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Does God Ordain Domestic Violence?

STH’s Steven Sandage studies religious “myths” that justify abuse of women


In June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided that domestic violence is inadequate grounds for granting asylum.

Sessions’ announcement followed President Trump’s defense of aide Rob Porter, accused of abuse by two ex-wives (subsequently amended with a presidential condemnation of domestic violence).

Citing these news stories, psychologist Steven Sandage asks, “How can some people take positions that seem to minimize the problem of domestic violence?” The Albert and Jessie Danielsen Professor of Psychology of Religion and Theology and research director at BU’s Danielsen Institute, Sandage thinks he’s found one answer outside of politics: religion sometimes justifies or rationalizes violence against women.

In particular, he says, that attitude is a danger in Calvinism, a word that may conjure notions of a God who preordains every human for salvation or hell, unalterably, before time began. But Calvinism—“a theology that makes Pat Robertson seem warm and fuzzy,” according to one writer—is enjoying a resurgence.

John Calvin (1509-64) taught that people lost their free will because of original sin, leaving it to God to determine everything in life, including who suffers and from what. Calvin specifically suggested that the Almighty programmed humanity for spouse battering, writing that a wife must “bear with patience the cross which God has seen fit to place upon her.” He taught, Sandage says, that wives “were not allowed to leave their husbands when beaten.”

Calvin’s theology appeals to some Protestants uncomfortable with modern mix-and-match religion cobbled together from various theological traditions.

Sandage says many of his Calvinist clients derive “a very clear social and moral structure” from their worldview.

Steven Sandage, director of research at BU’s Albert & Jessie Danielsen Institute, is involved in a two-year study researching humility among religious leaders.

The School of Theology’s Steven Sandage says that since religious leaders are the most sought-out marriage counselors, they need better education about domestic violence. Photo by Cydney Scott

In several recent research projects with colleagues at BU and elsewhere, he has explored aspects of Calvinism, including “domestic violence myth acceptance.” Domestic violence myths are beliefs “that function to rationalize, justify, and/or perpetuate men’s violence against women,” in the words of one study, published in the Journal of Psychology and Spirituality.

For that study, the researchers had 238 seminary students complete an online survey, probing for correlations between their theological beliefs and ideologies about gender, hierarchical relationships, and belief in God’s control and protection of them. The students were from Minnesota’s Bethel Seminary, an evangelical Protestant school where Sandage once taught.

Sandage summarizes the upshot of his research: “Many Christian theologies emphasize the possibility of finding meaning in suffering, but the New Calvinism seems to promote a rather stoic and un-empathic attitude that valorizes suffering, particularly among women.… Calvinist beliefs were related to higher levels of domestic violence myth acceptance and lower levels of social justice commitment.”

In the Calvinist view, “God causes all things, including hierarchical social structures and all suffering,” he says. “Domination by the powerful,” be it God or men, “is just and appropriate, and submission to suffering by the less powerful is virtuous and redemptive.”

He doesn’t contend that all people embracing Calvinism endorse domestic violence myths: “There are many contemporary Calvinists who hold progressive views of gender and other social issues. But our research does offer some data suggesting the ‘New Calvinism’ that combines Calvinistic beliefs and very conservative, binary views of gender may be a kind of theological risk factor for the acceptance of domestic violence myths and other socially regressive attitudes.”

Indeed, evangelical seminary students who believe that humans have some free will “do not show this pattern,” he says.

Scot McKnight, a professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Illinois, lauds Sandage’s research for drawing “accurate and helpful correlations that ought to awaken more theologians and pastors to the implications” of their theology.

Sandage offers one example that suggests that violence myths aren’t long-gone relics of medieval misogyny. In 2009, leading neo-Calvinist, Baptist minister, and author John Piper urged temporary endurance of abuse by wives.

If the woman’s life doesn’t appear in imminent danger, Piper argued, “then I think she endures verbal abuse for a season…she endures perhaps being smacked one night, and then she seeks help from the church…[which must] step in, be her strength, and say to him, ‘No, you can’t do this.’” (He later clarified his remarks, saying that “recourse to civil authorities may be the right thing for an abused wife to do.”)

Studying the attitudes of seminary students, the church leaders of the future, is especially important, Sandage says, because clergy are the most sought-out professionals for marriage and family counseling—even though many lack appropriate training. He recalls a pastor in one of his classes at another seminary who refused to counsel wives without their husbands present, having “never considered whether that might limit their freedom to report domestic violence.”

“We need to educate religious leaders on the realities of domestic and intimate partner violence,” Sandage says.

Shelly Rambo, an STH associate professor of theology, and Kristen Hydinger (STH’15) were coresearchers on one of Sandage’s studies.

Rich Barlow, Senior Writer, BU Today, Bostonia, Boston University
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

6 Comments on Does God Ordain Domestic Violence?

  • J Nichols on 10.01.2018 at 2:31 pm

    Great article but saddening and frustrating.
    Anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ and adherent to the of New Testament will have a HUGE problem trying to justify domestic violence in light of the recorded words of Jesus in Matthew 5:21,22 which indicate that God’s judgment has escalated from actions to thoughts. Also, the words of the Apostle Paul recorded in Ephesians 5:28,29 “So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church..”
    Unfortunately, it appears that Christianity itself has followed the course of the broader post-modern culture and has itself become willfully ignorant of its foundational tenets and teachings, let alone the ultimate purpose of Christ which is a true relationship with Him as individuals.

    • James D. Burke on 10.09.2018 at 10:35 pm

      J Nichols, I agree with your posting above. I pick upon a sly interjection by the use of the term “Social Justice,”without any indication of where the term originated , nor those who are pushing the idea throughout the Church.

  • Ray Joyce on 10.03.2018 at 5:46 pm

    Thank you Steve for this timely and important article. May it be read far and wide.

  • Peter Shrock on 10.06.2018 at 12:42 am

    Did the author look at Presbyterians? That doesn’t seem like a particularly reactionary denomination. My impression is that the use of Calvinism / predestinarianism to justify the abuse of subordinates is more found among Fundamentalists than among the churches with actual historical links to Calvin.

  • XianJaneway on 10.06.2018 at 10:38 am

    Thank you so much for adding scientific backing to what many of us in the trenches of ministry to women have known: there is a strong correlation between New Calvinism and an almost pathological lack of empathy.

    I’d love to see another question examined: does NeoCalvinism attract people w/ less empathy, or can it actually erode the empathy of normally compassionate people? (My guess is *both*, but again, I’d love to see it backed by a well-designed study.)

  • Rev. Dr. Alan C. Rhodes on 11.02.2018 at 2:48 am

    I have spent twenty-two years working in the field of Domestic Violence Prevention, as a part of ministry in the parish. I have been frustrated by the seeming lack of interest among my clergy colleagues, to address the problem in their ministries. When workshops and training are offered, few attend. On one occasion I offered to present on the subject at a local ministerium, and response from the Chair was: “What would you like to do next month “XYZ Program” or “Rhodes and his Wife Beaters.” It was not surprising that that area had one of the highest per capita rates of D.V. in the state.

    It’s a tough issue and thanks for keeping it before us. We need to keep working to better equip ourselves to be more effective professionals in the field.

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