It’s a profoundly saddening and difficult topic and one that raises questions. We touch base with Kara Hartley (Sydney’s Archdeacon for Women’s Ministry) for some answers about domestic violence.
Kara, first off – what has lead you to engage with this topic?
Most recently, for the last 18 months I’ve served on the Sydney Diocese’ Domestic Violence Task Force. This is part of my role as Archdeacon for Women’s Ministry in the Diocese. As ADWM I support those women serving in a variety of ministries, especially those serving in the local church. I have also served in local churches for the past 20 years, in particular among women. These roles have enabled me to be involved in the lives of many women and families over the years.
When we speak of domestic violence (DV) we often think of a husband harming his wife, is this a helpful definition?
Violence can take many forms. The working definition our task force has decided on, which is in line with the NSW government definition, reflects this. We all know physical violence against anyone is wrong, but DV also includes emotional, psychological, spiritual, economic abuse among others. These other forms can be harder to identify and sometimes the person themselves might not even label this treatment as abuse.
In terms of who abuses who, it is true that more women suffer abuse at the hands of their male partner than vice versa. Yet in our church communities we must be careful to recognise this can be an issue affecting both men and women. While statistically more woman experience violence and both men and women will struggle to tell others about it, men are even less likely to tell anyone. As we minister to both men and women we must be careful not to make it even harder for men to share their experiences by making this a women’s only issue.
Is domestic violence an issue in our churches?
Of course. Where there are people there is sin. Even as Christians we know we still sin. Domestic violence is an extreme expression of sin and sadly is present even in our churches. We mustn’t be naïve about this. But at the same time, as we take steps to address this evil in our churches, we need to be careful not to make it the pastoral issue. There is a fine line we walk: the majority issues for marriage and family life will be more everyday struggles and strains, while at the same time there will be particular and more significant crises facing some couples and families, including infidelity, violence, and sickness. These must be handled with great care, and may require significant investment of time.
Passages like Ephesians 5 encourage women to submit to their husbands, is there a risk these passages can be used to excuse domestic violence?
Yes they may be used to justify sinful behaviour like domestic violence. Yet we must be clear, the instruction for women to submit to their husbands does not give license to men to exploit or abuse their wives. In fact, the wife’s submission is voluntary. The truth is that as women are called to submit in Ephesians 5, husbands are instructed to love their wives as they love their own bodies, and in Colossians 3:19 Paul forbids them from being harsh with them. There is no place in Scripture for a husband exercising his biblical headship in a dominating, exploitive or self-serving manner. As the husband’s role is modelled on Christ’s loving, sacrificial leadership, so he lives that out for the benefit of his wife.
There is a lot of discussion at the moment suggesting there is a link between biblical teaching on submission and headship with the prevalence of DV in church. Some argue the existence of this teaching leads to domestic violence.
I believe this is mistaken for two reasons. Firstly, to create cause and effect at this point suggests that God’s good word to us is wrong or mistaken. Also, taken to its logical conclusion, it would assume that churches that deny this teaching are free from DV which we know is untrue. Secondly, by making this the reason for DV means we fail to fully explore and understand the issue and that, I think, is an injustice to those involved.
Church leaders have a responsibility to teach this doctrine correctly, call out inappropriate and sinful misapplications, and care for those who have suffered at the hands of those who have (wickedly) twisted God’s word to satisfy their own sinful behaviour.
What are some helpful things to do if we think someone is a victim of domestic abuse?
First and foremost: listen and believe. Then assess whether it is safe for the victim to return to the home. If there is evidence that a crime has taken place, then a report must be made to the police. If not, there are several avenues to explore to care and support the abused. It might be that you actually do nothing straight away as the victim might not be ready to leave the situation or report to the police. If the victim asks you not to tell anyone, honour their wishes (as hard as this is) because they must be able to trust you. As a church, have a plan of how you care for people in these circumstances and make sure leaders are aware of it. If the abuse is disclosed by a child, leaders of course have mandatory reporting responsibilities.
What about if we think somebody is a perpetrator – what steps should we take?
It depends on the kind of abuse. If there is evidence of physical abuse then speaking to police is appropriate. If other kinds of abuse are suspected it is more appropriate to sensitively raise your concerns with the victim. They may deny any wrong doing but hopefully this raises the opportunity for them to talk to you at a later date. Confrontation of an abuser is rarely an effective method in dealing with DV. They will probably deny any wrong doing and if they feel threatened may take that out on their spouse at home.
As you’ve been thinking about this difficult topic, what gospel truths have you found most helpful?
I have been comforted by the character of God. The misuse of power is at the heart of the sin of DV. Yet in the Lord Jesus we see the powerful Son of God who calms the storms, heals the sick, who has power over creation and people, give up his life for the sake of others. Mark 10:45: he didn’t come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. This is great love, sacrificial love and the kind of love we ought to show one another.
Some helpful resources:
God’s Good Design (Matthias Media 2012) has a chapter on domestic abuse.
A helpful article by Claire Smith
Justin Holcolm has written this for Christianity Today:
Ending domestic Abuse: A Pack for Churches
Personal Safety Survey
Some helpful links at The Gospel Coalition:
Mark Spansel, January 5, 2016.
(this has a list of other resources at the end).