To understand why domestic and family violence is a problem in our churches, we must be willing to dialogue about violence, power, gender, and marriage within the wider faith community. This section of SAFER explores how the Bible speaks about key areas that are often used against women - violence, power, forgiveness, repentance and submission.
Violence against women
In the Bible, all violence is considered an offence against God and against humanity. Scripture is full of condemnations of violence – time and again violence is associated with wickedness and condemned as “detestable to the Lord” (Psalm 11, Proverbs 3 & 10).
In particular, violence against women is condemned. In Jewish law, rape was viewed as equivalent to murder (Deut 22:26), as was pressuring a woman physically (Deut 22:25–27) or psychologically (Deut 22:28–29) into sex. The Bible recounts many stories of the horrific sexual abuse of women. In Old Testament narratives, rape is viewed as an “outrage” (nebalah) - a term which only occurs 13 times in the Old Testament and is reserved for extreme acts of violation against God and human beings, including the rapes of Dinah, Tamar, and the woman of Bethlehem. Read more on this here.
We never see the word ‘abuse’, but the term ‘oppression’ (meaning crushing or burdening someone by the abuse of power or authority) is everywhere. 1 The Psalms in particular portray oppression in a manner that echoes the way abuse survivors describe their abuser:
"His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under his tongue are mischief and iniquity." Psalm 10
God is on the side of the oppressed and abused (Psalm 56). The scriptures clearly express God’s desire for a dramatic transformation of society for those who are burdened, marginalised, or unjustly treated (Luke 4:18-21; Proverbs 14:31; Matthew 9:13; Mark 3:4-5).
Jesus refuses to play by the rules of violence and power (Isaiah 42:3, Matthew 26:52, Mark 10:41-45). This new revolution - modelled by Jesus himself - means that the powerful should give up their privilege to the vulnerable, the abuser should stop using violence against those powerless to resist, and the institution should stop ignoring the trauma of the abuse survivor.
The way of Jesus calls us to relationships of non-violence and peace. We are to resist using violence even in retaliation for violence used against us (Luke 6:29). This does not mean a capitulation to the inevitability of violence, but the promise of a day when those who continue to pursue violence will be dealt with (Romans 12:17-19; Revelation 22:12-15).
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Abuse and oppression of the vulnerable by the powerful is sadly prevalent in a fallen world and men’s violence against women is well documented throughout scripture. The underlying driver of violence is the need to find some recognised level of power in how we see ourselves and our place in the world. People in powerful positions are anxious about their power and the acquisition of power is a never-ending process as those who achieve any level of power quickly become accustomed to it. It becomes the status quo, and the need for power can be fulfilled only by acquiring more.
For an abuser, the belief that they have an inherent right to power and the threat of the potential loss of their personal power fuels their violence. The abuser typically views marriage as a pyramid of power with themselves on top and is constantly trying to secure their position. This is why abusers are controlling, easily angered, critical, and why they isolate their spouses from friends and family.
God uses power very differently.
God has revealed himself to us as a Trinity, and so Christians worship and image a relational God. The relationships within the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) are self-giving and use power that is shared and transformative - the very antithesis of authoritarian and abusive power. When God made us in his image he shared (some of) his creative power with us, as he commissioned us to fill the earth. This power has a particular character – it is power that enables human flourishing.
Philippians 2 tells of how despite being God, Christ made himself nothing by taking the status of a servant. On the cross he set aside his power and humbled himself completely for us and for his Father.
Consider Jesus’ words to his disciples:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:26-28
Only when power is used to enhance someone else’s freedom is it being used well. Humility, gentleness and sacrificing self for others… these are all central to how Jesus operates. Jesus does not ever strive for power, or scramble to retain power. He does not use power to dominate and coerce. Jesus dismantles these systems of domination. And his life provides the alternative - peace, non-violence, care-taking and connection.
The "good news" sees a dramatic transformation of society that sees the powerful relinquish power to the more vulnerable. That is why Jesus-like leaders use their position to ensure that power is used fairly within their sphere. Men in the Church who want to truly model the self-sacrificial love of Jesus will actively invite the voice of women, seek the development of the women’s giftings, anticipate and prioritise women’s needs, and pursue a culture in which women’s contributions are valued as highly as men’s.
