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OPINION | Natasha Moore

Monday 11 May 2015

It’s easy to think, “It would never happen to me.” But the research shows that the scourge of domestic violence is remarkably democratic, transcending boundaries of class, race, education – and religion.

There is a growing country-wide momentum on the issue of domestic violence. And as this shockingly commonplace reality (on average, a woman is murdered by her partner or ex-partner every week in Australia) is being dragged out of the shadows of our national life, it is right for the church to be doing its part in exposing and combating it.

The question of whether particular Christian teachings may be used to legitimise the abuse of women in the home has been the subject of recent discussion online and in the mainstream media. Debate has focused in particular on biblical ideas about male headship and female submission within marriage, and whether such ideas serve as an enabling mechanism for men who want to control and abuse their wives.

It’s a horrifying thought for believers. The knee-jerk reaction for many of us is to say that this kind of abuse is surely not common in the church and to defend the goodness and beauty of the Christian model for marriage, which properly understood stands as the antithesis of any form of violence or abuse. But there are good reasons for Christians, and for the church as a whole, to pause and carefully consider the criticisms – and to take seriously the responsibility to investigate their validity.

Indeed, there are excellent reasons for the church to respond to such charges, not with defensiveness but rather with grace, humility and a healthy realism.

First, naivete about human behaviour and relationships is hardly in keeping with robust Christian faith. As Christians, we are committed to the belief that human evil is not something “out there” – the preserve of a few very bad people – but that it lodges “in here”, in the hearts and lives of each of us, regardless of how respectable, educated, successful
or church-going we may be. Christian pastors, like those in more official counselling roles, are agonisingly familiar with the many and terrible ways in which human relationships malfunction.

The Bible’s realistic approach to human nature – its insistence that we are all broken, and that grave wrongdoing is an everyday reality – should mean that, although deeply grieved by such stories, we should not be surprised to discover incidences of domestic violence in church communities and in Christian marriages. Our congregations have certainly not proven immune to problems endemic in the wider community such as pornography addiction, alcoholism, or child sexual abuse. Amelia Schwarze estimated in a 2012 article for Eternity that of a hundred church-going couples, somewhere between two and eight of those couples will have a relationship that could be characterised as abusive. More and more stories from victims emerging in the wake of this story confirm her conclusion that, even if we don’t know its full extent, this is a real problem.

Second, the Bible’s picture of Christian marriage is not unique among Christian teachings in being open to abuse from violent and controlling people – even if those teachings are, under normal circumstances, beautiful and positive. The Bible’s exhortation to forgiveness, the sacredness of marriage, love of enemies, or even the practice of humility can be distorted or misused in relationships, but the power and beauty of these ideas are not simply invalidated by the ways in which they can be perverted or exploited.

It is important for church leaders to know when and how such teachings are being misheard or corrupted. It’s also crucial for those in pastoral positions to be well informed and well trained on the issue, so that they know how to care for and advise women who find themselves in this situation. Some evidence suggests that Christian women stay longer in these kinds of relationships – and there is certainly anecdotal evidence of pastors (no doubt with the best of intentions) encouraging women to persevere in abusive marriages rather than leave.

Third, criticisms like those of recent weeks have historically been of great benefit to the Church, illuminating areas that have become blind spots for those on the inside. The calls of environmentalists, for example, led Christians to go back to our Bibles and rediscover the mandate to care for God’s good earth. Similarly, the charge that mainstream denominations were too “white-Anglo-middle-class” helped Australian churches in recent decades to return to one of the most basic insights of Scripture: that God is the “God of all nations”. And, of course, the child abuse scandal stands as a monumental, shameful example of how churches have been too slow to respond, or have responded with denials and an instinct to protect the institution rather than the victims. Public perceptions of the Church have, understandably, suffered enormously as a result.

In all of these cases, Christians can partly thank those outside the Church for their insights, which have forced us to look in the mirror and observe how far we’ve departed from the way of Christ. On the issue of domestic violence, too, there is certainly room for self-scrutiny. The Centre for Public Christianity has been calling for churches to commission an independent study into the prevalence of domestic abuse in our congregations, and clergy responses to it, and there are positive signs of the church taking this proposal seriously.

It’s possible, of course, that such research may tell us that things aren’t as bad as we fear; there are certainly other areas where studies have linked regular church attendance to positive outcomes, such as lower rates of divorce and higher rates of civic participation. But without undertaking an honest assessment of the situation, any progress we make on this issue is likely to be halting and partial.

Care for the vulnerable has been an imperative of Christian faith from its earliest beginnings and in this regard the Christian community continues to do great work every day and in every town and city. In response to domestic violence in our midst, may the Church not be slow to play its part, as a responsible member of the wider community, in bringing these abuses to light and creating a national culture where they are no longer tolerated.

Natasha Moore is a research fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.

Eternity published several articles in a series on domestic violence and the church in April 2015. You can read others here:

John Harrower: A Christian response to domestic violence

A letter made me think: responding to crises from a chaplain’s perspective

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