The Presbyterian Church in NSW recently ran a training day on responding to domestic violence. It includeed a biblical and theological response; as well as practical training. This post is a summary of a longer paper (download full paper here) handed out that day, even that it only a summary set of notes. It is an attempt to give a theological framework for thinking about Domestic and Family Violence (DFV).
Domestic Violence is big news, and in some ways that is good news. Football stars, politicians and celebrities can no longer assume that the way they treat women will remain private. In the last few weeks a prominent union official has been in the media and in the courts over his abuse of his wife.
Yet women continue to suffer violence at the hands of their partners. Rates of report have not changed significantly since 2005. One study found that intimate partner violence was the single largest negative impact on health of young women in Australia and a significant factor for health of 45-64yr old’s as well. DFV is implicated not only in deaths and injuries from physical violence, but also in mental illness, including resulting suicides as well as substance abuse, chronic disease and perinatal, maternal and reproductive conditions.
1. DV and the church
We lack definitive figures, but there is no basis for assuming that the prevalence of domestic violence is any less in church families than in the general Australian population.
According to a recent study of Australian religious communities, DFV may be:
- a taboo topic, treated with denial, defensiveness and victim-blaming in the name of forgiveness;
- assumed to be only physical;
- excused or made worse by beliefs about gender roles and female submission;
Such a survey is limited in what it reveals, but it is more than enough to remind us that we need to do better in this area.
Often our discussions of domestic and family violence focus on the ‘violence’. But we first need to recognise the foundational importance of family. The Bible shows that marriage and family are written into God’s design for human life. It presents a vision of marriage as a covenant relationship of intimacy and communion (Gen 2:20-25; Prov 2:17; Ezek 16:8; Mal 2:14; Matt 19:4-6; Eph 5:28-33; 1 Tim 3:2,12; Tit 1:6). The Bible celebrates the joy and intimacy of married sexual love (e.g. Prov 5:15-19, Song of Songs) and has stories which show the importance, blessings and comfort of marriage (Gen 23:2; 24:67; Ruth 3:10; Prov 18:22; 19:1; 31:10-31). Marriage and family are the key environment for human flourishing and social stability.
Because marriage and family are so foundational to human flourishing, their corruption through violence is devastating. Wherever examples of family or domestic violence occur in Scripture they always (explicitly or implicitly) regarded as evil: from Cain’s murder of Abel; to Abraham’s abandonment of his wife (“sister”); to the fratricidal violence of Jacob and Gideon’s sons; to the rapes etc.
To the critics of Scripture, such examples amount to a condoning of violence. Rather, they illustrate the reality of sin and its terrible consequences—and of the Lord’s incredible patience with his sinful people. These episodes are not included because they are acceptable, but because the illustrate in shocking ways they devastation of sin.
The New Testament, though it does not include such narratives, speaks to a world of vulnerable women: where the male head of the family possessed patria potestas (Latin: “power of a father”) over all his household—even a married daughter. Husbands felt free to discipline their wives and even (in some notorious examples among the patrician class) to torture and kill them. Male relatives were expected to discipline a wife for an affair or for participation in some religious cults—which lead to much abuse of Christian women by pagan husbands.
In this context, early Christianity seems to have been particularly attractive to women—even from the days of the New Testament (Acts 1:12–14; 5:14; 9:36, 39; 16:14-15; 17:4, 34; 18:2; Rom 16:1,3, 6, 12-13, 15; Phil. 4:2–3; Col. 4:15; 1 Tim. 5:3, 9–10; 2 Tim. 1:5; Phm 2; 1 Pet 3:1).
Rodney Stark argues that Christianity offered women a level of recognition that was unequalled in any other contemporaneous social sector.
- Christian women were commemorated in the catacombs as frequently as men.
- Christian families did not rid themselves of infant girls and marked the loss of daughters as often as they did sons.
- Women were involved in church life and had far greater security and equality in marriage.
- Christian families waited till their daughters were older before sending them into a marriage.
- Christians rejected the double standard which required wives to be sexually faithful but allowed husbands license.
