Reformed Evangelicals believe that the Bible is sufficient for all matters of life and faith (2 Peter 1:3-4). It is more than a little strange that when it comes to the issue of domestic violence very little attention is given to what Scripture itself has to say. Instead, the tragic and heartbreaking stories of personal experience are given the central place and defining role. Of even greater concern, though, the socio-political category of “victimhood” tends to frame the entire subject and as such the strategy in dealing and responding to it is re-shaped accordingly.[1]See for example, Catherine Clark Kroeger and James Beck (Eds.) Women, Abuse and the Bible (Baker: Grand Rapids: 1996).

While this brief study will briefly look at the passages connected to domestic violence, it is important to understand that there is a broader Biblical-Theological framework that addresses the fundamental spiritual disposition of people and how they can be transformed into the image of God. Thus, it is not so much a matter of compiling a collection of proof texts but to understand how the power to change comes out of a response to first experiencing God’s love in salvation. That is this “meta narrative” which is the main focus in Scripture and as such shapes the way that men and women are to relate in particular.[2]See Steven Tracy, “Headship with Heart: How Biblical Patriarchy Actually Prevents Abuse,” Christianity Today (February, 2003).

Feminism has obviously always had a problem with patriarchy and especially how it is presented in the Bible since they viewed it as being integral not only to the Christian faith but obviously as a fundamental enemy to their own particular worldview. In the book Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse: A Feminist Critique, Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn starkly state the issue as follows:

“Is there an essential message of liberation in Christianity that runs counter to patriarchal oppression? Why do we struggle so hard to remain within the tradition? Is there anything worth saving in the Christian tradition? These are essential questions. Yet we cannot begin to answer them until we complete the exorcism of this powerful evil that makes Christianity and violent abuse of women and children synonymous. Patriarchy is the connecting link between the two, and it is the demon challenged in the following pages.”[3]Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn (Eds.) Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique (The Pilgrim Press: New York, 1989): xv.

What does the Bible though, rightly understood and applied, have to say on the subject? In this day and age of increasing theological illiteracy, let me just outline at least some of the major passages that relate to the subject at hand. While this is an incredibly sensitive topic emotionally, and each pastoral circumstance will present numerous complexities, the issue can be summarised as follows. [Please note that the order in which these points are presented is significant since, while Christians believe all them to be true, they increase in importance as I progress].

First, the underlying reason as to why domestic violence occurs is because of what the Bible refers to as sin, and not because one particular gender is more violent or evil than the other. From the opening pages of the book of Genesis the sad reality of there being a battle between the sexes is presented as a result of mankind’s rebellion against our creator. (See Genesis 3:16c) By the way, even though it was Eve who famously ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil it is Adam that is “held responsible” for sin entering the world rather than women (Rom. 5:5:12). The solution to this innate human problem though is actually alluded to just beforehand in Genesis 3:15 where a mysterious “serpent crusher” will one day in the distant future be born of a woman and overcome all evil. Thus, since the problem is not patriarchy, the solution (according to the Bible) is not egalitarianism, but rather the coming of a Saviour who will deliver both men and women from their sin.

Second, the God of the Bible not only outlines how men and women are to love each other in general, but also explicitly states that He hates the violence that is associated with divorce (Malachi 2:13-16). As such, any violent behaviour towards another person, and especially one’s spouse, will have an impact upon our own fellowship with God. What’s more, as the head of the marriage relationship, the husband is held personally responsible and therefore ultimately accountable for his wife’s wellbeing (1 Peter 3:7). By the way, as a pastor I have noticed that the most common frustration of Christian women is with the neglect of their husbands who fail to sacrificially lead as they are called in the New Testament to do.

Third, nearly all of the spiritual heroes of the faith fled from dangerous situations and their response is presented as a positive example on how to respond. The principle is concisely outlined in passages like Proverbs 22:3, “The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty.” The truth is personified in the lives of no less than, King David as he hid in the desert from his father-in-law Saul (1 Sam. 19:12; 27:1), the Lord Jesus Christ who often avoided His religious enemies when they tried to kill Him (Matt. 12:14-15; John 8:59; 11:53-54) and the apostle Paul who was once unceremoniously smuggled out in a basket! (Acts 9:22-25; 14:5-6; 17:8-10, 14). What’s more, Jesus specifically instructed those who followed Him to pray for their deliverance from evil (Matt. 6:13).

