Behind closed doors

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Late in 2022, I completed a legal placement at a non-profit family law centre, hoping to get my foot in the door in the legal world. But the door opened to me was far more confronting than I ever could have expected. The affidavits I trawled through, the stories shared in quiet moments and the urgent communications received from desperate women broke my heart. Email after email, case after case, this small law firm saw helpless women seeking refuge from abusive relationships. Yet, as was often the case, these women were trapped—threats of violence against their children if they left, financial control and manipulation, and threats of murder left these women caught in a hell of their own.

But perhaps the most confronting part of this family law placement was the sheer volume of cases which came through the small four-person firm. They were juggling more than 20 cases, almost all of which involved instances of abuse. And this was just a small firm . . . I could only imagine the number of cases larger firms were dealing with!

In Australia, one in three women experience physical violence in their lifetimes;1 39 per cent of women have experienced violence since the age of 15; with 4620 women over the age of 15 hospitalised due to family and domestic violence in 2022—that’s 13 women per day.2 Violence against women has spiked significantly this year, increasing by 30 per cent compared to 2023.

And these statistics are just the beginning. In New Zealand, the number of women who have experienced domestic violence is at 55 per cent;3 in Fiji it is two out of three women;4 and in Papua New Guinea, it reaches 80 per cent of women affected—a rate that may be the highest in the world.5

Unfortunately, these statistics are not isolated to broader society—abuse is just as prevalent within churches as it is outside churches.6 According to three surveys and one analysis, abuse seems to occur to the same degree inside the church as outside, and there is little to suggest any protective effect of church attendance on perpetration of domestic violence.7

Just let that fact sink in. 

In a study by Haley Horton (2021), it was found that abuse has been perpetrated in religious contexts in the following ways: men misusing Scripture to require a woman to perform sexual activities; man dictating what is best for the woman without her input; man controlling finances to control the woman; man taking any form of disagreement as a sign of disrespect needing to be “disciplined”; and much more.8 According to another study (2011) which addresses the factors contributing towards domestic abuse for conservative Christian women, the belief that women ought to submit to their husbands was a main contributing factor for 75 per cent of all situations of abuse.9

How can it be that this problem is equally prevalent in our churches as it is in broader society? 

One of the reasons for this sad reality is that certain passages from the Bible have been twisted and used to exploit and abuse women. But those who use the Bible in this manner fail to understand the message at the heart of Scripture. 

One such verse which is often misapplied by abusers is 1 Corinthians 14:34,35, which says, ”Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” This verse is often misused by men to prevent their wives from speaking out about their abuse or expressing their own ideas of faith which may challenge those of their husband.

But what kind of submission is Paul talking about in this passage? First, it helps to understand the context in which Paul is writing. Corinth was situated within the Roman Empire and the laws of Rome were enforced in this region. When Paul writes that women are not allowed to speak ”as the law says”, an examination of the Torah demonstrates that there were no Jewish laws prohibiting women from speaking in religious assemblies. 

However, there was Roman legislation covering this issue, stating that ”a woman should attempt nothing, either in public or private, that belongs to man as his peculiar function”.10 Another Roman law stated, ”In our laws the condition of women is, in many respects, lesser than that of men. Women are precluded from all public offices; therefore, they cannot be judges, nor execute the function of magistrates; they cannot sue, plead, nor act, in any case, as proxies.”11 It was therefore illegal under Roman law for women to speak in public assemblies, ask questions, or interrupt a speaker in public—however men were legally entitled to do so. 

Paul’s writings here are thus addressing the political position of the church in the Roman empire, encouraging Christians to follow the laws of the land to not arouse persecution. Note, however, that Paul tells the women in this passage that if they do have questions, they should ask their questions! He encourages women to learn as much as they can in spheres where they are safely able to pursue knowledge. They are not to be submissive in a manner which inhibits independent thought but are to ask questions and learn from their husbands as independent agents.

As Ellen White wrote, “Eve was created from a rib taken from the side of Adam, signifying that she was not to control him as the head, nor to be trampled under his feet as an inferior, but to stand by his side as an equal, to be loved and protected by him.” Never was there an intent in Scripture to oppress women as forced dependants, but to recognise men and women as equals. 

Another passage which is often used by abusers is that of Ephesians 5:22,23, which reads, ”Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.” 

Male perpetrators of domestic abuse in churches have long used this passage to defend their actions, claiming their right to ”discipline” their wives if they do not act in ways deemed submissive to the husband. These abusers, however, completely disregard the verse immediately preceding it, which reads, ”Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” as well as the verses immediately following it.

What abusers fail to recognise is that just as Christ came to serve sacrificially, so men are instructed here to love and serve their wives. And wives are instructed to love and respect their husbands as the church loves and respects Christ. Language of leadership is never used in the New Testament to imply dominance, but rather to lead through service and self-sacrifice.12 Instead, language of love and respect for one another, and submitting to one another in unity is used. This is clear in the following verses in Ephesians 5:25-29:

”Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no-one ever hates his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church.”

Husbands are to treasure, protect and nurture their wives as Jesus Christ does for the church. And Jesus is the fulfilment and focus of Scripture—a Man whose life was dedicated to selfless sacrifice through unfailing love. The very concept of marriage was designed after God’s love for humanity, reflecting the intimacy and giving-away of self to one another in vulnerability and mutual submission. These principles of love and respect underpin a true understanding of Scripture, leaving no door open to entertain justifications of abuse.

So why does this problem exist within our churches? To ask that question is to ask why sin remains in the lives of Christians—and that is a big question! But essentially, this problem arises out of a sinful heart, a heart unconverted and untouched by the tender mercy of Jesus. 

The solution? There is no easy answer. . . On the one hand, perpetrators must ask God to create within them a new heart and place a new spirit within them (Ezekiel 36:26,27). But when my placement at the family law centre ended, it broke my heart to realise the harsh truth that sometimes the only viable solution for many of these domestic violence situations was separation, divorce or even AVOs (Apprehended Violence Orders) being put in place for the safety of those abused. 

As a Church, our communities should strive to be a model of respectful relationships to the rest of the world, reflecting the self-sacrificing love of Jesus by treating one another with respect, dignity and love. May we not be responsible for contributing to these statistics of domestic violence and abuse, but instead may we be the first to call out domestic abuse and provide meaningful healing to those it impacts.

  3. new-zealand-family-violence-and-economic-harm-statistics/
  8. Haley Horton, ”The unavoidable link between patriarchal theology and spiritual abuse” CBE International (January 2021)
  9. Michelle L PonTell, ”Sacred silence: Domestic abuse in conservative Christian communities” (2011). Theses Digitization Project. 3936.
  10. l. 9, PAB. LIB. 31, QUAEST.
  11. l. 2, de Reg. Juris. ULP. LIB. i. AD SAB.-Vid. POTH. Pand. Justin., vol 1, p13.
  12. Jon Paulien, ”What about Headship Theology?” Accessed at

Olivia Fairfax is an editorial assistant at Adventist Record

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has zero tolerance for abuse. If you or someone you know is suffering from abuse, we would urge you to report it to the police. If you need assistance in doing so, staff at Adsafe are ready and willing to help. Adsafe is an independent agency of the Church providing support for victims and their families. For more details:

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