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Pulitzer winners tie domestic abuse to Christianity

UPDATED (4th paragraph) 4:10 p.m. April 24

CHARLESTON, S.C. (BP) — The South Carolina newspaper that won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for public service journalism has drawn criticism for linking the Palmetto state’s domestic violence problems with its residents’ belief in the Bible’s teaching about gender.

“Just because the Bible describes [gender] roles is not any excuse for any type of abuse,” Mike Hamlet, pastor of First Baptist Church North Spartanburg in Spartanburg, S.C., told Baptist Press. “To suggest something otherwise is to misinterpret or deliberately misuse the Scripture. I think that’s what [the Pulitzer winners] have done.”

The Pulitzer Prize board announced April 20 that Charleston’s Post and Courier beat out The Boston Globe and The Wall Street Journal for the 2015 public service prize, an award for “meritorious public service by a newspaper or news site,” according to the Pulitzer website. The Post and Courier’s winning series “Till Death Do Us Part,” published last August, “probed why South Carolina is among the deadliest states in the union for women [in terms of domestic violence] and put the issue of what to do about it on the state’s agenda,” the Pulitzer site stated.

At least two articles in the Post and Courier’s seven-part winning series suggested that the traditional Christian belief in male headship of the family is among the causes of domestic violence without distinguishing between the “belief that men are totally dominant” — as one source in part three of the series put it — and the more mainstream evangelical teaching that husbands and wives are of equal worth but have complementary roles in the family.

In a statement to Baptist Press, lead reporter Glenn Smith said the Post and Courier “would never imply that the Bible is to blame for abuse” but sought to highlight that “well-intentioned folks and traditional beliefs have at times gotten in the way of abused women getting the help they need in finding a way out of dangerous relationships.”

Smith, who serves as the paper’s watchdog and public service editor, told NPR April 20, “In some parts of the Bible Belt in the state here, people are reluctant to talk about [domestic violence] because the Bible teaches you that, you know, women follow the lead of the man and that these sort of things are best left in the home.”

Smith apparently was referencing the “complementarian” view of gender roles in the family, which holds that Scripture appoints husbands as the leaders of their homes. Article XVIII of The Baptist Faith & Message advocates the complementarian view.

“The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image,” the BF&M states. “The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family.” A wife, the BF&M states, “is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.”

The Post and Courier series’ first article, which noted that a woman in South Carolina dies every 12 days from injuries sustained through domestic violence, suggested a link between domestic abuse in the state and the complementarian view of gender.

“Awash in guns, saddled with ineffective laws and lacking enough shelters for the battered, South Carolina is a state where the deck is stacked against women trapped in the cycle of abuse, a Post and Courier investigation has found,” the paper stated. “Couple this with deep-rooted beliefs about the sanctity of marriage and the place of women in the home, and the vows ’till death do us part’ take on a sinister tone.”

Part three of the series asserted, “Part of the problem is rooted in the culture of South Carolina, where men have long dominated the halls of power, setting an agenda that clings to tradition and conservative Christian tenets about the subservient role of women.”

Part three said pastors “inadvertently” can “fuel the problem” of domestic violence by teaching that “Scripture says women are to be submissive.”

The article cited a LifeWay Research study which found 42 percent of American Protestant pastors rarely or never speak about domestic violence. Part three quoted Mark Bagwell, care pastor at Golden Corner Church in Walhalla, S.C., a Southern Baptist congregation, as lamenting the state’s domestic violence problem and saying, “I’m grateful that ’till death do us part’ is changing.”

Bagwell, who was away from the office and could not be reached for comment by BP’s publication deadline, appeared to be encouraging pastors to counsel women to physically leave abusive situations, not opposing the biblical view of gender roles. Nonetheless, the paper introduced Bagwell’s comments by asserting he “concedes that religious vows and teachings have likely kept a good number of women from leaving their abusers.”

David Shirley, director of missions for the Beaverdam Baptist Association in Seneca, S.C. — with which Golden Corner cooperates — said the Walhalla congregation is a Bible-believing church and it seems unlikely Bagwell intended to critique the traditional Christian view of Christ-like male leadership in the home.

The churches of Oconee County, S.C., including Southern Baptist churches, have played a significant role in supporting the local Safe Harbor shelter for battered women, Shirley told BP. He cited the involvement of conservative evangelical churches in the shelter’s work as evidence that a complementarian view of gender does not condone domestic violence.

