When we get the response wrong

Religious teachings can be a roadblock to stopping domestic violence. It does not have to be so. At the Hear Believe Act Project we have heard many sisters talk about the response they received from much loved brothers and sisters in their ecclesias and even their own families when they shared their experiences of domestic violence and sought help in one way or another.

We can respond by helping them understand that domestic abuse is wrong and that there is no reason for a loving Godly husband to misuse power to exert control over his wife. God does not call on wives to endure such suffering or to allow it to damage the lives and life prospects of their children.

We can help victims see that domestic abuse is a violation of the marriage vows and that domestic abuse is not the “worse” in “for better or worse” - better or worse circumstances in life are not the oppressive sustained mistreatment of spouse or children. As David did from Saul, fleeing such oppression is a perfectly legitimate response.

We can explain the importance of equality and respect in relationships and that when Christ calls on us to be submissive, it does not include submitting to such treatment that is clearly contrary to Christ’s teaching, for instance that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves us. Wives are to be submissive to their husbands as those faithfully emulating Christ in their relationship, but that does not mean that husbands can demand submission at all, and particularly not when it is in violation of all that our Lord stands for. We can counsel wives that if they make it clear that they they will not suffer this behaviour in silence, including if they can and need to by separating from their husband for their own safety and ensuring he is supported to get help to change his behaviour, then and only then can they start to restore the prospects of sharing eternity with him, and if they do ever come to trust him again, enjoying a God-centred marriage bringing forth the fruits the Father seeks.

Instead we are told by sisters (usually it is sisters) that when they have sought help from brothers and sisters about violence in their marriage, they have been counselled to avoid the behaviours which lead to the violent responses. For example, “If he throws the meal at you because he is not happy with it, quietly clean it up and make him what he wants”.

Instead we are told by these same sisters that they have been reminded of the permanence of marriage and that their need to accept this suffering as God’s will for them and keep the marriage together “for the sake of the children”. They have been told that God hates anyone breaking up a marriage.

Unfortunately in these and other ways scripture is misused to validate the power imbalance present in these relationships.

We do have exemplars of ecclesias who have responded to reports of abuse effectively and with Christ-like compassion, but these seem to be the exception rather than the rule in those cases we hear about. These may well be good deeds done in secret and the oppressed may have been "set free"and have no need to talk to us. If you know of these we hope you will tell us about them so that we can "mark them that so walk".

Why don't we hear this subject talked about in our community very often? We suspect it is in part because of our individual and collective fears about diminishing or damaging the institution of marriage and a general feeling that issues should be kept as "family secrets"together with an anxiety about the fall-out from exposing untenable situations in marriages within our ecclesial fabric. We are sometimes fixated on the (fabricated) picture of "happy families" or "happy ecclesias" even when they are underpinned by "sham marriages" and wickedness behind closed doors. We sometimes are concerned about bringing shame on individuals and families rather than putting a stop to lifetimes of pain, saving the oppressed and bringing sinners to repentance. We sometimes confuse a victim's responses to her oppression out of desperation (which sometimes are unChristlike and inappropriate) with the cause of the abuse and fail to show a compassionate response and understanding of where human nature can take any of us when in desperate straits. On occasions we appear to elevate forgiveness and place demands on victims to forgive ahead of the principles of the Atonement that call for confession and fruits meet for repentance shown over time as a prerequisite for forgiveness. We also can be blinded by symptoms of domestic abuse such as mental health issues, vulnerabilities including moral and spiritual vulnerabilities and devastated trust in the ecclesia and brothers and sisters - we thus are blinded to the real causes of these problems and the first order issue of domestic abuse that has led to these terrible situations.

The Hear Believe Act Project includes a discussion paper which addresses examples of this spiritual abuse. It is prayerfully offered in the hope that by God’s grace it can be used to help educate brothers and sisters and whole ecclesias to show the love of God in their response to reports of domestic abuse. We commend it to your reading, and ask you to distribute it widely. Please provide your feedback on any of the website content or discussion paper - we are particularly interested in ecclesias with positive experiences and outcomes, and to helping make this content more accessible, useful and effective in addressing this problem in the Christadelphian community.

If this article raises concerns you have about domestic violence in your own life or those around you can call 1800RESPECT (If in Australia) or similar services in other countries. There is also a list of support services on this website including Christadelphian Support Services.

Image credit: By Steve Evans from Citizen of the World (Americana/Wedding: The Preacher) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons