Patriarchy and Abusive Churches

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
'Emotional Mental Physical Domestic Violence Spousal Abuse Trauma Scars Self Portrait' photo (c) 2013, Run Jane Fox - license:

"On the day that the intelligence and talents of women are fully honored and employed, the human community and the planet itself will benefit in ways we can only begin to imagine."

- Anita Diamant

One of the advantages of the Information Age is that the Internet has provided a platform from which those typically marginalized by the Church can speak and be heard. As a woman whose opportunities for Christian leadership were severely limited by the conservative evangelical culture in which I was raised, blogging has given me a voice and a reach I would not have otherwise had, and I am so grateful for that. 

Sadly, when many of these marginalized people step up to the virtual mic to tell their stories, they recount harrowing encounters with abuse in a religious environment. 

Over the past few months, the whistle-blowing website, Recovering Grace, has given voice to 34 women who say there were sexually harassed or molested by Bill Gothard or someone in his conservative, homeschool-based ministry. Gothard resigned from his ministry earlier this month. 

While such abuse once thrived in the darkness of secrecy, silencing, and cover-ups, the Internet Age has helped shine a light on the problem of abuse not only in the Catholic Church but also among evangelical churches and ministries. Survivors have spoken out about pervasive abuse or sexual misconduct situations with Sovereign Grace Ministries, Vision Forum, Jesus People USA, the Bill Gothard Ministry, Bob Jones University, Patrick Henry College, Pensacola Christian College, and several missions organizations

My evangelical brothers and sisters, we have an abuse problem and we need to talk about it.  Talking about it does far less damage to Christ's reputation in the world than covering it up.

Now obviously, abuse is a result of sin and no denomination or community is immune to sin’s effects, but we do see a trend in which most of the organizations facing scrutiny over abuse and sexual misconduct charges of late are characterized by authoritarian, patriarchal leadership and by cultures that routinely silence the voices of women. 

So the point I want to make today is not that all who subscribe to patriarchy are abusive, but that patriarchy in a religious environment, just as in any environment, has a negative effect on the whole community and creates a cultural climate more susceptible to abuse than one characterized by mutuality and shared leadership between men and women. 

Christian Patriarchy 

Christian patriarchy (a variation of which is called complementarianism) relies on the strange contradiction that God created gender complementarity for His glory and for the good of the world, but that such complementarity must be dispensed of when it comes to the life of the church, where men hold exclusive and total authority over the congregation.  In this scheme, the Church is said to have a necessary “masculine feel,” and church leaders are warned to avoid the “effeminizing of the church” at all costs. Men alone are hold pastoral offices or leadership positions, and in the most strict patriarchal communities, fathers are given unilateral authority over their families. 

Christian patriarchy is often illustrated as a series of umbrellas in which the male leadership of the church holds authority over the male leaders of their homes who hold authority of the women and children at the bottom of the hierarchy.  

This authority structure is typically described as a series of “coverings” or “protections” but unfortunately, the effect is often the opposite, as abused women and children find they have no recourse or power, as every decision in their lives must be made by a series of men, many of whom are more invested in protecting the reputation of the ministry than the people in it. 

Having talked at length with survivors of abuse in a Christian environment, I hear similar themes repeated over and over again. They speak of church cultures that treated women’s bodies as inherently problematic and seductive, that assigned a woman’s worth to her sexual purity or procreative prowess, that questioned women’s ability to think rationally or make decisions without the leadership of men, that blamed victims of sexual abuse for inviting the abuse or tempting the abuser, that shamed women who did not “joyfully submit” to their husband and find contentment in their roles as helpers and homemakers, and that effectively silenced victims of abuse by telling women and children that reporting the crime would reflect poorly on the church and thus damage the reputation of Christ. These women describe an environment of fear in which they learned to distrust their own instincts and desires, which made it hard to report, or even acknowledge, the abuse. 

“There were rumors going around about Bill and me,” recalls Charlotte, a woman who was allegedly molested by Bill Gothard. “My brother started hearing things and asked me about it. Of course I denied everything. Bill had sworn me to silence with both guilt and fear. I was the one who was at fault because I was tempting him. If I told anyone, the future of the entire ministry could be compromised. Why would I want to hinder God’s work? He told me that this was our little secret, just between us. If I told anyone, he said he would kick my family out of ATI.”

Young women in Gothard’s ministry underwent in-house counseling for abuse in which they were asked to identify the cause of their “defrauding,” with the options of “immodest dress,” “indecent exposure,” “being out from protection of parents,” and “being with evil friends.”  

