Women, violence and the Church

The recent appalling massacre in a church in Sutherland Springs in Texas conforms to a tragically familiar pattern. A man goes on the rampage with a powerful weapon and kills 26 innocents including an unborn child. The individual concerned, like many before him guilty of similar atrocities, had been a woman batterer. Mass killers have nearly always previously practised their violence on those around them at home. This common thread of domestic violence seems to link most of the recent mass killers we have seen recently. Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the Nice killer and Dylann Roof the Charleston killer had both been involved with violence at home. Whatever ideological tag is placed on these and other killings, a history of irrational and blind rage against women seems to be a common thread behind most, if not all, of these appalling acts of violence.

It has not gone unnoticed that conservative churches are places which appear to tolerate, if not encourage, an attitude that places men in a place of power over women. While we would hope that most church going men would internalise the prior command to love and respect the women and children of their family, there are others who hear a different message. Particularly on the edges of the church there are men who hear and act out biblical texts which seem to allow them to overawe and dominate their womenfolk. Two passages from the New Testament stand out. These both appear to justify potentially oppressive behaviour on the part of a man towards his wife. The first is the passage from Ephesians 5. It states that wives should submit to their husbands. The fact that the passage goes on to speak about the importance of mutuality with in the marriage relationship is often ignored. The other classic text which has caused much grief to Christian women over the centuries is from 1 Timothy 2. 12: ‘I do not permit a woman to be a teacher, nor must woman domineer over man;’

These two texts, however we interpret them, look back to a commonly accepted notion in the ancient world that a women’s nature was inferior to that of men. Aristotle thought that women were natural slaves. Like slaves, it was their nature to be obedient. The traditions of scholastic theology followed these ideas of Aristotle rather than Jesus when it came to assessing the role and status of women in mediaeval society. Thomas Aquinas typically believed that women were in some way defective. So, the order of nature as created by God decreed that she should be subjugated. Also, a woman can never represent Christ or be ordained.

The Reformation in the 16th century did little to improve the lot of women in the church. Both Luther and Calvin repeated the traditions of the previous centuries which saw women firmly bound to the home and subject to the law of their husband’s will. Any woman in who challenged this status quo was sinful and was possibly a witch. Violence against women at the hands of their husbands came to be a normalised part of family life. The town law of the city of Villlefranche decreed all the inhabitants of the town had the right to beat their wives so long as death does not ensue. Even Thomas Moore in his Utopia represented a society where husbands regularly chastised their wives. The wives were to minister to their husband in everything. On holy days they were to prostrate themselves before their husbands asking for their forgiveness if they have offended them in any way. It is not hard to see the campaigns against witchcraft as being an attempt to suppress and control women. Society then was not tolerant towards those women who tried to survive outside the role of wife and mother. A single woman, who was outside the control of a man, may perhaps have been continuing ancient traditions of healing and herbalism. She was obviously from a patriarchal perspective someone to be targeted and persecuted.

The Ephesians and I Timothy texts continue to exercise a strong influence in conservative Christian circles today. They are used in some places as a justification to deny women any part in Christian leadership. They also become part of a generalised Christian patriarchy which puts women in a disadvantaged place whether in the home or in the church. Some recent research in Australia found that evangelical men who sporadically attend church more likely than secular men to assault their wives. It is not hard to see how a man with a tendency towards violence might be attracted to a church with a culture of male domination. The traditional approach to a ‘biblical’ view of women might also make conservative churches dangerous places when the battered wife seeks help. Domestic violence will not be tackled if the there is a ‘biblical’ answer that the wife should always submit and apply the rule of godly obedience to the man who is abusing her.

