It is an interview I will never forget. In my mid 20’s I was just a couple of years into my ministry in the Scottish Highlands when a young woman asked to see me for help.   The story she told was horrendous.  Her husband was excessively violent.  He sometimes used to beat her so badly that she feared for her life.  My advice was immediate:  You have to leave him.  But I was young, and she questioned my discernment.  Doesn’t the Bible say that you are supposed to submit to your husband?  She was a Christian so shouldn’t she do what the Bible said?  I assured her that the Bible also said that you should not commit suicide and that she was misunderstanding the doctrine of submission.  On the basis of 1 Corinthians 7 I suggested that because her husband was not willing to live ‘in peace’ with her, she should leave.   But we took it to the Presbytery.  In fact, they held a special Saturday afternoon meeting because they deemed it to be so important.   The decision was unanimous.  She was strongly advised that it was her Christian duty to leave her husband.  It was one of the early defining moments of my ministry.  Ever since that time there has not been a year when some form or other of domestic abuse has not been part of what we had to deal with.  Domestic abuse is nothing new.

That all came to mind when I read the Australian Anglican Churches report on domestic abuse within its own ranks. 

https://anglican.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/NAFVP-Top-Line-Results-Report-NCLS-Research.pdf

It makes sobering reading, especially as reported by Julia Baird in her column in The Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/by/julia-baird-hve5y

“The Anglican church has a serious dangerous problem with women. A report out this week found that those inside the church are significantly more likely to have experienced abuse than those in the broader population.”   It’s shocking stuff.  This article was then backed up a couple of days later by another SMH (anonymous)one from a former clergyman’s wife entitled “Anglican church must rethink doctrine that has left a trail of devastated lives”.   https://www.smh.com.au/national/anglican-church-must-rethink-doctrine-that-has-left-a-trail-of-devastated-lives-20210612-p580j4.html?fbclid=IwAR06eX94GDGaICwIufRHPWaXj0Ue_69zbHpFS8_MnjdpeMIuhzKK7FnNKcI

The SMH, ABC and the Australian all reported that ‘Scripture was used to justify violence’.  Julia Baird used the majority of her show “The Drum’ to deal with this serious problem in the Anglican church.  In a week when one of Australia’s leading swimmers pulled out of the Olympics because of the ‘abusive culture’ and it was reported that domestic violence in NSW had shot up 50% over Covid, it was revealing that this is what the ABC chose to highlight.  I felt sorry for Michael Jensen, who did well, bravely going into the lion’s den seemingly to defend the indefensible.  Julia’s solution was simple; she demanded a moratorium on current Sydney Anglican teaching on ‘headship and leadership’ for five years, get more women ordained and have the Archbishop and bishops and all clergy ‘rush to the pulpit this weekend to denounce the abuse”.

The Twitter pile on began immediately:

  • Not surprised by findings of this report, especially given the lack of gender equity in the Anglican Church. The Sydney Diocese in particular with its outdated views.
  • Should we be surprised that any Judeo-Christian sect is rooted in patriarchal power constructs? The whole basis of Judaism is patriarchy, the scriptures oral histories of male lineages and the transfer of power.
  • How About Setting up RELIGIOUS FREE SAFE Places
  • Does religious belief male or female lead to violence, yes, they are bigots by definition
  • Powerful and courageous article on a damning report. This may be an article in the secular press, but make no mistake, it will reverberate in the church and – no matter what the male leaders say, think or do – represents leadership they can’t control… Hallelujah
  • Be interesting actually to see it across all major religions and denominations in Australia. My gut feeling is evangelical mega churches and Mormons are likely hotbeds, along with any veering far right/ultra conservative.

It’s little wonder that some of my colleagues have received worried questions and comments from some parishioners.   What is going on?

Victims:  

Let’s begin with the second most important issue here: the victims.  Does IPV (intimate partner abuse) exist?  Absolutely.  One in three Australian women over 15 report that they have been sexually abused or violently assaulted. One woman per week is murdered by a partner or former partner.  It is a deep sickness within the cultures of this great country.     Does it exist within the Church?  Undoubtedly.  Do churches (of whatever denomination) need to be more aware of, and supportive to, those who suffer from IPV?  Certainly.   Do people sometimes misuse the Bible in order to justify their own sin?   Sadly, far too often. 

