Christian LivingComplementarianismMinistry

Hold on to the Good, Reject what is Evil: Headship and Submission in a World with Domestic Violence

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How do you feel when you hear the words ‘domestic violence’ and ‘headship and submission’ together? Uneasy? Embarrassed? Apologetic? There was a time when I felt all those things. Before coming to Moore College, I would have tended towards burying my head in the sand when it came to engaging with the doctrine of headship and submission as it came up in relation to the terribly confronting issue of domestic violence. How can we address the terror effectively while still holding to this doctrine?

Of course, domestic violence is utterly incompatible with the doctrine of headship and submission. That is a truth with which many convinced complementarians are (rightly) very familiar. Nevertheless, this doctrine is despised by the world and is often used against us, being viewed as something that actually fuels abuse.

Now more than ever we need to be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have—that the truth found in God’s word is not only still applicable and relevant, but also good. I can say from my experience as a former student and wife of a current student that Moore College—this firmly complementarian institution—has been a guiding light in thinking hard about how to deal with the evil of domestic violence in light of God’s good design for men and women.

From chapel sermons to conference talks, it is unequivocally taught at Moore that the biblical headship of a husband must imitate Christ’s headship of the Church, which is expressed not through coercing obedience or submission, but by lovingly sacrificing himself for the church. In the instructions given to husbands in Ephesians 5:25-33, the husband is never told to ensure that his wife is submissive. He is not told to demand or require her submission. Rather he is told to love sacrificially, nourishing and cherishing his wife as he would nourish and cherish his own body, but more importantly as Christ nourishes and cherishes the church.[1] Domestic abuse is never, ever compatible with biblical headship and submission. It is so far from the self-sacrificial love of Jesus that permeates all of Scripture and that husbands especially are told to imitate in the context of marriage (cf. Col 3:19).

The longer I’ve spent pondering the beautiful depths of this doctrine—which time at College has allowed me to do—the more inconceivable it seems that anyone could use it to justify or excuse the evil of domestic abuse. Yet as illogical as it may seem, sinful minds are more than capable of taking what is good and twisting it for their own evil purposes. If we have the Bible’s realistic view of sin we shouldn’t be surprised that domestic violence is a terrifying and tragic reality in Christian homes, and even in ministry homes.[2]

So on top of this clear teaching, College has also put some practical steps in place in its stance against domestic violence. Moore goes beyond just articulating that domestic violence is wrong and unbiblical, to actively equipping students, student wives and faculty to notice where abuse might be occurring and to play a part in making it stop.

For four years now, students have received lectures (taught by visiting family counsellors) that are aimed at helping them recognise and respond to domestic violence. In the past, all College chaplains and faculty have also received training on recognising and responding to domestic violence from Anglicare, and in June of this year all the faculty once again received training on recognising and responding to domestic violence at the diocesan professional standards training day.[3]

In 2015, Moore College initiated its own domestic violence policy. In addition to the Faithfulness in Service guidelines, the College wanted something more specific, for its specific context. College Principal Mark Thompson, and the then Dean of Students, Keith Condie, wrote the Domestic Violence Policy and it was approved by the Governing Board in May 2015.

The Domestic Violence Policy is on the College’s website so that it is easily accessible for anyone in the community.[4] It makes clear the College’s absolute refusal to tolerate any domestic violence, and it aims to provide a means of getting help and support for both victims and for perpetrators—be they male or female.

Most recently, MooreWomen (a group that seeks to encourage student wives and women students) has produced a new resource, aimed specifically at equipping ministry wives to support female victims of domestic violence they may come into contact with, whatever their ministry context. While it has a specific audience and does not claim to deal with every circumstance, the resource takes the form of an extensive booklet called Domestic Violence: A Starting Point In Supporting Victims. Numerous people have contributed to the resource, including a psychologist who is herself a ministry wife. It addresses the biblical principles that challenge domestic violence, and gives practical help in what to do if someone discloses domestic violence, as well as providing a list of approved counsellors and psychologists.

Perhaps most significantly, it includes information on the nature of domestic violence, including warning signs to look out for, which is a particularly important issue for ministry wives. Experience suggests that female victims sometimes disclose their abuse to the wives of ministers, before speaking to ministers themselves. Often, though, these disclosures are very subtle and don’t take the form of a clearly articulated verbal statement. There are subtle red flags for which we should be alert—for example, vague comments about a partner’s anger or recurrent questions around forgiveness or the grounds for divorce can be clues to pick up on. If you don’t know to look out for these clues, then you are less equipped to help make that victim safe. Perpetrators can rely on that ignorance to continue abusing their spouse.

It is a sad reflection of our sin-sick world that to be prepared for ministry means being prepared to care for those who suffer from the evil of domestic violence. Yet I am so thankful that Moore College has helped me to see clearly that it is not the word of God that is at fault here. I am thankful for the clear exposition of Scripture that shows it is only a stunted, incorrect and sinful interpretation of headship and submission that would seek to use it to justify harm to another.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the world despises this doctrine and uses it against us. Doesn’t the world also hate the gospel itself? Yet as with all of God’s word, this truth is given for our good. We mustn’t do away with the doctrine of headship and submission because of those who have abused it. God forbid that in our rightful hatred of abuse we would stifle his good word to us. Instead, let’s affirm with crystal clarity that the goodness of biblical headship and the evil of domestic violence are entirely incompatible.

An abridged version of Domestic Violence: A Starting Point In Supporting Victims is available from the Moore College website at www.moore.edu.au/aboutus/publications/domesticviolenceastartingpointinsupportingvictims/

[1] See Mark Thompson, ‘The Christian and Submission’, talk given at The Priscilla and Aquila Conference, Moore College, Sydney, 1 February 2016 (viewed 11 September 2017): http://paa.moore.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/The-Christian-and-Submission.pdf

See also ‘Jesus and Submission’: http://paa.moore.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Jesus-and-Submission.pdf

[2] It’s worth noting, however, that most research seems to suggest that regularly churchgoing men are less likely to abuse their wives. As US Professor W. Bradford Wilcox comments from his research that “relig­ious attendance ­reduces the odds of domestic violence”. His comment was made in response to the misrepresentation of his research in an ABC report by Julia Baird. See ‘Facts go missing in ABC report on “violent Christians”’, The Australian, 26 July 2017 (viewed 17 September 2017): http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/facts-go-missing-in-abc-report-on-violent-christians/news-story/8ad713b8e7b71c51fb28b0e56c78e5b3

[3] My thanks to Jane Tooher, a member of the Moore College faculty, for providing this information.

[4] You can access it here: www.moore.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/legacy/Policies/Domestic%20Violence%20Policy%20FINAL.pdf

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