Male Headship, Power, Control and Domestic Violence


Let the basic thesis be stated. “Male headship” is one of a number of planks undergirding the practice of domestic violence. The word “headship” can be regarded as synonymous with such words as “authority”, “power” and in a number of cases “control”.

Thinking, then, of the majority of cases of domestic violence perpetrated on adults across the world, namely violence committed against women, a central feature of the power relationship is the ovveriding power of the male in that relationship.

In the debate over women’s place in the Church a significant number of conservative Church leaders appeal to the slogan “equal but different” to entrench the authority of males over females in both the domestic and ecclesiastical contxts of human relationships.

Such leaders 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.

Bible passages enjoining female submission

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. Most pertinent to the issue of domestic violence is the admonitions directed at women.

  1. 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:

  1. 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”.
  2. 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”.
  3. 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, together with the preceding biblical injunctions, 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 publicly about their experience of domestic violence.

Sadly the Bible rarely addresses the scourge of domestic violence. The sole reference usually cited is Colossians 3:18

                        Husband love your wives and never treat them harshly.

One can only guess at what treatment of women was regaded as harsh. The long list of oppressive measures practised against women in Christian history [1] indicates that this first century injunction would have been necessary, not only for that century, but for all succeeding ones down to the present.

The injunction immediately preceding it in Colossians 3:18 – Wives, be subject to your husbands – definitely keeps women in a subordinate position.

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 women’s voices are not 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 largely (or even totally) silent and will 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. And if the husband is not perfect like Christ, are all bets off? And is the wife still required to obey the admonitions, and an imperfect husband?

If one is to explore biblical passages relating to male authority over women, then a countervailing injunction from Jesus himself is pertinent. There is a sad, even tragic, irony in this. A dispute over who should have ‘power’ (i.e. ‘headship’) occurred amongst the disciples of Jesus. Two brothers, James and John, had asked to have the two chief places of power next to Jesus. And Jesus’ reply was not only a corrective to them, but can readily be read as applying to those who insist that Jesus’ male disciples are to have authority (“headship”) over women. Jesus said to them: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all’.

If male Bible-believers want to live by a slogan that applies to them, then according to Mark 10:43-44 this slogan could readily be ‘equal but menial’. Indeed, given the prevailing slogan that prevents women being ordained, if Jesus’ words were paramount, the debate in the Church should really be over whether men could be eligible to be ordained! Fancy a male domestic servant (or a male slave) being made an Archbishop! [2] Or was Jesus out of his mind, voicing such an injunction to his male disciples?

 A vignette from Australian experience

There is a parallel slogan that is nowadays rarely voiced but certainly in the past encapsulated an imbalance of power in Christian circles. That slogan was “equal but separate”. Such a slogan buttressed the post civil-war practices of segregation in the southern United States. It coloured the separation policies of apartheid South Africa. It is directly addressed in modern times by the slogan “black lives matter”. It could be joined by a parallel slogan: “women’s lives matter”.

Given the experience of Australian women in contemporary Australia, with, in general, one Australian woman per week being killed through domestic violence at the hands of a male protagonist, the slogan “women’s lives matter” is certainly applicable in this country.

In Australian experience those who endured the most horrendous treatment when these two slogans (and their two distinctive words “different” and “separate”) came together in practice, were Indigenous women and girls. Girls are to be mentioned also, because, serving as domestic servants in the segregated world of colonial Australia, they were so powerlessly vulnerable to male headship, male authority, male power, male control. Abuse, rape, even murder perpetrated on these Indigenous females went almost entirely unpunished. In this context “male headship” ruled supreme in Australia.

As historian Richard Broome notes: “Gender clearly shaped frontier relations. Aboriginal women suffered the worst abuse, as sexual oppression has always followed conquest and exploitation.” [3] Can we ever expect the sloganeers of “equal but different” to issue a public apology over these historical realities that are integrally related to the exercise of male power, male control, male headship?

This history of the de facto practice that either of these two slogans inculcated, indicates how hollow the claim to equality would sound to those who were subject to such headship.

 Equality, difference and economics

To focus again particularly on the slogan “equal but different”. Have the Christians voicing that slogan in Australia been at the forefront of the struggle for equal wages for women? That is doubtful, to say the least. Or does their stress fall on the word “different” in the slogan? So, contrary to the espousal of equality, do they publicly endorse different (i.e. lesser) wages for women in comparison to men?

