Is patriarchy really God’s dream for the world?

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
'Hejaab' photo (c) 2006, Khashayar Elyassi - license:

Praised be Thou, O Lord, who did not make me a gentile; 
Praised be Thou O Lord, who did not make me a boor;
Praised be Thou, O Lord, who did not make me a woman.”
—R. Judah 

"Now there is neither Jew nor Gentile, 
neither slave nor free, 
nor is there male and female, 
for you are all one in Christ Jesus." 
- Galatians 3:28

Denny Burk, an Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College and influential leader in the complementarian movement, wrote a response to me yesterday in which he readily admits that complementarianism is simply a gentler word for patriarchy. Patriarchy—a cultural system in which men exercise unilateral authority over their households and (generally) over society—is, according to Burk, God’s ideal for this world. Today, the Gospel Coalition affirmed this position

Burk quotes fellow complementarian Russell Moore: 

“...To use the word ‘patriarchy’ in an evangelical context is uncomfortable since the word is deemed ‘negative’ even by most complementarians. But evangelicals should ask why patriarchy seems negative to those of us who serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God and Father of Jesus Christ...Egalitarians are winning the evangelical gender debate, not because their arguments are stronger, but because, in some sense, we are all egalitarians now. The complementarian response must be more than reaction. It must instead present an alternative vision—a vision that sums up the burden of male headship under the cosmic rubric of the gospel of Christ and the restoration of all things in him. It must produce churches that are not embarrassed to tell us that when we say the 'Our Father,' we are patriarchs of the oldest kind."

Burk concludes, “Whatever we call it (complementarianism, patriarchy, hierarchy), Moore’s point still rings true. Evangelicals who are unwilling to be counter-cultural are going to find themselves one way or the other accommodating themselves to the feminist spirit of the age and falling short of the biblical ideal.” Burk says he agrees with Moore’s assessment that too many complementarian marriages are complementarian in name only, that true “biblical patriarchy” requires more hierarchy in the home.

As distasteful as I find his position, I am actually grateful for Burk’s post, and the Gospel Coalition’s subsequent endorsement of it, because with it, we've finally cut through the crap to identify what this debate is really about: power.  

The question at the bottom of it all is this: Does patriarchy—(man's rule over woman)—represent God’s ideal for the world, or is it a result of sin?  The struggle is not between complementarianism and egalitarianism, or between traditional and non-traditional roles, but between patriarchy and equality.

I believe, with every bone in my body, that patriarchy is a result of sin, and that followers of Jesus are to be champions of equality. I believe it is our calling, as imitators of Christ, to reflect God’s new vision for the world, initiated through  Jesus Christ,  in which there is no hierarchy or power struggle between slave and free, Jew and Greek, male and female, for all are one in the family of God. 

Patriarchy is a result of "the Fall." 

As we discussed extensively on Monday, the author of Genesis tells a story of creation that presents the first man and woman as true partners.  Both are created in the image of God, and both are charged with tending to the earth God has made. With ezer kenegdo properly translated, (and with the creation of woman after man identified as a plot point meant to create drama, not subordination), we see that there are no explicit statements of a hierarchal relationship between man and woman until after the event that Christians have come to call “The Fall.”  

“Your desire will be for your husband,” God tells the woman “[but] he will rule over you.” 

It is within the context of judgment, not creation, that hierarchy and subjugation enter the Bible’s story of man and woman. Where there was once mutuality, there is subjugation. Where there was once harmony, there is a power-struggle.  The writer of the Genesis, who undoubtedly had observed this power-struggle in his own world, calls it for what it is: a tragedy, an example of our collective brokenness and our desperate need for redemption. 

Burk, Moore and the Gospel Coalition seem to think that a power-struggle is okay, so long as it is the man who comes out on top. But I believe the teachings of Jesus, and their application through Paul, lead us to the conclusion that power is overrated, and that the ultimate goal is harmony, just like we see in Eden.

 The effects of patriarchy in scripture...

The effects of the curse that “man will rule over you” are seen immediately in the stories we read in scripture itself.  If Burk and Moore indeed dream of a return to the “biblical patriarchy of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” then we should be concerned.  

- In the patriarchal culture of scripture, women could not inherit property, pursue divorce, or be trusted to make a vow (Deuteronomy 21:16–17; 24:1–4; Leviticus 27:1–8). Wives were considered the property of their husband, though they held a higher status and more privileges than slaves and concubines (Exodus 20:17). When Sarah failed to conceive, Abraham did what was common in a patriarchal culture and impregnated his slave, Hagar. Jacob had two wives (sisters Leah and Rachel) and two maidservants (Bilhah and Zilpah) through which he had twelve sons. Rachel was Jacob’s favorite of the women, a fact that caused considerable strain between the sister wives.  

