Christian Patriarchy Yet Once More

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Christian Patriarchy Yet Once More

(Originally published in the Progressive Christian Magazine, which is longer in print.)

In October 2008, a “True Woman Conference” in Chicago attracted 6000 women.  Its goal was to teach “biblical womanhood” or “hierarchical complementarianism,” now touting itself as “Evangelical Anti-Feminisim” or “the Christian Patriarchy Movement.”  The Associated Baptist Press reports that 100,000 signatures are currently being collected for a “True Woman Manifesto” intended to set off a “counterrevolution to the feminist movement of the 1960’s.”  The counter-revolution proclaims these concepts:

1.       The calling of women is to affirm “godly masculinity.”

2.       Women must honor the God-ordained authority of their husbands and pastors.

3.       By submitting to male leadership, women reflect Jesus’ submission to God [shades of the Arian heresy!]

4.       Selfish focus on personal rights is contrary to Christ’s spirit of submission.

5.       Bearing “quiverfulls” of children is God’s blessed gift to women.

6.       Christian women must teach the next generation how to submit to male leadership in church and home.[1]

I have been studying this movement recently because of an e-mail correspondence initiated by a professor at a Southern Baptist Seminary.  My subsequent reading has put me on the alert.  Although I grew up in a very patriarchal Plymouth Brethren Assembly, I had forgotten the dreadful power of hierarchy to destroy male-female intimacy.  That loss of genuine intimacy was graphically depicted by Margaret Atwood in her great novel The Handmaid’s Tale, where male commanders and heads of household visited underground state-sponsored brothels and secretly pled with their handmaids (concubines) to kiss them like they really meant it.  But I have also been astonished by the slippery use of language in the “new” patriarchy.  At worst, it looks like a dishonest manipulation of meaning; at best, unconscious hypocrisy.

The language problem begins with the basic definitions of manhood and womanhood.  According to patriarchalists, the eternal essence of manhood – the created underlying nature of men – is “a sense of leadership” or authority.  And the eternal essence, the created underlying nature of femininity, is a “disposition to submit to male leadership.”  This of course provides perfect complimentarity and relieves men of any sense of guilt when relegating to women all the drudgery of housework and the pangs of secondary status.  The only novel aspect of this essentialist concept is the claim that women are “equal in being but unequal in role.”  This amounts to a sexist reincarnation of the old racist “separate but equal” rationalization for unjust dealings.

Then, having proclaimed a distinction between equal being and unequal role without a shred of biblical or scientific evidence, the leaders of the movement proceed to use the concept as the hermeneutical lens or grid through which all other biblical data are interpreted.  But as Rebecca Groothius brilliantly demonstrates, because Christian patriarchy subjects the wife to her husband’s authority in every area of her entire life, “The male is constantly advantaged with respect to the female, and the female is constantly disadvantaged with respect to the male.”[2]  Therefore, speaking truthfully, this is a matter of unequal being, not just a role that new and different circumstances can change.

When absolute power triumphs absolutely, can cruelty be far behind?  Patriarchalist John Piper comments that “A wife who ‘comes on strong’ with her advice will probably drive a husband into passive silence or into active anger.”[3]  Fellow patriarchalist Bruce Ware is explicit about the red flag Piper has raised:  “Women victims of domestic violence are often to blame for their own abuse because they were failing to submit to their husbands’ authority.”[4]  This attitude is widespread in the patriarchy movement, as Jocelyn Andersen has documented in her 2007 book Woman Submit!  Christians and Domestic Violence.  Only if women are “beaten regularly” by their husbands can they qualify for a temporary separation, but never for a divorce, because the Bible permits divorce only for adultery or abandonment.  Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church is only the best-known of the churches that proclaim this teaching.[5]

Fear of gender ambiguity (transgender) and homosexuality lurk just beneath the surface of the male supremacy resurgence.  Old Spice, producer of men’s shaving products, recently held a contest to choose its first annual “Man of the Year” – and he had to “epitomize the manliness that used to exist before the arrival of metrosexual pretty boys.”  The winner was a Republican politician whose wife runs a web site called “Ladies Against Feminism.”  Vision Forum, which publishes books used by conservative Christian homeschoolers, insists that “the absence of biblical patriarchy leads to male effeminacy which leads to homosexuality.”  And Christian Reconstructionism, founded by J.J. Rushdoony, not only pushes theocracy but also wifely submission as opposed to the “emotionally androgynous power-woman.”  According to Reconstructionists, women should submit their vote to their husband’s choice and should never hold public office; and girls should stay at home under their father’s rule until they marry into their husband’s authority.[6]

In my area, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese held a March 28, 2009 conference for men that, like Promise Keepers, emphasizes that men must be the “spiritual heads of their family.”  One speaker describes “androgyny” (that is, the “tendency for society to downplay the differences between men and women”) as a key problem for men, who are “confused and uncertain over how to express their masculinity.”[7]  Recent priestly pedophile scandals have never been fully acknowledged by the church as stemming from sexual repression, silence, and hypocrisy; so this patriarchal initiative can only bring new dangers for women and children.  And because the Mormon Church has long fostered male primacy, it was no surprise to me to learn that residents of the state of Utah are the greatest consumers of internet pornography in the United States.[8]  Where there is hierarchy, mutual sexual intimacy is almost impossible to achieve, and pornography forms a cold but distracting substitute.

