It was 1996, and I was a fourteen year old living in South America.
The sordid story of Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton took a few extra weeks to reach my ears, but its scandalous nature did not fail to impress me.
My mom has since shared with me that when she had conversations about this topic with her Venezuelan friends, they couldn’t understand why Americans were so shocked their president would have an affair.
You see, In Venezuelan culture, politicians engaging in extra-marital affairs is nothing scandalous; in fact, it is to be expected.
We are all influenced by our cultures, aren’t we?
We are scandalized by what our culture says is taboo.
We accept that which our culture says is acceptable.
And as a whole, our American society frowns upon promiscuous behavior, especially that of leaders. They are expected to live by the highest of standards.
At the same time, our society also seems pretty obsessed with sex (just look at the magazine headlines in the checkout line).
Christianity, which forms a fairly large subculture in our country, also elevates sex, with the stipulation that sex should only be engaged in within the confines of marriage.
I went to a small Christian college. I remember discussing sex with my girlfriends at length, and I remember dreaming about one day being married and having sex.
I remember how my wedding felt like the ticket I needed to finally have sex.
I remember feeling like life was ironic… how could one little ceremony make something which was SO NOT OKAY suddenly be good?
Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers summarizes our cultural issues with sexuality well:
“On one side, we have the religious right that espouses abstinence only ‘education’ (which in essence means no human sexuality education-- only a message of ‘no sex before marriage’).
On the other side, we have the world’s largest grossing porn industry and perhaps one of the most promiscuous recreational sex cultures in the western world.
Ours is a confused sexual culture. One minute we say sex is a sacred act and the next minute we say for the right price, sex and people are for sale – no strings attached.
No wonder I hear so many people speak of feeling isolated when they are caught in between these extremes! They long to be deeply touched-- known.”
Last week, I looked at the evangelical purity movement, both its causes and its effects.
I finished my post with a few questions:
As I pondered these questions, it struck me how much we are what we believe.
And what we believe about sex and sexuality affects both the way we experience sex and our attitudes about sex.
The first question I ended my last post with was, “Could feminism’s emphasis on sexual equality and Christianity’s focus on loving others as you love yourself be good bedfellows?”
Love Others as You Love Yourself: How Feminism’s Emphasis on Sex Positivity Fits with Faith
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.”
And what do feminists say?
A term used by some feminists to describe a feminist’s attitude towards sex is “sex positivity”.
The Colorado State University's Women and Gender Advocacy Center describes sex positivity this way: “As a broad ideology and world view, sex positivity is simply the idea that all sex, as long as it is healthy and explicitly consensual, is a positive thing.”
Some folks claim sex positivity frees people to go out and have sex all the time, with whomever they wish, even children or, or, animals.
However, a closer look at the definition of sex positivity reveals a sexual boundary: “[...] as long as it is healthy and explicitly consensual [...].”
The Cambridge Dictionary defines consensual as meaning, “with the willing agreement of all the people involved”.
Synonyms and words related to consensual include “accord”, “allow”, “go along with”, and “informed consent”.
You really can’t go wrong with advocating for sex positivity while including the caveat that sex should be both consensual and about “loving your neighbor as you love yourself”.
What a great “check” for us to use when exploring our own sexuality.
Rachel Held Evans wrote a thought-provoking article called "Sex and the Path of Holiness". In it, she challenged us to think more about doing justice for people than about judging ourselves or others for "losing our purity".
She included an important exhortation in her post:
“But I want folks to know that abandoning the painful and destructive narrative that a single sexual encounter can ‘ruin’ a person or make her unworthy of love doesn’t mean swinging to the opposite extreme to endorse an anything-goes sexual ethic.”
Again, what a wonderful moral compass we have in the mandate to love others as we love ourselves.
Later in the same article, Held Evans shares quotes from a blog post on the topic of purity by blogger Jamie Wright.
In the post, Wright shares how both the shame-inducing purity movement and the “anything goes” attitude are destructive.
She tells how, in her younger years, she believed sex was a tool she could wield to get what she wanted:
“I believed that sex was the best thing I had to offer the world. It was the only thing about me worth loving. And I learned, too young, that I could leverage sex to get what I wanted. My female parts had become my greatest asset.”
Going back to those proverbial magazines-by-the-checkout...aren’t so many of them selling men and women that very message?
Wright goes on to share an equally harmful message she received from her church: because she had engaged in sex before marriage, she was irrevocably damaged.
She summarizes the two messages she believed with these words:
“The first comes from our culture, and it tells us that sex outside of marriage isn’t a big deal.
The second is from the Church, and it tells us that sex outside of marriage is the biggest deal of all the deals ever.
One allowed me to give it away freely, convinced I would carry no burden. The other forced me to carry a spirit crushing load.”
Wright finished her article, which was ultimately about what she wanted her teenage sons to know about sex, thus:
“Do I want my boys to wait? Absolutely. And they know it! But I refuse to tie their value as a human being to their junk like a shiny red balloon.
I want them to know that sex is sacred. And I want them to believe that it matters. I hope they will esteem the bodies of the girls in their lives, as they hold their own bodies to the same high standard.