Indeed, if “Bible-believing” Christians are committed to Biblical equality, then presumably they will be committed to economic equality. The apostle Paul, whom some Christians regard as infallible, wrote about economic sharing in 2 Corinthians 8:13-14. This passage is the only one in the Bible where the words “equality” are actually used. Twice he distinctly uses Greek words for “equality” to describe his vision of economic equality. He wrote:

as a matter of equality your abundance at the present time should supply their want, so that their abundance may supply your want, that there may be equality. [RSV, NIV]

One could sum up the apostle Paul’s appeal here with the slogan: “From each according to their abundance, to each according to their need”. Such an apt slogan of Paul’s words is similar to that attributed to Karl Marx: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” Presumably St Paul is guilty of enjoining what several contemporary very powerful Australian conservative Christian politicians currently label as “the politics of envy”.

One could ask whether those “bible believers” who claim the slogan ‘equal but different’ as binding for them, are also committed to Paul’s commitment to equality of economic sharing. His position could be expressed in a slogan ‘different but equal’.

How does this excursion into equality and economics relate to domestic violence? In domestic relationships, the effort of women to escape such violence can readily put them at an economic disadvantage. Anne Spargo-Ryan, writing on this issue, states:

The ACTU says leaving a violent relationship takes, on average, $18,000 and 141 hours. Most women leaving a family violence situation move out of their home, meaning they have to find accommodation elsewhere. In 2016-17, 72,000 women sought homelessness services because of family violence.[4]

In domestic violence situations, the majority of victims are women:

Males also can be victims of domestic violence. But the figures indicate how the most vulnerable adults in a domestic violence environment are women. Consider the following information from the Australian Bureau of Statistics:

About 18 per cent of women has been sexually assaulted since the age of 15 compared to 4.7 per cent of men.

For women this violence was likely to be at the hands of their partners.

Women were eight times more likely to experience sexual violence by a partner than men were.

About 5.1 per cent of women had been attacked by a current or previous live-in partner compared to about 0.6 per cent of men.

The rate of women experiencing sexual violence in the past year (1.8 per cent) has remained fairly steady since 2005 (1.6 per cent) but has increased in the past five years from 1.2 per cent in 2012.

Women were also nearly three times more likely to have experienced violence in general, from a partner than men were. About 17 per cent of women had been attacked by a partner since the age of 15, compared to 6.1 per cent of men. [5]

Concluding thoughts

Slogans matter. They are used in wartime to rally people. They are used in campaigns to succinctly state a cause, a concern, a rallying cry.

The slogan ‘equal but different’ has been effective in requiring the submission of women to men, of wives to husbands. It is a slogan that currently endorses ‘male supremacy’ in both domestic and ecclesiastical contexts. Inherent in this slogan is an ugly and violent underbelly that the sloganeers refuse to face. This article is simply an effort to encourage public honesty as to what the slogan ‘equal but different’ actually entails in the lives of women.


  1. For examples from history of the treatment of women in a Christian male-headship society, access the webpage of Helena Wojtczak entitled British Women’s Emancipation since the Renaissance. Note also its link to: British women’s history timeline.
  2. “Menial’ – “pertaining to a domestic servant” “servile”. The Macquarie Dictionary, Macquarie Library, McMahions Point, 1982 edition, p. 1090.
  3. Richard Broome, Aboriginal Australians, – A history since 1788, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2010, p.134. Amongst many references to the cruel maltreatment of Indigenous women in Australia note also Nicholas Clements, The Black War – Sex and Resistance in Tasmania, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2014; Noel Loos, Invasion and Resistance, ANU Press, Canberra, 1982, pp. 134-135, 148-149; John Harris, One Blood, An Albatross Book, Sutherland, 1990, pp. 239, 251; Charlie Ward, A Handful Of Sand – The Gurindji Struggle, after the Walk-Off, Monash University Publishing, Clayton, 2016, p.3; Richard Broome, Aboriginal Australians, – A history since 1788, pp. 114-115.
  4. The Guardian, Tuesday, 9 April, 2019.
  5. Australian Bureau of Statistics 2016 Personal Safety Survey australian


Rev’d Dr Ray Barraclough 20 November, 2019