Domestic abuse is obviously an issue in any community, but one would hope that a church would take steps to protect or at least support any of its members who are going through such an ordeal. And indeed, that does seem to be the case – it’s not uncommon to see posters or leaflets for domestic abuse helplines or support groups that are backed by a local church, at least where I live. But things get a bit more complicated if that church supports the idea tha women should be subservient to men, or at least see their husband as the ‘head of the household’.
The Saddleback church, home of the ever-controversial Rick Warren, recently drew attention to itself when one of its pastors argued that domestic abuse is grounds for separation and counseling, but not for divorce. Unsusprisingly, this rather dubious advice comes from the Bible, which apparently does not give permission to end a marriage because one partner has grown violent towards the other. One would think that even this rather weak condemnation of spoual abuse would include one-off incidents, but no – according to pastor Tom Holladay, it doesn’t really ‘count’ unless someone is being beaten regularly or semi-regularly.
Keep in mind that Holladay does not seem to be insane or misogynistic (although that might be debatable). He also doesn’t seem to be particularly happy with what the Bible has to say about domestic violence:
“I wish there were a third in Scripture, having been involved as a pastor with situations of abuse,” Warren said. “There is something in me that wishes there were a Bible verse that says, ‘If they abuse you in this-and-such kind of way, then you have a right to leave them.'”
Warren said his church’s counseling ministry advises separation and counseling instead of divorce in abusive marriages, because it’s the only path toward healing. “There’s an abusive cycle that’s been set up,” he said. “Separation combined with counseling has been proven to provide healing in people’s lives.” (Source)
(Note: I can’t seem to access the original article, and the version quoted here erroneously identifies the source as Rick Warren rather than Holladay.)
What’s striking about this is that Holladay is almost amitting that he sees a problem with how the Bible treats domestic violence – his reason, his compassion, something in him is saying that there’s a problem here. I’ve seen this before, when a depressingly small minority of Christians admit that they don’t see why homosexuality should be considered a sin, or when someone attempts to justify the Biblical idea of slavery. (And before I get a snide comment, I’m aware that the slavery described in the Bible isn’t like what most people think of as slavery.) But, almost without fail, Christians will supress or ignore the nagging voice at the back of their head and assume that the problem is with them rather than the Bible.
I shouldn’t have to point out how wrong-headed this seems to someone who isn’t religious. If the ‘word of God’ seems unfair or suspect, so much the worse for the word of God. Atheists are often accused of condemning theists for acting like sheep or for lacking the capacity to think critically, but those criticising this practice very often don’t realize where that opinion comes from. For many of us, it isn’t that believing in God is necessarily ‘stupid’ or something that only the ignorant do. We simply can’t stand to see people prostrating themselves in front of a book, particularly if doing so requires that they forfeit their intelligence.
The urge to just accept what the Bible says regardless of any problems with its message can be seen with particular prevalence in Creationists, who must literally delude themselves in order to continue believing that the Bible is the inerrant, literal word of God. Why is it such a taboo to suggest that this particular book might be mistaken on some subjects? Surely a person’s faith is not so weak that it will collapse if they admit that that the scientific evidence for evolution is strong, or that the Biblical prohibition against homosexuality could actually just be the product of an ignorant age?
Christians, don’t use the excuse that your hands are tied by the Bible. If you believe that God gave you your intelligence and ability to reason, then honour him by using it. Ask yourself seriously whether divorcing your spouse if he or she physically assaults you might not be justified, or whether homosexuality is actually something we need to be warning our children against. I’m not asking that you become atheists, but at least try really, truly looking at your religion in a critical way for a change.