Do the Bible’s teachings really cause domestic violence?

Across Australia there was a warm and positive response to the announcement of Rosie Batty becoming the 2015 Australian Of The Year. The award was given in recognition of the powerful example Rosie has been to the community, and an acknowledgement of how domestic violence is a scourge on our community.

Last year, Australians held their collective breath in horror at the news of the death of Rosie Batty’s son, Luke at the hands of her mentally disturbed and violent husband at a local cricket ground.

The key feature missing from the article is the facts. There are no statistics to demonstrate that the assertion Baird is making is accurate.

It is hard to grasp how Luke’s mates must have dealt with that scene of sheer terror as his life was taken. But since that day, the response of Rosie, the devastated wife and mother, has impressed us all. It was a response of strength, grace, grief and understanding.

Rosie lost her son in an awful domestic violence incident, but instead of being immobilised by her grief, she has instead taken on the role of an ambassador for the cause against domestic violence in our community.

With this picture in mind, it has been interesting to read and watch two different responses to intimate relationships over the past weekend. First is the surprising response to the movie Fifty Shades of Grey. This book, and now movie, glorifies violent submission in relationships, apparently with the agreement of the women involved.

It seeks to redefine what is normal and reasonable in sexual relationships. Feminists groups across the country have made attempts to warn the general public of the dangers of this film. They point out that the redefinition of relationships to normalise violence is a dangerous and retrograde step. As Gail Dines [an English–American feminist anti-pornography activist] has written “…women of all ages are swooning over this guy and misreading his obsessive, cruel behaviour as evidence of love and romance”. Even so, the movie took $2.506 million on its first day.

On the same weekend as this film was drawing record crowds with its dangerous message (which seems to completely undermine the message that Rosie Batty has stood against), Sydney Morning Herald opinion writer, Julia Baird weighed into the discussion.

Baird opened her article referring to Batty’s sense of loss and the loneliness one year after death of her son. The article did not follow Rosie Batty’s story and the problem of dealing with mentally unstable spouses, or the powerlessness of police to protect the vulnerable, nor the need for greater vigilance.

Rather, Baird decided that the group in our community that has the potential to create a dangerous family environment is in fact the church. Keep in mind that there is nothing in Rosie Batty’s story that has any relationship to organised religion in our community.

Baird then takes the reader through a series of Biblical passages related to women submitting to husbands and then seeks to insinuate that this is a latent and dangerous potential danger in our community. Every reader would be impressed with Baird’s motivation to point out potential dangers and attitudes that may cause violence to take hold in families. The question to ask is whether what she is suggesting is accurate.

To back up her assertions, the article refers to some anecdotes from counsellors who have seen violent behaviour occurring in church-going or religious families.

The key feature missing from the article is the facts. There are no statistics to demonstrate that the assertion Baird is making is accurate. In response to a social media post, Baird has responded to criticism by saying “I said the doctrine of headship can foster mistrust/[be] misinterpreted” which of course is true, but the key issue though is not whether it can, but whether it has.

As the article states, there are people who have misused Scripture to somehow endorse their negative and controlling relationships, but the questions are firstly whether that is common, and secondly, whether that is what the Bible actually teaches.

The complete lack of any evidence other than one or two personal examples in Baird’s article seems to suggest that there is no hard evidence that violent, controlling behaviour is the result of people following the Bible’s teaching.

I personally have worked in churches for more that 30 years. I have worked across the denominations in all states of Australia so I think I can say that I have a fair idea of what families in churches are like. In all that time I have seen very few – perhaps two or three at best – experiences where people have misused the Bible to support their practice of dominating their partners and I can truthfully say I don’t know one minister, pastor or church leader who has ever told a wife to stay with an abusive partner. Those church leaders quoted in Baird’s article suggest that they know of such examples, and I am not denying their experience, but I am just suggesting that they are very isolated.

Secondly, is domination and control what the Bible actually teaches regarding a husband’s attitude to his wife? The answer is a resounding no! In fact Paul says that husbands are to “love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Ephesians 5:23). If a husband is to lead in the household, it is to be the leadership of service and self-giving. The only way that any man could decide that the Bible gives him the right to dominate and control his wife is a man who has not read it properly.

The influence Fifty Shades of Grey will have on our community is as yet unclear but it seems very unlikely to be helpful. As the movie has only been out in Australia one weekend and the book since 2011, it is much too early for there to be any hard data on the outcome.

On the other hand, the Bible has been around  for nearly 2000 years and has been part of Australian culture for more than 200 years. If there was regular, systematic and oppressive behaviour by Christian husbands to their wives creating domestic violence then I think that would be very clear by now.

Julia Baird, motived with the best intentions, has attempted to link Christian teaching with domestic violence when there is no real evidence that this is the case. The article is based on isolated cases and makes an inference that does a major disservice to the church and every Christian leader in the country. Perhaps it would have been better to focus on obvious causes for this abhorrent behaviour rather than seeking to invent them.

Karl Faase is CEO of Olive Tree Media.