Part 2: What is your church’s culture of power?

Erica Hamence explores the culture of power in our churches in the second of a three-part series on domestic violence in the Australian church.

Content warning: Discussion of domestic and family violence.

Though there is no complete consensus on the nature of domestic and family abuse, there is widespread agreement that, at its heart, it is about the use of power to control.

I suspect that part of what enables Christian abusers to get away with abusing, and what prohibits Christian women from receiving the support they need, is a lack of power awareness within the church. Without power awareness, church structures and church members can unwittingly replicate similar power dynamics as existed in the abuse: disempowering and silencing those who have experienced abuse.

I suspect that the conversation about power that has dominated the Australian Christian landscape (at least in Melbourne and Sydney) – the question of the authority of women to teach men and women – has calcified our conceptions of power and narrowed the categories in which we think about it. I fear that this has led to a number of blind spots about the broader ways that power is held and used in churches, and has also led to a chilling effect in even raising questions of this nature.

For example, when Eternity News called for women to share their experiences of sexual abuse in the church, some of the responses questioned the validity of even raising the issue. Here are just a few of the comments:

“So this article will bear fruit or cause confusion?’

“Have you considers [sic] those seeking Chirst [sic] in an already confused World. While I understand these things are real life issues but trusting in Jesus gives us the grace to deal with these as they arise. I'm sorry ai [sic] just like to take the approach of 'In what way will this advance the Kingdom ' I’m sure the Bible says we shouldn't deal with issues as the world does.”

“They are more into male bashing then truth and facts” 1

It’s confronting to open up questions about how power might be abused in our churches. That might be because we’re not used to thinking about broader church dynamics in terms of ‘power’; we prefer terms like ‘community’ and ‘fellowship,’ both of which have their own dynamic. But if abuse of power is at the heart of domestic abuse in the church, any response will need to involve an interrogation of how power works in our churches.

Abuse can be perpetuated most effectively if a person who perpetrates violence is able to sufficiently isolate a victim from their community, and dictate the ways in which the victim sees themselves, the abuser, their community and their faith. It depends on them having access to power over the victim, and sufficient freedom to exercise control without detection. The key question (which the questions above help us to answer) is: do we understand how power works in our communities such that we can recognise how it might be abused?

Can we recognise power dynamics?

I would suggest that those of us who hold power in the church (positionally and/or relationally) are among the worst positioned to evaluate its particular character, and especially what might be problematic about it. Our status makes it very difficult for us to see what the powerless or less powerful might see. Because we are the people who have at least some capacity to shape the culture(s) in our communities, we tend to lack the imagination required to understand what avenues might be closed off for members who do not. Frustrations with church culture sit more lightly with those who have the power to change them. Additionally, because we do not generally have to use formal structures within the church for our own needs, we have less exposure to their weaknesses.

For example, if a minister has a personal pastoral concern, they are likely to be accessing a different process (like mentoring, professional supervision, talking to close friends) than working through the church’s own pastoral pathway (talking to a growth group leader, approaching a minister). If there is a failure in that pastoral chain, we may not discover it firsthand. Moreover, when we evaluate our church’s culture, that which seems neutral to us may only seem that way because it work for us and reflects our own perspectives and interests. If grappling with domestic and family violence raises questions for us like ‘Why didn’t she just say something?’ or ‘Why didn’t she just leave?’ or ‘How could we not have known? Couldn’t we just have figured it out?’ we need to be willing to make these questions meaningful, and truly interrogate the potential answers. Why, indeed? If we are to abandon the assumption that there are easy answers (to which the “just” in the previous questions alludes) could these questions – asked honestly and openly - actually help to give us some access to the perspectives of people who have experienced violence? Might these questions alert us to factors that we were previously unaware of?

Becoming “power-aware” is about answering the following questions:

  1. Whose stories do we believe? Whose stories are immediately in/credible to us, and why?
  2. Who do we form close relationships with? Who do we avoid giving time to?
  3. Who talks most and is listened to most? How would you know? Whose opinion is weightier?
  4. Whose perspectives do we most naturally understand and empathise with?
  5. Who is held up as authoritative, trustworthy and admirable in the media we consume or are surrounded by? Who is held up as dramatic, insubstantial, whiny, or needy?
  6. Who moves out of our way, accommodates us, acquiesces to us, holds their tongue around us, feels comfortable talking to us?
  7. What is our practice when we find something hard to hear or hard to believe?

So it’s worth asking: what channels have been set up within your church to enable members and leaders to really hear and be shaped by survivors’ experiences, in order to understand more? What channels could you set up? One caveat is necessary here: I sometimes observe ministers and church members taking to Facebook or Twitter to workshop queries or opinions they have about domestic and family violence. However, what for a minister or church member is a simple exploratory question can actually be damaging for people who have experienced abuse. There are no ‘simple statements of fact’ or ‘neutral questions’ in a context that is neither simple nor neutral. Ministers and church members will need to find ways of seeking information, forming and expressing opinions that avoid that danger. Given these dangers, I would suggest that ministers and church members do their information-gathering through domestic violence specialists first, and then through survivors second, and should be very cautious about how they express or invite opinions online.  

Power-blindness can mean abuse-blindness

Power is self-reinforcing; it leads us to believe that we hold it because we deserve to. This can make us unquestioning of our own assumptions, capacities and understanding. It is this last factor that makes me most despondent and fearful when I consider what abuse victims need from their ministers. We as clergy occupy the role of teachers, yet if we have not experienced abuse ourselves, then we will need to cede our authority in this arena and learn from people who have experienced  it. However, we may be reluctant to do so. We are unused to situations in which we do not hold at least some greater depth of insight or prior knowledge or analogous experience, and this makes us enormously dangerous when it comes to domestic and family violence. Our perspectives tend to be trusted by others, and that trains us to trust our own perspectives, cutting ourselves off from true curiosity. We are prone to thinking we know more than we do, and to thinking the gap in our awareness is smaller than it actually is.

A study of 146 women who had experienced violence showed that while 40 per cent sought help from clergy, only a third had indicated that the clergy had given some help, and that “these abused women rated clergy as a group lower than almost all other categories of helpers.” 2 Studies have also shown that ministers minimise the prevalence of domestic violence.3 For example, in one study of Canadian clergy, clergy surveyed estimated that one in four Canadian couples had experienced domestic violence (research suggests it is more like one in three), “and, yet, they believed, with no supporting evidence, that only one in six couples in their own congregations had experienced domestic violence”.] In another instance, Reverend Al Miles surveyed 158 pastors about DFV, many of whom “asserted that there were no abused women in their congregations.” 4 What is striking in that study is that thirty pastors refused to participate, “reasoning that there was no evidence of domestic violence in their church”.

In the Australian context, after journalist Julia Baird began publicly examining domestic abuse in the Australian church in 2015, one Australian minister wrote publicly:

“I personally have worked in churches for more than 30 years. … I think I can say that I have a fair idea of what families in churches are like. In all that time I have seen very few – perhaps two or three at best – experiences where people have misused the Bible to support their practice of dominating their partners and I can truthfully say I don’t know one minister, pastor or church leader who has ever told a wife to stay with an abusive partner. … If there was regular, systematic and oppressive behaviour by Christian husbands to their wives creating domestic violence then I think that would be very clear by now. … ” 5

Leaving aside the fact that many more testimonies have since come out, indicating abuse to be far more prevalent than this author assumes, this piece is illuminating. The author reasons that his exposure (or lack thereof) to abuse must be representative. What is left unexamined in his statement is the question of whether there might be factors other than the prevalence of abuse in the church which have limited his exposure to it. Certainly, as someone who has worked in the church for a much shorter time, I have seen many more instances of abuse and of the misuse of scripture to justify it. What is behind these stark differences in our respective experiences? I will explore some possible explanations in tomorrow’s post.

This is the second in a three-part series called 'Domestic Violence and the Australian Church' written by Erica Hamence from the Common Grace Domestic & Family Violence Team. Erica is an Associate Minister at Barney's Anglican Church in Sydney.

These materials were first published in the St Mark’s Review - When women speak: domestic violence in Australian churches. You can find out more and buy the complete publication here.

As a team, Common Grace created the SAFER resource because we recognised that there were few resources available which brought together best practice from secular specialist organisations with the kinds of theological and spiritual concerns Christians who are experiencing DFV have. Though we also see a need to advocate for national change through governmental policy and funding, we recognised that the church has much work to do “in-house,” and that, if our advocacy is to have any integrity, we must address our own issues first. We see SAFER as a necessary first step towards this end. One of the biggest hurdles we have found in making the church safer is that, despite the richness of the resources available to Christians in both our theology and common life, and despite good intentions to the contrary, people who had experienced violence were not receiving the support they needed within the church. For this reason the focus of SAFER is on informing Christians (leaders and lay members) about the dynamics of DFV, and the ways that our common beliefs might intersect with or challenge those dynamics. We are seeking to find common ground across denominations and various theological camps, as we believe that DFV is an issue which will require our united efforts to address.

1 Tess Delbridge, #metoo: Christian women share stories of assault at the hands of Christian men, 20th October 2017

2 Lee H. Bowker, Battered Women and the Clergy: An Evaluation, Journal of Pastoral Care 36 (1982): 226-34. Cited in Steven R. Tracy, Priscilla Papers, “Clergy Responses to Domestic Violence,” Priscilla Papers, 

3 Nancy Nason-Clark, Conservative Protestants and Violence against Women: Exploring the Rhetoric and the Response, Religion and Social Order 5 (1995): 199-20. Cited in Steven R. Tracy, “Clergy Responses to Domestic Violence,” Priscilla Papers.

4 Al Miles, Domestic Violence: What Every Pastor Needs to Know (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011) 41.

5 Karl Faase, Do the Bible’s teachings really cause domestic violence?

Do you need support?

The following Domestic and Family Violence support services are available:

Domestic Violence and the Australian Church