Abuse inside Christian marriages – a personal story
Christian congregations are not immune from domestic abuse.
- Doctrine of headship a distortion of the gospel message of mutual love and respect
- Submission is a fraught mixed message for the church
Ten years ago I was in the middle of a situation that an anti-domestic expert called “intimate partner terrorism” on Q&A this week. My then husband was supposedly a Christian, a very pious, rather obsessive one. He was a great amateur preacher, very encouraging to his friends and evangelistically inclined. He led Bible studies. He wanted to train for the ministry.
He just had one little problem. He liked psychologically torturing me. And dragging me by the hair around our apartment. And punching me – hard, whilst telling me how pathetic I was. He gave me lists with highlighted sections of Bible passages about nagging wives and how I should submit to him. I was subjected to almost the full catalogue of abusive behaviour.
He was a classic wolf in sheep’s clothing. The Bible warns us repeatedly about people like that.
Since leaving this man, I have been shocked by the devastation that domestic abuse has caused women my age, in Sydney in general and in the Anglican Church in particular. How talented, godly, intelligent women have ended up brainwashed, sometimes with severe depression and wanting to kill themselves. With some of them leaving the church.
Which is why I have been stunned at the reaction to Julia Baird’s recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald about domestic violence in the church. A theologian, Claire Smith, and minister, Karl Faase, have both written articles in response indicating that this type of situation doesn’t happen in our church, or if it does, it’s not very often. They also claim that ministers of the church do not teach or behave in a way that encourages such things. They have claimed there is no evidence, and many others have agreed with them.
Well, I disagree.
When something like this happens to you, people start telling you things. I have since that time spoken to women who tell you that they couldn’t understand how it happened, how they just thought they had to put up with it and how they thought it was their fault.
And they thought that due to what they had been taught in church and reinforced by their spouse, that it was their duty to stay. In an Anglican diocese that specialises in telling men and women how to relate to each other “according to the Bible”, nothing they heard from the pulpit told them anything different. Sometimes it is the statements that are not made that scream the loudest. Often inappropriate statements had been made to them by their pastors, sometimes including counselling them to prayerfully “stick it out” in the midst of severe abuse.
In the end, it wasn’t a helpful minister or a kind friend that first convinced me that I should try to leave my abusive situation. They had no clue of what was going on as I didn’t think I was allowed to tell them. I wouldn’t even have named my situation as domestic violence at that time, so I didn’t think to call the DV hotline. It was a copy of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. I was saved by a lending card to a public library.
My husband controlled much of my media intake, but he never realised that 19th century British fiction contained such subversive material, so he let me read it. His downfall was that he reminded me too much of the evil “rake” in the first novel and the psychopathic villain in the second. And despite the brainwashing, I thought that if Anne Bronte (who was a daughter of an Anglican clergyman) could write a novel in Victorian England where the heroine could leave an evil man like that, what was I doing staying with one 150 years later?
So what would I say to those who would minimise the extent of domestic violence occurring within church families and the inadequacy of the churches’ response to the problem?
You are wrong. Very wrong. You do not know what you are talking about.
You wanted statistics? Well, I have been unable to find a study that has been conducted on the prevalence of domestic violence in Australian churches. This not evidence that such a problem does not exist, it is just evidence that we are too apathetic to record such things and how difficult it is to get people to speak of them. However, a 2006 Anglican Church publication indicated that in Britain:
- Domestic abuse affects one in five adults over their lifetime (one in four women and one in seven men).
- The incidence of domestic abuse within Methodist church congregations is similar to the rate within the general population and the rate within the British Anglican church is unlikely to be any different.
- Domestic abuse occurs among all types of households and all professions, including clergy.
- One in three suicide attempts is by a victim of domestic abuse.
- 45 per cent of female homicide victims were killed by their present or former partner.
- 750,000 British children a year witnessed domestic abuse (in a population of 60.5 million) and 33 per cent of these had seen their mother beaten severely.
- Domestic abuse is a much better description of the problem than domestic violence as it includes physical violence, emotional, psychological and spiritual abuse.
- Churches have traditionally found all sorts of ways not to “own” the problem of domestic abuse.
- The theology of self-denial and suffering has been misused by the church to encourage victims to tough it out in abusive situations. Particularly, “the example of Christ’s sacrificial self-giving has been used … to encourage compliant and passive responses by women suffering in abusive relationships”.
Some Australian statistics:
- 23 per cent of women who had ever been married or in a de-facto relationship, experienced violence by a partner at some time during the relationship.
- 82 per cent of domestic violence cases are not reported to the police
- Of women who were in a current relationship, 10 per cent had experienced violence from their current partner over their lifetime, and 3 per cent over the past 12 months.
- Thirteen women have died from domestic violence in Australia in the first 7 weeks of 2015.
As for demanding further evidence, names, dates and details – is it really the responsibility of traumatised women and men to write to the Sydney Morning Herald and detail the abuse that has occurred to them and name the ministers who they believe have hindered their recovery or whose preaching or counsel has encouraged them to stay longer than is right?
Most DV survivors do not want to become Googleable due to a highly personal traumatic circumstance.
I have not used my real name in this article based on legal advice, even though I wanted to. I wanted to because I know that I am in a stronger position and have been better supported than many of the women I have come across, and this is such an important issue to take a stand on.
It angers me that certain people have demanded evidence without realising how that reinforces the trauma and invalidates the experience of victims. If you haven’t pushed for an investigation or at least a survey within your own denomination, is it reasonable to criticise a journalist for asking questions, just because she seems to have a decent sense of smell? If the British church can admit they have a problem, then why can’t we? Because we may need to take a hard look at ourselves? Seems a bit whiffy to me.
I think we should all be glad that Julia wrote her original article, regardless of our theological position. A defensive rebuttal of her article is of no use me or to any of the damaged women I know. They need help and validation. They need well-trained ministers who are equipped to help deal with the problem.
But if what I read online this week in the Christian community is representative, many people in the church still have “a see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” attitude. Nothing much will improve until every denomination in Australia has a strategy to deal with domestic abuse that is informed by experts and rigorously implemented in each local church.
Swallow your pride and get to it, people. If you care enough to bother.
Isabella (not her real name) is currently writing a book detailing anonymised case studies of domestic abuse occurring within church families. Contact her at: email@example.com
If you are in an abusive situation:
- Contact the free DV hotline on 1800 656 463 (TTY 1800 671 442).
- Walk into your local police station.
- If you have been assaulted, call 000 immediately.