Does the Christian faith promote domestic and family violence?
Julia Baird, a journalist serving with the Australian National broadcaster, the ABC, recently ran a number of reports on domestic violence in the Christian church in Australia. Although admitting that little research had been done for the Australian situation, she relied on a footnote in a 2008 study produced by Arizona professor Steven Tracy which stated that "evangelical Christian men who attend church sporadically are the most likely to abuse their wives." Of course, as is always the case, the tendency is for the media to sensationalize an issue and leave the majority stained by the actions of the few. The vast number of male church attenders who would never even think of causing harm to their wives, either physically or psychologically, were left affronted.
Without the issue being properly researched it is not possible to know the extent of the problem. An American study is unlikely to apply to the Australian situation. Occasional church attendance in America is a cultural norm, whereas in Australia people are either church attenders or not. America sees itself as a Christian country, Australia as a secular country. Where the study by professor Stephen Tracy may apply is when he notes that "regular church attenders are less likely to commit acts of intimate partner violence." Tracy's conclusions are simple and to the point; "there is an inverse relationship between church attendance and domestic violence." Sadly, Julia ignored this rather salient fact, in her quest to discredit the doctrine of male headship prevalent in conservative Christian churches. A study in New Zealand indicated that some 10% of women had suffered domestic violence at some point in their lives, while at the same time indicating that for church attenders the percentage was only 2%. The sad fact is that bullies do exist and that they tend to be men, aggressive, nasty and demanding of others. In marriage, when passion subsides, they can become a nightmare to live with. Thankfully, for those men who look to prayerfully model their lives on the person of Jesus, bullying their partner is the furthest thing from their mind; loving care is utmost. Yet, dissemblers exist; a picture of angelic kindness on Sunday, a nightmare for the rest of the week. So, although the evidence is likely to show that domestic violence is rarely found in a worshipping Christian congregation, it can show its ugly head. The tell-tale signs are easily seen, bruising, flinching fear, deference, ... and when it shows itself it must be exposed to the light rather than swept under the carpet. In a church situation this entails following the Bible's instruction that the perpetrator be forced to confront their sin. This can be accomplished by a visit from the minister or elders. Where a gentle word is rejected the problem needs to be reported to the police, given that no person should have to put up with bullying.
The Christian church has faced some criticism on the issue of domestic violence because of the Biblical doctrine of headship in marriage - "wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church", Eph.5:22-23. Feminists find this doctrine offensive. A feminist will usually accept biological difference, but not a difference in roles. Central to the investigation run by Julia Baird on the ABC was the proposition that the doctrine of headship promoted domestic violence, more a statement of belief than definitive research. So, is it a fact that the doctrine of headship promotes domestic violence?
In my own experience I have to say that the statement is absurd. In my younger days I took a conservative line on this issue, I was even opposed to females exercising authority in the church, teaching or leading. Yet, I have only ever witnessed one incident of domestic bullying in the church. It was a nasty divorce situation where the husband was involved with another woman and went on a major authority guilt trip. Yes, he used the Bible to support his actions, but without the Bible he would still have been a bully. She was well rid of him. In my experience the women ran their home, using the menfolk to support their decisions. The men tended to make the toy and career decisions and therefore where the family would reside in relation to the husband's employment. Of course, in the intervening years this pattern has changed as more women have become significant players in the employment market, although the men still tend to choose the toys. I certainly witnessed domestic violence outside the church, finding myself trying to mediate in situations well beyond my pay grade. Male aggression in full stride is a fearsome sight.
Headship, gender roles, and the administration of authority in the church, are contentious issues today because we find theology in conflict with experience. The egalitarian in each one of us questions why a woman should be subject to her husband. There is a recognition that a literal interpretation of the traditional teaching on headship is less than convincing given that we are all one in Christ, neither male nor female, and that each one of us should subordinate ourselves to others in the same manner that Christ, the king of glory, took on the role of a servant, Eph.5:21. It is also true that traditional male authority roles in church are coming to be seen as more a cultural byproduct than the design of Biblical warrant. So, there is a flux of debate around these issues, but irrespective of what view we may hold, conservative or progressive, it has never been possible for a man to claim the right, as a follower of Christ, to lord it over a woman. Men may do so, and have, but have no Biblical authority for their behavior. More to the point, it has never been possible for a husband, as a follower of Christ, to claim the right to bully his wife. He is to love his wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, Eph.5:25. A husband cannot bully his wife and at the same time claim to be a believer in good standing with Christ. His only course of action is repentance and a willingness to follow through with a consideration for the other rather than self. If he is unwilling, or unable, to do this then he has no place in the fellowship of believers, and increasingly today, he will find he has no place in society at large - thugs are not welcome!
Subsequent to the publication of this article, Julia Baird has, in the latter half of 2018, continued to use the National Broadcaster, the ABC, to press her view that the doctrine of male headship promotes domestic violence. She has now refocused on the wives of clergy, giving balance to her investigation by examining other religions as well, eg., Judaism. This time her evidence is limited to a few clergy wives who have, in the past, suffered disgraceful treatment by their husbands. Sadly, the scourge of domestic violence is widespread, but the evidence is that men of faith, whether lay or clergy, are less likely to abuse their wives than those without a religious faith. Sadly, given the wide viewing audience of the ABC, Julia is successfully disseminating the view that the Christian church is a dangerous environ for women, and in so doing, discredits the gospel.