But I also want them to understand that the kind of sexual purity the Bible calls us to doesn’t begin or end with Virginity – It’s way bigger than that. It’s way more significant. And it’s way harder to hold on to.”
In conclusion, let’s combine sex positivity with one of our highest mandates as people of faith, “Love others as you love yourself”.
Then, let’s take it one step further, remembering our highest mandate:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”
What if we embraced the feminist notion that both our bodies and sex are good?
What if we refused to worship “having sex” as the god which would solve all our loneliness/emptiness/shame problems?
What if we approached sex with thankfulness to God?
What if loving others was just as important as loving ourselves?
We may not end up with any stringent sexual rules; instead, we’d have something better. We’d have wisdom guiding our decision making .
In the end, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, would it?
Since Sex is Good, How Do We, As Feminists Of Faith, Develop A Healthy Sexual Ethic?
When Christians who promote the purity movement harp on purity (no sex until marriage) as “God’s way”, I chuckle.
The Bible seems to be at odds with its own self on this topic.
Pastor and scholar Jennifer Wright Knust wrote an article entitled, “Five Things the Church Gets Wrong About Sex” for the blog “news and pews”.
In the article, she stated, “It is simply not the case that the Bible speaks with one voice about anything, let alone sex, and to say that it does is disingenuous at best.”
You have probably heard many of the Bible verses which are used to support sex within marriage only.
Here are a few: Hebrews 13: 4, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5, Proverbs 5:8-9,1 Cor. 6:18-20.
As you read them, you may be surprised to see that while these verses address adultery and lust, they do not directly say, “no sex until marriage”.
Here are a few examples of why the topic of sex and the Bible is complicated:
Where do these very different Bible mandates and stories leave us, then?
As Knust points out, “[...] I have discovered, the Bible is a treasure trove of fascinating stories and teachings about sexuality and desire. It is not, however, a moral guidebook.”
The Bible leaves us with very few explicit commands. Instead, it gives us both freedom and wisdom.
So throw out the purity movement’s fear-inducing shame-message, and embrace the ethic of loving God and loving others as you love yourself.
And if you are wondering where to go from there, Dr. Schermer Sellers offers an excellent list of 12 beliefs essential to a healthy sexual ethic at the end of this post: https://www.tinaschermersellers.com/post/testing-the-title.
To sum it all up, in Dr. Schermer Seller’s words:
“Well, this might sound too simplistic, but the way I like to think about it is that the way that we are in relationship with our sexuality with our desire, it needs to honor us. It needs to first it needs to honor us. It needs to honor God if we have a relationship with God and that’s important to us. Then, if we are in relationship with another, it needs to honor the other. If it’s not doing that, then it’s not serving love. That’s really the purpose. It to serve love. That’s where it becomes generative. That’s where it grows. If it’s self serving, it’s going to fall flat at the least and be hurtful at the most, right?”
(Read the full podcast/interview transcript here: http://shamelessthebook.com/tina-schermer-sellers/)
When I first began to breathe the fresh air of freedom from shame and fear, I felt happy, but I also wondered how I could truly become free?
You can’t just tell yourself, “Ok, you’re free. Enjoy sex. No more shame.”
Our bodies aren’t wired that way.
Even when our mind changes about something, our bodies and emotions can still be triggered by shaming messages.
Which leads to the question:
How Do Those Of Us Who Have Been Hurt By The Purity Movement Recover Our Sexuality?
As I’ve shared, I have slowly been gaining sexual freedom.
I no longer feel ashamed of “fun sex”.
I have begun to embrace myself as a sexual being. I now see that BOTH my husband and I should be enjoying pleasure.
I see sex as a gift and not as a chore.
And hugely instrumental in my sexual freedom-fest was the book, Come As You Are.
This interview transcript provides an excellent overview of the key concepts in the book, which will, I hope, whet your appetite: https://www.wbur.org/radioboston/2015/03/12/emily-nagoski.
If you read the book in its entirety, I genuinely believe it will revolutionize your sex life.
Here are a few key ways it has helped me:
So what are you waiting for, friend? Go out and buy the book!
In so many ways, writing is the best therapy.
I have been learning and learning through my study of faith and feminism and all that good shit in between. Thanks, friends, for coming on this journey with me.
So far, we have examined women’s freedom in every sector except one: a woman’s role in the church!
Tune in next week for an exploration of this incredibly important facet of faith and feminism as I wrap up the series.
My body is mine, and mine alone.
I can say no, or I can say yes.
I deserve to experience pleasure.
I am beautiful.
For a girl (me) who thought it was her duty to give her body to her spouse, no matter how she felt, this new mantra is huge.
I used to think men’s sexual appetites were so massive that if wives didn’t satisfy them, husbands would have to find something or someone else to satiate their hunger.
This meant that if a husband was addicted to pornography, it was his wife’s fault.
If a man had an affair, it was his wife’s fault.
And if a husband was feeling unloved or sad, it was his wife’s duty to “comfort” him.
I am sure you can see how patriarchal and stereotypical this way of thinking is.
Not only does this leave women feeling trapped and used, it also shortchanges men: they could have wives who actually enjoy sex instead of wives who are having sex out of duty.
I grew up when the Evangelical Purity Movement was in full swing.
Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers, a sex therapist, has spent many years exploring the harmful effects of the purity movement.
She explains that, because the purity movement included elements of shame, silence and fear, people who have been exposed to the movement display the same symptoms as victims of sexual trauma:
“This combination of Fear, Shame, and Silence wrapped in a religious context of 'This is of God' is what produces religious sexual shame that can manifest as symptoms of childhood sexual abuse in adults.
The Purity Movement delivered this in spades … and we have a generation of young adults now trying to heal from levels of shame, depression, anxiety and sexual dysfunction unlike we have seen in recent history.”
The purity movement appears to have begun as a reaction to the sexual revolution of the 60’s, which was a result of the feminist movement.
As feminists were asserting women's equality in the work place and in politics, they also began advocating for women's sexual equality.
According to a PBS article entitled "The Pill and the Sexual Revolution", “At the core of the sexual revolution was the concept -- radical at the time -- that women, just like men, enjoyed sex and had sexual needs.”
Feminists in the 60’s advocated especially for the sexual empowerment of unmarried women. They advised women to use birth control and be free.
Whereas, prior to this time, society emphasized the importance of “virginity and marriage”, now society celebrated the “single life and sexual exploration”. (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/pill-and-sexual-revolution/)
You can imagine how terrifying this was for Christians, who were concerned about sexual promiscuity.
Even before the sexual revolution of the 60’s, Christians placed a great deal of emphasis on women’s sexual purity (aka-be a virgin until marriage, be modest, etc).
How then, should they respond to this increased sexual freedom for women?
Christians apparently felt they needed to affirm sex as pleasurable while also admonishing young people not to engage in sex outside of marriage.
As a teenager, I remember giggling while listening to the song, “I Don’t Want It” by DC Talk.
It was so scandalous; were they really spelling “S-E-X” in a catchy Christian song?!?
Give the song a listen: https://youtu.be/KEpZd6jqmuQ.
Though I enjoyed the song as a teen, now it makes me feel angry:
A message I received from this song was that girls can really lead guys astray with sexual tempation.
I also understood that good guys ought to stand strong because “God has set his standard higher Purity is his desire”.
My question now is, "What is God's purity standard?" I'm not convinced it is what DC Talk hinted at in that song...
I distinctly remember, after listening to the song, feeling hyper conscious about what I was wearing around guys. Was I unintentionally begging them to have sex with me?
Couched in the words of this song is the promise that if you wait until you are married to have sex, then sex will be really really good: “And trust that God will give us something better if we wait.”
In other words, delay your passion until you are married; it will be worth it.
As a young teenager secretly fantasizing about sex and boys, I took this message to heart.
After all, who wouldn't want fabulous sex?
While Christian singers in the 1990’s and 2000’s were putting out songs emphasizing the glories of sex after marriage and the pitfalls of sex before marriage, numerous Christian organizations were promoting the same messages in a variety of ways: through promise rings, True Love Waits conventions, father-daughter dances and an increasing emphasis on courtship over dating and delaying kissing until marriage (I Kissed Dating Goodbye).
Once again, I feel lucky my parents never encouraged me to become involved in any of these movements.
In spite of that fact, I absorbed its basic tenets: sex outside of marriage was bad; if I waited for marriage, sex would be wonderful; girls ought to be modest lest they lead guys astray.
I remember hearing that if you were sexually promiscuous before marriage, you would bring all of your former partners into the marriage bed with you.
Joshua Harris is the author of the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. He now regrets having written the book, and recently participated in a documentary about its impact as well as that of the purity movement.
The opening scene of the documentary (which was also the opening scene of his book) involves a wedding ceremony in which the groom brings all his former girlfriends with him to the ceremony.
If you want to understand both Harris's book and the purity movement in more depth, I highly recommend watching the documentary here.
I have heard of some youth groups asking girls to chew a piece of gum and then spit it out. After that, the girls were asked, “Would you give this to someone else to chew?”
The message behind this exercise? Don’t have sex with other people before marriage. If you do, you are damaged goods.
And you don’t want to offer “damaged goods” to the man you marry on your wedding day, do you?
What an incredibly shaming message!
Earlier, I shared a quote by Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers in which she shares how the purity movement used “Fear, Shame and Silence wrapped in a religious context” to encourage young people not to engage in sex before marriage.
Writer Linda Kay Klein tells her story and the stories of other women affected by the purity movement in her book PURE.
In this article by VICE, the author shares some of the stories in Klein's book. The stories are maddening. No woman should ever feel this way!
From these examples, can you see the fear, shame and silence invoked by the purity movement?
It is hard for “good Christian girls” who have been told first to dress modestly and then not to be lustful to suddenly become sexual beings once they are married.
For years, I myself felt “naughty” (shameful) after having especially enjoyable sex.
This leads to a few honest questions:
I can't wait to explore these questions next week!
Do you have personal experience with the purity movement? If so, be sure to leave a comment and tell me about it.
She was a beautiful woman, a princess.
But she was also cursed: one day, upon pricking her finger with a needle, she fell into a deep sleep upon her bed.
A hundred years passed...
Her castle crumbled around her and brambles and vines swathed her bedstead, clinging to it like leeches.
She was helpless and hopeless, wasn’t she?
