In 1998, the National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control released a report on the prevalence of violence against women within the US. According to a survey taken between November 1995 and May 1996, 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men had “experienced an attempted or completed rape as a child and/or an adult.”
>0.3 percent of surveyed women and 0.1 percent of surveyed men said they experienced a completed or attempted rape in the previous 12 months. These estimates equate to approximately 302,100 women and 92,700 men who are forcibly raped each year in the United States.
The vast majority of violent encounters for women occurs within intimate relationships:
> 76 percent of the women who were raped and/or physically assaulted since the age of 18 were assaulted by a current or former husband, cohabiting partner, or date; 17 percent were victimized by an acquaintance, such as a friend, neighbor, or coworker; 14 percent were victimized by a stranger; and 9 percent were victimized by a relative other than a husband.
There is no indication that these numbers are any different within the church. According to a 1999 Barna report, American Christians are remarkably similar to their secular counterparts. They are similar in their divorce patterns; there is no reason to assume that they are any different in this pattern of violence against intimate partners. Carol Adams, and Marie Fortune, in their book Violence against Women and Children, relate the story of a young pastor returning to his seminary ethics professor to exclaim, “Why didn’t you tell me that the most common thing we would see in the parish was incest?”
However, compared to relatively robust responses from government and other organizations, the response from within the church historically has been particularly weak. Churches have been slow to respond, and slow to acknowledge the presence of sexual abuse within our communities.
> Their denial was fed by many sources: they concluded erroneously that if their people were not coming to them with “these problems” that they did not have “these problems.” They also bought into the belief that “these problems” happen to other people, not to them or to people they know. In other words, the Episcopalians could believe that it is a Methodist problem, the Methodists could believe that it is a Baptist problem, and they all could believe that it is a Roman Catholic problem. Invariably, race and class also shaped their beliefs that battering, incest, rape, sexual harassment, and other forms of sexual violation happen to people unlike them.
It appears that there continues to be an epidemic of intimate violence in our culture, both within the church and without, an epidemic against which the church must stand. We are called, first of all, to the building up of our community , and yet, clearly, there are members in the church who are being torn down. Secondly, we are called to be salt and light to the world around us , yet it appears that within the church it is no safer than without. Finally, we are called to be good neighbors, like the Samaritan, and to do this, we must be aware of the violence that is going on around us and be prepared to step in to help. To do this, we must be aware. We must be informed. Over the next few pages, I’d like to explore some of the contributions that the church makes to a culture which allows intimate violence, and what we can do to make it stop.
A lot of my reading for this placed a lot of blame on patriarchy, which they traced back to the Christian faith, a view that I don’t think is entirely accurate: I don’t believe that patriarchy necessarily contributes to intimate violence, nor do I believe that the church exactly invented patriarchy. However, I do believe that there have been several particularly Christian perspectives that have made room for intimate violence.
1. Anti-divorce bias. Christians are understandably leery about divorce. Jesus made it clear that divorce is almost always a sin, except in the case of adultery . Since most incidents of abuse are not adulterous, but “merely” violent, many women have been sent by the church back into abusive situations. But this is a false dilemma. Regardless of whether abuse is an appropriate basis for divorce, divorce is not the only possible response. There is no situation which requires a Christian to remain in the same house as an abusive spouse or parent. Separation for a time (or even permanently) is not the same as divorce.
2. Appeasement. Many pastors have felt compelled to play the part of Neville Chamberlain in the face of an abusive relationship, and tried to adjust the behavior of the abused. However, since abuse is never an appropriate response, it can’t be assumed that adjusting the abused’s behavior will work to eliminate abuse. “Incitement to riot is not an excuse for rioting.” Violent behavior must be eliminated immediately in the relationship before anything else can be adjusted.
