The Church and Violence Against Women

Women are not equal. There, I said it.  Last year on the ABC Q&A programme a woman in the audience asked me if I thought conservative theology and Biblical literalism provide an environment for violence against women and domestic violence to flourish. For me, this was one of those times you look back on and kick yourself for giving the answer you did. Basically I said, ‘Well, I don’t know. But it would make sense.’ What I wished that I said was ‘Yes, yes it does.’

Something that happened not even 24 hrs later reinforced the truth behind her question. Sitting next to a young man on the plane going home to Brisbane we got talking about religion.  He didn’t know what my theological position was so it was a frank conversation where he told me about his mother who was beaten by his father, again and again. She went to the Church and the priest told her to ‘go home’, to be a ‘good wife’, and to ‘please him and to submit to him’. The next week the priest gave a sermon on ‘Loving your wife’, that apparently fell on deaf ears. The abuse continued.

Albeit anecdotal, his was a story that I have heard hundreds of times, told either directly to me or through friends and peers.  When women and children are seen as not ‘equal’ in the household, as objects without authority and without a voice it is easy to fall into a cycle of abuse; to normalise, justify, assert and defend this world view, sometimes to the death.

The conservative and complementarian doctrine of some wings of Christian denominations provide a shelter for abusive relationships to flourish. As a consequence, women learn that they are helpless, without agency and worse of all that their lives are worth ‘less’.

I understand that it might come as a shock to many of my well-meaning and compassionate complementarian friends, but we cannot deny that this is the case. Theologies of women submitting to men allow domestic violence to flourish, especially when that theology is dressed up as ‘equal, but different’.  Women are good at ‘some things’, men are more suited to ‘other things’, especially when these “complementary differences’’ mean that women cannot be ordained or have a position of teaching over a man or freely ask questions in public spaces. Recent public comments by conservative Christians regarding women’s appearance and their hair length further reinforces women as objects or possessions or at the very least ‘lesser than men’.

Doctrines of submission (or complementarianism) mean that in some Churches women are not allowed to ask questions during Bible Study without their husband’s permission.  The Synod of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney acknowledged that domestic violence is a problem within their parishes. The Rev’d Andrew Sempell of St. James, Sydney adds his insights saying that the Church’s teaching of male headship could be perpetuating this cycle. ‘Sydney is the only diocese in the country that take this literally, and in the wrong hands, to a controlling male, it can justify controlling and abusive behaviour.’

While some may see religion as outdated it can also be a litmus test for getting a sense of what is happening in society. Every parish contains a cross section from all social strata, education levels, and walks of life. If we can point to a social issue in the Church you can be certain it is out there in society. It is almost self-feeding and self-reinforcing.

Women in the wider Church and across all denominations are still not equal. Some are doing better than others but just as with secular society, when women are not equal in public life then of course they cannot have equality in their private life in the home.  If women are shamed for their body, for their dress, and their sexuality in public…..this has to be generated from somewhere. If we cannot respect women in the public space then we have no hope of protecting women’s safety as equals in every home in Australia.

A study from the South Australian State Coroner’s office reported that in 104 murders where the perpetrator was known, half were linked to domestic violence.  Findings like this highlight how serious a social problem is domestic violence against women.

Progressive Christians embrace egalitarianism and believe that women are inherently equal and deserve the same rights, respects, safeties and opportunities in public and private life as men. To quote the profound truth found in Galatians 3.28 ‘There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female; for all of you are one in Christ’.  It is important as progressive Christians for us to shine a light into the darkness that exists when people live in fear and to say with a loud voice that violence is never OK, especially violence that exists within the household or that oppresses entire families, and perpetuates the cycle of violence into the next generation.


Rev Tiffany Sparks