On domestic violence

In October 2013, the Anglican Diocese of Sydney passed the following motion:

33/13 Domestic violence and educating clergy

Synod requests Moore College and Ministry Training and Development, in consultation with the Safe Ministry Board and appropriate experts as required, having reviewed the input they already provide, to investigate and, as needed, develop an effective approach to educating ordinands and clergy in regards to domestic violence and how to respond when it comes up as an i ssue in marriage (and other relationships).

In such training, consideration ought to be given to ensuring that upholding the Bible’s good teaching on submission and sacrificial love – both in preaching and teaching, and in marriage education or counselling – is not easily twisted as a cover for abuse.

Synod requests that Moore College and Ministry Training and Development report back with a progress report by the next session of Synod.

Given much media discussion over the topic in recent days in Fairfax’s Sydney Morning Herald newspaper and website, I’ve been asked to publish my speech when I moved the motion above.


Mr President, Members of Synod, in 2007, Lesley Ramsay led this house to resolve as follows in a motion entitled “ Biblical pattern of marriage”:


  1. affirms that the relationship of loving, sacrificial leadership of a husband and the intelligent, voluntary submission of a wife is the Biblical pattern of marriage, and
  2. totally rejects the use of this Biblical pattern to justify any form of domestic abuse, and
  3. totally rejects all forms of domestic abuse, and
  4. expresses its concern for those children, women and men, who are victims of domestic abuse, and
  5. calls on Christian husbands and wives to use their God-given responsibilities for the good of their families, and
  6. calls on ministers to teach congregations the Biblical model for marriage and also to teach against domestic abuse.

My motion today is a pastoral development of Synod’s mind in the direction of practical education for those involved in pastoral care of people affected by domestic violence. In preparing it, I consulted people at MT&D, Moore College, those involved in the safe ministry area, and other concerned women and men, because I am far from any sort of expert. Together we worked to get the current format.

To start, be clear: ‘domestic violence’ terminology refers to more than actual physical violence, but to threats, verbal abuse, restrictions on freedom of movement, other emotional or psychological abuse. One woman wrote to me:

“The reality for many women in this situation is that the actual physical violence is not necessarily the cruelest part of the nasty picture. Some women never experience it, but are still viciously emotionally tortured, despised and manipulated well past the point of despair. It seems a strange thing that words and attitudes could be more vicious and harmful than someone hitting you, but it is the case for many.”

I also note that although this generally impacts women and children most of all, men can be victims too.

Para 1 says lets review and, if needed, improve our education in this area. I know we agree DV is wrong, that biblical submission never justifies it. I am certain all Moore faculty, and I expect that all students at College agree with this view. But I graduated from Moore 20 years ago, and I am not sure what is actively taught now in the area – let alone best practice at intersection of theory with practice.

And I am not sure if enough of us in pastoral positions know how practically to help people caught up in DV. And alongside a perhaps nervous pastor’s theoretical outline of biblical principles involved, I don’t think mere referral to a counsellor or the police is often enough in these fraught situations.

But I’ve experienced being unsure what else to do; how to know what helps. A straw poll of colleagues, including very experienced ones, confirmed this.

So that’s why I’ve asked Moore and MTD to investigate the issue, consider what they are already doing, and then, if and as needed, to develop a better approach. Consult experts. There are some very good resources out there.

It impinges on the areas of ethics and ministry subjects. What to say when preaching or educating on marriage! How to counteract misapprehensions about what the Bible’s teaching does and doesn’t say.

It probably means basic education on the facts about DV and any evidence (e.g. from social science and clinical experts) on what helps victims be safe, recover, and perpetrators address their problems. And input on how to counsel – wisely, realistically – a person who comes to a pastor in the midst of the problem.

Now para. 2 says that we consider the Bible’s teaching, as also reflected in our historic formularies as they solemnize marriage, to be good. And so I affirm the option of a marriage service which articulates headship expressed in loving sacrifice and a concern to nurture, provide and protect, and a loving submission with a loyalty that respects and leaves room for a husband’s initiative in the above. It’s good and workable.

And I know the principle that ‘misuse does not invalidate right use’ of a law.

However, I have been naïve. And the longer I go, the more deeply I’m aware that this can be misunderstood and abused. I consulted a trusted Anglicare counselor who gave many examples. I have become aware of the personal pain of women who were victims of domestic violence and stayed in unsafe situations longer than wise because they believed they just had to submit, full stop, end of story. And apparently well-meaning Christians reinforced that.

Friends, the biblical concept of submission has been under threat, so we have defended it. Vigorously. At cost.

But we’ve not defended as well against its abuse.

There is no excuse for domestic violence, never ever. We must work out how to say this loud and clearly.

And we have the additional missional reason to pay attention, in that it’s an area of suspicion in out society. The very mention of the word ‘submit’ in the Bible sets off alarm bells. Speaking about the revised asymmetric marriage vow option in the new Common Prayer book, in his final Presidential Address last October, Peter Jensen clearly felt the need to address the topic, quote,

“To use this, as some have, as an excuse to demand slave like servility, or even to engage in physical and emotional bullying is to misuse it utterly and no wife should feel spiritually obliged to accept such treatment.”

Amen! And so as I conclude, here is a little of what I said in a recent sermon on this topic while positively expounding Colossians 3:18-19.

… submission is voluntary, not forced. Never. It is not the husband’s job to make his wife submit. The Bible opposes all coercion or manipulation and any attempts to restrict a woman’s freedom to move or speak. He cannot direct her how to vote for example.

