The Anglican Church of Australia commissioned research into the prevalence of Family Violence among those who identify as Anglican, along with related research on clergy awareness and victim experience of FDV.  The National Anglican Family Violence Research Report was published last week along with 10 commitments to prevent and respond to Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). This research is a first among Australian Christian denominations.

Sandy Grant is the Senior Minister of St Michaels Cathedral Wollongong. He kindly agreed to Murray Campbell for this interview.

TGCA. After reading the report, what were your initial thoughts and reaction?

SG I grieve, because even one case of domestic violence within our midst is one too many. Jesus came to give rest to the weary, and I pray that through the pain, victims can still find real rest in Christ.

If we claim the name of Christ, we must do all we can to put to death sin in our own lives, and to call to account, and discipline, those who manipulate, control and abuse vulnerable members of their own family.

Yet, sadly, I am not surprised, because sin is so deceitful and it rears its ugly, hurtful head even among those who have come to Christ.  As we ‘put on’ Christ, we still struggle with the old sinful flesh, in our own lives, and of course, also impacted by the sin in the lives of others close to us.

Christians among our churches struggle with problem gambling, pornography use, drug and alcohol abuse, pride, gossip, greed and other forms of idolatry and so on. I have come to expect that we will also have people struggling with domestic violence—certainly as victims, and sadly also, as abusers. Just as with these other sins, such abuse can be covered up by a carefully curated front, or even excused.

But the damage is awful and has very long term impacts. So if we claim the name of Christ, we must do all we can to put to death sin in our own lives, and to call to account, and discipline, those who manipulate, control and abuse vulnerable members of their own family.

TGCA. Can you tell us some of the ways you have been involved in addressing the issue of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) and helping churches respond appropriately? 

My involvement goes back almost a decade. As I was discussing Ephesians 5 and the potential revision of marriage vows, I was not persuaded to change to an egalitarian view of these matters. But I was deeply persuaded that we had not done enough to guard against the twisting of Scriptures in such matters as the injunction to voluntary submission of a wife to her husband, found in places like Ephesians 5—and also Col 3 and 1 Pet 3—sadly, there is plentiful evidence from victims that such teachings, along with the urgings towards forgiveness, have been used to give cover for abusers who demand what can and should never be demanded, let alone enforced.

I had failed to respond to suffering wives with empathetic insight.

At the same time, I became aware of my own shortcomings in pastoral practice. I had the naive view that I simply had to preach on marriage, run engaged couples through ‘Prepare’, and organise the occasional marriage enrichment event. But I had missed signals that someone might be subject to domestic abuse. I realised I had failed to respond to suffering wives with empathetic insight.

This was a failure of compassion for which I am sorry.

But I didn’t know what else to do. Alongside my own very real personal failures, there had been a failure in education.

So, in 2013, I successfully called in our Synod for our ministry training institutions to review what they were doing and to develop a more effective approach to educating ordinands and clergy in regards to domestic violence and how to respond when it comes up as an issue in relationships.

Then, in 2015, I realised things were not moving fast enough. I wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that if any Christians had missed the memo, the Bible says any abuse or aggression from one spouse to another, whether physical or verbal, is wrong. I also indicated that American pastor John Piper was wrong when he suggested a wife might ‘endure perhaps being smacked one night,’ before seeking help from the church. I said victims of domestic violence should be encouraged to seek help from the police and others too, and to get to a safe place.

I realised we needed more than just initial education, but also a domestic violence policy statement, along with advice for good pastoral practice, addressing not only ministry workers, but church members and our youth. I am thankful that our diocesan Standing Committee set up a task force for that purpose. When it asked me to be the Chair, I knew I would be on a steep learning curve.

I made sure that task force had an equal number of men and women, with a variety of relevant experience and expertise, and also a range of views across the complementarian-egalitarian spectrum. I insisted on this because domestic violence can be a problem in a family regardless of espoused theology. More egalitarian pastors will have to minister to those with conservative views, and vice versa. I wanted the widest degree of ‘buy in’, while very much still respecting (and this was explicit in our resolutions) the Bible’s good teaching about marriage (such as in the passages mentioned above).

This led to four years of policy research—which included listening to the voices of victims and survivors, discovering what work had been done in other denominations and overseas, and eventually writing our own policy and good practice guidelines. We took an exposure draft to our Synod which was adopted with some revisions in 2018. The revisions included suggestions by victim representatives, such as further strengthening the call for evidenced repentance from abusers; avoiding any pressure or rush towards a shallow reconciliation. You can find our Policy and Guidelines here.

In 2017, our Synod also gave a formal apology to the victims and survivors, which, among other things, said:

… we also deeply regret that domestic abuse has occurred among those who attend our churches, and even among some in leadership. We apologise for those times our teaching and pastoral care have failed adequately to support victims and call perpetrators to account.

We also helped initiate a similar motion at the national General Synod that year.

TGCA. Appreciating that it is difficult to speak on behalf of all Australian Anglican Dioceses, how is the Diocese you serve in working to create safer places for victims of abuse? 

