public Christianity
Largely, faith leaders are radically underestimating domestic and sexual violence in their congregations. While a number recognise that these are issues within their broader communities, they are not informed about how this is playing out in their pews.
Family and intimate partner violence is a violation of human rights and, in some cases, is a criminal offence.
Submission of a woman to her husband can be a problematic way of thinking, particularly in regards to domestic and family violence. This idea creates unhelpful power and control structures; unfortunately this kind of commentary and thinking thrives in a church scenario.
As Julia Baird writes, “One woman wrote to tell me she stayed with a violent man for 15 years because her pastor told her that as her husband, he was her leader. Another was punched and dragged about by her hair by a husband who gave her a Bible with verses on submission highlighted in it… Another woman told me her minister advised her that her husband might stop hitting her if she had more sex with him. There were more. I will not reveal their names – their stories are theirs to tell, the trauma for many too recent.”
While wifely submission has its roots in biblical history, it must be considered in our current contexts and faith communities. The experience of women in churches is that it is normal to be subordinate to your husband and, in unfortunately common, worst-case scenarios, to receive abuse as part and parcel of this.
Kylie Pidgeon, a Christian psychologist who works with perpetrators and survivors of family violence, explains these cultural norms in her article Complementarianism and Family Violence: The shared dynamics of Power and Control:
- Women are less able than men to receive pastoral care by a minister of their own gender, by virtue of most ministers being men. This is especially important when the issues are specific to women, such as pregnancy, childbirth or sexual issues.
- Topics specific to women are either neglected in preaching, or are handled clumsily by a male preacher due to lack of familiarity. This leads to the congregation being less educated and biblically informed about women’s issues. Even with some attendance at women’s events, the majority of preaching heard is masculine.
- Single women experience even greater barriers to receiving pastoral care from all-male leadership teams, due to necessary propriety.
- Women have fewer visible role models and mentors in areas of spiritual formation, resulting in slowed maturity and growth.
- The issues that affect women are either not prioritised or are removed entirely from the church’s agenda by men in positions of leadership.
- A culture of male-ness forms and is perpetually led from the front
- ‘Women’s ministries’ are developed as special interest ministries, rather than as mainstream.
- Women, who are equally gifted in leadership, preaching and teaching as men, are denied the same opportunities to express and develop their gifts (even if only to female audiences).
- Women have less input into decisions regarding the spiritual direction of the church than men have, resulting in feeling marginalised and voiceless.
She likens these experiences to two types of abuse: “serious neglect where you depend on their care” and “restricting spiritual or cultural participation.”
The Tough Truth
To understand why domestic and family violence is a problem in our churches, we must be willing to have difficult conversations around power, gender, sexuality and marriage within the context of personal faith and the wider faith community.
If we are teaching women that abuse is ok, we need ask ourselves whether this interpretation is what God wants for us and our lives, or whether it is simply a traditional way of interpreting scriptures that should have died out years ago.
Tradition isn’t always right – that’s why there are still many biblical scholars, ministers, leaders and Christians asking questions about the Bible today. Let’s not just take tradition as Truth. Let’s ask God what faith, hope and love means within the context of marriage, freedom and the letting go of toxic practices.