3. Misconceptions about submission. A distorted understanding of submission, of course, has been used both by abusers as justification of their abuse, and by the abused as a reason for “submitting” to abuse. However, the scriptures are clear that this is not a proper understanding of submission. Violence on the part of the husband or parent against wife or children is never permitted in scripture. The NIV alternate reading of Malachi 2:16 points to this: “I hate a man’s covering his wife with violence as well as with his garment.” In two places, 1Timothy 3:3 and Titus 1:7 “battering” is specifically mentioned as a disqualification for leadership in the church: The NIV says “not violent” but a closer translation would be “not a beater.” Phrased that way, it seems obvious that the phrase would particularly rule out a wife beater.
> Lastly, of course, the most famous passage which commands wives to submit to their husbands, Ephesians 5:22, does not indicate the kind of submission which can be compelled. The same passage indicates that husbands give themselves up for their wives, “as Christ gave himself up for the church.” A husband who has given himself up can hardly be in the business of compelling obedience from his wife. This is fertile ground for discussion on “mutual submission,” but for my purposes, it can suffice that these verses make no room for violence or abuse.
A survey of denomination and major parachurch websites indicates that for most Christian organizations in the US, domestic violence is not a major focus. The trend seems to be that concerns are expressed in accordance with how theologically liberal an organization is. For instance, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has a 63 page document available from their website , while the Southern Baptist Convention makes no mention of domestic violence at all. The Assemblies of God have a 2 page statement on domestic abuse. Promise Keepers, strikingly, does not list domestic abuse as a major plank in their platform.
I say “strikingly” because I believe that, unless the traditional nuclear family is to be deconstructed, intimate violence must become a primary concern for men more than for women. There is currently no model for evangelical Christians who wish to eliminate intimate violence while still preserving the traditional family roles. Those organizations who have responded robustly to intimate violence seem to have done so at the expense of the traditional nuclear family.
Tracy Trothen demonstrates this transition very clearly in her article, “Prophetic or Followers? The United Church of Canada, Gender, Sexuality, and Violence against Women.” The UCC was “formed in 1925 by the amalgamation of the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches” in Canada, and began addressing domestic violence issues actively in the early 1960’s. From the beginning of the denomination’s history, the concern was primarily at preserving families: divorce was excoriated, traditional family roles were upheld. In 1960, the Comission on Christian Marriage and Divorce stated, “Men are expected to play the roles of lover, husband, and father. Women are expected to accept men as lovers, to be their wives, to conceive, bear, feed, and cherish their children.”
However, as the reality of intimate violence became more apparent, the church began to perceive patriarchal roles as a roadblock to eliminating abuse. The source of abuse was found to “arise from unequal power relationships, usually based on age, gender, and/or position of authority.” In attempting to mediate these power relationships, the UCC began to reevaluate the meaning of “family.” In 1987, they produced a revised definition of the family: “By family we mean persons who are joined together by reason of mutual consent (marriage, contract or covenant) or by birth or adoption/placement.” In the early 1990’s they began distributing pamphlets on “blended families’ and “spirited families,” with alternative understandings of the family. “The most specific example of who could comprise a family, in the latter pamphlet, is the sketch on the front page depicting two women, a girl and a dog.”
The UCC is a very liberal denomination and obviously their response to intimate violence is unacceptable to evangelical Christians. However, their response has *not* been out of proportion. Intimate violence is not acceptable. The cause of Christ cannot go forward with this blot in our midst. It must be dealt with. It must be eliminated.
However, in their zeal to eliminate intimate violence, the UCC failed to take the scriptures as authoritative, and I believe this was a fatal mistake. There is an imbalance of power between men and women, and this clearly has an effect on intimate violence, as evidenced by how many more women and children than men suffer abuse. The UCC, for the most part following western culture at large, attempted to fight against abuse by eliminating this inequality, disenfranchising men from the family in the process. There is no indication, that I can see, that this has worked to eliminate intimate violence. The rates of abuse are nearly as high as can be imagined.
It may well be that disenfranchising men from the family has served to increase, rather than decrease, intimate abuse. Men, simply because they are physically stronger and biologically more aggressive, continue to assert power in relationships, but now they are not constrained by a public understanding of the need to “give themselves up” for their partners. There is no compulsion to protect. It may be that Western society has thrown away the traditional family too quickly.
