Domestic violence, which in the main is the abuse of women by men, is a serious issue for our society, one which in recent years has become the focus of the public’s attention and of government intervention. It is a cause of much hurt, grief, and even death in our community, leaving many women and children insecure and traumatised. Thinking about and responding to domestic abuse is something that should engage Christians who are committed to loving their neighbour. It is a particular issue for Christians who are “complementarian”, who are committed to both the equality of men and women as made in the image of God and equally children of God, “co-heirs of grace,” through faith in Jesus (Gen. 1:26-28, Gal. 3:26-28, 1 Pet. 3:7), and to honouring the created difference between men and women in the ordering of home and church life in accordance with Scripture (e.g. Eph. 5:18-33; 1 Tim. 2:8-15).
Such a position has been accused of promoting attitudes (e.g. a sense of entitlement and superiority amongst men) that support abuse. So domestic abuse needs to be taken seriously by us—primarily because of the harm it does—but also, secondarily, because of the potential stumbling block thoughtless words and actions by Christians can create for the reception of the gospel.
I will say a little more about the scriptures and their misuse to support abusive attitudes and behaviour later but a book that will help us understand the spectrum of abusive behaviours and give us insight into how we can respond, especially if we are in an abusive relationship, is Why Does He Do That? Inside the minds of angry and controlling men, by Lundy Bancroft.
I first heard of this book through Jenni Woodhouse on Dominic Steele’s “The Pastor’s Heart” podcast. Jenni was previously chaplain for the Sydney Anglican Professional Standards Unit and is currently pastoral care co-ordinator for CMS NSW and ACT. She has had a lot of involvement over the years in the marriages of Christians where abuse has been a sad feature of that relationship, and she recommended Lundy’s book as a great resource that can give a lot of insight into what was going on in an abusive relationship and the mind of the abuser.
The book is designed primarily for women in abusive relationships.
The people who can best benefit from knowledge about abusers and how they think are women, who can use what I have learned to help themselves recognise when they are being controlled or devalued in a relationship, to find ways to get free of abuse if it is happening, and to know how to avoid getting involved with an abusive man—or a controller or a user—next time. The purpose of this book is to equip women with the ability to protect themselves, physically and psychologically, from angry and controlling men. (p. xv)
He goes about achieving his purpose by answering twenty-one questions that in his experience women most often ask about their abusive partners—such as:
- Does he abuse because he was abused as a child? (Q1, p. 25)
- Is he doing it on purpose? (Q2 p. 34)
- Why is he so insanely jealous? (Q. 6 p. 73).
Lundy, a man, is well qualified to deal with these questions, having been involved— either as a ‘counsellor, evaluator (for court)—in “two thousand or more” cases involving angry and controlling men for over fifteen years.
That wealth of experience—and the clarity of thought about abuse achieved over that time (see chapter 1, “The Mystery”) makes the book a helpful resource for women in abusive relationships, but also a resource for us all as we think about and encounter abusive behaviour.
In Chapter 2, Lundy addresses the myths, largely formulated by abusers, that allow them to excuse their behaviour and avoid consequences for their actions. At the end of each chapter, Lundy gives a helpful summary, and a couple of quotes from the summary of Chapter 2 (p. 48) give a feel for his conclusions about these excuses:
Feelings do not govern abusive behaviour or controlling behaviour: beliefs, values and habits are the driving forces.
There is nothing wrong with you. Your partner’s abuse problem is his own.
The Mind of The Abuser
I found Chapter 2 very helpful in allowing me then to focus on what Lundy addresses in Chapter 3: the mindset, the way of thinking, of the abuser. It also clarified that the abuser’s problem is his own—though many abusers like to blame others for their behaviour, and especially make their (abused) partner responsible.
The abuser’s problem is his own—though many abusers like to blame others for their behaviour, and especially make their (abused) partner responsible.
