In the last few weeks a bit of a debate has kicked off here in Sydney over the difficult question of domestic violence (“DV”) and our response as evangelicals, and particularly as Sydney Anglicans, to it. It all began with an article by journalist Julia Baird in the smh, “Submission is a fraught mixed message for the church“.
But there is one area that has been largely ignored: what is the role of the church in all of this? More specifically, if conservative churches preach the dominance of men, and submission of women, does this add weight to those who think men have a right – even a divine right – to control their partners?
A growing number of Australian theologians are expressing deep concern about the consequences of what is known as the doctrine of headship.
Baird’s article, as one might expect, prompted a lot of discussion and not a little push-back. In particular there was the complaint that she had relied heavily on anecdotal argument without giving us the hard stats. In any large organisation it stands to reason that there will be instances of abuse, but is it fair to tarnish the whole body based on what could be a small blemish? The plural of anecdote, after all, is not anecdata.
Underlying this was what some (myself included) thought was an unhelpful bias from Baird’s deep-seated opposition to the Biblical doctrine of male headship in marriage and the church. Baird was one of those arguing most strongly for the push towards the ordination of women to the presbyterate in Sydney diocese, and she wasn’t on the winning side. Perhaps this coloured her piece? I’ll return to this later on because I think it’s one component amongst the many that need to be considered here.
Prominent amongst the critical responses were those of Karl Faase and Claire Smith (for the sake of transparency the reader should be aware I know both Karl and Claire personally and have high regard for them). Karl wrote for Eternity newspaper, “Do the Bible’s teachings really cause domestic violence?”
Baird then takes the reader through a series of Biblical passages related to women submitting to husbands and then seeks to insinuate that this is a latent and dangerous potential danger in our community. Every reader would be impressed with Baird’s motivation to point out potential dangers and attitudes that may cause violence to take hold in families. The question to ask is whether what she is suggesting is accurate.
To back up her assertions, the article refers to some anecdotes from counsellors who have seen violent behaviour occurring in church-going or religious families.
The key feature missing from the article is the facts. There are no statistics to demonstrate that the assertion Baird is making is accurate. In response to a social media post, Baird has responded to criticism by saying “I said the doctrine of headship can foster mistrust/[be] misinterpreted” which of course is true, but the key issue though is not whether it can, but whether it has.
I personally have worked in churches for more that 30 years. I have worked across the denominations in all states of Australia so I think I can say that I have a fair idea of what families in churches are like. In all that time I have seen very few – perhaps two or three at best – experiences where people have misused the Bible to support their practice of dominating their partners and I can truthfully say I don’t know one minister, pastor or church leader who has ever told a wife to stay with an abusive partner. Those church leaders quoted in Baird’s article suggest that they know of such examples, and I am not denying their experience, but I am just suggesting that they are very isolated.
Claire Smith’s reponse was posted at ThinkingofGod, “Abusing the Facts“,
Worse still for her case, the two evangelical leaders she does find, while upholding distinctive roles for men and women within marriage, both describe the husband’s role in terms of servant leadership – that is, in terms inimical to power, domination and abuse. Glenn Davies, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, which she stresses “is known for its emphasis on headship”, even says that “headship is not domination” and “if a woman’s life is in danger she should leave, even though that would mean ‘disobeying her husband’”. Hardly the evidence Julia needs for widespread endorsement of male dominance and domestic abuse by evangelical clergy.
It’s worth noting that both Karl and Claire were abundantly clear in their rejection of all forms of DV. The allegation here is that Baird did not properly evidence her claim, and she certainly has not been fair in her handling of all that the Bible has to say on the subject, nor in her presentation of those who seek to uphold that Biblical position.
The answer to these challenges is to provide further and more subtantive evidence of DV in the church and to demonstrate that the Bible is being handled fairly. With regard to the first, articles began to be written. Eternity published a response by a senior pastoral worker, “We really do have a problem of domestic violence, and here is how to help“. She notes that Baird’s original article was “really unhelpful” but goes on to point to evidence of DV in the church,
Knowing what we do about hidden child sexual abuse and the use of alcohol, prescribed pain medication and pornography within the church, it is simply not statistically possible that we do not also have a problem with domestic abuse.
True, we mightn’t see many women with broken noses and cheek bones, but we definitely have women whose husbands take their shoes or car keys with them when they go out so that their wife can’t leave the home, women who are denigrated because they do not live up to their husband’s pornographic ideals, women married to men in a continual state of rage, women who have no money to spend or no time that their husband does not control, or families who tip toe around a ‘difficult’ father that no-one dares to upset!
Sin is alive and well in many theologically conservative households and submission in the wrong hands does lead to abuse, usually in the form of control and emotional abuse. One way in which sin plays out, is that some men leverage the scriptural injunctions of submission by bending these verses towards meeting their own unmet needs, rather than seeking to love and serve their wife sacrificially.
There is also an Eternity piece from 2012 by Amelia Schwarze that is worth reading through.
