The incidence of domestic violence in Australia should concern us all, and with Julia Baird, I hope that the appointment of Rosie Batty as Australian of the Year, and the various taskforces and commissions around the country, will keep the issue before us, and make a real difference in eradicating this blight on our society.

But I doubt the causal link that Julia draws between evangelical Christian views on marriage and domestic abuse will play any large part in that. It’s a neat equation and one that’s been made before, but it’s a furphy. So while sincere Christians might be upset to see our practice and beliefs blamed for such a terrible social evil, we’d be wrong to accept the blame.

At first glance it looks like she has a watertight case: there are pastors who promote and condone abuse; there is a Bible verse that contradicts wifely submission; and there is a group of theologians who think the Bible’s teaching on ‘male headship’ should be rejected.

Looks convincing. But look a bit closer and it isn’t.

First, Julia’s argument hangs on the existence – even the widespread existence – of church leaders who promote and condone domestic violence. But if these leaders are so common and so outspoken why has she failed to produce one single pastor who can make her point for her in his own words?

Where is the minister saying he counsels women to stay in domestic abuse situations? Where is the pastor saying if a woman leaves a situation of abuse she is sinning or that a husband may try to choke his wife? There may be such people out there, but Julia has failed to find even one.

All she has found is two church leaders making claims about things they have heard or things someone else has heard: no details; no names; no from-the-horse’s mouth.

Worse still for her case, the two evangelical leaders she does find, while upholding distinctive roles for men and women within marriage, both describe the husband’s role in terms of servant leadership – that is, in terms inimical to power, domination and abuse. Glenn Davies, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, which she stresses “is known for its emphasis on headship”, even says that “headship is not domination” and “if a woman’s life is in danger she should leave, even though that would mean ‘disobeying her husband’”. Hardly the evidence Julia needs for widespread endorsement of male dominance and domestic abuse by evangelical clergy.

So her case is light on real life examples. It is also light on biblical support.

Yes, it is right that the verse immediately before the instruction for wives to submit themselves to their husbands speaks of Christians ‘submitting to one another in the Lord’ (Ephesians 5:21). But that does not mean the instructions to wives are negated. It is not as if we get to choose which verse will win the day!

We have to read the whole passage in context, and when we do, we find that the instructions to wives are part of a larger unit addressing pairs within the household, and that Ephesians 5:21 functions as a heading introducing the whole discussion. Paul is saying: submit to one another, that is, wives to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters – and submission is expressed differently in each pairing.

But Paul says more than that. He tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her, and to nourish and cherish their wives as they do their own bodies. And this love is not optional or up for debate, because Paul has just said that the church submits to Christ, and so a husband’s self-giving love of his wife is part of his total submission to Christ, as a member of Christ’s church.

So Julia’s case is also weak on biblical evidence. She has misunderstood verse 21, and allowed it to silence verses 22–24, and she has neglected verses 25–33 which make it clear that husbands are not to dominate and abuse their wives, but to love them tenderly and sacrificially. That is what biblical headship looks like.

But there is a further problem. It is that the existence of a group of theologians who think the Bible’s teaching on ‘male headship’ should be rejected is really no argument at all for doing so.

God’s word is not like a Facebook post that people ‘like’. It is true and good and authoritative no matter how many people like it, object to it, misrepresent it or misunderstand it. There may be people (who Julia has not managed to find) who twist the Bible’s teaching on marriage to justify abuse. But God’s word is not the cause. The problem is in the human heart. And so the problem is not solved by rejecting God’s word but by understanding it, accepting it, believing it, and having our sinful hearts transformed through it, by the power of God’s Spirit.

So I agree with Julia that it would be truly astonishing and appalling to think that in some places the church is condoning, not fighting, domestic violence. But the unlikelihood of this is apparent even within her article, and the jarring inconsistency of such things with the good and transforming instructions that God gives to Christian wives and husbands means that any pastor who condones male domination and domestic abuse is one who is not submitting to God’s word, and therefore is one not worth listening to.



I have recently been contacted by a Christian sister who has suffered domestic abuse, telling me that she took great offence at my article above, and that she intends to raise her concerns in the secular media. I recognise her right to do so. However, it grieves me to think that what I wrote has caused hurt and offence, especially to those who have suffered domestic abuse. That was never my intention. I reiterate my utter rejection and condemnation of domestic violence in all its expressions. I also reaffirm my belief that it is entirely contrary to a true biblical understanding of the marriage relationship, and my commitment to do what I can to prevent domestic violence occurring and to offer help and hope to its victims.


Claire Smith has also written a book called God’s Good Design published by Matthias Media, which has a chapter on domestic abuse.
  • Living Liminal

    “But there is a further problem. It is that the existence of a group of theologians who think the Bible’s teaching on ‘male headship’ should be rejected is really no argument at all for doing so.”

    Claire, I would question whether it is the “bible’s teaching” or the church’s interpretation that is the problem. The church frequently uses the ‘biblical submission’ card to condone abuse – and not just domestic abuse. Spiritual abuse is rampant in the institutional church, and the bible is used repeatedly to justify this sort of behaviour.

  • Emily Cobb

    Claire, thank you for this response to Julia Baird’s article. I read Julia Baird’s article and was greatly concerned at her approach to the issue. Absolutely, I agree with her that domestic violence in Australia is a concern and one that needs to be discussed more openly both within the church and outside of it. I also believe that Christian sisters who have received abuse under the distortion of headship/submission need to be lovingly cared for, counselled and listened to within the church. I also stand and applaud loudly when a woman articulates issues with Biblical insight, Godly wisdom and particularly promotes discussion in areas that are often less popular to discuss.

    However, within Julia Baird’s article I felt she used emotionally-charged language in a very public forum to craft an argument that seemed light on facts and high on sensationalistic journalism. While I recognise it was published in the ‘Opinion’ section, I was concerned and frustrated that Baird had silenced women who may oppose her point of view. Within her articles on this topic, Baird has not represented women who live under complementarian headship and actually embrace submission within their marriage as a form of empowerment and as an example of love being lived out on a day by day basis. In a post-feminist world, choosing to submit to one’s husband out of love and understanding of the Biblical example set, that of the church to Christ and Christ to the Father, is so regularly crossed off as outdated and simplified as a woman choosing to or being force to be a ‘doormat’. When men stand and talk on this issue, their argument and interpretation of these passages also seems to be so easily disregarded as mysogynistic. I wonder sometimes whether the female voice opposing complementarian headship (like Julia Baird) is so often promoted simply because they are the women making the loudest noise.

    So in conclusion, Claire, I stand and applaud you. Thank you for being a voice for us women who live happily and freely under complementarian headship and who recognise the blessing that loving headship is. I am a woman who embraces this as a way of living in marriage and a way of seeing my role as a woman, wife and mother: loved by God, equal to men, yet uniquely different. I pray that Baird’s article will help women who have been abused by a twisted, sinful distortion of headship to be empowered to come forward, so that their husbands can undergo church discipline (which is what I believe John Piper was actually encouraging). I also pray that as women, we would look not to emotional accounts and get caught up in the cultural debate and feminist norms, but live in a way that embraces our role as God’s image-bearers. May we also teach our sons and daughters to recognise the beauty and freedom that comes from living a life that points people to Jesus and his sacrificial love.

    • Brett Lee-Price

      Hi Emily,

      Passing on Claire’s message:

      “I’m very grateful for your encouragement Emily. God bless you. Claire”