In any discussion about this subject, it is both important to listen to the victims and to uphold the teaching of Christ.  Our hearts should be the heart of Christ for the abused, the vulnerable and the desecrated.   The first reaction of any church should not a defensive one.   However, neither should it one of meek submission to the all-seeing ‘report’ and ‘experts’, nor an acceptance of partial solutions based on shallow thinking.   We must learn to lovingly question and think.   

Questions

I’ve actually read the report – and apart from the headline grabbing takeaway notes it says surprisingly little. There are so many questionable aspects that no responsible journalist, pastor, or commentator would take it seriously without at least thinking through some of the questions.   

Take for example the definition of abuse.   “IPV is defined as behaviour within an intimate relationship that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviours. “This needs to be broken down.   By that standard almost everyone could claim to have been abused.  It puts the ‘nagging wife’ (Proverbs 27:15) or the ‘quarrelsome’ woman (Proverbs 21:9), on a par with the violent man whom the Lord hates with a passion (Psalm 11:5)! 

The definition of abuse which the report uses includes any of 15 behaviours. This definition is so wide that it includes ‘intimidation, belittling and humiliation”. Can any of us, male or female honestly claim that we have never belittled or humiliated our partners?  It also included spiritual abuse.  Again, these things are real, but almost impossible to define and as a result we end up with confusion.  For example, the report states that 10% of the public report that they have been spiritually abused.  What does that even mean?

Methodologically the report is significantly flawed and even the disputable results do not warrant the hysterical headlines.  This survey was an online survey of 2,000 males and females.  825 of whom were Anglican.  Of that 825 only 26% were church attenders.  Thus, the sensationalist headlines of this report were based on a sample of around 200 church attenders for the whole of Australia!   – most of whom were probably not in Bible-believing churches.  Yet somehow the whole report is produced as evidence that teaching the Bible is responsible for abuse and is used by Julia Baird as ammunition in her ongoing personal campaign against Sydney Anglicanism.

The report even admits that it is not representative!    “These were non-probability samples from online panels so representativeness to the wider population cannot be claimed”.  It was too expensive to do a probability sample.    Only 20 selected respondents were interviewed, a small sample of a self-selected online group.  Drawing any conclusions from this, let alone seeing it as proof of an endemic problem, is not an honest approach to real research.   For those who understand the technicalities of surveys what this tells us is that, as the authors admit, they could not afford to do a probability research, so they went for the much cheaper, and much more ambiguous ‘non-probability’ sample.  It then becomes so much easier to design and write a report which finds what its authors want to find and provides ammunition for those who have a particular ideological/theological agenda. 


That’s why there is so little provable information within the actual report.  For example, of the limited nonprobability sample, 22% of those who identified as Anglicans said they have been in their lifetime in a relationship with an adult which had been abusive.  But was this before or after they came to church?  If a woman had been in a violent situation and then became a Christian and started going to an Anglican church, she would still be considered in this report as being an abused Anglican.  Then she would somehow end up as a statistic in an argument about women’s ordination! 

And then the reporting of it (I don’t blame the journalists for this – even though the SMH boasts in its latest advert that it does ‘deep inquiry’ into every issue and offers nuanced and balanced open minded reporting – https://blog.canberradeclaration.org.au/2021/06/14/the-open-mind-of-the-smh/

They largely just go with the headlines they are spoon-fed, including the somewhat sensationalist ‘Anglicans more likely to be abused’.    In fact, the report states that in 2019 18% of the general public said they had experienced abuse, 17% of Anglicans.  And even more surprisingly that there more of the public who had experienced spiritual abuse!  

What about the astonishing statistic that 1/3 of Anglican men claim that they have been abused – including 23% who state they have experienced physical abuse from their partner.  Not a word from Julia Baird, or indeed from the authors in the press release about this.  Are one-third of men in our congregations abused?  And if they are how can this be blamed on the patriarchy or Philip and Peter Jensen teaching biblical doctrine?!


How should the Churches deal with this?

As already stated, a primary concern should be the victims of IPV.   In that regard we should recognise what is good in the report – for example the necessity of the local church to be aware of domestic violence, the importance of seeing marriage as a covenant (although the writers do not define what a covenant is and don’t seem to have a biblical understanding of the concept).   

