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It is time to stop equivocating about domestic violence

  • 01 August 2017


As the responses poured in to the ABC’s story on domestic violence in evangelical churches, I was reminded of the discomfort Saint Augustine showed, in The Confessions, towards his father beating his mother. But he still praised his mother for placating her husband to avoid beatings, and for criticising wives who were beaten. 

Augustine, then, while possibly opposing domestic violence, had no idea what to do about it, and endorsed behaviour that made it worse. We still can’t be sure of the extent of domestic violence among regular evangelical churchgoers compared with other Australians. Still, the harrowing testimonies the ABC revealed establish an undeniable problem of perpetrators justifying themselves through the doctrine of male ‘headship’.

Many evangelical leaders responded to the story with sorrow, and apologised profusely that domestic violence happened on their watch. But then they suggested that domestic violence was merely caused by a few sick individuals misunderstanding that doctrine.

Those responding this way sincerely and wholeheartedly want to do more for survivors. Still, I worry that their response stops them from doing precisely that—even regardless of whether the doctrine of headship is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

That doctrine says that men are to be the leaders in their marriages and the church. Women must submit. Evangelical leaders have argued that for a husband to hurt his wife while saying she must obey him is an ‘abuse’ of the doctrine.

They don’t have much choice but to say this if they want to hold on to the doctrine, which they think is the one faithful reading of Scripture, and which has increasingly defined evangelical religious identity since the 1980s. But the claim is strangely revisionist.

For most of Christian history, headship was, in fact, used to justify domestic violence. ‘Just’ battery of wives was taken for granted in medieval Christian literature. It’s true that, after the Protestant Reformation, wife beating was outlawed in parts of Calvinist Europe. But this, historically, was anomalous, and so we can read someone like T DeWitt Talmage, one of 19th century America’s most prominent Presbyterians, who preached in 1886 that ‘the death of a good wife in sacrifice and love [is] her first and greatest glory, "a queen’s coronation’'.

To be consistent, evangelicals wanting to maintain male headship would have to label these abuses as well. But, for a movement claiming adherence to the Bible’s timeless truths, it took a tragically long time for them to stop equivocating about this. And they did