One day, a handsome prince came tromping through the forest where the princess slept, and lo and behold, he happened upon her just lying there, snoozing away.
No one knows how much time passed, or how many wake-up methods the prince attempted before making the decision to try kissing her...
What we do know is that when he finally decided to bend down and snog her, she awoke with a start.
Apparently it was love at first site, because the princess proceeded to marry lucky old Mr. McSmoochyPants.
This fairy tale plot, in which a helpless princess gets rescued by a handsome prince, is a perfect example of patriarchy’s deep-rooted influence on our culture:
Take a woman who is beautiful and kind; she needn’t have other skills. Have her encounter a serious crisis from which she needs rescue. Toss in a wandering hapless prince with the following assets: strength, courage, pizzazz. Have the prince rescue the helpless maiden and let them live happily ever after.
Does this plot sound familiar to you?
Cinderella. Sleeping Beauty. Snow White. Rapunzel.
In some ways, there is beauty in the images conveyed by these stories: just at the right moment, a rescuer appears to save the day; the rescuer fixes what was broken.
Other images conveyed by the stories make me ill…
Does it always have to be a man rescuing a helpless woman?
There ought to be at least some fairy tales where a helpless man is rescued by a strong, courageous woman, someone like Brienne of Tarth.
And there ought to be some fairy tales which center the rescue-of-the-helpless-victim around something other than romance.
Last week, I tackled the history and definition of patriarchy. I discussed examples of patriarchy at play in our society and families.
This week, I want to take a look at patriarchy in the Bible, because it is most certainly found there.
What the hell is it doing there?!
Seriously, patriarchy has not yielded beautiful things for women or children, in my opinion.
So why is it reflected by the Bible?
Has there ever been a time in your life where you were doing something because it was right and you weren’t supposed to question it, but deep down you felt sick to your stomach for doing it?
This was me for so many years. I lived trying to fit into a patriarchal family/church structure because “the Bible told me so”.
Then I read a story about a woman named Abigail. And yes, I read her story in the Bible.
Abigail’s story opens with a certain God-ordained King, King David, being on the run from his archenemy Saul.
One day, King David and his men, hungry, stumble upon a farm belonging to Abigail’s husband, Nabal. (Women at this time couldn’t own property. The Bible = patriarchal book, remember?)
King David sends some soldiers to Nabal’s home asking for food. Nabal, greedy and stupid, refuses to share.
Abigail sees what her husband is doing and realizes it’s really not that smart to incur the wrath of a King and his soldiers. So, behind her husband’s back, she sends food and supplies out to David’s needy army.
It’s all very Ezer-like of her.
And it’s the opposite of the quiet, submissive behavior of a “godly” wife.
It is an example of a woman being very aware of what’s going on around her and then using her wits to do what’s right, even though it’s different from what her husband says.
When I first read Abigail’s story, I was stunned.
Allow me to explain.
Last week, I coined the phrase “Biblical patriarchy”. By Biblical patriarchy, I mean the notion that the Bible condones patriarchy.
For example, Biblical patriarchy is when women are told to submit to their husbands as they would to God. Or when children are told to submit to their fathers as they would to God.
You’d think that if the Bible were teaching patriarchy, then any woman who went against her husband, snuck behind his back, in fact, would be struck dead (because that seems to be what happened to people in the Old Testament when they broke God’s law).
Instead, Abigail’s husband died, and King David married her. In a society in which widowed women were destitute and helpless, Abigail was blessed and given a high status in her community.
Furthermore, Abigail’s story is recorded in the Bible.
We have to assume Abigail’s story is supposed to be instructive: pay attention; be shrewd; do what you need to do to save your family; do what’s right at all costs; God is your authority, not your husband.
Abigail is not the only such strong witty woman in the Bible. Priscilla set a guy's theology straight (Acts 18), and Miriam worked alongside Moses and Aaron, leading the Israelites. Women announced Jesus’ resurrection, and Mary learned at Jesus’ feet like a Rabbinic student would. These are not all the examples we see in scripture either.
From these stories, the Bible does not appear to promote patriarchy.
But then there are other stories, like that of Sara, who was so submissive to her husband Abraham she went along with him in lying to a king. Yep, Abraham and Sarah tricked a king that they weren't married; they were siblings.
This nearly led to her whole family being killed. Later in the Bible, however, she is commended for being godly because of her submission.
There are really two main ways you can see Scripture on the matter of patriarchy.
You can see it as condoning and in fact, commanding, us to order our families and our churches in a patriarchal manner, or you can see it as a book of wisdom written by folks who were heavily influenced by their patriarchal cultures.
I’d like to take you on a journey through my thought process as I wrestled with these viewpoints.
Before I begin, do you want to know what I love?
I love differing perspectives, because they sharpen and grow me. I think there are very few perfect perspectives out there.
For example, in trying not to be a proverbial “fundamentalist”, you can be a “fundamentalist” about being liberal, judging folks who believe and live differently than you do. You can get so stuck in thinking “my way is right,” you no longer realize that you, too, have blind spots.
Let’s take a look at the first point of view:
Patriarchy Is A God-Ordained System
In previous posts, I shared the conflicting messages I received as a young woman growing up in the church.