Then it should be acknowledged that the Sydney diocese in particular has already developed a robust system for dealing with domestic violence.  Kara Hartley, the Archdeacon for women’s ministry listed it as follows:

  • Established the Domestic Violence Task Force and now a monitoring committee
  • · Listened to survivors and identified key themes and experiences
  • · Adopted a Domestic Violence Policy (possibly the first of its type in Australia)
  • · Provided Domestic Violence leave for clergy
  • · Established the Ministry Spouse Support Fund through Synod
  • · Produced resources online and in print for survivors, clergy, and lay contacts
  • · Produced an online training course, Know Domestic Abuse, for clergy and church workers
  • · Provided training for all clergy and lay ministry workers on identifying, assisting, and referring survivors of family abuse
  • · Liaised with Professional Standards Unit, Moore College, Ministry Training and Development, Youthworks and Anglicare to ensure best practice for those currently training in ministry
  • · Encouraged clergy to seek advice from the Anglicare Family and Domestic Violence advisor

Online resources are located at https://safeministry.org.au/domestic-family-abuse/

A lot is already being done.  Doubtless, as always, there could be improvement.  But Christians must learn not to bow down to the media bullies who demand we change our doctrines to suit their ideologies and agendas.  

Let’s return to the damaging article from Julia in the SMH.  It’s so unbalanced that if you don’t agree with her, you are in denial. She attacks the ‘headship’ doctrine without understanding it, and without any evidence,  blames it for the abuse. Are there no abusers in the rest of the largely liberal Australian Anglican church?    Sadly, she is weaponizing the issue of domestic abuse for her own ideological and theological purposes. She named and shamed a prominent Anglican female leader – Claire Smith (a fine Christian leader whose depth, compassion and insight are a gift to the whole church and who has been a women’s champion in the Sydney diocese for years.  She does not deserve to be trashed in this way.  Julia dishonestly claimed that Claire stated that IPV either never or rarely occurs in churches.   She states that clergy wives came ‘in droves’ to her claiming that they had been ‘raped, controlled and attacked’.   She states that clergy regard domestic violence as an individual sin, whereas she sees it as a systemic problem.  She seems to see it as a consequence of not permitting women’s ordination.   Such is the level of her imbalanced perspective on this that she demands Sydney churches should stop doing everything until they do what she demands!   ’Why do anything else at all until this is resolved?” .  There are obviously deep personal issues here, but no church should be intimidated or bullied in this way. 

When someone says or implies – unless you accept this report you are responsible for all forms of domestic violence including rape – don’t give into such emotive bullying.  Don’t tweet some waffle about needing to look seriously into it just because you want to show you are on the side of the angels.  Go ahead and really look seriously into it.  See if it has any substance.  And then give a biblical response.   As for example David Ould did when this issue came up a few years ago – https://davidould.net/abusing-an-argument-thinking-harder-about-the-current-discusions-about-domestic-violence-and-the-church/

The Primary Issue

Readers will have noticed that I suggested that caring for the victims was the second most important issue.  What could be more important?  The answer for the Christian, is the glory of God.  These are not opposites.  Indeed, because the victims are made in the image of God, as are the perpetrators, we should care for them all the more.  But we do not care for those made in God’s image by rejecting his Word.  That would result in more, not less, abuse.   I care passionately for both the victims and for the fact that the Word of God is being mocked and maligned by those who either don’t grasp what they are doing or have another agenda.

Of the 200 church attenders who say they were abused (including the one-third who are men), just how many go to evangelical churches and use the argument that because they are the head of the house, they have the right to beat their wives?   I don’t doubt that are some like this – but the report does not tell us how many. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I believe that the lowest pit in Hell is reserved for those who misuse Scripture, God’s Holy Word, to abuse those he has made in his holy image.  But not far behind are those who misuse abuse, in order to attack Scripture.  Both types of abusers aid and abet each other.   The one rejects the teaching of Christ by not practising it, the other rejects the teaching of Christ by blaming it for abuse.  A plague on both their houses!


Is biblical teaching responsible for abuse?   

Of course not.  There is zero evidence in the report that that is the case.  That’s a spin put on it by those who hate the biblical teaching, and don’t have the ability to argue against it.  So they just demonise.   