The recent events at Sutherland Springs cannot not of course be laid at the feet of the Baptist church where the massacre took place. But in a broad sense a culture of violence within the family which preceded the terrible events of last Sunday had been subtly normalised for Devin Kelley, the perpetrator. Many upright Christians who believe that they are following Scripture also tolerate coercive behaviour towards women. This will of course normally stop far short of acts of rage and murder. Somewhere along the line, Devin learnt the path of violence. It may have been a small step for him to tip over from ‘acceptable’ coercion and control of women in his family to actual violence. It may seem to be ‘biblical’ to apply coercion to wives but surely it has no place whatever in a modern society. The words of Paul, Luther and Thomas Aquinas need to be explored and explained in their historical context. They cannot be allowed to smoulder in a dark place where they can infect and corrupt the thinking of contemporary Christians. We need a revolution that will deny any oxygen to the thinking of contemporary Christians and those they influence who want to high-jack the faith to further their nefarious desires for power.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

10 thoughts on “Women, violence and the Church

  1. Another good piece of thinking.

    The American evangelical theologians Catherine Clark Kroeger and Richard Clark Kroeger wrote a book on 1 Tim. 2:1-15 back in 1992. [I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15. My copy is a 2003 reprint]. It’s very well researched, and makes a very good case for interpreting that passage as Paul’s refutation of false teaching, rather his advocating restrictions on women’s ministry. It’s strange how some evangelicals just don’t want to read, or accept, the evidence. Then they claim to be biblically faithful!

    1. Oh yes. Will it change anything though? I detect a certain satisfaction that the church is on the road, and very little urgency or impatience about how far there still is to travel.

  2. Yes Haiku I have seen it. Jayne Ozanne makes the point which I have been making ever since I began this blog that in the church anyone can be subject to power abuse at the hands of the clergy. The clergy have power and you don’t have to be a ‘vulnerable adult’ to possibly suffer some kind of abuse, whether for example plain bullying or sexual exploitation. The Archbishop of C now has two letters to answer when he gets back from Africa, one from Gilo and another from Jayne. I hope the answers are published. Gilo is now on Twitter with the name @seaofcomplicity . His recent letter to Welby was powerfully expressed and deserves a good response. Platitudes will not wash with Gilo!

  3. I too am drafting a letter to the two archbishops, so they will have 3 to answer. Actually I suspect it will be more than 3, I’m sure others are taking to their word processors. I won’t accept platitudes either, and none of us is going to go away. Reckoning time has come.

    I would point out, though, that this is not just a problem with clergy bullying or abusing lay people. Clergy also get bullied and abused, by more senior clergy and sometimes by powerful lay people. The Church has been just terrible at dealing with this.

  4. Do we not have churches which on the whole create an atmosphere of accepting abuse? We are supposed to turn the other cheek, forgive 490 times. This is often the test of whether a victim is really a Christian. There don’t seem to be any texts on stopping the abuser!

  5. Good points. And the neglect which allows bullying to continue. Much the commonest sin amongst the laity I would guess.

  6. What do you guys think about a case that I just remembered having read the article in the Church Times? Just to edit it considerably: a cleric getting excessively flirtatious with a member of the congregation in public. And then later it transpires that the woman has been very much harmed by (false) allegations that there was an affair going on.

  7. Actually there are. Some are wrongly interpreted, some overlooked.

    Jesus’ sayings about turning the other cheek and going the extra mile are actually lessons in civil disobedience and subversion. Roman soldiers were allowed to strike you once, but not twice. So if they hit you on one cheek turn the other, to remind them their power to abuse is limited. Similarly they could compel you to carry their pack one mile, but not more, so if you carted it two miles they were in deep trouble.

    Paul, when he was being punished by provincial authorities, several times reminded them of his rights as a Roman citizen. Sometimes after they had contravened those rights, thereby winning concessions so they could avoid getting into trouble themselves.

    And Paul exhorted Timothy to ‘let no one despise you because of your youth’. I often think Paul would have been equally willing to advise Priscilla, or Phoebe, or any of the other women who ‘laboured with him in the gospel’, not to let anyone despise them because of their gender.

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