This article takes a quick look at the likelihood of Christian men to commit domestic abuse. It also looks at factors within Christianity that some see as catalysts for abuse to occur and continue. It references two off-site articles that I recommend reading in full to best understand them and my comments.

A charge that is sometimes made today is that Christian churches are breeding grounds for domestic violence in part because of the teaching of gender roles in marriage i.e. headship and submission. It is believed that Christian men are more likely to abuse their wives when they believe in gender roles in marriage. The argument tends to paint “Christianity” with a wide brush and put these Christian men all in the same basket, meaning they are more likely to act the same way: badly towards women. Additionally, many things relating to these gender roles are labeled as “patriarchy”. Some see no difference between patriarchy and complementarianism and see both as detrimental if not evil to women. The goal is to take them down so that women can be safe.

There are a number of problems with this argument. I cannot address all of them here, but I will address some, working in part from the two articles that I mentioned above.

First, here are a few things to consider. Of the denominations/churches that ascribe to gender roles in marriage that include headship and submission, there is a range we need to understand. Some teach about the roles of headship and submission correctly (biblically), some seldom speak of these roles, and some promote practices or views about them that are damaging. It is critical to understand that these differences exist. It is not reasonable or correct to lump all these denominations and churches together and accuse all of them for the failings of some.

Not all of these denominations/churches promote an atmosphere that would lead men to feel entitled or empowered to abuse. There are churches that teach about gender roles correctly or take care to make sure husbands understand the right (biblical) way to treat their wives. I am not implying that abusers could not be in those churches, but I am saying that the fault of abuse is not in the teachings of these churches about gender roles or in the source of the teachings, the Bible. It is in the churches that promote practices or views about roles that are damaging and in the sinner who commits abuse.

In the same way that these churches are different, men who believe in gender roles in marriage that include headship and submission are different. There is a range. Some are Christians indeed; some are nominal Christians. Some strive to live it biblically, some do not work at it, and some live it badly. The scariest combination is a man who is not a Christian yet misappropriates the biblical language or concepts of headship and submission to control or abuse his wife be she a Christian or not. We have to be aware of these distinctions whenever we are talking about or dealing with men and abuse. Additionally, understanding this helps to sort out the “basket” of “all Christian men” who believe in gender roles.

With all this being said, are men who attend church more likely to commit domestic violence? An answer comes from both of the following articles.

Article One

Here is the first of two articles to consider.

Evangelicals and Domestic Violence: Are Christian Men More Abusive? by Brad Wilcox
December 11, 2017 Christianity Today

Excerpts:

Taken as a whole, what does the evidence suggest?

In general, setting aside nominal Christians, the research indicates that evangelical Protestantism does not pose the kind of risks that are often alleged. Indeed, at least judging from studies here in the US, it looks like churchgoing may well help men steer clear of violence.”

and…

men who attend religious services several times a week are 72% less likely to abuse their female partners than men from comparable backgrounds who do not attend services.”

One would think, based on the charges against churches and Christian men, that those who attend services “several times a week” would have a high likelihood of abuse not a high less likely.

and…

But are their marriages safer?

My research suggests that wives married to churchgoing evangelical men are comparatively safe. In the National Survey of Families and Households, husbands and wives were both asked if their arguments had gotten physical in the last year, and, if so, if they or their partner had “become physically violent.” By these measures, churchgoing evangelical Protestant husbands were the least likely to be engaged in abusive behavior.”

Important message from the end of the article:

Domestic violence is still present in church-going homes, and Christian clergy, counselors, and lay leaders need to do a much better job of articulating clear, powerful messages about abuse and, more generally, married life. Although, as noted before, the church is not necessarily enabling abuse, some local churches, clergy, and counselors fail to address abuse head-on for fear of breaking up a marriage. Others steer clear of addressing the topic from the pulpit or in adult education for fear of broaching an uncomfortable subject. This silence around domestic violence has to end.”

Again, I invite you to read the above article in full and do further research on this topic if desired. Work against simply accepting the “basket” view of Christian men. Many of them are men who love the Lord, seek to keep His ways including being the head of their wives, and would never dream of committing domestic abuse. (I am referring to the patterns of behaviors that are typically considered domestic abuse, not the common sins we all commit like lack of patience or times of selfishness or anger. See What Is Domestic Violence? on The National Domestic Violence Hotline website for details about what is typically considered domestic abuse. If you visit, please be aware that someone in your personal life could possibly see where you have been surfing if they have access to your device and browsing history. Only visit if it is safe.)

That there are Christian men who would never dream of committing domestic abuse is true not only because they love the Lord, but because they love their wives and are simply not given to abuse. Stepping into the role of leader does not de facto make them a tyrant or abuser. This is not unlike a parent who although they have been given authority over their child by God, would never, ever even entertain the idea of abusing their child.

_________________

Article Two

The above article references the paper ‘When She Calls for Help’—Domestic Violence in Christian Families by Leonie Westenberg. This is another interesting article that discusses domestic abuse. Again, I recommend reading it in full. I have quite a few critical thoughts about this paper; though to be fair, I do not disagree with everything in it. Some of my more critical thoughts follow.

As a way of addressing the problem of abuse, the author advocates for severing “the connection between Christian religious language and abuse”. In the article, it is said that certain language used in churches’ teaching, preaching, classes, and material exasperates domestic violence in Christian families. It is postulated that by changing “religious language”, abuse can be abated. In other words, the paper calls for moving away from certain words (and by extension concepts). Some of what needs changing is “religious language” that relates to male leadership or headship and female submission in marriage. Since this language is sometimes used by men and women who are involved in domestic abuse, it is problematic. Remove the language – protect women.

