Williamstown Uniting Church, 23rd of July 2017
I’m not going to preach today. We were going to continue with Paul’s letter to the Romans, but earlier this week an article on Christianity and domestic violence was published by the ABC. It was written by Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson, based on twelve months of investigation that included interviews with survivors of domestic violence, counsellors, priests, psychologists and researchers from a range of Christian denominations, and it was extremely troubling. Discussing domestic violence may be painful and difficult for some people, and I’m very sorry, but I think it’s an essential issue for the church.
The article on Christianity and domestic violence was the second in a series on religion and domestic violence; the first looked at Islam and was titled ‘Exposing the darkness within’. I remember hearing about that first one, but I must admit that I didn’t read it. No matter how appalled I am by domestic violence, an article about domestic violence in Islam didn’t seem immediately relevant to me. But when the reference to an article about Christianity and domestic violence appeared in social media I quickly clicked on the link to it and searched for the word ‘Uniting’. There’s only one reference to the Uniting Church, this sentence: ‘Queensland academic Dr Lynne Baker’s 2010 book, Counselling Christian Women on How to Deal with Domestic Violence, cites a study of Anglican, Catholic and Uniting churches in Brisbane that found 22 per cent of perpetrators of domestic violence and abuse go to church regularly.’ Once I’d read that one reference I went back to the beginning of the article and read slowly and carefully and extremely sadly.
There isn’t much research done on domestic violence in Christian families in Australia, apparently. But studies have been done in other countries and the ABC article quotes a theology professor from Arizona who wrote in 2008: ‘It is widely accepted by abuse experts (and validated by numerous studies) that evangelical men who sporadically attend church are more likely than men of any other religious group (and more likely than secular men) to assault their wives.’
The article was titled: ‘Submit to your husbands’ and that ‘submit to your husbands’ comes from the fifth chapter of the letter to the Ephesians. The full paragraph is: ‘Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.’ Apparently other Bible verses used to justify domestic violence include First Timothy’s ‘Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent,’ which is also used to argue against women’s ordination. (1 Timothy 2: 11-12) The ABC article says about the Bible verses abusers use to justify themselves: ‘First are the verses … telling women to submit to their husbands and male authority, under the doctrine known as male headship. Second are verses that say God hates divorce. And third are those in 1 Peter that tell women to submit to husbands in a very particular way, as they follow instructions to slaves to submit to even “harsh masters”.’ I didn’t immediately know what the passages in First Peter were, so I looked them up. Slaves are told: ‘it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly’ (1 Peter 2:19) and a few verses later wives are told: ‘Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct.’ (1 Peter 3:1)
What disturbed me most when reading the article wasn’t so much the abusers who misused the Bible to justify their abuse, as the church leaders who told women to submit to the abuse. As well as telling the stories of women who’d been told by their pastors to stay with their husbands, the article referred to people who preached that Christian women needed to accept at least some abuse from their husbands if their husbands were abusive.
I strongly encourage you to read the whole article. It’s long and it’s infuriating and after reading it I had a chocolate milkshake for lunch. But I think it’s definitely important that we, as Christians, know about this.
And I want to make some things very, very clear, as I stand here in the pulpit, given the authority by the Uniting Church to preach. First, God created women and men as equals. We are told that in the creation story in Genesis 1: ‘God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ (Genesis 1:27) Both women and men are made in the image of God. Within the church, that equality is reinforced by our baptism. Paul wrote to the Galatians: ‘As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:27-28)
Second, there are Bible passages that talk about women submitting to men and wives submitting to husbands. But we are to respond to them in the same way that the Uniting Church responded to them when they were used to argue against the ordination of women. We are to look at them in the light shone by Jesus Christ, who is the living Word of God. The Uniting Church is very clear that the Scriptures are not themselves the word of God. They are prophetic and apostolic witness to the Word of God who is Jesus. And so whenever we read the Bible, we interpret what we read through the life and ministry of Jesus. We know that in his ministry, Jesus addressed and encountered women in the same way as he did men, and that that was deeply and profoundly counter-cultural. Looking at the example of Jesus, the Uniting Church was clear that ordaining women was a gospel imperative. Looking at the example of Jesus, we can be equally clear that gender equality and the complete condemnation of domestic violence are equally gospel imperatives.
In 1997 the Uniting Church made a statement about marriage and divorce in which it said: ‘In cases of the irretrievable breakdown of marriage, the Church acknowledges that divorce may be the only creative and life giving direction to take … The grace and healing of God are available to people who are divorced, which may free them to marry again.’ (Assembly minute 97.31.12) There are many things that may cause the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage, but violence is among the most obvious ones. When I was discussing the article with other people on Facebook someone said that she thought it important to say that in situations of violence it was not the survivor who was breaking the marriage when she left, but the perpetrator who broke the marriage when he committed the violence. In these cases the Uniting Church is completely in favour of divorce and remarriage.
I do want to say that I know that there are situations in which wives abuse husbands, and in which domestic violence occurs within same-sex couples, and I’d hate any survivor to feel they couldn’t speak about their abuse because they wouldn’t be believed.
There’s a lot more that could be said; including the fact that anyone using the Ephesians 5 passage to justify violence obviously hasn’t read on to where it says: ‘husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body.’ (Ephesians 5:28-30). But I’m going to stop. I want to encourage you again to read the article; to know that the Uniting Church absolutely preaches the full equality of women and men; and that neither the Bible nor the Christian faith generally can be used to justify violence. And the very last thing I want to say is that if you’d like to talk to me about any issues I’ve raised, please do. I’m very sorry to raise something so difficult when I’m about to disappear for three Sundays, but once I’m back from the Worship Conference and my holiday I will be available.