Since 2018, our Diocese set up a pioneering Ministry Spouse Support Fund. This enabled us to provide substantial transitional funding assistance (for such things as counseling, relocation and retraining), when a spouse of a clergy person or ministry worker is the victim of domestic violence. In such cases, these women are extremely vulnerable: as their (ex-)spouse loses his ministry, they also lose their home and often their main source of income.

Our diocesan Doctrine Commission produced a powerful simple English paper on ‘The Use and Misuse of Scripture with Regard to Domestic Abuse.’

The key challenge is to avoid the mentality that says, ‘I read the policy back in 2018. I did the training a couple of years ago so I can move on.’

We have also translated some of our resources, such as our ‘Domestic Abuse Response Flowchart’ and the Doctrine Commission paper, into other languages such as Chinese and Korean, and these can be accessed via this link.

Our Professional Standards Unit (PSU) began to include training about domestic violence in its compulsory triennial training for all clergy and paid church workers. We also ensured that Anglicare collaborated with our PSU to produce a further online training course, ‘Know Domestic Abuse,’ for clergy and church workers, including relevant volunteers.

Anglicare also employed a Domestic Violence advisor available to clergy for advice, and also to run wider local training and education in our parishes. Most recently, Anglicare and Youthworks have partnered to produce some ‘primary prevention’ Bible study resources for high school youth entitled, ‘Before it Starts.’

The key challenge is to avoid the mentality that says, ‘I read the policy back in 2018. I did the training a couple of years ago so I can move on.’

Actually, the reality is that we need to re-visit policy and guidelines and training periodically—just as we do with child protection matters—because we can easily forget basic insights.

TGCA. What is the connection between church attendance and domestic abuse? 

The key connection is that church attendance does not immunise you from either being an abuser or a victim. The Lord Jesus warns us in his parables that in the world—and even in the visible church—wheat and weeds would grow together.

Of course, as preaching through 1 Corinthians 5 and 6 recently reminded me, believers have a duty to bring church discipline to bear on those whose sin is public and persistent, with a view to repentance. This includes the option of expelling from fellowship someone who claims to be a brother, but continues in abusive language or viciousness (ESV: ‘revilers’ and ‘swindlers’; see 1 Cor 5:10-11; 6:10). Likewise, noting Romans 13, I do not think the prohibition in this section of Scripture on lawsuits over trivial matters among believers should prevent us reporting crime to the secular authorities.

More broadly, there is older, largely American research (Ellison, Wilcox, etc) which suggested regular (i.e. weekly) church attendance in the case of conservative Protestant or evangelical men might be a mild protective factor against domestic violence compared to those in other churches and/or with irregular (monthly or less) church attendance. As Australian academics have rightly noted, beyond the dated nature of the research, there were also other significant limitations to those findings.

Measures of intimate partner violence (IPV) do not differ in a statistically significant way by religiosity.

I also note more recent 2019 global research, ‘The Ties that Bind: Is Faith a Global Force for Good or Ill in The Family?’ from the Institute of Family Research (which includes Professor Wilcox). This report seeks to understand how religion is linked, on average, to four key family outcomes in 11 countries, spread across the globe, including Australia and draws on data from the World Values Survey (WVS) and the Global Family and Gender Survey (GFGS). I am, as yet, unsure how the research it reports is peer-reviewed.

This report finds that when it comes to domestic violence, highly religious couples (i.e. who attend at least 2-3 times/month) do not have an advantage over secular couples or less/mixed religious couples. Measures of intimate partner violence (IPV)—which includes physical abuse, as well as sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and controlling behaviours—do not differ in a statistically significant way by religiosity. So they find that attending church does not (on average) protect against domestic violence, but nor does it make things worse.

There was also some measures of patriarchal or egalitarian beliefs overlaid on these questions (whether religious or secular). Here is a quote from their conclusion:

Patriarchal ideas rooted in religious understandings do lead to abusive relationships in some instances, but couples in these relationships do not have elevated rates of IPV compared to other couples. 

Our national Anglican Family Violence project has now released its initial ‘Top Line Results’ report. This includes the sad finding that Anglican church attenders are more likely than the general public to have experienced domestic violence over a lifetime, and as likely within the last year.

The prevalence study methodology was a carefully weighted non-probability survey utilising samples drawn from online panels. However this limitation means you cannot confidently generalise about the Australian population or about Anglicans overall. Another limitation is that to get a large enough sample size for statistically significant inferences to be drawn, the study had to define ‘church-attending Anglicans’ as those who indicated that ‘they attended religious services at least several times a year’.

What is not clear yet is whether perpetrators are also over-represented in our churches. This is because the study asked about people’s experience of IPV—which, I presume, most respondents interpreted in terms of being a victim. Although I have inquired, it is not yet clear to me whether any questions were asked that would identify whether the abusive (ex-)spouses of victims at church were, or are also, church-goers—let alone whether they espoused views that might be called patriarchal or complementarian.

Every time we teach on marriage, we always include weighty warnings against twisting teaching about submission or forgiveness.