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- Rev Mike Frost identifies how Jesus’ teaching totally subverts the patriarchal system
- Rev Mike Frost also offers practical advice on how men can support the empowerment of women
- George Paul Wood examines what Jesus teaches men about money, sex, and power
- The Awake Deborah podcast series examines how patriarchal bias has affected biblical interpretation over the centuries
Justice and mercy lie at the very heart of God’s character. When God introduces himself, justice is a key trait:
“I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight” Jeremiah 9:24
I am the God “who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes” Deuteronomy 10:17-18
God hates evil and he judges and punishes evildoers. There will come a day when time will be up for all those who refused to abandon violence; who silenced the wounded, who could not embrace truth and justice. We do not need to take revenge for abuse, knowing that God condemns it, punishes evildoers and will hold everyone to account:
“God will bring into judgment the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time to judge every deed” Ecclesiastes 3:17; Hebrews 10:30; Romans 12:19
So what does this commitment to justice mean for people experiencing domestic and family violence? In particular, what constitutes a sin to be handled by one’s church, versus a crime to be handled by local authorities?
It could not be clearer that God hates violence and abuse within families. Loving justice and acting justly means refusing to tolerate abuse, exposing it (Ephesians 5:11-13) and stopping it. It is also vital that local authorities punish those who commit offences. Many acts of domestic and family violence are against the law. 3 We can and should embrace the God-given authorities of human government and law enforcement to stop abuse and bring perpetrators to justice (Romans 13, 1 Peter 2, Acts 23:12-22).
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Repentance is a biblical term that describes the deep sorrow of recognising our sin and wanting to turn away from it towards God. It involves a confession of wrongdoing - naming sin and recognising responsibility for it. It also involves grief at our wrong behaviour, recognising the limits of our ability to make amends, and acknowledging its impact on our relationships with God and others. In addition to this, it involves a change of heart – deciding that the future will involve new plans, new ways of behaving, and acting on this. Repentance that does not lead to behaviour change is not repentance at all. “Godly sorrow” always produces a genuine concern to ensure that justice happens (2 Corinthians 7:10-11).
The key term used in the New Testament is ‘metanoia’ – which refers to both a change of mind, and regret/remorse. In the Matthew and Mark, Jesus begins the public declaration of his mission with a call to repent. In fact, Jesus puts it at the core of his mission:
“I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” Luke 5:32
The Bible is full of promises that the Lord will draw near to those who turn back to him:
"‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you’" Zechariah 1:3
"The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins" Isaiah 59:20
"Forgiveness and refreshment are promised to those who sincerely repent" Acts 3:19
Because repentance is a gift from God (Acts 11:18), it is also possible for perpetrators of domestic and family violence to repent. The Holy Spirit can convict them of their abusive attitudes and behaviours, and help them change. However, for repentance to be genuine it must involve honest confession, genuine attempts at restitution, willingness to being held accountable by church leaders, and sustained changes to their attitudes and behaviours.
However, there is no scriptural obligation for victims to reconcile with abusers.
Victims should never be compelled to participate in his repentance process. They should not be asked to ‘help’ the abuser repent, or certify his repentance. They should not be encouraged to restore the relationship to its previous state. Although God can do miracles in helping an abuser realise their wrongdoing, changing ingrained patterns takes a long time and requires an abuser to investigate deeply how they developed these patterns in the first place. John the Baptist told the Pharisees and Sadducees (who were outwardly moral but inwardly deceitful) to "bear fruits worthy of repentance" (Matthew 3:8). Abusers must be encouraged to continual and ongoing repentance, and not rely on their initial guilty feelings alone.
During the repentance process, churches should always be alert to 'sham repentance' which is a key feature of the cycle of violence in abusive relationships.
Church leaders should also recognise the need to repent of the role they have played in enabling and perpetuating violence, and we note in 2017 a number of denominations, churches and individuals made statements of repentance to victims and survivors. SAFER takes a deeper look at what it means for churches to apologise corporately to victims of domestic and family violence here.
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Submission and ‘headship’ in marriage
Any discussion of how men and women should relate to each other within marriage must first assume the biblical attitudes of love, selflessness, and mutual submission are central. This is true whether Christians are either:
- Complementarian: believing that while men and women are both of equal, intrinsic value before God and are also both of equal value and importance within a marriage, they have different, complementary roles or functions, with the husband serving as the head of the family and the wife submitting to his headship.
- Egalitarian: believing in equality within marriage without distinct roles based on gender and that both husband and wife lead family life collaboratively.
