Anglican commentators say they were horrified by the recent report that a woman had been excommunicated from a conservative United States megachurch for separating from her abusive husband.
Both complementarian and egalitarian-leaning Anglicans concurred that this issue was grossly mishandled, but their views differed on how Scripture should have been applied in this instance.
Pastor John MacArthur publicly denounced and “put away from the fellowship” Eileen Gray, according to a report by investigative journalist Julie Roys for her outlet The Roys Report.
Ms Gray’s sin, according to MacArthur, was applying for legal separation and a restraining order against her abusive husband, David.
John MacArthur is an outspoken complementarian and the Senior Pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California.
Prominent Anglican voice for egalitarianism Dr Muriel Porter said this case was an example of an expected outcome of applying this kind of theology to a marriage.
“If you hold to a view that women are in some way or other subservient to men, whether theologically or philosophically, that means that men have a power over women that can be expressed in forms of abuse,” Dr Porter said.
Dr Porter said that when women were forbidden from divorcing an abusive spouse, it was an example of Scripture being used as “a polemical weapon to keep women in their place”.
Dr Porter said that the issue arose when Christians, including leaders such as MacArthur, took a fundamentalist approach to Scripture.
“I know that there are women living within fundamentalist Christian communities, including sadly some within the Anglican church in Australia, who are living lives of fear, and some of the women are convinced to believe it themselves and to accept this abusive treatment [as if it was] ordained by God,” Dr Porter said.
Dr Porter’s comments echoed the findings of the National Anglican Family Violence Research Report, published in April 2021, which found that “the prevalence of intimate partner violence among Anglicans was the same or higher than in the wider Australian community”.
The study also found that it is the belief of most clergy “that Scripture is misused by the abuser in Christian families”.
The Roys Report told how Mr Gray, a former children’s music and Bible teacher at Grace Community Church, was at the time physically, sexually and mentally abusing Ms Gray and their children.
Roys reported that Mr Gray also threatened to kill both his family and himself.
Mr Gray is now serving a long prison sentence for aggravated child molestation, corporal injury to a child, and child abuse, according to Roys.
Roys told how Ms Gray had approached the eldership at Grace Community Church for counselling regarding her abusive marriage, however the elders never reported the matter to authorities.
MacArthur said that the reason for excommunicating Ms Gray was that she had decided to separate from Mr Gray against “all the instruction and counsel of the elders, all instruction from the Word of God.”
Former lay minister at St Jude’s Carlton, Fiona McLean, said that this was a case of the wrong Bible passages being emphasised.
“When people think of the complementarian view, they [tend to] think of the commands given to wives rather than those given to husbands,” Ms McLean said.
Ms McLean said that in these instances, husbands needed to “be called to account” and expected to “live up to the Ephesians 5 mandate” of loving their wives.
Ms McLean also said that passages such as Matthew 18, which dealt with handling sin in the church, needed to be applied to abusive partners rather than to partners who were seeking a divorce from their abuser.
“Abuse where it occurs is a serious violation of the marriage covenant,” Ms McLean said.
“Commanding wives to just stick it out in a marriage [like this one] means that in effect you are condoning sinful behaviour,” said Ms McLean.
While Ms McLean said that separating from a spouse was a very serious matter, she concurred that in instances such as these, it was warranted.
Dr Kevin Giles, author of The Headship of Men and the Abuse of Women, said that women should never be forced by their church leaders to return to an abusive husband.
Dr Giles said that a minister’s priority in these instances was to listen to women.
However, Dr Porter said that a complete theological shift within the church was the only solution.
“The only way we could ever overcome mistreatment of women and children was if we completely changed the rhetoric,” Dr Porter said.
Dr Porter said it was “shameful” that the Christian church had offered violent men an excuse to harm their wives and children through poor theological exegesis.
Dr Porter said that due to the accessibility of varied theological teachings on the internet, many Christians, including Anglicans, had fallen prey to believing similar ideas to those of MacArthur.
MacArthur’s media ministry, Grace to You, provides sermons and other media materials through both its website and social media, as well as a global network of churches affiliated with MacArthur’s training institute, The Master’s Seminary.
“I think we need to be very wary of this ratbag theology that comes out of fundamentalist North American preaching,” Dr Porter said.