On the one hand, I was encouraged I could be anything I wanted to be— I ought to get a degree and be independent.
On the other hand, I was taught that a woman’s highest calling in life was to be married and bear children. I was also told I should submit to my husband as the head of the household.
A few years ago, I attended a church in which some married women were stay at home moms and others worked outside the home. With such an eclectic mix of women, I assumed the church wasn’t patriarchal.
I got a nasty surprise when, upon attending a home group, everyone began to sing the praises of one particular woman in the church who was exceptionally submissive to her husband.
I began to see that whereas the parameters for ideal godly wife used to be, “a stay-at-home mom who submits to her husband and orders her home well”, they were now, “a wife who can be or do anything as long as she submits to her husband”.
In my opinion, when a husband and a wife both work outside the home, it is difficult for them to function in a completely patriarchal manner.
The wife, by nature of holding down her own job, makes quite a few of her own decisions. She earns her own paycheck. She will not always have time to do the housecleaning or care for the children.
This means the husband and wife have to make some decisions together; and in certain areas, the wife will be operating autonomously, using her own wisdom to make decisions within her area of expertise.
She will not be always available to be a “helpmeet” to her husband.
I don’t know about you, but I think if you are going to say that God commands women to submit and men to be the heads of the households, than you ought to follow that mandate wholeheartedly.
Even the phrase “equal yet different” implies more equality than what the Bible in its most patriarchal passages teaches. Sara, for instance, is lauded because she “obeyed” Abraham and called him “lord” (1 Peter 3:6).
I am not the only one who sees things this way.
Russell Moore is a theologian, ethicist and preacher, as well as a prominent member of the Southern Baptist Convention. He wrote an article in the “Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society” entitled “After Patriarchy, What? Why Egalitarians Are Winning The Gender Debate”.
You can read the article here: https://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/49/49-3/JETS_49-3_569-576_Moore.pdf
Moore asserts that while many Christians say they believe men ought to be the “heads of their homes”, most are actually operating as egalitarians.
He mentions that women working outside the home is a problem to complementarians, stating, “While some evangelicals express concern about what dual income couples might do to the parenting of small children, very few are willing to ask what happens to the headship of the husband himself. How does the husband maintain a notion of headship when he is dependent on his wife to provide for the family?”
While I do not share Moore’s point of view, I appreciate that he is staying true to his reading of scripture.
In the article, he affirms that the complementarian view of male headship in the home should be called what it is: patriarchy.
Moore urges Christian complementarians not to become “soft” in following the Bible. He criticizes many modern Christian teachings for being too influenced by feminism.
Because I feel Moore is being forthright about what Christians who hold to patriarchy believe, I am going to examine his point of view.
Moore believes that not only is the Bible patriarchal, but God is also patriarchal. He believes the Bible has an actual patriarchal trajectory, and that the gospel itself is revealed through that system.
“[...] that trajectory [of the Bible] leads toward patriarchy—a loving, sacrificial, protective patriarchy in which the archetypal Fatherhood of God is reflected in the leadership of human fathers, in the home and in the church (Eph 3:14–15; Matt 7:9–11; Heb 1.”
“This understanding of archetypal patriarchy is grounded then in the overarching theme of all of Scripture—the summing up of all things in Christ (Eph 1:10).16 It does not divide God’s purposes, his role as Father from his role as Creator from his role as Savior from his role as King.”
Basically, Moore believes male headship in the home and the passing on of an inheritance from father to son is THE way God has chosen to offer salvation to this world.
“Patriarchy then is essential—from the begetting of Seth in the image and likeness of Adam to the deliverance of Yahweh’s son Israel from the clutches of Pharaoh to the promise of a Davidic son to whom God would be a Father (2 Sam 7:14; Ps 89:26) to the “Abba” cry of the new covenant assembly (Rom 8:15).”
When I read these quotes from Moore’s article, I understand why, to some complementarians, feminism’s insistence on male-female equality is seen as a threat.
Steve Golden is a writer on the Answers in Genesis blog. In an article entitled “Feminism: The Influence Of Postmodernism”, he claims that feminist postmodern thinking has led to “serious attacks on the authority of God’s word”.
The reason Golden thinks feminism attacks the authority of God’s word is that it forces people to question verses which are “clearly patriarchal”.
Both Moore and Golden claim that, by rejecting the patriarchal ideal of male headship in the home, feminism is destroying women, the church, and the family.
They claim that the freedom and equality of both genders espoused by feminism gives men permission to freely, without consequence, pursue sexual gratification, whereas when men are urged to be “men of God” and embrace godly male headship in the home, they are held to a higher standard and their carnal behavior/desires are checked.
One particularly stinging critique of feminism in the Answers in Genesis article is that feminism proclaims liberation to women from the “‘shackles’ of being wives and mothers”.
Golden and Moore and other Christians who believe the Bible teaches patriarchy as God’s model hold to God’s having a specific vision for men which is different from God’s vision for women. In a nutshell, men are to be the “head” of their households and women are to “submit”.
This succinctly sums up the viewpoint of those who would say the Bible promotes patriarchy.
