Bad theology concerning the roles of men and women may contribute to domestic abuse, says a new study by the Church of England.

“Domestic abuse is not simply an isolated series of events between a perpetrator and a victim but reflects the wider factors influencing their relationship,” says a lengthy report titled Responding to Domestic Abuse.

“It is a tragic fact that bad theology, in this case a faulty understanding of God and human beings in relationship, can have the effect–whether intended or not–of betraying victims of domestic abuse and encouraging the actions of perpetrators,” it says.

The report draws attention to “misguided or distorted versions of Christian belief” which it says “have contributed to the problem of domestic abuse.”

Anglican leaders in particular fault theology that views gender roles primarily in terms of dominance and submission.

The report suggests dropping the bride’s promise to “obey” her husband from the wedding vow, saying it is a vestige from a time when society did not view men and women as equal.

It calls for careful study of Old Testament passages that appear to attribute violent actions and attitudes to God. It faults teachings about the Virgin Mary that “reinforce norms of female passivity and obedience to men.”

It also warns that “uncritical use of masculine imagery to characterize God,” in combination with other factors can “validate overbearing and ultimately violent patterns of behavior in intimate relationships.”

To correct that imbalance, the report says, church teaching and preaching should hold fast “to the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the decisive revelation of the divine character.”

“The ministry of Jesus shows respect and compassion for women, children and vulnerable people, expressing the power of God counter-culturally in healing and restoration,” it says. “The death of Jesus shows that God identifies with the victims rather than the perpetrators of violence…. The resurrection of Jesus confirms that the path of love and endurance is
the way blessed by God, and the powers of sin and death will not finally prevail against it.”

The paper calls for recognition that human relationships are capable of both good and evil. Desire by the perpetrator to “be like God” in seeking to dominate and not be held accountable for one’s actions, it says, reverses the character of God revealed in Christ, who, according to Philippians 2: 5-11, came in form of a servant.

“If this is true, it follows that the application in the New Testament (Ephesians 5:25-33) of the model of Christ and the church to the relation between husband and wife has the effect of subverting false ideas of authority and power. The ‘authority’ of a man consists in authorization to give himself in love to his wife: ‘husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies’ (Ephesians 5:28).

“Following the pattern of Christ means that patterns of domination and submission are being transformed in the mutuality of love, faithful care and sharing of burdens. ‘Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ’ (Ephesians 5.21).”

The same chapter in Ephesians is often used by fundamentalists to argue that God’s will is for wives to “be subject” to their husbands.

The Southern Baptist Convention added a statement to the Baptist Faith & Message in 1998 saying “a wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ,” in reaction to egalitarian views at one time promoted in SBC seminaries.

Two years later Southern Baptists deleted a phrase from the faith statement saying “the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ,” defending the view that the whole Bible is “inerrant,” while rejecting any notion of “progressive revelation,” that some parts reflect a pre-Christian understanding of God tempered by the times and cultures in which they were written.

Liberal and feminist scholars interpret the Ephesians passage, which goes on to command that slaves should obey their masters, as good advice for the time, when challenging the social order would have impeded the higher imperative of sharing the gospel, while other verses, such as Galatians 3:28–which says there is “neither male nor female, slave nor free, but all are one in Christ”–are closer to the Christian ideal.

“In interpreting the diverse material and varying perspectives of the Bible, we need to ensure that our controlling vision is determined by what God has made known through Jesus and that our beliefs are tested by their moral and practical fruits,” the document says.

For that reason, the Church of England paper suggests re-examining the practice of having the bride pledge to “obey” her groom in the wedding vow that has roots in the Book of Common Prayer. The promise, it says, “was in the past part of different standards or expectations of women and men within marriage.”

“A mutuality expressed through the marriage partners being encouraged to be themselves rather than sticking to gendered roles offers a better interpretation of love and a better opportunity for both partners to grow and flourish in the relationship than does the differentiated model, in which one partner takes responsibility for the other’s growth, but not vice versa,” it says.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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