Patriarchal churches that teach women should “submit” to men are creating a culture where abuse can thrive, experts say.
A News Corp Australia podcast has alleged that some female students at Hillsong College, part of Hillsong Church, were taught to “submit” sexually to their husbands, which one former student described as “kind of a rape culture”.
The podcast also alleges students are quizzed about their “sexual sins” when they start and declared “unsafe” if they admit to having sex or watching pornography.
The college’s code of conduct instructs students to “abstain from biblically immoral practices” including drunkenness, profane language, occult practices and “sexual sins”.
Students are not allowed to date in their first semester and after that they have to seek permission. Relationships with people not at the college should be “prayerfully considered” and discussed with staff.
If a relationship ends, students must wait three months before starting a new one.
Rosie Clare Shorter, a PhD candidate in Western Sydney University’s Religion and Society Research Cluster, used to attend evangelical Anglican churches and studied them for her degree.
She said teaching that women should submit to their husbands or to male authority could sanction abuse. The notion that women should submit to men was only rarely taught explicitly, she said, and more often spread implicitly through “the cultures that get modelled”.
“If you’re going to church where the vast majority of senior leaders or those giving sermons are always men … what you see around you is that leadership and authority belongs to men,” she said.
“In some instances they can be places where the teaching scaffolds ideas which hurt women, even if that’s inadvertent.”
She emphasised that not all churches or church leaders were at fault, and that “at the same time they can be places of refuge and of healing”.
But she said if women are not teaching or preaching, churches don’t get used to hearing women.
“If you’re used to thinking the authoritative voice is a man’s voice, you’re used to believing men,” she said.
“That becomes a problem when women do start to report instances of violence, or even feeling unsafe. If you’re not used to hearing women talk … you’re going to dismiss them.”
In a piece Shorter co-authored on the Conversation, she wrote that there had been a decrease in people attending Pentecostal churches and that “gender inequality and leadership abuses of power seem to be implicated”.
She pointed to various allegations of male leaders in churches concealing or perpetrating abuse.
The broader Hillsong Church has been embroiled in controversy recently. The founder, Brian Houston, resigned as senior pastor after an internal investigation by the mega church found he had engaged in inappropriate conduct of “serious concern” with two women.
Louise Omer, a former “pentecostal preacher and faithful wife”, is the author of Holy Woman: A divine adventure, about leaving the Uniting Church and searching for a feminist religion. She said Christianity as a whole had a “doctrine of hierarchy” where “the dynamic of domination and submission is subconsciously transferred to relationships”.
“Christianity is a patriarchal religion; its ideology is male supremacy,” she said.
“Even churches that don’t tell women to submit will likely experience men’s dominance in their community. It’s systemic – the symbol of divine power is male, so reverence for male authority is transferred to men in the church.”
Prof Marion Maddox, a Macquarie University expert on religion and politics, said Pentecostal churches were mainly led by men, with female leaders typically the wives of the senior pastors or put in charge of special women’s sections.
She said the churches presented themselves as modern, but when it came to gender and sexuality they were anything but.
“The aesthetic is all about engaging with popular culture … with the music, the dress, the lighting,” she said.
“[But] gender and sexuality have become a boundary marker saying we are not part of the modern world.”
Andrew Wilkie, an independent MP said on Sunday the allegations against Hillsong College were consistent with testimony he had received from another whistleblower. Wilkie referred the report to New South Wales police. He was reported as saying: “If these allegations are found to be correct, then this is misconduct within the Hillsong church of unspeakable proportions. Clearly we need to test them.”
Wilkie said the police had also told him they could not investigate the allegations unless a whistleblower made a complaint to them.
“This is like expecting the dead person to say they had been murdered,” he said, calling on police to initiate an investigation immediately.
“This isn’t something we can wait weeks or months for political pressure or media pressure to build up before the police do something,” he said.
NSW Police said they had referred Wilkie’s correspondence to the Hills Police Area Command, and that anyone wanting to report a crime should contact local police or call Crime Stoppers on 180 333 000.
Guardian Australia has contacted Hillsong College for comment.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800-RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au.