Before I share another viewpoint, I would like to share some thoughts I had while learning about the “Bible promotes patriarchy” point of view:
Now let’s take at another view:
Patriarchy Is The Cultural Backdrop Of The Bible, But It Is NOT What The Bible Teaches
Ironically, I’d like to begin this section with the main verses used by those who hold to Biblical patriarchy, which I cited at the end of my previous blog post:
If I agreed with Moore and Golden, I would certainly use these verses to support my point of view.
However, as I queried before, how does one reconcile the verses above with this one: “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)
I’ve always believed you can’t just read a passage in the Bible and understand its full meaning without first looking at the historical context of the passage.
I used to place the “literal” meaning of a passage first, and then add in tidbits about the historical context.
Now, I look at the meaning of a passage in its historical context before I think about its possible meanings.
I try not to “lift” the passage out of its time period; I leave it there and ask, “What would this have meant to a person in that world?”
I also don’t solely rely on my own “wisdom”; I listen to those who know more than I do.
As I was thinking about these passages, I was intrigued to read some articles about the way first the Greeks and then the Romans ordered their home.
In Plato’s “Republic”, he suggested that human needs drive humans to form cities; and, once cities are formed, humans must decide how the cities will be governed.
Both Plato and his pupil Aristotle placed a rational mind above all else. This led Plato to further surmise that cities should be run by a hierarchy where men (who said were more rational) should rule over women and children.
Here is what Aristotle thought about household management:
“Of household management we have seen that there are three parts- one is the rule of a master over slaves, which has been discussed already, another of a father, and the third of a husband. A husband and father, we saw, rules over wife and children, both free, but the rule differs, the rule over his children being a royal, over his wife a constitutional rule. For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the elder and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature.”
Aristotle deemed the male to be “fitter” by nature for command than females. Interesting. He also stated that “a husband and father [...] rules over wife and children”. Patriarchal, right?
These patriarchal Greek ideas about men, women and children carried over into the Jewish philosophy of the times.
Here is what Josephus wrote about women:
“The woman, says the Law, is in all things inferior to the man. Let her accordingly be submissive, not for her humiliation, but that she may be directed; for the authority has been given by God to the man.”
Not only did the patriarchal Greek philosophers influence Jewish philosophers, they also influenced Roman culture/philosophy.
The Romans structured their families with the man as the “head” of the family. They called the rule of the father “paterfamilias”.
The paterfamilia held unlimited authority and power in the home. He was the religious intercessor for his family: he acted as the family priest over his ancestor’s cult. He was also the family’s representative to other members of his society.
For a more detailed examination of Greek and Roman philosophy surrounding family structure, read this article: https://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/priscilla-papers/woman%E2%80%99s-role-new-testament-household-codes.
Do any of these patriarchal notions about men, fathers, husbands, women, wives and children sound familiar to you? Do they sound a bit like the verses I listed at the beginning of this section?
Do you see any differences between what Plato, Aristotle and Josephus said (Greco-Roman Household Codes) and what the Bible passages (NT Household Codes) I cited say?
Rachel Held Evans, in this post and this post, pointed out some glaring differences between the Greco-Roman and NT Household Codes (loose paraphrase):
In looking at the differences between the NT Household Codes and the Greco-Roman Household Codes, we see that although on the surface it looks like the New Testament is urging early Christians to follow Greco-Roman rules, it is covertly pointing everyone towards "Christ-as-head" instead of "father-as-head".
In my opinion, if everyone is really subject to Christ, this does away with patriarchal hierarchy.
I love the way Rachel Held Evans puts it:
“What’s great about the Christian remix of the Greco-Roman household codes is that, when put into practice, it blurs the hierarchal lines between husband and wife, master and slave, adult parent and adult child. If wives submit to their husbands as the Church submits to Christ (Ephesians 5:24), and if husbands love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25), and if both husbands and wives submit one to another (Ephesians 5:21)—who’s really “in charge” here?”
A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a Jamaican-born poet named Claude McKay. McKay was born in 1889 and raised by peasant farmers. In spite his Jamaican origin, McKay retained a keen sense of his parents’ African heritage.
This poem of his really captures the longing and sorrow of a people displaced:
For the dim regions whence my fathers came
My spirit, bondaged by the body, longs.
Words felt, but never heard, my lips would frame;
My soul would sing forgotten jungle songs.
I would go back to darkness and to peace,
But the great western world holds me in fee,
And I may never hope for full release
While to its alien gods I bend my knee.
Something in me is lost, forever lost,
Some vital thing has gone out of my heart,
And I must walk the way of life a ghost
Among the sons of earth, a thing apart;
For I was born, far from my native clime,
Under the white man's menace, out of time.
Do you know what’s hard for me to fathom?
It is hard for me to fathom how a people captured and bartered like chattel could turn around and see in the religion of their captors a God who loved and cared for them, a God they could cry out to, as illustrated in this Negro Spiritual:
Now let us have a little talk with Jesus
Let us tell Him all about our troubles
He will hear our faintest cry and we will answer by and by
Now when you feel a little prayer wheel turning
You'll know a little fire is burning
You will find a little talk with Jesus makes it right
I may have doubts and fears my eyes be filled with tears
But Jesus is a friend who watches day and night
Oh, I go to Him in prayer, He knows my every care
And just a little talk with Jesus gonna makes it right
(Excerpt from “A Little Talk with Jesus”)
This, I think, illustrates the intensely subversive nature of the God we serve, the God who says, “My Kingdom is not of this world”; the God who came to “set the prisoners free”.
