Author’s note: If you are in an abusive relationship, it is best not to show this letter to your abusive spouse in the hope that it will change their behaviour. In the situation where an abuser needs to be called to account, it is best handled by those with expertise in these matters.
The ABC has today published an extensive piece examining the issue of domestic abuse perpetrated by men in the name of Christianity. It is a sober and important read. While there are a few minor points that require clarification, I do not wish to quibble over these here, for that might unhelpfully distract from the weight of this matter.
Many things need saying, and much listening needs to be done. Not everything that needs to be said will fit into one short blog post. (For example, I’m aware that men and boys are sometimes the victims of domestic partner abuse. According to some estimates, as many as 20% of domestic partner abuse victims are male, a reality that is mentioned in passing in the ABC report.) But in keeping with the article’s focus and in line with the majority of situations in which domestic violence occurs, in this post I wish to address the kind of man who has been spoken of: married and manipulative, misogynistic and oppressive, and connected in some way with a church.
I want to make it clear that if you want to invoke Bible verses to control and manipulate your wife, the Bible is against you.
If you harm your wife physically, sexually, emotionally, or materially, Jesus stands against you.
To hide behind the Bible in order to justify how you treat your wife is vile. Justifying your attitudes and actions with the Bible is like blaming the cook book for the food poisoning you caused when you cooked a meal with putrid meat. The issue isn't with the book, but what you brought out of your fridge.
You are destroying your family, dishonouring God, and deceiving yourself.
I have met men like the ones described in Julia Baird’s article—not many, but a couple. When their anger was exposed they became even more heated. When we assisted their families, they stormed out. When we called on them to repent, they admitted no wrongdoing and instead tried to play the victim. When we told them to leave the church, they were vindictive and spread all manner of falsity.
The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, warning him of men who would attempt to worm their way into relationships with women for all manner of evil intent. He says of such people, “They are men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected.” (2 Timothy 3:8)
There is no place among the followers of Jesus for violence or harsh words, for sexual manipulation, for financial leverage or for making threats. Blaming tiredness or stress, or alcohol and drugs doesn’t cut it. These things are symptoms of a deeper issue in your heart. All such abuse is inexcusable, a betrayal of the standard set for husbands by the Creator of marriage.
Thankfully, these scenarios have been rare during my pastorate. I know many more men who, with their wives, are faithfully serving the Lord Jesus in their marriages, and it is a joy to see their loving homes flourishing, with all the warts and occasional grumpiness mixed in. I am thankful that the research Baird draws on not only highlights the disturbing incidence of domestic violence among the fringe-dwellers and occasional attenders of conservative Protestant churches but also includes this important conclusion: that conservative Protestant men who are regular church attenders are the LEAST likely demographic to abuse their wives out of any group, religious or not.
But I am also painfully aware that I do not see everything that happens in the privacy of people’s homes or in the secret thoughts of people’s hearts. It’s possible that you may have slipped under my radar completely, which is why I’m doing the unusual thing of writing you an open letter.
If you are abusing the family that God has entrusted to your care, then the issue is not with the Bible, but your refusal to trust and believe what it says. Maybe there is a tendency in our culture to dissolve differences between men and women. It is true that our culture devalues both headship and service; they are assumed to be evils that inhibit our individual freedom.
But your abusive conduct is not the biblical alternative.
The model for marriage that the Bible offers is good and beautiful. It depicts man and woman as complementary; it upholds the dignity of both; their equality and their difference. Its takes its pattern from the person of Jesus Christ who loved his bride, the church, and gave himself up for her (Eph 5:25).
Headship is not wielding power over another, but is the exercise of responsiblilty, in love, for the flourishing of others. Submission is not the forced subjugation of one person to a cruel authoritarian, but a choice freely made to honour a person and acknowledge the weight of the responsibility God has placed on their shoulders. (And it is precisely because of that responsibility that the Bible places on husbands that it takes abuse and family violence so seriously.)
Revealing abuse, in whatever context it is taking place, is necessary.
If you are a perpetrator then there is no road to salvation that does not involve the bright light of truth shining into your heart and onto your behaviour. Mercifully, the God who is against us in our arrogance and violence is also full of mercy when we turn toward him in humility and begin the long, hard road of repentance.
This has been a letter addressed primarily to perpetrators not to victims. But I know that some of the people who end up reading it may not be perpetrators at all, but may be living with exactly the kind of person that it is addressed to. If that is you, then I want you to know that you are not alone in your predicament. I want you to be confident that your voice will be heard, and there will be people to stand with you and help you find healing and safety. Let me finish by quoting from a pastoral paper that was written two years ago for Mentone:
"We want Mentone Baptist Church to be a safe church for victims of domestic violence. This includes:
- protecting your privacy;
- not allowing the abuser to attend the church;
- offering pastoral support and helping you to connect with professional care & assistance;
- offering practical care where we can;
- making you feel welcome in church services and in small groups, and through them providing opportunities to build friendships.
 “…recent studies are more nuanced in their assessment of religion, patriarchy, and abuse. These studies do find a link between conservative religion and domestic violence, but it is not the simple causal relationship the feminist model would predict. Rather, there 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, though conservative Protestant men who are irregular church attendees are the most likely to batter their wives.”
Steven Tracy, “Patriarchy and Domestic Violence: Challenging Common Misconceptions,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50 (2007): 573-94; 581.