Baird has responded to these various critiques by penning a second article. And it’s far better. “Doctrine of headship a distortion of the gospel message of mutual love and respect“. She begins with a criticism of John Piper’s now-infamous remarks in 2012 (transcript here):
If it’s not requiring her to sin but simply hurting her, then I think she endures verbal abuse for a season, and she endures perhaps being smacked one night, and then she seeks help from the church.
Baird calls this response “astonishing”. I’m not sure I agree and I’m not sure that Jesus’ Apostle Peter does either. (Do also note some clarifying remarks from Piper here). Either way, Baird moves on from this opening to tell of the responses she has received from many women following her original article.
And this is most helpful for all of us, for here is far more of the evidence that we need to come to terms with this terrible behaviour from within our own community, and it is delivered with far less of the unfair rhetoric of Baird’s first column.
One woman wrote to tell me she stayed with a violent man for 15 years because her pastor told her that as her husband, he was her leader. Another was punched and dragged about by her hair by a husband who gave her a Bible with verses on submission highlighted in it. She told me of others she knew with similar experiences who became depressed and suicidal.
Another woman told me her minister advised her that her husband might stop hitting her if she had more sex with him. There were more. I will not reveal their names – their stories are theirs to tell, the trauma for many too recent.
I also heard from psychologists who decried the abuse of the headship doctrine. A Christian counsellor in private practice in Sydney — whose employer asked her not to supply her name — told me this was a “very significant problem” in church agencies: “I have worked with numbers of women and children who have been the victims of a twisted view of male headship which gives men permission to do whatever they want in the family. To exert control and power in a way that God never meant it to be.”
Baird points us to some solid stats and an acknowledgement of the good work that is happening amongst Sydney Anglicans. We are getting more and more excellent training in this area and
Likewise, the then Archbishop Peter Jensen said in his presidential address that to use headship, “as some have, as an excuse to demand slave-like servility, or even to engage in physical and emotional bullying is to misuse it utterly and no wife should feel spiritually obliged to accept such treatment.” He is absolutely right. And more need to say it.
What Baird didn’t acknowledge initially is that plenty of us do say it. We say it every time we come across DV. We’re appalled by DV in general and we’re outraged when the reality of Jesus’ loving caring headship of His bride the church is so foully distorted by men who abuse their wives. Again, more of this in a bit.
Alongside Baird’s article is a piece by the lady she mentions above writing under the pseudonym “Isabella”. It outlines a terrible story of abuse and closes in this manner:
I think we should all be glad that Julia wrote her original article, regardless of our theological position. A defensive rebuttal of her article is of no use me or to any of the damaged women I know. They need help and validation. They need well-trained ministers who are equipped to help deal with the problem.
But if what I read online this week in the Christian community is representative, many people in the church still have “a see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” attitude. Nothing much will improve until every denomination in Australia has a strategy to deal with domestic abuse that is informed by experts and rigorously implemented in each local church.
Swallow your pride and get to it, people. If you care enough to bother.
Well there’s lots here to get to grips with. I’m going to try to draw some strands together.
Getting Real About the Problem
I think in the long-run we’re going to be grateful to Julia Baird for raising this very difficult subject, even if we may remain critical of some of the way she’s gone about it. Like it or not DV is a reality for us.
I wonder if for many in the church coming to terms with this is going to be like coming to terms with the reality of child abuse. I know that my experience of discovering the reality of child abuse is one shared with many. I can distinctly recall sitting in a training session in my first year at Moore Theological College learning just what goes on behind closed doors, it’s prevalance, and how we ought to respond. For far too long the church had struggled to grasp the full reality of this terrible terrible blight amongst us. We simply could not believe that people would act this way. This of course is one of the many reasons that an abuser can continue – we simply don’t believe it is possible. It is the explanation (but obviously not an excuse) for some of the woeful responses in the past to allegations of abuse. It wasn’t always that people did not care – it was just that abuse of children was beyond our comprehension.
And so I guess we’re the same when it comes to DV. We often can’t contemplate that it occurs. As “Isabella” relates, offenders present as decent Christian men. They groom those around them just as those who abuse children do. We are kidding ourselves if we think this is not going on.
The answer then, must surely be the same as with the abuse of children; education. We need to educate our leaders (along with everyone else) to be aware of this issue, how to spot it, and how to deal with it. Thank you Julia for opening up this subject, but thank you also for acknowledging,
…there has been a push to educate clergy about how to deal with domestic violence in Sydney, led by conservatives. There are good men leading this, trying to persuade their fellow clergy to take it seriously.
There is really is much good work going on. I don’t like to blow my own trumpet (honestly!) but at Break the Cycle here in Macquarie Fields we’re not only working to support victims of DV but also address the underlying issues that cause men to behave in this way. By God’s grace we’re seeing some good results. The credit goes to an excellent director and chaplain who are committed to getting this right. We also have other staff and volunteers who do their part in addressing this scourge on our communities.