Instead of destroying all evil systems immediately, God’s truth infiltrates every culture, every system, every family, subtly. It is a whisper on the wind which touches everyone and everything.
Sometimes, God’s truth sounds so much like what everyone already thinks that no one notices it is actually different. But it IS different. So drastically dramatically different.
For, at the same time God is telling slaves and wives to submit, God is also gently intoning: “Your authority is not man. It is God,” and “You are all equal now.”
And while God may be saying to men: “Lead”, God is simultaneously saying to men, “Love the members of your household more than you love yourself. Submit one to another.”
God’s medicine goes down smoothly; then the healing begins...
Do drop me a comment and let me know what you think, friend. If you haven't already, follow me on Facebook.
Then tune in next week for a look at faith, feminism and sexual freedom.
She leaned forward, gripping the steering wheel, heavy-footed and radiating positive energy. Every few seconds she turned to me with a new detail, “He’s so wise!”, “He keeps himself so well-groomed”, “He tells such good stories!”
— ”Have you heard the pineapple story? It’s SO good!,” interjected one of my fellow female passengers...—
Every time our chauffeur turned to me with new, glorious descriptions of the amazing keynote speaker, her pupils dilated and sparkled animatedly.
I was a young teen, and I was canister-ed in a humongous van with several other girls from my church. They were all chattering and interrupting, filling me in on the amazing things I would learn at the conference we were about to attend.
I’ve always been annoyed by “people worship”, and I was unimpressed by the flattery. However, I couldn’t help but feel curious about this “great” man everyone was going on about.
The man’s name was Bill Gothard. You can google him if you want to; you’ll find he’s not quite as loved as he once was.
It is here I must interject, red faced, that my motives were not pure; I really could have cared less about the seminar.
I had a crush on a few of the boys in our church, who happened to be brothers to some of the girls in the van, and I was trying to make a good impression.
I remember, upon entering the convention center, feeling as though the vastness of the glass-windowed lobby vacuumed up my breath.
Women roamed the halls in packs, swarming into spacious tiled bathrooms.
Most wore dresses— not cocktail dresses, mind you: hand sewn, modest dresses.
As I navigated the busy hallway, I chuckled to myself— women lined the sidewalk outside, using the convention center's one-way-glass as a mirror, combing their long hair and re-applying lipstick, unaware that everyone inside could see them.
From inside, it looked as though they were silent circus performers repeating a simple routine: comb, apply, comb, apply, comb, apply.
Upon nearing the spacious room where the conference was to be held, I veered left into a restroom; it was bizarrely hushed.
The counter was lined with women soundlessly jostling each other, craning their necks to view their reflections, applying makeup.
I wondered why everyone was so concerned with their makeup and with how they looked. We were, after all, attending a seminar to learn more about God and the Bible. (Um, well, most of us were…)
Why did our appearance matter so much?
I still remember the one fleeting moment during the conference when excitement overtook me: I was handed a pencil and an empty workbook, all my own.
Oh, how I still love new workbooks and studying and assignments!
Now, however,when I recall this seminar and that crackling new workbook, I feel sick.
I want to stomp on that workbook, rip it to shreds and burn it; it was, after all, garbage wrapped in this beautiful, terrifying paper called Religiosity.
Looking back, I’m grateful my parents did not embrace this man or his teachings.
Many of the young women who attended that conference with me were scarred for life; years later, the world learned that Bill Gothard himself (a single man) had made inappropriate sexual advances on several young women who had interned as his secretaries.
It was at this conference I was introduced to the following diagrams:
This diagram illustrates the “Umbrella of Protection”. As long as us young ladies remained under our umbrella, we were told, we would be safe from the devil. Otherwise, he would certainly have us for lunch.
This diagram juxtaposes the “godly” family structure, protected by God, against the “worldly” family structure, governed by Satan. Talk about stretching a metaphor!
One of the most chilling aspects of the second umbrella is the statement (I apologize for the blurriness) that ordering your family incorrectly “disempowers the husband”.
Now, back to my story. Although my bullshit sensors were blaring at this point, and although my parents themselves never became followers of Gothard’s teachings (thank God), I couldn’t shake the fear induced by these illustrations.
Who in their right mind would want to have that dreaded dude Satan leading his or her family?
I wish I would have known then what I know now: that this whole illustration was an example of what I call Christianized patriarchy. And patriarchy has very real and lasting effects on people.
So What Is Patriarchy?
In simplest terms, patriarchy is a system in which men rule over women.
Dictionary.com defines patriarchy as “a form of social organization in which the father is the supreme authority in the family, clan, or tribe and descent is reckoned in the male line, with the children belonging to the father's clan or tribe.”
Imagine with me for a moment what sort of cultural “needs” would lead to such a system. Why would it be important for the father to be the supreme authority in a family or tribe and for male children to inherit their father’s wealth?
Here are three detailed descriptions of patriarchy:
Most scholars agree that though patriarchy has been the basic structure for many societies, it has not always been the chief societal structure.