- Daughters  were considered the property of their fathers and could be either sold into slavery to pay off debt or married for a bride price (Exodus 21:7; Nehemiah 5:5; Genesis 29:1–10). Marriages were typically arranged by the male members of the family before a girl reached puberty.  While the virginity of young men was inconsequential, a woman’s could mean the difference between life and death. If a woman failed to bleed on her wedding night, she was to be executed on the doorstep of her parent’ home (Deuteronomy 22:21). Daughters of priests who engaged in sexual relations outside of marriage were to be burned alive (Leviticus 21:9)  When the home of Abraham’s nephew Lot was surrounded by a mob of men from Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot refused to send out his guests to be raped but offered his virgin daughters instead, as they were more expendable.  

- Virgins captured in war were considered plunder, along with children, livestock, and treasure taken from the besieged city.  (Women who were not virgins were often killed along with the men.) In the book of Judges, when the Benjamites were in need of wives, they simply abducted them from a neighboring city when they were out dancing in the vineyards. 

There are of course many more stories. The point is, our first glimpses into a patriarchal society, even one in which Yahweh is God, reveal inequity and violence against women.  Groups like the Vision Forum have long been advocating a return to “biblical patriarchy” that resembles the culture of the Old Testament, complete with fathers essentially owning daughters until they are given in marriage. I’ve always been careful to try and make a distinction between this group and complementarians, and am disheartened to see mainstream complementarianism move in this direction.

The effects of patriarchy around the world...

If scripture is not enough to convince you that patriarchy is a result of sin, you need only look at the world to observe its effects. 

  • Worldwide, women ages fifteen to forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined.
  • Every 9 seconds, a woman  in the US is assaulted or beaten. Around the world, at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused during her lifetime. I wish I could say that all complementarians categorically condemn female submission to male violence, but John Piper has said that, in order to model godly submission, a woman may need to quietly “endure verbal abuse for a season” or “getting smacked one night” before “seeking help from the church.” (He says nothing about contacting authorities). Similarly, in Created to Be His Help Meet, Debi Pearl advises a woman whose husband pulled a knife on her to “stop complaining” and focus instead on not “provoking” her husband’s anger. This is destructive advice and reveals something of an assumption that the preservation of male hierarchy is more important than preservation of a woman’s dignity.
  •  At least 3 million women and girls are enslaved in the sex trade.
  • Study after study shows that societies characterized by the subjugation of women are more violent, more impoverished, and more unjust than societies that empower women.  In their excellent book Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn argue that “in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.”  Empowering women increases economic productivity, reduces infant mortality, contributes to overall improved health and nutrition, and increases the chances of education for the next generation. Several studies from UNICEF suggest that when women are given control over the family spending, more of the money gets devoted to education, medical care, and small business endeavors than when men control the purse strings. Similarly, when women vote and hold political office, public spending on health increases and child mortality rate declines. Many counterterrorist strategists see women’s empowerment as key to quelling violence and oppression in the Middle East, and women entering the workforce in East Asia generated economic booms in Malaysia, Thailand, and China. (You can find all of these studies cited and analyzed in Half the Sky, which I highly recommend.)

Complementarians keep insisting that patriarchy is counter-cultural, and that advocates of mutuality are simply capitulating to culture. But patriarchy itself is a cultural system. The Greco-Roman Household Codes themselves are representative of a cultural system. And systems that reflect the values and dreams of only half of God's human creation, (only half of God's image!), are broken. 

Jesus did not come to preach a kingdom that affirms these systems, but rather, to preach a kingdom that transcends them. 

Jesus changes everything...

It was no accident that the first person charged with spreading the good news of Christ’s resurrection was a woman.  Despite the fact that, by virtue of being a woman she would have been considered an unreliable witness whose testimony wouldn’t hold up in court, Mary Magdalene is charged with telling the world that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  Talk about counter-cultural.

That’s because Jesus changes everything. With the resurrection of Jesus, and the inauguration of his Kingdom, the entire world is being made over! The old things have passed away, and “behold, new things have come"!

To participate in the Kingdom of Jesus is to participate in a whole new “system,” a whole new mode of being, in which the last is first and the first is last. Is it any wonder, then, that the early church included female apostles, deacons, teachers, and church planters? Is it any wonder that Peter and Paul’s version of the Household Codes broke with tradition by instructing men and women, slaves and masters to “submit one to another.” Even in a patriarchal culture, the early Christians were doing things differently. 

“In your relationships with one another,” Paul wrote, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:5–8).  

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,” wrote Paul, “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” 

This doesn’t sound like patriarchy to me.  This doesn’t sound like hierarchy, and power, and “he will rule over you.” It sounds like dignity, grace, peace, and love. It sounds like mutual respect, mutual leadership, mutual support, and mutual grace.  

It sounds like Eden. 

For patriarchalists, the power struggle between men and women will only end when men win. 

For egalitarians, the power struggle between men and women can only end when, like Christ, we both choose to lose. 


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