- Christianity prohibited abortion—a common and brutal procedure for women in those days.
4. DV is oppression
The Bible often observes and protests “oppression”. OT Scripture calls Israel to protect the vulnerable in society from oppression. It highlights economic oppression, motivated by greed (Ecc 5:8-9; Isa 1:23; 10:2; Jer 5:27-28; 22:17; Am 4:1) and (even more relevant to DFV) power exercised for its own sake (2 Ch 10:14; 16:10; Pr 28:15). Against such abuses, Scripture warns that that the Lord will protect the oppressed (Dt 10:18; Pss 10:17-18; 12:5; 68:5; 146:7-9; Jer 50:33-34).
While power imbalances might create the conditions for oppression, they are not inherently oppressive. God himself, the All-powerful One, will use his power to defend the weak and the vulnerable; and the ideal king acts in the same way (Ps 72:12–14).
DFV, like all oppression, however, occurs when one person uses power to control and dominate the other. The Bible views this as sin (Mal. 2:16-17; Ps 11:5; Col. 3:19)—even when it is only verbal (Prov. 12:18; 18:21; Col. 3:8). In contrast, God insists husbands provide for the physical and emotional needs of their wives with sensitivity and gentleness, encouraging them to become all that God created them to be (Mark 10: 42-25; Eph. 5:1-2; Eph. 6:21-29).
Any form of abuse is unacceptable whether it takes the form of physical violence, verbal, sexual abuse, physical isolation, spiritual abuse, manipulation of (or limitation of access to) finances and children, secrecy and deception.
Those who seek to escape such relationships are not sinning—indeed God’s people are encouraged to protect ourselves from violent people (1 Sam 20; Prov. 11:9; 22:3; 27:12; Matt 18:15-17; Lk 4:28-29; Acts 9:23-25).
Inasmuch as marriage is a covenant where husbands and wives promise to love, care for, cherish and protect each other, continued breaches of the covenant can (and often should) bring it to end—just as in the case of adultery and abandonment. If there is no prospect of repentance, reconciliation and restoration, divorce is simply a recognition that the marriage is dissolved by DFV.
5. DV within the Church
Church culture and teaching can sometimes exacerbate or provide cover for such abuse. When a premium is placed on family integrity abusers might feel too ashamed to take action. An abused person can feel that the responsibility falls on them to forgive and be reconciled with their abuser.
Complementarian teaching about wifely submission can be used as a justification for victim-blaming or an excuse for perpetrators. The connection between complementarianism and DV has received plenty of attention over the last few years. It is important that complementarian churches recognise the risk that the position can be misused, and do all they can to guard against that. The biblical teaching on submission does not give a husband any right to abuse his family members. As the Presbyterian Church of NSW General Assembly put it in 2015:
God is opposed to abuse and violence in marriage and in the family. … Any attempt to use the Bible’s teaching as a pre-text for abuse is a distortion of its message. …If this [distortion] is happening in churches, then leaders should actively teach against it and do all they can to protect victims.
6. Gospel Responses to Domestic and Family Violence
God hates oppression and loves and cares for the weak and vulnerable. The church must reflect God in this area, as far as we can.
The gospel must not be offered as a simplistic answer to DFV. Christ’s gospel also offers redemption for abusers but also calls for repentance, which will be a long and difficult process and must demand some form of reparation.
For most victims of DFV, it will take time before, by the work of Spirit, the promises of Christ begin to free them from the terror of DFV.
As we think about responding to DFV, it is important to remember the Christian pastoral care that is needed, not only finding accommodation and offering emotional support; but also applying Christ’s gospel of life and freedom to deep spiritual scars.
The Christian ethic is not simply passive acceptance of suffering and abuse, but to respond with blessing. We resist evil as an act of love. We do not meet violence with violence, but with love—love that should take action to protect sisters and brothers from violence and oppression.
Elders of the church have particular responsibility to deal with an abusive member and to protect members who are being abused—even when a congregant is abused by a non-Christian family member.