I emphasize the widespread nature of the “new patriarchy” movement in order to urge Christian feminists to speak up more urgently, not to assume (as I was assuming) that our case is “out there” and that the truth will speak for itself.  Hence I want to illustrate how thoroughly unbiblical the movement is, and how irrational is its use of language.

First, the Bible.  Although many egalitarian interpretations are acknowledged and “answered” through the grid of “equal being and unequal role” in the 2006 edition of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, at no time do the patriarchalist authors wrestle with the significance of the statements in Genesis 1:26-28 that God gave dominion to them (to both Adam and Eve) and told both of them to “have dominion” over the rest of creation.  Raymond Ortland makes much of God’s describing the entire human race as “man” – as if God were speaking traditionalist modern English – and asserts that God chose the word man (not woman) because of the “backdrop of male headship.”[9]  But since patriarchalists agree that “as Genesis 1-3 go, so goes the whole Biblical debate,”[10] it seems remarkable that no attempt is made to explain what Scripture means by assigning power and authority to Eve as well as to Adam.

I also notice that male authority is frequently supported by reference to the statement in I Timothy 2:14 that Adam was not deceived by the serpent, but Eve was deceived.  I have not found any hierarchalist who admits that according to Genesis 3:6, Adam was right there with Eve when she ate the forbidden fruit.  And to my knowledge no one has dealt with the lack of logic involved in granting authority over the deceived person to the one who watched her transgress and then knowingly, deliberately defied the will of God.  Why would the male’s fully conscious defiance be preferable to the female’s mistaken belief that what she was doing would be helpful?

Patriarchalists also make much adoo concerning Ephesians 5:21-33.  The Scripture index to Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood lists 80 references to that passage, but only 5 references to Ephesians 4:15, which instructs both male and female believers to “grow up into him in all things, which the head, even Christ.”  In the light of this verse, even if Ephesians 5:21-33 could be construed as teaching that the one-way submission of the wife to the husband’s authority is essential to honoring Christ’s authority in the church, nevertheless the wife (like the church) is urged in Ephesians 4:15 to grow up into full authority as soon as possible.

I have also noticed that even when patriarchalists quote Ephesians 5:21 along with the remainder of the chapter, nobody acknowledges that 5:21 calls for “submitting yourselves one to another” rather than for one-way submission.  (The closest anybody comes is to claim that Paul’s teaching of “mutual submission” does not mean husbands and wives are to submit in the same way, and therefore does not compromise male headship).  Nevertheless, the fact remains that a verse about male-female mutuality introduces and controls the entire limited analogy of “husband is to wife as Christ is to church.”  (Even patriarchalists have to admit the limitations of the analogy, since husbands do not provide salvation for their wives, nor are they sinlessly perfect).

If human suffering were not involved, it would be amusing to notice the equivocation and dishonest wording by which the biblical case for patriarchy is advanced.  For instance, John Piper states that “in a well-ordered Biblical marriage both husband and wife acknowledge in principle that, if necessary in some disagreement, the husband will accept the burden of making the final choice.”[11]  What a burden it must be, knowing that once the discussion is over, the freedom to choose will always be your own!  By contrast, doing the housekeeping, which is “God’s assignment to the wife,” is described as a “joy.”[12]  Granted:  repetitive clean-ups are best handled as cheerfully as possible, but by no stretch are making beds and scrubbing floors and toilets intrinsic “joys.”

I found no patriarchalist who bothers to explain why male and female are created simultaneously in Genesis 1, whereas Eve is drawn from Adam’s side in Genesis 2.  In fact, much is made out of the sequence in chapter 2:  “The most natural implication of God’s decision to bring Adam on the scene ahead of Eve is that he is called to bear the responsibility of the headship.”[13]  No mention is made of the fact that Jewish scholars, who might be expected to know their own Scriptures, regard Adam as an Earth Creature who does not become a human male until the same moment that Eve becomes a human female.[14]  That Jewish interpretation provides harmony between the creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2, but it does not support notions of male supremacy, so it goes unmentioned.

I was interested to see that the slippery language of the “new patriarchy” extends to bearing false witness against other people.  Because Nancy Hardesty and I thought the Evangelical Women’s Caucus’ 1986 support of the civil rights of homosexuals was a “step of maturity,” readers are told that “In other words, they view the movement away from role distinctions grounded in the natural created order as leading inevitably to the overthrow of normative heterosexuality.”[15]  Wow!  I feel moved to supply my own “in other words” here:  in other words, male supremacists are so determined to keep their social advantages that they use the fear of homosexuality to argue that men must control women in order to preserve heterosexual privilege for both males and females.