Excerpts:

Research underlines the contributory role of language such as male headship and wifely submission in the responses of Christian men who have perpetrated abuse, echoed in the statements of Christian women who have endured such abuse (Knickmeyer et al. 2004, pp. 54–82). This represents the relationship between the language of complementarianism and the prevalence and endurance of domestic violence. Instead, the application of egalitarian and inclusive language in Christian churches, especially when speaking of marriage and the family, can act in the promotion of equality, and in the primary prevention of domestic violence. The interpretation in biblical exegesis of inclusive language can illuminate scriptural teaching that would promote the “pattern of Christ” so that “patterns of domination and submission” will be “transformed in the mutuality of love, faithful care, and sharing of burdens (Anglican Church UK Archbishops’ Council 2006, p. 19).”

and…

Correction of such language, in religious practice, preaching, and biblical interpretation, is a monumental and lengthy task that begins, as this paper has noted, with increasing an awareness of the problem of harmful religious language. Indeed, Christian churches, in building a response to domestic violence, should examine the role of religious language in practice, in church structures, in liturgy, and in programs concerning marriage and counselling. Such examination, coupled with a reworking of language to represent egalitarianism in Christian churches, is supported by scripture, by the example of Christ’s ministry, and by the cardinal virtues extolled by Christianity.”

I am all for protecting women; however, the suggested approach is flawed and presents a brazen approach to God’s word. “Correcting” religious language or removing words is not a reliable way to prevent abuse. Men will abuse one way or another. The article itself sates that:

While studies have demonstrated that Christian men are no more likely to be abusers than men in the general population and that religious affiliation according to denomination and/or liberal/conservative Christian views does not predict the likelihood of domestic violence (Wang et al. 2009),…”

Abusers will abuse whether they are connected with a church and its language (even churches with conservative views) or not. They will find their reason or authority to do so. And the men who are using “religious language” like headship or submission (that actually stems from the Bible) in defense of their abuse, are clearly not living in obedience to God’s word. They may not even be Christians. This distinction must be understood. Here is one example from the article of a report of a man using “religious language” who was abusive. It is the continuation of the above quote.

…there remains the fact that Christian women who have suffered domestic violence cite the use of religious language to accept abuse (Knickmeyer et al. 2016). For example, one participant in the cross-denominational study described use of religious language to condone abuse:

“And that’s something my husband always put in front of me when we were fighting. ‘Uh, you Catholic, and you suppose to be at home, and you suppose to have sex, the Bible says you supposed to, uh, do whatever your husband wants in sex.’…I was supposed to have as many children as he wanted to” (Knickmeyer et al. 2016, p. 9).”

This does not sound like a true Christian man who is using the language or concepts of the Bible to abuse his wife. This sounds like a man who is using what he can to get what he wants. The fault lies not with the language or the real concepts from the Bible, it is with the sinner. Putting this man in the same basket with a godly Christian man would be like bunching apples and oranges together and calling them the same fruit.

If a husband truly wants to claim the authority (and language) of the Bible for his actions or expectations then he must include the following passage from Scripture, which interestingly and tragically was never mentioned in the article. There is nothing harmful in this passage, only deep theological meaning and beauty and profound provision for the wives of godly Christian husbands.

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND SHALL BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband.” (Ephesians 5:25-33)

And even these verses do not give the whole picture of how the Bible instructs Christian men to live and treat their wives. Many verses teach the dignity and worth of women and promote “love, faithful care, and sharing of burdens”. We do not need to rework the “language to represent egalitarianism” to protect wives. There is no case to be made from the Bible that a Christian husband can treat his wife badly, even when, no, especially when you include passages that speak directly to a husband’s unique role as head of his wife.

The suggestion in the article to address abuse by changing “religious language” is also flawed because it offers its suggestions without naming the real problem which is sin. The remedy for that is not changing language and moving towards egalitarianism which in the article is called making “theological correction”. The remedy is the work of God in the hearts of man. What corresponds with that is staying true to God’s word, not changing words or concepts that come from it. Those changes would be brazen, adulterations of the Bible.

I will say it one more time. The problem is not with the language or the concepts of headship and submission. The problem is in the person (sinner) who misapplies them. Some men “abuse” the Scriptures to abuse their wives.  Instead of advocating for simply getting rid of (biblical) language and concepts and presenting an unbiblical egalitarian view of marriage roles, it would be far wiser to advocate for proper instruction in the word of God and herald the need for hearts to repent. Real obedience to the Bible does not promote abuse. It promotes love and happiness. Real Christian men who know the Bible and live it well are less likely to abuse. God knows us. What He has ordained is good for our wellbeing and sanctification. I must advocate for being true to His will and word. And of course I advocate for all those who are or have been in harm’s way. As individuals and churches we must do all we can to prevent abuse, hear those who come forward, and protect them from further injury.

If you are in an abusive situation please seek help in a safe way. Do not wait. Do not give up. My prayers are with you. If I can help in any way, please see my Contact page.

See also: Domestic Abuse in Marriage

Sharon Lareau

Founder of Chapter 3 Ministries
Ministering in the spirit of Titus 2:3-5 and encouraging women to contend for the faith.