7. Areas of Responsibility
One objection to this might be that DFV is a family (or even civil) matter, but not one for the church. But there is a proper overlap between church life and family life. There are instructions for family life (Eph 5:22-6:8; Col 3:18-4:1; Tit 2:1-10; 1 Pet 3:1-7) and family life is a key arena for Christian discipleship. Although church life should not take over from family and supplant it, church life should connect with and include family life. When families experience violence or abuse, church leaders should intervene.
Often processes of church discipline are slow and deliberate, and that is often appropriate. However, in the case of DFV, it is important to act as quickly as possible. In the first case, a victim of abuse needs to be heard and protected.
Church leaders should also be ready to report DFV to the civil authorities. God has appointed governments to protect people as part of his common grace (Rom 13:1-4; 1 Pet 2:13-14). We should welcome the proper role of the police and legal system and co-operate with them. When we suspect or know that a crime has been committed, we should encourage a victim to report the crime, or report it ourselves if appropriate.
Principles for church “discipline” responses
Dealing with DFV accusations is complex and almost inevitably messy, and dealing with it is multi-dimensional. One aspect for churches to consider is how to deal with accusations against members including leaders. Here are some key principles for such processes.
- Protect and support the accuser/victim as first priority.
- If church leaders have any reason to suspect abuse, then they must not treat the issue as simple ‘marriage conflict’.
- Any discipline process should only commence once there is good pastoral support in place for both the accuser and the accused. The same person cannot provide support for both parties.
- Even in an informal process, decisions should not be made by a single person (such as the minister) but by a group of appropriate leaders and there should be a record of discussion and any decisions.
- The accused needs to be informed of the accusations in sufficient detail that they can offer a response.
- The accused should be removed from all leadership roles in the church, at least until an investigation is completed.
- It is wise to seek outside advice and professional support.
- The accuser must never be expected to confront the accused.
- The accuser must not be pressured into participating in a reconciliation process.
- The accused should be able to present a response to relevant church leaders.
- Leaders need to remember that abusers are often deceitful and manipulative and may seek to recruit the church leadership to their “side”. They may make accusations about the victim or claim that they have a mental illness.
- During any process, it is important to set boundaries for the accused about church attendance, so the accuser is safe to attend. This may involve helping the accused find a new church home and ensuring that appropriate people at that church are aware of the situation.
- There should be appropriate public transparency about whatever decisions are made, this helps to protect the reputation of the accuser and stop gossip, as well as reassuring church members that the church takes accusations seriously.
- DFV is an evil which corrupts one of the most precious blessings of God and brings terrible consequences. Churches are in a position where they can and should provide help and seek to free people from oppression.
- DFV should be on the ‘radar’ of pastoral care in our churches.
- Preaching and teaching should deal with DFV from time to time, both incidentally and with specific preaching and seminars.
- DFV is almost always messy and confusing, we need to pray for wisdom and live with ambiguity.
- Dealing with DFV will be strengthened with a clear theology of marriage and family, humanity and sin, forgiveness.
- Christ offers the restoration and hope which victims and perpetrators need. This must be accompanied by church care which reflects the gospel of hope.
 Mandy Truong, Bianca Calabria, Mienah Zulfacar Sharif, Naomi Priest, “New study finds family violence is often poorly understood in faith communities”, The Conversation April 18, 2019 https://theconversation.com/new-study-finds-family-violence-is-often-poorly-understood-in-faith-communities-115562 . The final results of “Faith Communities & Family Safety Project” is due to be released soon and will be available on http://csrm.cass.anu.edu.au/research/publications .
 See for instance the discussion of Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading the Old Testament Narrative Ethically
(T&T Clark, 2000), esp. 109-27.
 It is not clear the extent to which complementarian teaching increases the risk of DFV. There is no available data on this question in Australia. Some studies suggest that sporadic church attendance, or sporadic attendance at a conservative evangelical church, increases the risk of a husband abusing his wife. It also seems that regular church attendance is somewhat protective for abuse; Steven R. Tracy, “Patriarchy and Domestic Violence: Challenging Common Misconceptions” JETS 50:3 (Sep 2007): 581, n44.