Fourth, whenever a believer becomes aware of another believer, be they male or female, acting in a sinful or inappropriate way then we are instructed to courageously confront them about it (Gal. 6:1-2). What’s more, if they fail to change then they are to gradually involve others to help resolve the situation. (Matthew. 18:15-22). Tragically, this responsibility is often overlooked by those outside the church but to anyone active in a church community this is something that should be taken very seriously.

Fifth, while the Bible holds out an incredibly high view of marriage (Mark 10:1-12) it also acknowledges that there will be times when a marriage will tragically become so dysfunctional and even toxic that separation is not only prudent, but even necessary (1 Cor. 7:10-11). If the husband and wife are themselves followers of Jesus though then the ultimate goal will always be for repentance and subsequent reconciliation. However, it is acknowledged that this is often a long and difficult process rather than a simplistic decision.

Sixth, at the heart of the problem of interpersonal conflict is a problem of the heart (James 4:1-10). In particular, it’s that on the one hand the person is giving themselves over to the worship of something that God has made and, on the other hand, it’s that they are not finding their contentment, strength and security in God Himself. Timothy Keller, referring to the prior insight of Martin Luther has helpfully observed that, “Behind every behavioural sin is an act of idolatry. And behind every act of idolatry is a disbelief in the Gospel.” Hence, the focus in God’s Word is re-directing people’s focus from their sinful rebellion and idolatry about to a worship of their Creator. In particular, though is about resting in the promises of God and responding to His saving grace with grateful obedience.

Seventh, through both teaching and example Jesus commanded everyone who followed Him to respond to injustice by “loving their enemy,” “turning the other cheek” and “praying for those who persecute us.” (Luke 6:27-36) This is probably the most radical difference between Christianity and especially religions such as Islam. For while Muhammad is well known for slaying hundreds, if not thousands, the defining characteristic of Christ is His pre-determined plan to sacrificially lay down in His own life for the rescue of others (Isaiah 53:1-6). Thus, for Christians, suffering is always viewed is a larger redemptive framework (1 Peter 2:21-25). Unfortunately, this is often dismissed by feminists as a form of “divinely sanctioned child abuse,”[4]Joanne Carson Brown and Rebecca Parker, “For God so Loved the World?” in Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse. 9. and conclude that, “The symbol itself is a form of abuse.”[5]Brown and Parker, “For God so Love the World?” 11. Note the whole sale rejection of redemptive suffering in Christian theology by Brown and Parker: “Christianity is an abusive theology that glorifies suffering. Is it any wonder that there is so much abuse in modern society when the predominant image or theology of the culture is of “divine child abuse” – God the Father demanding and carrying out the suffering and death of his own son? If Christianity is to be liberating for the oppressed, it must be liberated from this theology. We must do away with the atonement, this idea of a blood sin upon the whole human race which can be washed away only by the blood of the lamb. This bloodthirsty God is the God of the patriarchy who at the moment controls the whole Judeo-Christian tradition…Jesus was not an acceptable sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, because God does not need to be appeased and demands not sacrifice but justice…Peace was not made by the cross…No one was saved by the death of Jesus. Suffering is never redemptive, and suffering cannot be redeemed.” 26-27. What feminists like this completely fail to understand though is that Jesus Himself went to the cross willingly and even with the hope of future joy since He knew that by fulfilling the Father’s will He would reconcile men and women back to God (Heb. 12:2). For Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus is the essential tenant upon which our whole entire faith in built. What’s more, if neither of those things occurred, then we are to be pitied more than any other man, or woman! (1 Cor. 15:18)

The redemptive suffering of Jesus (His life, death and in particular resurrection) is not only the cornerstone of the Christian faith but also the model or paradigm for how believers, and especially husbands and wives, are to relate to one another when there are difficulties. (Eph. 5:22-33; 1 Peter 3:1-7). As Steven Tracy rightly states, “This radical, counterintuitive response to what modern individuals might call verbal abuse is ultimately based on Jesus’ command for believers to love their enemies and bless those who curse them.”[6]Tracy, “Domestic Violence in the Church,” 291. In an important footnote Tracy goes on to say, “John Piper gives a thorough defense of the thesis that the command of enemy love (especially giving a blessing) found in the paraenesis of the N.T. epistles and the synoptic commands of enemy love have the same source, viz, the teaching of Jesus, “Love Your Enemies”: Jesus’ Love Command in the Synoptic Gospels and the Early Christian Paraenesis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979). Page 291, footnote 50.

