Patriarchy is a construct that shows up globally, but why devote a post to Christian patriarchy specifically? One reason is that Christianity (and we know strong patriarchal norms show up much more in conservative versions of Christianity) throws a lot of weight around in our U.S. society. But additionally, patriarchy performed in a religious setting attempts to justify itself by claiming to be God-ordained. For believers, this holds a much higher moral weight than natural law or anything that could be potentially proven / disproven by science. For people within the religious system, to call it God-ordained is to play the ultimate trump card.
I’d like to think about Christian patriarchy in two different (but related) concepts: interpersonally, as with intimate relationships, and cultural-politically.
Patriarchy in Intimate Relationships
We’ve talked about complementarianism here before: the belief that men and women were designed with different purposes based on their sex. Specifically, that men are designed to be leaders – of the church, family, nation, etc. – and women are designed to submit to their headship. In marriage, this means that the husband has the ultimate say and authority and the wife needs to go along with his leadership. The church will tell you that the man should honor his wife and care for her needs, yada yada, which is great as long as you have a very decent man who does not let his supposed God-ordained power go to his head whatsoever. Of course, as I mentioned last post, the danger is that when you are told you are entitled to power and control over someone else (all women, in fact) such entitlement often does go to your head and abuse of power is all too common.
Most of our time in today’s post will be spent on the cultural-political aspects of Christian patriarchy, which we haven’t visited as much about. We will spend plenty of time thinking more about patriarchal assumptions in intimate relationships in upcoming posts, not to worry!
Patriarchy in Political and Religious Systems
If you’re in the ex-evangelical adjacent world, you’ve probably heard about the recent book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, by Kristen Kobes Du Mez. It’s a doozy of a title that comes out swinging! I have been thoroughly enjoying this book probably in large part because much of the history it describes is familiar and so relatable. It puts into context so many patterns of evangelicalism that I experienced but didn’t necessarily know the larger context of. Her writing informs much of what I will include in this post, so I wanted to give credit and express gratitude for her work.
Much of the evangelical subculture we know in America today considers itself biblically-based, but in fact is very culturally based. I do not at all deny that the Bible is a very patriarchal book (and for obvious reasons — look at the time periods it was written in, hello) but the modern conservative church has added some pretty colorful characters to its patriarchal expression. Kobes du Mez points out how the church has used secular characters like John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, or recently Donald Trump as exemplars of the masculine man, shaping them into religious characters when it was their masculine representation evangelicalism was really after.
The evangelical church has literally been running people (now often known as ex-evangelicals) out the door with their idolization of Donald Trump, a man about as opposite of a “good godly Christian man” as you could ever find. Yet somehow, the people who remain in those churches believing Trump is basically the new Messiah have shaped him into a godly character.
Never underestimate the desire for political control to enable large swaths of the population to completely deceive themselves!
It is this quest for power and control where we find the real reasons for evangelical support of certain people, policies, and practices. Most traditional evangelicals will throw verses at you about “women should be silent in the church” and “male headship” and perhaps shrug their shoulders as if to say, “I’d believe differently, but… God!” They have cherry picked the passages they like, which were interpreted into English by other people insistent on maintaining male dominance in the church, and refuse to change their mind about the supposed importance of such passages.
What if we read the Bible differently?
I won’t get into the weeds, but there are other ways to interpret Paul’s letters (where a lot of the misogynistic, subordination beliefs come from) other than to say that women obviously should not be leading at all. There are actually female leaders referenced in Romans (e.g. Junia) but certain translators changed the spelling so it is a male name instead (Junias). Women first discovered the empty tomb and proclaimed / preached Jesus to be raised from the dead. Deborah is a powerful judge in the Old Testament who led the nation of Israel.
And if you wanted to get into biblical criticism (which just means examining context as with any literary work, but in very conservative read-the-Bible-literally-circles this is verboten), you could also consider the cultures in which the entire Bible was written and how an extraordinarily patriarchal system influenced the writers. Most evangelicals don’t want to have that conversation, though, as acknowledging this undermines the idea that the Bible was penned essentially by the hand of God.
It’s not just about “God’s Word”
And anyway, why would we pay attention to such things and ask such hard questions when perpetuating the status quo is exactly what leaders want? These conversations will not lead to changed minds because the men who hold the power have no actual interest in giving up or sharing their power. Du Mez does a fantastic job in her book of tracing the various ways patriarchal authority has been (ever so gently) challenged in this tradition, and the doubling down the system does after that. Furthermore, across Christian denominations, lines are regularly drawn in the sand around just how much authority women are allowed to have, often as a litmus test for how “faithful,” “traditional,” “orthodox,” or “Bible-based” a tradition is.
What we have found repeatedly is that those who are interested in reforming this denominational umbrella (conservative evangelicalism) from the inside most often end up having to take their leave. Evangelicalism, as a religious-political monolith, is not interested in changing – not at the expense of the power they want to hold on to. Protesters and attempted change-makers on the inside will eventually discover they might as well be banging their heads against brick walls and will leave voluntarily, or they may be pushed out by those more concerned about “orthodoxy” than doing the right thing or – God forbid – changing one’s mind.
What can we do?
So how we can dismantle the patriarchy from the social location we are in? I’m afraid that one’s ability to do so from within evangelicalism (as a system) seems rather limited. Any setting that is more focused on maintaining things the way they are and hanging on to power instead of doing right (and obviously, I hold a certain opinion about what “right” is) is not a good environment for change to occur.
But on the plus side, there are many Christian denominations out there that are working hard to dismantle the patriarchy, as slow of progress as that might be. I’ve been fortunate enough to know many fantastic women ministers and preachers (especially having gone to seminary where many of them trained), and many men who wholeheartedly support them. Just ordaining women doesn’t make everything better, though: there are churches around the country whose denomination ordains women but haven’t (or won’t?) hire a woman head minister.
So sniff around, get a good sense of if there is a community of faith you might want to be part of that doesn’t just do lip service to equality but actually lives this out in their practices. We ex-evangelicals tend to have very B.S. detectors for whether a faith community is actually interested in the liberation of all, or just toeing the party line and controlling people. (I have a whole separate post about ingredients for creating healthy spiritual communities). Listen to the voices of women leaders. Allow them to provide guidance and pour wisdom into your life! Our communities are so much richer when we listen to the voices of all the members instead of a select few.