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A response to the ABC Report on domestic violence in churches

Saturday, 5 August 2017  | Graeme Cann

I am glad of this opportunity to respond to last month’s ABC report on Domestic Violence in the Church. I will not add my voice to those who have sprung to the defense of the Church, nor do I think it is right or appropriate to suggest that somehow the statistics prove that the incidence of domestic violence is higher among ‘evangelical men who attend church occasionally’ than any other segments of society.

What I believe is that the most appropriate and transparent response we as the Church can make is first to admit, in humility and remorse, that much of what is said in the article is indeed correct. Christian women are certainly among those thousands of women who are abused by their partners every year, and Christian men are far too often numbered among the perpetrators. Many of these abusers of women have justified their behaviour by using scripture passages. Or they have demanded instant forgiveness from those they have abused, on the basis that the Christian obligation is to forgive without demanding behavioural change. Perhaps even more disturbing is the charge that Pastors and Church leaders have frequently failed to give appropriate support to domestic abuse survivors or call to account those who have committed the criminal offence of violence against women. It is also true that some Churches and many Pastors do not actively preach and teach the equality of women and men, or demonstrate that they believe in such a thing by giving women equal opportunity to serve God and the Church, and that this often is used as a theological justification for Domestic Violence. And finally, my personal experience has been that many clergy are reluctant to get involved in the wider community’s attempt to address this issue.

In this article I do not plan to argue about the appropriate understandings of such positions as male headship or a wife's submission. I simply want to reaffirm that, when Paul says ‘husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church’ (Ephesians 5:25), he is categorically prohibiting every attitude or behaviour that results in a husband devaluing, humiliating, belittling or emotionally or physically wounding his wife. Likewise, whatever Paul meant when he told wives ‘to submit to their husbands as unto the Lord’ (Ephesians 5:22), he was not asking them to live in servitude to, or in fear of, their husbands. Nor was he supporting some mistaken idea that men and women were not created equal by God and that in both the family and the Church they were to be treated as inferior.

What I want to discuss is the following question: what will distinguish a Church leader or a Church congregation who having humbly and regretfully acknowledged that much of the ABC report was a reasonably fair appraisal of the situation, and who are willing to adopt the necessary changes in attitude and behaviour to effect significant change? Let me suggest a number of answers to this question.

1. They will unequivocally label all partner violence as a criminal act that is punishable by law. As a recent Wikipedia article explains: ‘Victoria Police regards family violence as extremely serious and has a pro-charge code of practice. The organization sees the nature of violence in family relationships as particularly insidious because it is an abuse of trust. There is often a continuing threat to the victim's safety or to their life, or the lives of their children and sometimes to extended family members’. Church leaders and congregations should be no less condemning of the crime of partner abuse.

2. They will familiarise themselves with all aspects of Domestic Violence, with a special emphasis on understanding the causes and effects. For too long we have excused a husband’s violence against his wife on the basis that ‘he was drunk’ or that ‘he was under stress’ or even that ‘she pushed him over the edge’. There is a reason for partner violence but there are no excuses. The reason is that some men believe that it is appropriate to subject their wives to violence and verbal abuse as a form of control and, unfortunately, such beliefs are often supported by societal attitudes.

3. They will give appropriate support to survivors of domestic abuse. As Church leaders or Church congregations they will no longer encourage women to remain in violent relationships; nor will they simply encourage them to go to the police and then wipe their hands of the situation. They will provide them with the support they need to report the violence and then to go through the trauma of court appearances and separation. They will know how to refer them to helpful organisations and they will assure that everything is done to guarantee their ongoing safety.

4. They will understand that a few sessions of spiritual counseling, or even a new spiritual experience, will probably not be enough to guarantee that a man will not resort to violence again. The reality is that intensive treatment over a long period will be necessary and, even then, the evidence would show that some abusive men never change. However, there are a number of helpful programs available. Information about these can be obtained by contacting the Domestic Violence Centre in your State.

5. They will teach regularly on issues related to making families safe places. Such teaching will not only resource and strengthen families but will also give people the courage to seek help if they are concerned about what is happening in their family or to them personally.

6. They will be involved in the wider community campaign against Domestic Violence. A number of initiatives such as Prevention Violence Against Women provide a range of resources and training events. The Anglican Diocese of Melbourne offers a Bystander Course and Men's Health Victoria offer training on understanding Domestic Violence. White Ribbon Australia also gives opportunity for men to participate in the war against Domestic Violence.

The real war that we must engage in is the war against attitudes and beliefs that support the idea that violence can ever be justified. Having had the privilege of seeing, first hand, the impact of Prevention of Violence Against Women initiatives in the cities of Casey, Greater Dandenong, Cardinia and Darebin, I am confident that this war can be won. Jesus’ command to ‘love our neighbors’ (Matthew 22:39) and ‘love our enemies’ (Matthew 5:44) leaves us in no doubt that He never saw a justification for violence of any kind. The followers of Jesus need to be at the forefront of that battle.

Graeme Cann is an experienced Pastor and Clinical Counsellor. He has been actively involved in raising awareness of domestic violence for more than a decade.


Ron Jessop
August 7, 2017, 4:15PM
Thanks Graham,

Your article is articulate, timely and helpful.

I note your comment, 'and finally, my personal experience has been that many clergy are reluctant to get involved in the wider community’s attempt to address this issue'.

