Does Christianity – in particular, Evangelical Christianity –  cause Domestic Violence?

That seems to be the underlying question being asked in a disturbing article by the ABC, and the corresponding story on the ‘7.30 Report‘.

Reporters Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson write:

Research shows that the men most likely to abuse their wives are evangelical Christians who attend church sporadically. Church leaders in Australia say they abhor abuse of any kind. But advocates say the church is not just failing to sufficiently address domestic violence, it is both enabling and concealing it.’

‘Enabling’ and ‘concealing’ domestic violence is about as serious a claim as you could make. Their article contains disturbing accounts of women who were horrifically abused by husbands who claimed to be Christians, and were then shown a lack of care by their churches.

It’s not a read for the faint-hearted. I felt sick in the stomach reading what these women had to endure. It made me angry. And so it ought.

But what should Christians and churches make of all this? How do we care for the victims of DV, and how do we respond to such serious allegations about Church failures? Does Evangelical Christianity somehow cause DV?

Here are some thoughts:

 

1) Churches Must Support The Victims Of DV, and Take Action Against The Perpetrators

Our Churches MUST be safe spaces for all victims of abuse.

Anette Gillespie, the CEO of Safe Steps Family Violence Centre, made a troubling claim in the article. She said that in 20 years of working with victims of domestic violence, she found it was “extremely common” that women will be “encouraged by the church to stay in an abusive relationship.”

That’s a deeply disturbing charge. Our churches must follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ, who cared for the abused and condemned the actions of the abusers.

And so I like the way one Brisbane church responded publicly to the ABC report by affirming the following on their website:

In such cases where abuse is happening, our church and its leaders will use our strength to stand between victim and abuser, like Jesus stood between the Pharisees and the woman they hoped to stone to death. It will not be the victim who is pressured to leave our community. We will not coerce a victim to remain in a situation of abuse for the sake of their abuser. We will report allegations of domestic violence to the police.’

Although the ABC report highlights some tragic failures in the church when it comes to DV, it’s worth noting that a number of churches have been on the front foot when it comes to tackling this issue. And the Sydney Anglican Diocese has set up a Domestic Violence Task Force, which handed down its first report late last year.

But there’s more that our churches and ministries should do:

 

2) Keep Preaching the True Gospel that Condemns All Abuse

And beware of men distorting it for their own selfish purposes.

Sydney Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies puts this well in a recent statement:

[D]omestic violence has no place in any Christian church. The Bible’s teaching of a husband’s loving, sacrificial, servant-like leadership leaves absolutely no room for violence or intimidation.  Controlling behaviour, psychological abuse or demeaning treatment of a partner or family member is the opposite of the love and care which characterises followers of Jesus.

Instead of accepting the Bible’s teaching, abusers twist it to suit their purposes. The ABC article  points out:

Unlike the Koran, there are no verses in the Bible that may be read as overtly condoning domestic abuse.

To the contrary, it is made clear that God hates violence and relationships must be driven by selflessness, grace and love…

But church counsellors and survivors of family violence report that many abusive men…rely on twisted… interpretation[s] of Bible verses to excuse their abuse.’ [Emphasis added]

According to the ABC article, then,  abuse of the Bible often goes hand in hand with domestic violence.

Furthermore, the ABC article point to American research by Professor Steve Tracy, who says:

[I]t’s evangelical men who sporadically attend church [who] are more likely than men of any other religious group (and more likely than secular men) to assult their wives.’

According to this research some of those on the sidelines of church life cherry-pick bits of the Bible that they distort to suit their abusive purposes. The biblical term ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ comes to mind.

And so, as Charles Spurgeon pointed out many years ago, let’s preach the truth of the gospel in such as way that people can’t misinterpret it even if they want to. Of course, people are responsible for their own (mis)interpretations, but let’s not give them any reasons to warp the Bible’s teaching.

When it comes to abuse, though, it’s sometimes hard to spot. And so there’s something important we must know about abusers.

3) Know The Warning Signs Of Abusers: They Are Charming, But Dangerous

Which is why people find it hard to believe their victims.

Here’s a key thing to remember: Psychologists say that perpetrators are usually charming. This disarms their victims (especially at the start of the relationship), and also makes their victims more difficult to believe.  The resource ‘Charmed And Dangerous’, which counsellors give to victims of Domestic Violence, is worth reading.

It outlines some of the other warning signs of Domestic Abusers, including:

  • Control. Abusers are obsessed with controlling their victims;
  • Emotional Abuse. Falsely blaming their victims for the violence, putting them down, and threatening them;
  • Isolation: Abusers isolate their victims geographically and socially;
  • Jealousy: Abusers accuse their victims of having affairs and seeing other men (or women).

Some of the women in the ABC story said they were not believed by their churches and Pastors. This puts the victims in an even more perilous state and denies them the justice that they deserve. The key takeaway for churches is to not be fooled by charm and appearances. Churches must take allegations of DV seriously, and be a place where women feel safe to share their stories. 

