Miss-reading the Bible

We sometimes think that Christians are better than the general population – we don’t swear, watch porn, abuse our loved ones or have affairs.

Sadly the data and research shows that people who identify as Christians are just as likely to indulge in all those things[1].

Behind closed doors, there is abuse. And unfortunately, some Christian teaching about submission and the headship of men in marriage, is interpreted to give permission for abuse.

I have heard from women in the church who accept that it’s OK for a man to hit his wife ‘a little’. I have heard a number of preachers hint that a wife is not being submissive enough if her husband is violent or has affairs.

I have seen wives encouraged to be forgiving of their husband’s affairs to save the marriage. And I have heard of women being counselled to stay with violent or drunken husbands so they can pray and ‘love’ their men into better behaviour

Behind these views are a couple of disturbing thoughts:

  1. that the Bible is used to endorse the dominance of men in marriage (maybe because it is mainly men who teach in churches)
  2. that Christian leaders are not very good at dealing honestly with abuse (maybe because it men who generally lead churches).

Studies show that gender inequality contributes to an environment where men seek to control women, and that can lead to abuse.

So how could some Christian teaching contribute to abuse? There are 2 aspects here – marriage relationships and women as leaders and teachers in the church – but the scriptures get conflated into a general argument about equality.

There is a strand of Christian teaching about marriage (endorsed by a number of respected evangelical leaders) that emphasises the submission of wives and the headship of husbands. This is often linked to rules that say women cannot teach or lead in church.

These are indeed words from the Bible, but we all should know we should test ideas by comparing them to other verses and the teaching of the whole Bible. And we should acknowledge the culture in which Paul was writing. That makes complete sense and does not denigrate the power and authority of God’s Word.

In fact, in all sorts of other verses we see cultural context. Otherwise we would still call for women to wear head coverings, we would follow Paul’s advice and remain single, we would all speak in tongues and we would share all our possessions in radical community. Funny how we see SOME verses as having eternal truth and others, not so much.

I don’t have space to deal with the key verses used to justify male authority in marriage and female subservience. But there are many places you can go to catch the main arguments cogently explained.

For starters, we can look at Jesus’ radical attitudes of acceptance towards women and the role of women as leaders and prophets and in the early church.


VIDEO: Pastor and theologian Steve Latham discusses key verses in Paul’s letters

VIDEO: Julia Baird and Anglican priest Michael Jensen discuss domestic violence and the Church.(ABC News)

VIDEO: Various Christian pastors discuss submission

Please read:

blogger Marg Mowczko who writes intelligently and knowledgably about the theology of Christian egalitariansim

Lee Grady’s Ten Lies the Church Tells Women, which is a great book from an American pastor.[2]

The danger is that if men and women are taught, or somehow assimilate, ideas that male leadership is God’s truth – that women cannot be elders or pastors – it does not take much of a step to see men as superior in all relationships with women.

And one or two more steps along that path allows us to see women as subservient and not equipped to lead. Women (ie mums) are praised for many wonderful skills in homemaking and motherhood and are encouraged to complement their husbands, but they do not have a claim to equality when it comes to making decisions, to guiding others or leading men.

Everyday mainstream churches stress ‘happy’ marriages at the expense of caring for single mums, widows, divorcees and families at risk. It’s also worrying that single women seem to have no place in such a worldview.

Another result of seeing women as weaker, is that men blame girls and women for being sexually provocative, for causing men to stumble. In other words, women get blamed if they speak up and blamed if they simply stand next to a man!

Churches should be safe, loving and truthful places for everyone but in too many church traditions, women are still counselled to stay with an abusive husband to see if their submission can win their husband around.

Nicky Lock[3], an Anglican counsellor and academic from Charles Sturt University in Australia has seen the results of ‘mis-teaching’ in her work on domestic violence cases over the last 25 years.

She told the ABC that the use of headship theology is commonly used to justify abuse.

“Anecdotally, teaching of headship has been seen to be contributing to the problem of domestic violence, both in encouraging abusive male partners, and preventing female partners from challenging abusive behaviours, or leaving an abusive relationship.”

So do men and women have different roles? I know a lot of women who are happy having a supportive and caring role in their family. Their role enables their husband to take on all sorts of other responsibilities at work, in the church. But that does not fit all women or all men. And the submission and sacrifice must be equal otherwise it is too easy to exploit the goodwill of women and to ignore their needs. If women are not encouraged to speak out at church, do they forget how to articulate their insights and longings? Do they lose confidence in their God-given giftings?

And what about most of the women I know, women with ideas, women with a life beyond the domestic who want to be recognised as leaders, teachers and inspirers. I am blessed to have a husband who enables and encourages me to be all that I can be in God (and I want to do the same for him).

