According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, every nine seconds, a woman is assaulted or beaten in the United States. Which means that by the time you reach the end of this paragraph, yet another woman will have tragically become a victim of violence.
What makes this statistic scarier is that some women aren’t even safe from the people they know and love. The World Health Organisation estimates that one in three women worldwide who have been in a relationship have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence at the hand of their intimate partner during their lifetime.
Take a moment to fully comprehend this fact. These women are not victims of random attacks by strangers. These are women being physically and emotionally damaged by the men to whom they have given their hearts and trust; men they committed to spending the rest of their lives with; men to whom they have essentially promised, “For better, for worse… ’til death do us part.” How atrocious is the death caused by the one person to whom they made that vow!
Now take a moment to fully comprehend another fact: there is just as much chance that the victim and her abuser are both Christians. A 2006 Anglican Church study concluded that the incidence of abuse within Christian churches is similar to the rate within the general population. The reason why the research is more than 10 years old is that domestic violence statistics within Christian congregations are difficult to find. And it’s no wonder. According to Christianity Today, a 2014 study found domestic violence is rarely discussed in Protestant church settings.
As Isabella Young wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald, “This [is] not evidence that such a problem does not exist, it is just evidence that we are too apathetic to record such things and how difficult it is to get people to speak of them.”
It seems, however, that what people do like to speak about is how the Bible has commanded wives to “submit yourselves to your own husbands” (Ephesians 5:22, italics added), even in the face of immediate danger. Chuck Colson, from Christian Headlines, wrote about a pastor who advised a woman to “try to be more submissive” after her husband had knocked her down, kicked her, and broken her ribs. She did, and two weeks later she was dead—killed by the man who should have been her protector.
According to Young, Christian women “thought that due to what they had been taught in church and reinforced by their spouse, that it was their duty to stay… Often inappropriate statements had been made to them by their pastors, sometimes including counselling them to prayerfully ‘stick it out’ in the midst of severe abuse.”
Male headship—sometimes taught as complementarianism within Christian circles and often viewed as patriarchy by others—is a deeply entrenched tradition of the Christian church and, in the context of domestic violence, it’s extremely dangerous. Many, in fact, cite this as one of the many problems with the Christian church. This is hardly surprising in a largely secular and postfeminist world where female empowerment, women’s rights and gender equality take centre stage.
Does the Bible really require all Christian women to be meek and mild, always ready to conform to the authority of men? I don’t think so.
Before I explain why, it would probably be helpful to provide a little of my background. I converted to Christianity from agnosticism when I was 18, after a series of events too extensive to describe here and following some deep research on the historical evidence for Jesus. I attended a Christian university (even minored in religion), have spent a good part of my career working for the church, and am active in my local congregation. While, like most Christians, I have experienced crises of faith, after nearly 20 years I love, trust and rely on God more than ever.
I also consider myself a feminist. There’s a lot of confusion when it comes to the feminist label—not all of it favourable—so I think it’s necessary to explain my definition. I believe in feminism in its purest form: equal opportunities, equal rights and equal treatment for both genders. This isn’t about overthrowing men or being blind to the fact that gender differences do exist. I’m simply advocating nondiscriminatory attitudes and actions.
At the same time, I’m no theologian. I can’t engage in a debate on Christian apologetics and I most certainly cannot argue convincingly what certain words in the Bible might have meant in the original language or the historical context in which the different parts of the Bible were written. All I can give is my interpretation of the Bible, guided by the pastors, authors and scholars I respect. Add to this a large dose of prayer and faith that I am being obedient to God in my understanding.
Ready to submit
I believe it’s possible to be a Christian and a feminist (given my definition of feminism), even in the face of those infamous admonitions of Ephesians 5:22 and Colossians 3:18 that wives should submit themselves to their husbands. I believe the Bible’s instructions to wives can be obeyed without disrupting the delicate balance of gender equality so painfully fought for by my sisters before me, and under no circumstances do I believe these verses require staying in an abusive relationship, be it physical, emotional or spiritual.
As a wife and a mother, I am fully prepared and willing to acknowledge the authority of my husband simply because of what else the Bible says: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” and “husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies” (Ephesians 5:25, 28).
What this means to me is choice. A wife chooses to submit to her husband if—and only if—he loves her as much as he loves himself; as much as Christ loved humanity. And we know just how much God loves us: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…” (John 3:16). Why wouldn’t I submit to a man (or anybody, male or female, for that matter) who treasures me as much as he does himself; who would sacrifice everything for my wellbeing and who has only my best interests at heart?
“This astonishing Christ-like love… elevated the wife at a time of institutionalised cultural devaluation to be equal to her husband, and was the ultimate act of #HeForShe (the UN campaign for gender equality),” writes Johanna Harris Tyler for The Drum, an Australian current affairs and news analysis program.
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”
Biblical submission of a wife to a husband isn’t about giving up power or neutralising gender equality. I submit to my husband because he has earned my respect as somebody who is wise enough to make the right decisions for our family, who is humble enough to ask and value my opinion, and who is gentle enough to discuss disagreements without physical or emotional manipulation. But most of all I submit to my husband because I know he will willingly submit himself to me if a situation ever calls for it. We are partners in our relationship, both made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27).
In fact, for all the focus on Ephesians 5:22 asking for wives to submit to their husbands, many have overlooked the preceding verse, where the instruction for Christians generally is to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (verse 21).
“Biblical marriage is about mutually submitting to one another . . . and, individually and together, to Christ, with no earthly, corruptible, conduit. The mutual respect under God of this type of marriage provides no gendered license to dominance by either wife or husband,” writes Tyler.
Christianity and feminism are not mutually exclusive words, not when both parties are submitted to one other and to God.
Melody Tan is happily married and the mother of one child. She is editor of Signs of the Times Australia’s sister magazine, Mums at the Table. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia website and is republished with permission.