I hope and pray that this article about domestic violence will spark a conversation with leaders in churches.
I found that DV was a topic that was rarely, if ever, discussed within the church context. As a ministry leader of a large Pentecostal church, I planned to hold a women’s event on the topic of domestic violence. I was shocked when one of our teaching team came to me and said “Lisa why are you holding a meeting on DV? Won’t this just be a waste of time? No one in our church will be able to relate to this”.
Let me tell you first hand that domestic violence does not stop at the borders of the church. In Australia two women a week are killed at the hands of their partner or close family member. One out of 6 women have experienced family violence.
There is a very great need for greater education about gender inequality and DFV in the church.
“Amongst churchgoers, there is still a prevailing naïveté about the prevalence of violence within the church. Those in Christian leadership – male or female, complementarian or egalitarian – need to be much more informed about the signs and dynamics of abuse, and about practices which reinforce inequality within the church” (Erica Hamence).
What is Complementarianism?
Complementarianism is a theological view held by some in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, that men and women have different but complementary roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, religious leadership, and elsewhere. The word “complementary” and its cognates are currently used to denote this view. For some Christians whose complementarian view is biblically-prescribed, these separate roles preclude women from specific functions of ministry within the community. Though women may be precluded from certain roles and ministries they are held to be equal in moral value and of equal status. Complementarians assign primary headship roles to men and support roles to women—based on their interpretation of certain biblical passages. One of the precepts of complementarianism is that while women may assist in the decision-making process, the ultimate authority for the decision is the purview of the male in marriage, courtship, and in the polity of churches subscribing to this view.
If you believe in headship, at least realise that headship is not domination. If a woman’s life is in danger or if she is being abused, she should leave. Even though that would mean ‘disobeying her husband’. (insert swearing here). I am sorry but I could fill a book with first hand accounts of women in these situations and the rubbish that has been said to them to make them stay.
The Australian Department of Human Services defines family and domestic violence as conduct that is violent, threatening, intimidating, controlling or intended to cause fear.
It can include:
verbal, emotional, sexual or psychological abuse
controlling money (financial abuse)
harm to an animal or property
serious neglect where you depend on their care
restricting spiritual or cultural participation
Abuse and neglect share the same underlying relationship dynamic: one person holding a position of power and control over the other. Violence is often a pattern of subtle behaviours through which the victim is coerced, manipulated, or threatened into a position they would not choose for themselves. Victims are usually silenced, undermined and unsupported by their abusers.
Research shows that the most significant determinants of violence against women are “the unequal distribution of power and resources between men and women, and an adherence to rigidly defined gender roles.” (Kylie Maddox Pidgeon)
The unequal distribution of power is why Compelmentarianism and Patriarchy are such dangerous and fertile grounds for family violence. At this stage I should add a disclaimer: You do, of course, find abuse outside of these systems. Also there are many families who believe in complementarianism who have never lifted a finger or a voice to hurt anyone.
Satu Myers tells some of her story of family violence on the blog here: Satu Myers
This is an excerpt: “Within the first year of marriage I had to leave home and go into a refuge just after my first child was born I told my church friends what was happening. I didn’t have a lot of close friends because I hadn’t been in the country for very long. I went to the GP with a displaced jaw, but my husband was with me and I couldn’t say anything. I told my pastor that ‘I don’t know if I should press charges or not’. He advised me that I must stay with my husband and pray for him because he was weaker mentally than I was”.
“My son was drugged and kidnapped when he was three. He would justify the abuse by using the bible, using terms like submission and he would repeat christian words that I would hear in the church. During all of this time we were both attending church. The church condoned his behaviour and what was going on. I told the church leaders and pastor what was going on but they would completely deny the reality by saying that ‘I was exaggerating and making it up’. My staying in the marriage was more important to them than any abuse that happened to me. They would tell me to pray for my husband and thank God for him”.
Common Grace’s Domestic & Family Violence Justice Team member and Anglican Minister Erica Hamence reflects on complementarianism and domestic violence.
Originally posted on Common Grace written by Erica Hamence.
I am a Sydney Anglican Associate Minister and, for the past year or so, I’ve led Common Grace’s Domestic and Family Violence Justice team.
And, if I’ve learned anything in that time, it’s that a lot of you who just read that sentence now want to ask me about complentarianism.I find the terms complementarian and egalitarian to be about as helpful as the terms left-wing and right-wing. They convey some of the broader convictions a person might hold, but unless it’s understood that that’s all that they do, we are prone to underestimating the many shades of difference within them.