Similarly, several leaders of Sovereign Grace Ministries were named in a class-action lawsuit alleging they failed to report multiple cases of child sex abuse within the ministry, urging the children who had been abused to “reconcile” with their abusers and counseling the abusers on how to avoid investigation and arrest.  Survivors say they were forced to meet and forgive the accused, and pastors failed to notify other families-- so the perpetrators went on to prey on other children. Despite multiple reports of abuse, and repeated efforts to dodge investigation by appealing to “religious freedom,” Sovereign Grace ministries has enjoyed the unwavering support of John Piper, Al Mohler and the Southern Baptist Convention, Tim Challies, and other Reformed leaders. 

Those who subscribe to Christian patriarchy often argue that the examples cited above represent a corruption of patriarchy, which is an inherently good system.  But I would like to argue today that the best way forward is not to simply improve patriarchy within our churches but to get rid of it entirely because 1) patriarchy doesn’t work and 2) the Kingdom functions best when men and women work together as equal partners.

Patriarchy doesn’t work

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. As J.R. Daniel Kirk puts it so wisely in his article, “Imaging the Biblical God”

“To bear the image of God is to be the person whom God has entrusted to rule the world on God’s behalf. The purpose of humanity, ‘Let them rule the world on our behalf,; is inseparable from the categorization of these creatures as those made ‘in the image of God.’ In other words: it is not merely as humans that we reflect God together as male and female, but as those who rule over the world as male and female we bear the image of God. The kind of rule God has in mind is not a ‘masculine’ rule, but a masculine plus feminine, male plus female, rule. Only this kind of shared participation in representing God’s reign to the world is capable of doing justice to the God whose image we bear.”

(Note: Patriarchalists often argue that the reference to woman being created as man’s “helper” in Genesis reflects her subordinate status. But the compound word for “helper” here— ezer kenegdosuggests a sort of military ally, or a partner in a difficult task, and is most often used in Scripture to describe God, who is not generally regarded by patriarchalists as a subordinate.)

It is within the context of judgment, not creation, that hierarchy and subjugation enter the Bible’s story of man and woman. 

“Your desire will be for your husband, but he will rule over you.” 

Where there was once mutuality, sin brought subjugation. Where there was once harmony, sin initiated 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. 

We can observe the effects of this sin in our world today. 

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. Furthermore, surveys show that couples who describe their marriage as “egalitarian” are more likely to classify it as a happy one than those who describe their marriage as “traditional.” 

So why wouldn’t the same hold true for the Church?

If more patriarchal cultures tend to suffer and more egalitarian cultures tend to thrive, might that indicate that shared rule—like that of Eden—is preferable to male rule?  Might that suggest that the Church isn’t meant to be exclusively masculine, but reflective of all of its participants? 

Might that suggest that men need women not as subordinates but as partners? 

Those who subscribe to Christian patriarchy insist that patriarchy is counter-cultural, and that advocates of mutuality are simply capitulating to culture. But patriarchy itself is 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. They don’t work. And as such, they create environments more susceptible to abuse and exploitation. 

Equal Partnership 

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 curse has been reversed. 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 and that the women are described as teaching, leading, prophesying, serving, and financing? (The specific instructions in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 to women in the Ephesian church are an exception to the rule.) Is it any wonder that the early Church was ridiculed by pagan outsiders for being too effeminate? 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).  

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. 

Why on earth would we choose to live according to the curse when we have been invited to participate in a brand new kingdom? 


All men and all women are different, (and, as we’re becoming increasingly aware, gender and sexuality can be expressed in a variety of ways), so it would be irresponsible to try and explain in great detail exactly why the Church  needs both feminine and masculine influences. 

But Scripture, experience, and a variety of data suggest that communities in which leadership and influence are shared by men and women are safer, happier, and more productive. They are less prone to abuse and safer for children. They are better at reflecting God’s image to the world. 

We’ve tried patriarchy, and as this slew of abuse reports reinforces, it doesn’t work.  The alternative is not, (as the patriarchalists warn), matriarchy. The alternative is partnership, mutuality, harmony. The alternative is the Kingdom. 

In conclusion... 

If you or your children are being abused, get help. If your church or school discourages you from reporting abuse to the police, do it anyway. There is nothing to be ashamed of.  (For much, much more on abuse in a church setting, as well as multiple resources for getting help and counseling, see our "Into the Light" series on this topic.

If you recognize some of your own experience in the stories of abuse above, or if the culture of your church is highly authoritarian and patriarchal, get out.  Find a faith community that respects the dignity and voice of women.

If you are a church leader or a church member who wants to ensure that your church is doing everything possible to prevent and respond to abuse in your community, consider enlisting the amazing organization, G.R.A.C.E. for help. 

See also: 

Into the Light: A Series on Abuse in the Church

"Is patriarchy really God's dream for the world?"

Mutuality 2012 Series

"The abusive theology of deserved tragedy"


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