“Christian patriarchy” also makes false promises:  “The boy who is encouraged to act in a masculine way will develop a firm male identity,” and the same for girls and feminine identities.[16]  No evidence is offered for this promise because no reliable scientific evidence would support it.  What about the boys who kill themselves, or run away from home, because they can no longer endure the “encouragement” that attempts to force them to develop a “firm male identity”?  And what about transgender girls?[17]  I wonder how patriarchalists would explain people like the Rev. Elise Elrod, who’s been married for 39 years, has 3 grown children and 3 grandchildren, and served as pastor of two Southern Baptist Churches.  She transitioned from male to female in 1999, and none of her experience as an ordained Southern Baptist minister, husband, and father ever enabled her to develop a male identity.[18]

One more example of dishonest language will have to suffice:  George Rekers claims that “sexuality in men and women reflects the ‘image of God.’  When the unisex mentality denies the human ‘distinctions based on sex,’ it is denying the image of God in the human personality.”[19]  But elsewhere, patriarchalists insist that God is beyond human sexuality:  for instance, “Scripture never represents God as sexually differentiated.”[20]  There is an occasional admission that the Bible depicts God in both male and female imagery, but to hierarchalists the preponderance of male imagery is not a reflection of cultural roles at the time, but rather is intended to affirm God’s lordship and male authority.[21]  If this were true, why is there any female God-imagery included in the first place?

Back in 1987, the Danvers statement upheld “Christian hierarchy” and accused egalitarian feminists of utilizing “hermeneutical oddities devised to reinterpret apparently plain meanings of Scripture.”[22]  I have supplied a few of the “hermeneutical oddities” and linguistic oddities currently being used by hierarchalists to revive the age-old dying paradigm of male supremacy.  My major concern is to sound and alert to those Christians who believe in human equality and the good diversity God has created  - and alert about the very powerful last gasps of a movement that in its dying throes is more dangerous than ever because it has fine tuned its arguments by opposing feminist insights.  For many thousands of people, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are at stake; so progressive Christians need to take the “new patriarchy” seriously.

[1] Kathyrn Joyce, “Women’s Liberation Through Submission:  An Evangelical Anti-Feminism is Born,” Religion Dispatches, Jan. 11, 2009. back to text

[2] Rebecca Merrill Groothius, “Equal in Being, Unequal in Role,” Discovering Biblical Equality:  Complementarity Without Hierarchy, 2nd ed., R.W. Pierce and R.M. Groothius (InterVarsity Press, 2005), 327. back to text

[3] John Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity,” Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood:  A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. J. Piper and W. Gruden, 2nd edition (Wheaton:  Crossway Books, 2006), p. 52. back to text

[4] Ware is quoted by Kathryn Joyce in “Biblical Manhood Conference Espouses Male Supremacy,” Religion Dispatches, July 3, 2008. back to text

[5] Kathryn Joyce, “Biblical Battered Wife Syndrome:  Christian Women and Domestic Violence,” Religion Dispatches, January 22, 2009. back to text

[6] Frederick Clarkson, “Gimme that Old Spice Religion,” Religion Dispatches, Dec. 18, 2008. back to text

[7] John Chadwick, “Diocese plans ‘a call to action’ for Catholic men,” The Record (Thursday, March 5, 2009), L-8. back to text

[8] “Online porn sells in Utah,” The Record (Wednesday, March 4, 2009), A-3. back to text

[9] Raymond Ortland, Jr., “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship,” Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, p. 98. back to text

[10] Ortland, p. 95. back to text

[11] John Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity,” Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, p. 40, emphasis mine. back to text

[12] Dorothy Patterson, “The High Calling of Wife and Mother in Biblical Perspective,” Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, pp. 366-7. back to text

[13] John Piper and Wayne Grudem, “An Overview of Central Concerns:  Questions and Answers,” Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, p. 81. back to text

[14] W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah:  Genesis – A Modern Commentary (New York:  Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1974), pp. 19 and 24. back to text

[15] John Piper and Wayne Grudem, “An Overview of Central Concerns:  Questions and Answers,” Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, p. 83. back to text

[16] George Alan Rekers, “Psychological Foundation for Rearing Masculine Boys and Feminine Girls,” Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, p. 305. back to text

[17] For a description of the sufferings of transgender youth, see Virginia R. Mollenkott, Omnigender:  A Trans-Religious Approach (Cleveland:  the Pilgrim Press, 2007). back to text

[18] Rev. Elrod can be reached c/o Evangelicals Concerned Western Region, P.O. Box 19734, Seattle, WA 98109. back to text

[19] Rekers, p. 311. back to text

[20] John Frame, “Men and Women in the Image of God,” Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, p. 229. back to text

[21] Frame, p. 229. back to text

[22] Appendix Two, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, p. 469. back to text


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