A- A A+

It is time to stop equivocating about domestic violence

Sean Lau |  31 July 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. 

xxxxxAugustine, 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 so only after feminism—reviled by many evangelicals—dragged domestic violence into the public spotlight. Some honest reflection about why Christians read the Bible so wrongly, and for so long, is in order.


"For most of Christian history, headship was, in fact, used to justify domestic violence."


But there’s another issue with saying that domestic violence is an ‘abuse’ of otherwise good theology. That suggests domestic violence is a problem simply caused by individual bad apples. Evangelicals strongly emphasise sin as a matter of individual responsibility: if I do the wrong thing, that was my choice alone.

However, a famous American study showed that this way of thinking makes social problems like racial inequality worse, because it blinds evangelicals to that inequality’s social and economic dimensions. Likewise, I worry that framing domestic violence as a problem primarily about individuals will stop a fuller examination into the cultural and structural reasons for why evangelicals have inadequately responded to survivors.

Regardless of whether the doctrine of headship does increase the prevalence of domestic violence – and the ABC is right that more research is desperately needed – that violence is not just an individual problem, but a communal one.

We need to ask questions like: what leads survivors not to report violence to their pastors or church peers? When are they not believed? Are pastors and Christian counsellors getting enough training for how to respond to domestic violence? When do congregational programs targeted specifically at domestic violence succeed or fail? When there is an inadequate response to a survivor, what role was played by Christian understandings of masculinity and femininity? What role was played by certain understandings about Christian forgiveness?

The point is that, even if domestic violence only involves an ‘abuse’ of the doctrine of headship, the doctrine nevertheless operates in a cultural and hierarchical ecosystem that made the abuse, and lack of response, possible. And whether headship is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is a different question from how it is more prone to misuse than, say, egalitarian conceptions of gender.

It didn’t have to be this way. According to Leviticus 16, each year the priest had to release a goat into the wilderness, to atone for the whole community’s sin. The Bible itself, then, understands wrongdoing not just as a matter of individual responsibility, but as embedded in a greater cultural whole. Evangelicals would do well to remember that. 

Andrew HamiltonSean Lau is a Rhodes Scholar researching for a DPhil in Theology at Trinity College, Oxford. He has previously practised as a solicitor in Sydney.


Sean Lau


Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

This is very true: "However, a famous American study showed that this way of thinking makes social problems like racial inequality worse, because it blinds evangelicals to that inequality’s social and economic dimensions. Likewise, I worry that framing domestic violence as a problem primarily about individuals will stop a fuller examination into the cultural and structural reasons for why evangelicals have inadequately responded to survivors." Thank you for this thoughtful piece

Greg Foyster 01 August 2017

Thank you Mr Lau. I am a Catholic psychologist. Deeper study into the origin of words reveals that the Hebrew meaning of submit is " to raise up" or "arrange affairs in consideration of". We are called to The true meaning of scripture has been hidden in translation. Ephesians 5:21 calls on us to submit to one another. If we were to raise each other up, then the dynamic of abuse of power, which is at the base of domestic violence, would become clear. Churches could teach the nature of true leadership and empowerment.

Kerry Horan 01 August 2017

Sean, Thanks for this lucid assembling of a highly relevant body of evidence and insight. So many church leaders are so underdone (and worse) in the entire sphere of family violence.

Wayne Sanderson 01 August 2017

All have fallen short of the glory of God. ALL Rom 3v23

Steve Etherington 01 August 2017

Why concentrate on Christian leaders. Surely you aware that they are just the soft target and the non Christian section are probably worse.

Pat Howley 01 August 2017

This article reminds me of a sermon I heard at a Parish mission in the 1950s. The missioner shocked the parish by saying that no matter what Father said in confession a wife should not, out of duty, submit to her husband when he rolled in drunk on a Saturday night. I was too young at the time to understand what he was talking about but what he said that night stayed with me. We too have been guilty of the misinterpretation. Thank the Holy Spirit we have progressed but obviously more needs to be done.

Margaret McDonald 01 August 2017

Thanks for your insights. Could you send them to the Australian Catholic Bishops. They need a reality check on what has been happening in Catholic families as result of defective Theology affecting women and children. Similar issues they have had with their statements on Limbo and other areas.

Laurie Sheehan 01 August 2017

Thanks Sean. There is a problem with the idea that one gender has any kind of power over another. We are created equally and given the example by Christ to nurture and care for each other. I believe we all have gifts to be fostered whether male or female. I do not understand why this is so hard to understand. Jorie (female and ordained)

Jorie 01 August 2017

"Surely you [are] aware that they are just the soft target and the non Christian section are probably worse." First cast out the beam...??? Seriously isn't this exactly the attitude that led to the clerical abuse scandal? Sometimes i despair of our having learned anything.