The problem is an abuse of headship
It’s in discussions of the topic of headship in the Bible that Baird’s argument begins to unravel and we see one of her major drivers that, sadly, serves only to undermine her presentation. In her first article she writes,
According to this doctrine, a man is the head of a woman, and wives are to submit to their husbands. The verses usually drawn on are from Ephesians 5: “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.” (Too often skipped is the verse that precedes it: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”)
Yes, it is skipped but even more egregious is Baird’s skipping of any fair presentation from her own pen of the fullness of the Biblical doctrine, namely that headship is the exercise of sacrificially loving leadership. For Baird the problem is headship itself. That means that despite quoting both Simon Smart of the Institute for Public Christianity and Sydney Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies who accurately describe headship, she closes with this conclusion:
To most modern thinkers, the emphasis on obedience or headship is bizarre, retrograde and entirely unnecessary when the core message of the Bible is love, selflessness and service, not a drive for power…
This is an egregious misrepresentation of the Bible’s message. The irony is that headship in the Scriptures, embodied in the person of Jesus, is the epitome of love, selflessness and service.
Eph. 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…
This is not an abusive “drive for power” but rather the other-person-centred correct use of power. The all-powerful Lord of the Universe demonstrated His headship in choosing to die for His bride, the Church.
Baird doesn’t like this Biblical doctrine, as her second piece demonstrates,
The problem is that in Sydney, the same doctrine has been used for decades to exclude women from positions of authority. If headship is employed as the reason women should not be priests, it will remain a herculean task to convince people that it has nothing to do with power – and able to be twisted by those seeking an excuse to control women.
The tragedy is that this underlying issue for Baird has led her to being unfair in two pieces which desperately needed some clear thinking and freedom from distracting rhetoric.
It also, in part, explains some of the “defensive” response by many of us. Certainly it is true that some of us are unwilling to acknowledge the reality of abuse in our circles, possibly even out of a mentality that we ought not to countenance such attacks on our structures. But there is far more going on. Baird tied her valid observations about DV tightly to her well-known and oft-aired opposition to this vital Biblical doctrine. For many of us it was not the honour of Sydney Anglicanism that is at stake but something far more important. Which brings me to my final point,
The solution to DV is the headship of Jesus, properly understood and applied
Let me be bold. Julia’s attack upon the doctrine of headship actually does an enormous disservice to the women she seeks to help. It’s a bit like rescuing them from a leaky lifeboat only to claim that boats themselves are the problem. When you do that people drown.
The solution to men in the Church behaving appallingly is to insist that they behave in a godly fashion and to tolerate nothing less. And that means pointing them to Jesus’ headship. As we’ve already seen, genuine headship in the Scriptures is all about love. Baird simply cannot concede this and nowhere in her own description of headship in the Bible will she acknowledge this basic truth. No wonder there has been protest! For in leaving out the foundational component of headship she has not only misrepresented the Church’s position but far more tragically has misrepresented Jesus Himself.
Jesus consistently presented Himself as a bridegroom and husband. In doing so He was entirely consistent with the same presentation in the Old Testament of God as an ever-loving always-forgiving husband (e.g. Hos. 3:1). Here is the husband who is prepared to die for the benefit of His bride. He does not beat her. Instead He Himself is prepared to take a beating so that she may be presented perfectly on that last day. This imagery of Christ as husband is therefore integral to the gospel. It is the hope for every woman and for every man. We, together, have a husband who has exercised headship, and done so powerfully.
It also means that men who call themselves Christian have no excuse. But more than that they have a wonderful model and encouragement towards correct behaviour in relation to their wives. Moreover we have a sure promise of forgiveness for when we fail to be the husbands that we ought to be.
Baird’s rejection of headship denies both women and men this awesome and wonderful truth. Like it or not Scriptural concepts of headship are intrinsically linked to the gospel. You can’t have one without the other.
Which means that I’m going to gently and respectfully disagree with “Isabella” when she writes,
A defensive rebuttal of her article is of no use me or to any of the damaged women I know. They need help and validation. They need well-trained ministers who are equipped to help deal with the problem.
I do not mean in any way to deny the thrust of her sentiment here. Yes, victims of DV do need help and validation. I trust I’m on the record for not just saying it but working hard to make it happen. And we certainly need to train our ministers well in this area. I hope what is written above leaves you in no doubt of my convictions in this area.
But I do think a defensive rebuttal of Baird’s article will eventually help damaged women, if we can rebutt in the right way.
I’m not ashamed to be “defensive”. I’m defensive about headship because it is the headship of Jesus that was ultimately (even if not deliberately) seriously undermined by Baird in a terrible act of collateral damage. To attack Jesus’ headship is to harm damaged women. It is to deny them the gospel and balm of Jesus’ sacrificial love for them. It is to deny the Church the correct model for husbands and, by extension, all male church leadership.
So Church, not least Sydney Anglicanism, let’s get this right. Let’s thank Julia and others who have spoken up for having the courage to raise this issue. Let’s get real about DV, it’s prevelance amongst us, and the things we must learn and do.
But let’s also not shy away from Jesus’ headship. It is life and grace and love for all of us. For the victim, for the perpetrator, for the minister of the gospel, for the entire church. Jesus’ bridal headship is our great hope and it would be tragic for us to lose sight of this wonderful reality as we grapple with terrible sin in our midst.
Eph. 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…