In Chapter 3 Lundy lists the attitudes and values that characterise abusers—control, a sense of entitlement, twisting things into their opposite, disrespect of his partner and a sense of superiority, a confusion of love and abuse, manipulation (pp. 66-67 give examples of manipulative behaviour), the cultivation of a good public image, a sense of justification in his abuse, a denial or minimisation of abuse, and possessiveness. For each attitude he gives illustrations and examples—and shows how it fits into the overall mindset. As he writes at the end of the chapter:
Abuse is a problem of values, not of psychology. When someone challenges an abuser’s attitudes and beliefs, he tends to reveal the contemptuous and insulting personality that normally stays hidden, reserved for private attacks on his partner.” He wants, says Lundy, to keep everyone focused on how he feels, not how he thinks, because “if you grasp the true nature of his problem, you will begin to escape his domination. (p. 75)
The book then progresses through chapters on “Types of abusive men”:
- how abuse begins;
- the abusive man in everyday life;
- the abusive man and sex, addiction and breaking up (a chapter on each);
- abusive men as parents;
- abusive men and their allies (how they recruit those who enable their abuse);
- their engagement with the legal system;
- the origins of abuse, and the process of change.
It is comprehensive in dealing with this sad behaviour. It is all worth reading, but some insights that I thought were particularly pertinent:
Question 8 (pp. 114-123):“How can I tell if a man I’m seeing will become abusive?”
Here Lundy lists some early warning signs that would alert you to the possibility that the person you are seeing is an abuser. If you are the parent, particularly if you are the father, of a teenage son or daughter these are worth going through with your son or daughter—with your daughter so that she would have nothing to do with someone who exhibits these behaviours, and with your son, so that he can test some of his own attitudes and be willing to call out these behaviours in his male friends. Prevention is better than cure, and I say fathers should particularly seize the opportunity so that their children learn from the man in their life how Christian men should behave.
These are worth going through with your son or daughter—with your daughter so that she would have nothing to do with someone who exhibits these behaviours, and with your son, so that he can test some of his own attitudes
Question 9 (pp. 124-130): “Is the way he is treating me abuse?”
Living with an abusive partner messes with your head. It is disorienting and you come to doubt your own judgments. These few pages help you test your intuition about how you are being treated and being able to name behaviour as abuse is the first step to addressing it. If you have any doubts about the way you are being treated this is a helpful checklist.
If you are living with an abuser you may have found trying to talk through an issue with him very difficult, and you may even end up blaming yourself for not being able to express your ideas clearly or simply. ‘Four Critical Characteristics of an abusive argument’ pp. 143-147 will help you understand what is happening in your discussions. The list of tactics employed pp. 145-6 are useful for identifying manipulative behaviour in arguments in many contexts—work, amongst peers—and they also help us review how we conduct ourselves in tense confrontations. If we find ourselves employing these we should repent, for they are a long way from the behaviour described in Ephesians 4:25-32.
Abusers keep on behaving as they do because on the whole it works for them … If we want abusers to change, we will have to require them to give up the luxury of exploitation.
The discussion of what an abuser gets out of his behaviour (pp. 152-158) is a reminder that abusers keep on behaving as they do because on the whole it works for them, and that, as Lundy writes “If we want abusers to change, we will have to require them to give up the luxury of exploitation.” This is not the job of the abused woman, but of the community—making it difficult for the abuser to enjoy the spoils of his abuse. In relation to this it is sobering to realise that abusers can cultivate others, including people in positions of responsibility, to support and enable them (Chapter 11). We all, and particularly Christian pastors like me, need to be aware of this and alert to what is happening.
We may not be in an abusive relationship, but may know someone who is, and so pp. 370 ff “How to support an abused woman” should be read by us all. They are thoughtful observations and alert us to the possibility that in our desire to help we can repeat some of the features of abuse by robbing the abused woman of agency, insisting she does what we think is right and not allowing her to move in her own direction in her own time.
There is much more that this book has to offer in its 389 pages. It is well worth the read by us all, but particularly by anyone who may be in an abusive relationship or is close to someone in an abusive relationship. I wish I had read this book earlier.
It is not a Christian book—and does reflect his experience where abusers have used religious justification for their behaviour, and where Christian communities have at times been slow to perceive and act on abuse, or worse, supported the abuser’s attitudes of entitlement or encouraged women to think that the godly thing is to keep putting up with abuse. In particular, he cites the use by some abusers of Genesis 3:16:
He said to the woman: “I will intensify your labour pains; you will bear children with painful effort. Your desire will be for your husband, yet he will rule over you. (CSB)
It should be clear to us all that this is a judgment, not a mandate. The Lord is describing the grief and pain that women will experience now that sin has entered the world. He is not giving instruction on how men should behave in marriage or ‘men’s rights’.
