The Church and Violence Against Women

Anyone who has read my blog more than once probably knows that I’m among the first to say that we live in a society warped by narrowly-defined gender roles and behavior.  I’m quick to point out the biased elements in fairy tales, children’s toys, and Disney films.  I’m all about “Down with Patriarchy!”  I’ve gone to bat for friends who are dealing with the failure of the church to stand up for them.  I’ve written all sorts of things about women in leadership within the church.  Heck, I even left a church in part because I couldn’t raise a daughter in a culture that doesn’t accept women as capable of full participation in every aspect of church life (including preaching pastor).  I’m in an egalitarian marriage with a wonderful man that I’m proud to include in my list of feminists (or “feminist allies,” if you’re into splitting hairs).

That said, I think it’s safe to say that I’m a Christian feminist.  Keep that in mind as I share what was on my mind last night as I lay in bed, and again when I woke up this morning.

November 25th was International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.  There were lots of great posts about it; I wish I could link them all.  One that got a lot of attention was this, from The Gospel Coalition.  I believe the reaction from other feminists indicates how even we who advocate for women can be on completely different pages.

I read the post and the quotes from the other posts linked therein; I will admit that I did not click every link, so I may have missed something.  However, I appreciated the effort put into collecting the quotes and the fact that so many people are standing against violence.  I particularly liked that so many men were blogging and speaking on the subject.  Too often, men are silent about these issues, or else they are dismissive.

Apparently, I’m in the minority of people who actually liked this article.  There was a lot of outrage, which surprised me.  I saw comments ranging from complaining that there wasn’t enough mention of calling the police on wife-beaters to whining about how there were too many men represented in the list and no actual victims to frustration that there was too much emphasis on love and forgiveness for the abusers to claims that patriarchy is what leads to spousal abuse.  I want to address all of those things, so hang in there with me.

First, the issue over involving authorities: I agree that churches have a responsibility to alert the authorities.  But just because something wasn’t specifically mentioned doesn’t mean that it’s not what would happen.  We need to be very careful that we don’t ascribe motive or action where none was intended.  I’m not saying that churches wouldn’t fail to take action, just that we can’t assume that the oversight was intentional or an indication of what would happen in practice.

Second, the representation of women: I’m actually glad that so many men were speaking out.  I mean, I saw something Mark Driscoll said that I agreed with!*  We spend a lot of time asking that men listen to us, that they agree with us, that they change their behavior for us.  Yet when they come alongside us, we tell them they’re not doing it right.  Not in a nice way, mind you, but in a “you still suck” kind of way.  Is that really necessary?  Maybe the issue is that a man linked to lots of other men.  In that case, we can talk about ways we can form better partnerships with men who want to stand up with us.  That would certainly be a more productive conversation.

Third, the emphasis on grace: I saw nothing in that list that led me to conclude that there was an over-emphasis on God loving the abuser.  In fact, I saw just the opposite, including one specifically mentioning that God hates abusers.  I truly have no idea where this complaint came from.  That said, I think that a better discussion would involve how we (the church) can make sure that victims and survivors are safe without writing off the people who harm.  I am not suggesting that a woman continue to attend church with her abusive ex-husband.  He should be directed elsewhere, without question.  But I think we can still show God’s love even in terrible circumstances.  It’s not one or the other.

Finally, patriarchy leads to abuse: Yes and no.  There is too much here to unpack, but I do have a couple of thoughts on this.  Yes, patriarchy creates a system and structure under which women can be victimized by the men in their lives.  Yes, patriarchy fosters an environment in which women are often not heard or are told they must reconcile their “differences” with their abusers.  Yes, patriarchy demands that there be “proof” of abuse, and that psychological abuse such as stalking is merely a misunderstanding that can be resolved with mediation.  However, patriarchy is a fairly broad term and encompasses quite a lot, including “soft complementarianism” in marriage.  There are plenty of couples who believe in male headship that do not include abuse as a means to achieve it.  There are also plenty of churches that teach male headship that would not tolerate an abusive man as a member of the congregation.  Instead of arguing in the abstract about the institution, it would be far more helpful to talk about specific ways in which churches might be allowing behavior to go unchecked.

I think the real problem here is not what’s being said or not said, but who’s doing the saying.  For example, it’s great that Mark Driscoll doesn’t tolerate spousal abuse; but he’s already shown himself to be an abusive person in how he treats members of his church.  I think having that conversation would be much healthier than complaining about whether or not he said something supportive in the right way.  In the end, what matters is not whether someone says the right thing in the right way on a particular day, but whether or not that person is saying and doing the right things the rest of the year.