Is it anti-Christian to admit the church sometimes fails abuse victims? Is it anti-Christian to admit that abusers often misuse the Bible?
My published research is very rarely referenced by the secular media, particularly a journal article I wrote almost a decade ago. So, I was quite surprised this past week when I received a flurry of emails and calls regarding the alleged misuse of my research on domestic violence. Specifically, two Australian journalists, Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson, conducted a year-long investigation on domestic violence (DV) in Christian homes. Their findings resulted in an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) story entitled “’Submit to your husbands’: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God.” This report has created a vicious firestorm in Australia. The journalists have been vilified in the Herald Sun for launching a war on Christianity. Furthermore, Baird and Gleeson have been accused of misusing my research to promote their ungodly agenda. Others have stated that I agreed with the critics that my research had been misused.
Here is the backdrop to controversial report. Very little quantitative research on domestic violence in religious homes in Australia has been conducted. So Baird and Gleeson conducted qualitative research through extensive interviews with abuse survivors, counselors, and pastors. Their findings are sadly familiar to those of us engaged in abuse ministry in the US. They discovered that while the Bible, churches, and pastors can be a great source of strength and nurture for abuse survivors, this is not always the case. The Scriptures are often misused by abusers to justify their abuse. Church leaders are often inadequately trained on the complexities of domestic violence and end up hurting abuse survivors who come to them for help. In short, they discovered a great need in Australian churches to response to DV in a more effective, informed manner. As I read this report, I quickly deduced that these journalists had discovered a great need in Australia for sound Christian abuse resources to educate and guide church leaders. Does this sound familiar? This is precisely the need (in America) which led Celestia and me to launch Mending the Soul in 2003.
So is it anti-Christian to admit the church sometimes fails abuse victims and that abusers often misuse the Bible? Of course not! We can’t solve a problem we won’t acknowledge. It is because we love Jesus and the church he established (Matthew 16:18) that Mending the Soul is dedicated to developing the highest quality resources to help the body of Christ understand, prevent, and respond to abuse.
Please pray with me that God will use this ugly debate in Australia to wake people up to the reality of domestic violence and the need for corrective action. It appears that to some extent this is already happening in an ABC follow up article by Baird and Gleeson, “How to navigate the research on domestic violence and Christian churches: A few frequently asked questions.” Pray that God will continue to expand Mending the Soul’s capacity to aid the church around the world in responding wisely and effectively to abuse. Yesterday, ABC published my response (Asking Christians to do better by domestic violence victims is not an attack on Christianity) to this debate regarding the alleged misuse of my research. Here is what I said:
As an outsider to Australian culture, politics, and church life, I am reluctant to weigh in on Aussie debates. However, after numerous inquiries from Australians and Americans regarding my views on Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson’s article “’Submit to your husbands’: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God,” I feel compelled to respond. Many have concluded, with great alarm and animus, that Baird and Gleeson’s article is an attack on Christianity (a “demonization of Christian tradition” as one editorialist put it). Much was made of the fact that they highlighted my citation of research showing that the group of American men most likely to abuse their wives are conservative Protestants who attend church sporadically, while not giving equal emphasis to the corollary finding I also cited— the group of American men least likely to abuse their wives are conservative Protestants who attend church regularly.
Was I misquoted or misrepresented? Quite simply, no. Baird and Gleeson cited precisely what I found in the published research. While they did not draw out the implications of the second finding regarding regular church attenders, they did state it. I do not believe they needed to give this corollary equal weight. I utterly fail to see how this makes the article an attack on Christianity. In fact, I find this accusation illogical and defamatory. In conducting their research, they surveyed numerous Christians and positively cited a wide variety of Christian clergy and ministry leaders. They specifically stated, “unlike the Koran, there are no verses in the Bible that may be read as overtly condoning abuse.” However, they correctly argued that often the Bible is misused by abusers to justify domestic violence. They said, “there is no mainstream theologian in Australia who would suggest that a church should be anything but a sanctuary.” Yet they went on to note, based on extensive interviews, that many Christian abuse survivors do not experience the church as a sanctuary. In describing abuse survivors they interviewed who had experienced hurtful responses from Christian churches, they declared that these women “don’t resent the church” [let alone Christianity]. At the same time, these women “urgently seek its [the church’s] reform.” It appears to me that this latter sentiment succinctly reflects Baird and Gleeson’s goal in the article—not to denigrate Christianity, but to stimulate needed reform.
God help us as Christians if we cannot acknowledge our failures, regardless of who brings them to light. Worse yet, God help us if we cry “persecution” every time we are held accountable for hurtful failures. If Baird and Gleeson’s description of how the Bible is frequently misused by abusers and how church leaders often fail to respond properly to abuse survivors (based on numerous interviews with actual abuse survivors and Christian clergy) is an attack on religion, then Jesus himself led the fiercest attacks on religion. His harshest criticisms were not leveled at pagans but at fellow Jewish believers. Jesus specifically called out the religious leaders of his day for their failure to protect and respond properly to the marginalized and abused (Matthew 23:4-36; Luke 20:46-47). Similarly, the Hebrew prophets repeatedly issued stark pronouncements against spiritual leaders who failed to protect abuse victims (1 Samuel 3:13; Jeremiah 22:1-5), failed to confront perpetrators (Isaiah 1:15-17; cp. Job 29:15-17) or worst yet, colluded with abusers (Micah 3:1-12; Zechariah 7:5-14).
Furthermore, as someone with decades of pastoral and academic experience dealing with domestic violence (in North America and globally), I strongly affirm that Baird and Gleeson’s descriptions of how the Bible is often misused by abusers and church leaders alike, was spot on. Those of us on the front lines of abuse ministry cannot begin to count the number of times we have seen biblical statements regarding male headship, female submission, and God hating divorce egregiously misused against abuse victims. Academic research supports this anecdotal experience. There is abundant data showing that conceptions of gender in which males are viewed as superior to females (see Concepts of Gender and the Global Abuse of Women by Steven Tracy) and in which males are attributed great power to control females are predictors of increased levels of domestic violence. (See the Lancet, Global Health article: Cross-national and multilevel correlates of partner violence: an analysis of data from population-based survey and Patriarchy and Domestic Violence: Challenging Common Misconceptions by Steven Tracy). And unhealthy, harmful gender models are certainly found in the Christian church as they are found in the broader community. (See What Does “Submit to Everything” Really Mean? The Nature and Scope of Marital Submission by Steven Tracy.)
Sadly, it seems that many readers have used Baird and Gleeson’s article to further their own political agendas while denying or ignoring the issue at hand—the all too frequent abuse of women and the common failure of church leaders to protect. As a North American church leader, I have apologized to domestic abuse survivors in my country for our church’s frequent failures and my personal failures to listen, protect, and aid. I applaud Father McCullough and Archbishop Freier for their apologies to Australian abuse survivors. I pray that their example will allow others to lower their defenses, acknowledge failures, and work together to better address the very real problem of domestic violence in Australian families, including Christian families.
Steven Tracy, PhD
Professor of Theology and Ethics
President and Founder
Mending the Soul Ministries
Note: These comments reflects my personal views and should not be construed as endorsed by or officially representing Phoenix Seminary.