My experience having worked in both an egalitarian and a complementarian church (as much as you can label any church in such a way), and having had many conversations on the topics with ministers of both ‘camps’ is that there is enormous breadth in what people mean when they talk about authority, and headship, and what implications those terms should have for relationships in churches and families.
I’ve experienced sexism in both contexts. I’ve been encouraged as a woman in ministry in both contexts. Sometimes by the same people. The patriarchy is everywhere – in and outside the church – and it’s worth us working hard to disentangle biblical Christianity from whatever patriarchal (and other) assumptions we may have smuggled in (whether deliberately or accidentally)…
I agree that there are many things in complementarian teaching that are open to misuse by abusers. In particular, complementarianism can act to peripheralise women within churches, and in those contexts it’s easy to see how abuse can flourish undetected. In complementarian contexts, women have as much room to speak as the male leaders allow.
That’s a profoundly vulnerable position to be in, and one which I suspect some male ministers are not always able to empathise with. If a woman suffering abuse wasn’t completely confident that she would be believed, that the particular nature of the abuse would be understood, and that she would be supported by her church’s leader, she would most likely continue to suffer alone.
This is true for any church, whether complementarian or egalitarian, but within complementarian churches the capacity for women to shape teaching and policies is almost entirely dependent on the senior minister’s amenity.
That makes it crucial that the senior minister seek out and really listen to the women of the church. They must also be clear-eyed about how they are received by the women of the church – are they regarded as trustworthy, knowledgeable about the issues which affect women, do they demonstrate a humble willingness to learn? If not, women will not disclose abuse to them.
Firstly, anything – any culture, doctrine, community – can be a weapon in the hands of an abuser.
As I’ve said, complementarianism certainly seems to be especially vulnerable to this.
Ministers and churchgoers on both ‘sides’ of this issue need to recognise that even if they believe their beliefs are well-grounded in scripture, and even when they are taught well, they can (and will) be used by abusers. Even if we were able to prove definitively that one side had the right take on gender, marriage and ministry, that would not be a panacea against this evil. Abuse is more insidious than we imagine.
Secondly, doctrines which are more central to the Christian faith are just as prone to misuse in the hands of abusers. I have heard the stories of many women who have been abused by church-going husbands whose abuse has been legitimated, dismissed or perpetuated because of poor teaching about forgiveness and reconciliation, marriage and divorce (in general), and because our cultures lead us to work hard to promote and protect leaders.
What I’m saying here is that this battle needs to be fought on multiple grounds, and we’ll need to be willing to be both undefensive about our own positions and understanding of others, in order to really make progress.
Thirdly, there is a very great need for greater education about gender inequality and DFV in the church. Amongst churchgoers, there is still a prevailing naïveté about the prevalence of violence within the church.
Those in Christian leadership – male or female, complementarian or egalitarian – need to be much more informed about the signs and dynamics of abuse, and about practices which reinforce inequality within the church.
After several years in ministry, I have come to expect that the women I meet with have had significant experiences of abuse, whether direct or indirect. The women who have not been abused (or have not yet disclosed abuse to me) are a minority. Most of the time, these women have told few people. They have learned to accommodate quietly. They swallow their pain. They turn up to church despite the fact that they know they will see their abuser there.
They lose the capacity to pray because they don’t know how to include God in what happened to them, but they come to prayer meetings anyway. They teach Bible studies about God’s concern for the poor and mistreated, ministering the truth to others, with few people to do the same for them.
They are beaten at home, and then their abuser is lauded by their community on Sunday. They join ministry teams led by people who look like the partner who raped and beat them, and they do their best to sit under their leadership, all the while trying to avoid ever looking squarely at them.
They are raped by their partner, and then stood down for ‘sexual immorality’ when they disclose it. They are diagnosed with PTSD, and then sit silently in church meetings where ‘victimhood culture’ is mocked, and ‘triggering’ is a punchline. They go to church every week, riding the bus with the man who groped them. They walk along the streets of the neighbourhood, despite the fact that various spots are marked with an x for them – this was where those men tried to abduct my friend as she walked home from university, this was where the man ran after me, telling me what he would do to my vagina, this was where my friend was raped, this was where my friend was drugged and left unconscious.
I haven’t made any of these examples up; they have all happened to me or women I know.
Male leaders of both complementarian and egalitarian churches – are you confident that you are doing what is necessary to care for the women in your churches who are experiencing such things?
And more importantly, would the women of your church agree with you?
Erica Hamence is a valued part of Common Grace’s team that is working towards justice for people facing domestic and family violence. She’s also the Associate Minister at Barneys Anglican Church in Ultimo, Sydney, where she oversees discipleship and campus ministries.
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