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Doctrine of headship linked to cases of domestic violence

06 March 2015


Campaign: Countries around the world are holding events to mark International Women's Day on Sunday 

Campaign: Countries around the world are holding events to mark International Women's Day on Sunday 

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 Melbourne suburb.

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 says.

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 leaders."

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 husbands.

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."

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