The report suggests that “Absolutist discourses related to marriage as a lifelong commitment, the submission of the wife to the husband, unconditional forgiveness and suffering for Christ….are harmful for those who experience abuse”.   I would suggest that it is the misunderstanding and misuse of these teachings which causes harm.  Those who misuse these teachings are blaspheming.  As are those who reject them. The key biblical teaching on this is that men are to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25-27).  It’s a level of service, sacrifice and love way beyond anything our secularists could even dream of.  And a million miles away from the ‘bible says I can beat you with impunity’ caricature so beloved by those who want to attack our faithful Anglican sisters and brothers. 

Our secular and religious progressives teach doctrines which result in far more abuse.   If those who are attacking Philip Jensen, Moore College, Claire Smith, and the Sydney diocese are truly concerned to deal with teaching that does harm, then can I suggest they deal with the progressive ideologies that are currently reaping havoc in our culture and creating tens of thousands of victims – including in churches.  Hypocritical ‘evangelicals may have slain their thousands, but progressives have slain their tens of thousands!   I look forward to the ABC and Sydney Morning Herald doing reports on the prevalence of domestic abuse in their own staff.  I’m sure that would be even more revealing!


The Church has been against abuse since the beginning.  Take for example this, posted by a Sydney Anglican friend.

“Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer (1535) wrote:

“If a man is cruel to his wife and displays excessive harshness of word and of deed toward her… … and if he refuses to abandon his cruelty… Then he must be considered his wife’s mortal enemy and a threat to her life… In her peril, recourse must be made to the remedy of divorce, no less than if her life had been openly attacked… it is our will that parties set free in this manner may contract a new marriage, while those convicted of said crimes be punished either by perpetual exile or imprisonment for life.”

(Tudor Church Reform: The Henrician Canons of 1535 and the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum)

It’s taken society centuries to catch up.  It’s a shame that as we are rejecting our Christian roots we are regressing to the Greco/Roman/Pagan abuse of women and children.  Our sexual ‘freedom’ has even led to the reintroduction of slavery into Western society! 

Finally let me return to the mantra that is consistently used in this argument.  ‘Listen to the victims’.  But can I suggest that the mantra should be changed – ‘Listen to ALL the victims’.  In years of Christian ministry, I have come across numerous victims. 

Let me list just a few of those I have listened to, and sought to help, in the name of Christ: a 16-year-old girl groomed by a 60-year-old church leader; a young woman who wasn’t sure whether she was allowed to marry again after her abusive marriage broke up; a woman traumatised by memories of her boyfriend compelling her to have an abortion; and a woman who was beaten in public so badly by her boyfriend that the police were called.  Because I had intervened, I was called as a witness.  Yet months later, sitting in the court, the police came and told me that she had withdrawn charges and gone back to him – a pattern they observed happen again and again.    

There are others: a young male student who was told by police that there was nothing they could do about him being raped by a businessman because you ‘couldn’t prove gay rape’; a female student who was date drugged raped at a party and again police said there was nothing they could do; a young woman who was so badly abused as a child that she decided she hated being a woman and decided to ‘transition’; a middle-aged woman who ran out of a service upset at my teaching the ‘horrible, horrible’ doctrine that God is a loving Father, because she was judging God by her father; a teenage girl persuaded to have an abortion by her social worker and doctor, who then realised that they had lied to her when they told her it was just like ‘having a wart removed’; a teacher who committed suicide two years after being falsely accused by a couple of schoolgirls ‘for a laugh’; a ‘covenant’ we signed with the police and a convicted paedophile enabling him to attend church (within strict limits), and seeking to rehabilitate; a businessman who told me that he never picked up a single female hitchhiker because he had once been extorted – ‘give me money or I’ll go to the police and say you abused me’; a brilliant Christian student whose mind, body and life were messed up by a tutor insisting she read the Marquis de Sade; a man whose wife mocked, humiliated, and abused him; students who believed the ‘progressive’ sexual ideology they were taught and then became victims of that ideology; women and men abused, demeaned, and degraded by the porn industry; ten year old boys whose minds may never recover after seeing the most explicit porn videos on their phones; a misogynist church leader who objected to women praying, whilst having an affair with a work colleague; many others exploited and abused by prostitution; a woman who was beaten by her church going husband….and so much more.    Yes, listen to the victims.  But listen to all the victims.  Don’t set yourself up as the ultimate judge.    And don’t dare use them to further your ideology, or your own personal agendas.   Remember this.  The Word of God is the cure…not the problem.

David Robertson 

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