The Scourge of Domestic Violence in the Church

In light of Julia Baird’s disturbing investigation about the prevalence of domestic violence in conservative churches, I thought I would republish something I wrote for Bible Study Magazine a couple of years ago.

The Household Codes and Domestic Violence

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church– 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery–but I am talking about Christ and the church.  33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.  (Eph 5:21-33 NIV)

Many Christians have mixed feelings about the Ephesian household code. On the one hand, it is celebrated for its wonderful and lavish description of marriage between a man and a woman likened to the love of Christ for his Church. On the other hand, it seems to effectively borrow and baptize a pagan way of ordering one’s household and prescribe it as a rule for Christian domestic relationships. In particular, the notion of submission, with wives submitting to their husbands, is not going to command universal assent in an age of gender equality. The Ephesian household code, despite its christological centerpiece can be all too easily discarded because it is perceived to be patriarchal and androcentric.

There are a number of ways explaining or defending the Ephesian household code. Some would argue that it was simply part of the cultural furniture of the Greco-Roman world, but is not directly applicable to modern cultures like ours which are not patriarchal. Others would affirm the principle of male headship and wifely submission, but urge that husbands should love their wives and children in a way that is self-giving, self-sacrificial, and not abusive. I’m not going to enter into that debate, rather, I have a bigger issue to discuss.

I want to briefly pursue the uncomfortable topic of domestic violence and what the Ephesian household can teach us. The fact of the matter is that the biblical household codes, like the one we find in Ephesians, with their call for women and children to submit to a male authority figure, are often used by abusive men as a justification for their violence. I know those who identify as complementarian and egalitarian both share revulsion at the thought of domestic violence, even if their reasons for doing so differ, and even if they see a different root to the problem. But I would urge all preachers and teachers to speak up more about this issue since domestic violence is endemic in our communities and even in our churches.

I know this is an odd thing to focus on when examining the Ephesian household code, but two things have led me to it. First, my own country, Australia, is facing a domestic violence epidemic. On average two women a week are killed at the hands of their husbands, boyfriends, or estranged partners. Two years ago, a young boy named Luke Batty was killed by his father at cricket practice merely to spite his mother. His mother, Rosie Batty, has since then worked tirelessly to publicize this issue and urge law-makers and law-enforcers to do more to combat domestic violence. Rosie Batty was recently named Australian of the Year and the state of Victoria has pledged to form a royal commission into combating domestic violence.[1] Second, a pastor friend of mine, Michael Jensen, recently wrote an article saying that he’s heard a number of sermons warning about the dangers of feminism, but never heard a sermon about the evils of domestic violence.[2] But it should not be so. The church cannot be a place where we pretend this issue does not exist or be a place where male abusers think that they can find shelter for their wicked deeds. However you understand submission – and I understand it in light of v. 21 about mutual submission – we should all make it clear that no-one has the right to physically, sexually, or psychologically to abuse another person. We must be vigilant on this issue as Australian Anglican bishop John Harrower writes:

There is a temptation for pastors to collude with offenders that their behaviour is nothing more than a matter of private morality. This is a temptation for pastors as we feel we have much to offer in the area of personal morality. Unfortunately, it is in the perpetrators interest to reduce his behaviour to ‘just a matter’ of private morality. If the church colludes in this sleight of hand, it can find itself, as it did in the matter of sexual abuse of children, ignoring the fact [a] that these matters are criminal behaviours; and that they have very real long term consequences for the victims. We must deal with perpetrators of domestic violence firmly, in truth, love and equipping them for true repentance.[3]

Preaching on a text like Eph 5:21-33 – if so inclined – might lead one to open with a joke about the war between the sexes, then maybe critique the perceived errors of radical feminism, affirm the complementarity between men and women, expound the meaning of submission, and end by extolling Christ as the true model for male relationships with women and children. However, I would strongly suggest that as part of our application of this text, we should address this dark and unspoken terror of domestic violence. We do so because I can guarantee you that in every church, there will be more than one person who has suffered domestic violence, either in the past or perhaps even in the present. Victims of domestic violence need to be comforted and perpetrators of domestic violence must be confronted, perhaps punished, and then brought to repentance.

Pastors who want to pastor their flock cannot turn a blind-eye to the issue, no matter who is involved. To preach on the Ephesian household code means expounding how a husband’s love for his family must be like the pure, protecting, and self-giving love of Christ for his church. However, we parse “submission,” it must mean a mission to be like Christ, who loves his bride without malice. What is more, domestic violence is not only a denial of that mission, it is a sinful betrayal of what Scripture teaches us about family relationships in a Christian home. The sin must be named and shamed for what it is.

[1] Helen Garner, “Mother Courage: At Home with Rosie Batty,” The Monthly: Australian Politics, Society & Culture. https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2014/october/1412085600/helen-garner/mother-courage. Cited 19 May 2015.

[2] Michael Jensen, “Perhaps Feminism is Not the Enemy,” Bible Society: Live Light. 16 April 2015. http://www.biblesociety.org.au/news/perhaps-feminism-is-not-the-enemy. Cited 19 May 2015.

[3] John Harrower, “A Christian Response to Domestic Violence,” Anglican Church in Tasmania. 29 April 2004. http://www.anglicantas.org.au/resources-domesticviolence/. Cited 16 May 2015.

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