Most pastors would know that some victims are sadly abused by church-attenders, who conceal their misconduct, and continue to attend. But other abusers, once exposed, cease coming to church. Still other women are married to non-Christian spouses, some of whom are abusive. And some victims come into our church fellowships to find support and healing and hopefully, faith in Jesus, after previous abuse in entirely non-religious settings.

Most pastors would also immediately note that we consider people who only attend several times a year, or even monthly, to be in serious spiritual danger, and certainly unlikely to progress much in Christian maturity. So we might feel disappointed in the inclusion of people who only attend a few times a year as among the ‘church-attending’ category.

Such irregular attenders are less likely to hear our warnings against misunderstanding or twisting Scripture as a cover for abusive conduct. It also means they are less likely to be in more meaningful, transparent relationships with other believers where misconduct can be challenged.

But it would be a pity and a mistake to focus solely on definitional debates over the prevalence studies.

In my view, the research makes it all the more important that every time we teach on marriage, we always include weighty warnings against twisting teaching about submission or forgiveness. We must regularly acknowledge the dangers and the victims in our midst. We must regularly—not only condemn behaviour that is abusive, bullying, controlling and vicious—but also describe it in practice so victims, bystanders and even perpetrators are better able to see it for what it is.

As the ‘Ties that Bind’ report concludes

Unfortunately, the resources religious traditions have at their disposal to discourage violence within intimate partnerships may not be tapped very often. The subject of IPV may not be frequently addressed in public religious settings. Congregational religious leaders would do well to change this and to confront the issue head-on in their sermons and programming. A significant minority of their congregants have experienced violence within their marriages and cohabiting unions, and many of them are likely suffering in silence. A significant minority have likely also perpetrated IPV and may pose a continued risk to their families and fellow congregants.

TGCA. Does the report suggest Anglican churches need to re-evaluate their doctrines of men and women in marriage and in church, or does the report indicate how Biblical teachings can be twisted and misused by some? 

The National Anglican FVP ‘Top Line Results’ report states that, ‘Although unintended, Christian teachings sometimes contribute to and potentially amplify, situations of domestic violence.’ This finding arises from observations in the clergy knowledge study. And some participants in the experience study said that their abusive partners used obligations around the sanctity of marriage, the headship of the husband, and the imperative to forgive to control them. The report also noted that there are good biblical resources for both prevention of and response to domestic violence.

I think these observations are true and a deep cause for reflection in how we uphold God’s good word.

The accompanying statement, ‘Ten Commitments for Prevention and Response to Domestic and Family Violence in the Anglican Church of Australia’ (link) undoubtedly foregrounds gender inequality, alongside sin, as lying at the heart of domestic and family violence. They repeatedly indicate that equality and mutuality should be at the heart of our relationships and our response to domestic violence. Some might say its language is characterised by a fairly strong egalitarian flavour. Some of the language also reflects the broader theological backgrounds represented in the Anglican Church of Australia. However, as far as I can see, this resource does not define equality or mutuality in a way that required sameness in every respect in regards to gender. It acknowledges that, ‘In the Anglican Church, not all Dioceses ordain women to be Bishops or Priests, but every Diocese can work towards a more equal church.’

So I think we can note these ten principles, study them carefully and consider the suggestions, alongside for Sydney Anglicans at least, continuing to uphold, and review our own diocesan policy. (If your diocese or denomination doesn’t have one, I’d suggest you look at ours!)

TGCA: What final words do you have for Bible-based Christian people? 

I’d finish with some observations on how we uphold God’s good word in regard to our relationships, especially in our families.

We must major on Jesus’ teaching that any leadership or authority his followers possess must never be exercised in a domineering way. Rather, if we ever lead, we lead as fellow servants (Mark 10:42-45).

Positively, there are Scriptural injunctions and examples to show that it is good for a woman to protect herself and her children from the violence or threats of an abusive husband. I conclude that for an abused person to silently endure such mistreatment is unlikely to rescue the relationship. No one is spiritually obliged to submit to such immorality.

For example:

  • Proverbs 27:12 says, ‘The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and suffer for it.’
  • When King Herod was seeking to kill the baby Jesus, the angel didn’t tell Joseph to trust God and submit to Herod; he told him to flee!
  • We should note Abigail’s actions when the foolishness of her husband exposed her and their whole extended household to danger (1 Samuel 25)!
  • Proverbs 19:19 warns that, ‘A hot-tempered man must pay the penalty; if you rescue him, you will have to do it again.’

In marriage, as in church leadership, there is no room for bullying, verbal abuse, threatening or intimidating or demeaning behaviour, let alone physical violence (Eph 5:25-29; 1 Tim 3:2-3, Tit 1:7-8). Married men must love their wives, and not be harsh with them (Colossians 3:19), nor ever exploit their greater strength (1 Peter 3:7). I should be willing to love, trust, praise and support my wife’s initiatives in the home and beyond; to rejoice in her strength, seek her wisdom, and generally encourage her (Prov 31:10-31)!