When Paul says, “husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church” (Ephesians 5:25), he is categorically prohibiting every attitude or behaviour that results in a husband devaluing, humiliating, belittling, or emotionally or physically wounding his wife. Whatever Paul meant when he told wives “to submit to their husbands as unto the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22), he was categorically not saying that women should ever live in fear of their husbands. Nor was he supporting the idea that men and women were created unequal and that women are to be treated as inferior.
Though for some ‘submission’ is a good and important part of their marriage relationship, for others, gender–based understandings of submission can be problematic if they produce harmful power dynamics that oppress women. There is evidence that an emphasis in some churches on the doctrine of ‘headship’ can foster a climate that enables men to wield power over women. 4 The use of ‘headship’ theology as the underpinning of a power and authoritarian control dynamic between people is always extremely dangerous.
If we are allowing or endorsing traditions that suggest unhealthy power dynamics are a natural part of marriage relationships, we should consider: is this interpretation is really the truth of what God wants for us and our lives, or is it simply a misuse of scripture that keeps women and children in unsafe situations? 5
Remaining in an abusive relationship - even under a doctrine of wifely submission - is not supported by scripture. Marriage is not meant to induce suffering and enduring persistent abuse does not lead to anything good. Ongoing abuse in a marriage is damaging to everyone:
- the abuser is not made accountable and only becomes further ingrained in sin
- the victim’s emotional and physical wellbeing is corroded
- the children of the marriage are damaged by the dysfunctional modelling they receive, as well as the fear, secrecy and denial.
Biblically, suffering does not have any redemptive value in and of itself. The gospels often recount times when during his ministry Jesus avoids or escapes likely violence, and encourages his disciples to do so as well. And even Jesus asked God to take the cup of suffering from him in the garden of Gethsemane.
So if a victim can avoid suffering by leaving a dangerous relationship, they should, and their church should support them to do so.
There is nothing in the Bible to support the view that it is God's will for people to endure relationship abuse. The Bible is clear that violence is evil and must be confronted – Jesus tells us we need to bring evil into the light. We are to rebuke the wrongdoer, seek justice and hold them accountable.
Questions to ponder
Whatever your doctrinal stance on marriage and gender roles, consider asking yourself the following questions:
- Are there places in your church where women are denied the same freedoms and roles that men have?
- Are there people in your community who believe that marriage is not an equitable relationship?
- Are women in your church consistently overlooked for participation?
- Are women talked over in meetings?
- Are men in your church given more respect than women?
If you have answered 'yes' to any of these questions then it is likely your church has a power imbalance that needs challenging.
Explore this further
- Anglican Minister Erica Hamence reflects on Complementarianism and domestic violence
- Psychologist Kylie Maddox Pidgeon explores the dynamics of power and control in Complementarianism
- Christianity Today argues we need a new way of looking at the Complementarian/Egalitarian debate
- Journalist Julia Baird’s column on the doctrine of headship and its impact on domestic violence
- Ashley Easter outlines some of the characteristics of ‘helicopter headship’
- Crying Out for Justice looks at what headship and submission do not mean
- Steven Tracy explores the nature and scope of marital submission in the Bible
- James R. Slaughter examines the importance of literary argument for understanding 1 Peter
- David A. de Silva argues that 1 Peter 3 does not command victims to remain in abuse
- Marg Mowczko argues that marriage is not meant to induce suffering
- Stephanie Long looks at a husband's "right" to sex in marriage
Separation and divorce
For Christians, marriage is a lifelong union as God unites a man and woman and makes them “one flesh” (Matthew 19:6). In the Bible, this means that marriage matters and that marriages are supposed to last because they are symbols of God's lasting love for us.
Yet within church communities, victims of relationship abuse often feel pressured to hold their marriage together no matter the cost or how much the abuser mistreats them. It is all too common for some Christians to use the phrase ‘God hates divorce’ to prevent victims of abuse from leaving or divorcing their abusers.
If someone experiences abuse within their marriage, are there biblical grounds for them to divorce? Jesus, it seems, speaks very directly about the issue of divorce in Matthew 19:9: “Whoever divorces a wife, except for sexual immorality, and remarries, commits adultery.” Many people have argued based on this passage, that divorce is not permitted for any reason other than adultery.
However, most Christians don’t agree what the biblical basis for divorce is. There are multiple views, but here are the main ones:
- No divorce ever
- Divorce for adultery (under Matthew 19:9)
- Divorce for adultery or desertion (under 1 Cor 7:15)
- Divorce for adultery, desertion, or abuse if the abuser is considered a deserter
- Divorce for hard hearted violation or severe neglect of the marriage vows which includes, but is not limited to, adultery and desertion (under Exodus 21:10-11).
