THE teaching of male headship, a key doctrine among conservative
Evangelicals in the diocese of Sydney, is coming under scrutiny in
the Australian media as a potential cause of domestic violence.
National focus on the issue has intensified with the appointment of
Rosie Batty as Australian of the Year. Ms Batty became a
family-violence campaigner after her 11-year-old son Luke was
murdered by his father last year at a cricket match in an outer
The Progressive Christian Voice network, whose president is the
Dean of Brisbane, the Very Revd Dr Peter Catt, has issued a press
release challenging churches committed to the headship doctrine to
respond to the danger of domestic violence.
"Such churches, and their all-male leadership, proclaim that the
male is to exercise headship over the woman. In their view, the
power of the male is to be pre-eminent . . . a structural
relationship of power that always has the woman as the less
powerful one in the domestic relationship," the release says.
It cites Ephesians 5.22-24 as one of the key Bible passages used
to support male headship. What is most pertinent to the issue of
domestic violence in the passage are the "admonitions directed at
women", particularly that they are to be subject in everything to
their husbands. This exhortation "clearly nails down the subjection
of the woman to her husband. Here is the strong structural
framework within which unquestioned abuse can occur," the network
The Bible passages used to support headship "are a blueprint for
absolute male power and control" in the marital relationship. The
issue is compounded because "no female leaders can speak out from
these churches because these churches are opposed to having female
The issue has been taken up in opinion articles in The
Sydney Morning Herald, where the columnist Julia Baird writes
that she has been "astounded" by the number of women who have
contacted her with stories of abuse by husbands committed to
headship. A Christian counsellor has reported that she has dealt
with similar cases, and clergy have privately told her of
colleagues' preaching that wives should stay with abusive
In response, a prominent Sydney clergyman, Canon Sandy Grant,
has published a speech he made to the Sydney synod in 2013, calling
for the education of clergy on the issue of domestic violence.
In his speech, published in a Sydney Anglican publication,
The Briefing, he insisted that headship properly
understood could never condone domestic violence: "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," he said.
This could be misconstrued, however, he said. "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."
The biblical concept of submission was under suspicion in
society, "the very mention of the word 'submit' in the Bible"
setting off alarm bells. The headship doctrine had been vigorously
defended, but not always "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," he said. "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."