The first thing that must be recognized is that this is not an intermittent problem. It is a ssystemic problem in the culture. Ultimately the culture must be adjusted to prevent violence against women and children. Liberal responses have revolved around adjusting the family in order to eliminate aggressive male behavior. Unfortunately I suspect this is a futile effort because it rests upon the assumption that male aggression is a learned trait. I sincerely doubt that it is. A more productive approach would be to redirect male aggression toward protection and support rather than dominance and control. I think the church can promote these changes through 3 steps:
1. Awareness among leaders. The kinds of changes necessary to prevent intimate violence in the church must be proposed and supported by leaders within the church in order to be effective. However, it appears that the vast majority of Christian leaders are simply not aware of intimate violence as a significant problem. Unfortunately, it is the nature of the problem that keeps it hidden, rather than the absence of the problem itself. The introduction to *Violence against Women and Children* relates two stories of pastors becoming aware of intimate violence. The first was unaware of any problems until his daughter was abused by her husband. The second was informed of three cases of abuse upon announcing his participation in an abuse workshop. This paper, in part, is an effort to increase awareness.
> Also, according to an unpublished paper by Valerie French, many community intervention programs have little connection with local churches, preventing them fom disseminating information to those communities. Church leaders also need to become aware of their responsibility not only to “preach the word” but also to build and shape a community centered around that word. This means establishing appropriate norms as well as maintaining the cohesiveness of the community necessary to effectively enforce those norms.
2. Public discussion. The primary mode in the church for disseminating information, for preomoting standards and Chrisitan values, and for building up the community is the Sunday morning sermon. Yet, as an evangelical Christian, I have never heard violence against women and children mentioned once, certainly never as a potential problem within the church. In informal interviews with my colleagues at seminary, none of them has ever heard intimate violence ever mentioned in a sermon. The situation cannot be changed if it is never addressed. Additionally, evangelical Christians are as fond of retreats and conferences as any other group. It may be wise to include meetings focused on intimate violence along with more typical worship conferences and Bible seminars.
3. Follow through. Ultimately, this is an issue of social change within the community. Men must begin to see this as a men’s issue, because it is men’s behavior that must be changed. Church leaders, particularly male pastors, must be seen publicly taking an active role in preventing and eliminating domestic violence in the church to properly establish cultural norms. The communal nature of the church must be emphasized; it must be made clear that violence within the family is of great concern to the rest of the community, and that concerns about abuse will be investigated. Upon clear evidence of abuse, the church must respond immediately.
> Gail Golden and Phyllis Frank, in their op-ed, “When 50-50 isn’t fair,” point out that attempting couple counseling in situations where intimate abuse is a concern will likely be counterproductive. Couple counseling divides responsibility for the abuse, and mitigates the severity of the crisis. Instead,
>> strong, confrontive educational counseling that isolates men from their partners, defines the spectrum of abuse, and holds abusers solely accountable for their actions has the possibility of helping abusers to stop this mistreatment. Such intervention is the best protection for a woman from the therapeutic abuse perpetrated by assuming that she has a part in provoking her paertner’s behavior.
> Strikingly, they recommend “that arresting batterers is actually the best ‘theraputic’ intervention yet discovered.” This may seem strange, and perhaps un-Christian, but a strong response such as this actually respects his role as husband and holds him accountable for the responsibilities he has violated.
Intimate violence, sexual violence against women and children is far more prevalent in the church than we would like to believe, yet to date evangelicals have the worst track record for acknowledging a systemic problem and overtly working to correct it. The result has been that the best responses to date have been those that have been willing to sacrifice traditional family roles to subvert violence within the family. However, these efforts have still been less than successful.
The evangelical church has a responsibility to create a robust response to these issues in order to form a community which more accurately reflects Christ’s kingdom and which presents a valid witness of the gospel to the world. Hopefully this paper can be a clarion to those who read it to encourage them to act within their churches and organizations.