Male Headship, Power, Control and Domestic Violence



Comment by Ray Barraclough



The choice of Rosie Batty as Australian of the year has highlighted the need for domestic violence to be addressed in Australia. Ms Batty wants an overhaul of the “system” of domestic relationships and of “attitudes” that undergird domestic violence in Australian society.

Currently Dame Quentin Bryce is chairing a Queensland government taskforce examining the dimensions of domestic violence in that state. Following the recent Victorian election, a Royal Commission has been established to examine the causes and extent of domestic violence in that state.

The following statistics compiled from a 2005 government survey show the alarming extent of such violence in Australian life.
* On average one Australian woman every week is killed by a partner or ex-partner.
* A third of Australian women have experienced abuse of some kind from males.
* One in three Australian women have been affected by family violence
* Just under half a million Australian women reported that they had experienced physical or sexual violence or sexual assault in the past 12 months.
* More than a million women had experienced physical or sexual assault by their male current or ex-partner since the age of 15 (some women may be counted twice if they experienced both physical and sexual assault).
* 37.8% of women who experienced physical assault in the 12 months before the survey said the perpetrator was a current or previous male partner and 34.4% said the perpetrator was a male family member or friend. Most incidences of physical assault against women in the 12 months prior to 2005 were committed in a home (64.1%).
* 33.3% of women had experienced physical violence since the age of 15.[1]

Recently studies have emerged of the alarming incidence of violence against pregnant women in Australia. “According to research, about one third of women subjected to family violence experience their first incident while pregnant.” Such violence is usually perpetrated by the husband/partner or a male associate of the woman.

Dr Kathleen Baird, Senior Lecturer in Midwifery at Griffith University, who has engaged in this research, noted that “it is an issue of power and control” that is integral to this phenomenon. That power, that control, is exercised by men over women in domestic relationships.
In the wider Australian landscape there are churches that insist on what they term “male headship” in domestic relationships. Such churches, and their all-male leadership, proclaim that the male is to exercise headship over the woman. In their view, the power of the male is to be pre-eminent.

Such churches advocate a structural relationship of power that always has the woman as the less powerful one in the domestic relationship.
Such churches also appeal to selected passages from the Bible to buttress this aspect of male power and control. One passage that is often cited is Ephesians 5:22-24. It is worth a closer examination because of the degree of power and control that it attributes to the male in any heterosexual domestic relationship. The passage comes from the first century and it enshrines the domestic relationships that were current in that ancient time.

Both husbands and wives are addressed. What is most pertinent to the issue of domestic violence is the admonitions directed at women.
22. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. 24. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

When these requirements are unpacked, one finds the following dynamics of male power and female submission entrenched in this Bible passage. Consider the following:
a. Wives, like all other Christians, are to give unquestioning obedience and submission to the Lord.
Thus, wives are to give unquestioning obedience and submission to their husband. Why?
Because “wives [are to] be subject to [their] husbands as [they] are to the Lord”.
b. Christians believe that Christ has absolute power over the Church, for Christ is the head of the Church. So the husband is to have absolute power over his wife. Why? Because “the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church”.
c. The final exhortation clearly nails down the subjection of the woman to her husband. Here is the strong structural framework within which unquestioned abuse can occur. The text is quite clear about who holds power and control. “Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.” In everything!

These last two words provide a blueprint for male power and control in the marriage relationship. Indeed, if this passage from the Bible is taken literally (as some ‘Bible believers’ are wont to do) these words are a blueprint for absolute male power and control in that relationship.

Thus the challenge facing male-headship churches is whether they are committed to these kind of biblical teachings.
There is also the requirement in the Christian scriptures for women to be silent in public religious assemblies and in public places. The Bible gives no encouragement for women to testify about their experience of domestic violence to, say, Quentin Bryce’s taskforce or the Victorian Royal Commission.

Sadly the Bible nowhere specifically addresses the scourge of domestic violence. Given that probably all of the Biblical writings were written by men, and were thus shaped by ancient patriarchal cultures, it is not surprising that no women’s voices are given room in the Bible’s pages. If one is to be “biblical” in regard to acknowledging domestic violence, then presumably “biblical Christians” will remain silent and seek to ignore the practice of domestic violence.

Yes, the issue is a real challenge to “male headship” churches.

And the challenge is compounded.

No female leaders can speak out from these churches because these churches are opposed to having female leaders. In male-headship churches, only men are permitted to have ultimate power whether in the local church (as parish priest) or in the wider diocese (as bishop or archbishop).

And appeals to the passages preceding and following Ephesians 5:22-24, with their talk of mutual submission ( eg v. 21) and of the husband being like Christ, do not negate the overriding impression that the whole section conveys, of the insistence on women’s subservient place in the domestic relationship, where men are to have controlling power.

According to the Department of Families, Housing and Community Affairs, the vast majority of dangerous, abusive and violent behaviour that occurs in the privacy of people’s homes is committed by men against women. A range of factors cause such horrendous experience for women. We contend that one essential factor in domestic violence is the prevailing power of men in that domain.

It is this systemic ordering of power that is in view in Ms Batty’s appeal to her fellow Australians.
Christians who support structures of power-holding that contribute to these experiences of abuse and violence need to be challenged again and again why they give such support.

What is needed is for Christians to embrace the equal sharing of power in adult domestic relationships. It is equal mutuality and care, not headship and submission, that is the basis of healthy domestic relationships.
1. The most recent information on violence in Australia comes from the Australian Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Survey (national survey of 16,400 adults in Australian aged 18 years and over) conducted in 2005. Source: Department of Families, Housing and Community Affairs Fact Sheet 2 Women’s Safety.