In July the ABC launched a public conversation on domestic violence in religious communities through the publication of a series of articles. One long article by journalists Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson featured the first hand testimonies of women in conservative evangelical churches who have been abused by their husbands and found the response from church leadership to be unhelpful and harmful.
The ABC coverage drew a link between ‘headship theology’ and domestic violence. It suggested that abusers with connections to Christian communities would often twist the words of the Bible to justify abusing their wives, and to prevent their wives escaping. Christian teaching on divorce and submission, according to these stories, resulted in some women being sent back into danger.
The accounts of victims who have escaped abuse are the clearest and most accurate data we have when it comes to the existence of domestic violence in church communities; to date there is no substantial Australian research and no accurate statistics to paint a picture of how prevalent this issue is in our churches. But there is an emerging consensus in these stories and in investigations into domestic violence that the Bible can be twisted by abusers (who are typically experts in manipulation and control) and that churches can be ill-prepared to respond when a victim comes forward. Victims and advocates suggest it is important for churches to be clear on our theology and practice in this area for the sake of victims, abusers, and for anyone who a victim might trust to reveal their plight to.
The Queensland Government commissioned a special taskforce to report on Domestic Violence in Queensland, its report Not Now, Not Ever, recommended that “Leaders of all faiths and religions to take a leadership role in fostering and encouraging respectful relationships in their community, and to teach their communities and congregations that coercive control and violence are never acceptable,” the Presbyterian Church of Queensland created a special committee in 2015 to do just this; the committee reported to the 2016 Assembly, which adopted report and deliverances unanimously. The report can be found online on the Gospel In Society Today (GIST) website (gist.org.au) and on the Presbyterian Church of Queensland’s site (pcq.org.au).
The Assembly voted to “Affirm the inherent dignity of all men, women, and children, whatever their age, or marital status, as people made in the image of God, to bear this image in his world, so thoroughly repudiates any use of Christian concepts of submission or authority in any relationship to justify the physical or emotional abuse of any person.”
The committee, in taking up the challenge of the Not Now, Not Ever report, recommended that our churches conduct “active teaching around the issues of violence, and clear, reflective Bible Study on these issues” as essential for our churches to become safer communities for victims of domestic violence; particularly women who are being victimised by the abuse of Scripture.
In order to provide a particularly clear framework for ministers and elders responding to victims coming forward, the report also suggested our churches consider adopting the position that domestic violence can be a form of the ‘desertion’ envisaged by the Westminster Confession of Faith (24.VI), and so legitimate grounds for separation and divorce.
The report contained recommendations for our denomination, moving forward, which have been passed to the Committee for Ministry Resourcing for action, and GIST to take forward in the public square. These recommendations were around equipping our communities to Recognise, Report, and Prevent domestic and family violence within our communities.
This report was circulated to ministers and elders in our churches following the publication of the ABC story. In response to that story, many churches issued statements online condemning domestic violence and the twisting of the Bible to justify it. Creek Road issued a statement that included these words:
“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.
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.”
- Ad Hoc Committee on Domestic Violence Report
- Creek Road’s full Statement
- ABC article featuring stories of abuse