In the last year or two domestic violence has loomed large in public discussion. No-one seems to know quite how prevalent it is, but we know that 2 women die each week at the hands of their partner and that surveys consistently show up to 1 in 4 women over the age of 15 have experienced at least one episode of violence from an intimate partner.
1. Family violence is overwhelmingly a male problem.
Certainly there are men who are victims of domestic violence, but the proportion of men who report having experienced violence from a partner are vastly lower than those reported by women, and some research suggests that a large proportion of the violence committed against males is by women who are fighting back after extensive periods of being victims of violence.
This suggests that we men need to take responsibility for our violence and encourage a culture in which men know how to use power. I remember, for example, child psychologist Steve Biddulph commenting in one of his books that it was important for fathers to wrestle with their sons, for it taught their sons how to place restraints around the use of physical force. From our earliest days we men need to learn how to negotiate our way in the world gently rather than coercively.
2. Churches have three ideological tendencies that exacerbate the likelihood men will act with violence or coercively
Patriarchal gender ideologies
I was shocked a few years ago to see the results of a survey of participants at the Evangelical world’s largest gathering of leaders, the 2010 Lausanne conference. Asked about their attitudes to women in the pastorate over three quarters of delegates said they believed women could serve as pastors. Yet the figures reversed when it came to spiritual leadership in the home. More than 75% of delegates said they thought men were to be the spiritual leaders in the home and over 50% also agreed that wives must always obey their husbands. The figures didn’t break down much differently when separated out between traditional cultures and the industrialised world.
I respect my friends, both male and female, who argue for male leadership and female submission. I have only known them to be generous, kind, and gracious, but I have little respect for the notion that God intends men to be leaders in the church and home. We have an epidemic of violence against women and I cannot see how this does anything other than set up the conditions that make it more likely that more women will be victims of violence. My friends try to explain that God calls men to be servant leaders, but they have a dramatically underdeveloped doctrine of sin. I think the argument is incontrovertible that if you create unequal power structures those with more power will be more likely to misuse it. It may all be very well for the highly functional, emotionally self-aware male who feels fulfilled in life to argue that leadership need not be domineering, but try telling that to the relationally dysfunctional, emotionally unaware and socially marginalised man.
High valuing of the institution of marriage
Protecting the institution of marriage is one of the great passions of conservatives. But it strikes me that we often protect the institution of marriage but not the people within the marriage. I know of too many situations where women have confided to their pastor that they are being subjected to physical or emotional abuse and they are counselled to remain in the marriage.
Often this advice is offered on the assumption that the Bible only permits two grounds for dissolution of a marriage: adultery and desertion. I find this interpretation quite baffling. In the Gospel of Mark Jesus seems to allow no grounds for dissolution of marriage; in the Gospel of Matthew sexual immorality is cited as an exception; and in the first letter to the Corinthians the apostle Paul recognises desertion by an unbelieving partner as dissolving a marriage. Attempts to turn these references into a law in which we seek the threshold grounds for dissolution of marriage seems rather misguided. The point surely isn’t to lay to down at a set of parameters under which marriage can be dissolved, but to recognise that despite the desire to maintain our relationships, there are circumstances in which the behaviour of one partner constitutes such a fundamental breach that the relationship is broken. Domestic violence is surely one of those situations.
An ideological predisposition to sacrifice and suffering
At the heart of the Christian gospel is a message that Christ suffered for us and calls us to follow in his footsteps. This is no doubt a culturally distinctive framework that Christians do well to embrace, but when placed within the context of relational structures in which women are kept subordinate and with a high prioritising of the institution rather than the relationship of marriage, the call to sacrifice and suffering becomes a tool of oppression.
It is almost certain that every church has households in which domestic abuse is occurring. We don’t see because rarely do abusers appear as monsters. They present as very respectable people. I remember a woman once telling me of her experience of repeated abuse at the hands of her husband and the counsel of her previous pastors that she simply continue in the marriage. I never once saw a glimpse of the violence in my dealings with her husband. When in church meetings and gatherings he was the most gentle, considerate bloke you’d find. I think every church member and every church leader needs to remind themselves that it is almost a certainty that violence is occurring in some of the households in their congregation and the perpetrators will present publicly a decent people. In these situations our obligation is clear. To stand with the oppressed and brutalised, preferencing their well-being over and above everything else.