The Ephesians Antidote
Christian men look elsewhere for how to behave in marriage—especially to Ephesians 5:18-33, in which the antidote to the tensions and grief introduced into the relationship of husband and wife is found in a determined Christlikeness in both husband and wife; where each is called to die to themselves as followers of Jesus: the wife in the voluntary ordering her life under her husband and respecting him; the husband in loving his wife.
Here both show that they have learned from Jesus that being like God is actually not about seeking your own way but humbling yourself to love and serve, and they express that in relating to the one they are most intimately involved with.
To make it clear that abuse has no place in Christian marriages and no justification in Christian teaching, let’s reflect a little more on the teaching of Ephesians.
First, to state the obvious, the teaching of Ephesians 5 is not isolated from the rest of the book. We get to Ephesians 5 through an experience of grace, mercy and love (Eph 1-3) which should characterise all our dealings with others. Believers are people who know they are loved, forgiven, adopted as God’s children, given God’s Spirit—so they should love and forgive, and should look to show the family likeness in all relationships. Further, Paul has already spoken of how believers should treat everyone. In the context of a discussion of abuse we should particularly note 4:17-5:2. We are always, and particularly with those closest to us, to speak the truth in love. We don’t speak for our own benefit, but to build up the other. There is no place for twisting the truth, manipulating the other, angry and abusive and demeaning language. Anger is to be dealt with, not nurtured. Kindness and forgiveness—not using the other or keeping a record of wrongs to be rehearsed in every argument—is to characterise us. The way of life and way of speaking here are the very opposite of the behaviour and speech of an abuser.
Believers are people who know they are loved, forgiven, adopted as God’s children … There is no place for twisting the truth, manipulating the other, angry and abusive and demeaning language.
Paul’s instruction to husbands and wives (5:18-33) on how they should behave towards each other in the particular relationship of marriage takes the behaviour already discussed for granted. All the relating of a husband and wife should be marked by kindness and love, by speech that builds up and is spoken in love.
Men need to note the proportion of the passage. Paul does not tell them to be the head of their wife or to lead their wife, or to make a wife submit. Nor does he give a description of stereotypical roles. He tells husbands how to be head by loving their wives. That is the only command given to husbands—love your wife. It starts by dying to yourself to promote her good. Dying to yourself includes dying to your emotional needs, your sense of entitlement, your hunger for respect. It means learning and practicing self-control, including sexual self-control. That love will include providing for your wife v29, but nourishing and cherishing goes well beyond physical provision.
Paul does not tell husbands to be the head or to lead their wife or to make a wife submit … The only command given to husbands is love your wife.
These are nurturing words and so our wives’ flourishing as a person and a believer has to be a husband’s goal. This means we also have to know our wives, and this can’t be achieved without listening to them. In abusers there is an arrogance that assumes that he knows what is best for his wife (which is usually what suits him the most), and is willing to hurt (emotionally, psychologically, even physically) to impose that on her—for ‘her own good’. To save us the Lord Jesus bore the hurt Himself, He did not inflict it. Paul says we should love our wives as ourselves v. 33, and we do not feel loved when we are not consulted or listened to, when we are not treated as equals. And our wives are our equals—created in God’s image, co-heirs of grace, loved by the Lord Christian husbands say they love.
There is much more that could be written about the good of the relationship between husband and wife that God calls for in His word: it is (or can be) a relief from the judgment of Genesis 3; it can be (albeit always imperfectly) a sign of the marriage of the Lamb to His bride. But hopefully it is clear that abuse has no place in a Christian marriage, and for a man (and it is the man in the majority of abuse cases) to persevere in abusing his wife, especially when confronted with his abusive behaviour, is to show that he has departed from Christ, hardening his heart to the love Christ commands for his own selfish benefit. It is that serious.
If this review has raised issues for you or concerns about how you or a friend of yours is being treated, please contact a mature Christian you know or your pastor.
Additional help can be found at The National Sexual Assault and Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service—1800 RESPECT, i.e. 1800 737 732