“I don’t think in any way, shape, form or fashion does following God’s pattern for marriage have anything to do with domestic abuse in South Carolina,” Shirley said. “The biblical pattern of marriage is the solution. It’s not the problem.”

A Sept. 14 Post and Courier follow-up article not included in the Pulitzer-winning series cited a need “to counter conservative Christian beliefs that women should submit to their men and that domestic unrest is best resolved in the home.”

Smith, in his statement to Baptist Press, said the paper did not mean to imply “that the Bible condones” domestic abuse — a “complicated issue” that “various clergy members are working to address.”

During the paper’s investigation, Smith told BP, sources said “traditional beliefs about the sanctity of marriage and a woman’s place in the home contributed to abuse lingering in the shadows and remaining a silent epidemic. They also told us that well-meaning pastors sometimes exacerbated matters by counseling abused women to stay in dangerous marriages and work out their problems. We were told this by police, prosecutors, advocates and pastors themselves.”

Hamlet, of First Baptist North Spartanburg, said following biblical teaching on the family would stop domestic violence because it would involve men loving their wives like Christ loved the church. Hamlet agreed with the Post and Courier that pastors should not counsel women to remain in physically abusive situations, though he said some marriages can experience reconciliation following physical abuse when the abuser repents and shows a track record of change.

“Domestic violence is a terrible tragedy in our culture,” Hamlet said. “The most effective way that we can address it is applying Christian principles to the institution of marriage.”

James Cokley, pastor of Cherry Hill Missionary Baptist Church, an African American congregation in Conway, S.C., acknowledged that domestic violence is a problem in the state but said he is “appalled” the Post and Courier suggested a link between domestic abuse and the biblical teaching of male leadership in the family.

“I was not surprised by the numbers as relates to domestic violence in the state of South Carolina,” Cokley told BP. “But I was appalled and surprised by the fact that [the Post and Courier] is blaming the father being the head of the household, or having the leadership role in the home, as a reason for domestic violence being so high.”

Citing male leadership as a cause of domestic violence “indicates that one thinks because the father is the head of the home, he has total liberty to do whatever he wants,” Cokley said, “and that’s not the case. That is not what we teach as Christians.

“We teach that while he is the head of the home, he is responsible to and for his family. And so it’s important that he does what is best for the family,” Cokley said.

Whenever Cokley learns about domestic violence within a congregation he pastors, he tells the parties involved to report it to the police and informs them he will report any illegal acts he knows about. Cokley said police inaction related to domestic violence has been a greater problem in his experience than the practice of male leadership.

“In one of my recent pastorates, I knew a situation where there was tremendous domestic violence in the home and no matter how many times the wife reported it, the police would do nothing,” Cokley said.

In the African American community, some domestic abuse goes unreported because victims “fear” involving the police, Cokley said. Unless there is “tremendous dialogue” between the black community, the white community and the police, increasing victims’ willingness to report “is going to be a hard nut to crack.”

Owen Strachan, president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, an interdenominational complementarian group, said domestic violence is “wicked” and pointed to Satan as “the instigator of abuse.” In contrast, the biblical view of gender promotes the flourishing of women, he said.

“Biblical manhood, and the biblical vision of marriage, creates men who would rather die than harm women. Men are called in Scripture to be Christ-like ‘heads’ of their wives,” Strachan told BP in written comments. “This means that men must die to themselves and self-sacrificially lead, protect and provide for their wives. Eve was formed out of the body of Adam (Genesis 2:21-22). His body was literally used to make her body. There is a worldview in this textual detail: Men protect women. They use their strength for women, not against them. They gladly place themselves in harm’s way to bless women.

“We grieve when we hear of churches that do not teach this publicly, as many do not. Complementarian theology has created thousands upon thousands of local churches filled with men who would rather die than see their wife and children be harmed,” Strachan said.

When domestic abuse occurs within a church, the congregation should “gladly involve the civil authority and enact church discipline against any and all who abuse others,” Strachan said.

“Women should be protected at all costs. If necessary, separation should be enacted. Churches should take great care to communicate to abused women that they have maximal love for them, and that the abuse occurring is not their fault,” Strachan said. “The church cannot see divorce as a positive good as the culture does. But if necessary, divorce may take place.

“The church always seeks to repair and restore what is broken. This is a Gospel instinct, even as taking any measure needed to protect women is a Gospel instinct,” he said.