These are areas where Churches need to stand strong, and if need be, pick up their game. It’s important we hear this loud and clear from the survivors of DV in our churches. We can thank the ABC reports for shining a light on this.

However…

However, there are a number of conclusions that the ABC reports came to that warrant closer investigation. At this point, some may wonder if I’m just getting defensive. After all, the ABC reports don’t exactly give churches a glowing report card on DV: aren’t I just stubbornly pushing back, as we’re prone to do when ‘our side’ gets attacked?

I want to gently suggest that I’m not being defensive for defensiveness sake. I’m questioning the report because the truth matters. It matters to Jesus, and it should matter to us as His people. Although there is some good in the ABC reporting, there is also distorting of the truth. And distorting the truth doesn’t help us to effectively address issues, especially issues as serious as Domestic Violence.  

 

4) What the ABC Reports Left Out

(But it’s in the research they quoted from.) 

I’ve read a lot of the research by Professor Steven Tracy that the ABC report quotes from.[1]Steve R. Tracy, “Patriarchy and Domestic Violence: Challenging Common Misconceptions,” JETS
50/3 (September 2007) 573-94. To be clear, the authors take their quote from another paper by Tracy – “What does “Submit in Everything” Really Mean? The Nature and Scope of Marital Submission,” TRINJ 29 (2008): 285-312, but this paper pulls the quote directly from Tracy’s “Patriarchy and Domestic Violence” paper, in a footnote 65 on page 16.
 But sadly, the ABC reports left out the parts which didn’t fit the conclusions they come to. 

This is unfortunate because ultimately it doesn’t serve the victims of abuse. Here are two of the main points that were left out: 

 

a. Abuse is not just driven by bad theology or “patriarchy”: The complex Psychology of abusers.

Professor Steven Tracy, quoted in the ABC news article by the authors, writes the following[2]Tracy, “Patriarchy and Domestic Violence”, 579 – 580.:

More recent research on domestic violence also [counts] against the simplistic feminist assertion that patriarchy is the ultimate cause of all violence against women.

(‘Patriarchy’ is a loaded term, and often pejorative, but Tracy simply defines ‘Patriarchy’ as  ‘“male rule”…in which males have some type of gender based authority over females.’)[3][3] Tracy, “Patriarchy and Domestic Violence”, 576. Footnote 17.

He continues:

There is a growing consensus that no single factor explains men’s violence against women; it is multifactorial with many different and often overlapping causes. While some of these factors are undoubtedly influenced and aggravated by various forms of patriarchy, several of these factors transcend them. 

Tracy then brings in some interesting research from respected marriage researcher John Gottman, which is worth quoting in full: 

Furthermore, research shows that a significant percentage of abusive men do not reflect “normal” psychological patterns. Neil Jacobson and John Gottman’s study of over two hundred couples experiencing male violence disclosed some startling findings. In particular, they found that one subset of batterers (20% in their study) were “hard wired” differently from normal psychologically healthy men.

How so?

They did not get internally aroused (increased heart rate, perspiration, etc.) during arguments; rather, their heart rates decreased, and they calmed down as they began to get more and more aggressive. These men labeled “cobras” appear to be the most dangerous of all types of abusers and are largely identifiable with psychopaths, those troubling individuals whose are so psychologically disturbed that they do not have the ability to bond or sympathize with other human beings. 

Moreover:

Other research indicates that a very high percentage of violent batterers have personality disorders, and the greater the severity and chronicity of the violence, the greater the likelihood of a personality disorder.’ 

Tracy’s research indicates such abnormal psychology is common amongst abusers, and thus not always a case of theological misunderstanding, nor caused by being part of a church where male-headship is the norm. (That’s not to say bad theology can’t lead to abuse, or that “ordinary” men with good theology never abuse.) 

But there are more distortions in the ABC reports:

 

 b. The Surprising Truth: Regular Churchgoing Men at so-called “Patriarchal” churches are the least likely to commit domestic violence – even less likely than secular men.

The urgent question that needs to be asked, which is never really answered by the ABC report, is this:

Are regular church going men in male-led conservative evangelical churches – those the article labels as having ‘patriarchal structures’  – more likely to be abusive than their secular counterparts?[4]The article quotes a Sydney based psychologist Kylie Pidgeon, who says:

‘While the intentions of men in positions of leadership are often good, [and] exercise their authority with love and care…while a male-led structure by no means guarantees that women will be abused, it is apparent that patriarchal [i.e. male – led] structures place women at greater risk of abuse.”

That’s the key question if we’re to answer whether Christianity in some way causes Domestic Violence.

And this is where the article leaves out a crucial piece of this disturbing puzzle.

