We must do more to eradicate the scourge of domestic violence

Politicians and church leaders need to unite and say that the abuse of women must stop, writes Kevin Giles

By Kevin Giles

April 1 2020Australians are still reeling from the shock of the horrific deaths of Hannah Clarke and her three young children in February. Her husband and the children’s father, Rowan Baxter, allegedly doused them with petrol and set them on fire in the family car. They had appeared to the world as a glamorous couple with three beautiful children, but Hannah lived in fear of him and went to the police for help several times; she even had a court order out against him. But in her time of greatest need no one could do anything, and she and their three children died in the most appalling way. Hannah left him, taking the children with her. For this act of defiance, he is alleged to have killed her and their children. 

And now, with many people in “lockdown” as part of the government’s measures to try to curb the spread of coronavirus, there are fears of an increase in domestic violence. Perpetrators use crises like COVID-19 to exert more control, and it is more difficult for victim/survivors to get support.

On average, one woman a week in Australia is killed by a man who says he loves her. The prevalence of domestic violence is staggering. In the USA, Europe and Australia, one in four women will experience physical abuse from an intimate partner in their lifetime. No change in these statistics is in sight. The more freedoms women enjoy, the stronger the pushback by men who believe that because they are men they should be in charge. The evidence shows that domestic abuse also occurs in church-going families. 

“Domestic abuse” is a specific phenomenon which refers to the ongoing assertion of power, almost always by a man over his wife or intimate partner, that has as its intent the complete control of the woman. Domestic abuse is always ultimately about power in one way or another; the man feels he must be in control. His male identity as a leader must be asserted. Australian journalist and author Jess Hill says, “The unifying ingredient among abusers is a radioactive sense of entitlement,” which can be summed up in the sentiment: “I should be in charge.” Women do kill their husbands on rare occasions but almost always to preserve their own life and often the lives of their children as well. Domestic abuse always involves control and fear but not necessarily physical violence. 

Why do some men, and some men who are in church most Sundays, we ask, abuse their wives? We know one of the primary reasons. It is well-put by professors Lori Heise and Andreas Kotsadam in their 2015 Lancet article “Cross-National and Multilevel Correlates of Partner Abuse”, which is based on 66 surveys in 44 countries and involving 481 subjects. They found that “especially predictive … of partner violence are norms related to male authority”. In other words, when it is believed that men are privileged and should be in control, women are abused in much higher percentages.

Similarly, in her 2019 book, See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse, Jess Hill says, “It is indisputable that traditional notions of masculinity – particularly male entitlement – are at the core of men’s violence against women.” Our Watch, the Australian organisation set up specifically to work on primary prevention of violence against women and their children in Australia, says, “Research has consistently found that men who hold traditional, hierarchical views about gender roles and relationships are more likely to perpetrate violence against women.”

What this means for churches is that teaching that men should be “real men”, and women “real women”; that men should be in charge; that men make all the important decisions; and women should be “submissive”, can be a very dangerous diet for some men – men who are needy and controlling.

What we need to be hearing in our churches is that God has made men and women of equal dignity, status, and leadership potential (Gen. 1:27–28); that the subordination of women is entirely a consequence of the fall (Gen 3:16) and thus sinful; and that Jesus in word and deed valued men and women alike. True, just once Paul said the husband is the “head of the wife” (Eph 5:22), but his words must be read in context. Immediately before he asks for mutual submission (v 21), and immediately after that the husband love his wife like Christ loved the church and gave his life for her. What he asserts about male leadership, reflecting the culture of his day, he then subverts with an entirely novel and revolutionary Christian understanding of marriage.

If Hannah Clarke’s death and that of her children is going to mean anything, our politicians need to unite and say that the abuse of women must stop; we must do more to eradicate this scourge. And church leaders, especially theologians, need to unite in opposing the idea that in the home the man should make all the important decisions and women should be “submissive”.


The Revd Dr Kevin Giles is a Melbourne priest and theologian. His book The headship of men and the abuse of women: are they in any way connected? Will be published by Cascade in May 2020.

This is an edited version of an article published at https://www.cbeinternational.org/latest-blog-posts 

If you or someone you know is troubled by this story, you can call Lifeline on 131 114 or beyondblue on 1300 224 636.

If you would like to speak to someone about concerns you have about family violence for yourself or someone you know, please contact 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It has a 24/7 helpline and an online chat service: www.1800respect.org.au