Ordained Episcopalian priest and professor at Gordon-Conwell Theologian Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary Justin Holcomb has authored a book domestic violence with his wife Lindsey Holcomb, who has worked with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. In their latest book, Is It My Fault? the Holcombs share the "good news of the Gospel" with victims of domestic violence. In the third section of the three-part interview, Justin tells The Christian Post his thoughts on the connection between domestic violence and marriage, how gender roles influence domestic violence, and how male pastors should counsel female victims.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CP: What do you make of a recent study by Bradley Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson that suggests that couples who are married are less likely to suffer domestic violence than those unmarried living together?
Holcomb: I've seen those studies over awhile and just by relying on the studies — I didn't do studies, I'm not a sociologist in the sense of doing my own studies — which I've seen that all over the place, in religious surveys and nonreligious surveys, that cohabitation is something that spikes the possibilities of encountering domestic violence in a relationship. For some reason whether it be the stability of marriage, I don't know what it is.
CP: One explanation is that poverty may be playing a role here. Thoughts?
Holcomb: One of the key factors in domestic abuse is loss of a job or financial strain especially in places where a man feels unempowered or not manly or not powerful or not strong or when he doesn't have any indicators in his surrounding culture that indicate that he's a man. When manhood is threatened, bad things usually happen.
I think the thing about poverty makes a lot of sense. I think that does spike it.
CP: What does the Bible have to say about gender roles?
Holcomb: Many religious women and men tend to think that the Bible talks about the inferiority of women and it does not. It talks about equality of men and women. Obviously there's physical difference and some roles that might be different in the world and other things but the Bible does not teach the inferiority. As a matter of fact, what the Hebrew Bible had to say to its surrounding culture, what the Greek New Testament said in its surrounding culture, was actually shocking compared to the other options around them said. The Bible, Old and New, was pretty progressive in its time and even offensive in what it said and allowed for women. It celebrates women, Deborah and Miriam, and others who were strong and accomplished such as Proverbs 31. It also talks about women who didn't have the best reputation in their culture being in the lineage of Jesus. It doesn't cast them out, it actually puts them in the line of the Savior of the world.
But what usually happens is a few passages get pulled out, "Wives submit to your husbands," and it just picks out Ephesians 5:22, picks out that line, and ignores the line before it where it talks about mutually submitting to one another. It makes it sound like it's the women's job is to submit and the man's job is to lead and that just helps cause a meat-headed masculinity with some Bible verse smeared on it. When the Bible says to husbands love your wife the way Christ loved the church, wives submit to your husband, and if you read that, after it already tells us about mutual submission, that's pretty shocking in and of itself, because it's basically telling husbands, lay down your life and be willing to die to your desire for the flourishing and love of your wife. That's like submission on steroids and so it's not like husbands are supposed to lead and women are supposed to be quiet and listen.
When you have unhelpful views of masculinity, with the divine stamp of approval because they found some proof texts, all it does is reinforce, some dumb versions of masculinity and not what the Bible has to say. A lot of what we're seeing now in these meat-headed masculinity Christian movements is basically the baptizing of a truncated cultural American version of masculinity with some Bible verse prooftexting. Basically, it's almost like a toned-down rape culture with some Bible verses dangling on it and when that happens — watch out.
CP: What might be some healthy ways for Christians to better understand gender roles?
Holcomb: I think it's great to study what does the Bible have to say about manhood, womanhood, gender roles. But I don't think it would hurt for people in the church to actually study Jackson Katz, the author of the book called The Macho Paradox. There's another book I know called Dying to be Men. There's a great sociologist of gender called Michael Kimmel who writes really good stuff about American masculinity.
It's helpful to read them, not because you read them to believe everything they say. You have to read things critically and some of them are going to have different worldviews and presuppositions but it's helpful for me as a minister and seminary professor where I might be reading my views given to me from my culture into the Bible and then saying "It's from the Bible." I don't want to do that. I don't want to do eisegesis on gender roles. I don't want to take some cultural view of masculinity and femininity and then read it into my Bible and then say "This is what the Bible says." I want to do the opposite. I want to do exegesis not eisegesis. Reading these other people on gender helps you being aware to defend yourself against reading into the Bible views of gender that aren't there.
You don't go to those resources to get your view of gender. I'm not suggesting that at all. But you go there and it helps inoculate you, it helps protect you from a simple minded view of gender that the Bible doesn't actually support.
CP: Given that the majority of domestic violence victims are males and the overwhelmingly number of clergy are male, what advice do you have for handling the lay/pastoral relationship?
Holcomb: That's actually a huge issue that goes in the church culture. First, being aware that a pastor being male and a woman being female can actually be really good or really painful for the woman. She might think, "Here's a good godly man I can trust, because the experience I had one with this one over here wasn't that hot. But this is encouraging."
But also being aware that they might not be quick to trust a man in authority who has that kind of power and they might prefer to talk to a woman and they might actually more open with a woman. So just being aware of that and being willing to find a way to take care of them. I've had some women say, "I want to talk to Justin. His wife can be there. But I want it to be him." Others said, "No, I don't want to talk to Justin and would prefer he's not in the room just because he's a guy. I'll be able to be more honest with his wife." In the same week, I've had two women on opposite ends of the spectrum. It's good to be ready for that and not call the woman who wants to talk to woman a radical feminist or a man-hater — she's not being a man-hater — her husband abused her and she doesn't trust men right now.
It's also helpful to develop a team and prepare for it now. It's kind of like parenting where you know that you'll have to prepare for dating issues and other issues when you're parenting so you prepare for those things in advance. Prepare for this issue now and realize that I might need to have a team of men and women who are prepared to help in numerous ways on this issue.
CP: Should the church confront the husband on his actions?
Holcomb: First, if there's a crime, they need to go authorities. Both on domestic violence and sexual abuse, I think trying to keep it in the church is not good or healthy or the best response. If there's a crime, let the legal authorities be involved to the degree that they are going to be or the victim of sexual assault wants to be. Definitely, I think the husband needs to be confronted. I think the church should be involved in confronting. Many times there's a crime and a sin. Let the civil authority deal with the crime and the church deal with the crime and the sin.
CP: Anything else you'd like to add?
Holcomb: Regarding domestic violence, ministers are getting the bum rap that some of us deserve. They're getting some bad press regarding domestic violence. Some of it is deserved and some of its not. They're not hoping to hurt women where people are listening to them.
I would like for Christians and particularly for leaders in Christian communities to be more aware of domestic violence and sexual assault so then they can more powerfully and persuasively connect the good news that comes from the gospel of Jesus to the pain and suffering where a lot of hope and healing is needed.
They have a really potent opportunity to do the work that they've signed up to do and that God's called them to do. They said "yes" to that call and so I'd like them to expand what they're learning about. They want to continue in their continuing education to become better preachers and counselors and theologians and Bible teachers and leaders and I would hope that they would add this topic to their list of things to care for people that has God has entrusted to them.