Margaret 01 August 2017

Did Engels have a thing to say about the headship issue? Also institutions like the Family Court still seem to cleave to the belief that the father is rarely to blame for DV or even for child abuse that he might have perpetrated. Contrariwise the protective mother or victim of DV on the other hand is accused of being enmeshed, delusional, and having a personality disorder. This has been the situation for many women and children we know. www.justiceforchildrenaustralia.org

Ariel 01 August 2017

I was most interested to read this article and unsure how to comment about it. The subject certainly does deserve some serious thought. The Mozart opera "Don Giovanni" is the story of a serial womaniser who has no heart and Don Ottavio's first aria "Dalla sua pace" could be translated thus: "Upon her peace/my peace depends/what pleases her/grants me life/ and what saddens her/gives me death. If she sighs/I also sigh/mine is her anger/and her grief is mine/I have no joy/if she has none." Church leaders may do well to study opera.

Pam 01 August 2017

The biblical interpretation problem is because we read the behaviour tables in the Epistles in terms of our rights rather than our responsibilities. Beejay

Barry Watson 02 August 2017

"..... framing domestic violence as a problem primarily about individuals will stop a fuller examination into the cultural and structural reasons for why evangelicals have inadequately responded to survivors". Likewise, I believe that literalist interpretations of the Scriptures, which ignore cultural and structural contexts, lead to bad theology. I know Evangelicals aren't literalists - but the closer they come to literalism, the less likely it is that their theology will be able to reflect the Word of God.

Joan Seymour 02 August 2017

Thanks Sean for a considered & useful addition to this debate. It certainly is a communal issue and we are all weakened by the victimisation of one amongst us. Kerry's comments re the potential mis-translation of the word 'submit' may be a way forward on this. Especially if others can not understand your point regarding the need for an analysis of cultural and structural reasons why the response to survivors from the churches has been so inadequate.

Elizabeth 03 August 2017

Isn't the same warped interpretation of scriptures relating to human stewardship of the earth and the environment at play here in certain 'conservative' viewpoints that see to the earth and it's resource as as a bottomless, bountiful pit for us to plunder? Hardly a "conservative" view in the true sense of a value worth 'conserving'.

AURELIUS 05 August 2017

Andrew Bolt (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUUlMgBfu6M) had a few words to say on the research quoted by the ABC being flawed or at least misrepresented. Though it has to be admitted there were poor responses to situations in the past across the board. The radical example of Christ (non violence) brings to mind that true understanding needs to reflect this - the raising up that Kerry speaks of @Aug 1 and leadership as service.

Gordana Martinovich 05 August 2017

This is such a non-issue ... for Catholics anyway. St. Pope John Paul II said in Mulieris Dignitatem (1988), a generation ago, that Ephesians 5 means that the submission in marriage is mutual.

Roy Chen Yee 09 August 2017

Similar articles

The cruelty at Manus Island

Ann Deslandes | 09 August 2017

Dom Hélder CâmaraAs I write, staff of the Australian immigration authority and their security contractors are working hard to close the detention centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, where Australia has held over 900 refugees for the last four years.

Ordinary Catholics must help with reform

Kevin Liston | 31 July 2017

xxxxxThere are many reform movements active in the Catholic Church. Most seem to focus on changing the structures and systems of the church, on reshaping doctrinal positions and updating teachings. Organisational reform is necessary and long overdue but there is also need for a complementary movement among ordinary Catholics.


Respecting Australian law is key to religious freedom

Rachel Woodlock | 21 July 2017

xxxxxBecause we are a multicultural and multi-religious society, we do not impose a singular moral or religious code on everyone. Believers can follow their faith’s code of living voluntarily. But if they choose to enter public debate about legislation on questions that affect everybody, they must construct their arguments based on reasoning acceptable to non-believers.

Ghosts of ministers past

Gillian Bouras | 04 July 2017

Greek Orthodox priestWhen I was a small child, Presbyterians ministers, including my great-uncle Jack, seemed to be everywhere. They march through memory: soberly suited, dog-collared, determinedly cheerful and often dull, although Old Jack preached a fiery sermon, and could well have taken to the stage instead of the pulpit. They were eventually replaced in my life by a procession of Greek Orthodox priests. They would extend their hands to be kissed in a gesture my nonconformist soul found quite shocking.

Catholic citizens needed within the Church

John Warhurst | 23 May 2017

Kristina Keneally, Marilyn Hatton and Francis Sullivan presented at the public forum for Concerned Catholics of Canberra-Goulburn, and are pictured here with John Warhurst (far left).Catholics have a proud record of exercising their democratic rights within Australian democracy as voters, members of political parties and lobby groups, and as elected representatives. But within their own church they have been taught to leave their democratic rights at the door. Now is the time to challenge that norm in parishes, dioceses and the wider church. In responding to the royal commission the church needs an infusion of democratic values, including transparency and accountability.