Disagreement about the biblical basis of permissible grounds for divorce has continued since Jesus’ day. However, there is significant biblical scholarship that shows abuse and neglect break the marriage covenant.
Beth Felker Jones makes the point that “if committing violence against the one who is supposed to be ‘one flesh’ with you isn't a violation of God's intentions for marriage as a faithful, one flesh union, I don't know what is.” 6
Rev Dr Michael Jensen agrees that spousal abuse is an entirely biblical ground for separation and divorce. He says, “in attempting to stand against the trivialisation of marriage and to stand for persistence in marriage, the Christian community and its leaders should not be heard to be insisting that a person suffering physical or emotional abuse has to stay to be further victimised.” 7
Using an interpretation of scripture to keep an abused spouse from leaving the marriage – for example, Paul’s direction that “a wife must not separate from her husband” (1 Cor 7:10) fails to recognise the context of Paul’s command: he is urging Christians not to abandon marriage out of concern for purity or from a desire for a holy singleness (see 1 Cor 7:1).
When a person has been abused by their spouse, they are faced with the decision whether to remain in their marriage, sometimes at the risk of their lives or harm to their children. Under such harrowing circumstances, divorce is always complex decision that requires physical, spiritual, and emotional support. Church communities should model God’s compassion by offering this support wholeheartedly to anyone trying to escape an abusive relationship.
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Forgiveness is one of the core tenets of the Christian faith – it is vital to who we are as believers. However, the doctrine of forgiveness has often been misused to pressure victims back into their abusive relationships without adequate consequences and accountability for the perpetrator.
Victims are never called to submit to domestic violence and to forgive their abuser by enduring in silence. The Bible never sanctifies avoidable suffering - Jesus was sacrificially selfless, but he was not a victim. He repeatedly escaped from situations where he would have been physical assaulted by Jewish authorities, and both King David and the apostle Paul repeatedly fled physically abusive situations. The only kind of abuse the Bible recognises as redemptive is that which is unavoidable, and results from the victim’s godly character (1 Peter 1).
Superficial understandings of forgiveness can do enormous harm to victims. Too many times, Christians have been asked to reinstate their abusive partner to their former role after forgiving them. This has put the victim back in harm’s way, and the perpetrator back in power.
Churches should never use the biblical call to forgiveness to encourage someone to return to a situation where they are at risk of abuse. Paul used the word ‘reconciliation’ to describe the ending of hostility in a relationship (2 Cor 5:17-21, Eph 2:11-18). Reconciliation in an abusive marriage can only ever occur once the abuser has stopped their violence and done whatever is necessary not to return to the abusive patterns of the past.
Furthermore, the pattern of forgiveness in Luke 17:3-4 makes it clear that forgiveness is a process that always holds an abuser accountable for their actions. This may take the form of legal consequences. It could mean the dissolution of their relationship. It must involve repentance and restitution.
Even if repentance has truly occurred, reconciliation might not always be appropriate and will certainly require new boundaries and expectations. It is entirely possible the relationship may never recover.
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The Bible says that God hates abuse, viewing it as sinful and unacceptable and “delights in rescuing the oppressed” (2 Sam. 22:49). This testimony isn’t always easy for us to believe, though. In daily life, many abuse sufferers can struggle to see God at work as they cry out asking to be rescued, just as David did many times in the Psalms.
Holding this tension is important. Suffering and pain are real, but deliverance is real, too — even if it doesn’t come when or how we wish it did. Jesus says:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good new to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” Luke 4:18-19
Jesus’ ministry bears this out: he heals the sick, seeks out and welcomes the excluded, notices and cares for the lowly. Healing is a key part of Jesus’ ministry and of the Kingdom of God.
Anglican Minister Erica Hamence writes how healing is often a frustrating process and is neither simple nor easy. 8 She says that in response to the pain and trauma that many of us have experienced, she finds comfort in the words of Revelation:
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death, or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Revelation 21:4
“On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 22:2
Despite how it may seem at times, God is not standing around to watch evil run its course. He will not allow evil to have the final word. There will be a reckoning.
When the darkness will not lift, there is hope because God knows our circumstances. He will respond to evil with justice, redemption and renewal.
Trust that God will direct our emotional healing in a wise and timely way. Know that his promises are still true, and because his promises are true, hope cannot be extinguished.
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