I’ve appreciated the insights shared on the difficult topic of domestic violence by advocates, police, practitioners, counsellors, chaplains, doctors and especially victim-survivors over the years.
More than a decade ago, when a revised Sydney Prayer Book came out and the wording of the marriage vows was debated, I was convinced by a survivor and scholar that we had not guarded against the misuse of vows – though they were couched in language that reflected both Scripture and Book of Common Prayer. At the same time, I had a vexed pastoral situation with a marriage dissolving in claim and counterclaim and, too slowly, realised how naïve I was. My lack of pastoral insight and poor practice evidenced the need for far more education. That began a journey.
But I am glad that I have received continual help from the Bible – both theologically and pastorally – for the care of those impacted by domestic abuse, both within our churches and beyond. This was obvious to me early on in my journey.
The Bible Abhors Domestic Abuse
As I wrote in an op-ed for The Sydney Morning Herald in 2015, “for Christians who missed the memo: the Bible abhors all domestic abuse”! In fact, as a conservative, I found it astonishing when a small minority of my colleagues were resistant to efforts to guard against this scourge.
For example, I pointed out that Colossians 3:19 says, “Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them”. As the apostle Peter made clear in the third chapter of his first epistle, we’re never to exploit those with less power or strength. I openly contradicted John Piper at that time. If anything, the fact there were gendered warnings like this in Scripture told me unequivocally that men especially needed to be on guard. It was an issue with gender in the mix.
Indeed, Peter also warned against the twisting of Scripture in his second epistle (2 Pet 3:16). Yes, some of Paul’s letters contain things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort. Yet Peter did not deny the truth of anything Paul wrote but, rather, dignified Paul’s words as Scripture, which people also distort elsewhere. So, yes, big care is needed in handling Scripture that is hard to understand.
Jesus' words in Luke 22 are clear
But it’s the people we need to guard against, and their efforts at distortion. What could be clearer than Jesus’ words on servanthood in Luke 22?
Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. (Luke 22:25-26)
This was a coronation text, as recently with King Charles, and last year for Her Late Majesty’s jubilee. But if the wording suffuses such occasions, how much more for leaders in the church?
And how much more for those in that most intimate relationship of marriage?
The language used by Peter and Paul regarding the relationship of husbands and wives (see Ephesians 5 or 1 Peter 3) cannot simply be cancelled – censored out of our formularies or Scripture. But, however you interpret it, it is even more unimaginable that anyone can read Mark 10 or Luke 22 and ever think that even a hint of “lording it over” another can be acceptable, let alone in the context of marriage.
It is unthinkable that one who claims the name of Christ, even if they think they have some legitimate authority, can go around demanding to be lauded as “benefactor”… or “head”! Incongruence with our Lord’s words here exposes folly, and sometimes even cruelty.
What Proverbs has to say
Of course, this is not the end of the help I feel I have received from Scripture. Following the advice of my first bishop, I’ve made it my practice to read the Proverbs slowly at least twice a year. But until it was pointed out by American marriage counsellor Leslie Vernick – disagreeing with “the advice to simply try harder” – I had not noticed or applied the proverbs that show it is good for a woman to protect herself and her children from the violence or threats of an abusive husband.
For example, Proverbs 22:2 says, “The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty”. Here, to call someone “simple” is not intended as “blame” language but simply alerts us about how naïve and inexperienced people can be in the face of danger.
Furthermore, church leaders, Prov 22:10 says there is a time to drive out a mocker so strife will go and quarrelling and insults will cease. Prov 19:19 warns that, “A hot-tempered man must pay the penalty; if you rescue him, you will have to do it again”.
I have found proverbs like these so helpful, in counselling a committed Christian woman suffering abuse, that to silently “endure” a husband’s treatment of her will not rescue the marriage; to say to the simple-hearted that separation for safety is not only permitted but may be very wise.
Of course, even sensitively exploring Scripture is by no means the first step in such situations. There’s generally lots of listening first. “Quick to listen, slow to speak”. Slow to hand out my advice. Careful to seek professional advice (as our Domestic Abuse policy advises all pastors!).
But my testimony is that so many who are connected to our churches, who have had Christianity in their journey, who see the way Christ loved women and cared for the vulnerable, also have a high respect for Scripture.
And I have found that trusting Jesus and God’s good word, which he commends, has given me the most wonderful breadth and depth of resources; resources to explore beyond the obvious; resources to empower them for freedom, and against abuse.
Next month’s Synod will consider a revised Domestic Abuse Policy and Guidelines.
The Very Rev Sandy Grant is Dean of Sydney.