In recent years there has been a focus on taking the gospel to the marketplace. I believe that issues such as domestic violence are an opportunity to do this. To that end, point 6 is relevant: Pastors and churches 'will be involved in the wider community campaign against Domestic Violence'.

As part of my Professional Development requirements I chose to complete the White Ribbon training. It gave me a greater understanding of domestic violence against women and the opportunity to pledge my commitment to standing against it.

It also helped me in my role as a sports chaplain, by giving me a greater awareness of it, as I served at the coalface of life in the marketplace.

I affirm your suggestions and encourage pastors to make a stand, both within and outside the church.

Rev Ron Jessop
Barbara Roberts
August 7, 2017, 6:02PM
Graeme said, 'My personal experience has been that many clergy are reluctant to get involved in the wider community’s attempt to address this issue'.

That's my personal experience too. And I've gleaned from my wide reading in this field over nearly two decades that it's the experience of most of the Christians who are try to get church leaders involved.

The Rev. Al Miles reported that every time he offered domestic abuse training for church leaders, other Christians would come to the training but very very seldom would pastors come.

Baptist pastor Peter Junor in Quenbeyan is doing something sensible: he is a member of his local community's Family Violence Network. He learns from the secular professional there, and he contributes to the network in helpful ways. There are a few others I know about who are doing good things: Nathan Campbell, a Presbyterian pastor in Brisbane; David Ould, an Anglican pastor in Sydney. And forgive me if I haven't mentioned others, I'm writing this off the top of my head.

If only more pastors were wanting to get more involved in responding to DFV in more ways than just preaching the basics of what the Bible says about marriage, and giving private pastoral counseling to those who come to them seeking help and support.

And if only pastors would STOP doing couple counseling when there is any hint that there might be abuse going on in the marriage.
Graeme Cann
August 7, 2017, 7:04PM
Some years ago, the Casey Pastors Network partnered with the city of Casey and Southern Health in a programme titled Promoting Peace in Families. The programme was government funded and was aimed at helping Churches to be safer places for survivors of DV. Pastors and leaders received training and the 12 participating Churches focused on teaching and equipping people to provide appropriate care. During the programme over eighty women had the courage to disclose that they currently experienced DV. This is one example of how Pastors and Churches can be proactive.
Barbara Roberts
August 7, 2017, 7:57PM
For Christian leaders who want to learn how better to respond to domestic abuse, here is a page that I think you will find helpful: https://cryingoutforjustice.com/as-a-pastor-what-are-the-most-important-things-for-me-to-know-about-domestic-abuse/.

And for Christians who have suffered domestic abuse - and friends & family who are supporting survivors - here is a page you might find helpful: https://cryingoutforjustice.com/faq/.
August 7, 2017, 11:08PM
Please don't forget the male victims.

Otherwise loved your article, thank you.
Graham Baly
August 8, 2017, 12:06PM
Having experienced first hand more than 6 domestic violence murders over two decades of police service, I am appalled at the churches' reluctance to assist people, mainly women, when they report DV.

Reports made on the ABC should be looked at with a view to learn from rather than pulling down the shutters on the issue and retreating back into our holy huddles.

There is much for the church to learn and enormous help needed in our communities.
Barbara Roberts
August 8, 2017, 12:38PM
One more thing. The steps Graeme Cann is suggesting will make external changes and may to some degree help the plight of some victims. But they do not truly go to the heart of the matter, which is the health of the church.

The biblical solution to dealing with the abuser is to acknowledge he is not a Christian, but that he is a wolf:

1 John 2:9-11 Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.

Christians must beware of evildoers hiding out in the church. If someone is committing sexual immorality, greed, idolatry, verbal abuse, substance abuse or swindling as a pattern of behaviour, and that person professes to be a Christian, the church is commanded to put him out — excommunicate him — not even eat with him (1 Cor 5:11-13).

As long as people keep addressing abusers as Christians and talk about programs to 'help' them, what we are saying to the world is just what the world is already saying to us — 'You Christians are not different than us. In fact, you are worse than us because you are hypocrites.'

Outward changes do not effect heart changes. The visible church's real problem is that it has many many unsaved people within it. Even many pastors are not saved (not regenerate). If there were more saved people in the church, more regenerate people, then it would not have tolerated the many abusers in its midst.

Only those who are born again are truly Christians (John 3). You are not born again simply by being baptised or by being an outward member of the visible church, or attending church or doing churchy things.
Alison Spragg
August 8, 2017, 3:30PM
So pleased to read this, thank you for sharing your wisdom and direction. Great guidelines for so many churches facing this struggle.
Ron Jessop
August 9, 2017, 3:07PM
I was thinking about pastors not acting or being reluctant to act on matters of DV.

Perhaps a common response is to 'let sleeping dogs lie' because there is a conscious or sub conscious desire to not disturb the churches that they shepherd.

Using that analogy, perhaps the dogs aren't asleep, but awake, yet quiet, with the ever present possibility of further acts of domestic violence.

Rather than letting them sleep, we need to be vigilant and where appropriate (to quote from Graeme's article) 'call to account those who have committed the criminal offence of violence against women'.

Lynette Leach
August 9, 2017, 10:46PM
Thank you Graeme for such a balanced, wise and compassionate response. Your article contains many helpful suggestions for churches to implement. Your extensive experience in counselling, and involvement in proactive initiatives to address the issue of domestic violence, has given hope to many.
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