So if you’re reading this, what can you do? What should we do to encourage healthy views of men and women’s in the church and in marriage?

Talk about the issues and their seriousness – in the church – don’t allow people to dismiss you as extreme or “a raving feminist”. Be respectful!

Know what the Bible really says about relationships between men and women. Don’t just accept ‘truths’ we have been taught in the past.

Use the videos I have made to get discussion started. They are short, easy to understand and have clear ideas. There are 8 different topics covered. They also have great questions to explore.

Find them all here



[1] BUT please note that abuse is worse among men on the edge of faith.

American research provides one important insight: men who attend church less often or who are the periphery of church are more likely to abuse their wives. Regular church attenders are less likely to commit acts of intimate partner violence.

[2] Grady has been speaking about equality in many cultural contexts across the globe for over a generation. He also leads many conferences for men.

[3] Nicky is a friend of mine who has counselled on issues of heathy relationships with intelligence, balance and humour for many years. She is an expert who should be lauded by all of us, especially Christians.

Cast a net of caring

Looking out at me from the front page of the newspaper yesterday were the faces of eight women – all killed by their partners or boyfriends. Lovely women and teenagers from all backgrounds. And a little girl, Darcey, aged four who was thrown off a bridge by her father.


Today, there was another story of a woman attacked by an ex-boyfriend. A man who was with the woman, died from stab wounds.

These tragedies are part of a terrible pattern of domestic violence across the world. In Australia, on average, one woman is killed every week as a result of intimate partner violence. A woman is most likely to be killed by her male partner in her home.

In England, two women are killed by a current or former partner every week. Globally, one in three women has experienced sexual or physical violence – in most cases from a partner or family member. And men and boys are victims as well – caught up in violence aimed at their girlfriend, daughter or sister; or sometimes victims of violent women.

And despite the horror of such figures and the grief for families that lies behind every incident, a recent Royal Commission on domestic violence in Victoria, Australia points to serious shortcomings in the way women are treated if they come forward for help and highlights that responses can be haphazard and delayed.

So it ends up that women have nowhere to go to escape from relationships that SHOULD offer security and love, but instead create fear, pain and guilt. Domestic and family violence is the principle cause of homelessness for women and their children in places like Australia.

The report had many stories from women in its 2000 pages. One struck me because it mentioned a church leader’s unhelpful response. Susan, who had been raped and beaten and kicked in the belly when she was pregnant, was told by her church leader to go home and improve her cooking and cleaning and be more “obliging”.

Jenifer Johnson from Barbados, who heads up the Women’s Commission of the Evangelical Churches in the Caribbean, still hears from women who have been told by their pastors to return to abusive marriages because it is right to submit. She operates the only refuge for women in Barbados and knows how hard it is for women to leave abusive relationships – there are emotional and economic barriers that keep women at home. She tells Christian leaders very forthrightly that they should not ignore the problem and they should not hold women responsible for the cruelty of men.

We should have a clear understanding that women and men are equal and have inherent value because we are designed in the image of God. And we need to proclaim that message to counter crimes excused on the grounds of tradition or culture.

Many violence issues facing women and girls take freakish cultural patterns.

In the UK, physical and verbal abuse can be used to keep wives in domestic servitude. A ground-breaking case that concluded this week, sent a man to jail for using “violence, intimidation, aggression and misery” to keep his wife as a slave for over two years.

In South Asia, brothers or fathers of girls who they think have disgraced the family’s honour, throw acid, set girls alight or beat them to deliberately disfigure or destroy life. To me it is shocking that a father who is meant to protect his daughter can see her as property to be abused. A recent murder case in India turned out to be vengeful punishment for a daughter who had secretly married into a lower caste. Her father and brothers and even her mother are implicated in the murder.

I think we tend to assume that Christians are not perpetrators or victims of domestic violence and we shy away from aggressive feminist narratives that deem all men to be guilty.

I celebrate the many men I know who are caring and protective sons, brothers and husbands. They are champions of women. But we need to acknowledge that women and children in our churches and families may be suffering and we should be open to talking. We need to model healthy relationships that do not condone any thought that violence is acceptable or that a woman is to blame when she is beaten.

Rather than casting stones of blame, we can cast a net of caring protection and restoration. Like Jenifer Johnson, we can make space to speak truth to men and women about their attitudes, we need to watch out for abuse and we can stand for equality.

If you have any questions about this issue, Restored has a useful FAQs page

Please pray for Jenifer Johnson as she supports women and challenges the church in the Caribbean to take domestic violence seriously.

You can donate to the work of the WEA Women’s Commission in the Caribbean here