Eighth, because the Bible declares that God is both righteous and also in control, Christians believe that even our unjust suffering can be used for His purposes. While we may not see the reason for such suffering now (Job 1-2) sometimes we do (Gen. 50:19-20). What’s more, since God is sovereign we know that in His hands even evil is used for both His purposes (Acts 2:23) as well as the believer’s own growth in Christlikeness (Rom. 5:3-4; 8:28-30). What all this means for a marriage is that even, or especially, the hard times in a marriage can cause tremendous personal growth as we learn to be more patient, forbearing and forgiving while at the same time never excusing or justifying bad behaviour.

The ninth and final aspect has to do with who Christians perceive themselves to actually be. Rather than identify as victims, not matter what they have gone through, followers of Jesus see themselves as being mysteriously united with and wonderfully connected to Christ. It’s hard to really over emphasise how important this final aspect of being “in Christ” is, especially for those who have suffered the devastating effects of domestic violence, for one is not defined by their abuser but their Saviour. You see, when we identify as a “victim” even then our own sinfulness swamps all the sin perpetrated against me. Having that dealt with by a loving Saviour and finding a new and improved identity as someone reconciled to God, raises us out of the poverty of our own victimhood. Following on from this, husbands and wives in particular are called to relate to one another now in exactly the same way that Jesus relates to His bride, the church (Eph. 5:22ff).

Is the Christian faith, and especially what it teaches about the roles of men and women, evil? What’s more, does it require an exorcism regarding its “demonic doctrine” of male leadership? As she later admitted to Leigh Sales, this was really what was behind Julia Baird’s twelve-month special investigation regarding domestic violence, in which she made the wildly inaccurate, and now completely discredited, accusation that men who attend evangelical Protestant churches sporadically were the worst perpetrators of spousal abuse in the whole of society. While she was careful to hide behind the caveat that these men were very skilfully misusing the Bible, the effect was still the same – neither the sacred texts that that they were misquoting or twisting, nor the clergy that teach them are to be trusted. Instead, what really needed to take place was a complete ecclesiastical overhaul where women themselves were elevated to positions of power.

Hopefully, what this all too brief overview of the Bible shows is that regarding the unspeakable tragedy of domestic violence, feminists like Brown, Brohn and Baird couldn’t be further from the truth. Christianity is good news! Not just Jews and Gentiles, masters and slaves, but for women and men (Gal. 3:28-29).

References   [ + ]

1.See for example, Catherine Clark Kroeger and James Beck (Eds.) Women, Abuse and the Bible (Baker: Grand Rapids: 1996).
2.See Steven Tracy, “Headship with Heart: How Biblical Patriarchy Actually Prevents Abuse,” Christianity Today (February, 2003).
3.Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn (Eds.) Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique (The Pilgrim Press: New York, 1989): xv.
4.Joanne Carson Brown and Rebecca Parker, “For God so Loved the World?” in Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse. 9.
5.Brown and Parker, “For God so Love the World?” 11. Note the whole sale rejection of redemptive suffering in Christian theology by Brown and Parker: “Christianity is an abusive theology that glorifies suffering. Is it any wonder that there is so much abuse in modern society when the predominant image or theology of the culture is of “divine child abuse” – God the Father demanding and carrying out the suffering and death of his own son? If Christianity is to be liberating for the oppressed, it must be liberated from this theology. We must do away with the atonement, this idea of a blood sin upon the whole human race which can be washed away only by the blood of the lamb. This bloodthirsty God is the God of the patriarchy who at the moment controls the whole Judeo-Christian tradition…Jesus was not an acceptable sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, because God does not need to be appeased and demands not sacrifice but justice…Peace was not made by the cross…No one was saved by the death of Jesus. Suffering is never redemptive, and suffering cannot be redeemed.” 26-27. What feminists like this completely fail to understand though is that Jesus Himself went to the cross willingly and even with the hope of future joy since He knew that by fulfilling the Father’s will He would reconcile men and women back to God (Heb. 12:2). For Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus is the essential tenant upon which our whole entire faith in built. What’s more, if neither of those things occurred, then we are to be pitied more than any other man, or woman! (1 Cor. 15:18
6.Tracy, “Domestic Violence in the Church,” 291. In an important footnote Tracy goes on to say, “John Piper gives a thorough defense of the thesis that the command of enemy love (especially giving a blessing) found in the paraenesis of the N.T. epistles and the synoptic commands of enemy love have the same source, viz, the teaching of Jesus, “Love Your Enemies”: Jesus’ Love Command in the Synoptic Gospels and the Early Christian Paraenesis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979). Page 291, footnote 50.