While the ABC article does reference the American Study by professor Steven Tracy, it leaves out the context of his quote:

Perhaps the most powerful refutation of the feminist thesis that patriarchy is the underlying cause of all abuse of women is the consensus of several studies in the past decade which assess religion, gender views, and domestic violence…For instance, a comprehensive meta-analysis of various studies showed that adult male batterers could not be differentiated from non-abusive men on the sole basis of traditional (patriarchal) gender attitudes.’[5]Tracy, “Patriarchy and Domestic Violence”, 580. (Emphasis added).

 Tracy continues:

‘[T]here is an inverse relationship between church attendance and domestic violence. Conservative Protestant men who attend church regularly are found to be the least likely group to engage in domestic violence…’[6]Tracy, “Patriarchy and Domestic Violence”, 581. (Emphasis added).

But remember, this is an American study – and as anyone who has been there can attest, America is much more religious culture, where more men – even violent men – are likely to be connected (even loosely) to a church nearby. 

But what about our more secular Aussie culture, where nominal church attendance is much lower – how does that affect the statistics of church going vs. secular abusers? 

As it turns out, Professor Steven Tracy does reference New Zealand study (a country with a religious culture akin to Australia)[7]David M. Fergusson et al., “Factors Associated with Reports of Wife Assault in New Zealand,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 48 (1986) 410, referenced in Tracy, “Patriarchy and Domestic Violence”, 581, Footnote 44. I realise this research is on the older side, but it is referenced by Tracy himself.. The study shows:

…11.2% of husbands who never attended church assaulted their wives. But only 2.2% of husbands who attended church at least monthly assaulted their wives, while 6.2% of husbands who attended church sporadically assaulted their wives.’

To put that in layman’s terms, according to the NZ study,  a regular church attending man is five times less likely to abuse his wife compared to a non-churchgoing man.

In other words, if so-called ‘patriarchal attitudes’ – as espoused by conservative evangelical churches – were a causal factor for Domestic Violence, then why would regular church attending men (many of whom are immersed in so-called ‘patriarchal’ environments) be five times less likely to batter their wives than secular men?[8]Steve Tracy gives some more light on this apparent contradiction:

‘In fact, one can argue that a servant leader view of headship, which is consistently lived out, reduces abuse by placing an emphasis on males using their authority to sacrificially serve and protect the vulnerable. This point is supported by the several recent sociological studies we have previously noted which reveal that conservative Protestant men who attend church regularly are the least likely to abuse their wives.’ (Tracy, “Patriarchy and Domestic Violence”, 593.)

The ABC reports don’t answer that crucial question, let alone reference this research.

 

Conclusion: A Mixed Report.

Whilst the ABC reports highlighted some tragic failures of some churches to care for the victims of DV in their midst, the news isn’t all bad.

A survivor of abuse bravely posted a comment on my Facebook page recently, writing:

I’m truly blessed to have had supportive and loving Church family around to support me and my children through the separation, divorce and healing processes.

Churches can – and must! – be places where the victims of abuse find the support they deserve.

Churches can and must be places where the true gospel is taught: a gospel that turns boys and men into husbands that sacrifice themselves for the good of their wives.

We can. We must. Our Lord Jesus demands no less.

As for me, I’m off to make sure my church is that sort of place.

References   [ + ]

1.Steve R. Tracy, “Patriarchy and Domestic Violence: Challenging Common Misconceptions,” JETS
50/3 (September 2007) 573-94. To be clear, the authors take their quote from another paper by Tracy – “What does “Submit in Everything” Really Mean? The Nature and Scope of Marital Submission,” TRINJ 29 (2008): 285-312, but this paper pulls the quote directly from Tracy’s “Patriarchy and Domestic Violence” paper, in a footnote 65 on page 16.
2.Tracy, “Patriarchy and Domestic Violence”, 579 – 580.
3.[3] Tracy, “Patriarchy and Domestic Violence”, 576. Footnote 17.
4.The article quotes a Sydney based psychologist Kylie Pidgeon, who says:

‘While the intentions of men in positions of leadership are often good, [and] exercise their authority with love and care…while a male-led structure by no means guarantees that women will be abused, it is apparent that patriarchal [i.e. male – led] structures place women at greater risk of abuse.”

5.Tracy, “Patriarchy and Domestic Violence”, 580.
6.Tracy, “Patriarchy and Domestic Violence”, 581.
7.David M. Fergusson et al., “Factors Associated with Reports of Wife Assault in New Zealand,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 48 (1986) 410, referenced in Tracy, “Patriarchy and Domestic Violence”, 581, Footnote 44. I realise this research is on the older side, but it is referenced by Tracy himself.
8.Steve Tracy gives some more light on this apparent contradiction:

‘In fact, one can argue that a servant leader view of headship, which is consistently lived out, reduces abuse by placing an emphasis on males using their authority to sacrificially serve and protect the vulnerable. This point is supported by the several recent sociological studies we have previously noted which reveal that conservative Protestant men who attend church regularly are the least likely to abuse their wives.’ (Tracy, “Patriarchy and Domestic Violence”, 593.