Domestic Violence and the Church: Our position; Jesus’ position

There’s a lengthy article on the ABC website today unpacking some ways that bits of the Bible have been used by some men to control and abuse their wives. It comes ahead of a 7:30 Report story screening this evening on the same issue.

It’s horrific reading, and hard to escape the reality that some men claim to be following Jesus while perpetrating these crimes on women — their wives — who they are called to love as ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’ (Ephesians 5).

As a church who holds to the authority of the Bible, and that wishes to cling to the example of Jesus, it is important for us to be clear about our position on domestic violence perhaps especially within marriage, especially where beautiful words that are meant to evoke the picture of Jesus on the cross are being used by those who are strong to abuse the vulnerable. This is an abominable reversal of the Gospel; where Jesus, though he is powerful, gives up that power to make himself nothing for our sake (Philippians 2), this picture of Jesus laying down his strength in gentle, sacrificial, life-giving, love is what Paul is writing about in Ephesians 5.

“Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” — Ephesians 5:1-2

Let us be clear:

There is no possible way that violence or abusive, controlling behaviours are justifiable from the text of the Bible. Perhaps this is most especially true of the very passage that so many abusers craftily and deceitfully employ. Ephesians 5:22. The words ‘as to the Lord’ in that verse are pretty important; because there is no way that submitting to Jesus involves him being violent or abusive towards us.

And to be even clearer;

In such cases where abuse is happening, our church and its leaders will use our strength to stand between victim and abuser, like Jesus stood between the Pharisees and the woman they hoped to stone to death. It will not be the victim who is pressured to leave our community. We will not coerce a victim to remain in a situation of abuse for the sake of their abuser. We will report allegations of domestic violence to the police.

We also believe that abuse is a form of desertion or abandonment (an obliteration of the marriage vows and total obscuring of what a Christian marriage is meant to represent) — even while a spouse might remain present in the home — and so is grounds for divorce on the basis of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7.

If you are reading this and are in a relationship where your husband is twisting God’s word to justify violent or abusive behaviour speak out; tell somebody you trust. Keep doing this until you find someone who will believe you and provide you the help and support you need. Contact your pastor, or Growth Group leader, or a trusted friend.

Another key passage just before the ‘abused’ words in Ephesians 5 says:

“Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them…

Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.” — Ephesians 5:6-7, 11-13

Men who twist God’s word to their own sinful ends — wolves in sheep’s clothing — who hide behind closed doors and a mask of respectability in public are exactly the people Paul is writing about here.

If you are reading these words and you are a man caught up in a pattern of abusing your wife thinking you are being faithful to the meaning of these texts — perhaps because that is what you have been taught, or seen modeled, you need to repent.

You need to turn to the Jesus we meet in the Gospels, at the Cross, before you meet him as judge; and to seek reconciliation, restoration, and re-training in a way that is transparent (‘in the light’) and safe, and driven by love, for your wife (as she defines it). Part of life ‘in the light’ will mean this should happen in the context of appropriate communities and support groups. Seek help. Ask someone. Contact your pastor, Growth Group Leader, or a trusted Christian friend; and do not let them pretend this is not an issue or that ‘you’re a good bloke’…

We do believe that abusers can be forgiven, and redeemed, and that the Gospel is for abusers, and that necessary repentance happens in the context of the church as people are confronted not just with the example of Jesus, but with his strength and power as the one who judges justly; but see this happening in cooperation with the police and the appropriate legal processes as appropriate.

The news is not all bad…

There was one interesting finding reported in the midst of Julia Baird’s story from the ABC, which linked to Steven Tracy’s paper ‘What Does “Submit In Everything” Really Mean: The Nature and Scope of Marital Submission”; that paper analysed studies on domestic violence in church communities and found:

“These studies do find a link between conservative religion and domestic violence, but it is not the simple causal relationship the feminist model would predict. Rather, there is an inverse relationship between church attendance and domestic violence. Conservative Protestant men who attend church regularly are found to be the least likely group to engage in domestic violence, though conservative Protestant men who are irregular church attendees are the most likely to batter their wives.”

It seems the sorts of men who are committed to the example of Jesus in all their relationships are the least likely of all men in society to commit family violence; but there is a problem that needs to be acknowledged where wolves dress in sheep’s clothing, ignore the ‘good shepherd’, and weaponise God’s word to achieve their own insidious and sinful ends. Let us be clear; there is no way that this is consistent with what the Bible teaches, or who it points to.

Here are some more resources for people exploring how our church, and denomination, approaches the issue of domestic violence and some of the passages that might be used in an attempt to justify abuse.

  1. Our talk What The Church Gets Wrong About Abuse, But Jesus Makes Right.
  2. Our talk from our Living Hope series on 1 Peter 3.
  3. A paper from a committee formed by our denomination to shape the Presbyterian Church of Queensland’s approach to Domestic Violence.

A Prayer

Heavenly Father,
We praise you Lord Jesus that your light enables us to live truthfully and well in the sight of God.

We are grieved by our world, where people habitually use their power to abuse the weak. We thank you that in Jesus the new world that is to come has broken into this world — where the weak are honoured, rescued, protected and empowered through the strong. And so we realise that abuse does not belong amongst those who follow Jesus — that there is no place for abuse in the churches.

We confess our part in the wrong, whenever we have participated in abuse or simply ignored the strong preying on the weak, be it in domestic violence, child abuse, elder abuse, or abuse in the workplace.

We ask that our churches will be different to the pattern of our world, that our churches will use their power to protect the abused, will not allow abuse to stay in darkness, and will not try to cover it up. We ask that we will be real followers of Jesus, who show that there is no place for abuse, or cover-ups in the churches. May we be like Jesus, who suffered abuse from the powerful to save the weak.

We pray for those who have been abused and also for abusers. Enable our growth groups and churches to be safe places where people and their family members can reach out for help.

In the name of Jesus, the Light of the World we pray.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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