And I remind you that we have higher authorities to which we all must submit; namely, the governing authorities and, above all, God. So a wife should never submit to her husband if he is urging something against the law of the land or immoral or disobedient before God.

And here I make an important note about Domestic Violence. It’s sad to have to mention this. But research from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Institute of Criminology says that over all between 12 to 16% of women have experienced violence from the hands of a current or former partner. The most frequent category of violent offender against women is the partner, the husband. This is just wrong.

The Bible condemns all aggression – whether physical or verbal – in our personal relationships.

Yet wedding vows of submission are sometimes felt to increase the risk of domestic violence. And I have read and heard traumatic testimony of women whose husbands have abused them, not just emotionally but physically, and have claimed the woman must submit to it.

This is categorically untrue. If you are being abused, get to a safe place. Go to the police if necessary. Talk to me. I can also refer you to a counsellor for help. And do not explore reconciliation unless it is truly in a safe way.


A word to those who disagree with the motion’s second paragraph in some way, and perhaps feel that any talk of wifely submission – no matter how carefully nuanced – must necessarily increase the risk of DV. I will leave it to the wisdom of Synod. But I have tried to craft the motion with all Synod members in mind.

Presumably you must agree that the ‘submission’ word and concept is repeatedly mentioned in the Bible and in our wedding services. Presumably as Christians, you think the Scriptures are good, and as Anglicans, also our formularies. And so presumably you agree, Anglican Christians must talk about these things, since they are there.

And you must know that even in congregations with ‘egalitarian’ pulpits, some members may have traditional or even chauvinistic views – either well formed and nuanced, or poorly formed or practiced. They must be ministered to.

And surely you realise people who have egalitarian theory about marriage still often get involved in DV situations. And surely you must be supportive of any moves to improve education of our candidates for pastoral ministry and the ministers themselves in how they teach and counsel, both to prevent DV and to minister to those caught up in it.

As I conclude on this motion, I am thinking…

  • Of a lady I know who just now is moving to a refuge to escape an unsafe situation.
  • Of marriages on rocks – where occasional, even one-off episodes are part of wider problems, yet there is still hope for reconciliation.
  • And of a case in a previous parish, where the wife stayed in an unsafe place for much longer than wise, because she thought her promise before God to submit to her husband meant she could not move her or her children to a safe space, while exploring whatever chance existed for reconciliation or otherwise to care for her kids and honour Christ.

And I am thinking that I want to see myself and my colleagues better equipped for our pastoral work, to bring Bible, theology and ethics, to bear on practical situations of deep hurt, so as to care for these people in our parishes.

On Monday, Dominic Steele asked movers of later motions to wear the “Jesus brings” mission cap. I immediately thought of my motion and considered it would be inappropriate.

But upon reflection, Jesus is not afraid of the hard places. He warned us against allowing his ‘little ones’ to be hurt or caused to stumble.

And my mind returned to a passage I’ve dwelt on much on other issues lately, that of the woman taken in adultery, in John 8. And I think of the courage and compassion of Jesus. And one thing I know from that passage is that Jesus brings … protection from bullying. We should follow his leadership.

7 thoughts on “On domestic violence

  1. Bishop John Harrower in Tasmania has written some helpful things on this difficult topic too. His summary:

    Some mistakes Christians have made
    * We have fooled ourselves that domestic violence does not happen in Christian homes – thus we have failed to hear and failed to believe.
    * We have clutched at simplistic tools.
    * We have wrongly applied ‘forgiveness’
    * We have overestimated the power and influence of our having a ‘word to the offender.’
    * The tools we have given perpetrators have been inadequate.
    * We have assisted him or her to evade reality or the need to do the deep work of change.
    * We have short changed on what repentance needs to look like.
    * We have underestimated the grip wrong behaviour has in lives.
    * We have failed to direct to professionals who may be able to assist in the hard work of change.
    * We have been tempted to collude that this behaviour is just a matter of private morality for the offender, under-emphasising the fact that the behaviour is also a crime, and that there are very long term consequences for victims.
    * The tools we have given victims have often been simplistic,
    * Often advocating forgiveness prematurely.
    * Often implying that forgiveness only has one shape – the automatic reinstatement of someone back to the same position from which they can still harm others.

    Read the full article here…


  2. Thank you for this informative article. It’s an issue close to my heart for various reasons. As a new Christian and change communications manager, my questions are: how are you measuring and testing the training? It’s been over a year since the motion was passed. What are the results to date?

    • Phil, thanks for the kind words.

      Re. progress, the less-than-satisfying answer is that it’s happening slowly. I wish it was faster. But I’d prefer it to be done more thoroughly, and not just in a ‘flavour-of-the-month’ way. More training is needed, and by more qualified persons than me. I am very much still a learner. However I did get helpful feedback from the particular training session I led about things I could do better.

      The other thing to say – about measurement – is that in a very diversified and localised institution – the Diocese has 270 + parishes, with perhaps three or four times as many congregations within them, plus organisations – it’s going to be very hard to measure. Who would be able to trawl through all sermons preached on marriage in those various congregations this year and compare them to say two years ago?

      In terms of measuring levels of DV – or rather reported levels – that would be a much more longitudinal study. Unfortunately, by and large in Australia (in any denomination as far as I know), it’s not been measured at all, so we don’t have a base line. And reporting overall is a fraught issue, because it is so painful and hidden.

      Still there is a pretty strong argument that it could be an area of research, don’t you think?

      • Sandy, absolutely a strong argument for research! Nor was I specifically thinking about content used in sermons, although its a great idea. Would love to take this outside a comments feed and discuss further in ‘real world’.

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