“Submit to Your Husbands”: Women Told to Endure Domestic Violence in the Name of God

American research provides one important insight: men who attend church less often are most likely to abuse their wives.

In 2013, American pastor Steven J Cole concluded in a sermon that “a wife may need to submit to some abuse”. “The difficult question is,” he writes, “how much? My view is that a wife must submit to verbal and emotional abuse, but if the husband begins to harm her physically, she needs to call civil or church authorities. “Although physical abuse is not a biblical basis for divorce, I would counsel separation in some cases to protect the wife while the husband gets his temper under control.

 

The culprits were obvious: it was the menopause or the devil.

Who else could be blamed, Peter screamed at his wife in nightly tirades, for her alleged insubordination, for her stupidity, her lack of sexual pliability, her refusal to join him on the ‘Tornado’ ride at a Queensland waterpark, her annoying friendship with a woman he called “Ratface”? For her sheer, complete failure as a woman?

The abuse went on, day and night, as Sally bore a child, worked morning shifts at the local hospital and stayed up late pumping breast milk for her baby.

She was deeply exhausted, depleted and worn.

The night before Sally finally left her husband and the townhouse they lived in on Sydney’s northern beaches he told her she was also failing her spiritual duties.

“Your problem is you won’t obey me. The Bible says you must obey me and you refuse,” he yelled. “You are a failure as a wife, as a Christian, as a mother. You are an insubordinate piece of s**t.”

Sally, an executive assistant who had just turned 44, stared at him, worrying about whether her neighbours — or her sleeping daughter — could hear his roars through the thin walls.

She knew what had “flicked his switch”: the simple act of coming down to say goodnight, which he interpreted as a lack of willingness to have sex.

Peter then opened his Bible and read out some verses:

“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour.”
Ephesians 5: 22-23

Next was:

“Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; rather, she is to remain silent.”
1 Timothy 2: 11-12

For years, Sally had believed that God wanted her to submit to her husband, and she did her best, bending to his will and working to pay the bills, despite the pain she was in.

But on this night, she was done. The next morning, she packed up her bags, grabbed some clothes for her daughter and left, taking the little girl with her.

She left everything else behind.

Religion and domestic violence: the missing link

When we speak of domestic violence, and the cultural factors that foment it, one crucial element missing from the discussion has been religion.

While it is generally agreed that inequality between the sexes can foster and cultivate environments where men seek to control or abuse women, in Australia there has been very little public debate about how this might impact people in male-led congregations and religious communities, especially those where women are told to be silent and submit to male authority.

In other countries, like the United States and United Kingdom, there has been extensive analysis. So why is Australia so behind on this issue?

In the past couple of years, concern has been growing amongst those working with survivors of domestic violence about the role the Christian church of all denominations can either consciously or inadvertently play in allowing abusive men to continue abusing their wives.

The questions are these: do abused women in church communities face challenges women outside them do not?

Do perpetrators ever claim church teachings on male control excuse their abuse, or tell victims they must stay?

Why have there been so few sermons on domestic violence? Why do so many women report that their ministers tell them to stay in violent marriages?

Is the stigma surrounding divorce still too great, and unforgiving? Is this also a problem for the men who are abused by their wives — a minority but nonetheless an important group?

And if the church is meant to be a place of refuge for the vulnerable, why is it that the victims are the ones who leave churches while the perpetrators remain?

Is it true — as one Anglican bishop has claimed — that there are striking similarities to the church’s failure to protect children from abuse, and that this next generation’s reckoning will be about the failure in their ranks to protect women from domestic violence?

A 12-month ABC News and 7.30 investigation involving dozens of interviews with survivors of domestic violence, counsellors, priests, psychologists and researchers from a range of Christian denominations — including Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Pentecostal and Presbyterian — has discovered the answers to these questions will stun those who believe the church should protect the abused, not the abusers.

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