The ‘normal’ negotiating of religious texts towards domestic violence

Garden of Eden

Picture: “The Garden of Eden” by Lucas Cranach der Ältere

   Women and men are equally made in the image of God; however in theological teachings of religious texts throughout the world, the two beings sit separately from each other. Dr Elizabeth Koepping, a Priest and theological lecturer who has taught at the University of Edinburgh, conducted extensive research on the subject of church responses to domestic violence. This article will share her findings as a necessary dimension in tackling the phenomenal scale of global gender inequality.

 “It would be better to be dead than for me to leave. Even if I die, I stayed with my husband, and I will go to heaven as a reward because I endured”. [Research participant]

Dr Elizabeth Koepping from the English Church in Heidelberg, Germany has conducted research in Tonga, Burma, Korea, Ghana, Germany, India, Trinidad and Scotland on the subject of domestic violence in Christian contexts, and the perfectly normal cultural negotiating of religious texts. Her findings from qualitative interviews and observations underpin the unjust and widespread manipulation of readings by Church members in response to experienced violence. This is leaving women to bear continued or new dangers in countless areas of the world. Can this not be viewed as disobeying the faith while diminishing the value of equality set out by God himself?

Dr Koepping commented:

“There are no sanctions for male failures in everyday living. What happens to the man if he does not provide food for a meal in the home; nothing happens. What if the woman does not cook; punishment is rewarded.  Even if the woman could not cook at the fault of her husband for not providing the food from his responsibility as head of house, the consequences will still fall to the woman as her own failing to accept.  She is always seen as the inhibitor for the mistakes of the man and must take ownership. His actions are fully dependent upon her for a harmonious home”.

Although Koepping’s statement describes the most common reality of domestic violence, her research identifies that churches and religious institutions are tied up in a collective control over violence against women by the inaccurate references of theological texts. The judgement and advice given by priests, pastors, religious institutions and informal group meetings is based on the moral obligation of women to honour and uphold responsibility within their marriage, family and in the eyes of their god. However, the motive to frame inadequacy on women as an imperfect wives, mothers or daughters hinders both the faith and religion towards the responsibility for life on earth.

Koepping: “In Tonga, Roman Catholic women can be excluded from the Eucharist from experienced violence and the desire to re-marry. This would be condemned as adultery, but the rule is being applied wrongly; the sin is the men hitting their wives.  If both the man and woman are divorced, she can still take to the Eucharist”.

Koepping also shared a more visual account from a church gathering in North Queensland, Australia.

“During a church service, a man burst through the doors carrying with him a rifle to hold his wife at gunpoint in front of his community peers.  When the woman screamed out what she should do, the church Priest responded that the man would come around by god and to remain in her home”.

The Surah 4.34, a chapter of the Quran that covers the issue of marital relations in Islam is a reminder of the most controversial verse that states the man can hit the woman; a text Koepping believes has acted as a vicious catalyst and inequitable excuse for domestic violence. Yet, the Quran also establishes the broader scope for mutual respect by referencing the duty of men to care for their wives.

Koepping argues that segments of theological texts are chosen to enforce and validate beatings by men against women, describing this as selective referencing to prevent a balanced model of gender equality. Churches and faith leaders met by her research pursuits favoured a silenced and less problematic approach that gave women limited or no means to have rights, justice or safety. This has also led to the adoption of rankings and categorisations of experienced violence to create a response. The palm is believed to be “not so bad”, but my question is this; how high does the hand reach in the air to cause intentional harm? How likely is hitting a woman with your elbow by your body a method employed during episodes of anger with the intent to reduce the hurt?

The act of gender based violence in the home also extends as practice by members of the church, as Koepping shares:

“I know of Anglican Priests from South Sudan who have advised amongst each other themselves that hitting is acceptable inside, but not outside.  In South Australia I was aware of the teachings through early marriage counselling, where members of the church advised to the husbands that hitting your wife would better to be acted upon as early as possible, this in the long term will present less challenges. I have heard members of the church tell women that if they refuse to have sexual intercourse with their husbands, a thousand angels will neglect them. This is traumatic for women and blatant lies from faith being trapped by cultural ideology”.

The inquiry for a response has been instigated by Koepping to churches on raising these cases to promote better education and to serve social and gender equity, but the common reaction was that that it stepped too far towards a dramatic radical change from the fear of being denounced from religious misguidance and a lack of empathy towards women. Dr Koepping hopes that her research will expose the wrongness by the church members and to begin the correct teachings of theology.

If women and men are equal beings, then to justify sins of violence are theological wrongs. Members of the church have a duty to allow women from all communities to seek action without the threat of faith exclusion. Suffering has no merit on any religious grounds.

“I’m waiting for my mother to commit suicide”. [18 year old girl from a mother who is enduring domestic violence]



Janine Ewen is a researcher in the field of Public Health and Human Rights and has been involved in overseas humanitarian work. Recently she has been examining the perils and advantages of Public Health integration into police practice. Janine received an Amnesty International UK acknowledgement in London last year for helping to report on crimes committed by police officers against sex workers in Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro. 

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