Remember my question earlier, about what sort of culture would benefit from patriarchy?
Not a hunter-gatherer culture, according to most scholars.
Most hunter-gatherer societies are thought to have been egalitarian: every member was equally important and job-roles were fluid.
People in hunter-gatherer societies, I’d imagine, were more concerned with having enough food to eat and surviving than with anything else.
Many would posit that hierarchical societal structures such as patriarchy emerged when societies became agrarian and began amassing wealth.
Agrarian societies needed to find ways to pass on wealth; what better way than to pass money along to other family members.
The focus on amassing wealth and passing it along family lines gave more authority and leadership capabilities to some (the wealthy) than to others.
What Are The Defining Characteristics of Patriarchal Societies/Structures?
From this short history and definition of patriarchy, what would you say are some of its defining characteristics?
My list includes: power, hierarchy, obedience to authority figures, structured living and rigid roles based on gender and age, dominance of the powerful/wealthy over the weak/poor.
Check out this series of slides, which gives an overview of patriarchy and also highlights how patriarchy manifests in a society: https://www.slideshare.net/nivi88/patriarchy-in-society.
One excellent point this slideshow makes is that patriarchy is a system which affects both men and women.
Men are hurt by patriarchy, and men can do just as much as women to open people’s eyes to the invisible patriarchal rules we follow.
For many years, my husband lived with the heavy burden that he, and he alone, ought to be the sole financial provider for our family: that was his job!
He was not allowed to pursue a career which interested him; he had to pursue a career which would provide.
Furthermore, in much of the church culture we were immersed in, “being a man” was all about speaking loudly, vying for power, jostling for authority, and being invested in sports.
My husband is quiet, sensitive and emotional. He does not desire the limelight. He is not a die-hard sports fan.
Under this patriarchal delineation of manhood, my husband wondered where he fit.
As a young woman, I also received a loud message about how to be a worthy woman, thanks to patriarchy:
It is a constant challenge for me, as a homeschool mom, to educate my son and daughters to see women as equal to men, and to know there are a myriad of ways families can be structured.
I strive to show them they don’t have to think or live according to “patriarchal” norms.
While I do stay home to educate my kids, I treat homeschooling as my job/career.
My husband and I partner on housework.
I am careful to also spend time pursuing my own interests, passions and friendships.
As you saw above, growing up, I had many friends whose parents followed Bill Gothard’s teachings.
I also had many friends and family members who did not follow Gothard, but believed women should submit to their husbands. This meant that in the event of a disagreement, a husband’s word on the matter was final.
I recall hearing a child being instructed by a parent that his parents’ words to him were essentially God’s words to him.
I also remember witnessing a child being punished because, when his father instructed him to do something, he (the child) questioned it.
He questioned what his father told him because his mother had told him something different.
The child was wondering who he was supposed to listen to. When the child queried the father about this dilemma, the child was punished severely.
This was presumably to show the child that the father’s word is always the final word.
As I have been researching patriarchy, I have come across an interesting debate over whether or not America is a patriarchy.
I have also read several online debates over whether or not the Bible is patriarchal (does it promote patriarchy?).
I think this conversation is complicated; it can't be right or fair to summarily label a society, a family, or a book as 100% patriarchal.
Cultures and systems are highly nuanced.
For example, though the family structure Gothard taught about placed fathers above all other family members, it also taught that wives had this special ability to hear a sort of cautioning wisdom from the Lord.
If a wife received this special wisdom from God, the husband was admonished to listen to her.
This gave women a great deal of power over their husbands.
I think arguing over labels distracts us from addressing real problems.
What if, instead of spending our time debating whether or not someone or something is patriarchal, we instead use the “characteristics of patriarchy” as a filter through which to run the “water” of our lives?
We ought to look at our families, churches, schools and governments and ask whether all people are being treated with equal dignity and respect, regardless of their wealth or gender.
We also ought to be asking whether or not all members of society are given equal voice and opportunity.
The Negative Consequences of Patriarchy
Some would wonder why I am making such a big deal about patriarchy.
After all, compared with much of the rest of the world, we American folks (especially us white middle class folks) have SO MUCH.
I have a friend who immigrated from Venezuela to Colombia. Her major life concern right now is figuring out how to get dinner on the table for her two growing boys.
Yet, I believe this conversation is important: it is in questioning and dismantling unjust systems that we begin to help this hurting world— the world needs empowered women.
Let’s apply the “filter of patriarchy” to our modern lives. Where do we see patriarchy at play?
Though I have recently seen some magazines and TV ads promoting a more positive view of women, many headlines and commercials for women are all about how to make a man happy (often by becoming prettier and slimmer).
Here are four examples:
-From Cosmopolitan: “4 Words That Seduce Any Man. Any Time.”
-Also from Cosmopolitan: “Times He Wants You To Be Jealous”
-From Woman’s World: “10 Years Thinner”
-Also from Woman’s World: “Lose up to 130 Pounds”
Do you see how these ads are all about helping women become more desirable?
What a harmful message we are sending women when we tell them their value lies in their appeal!
Something makes me think this is the message the women at the Gothard conference I attended were receiving as well...
Another area in which we can apply our “patriarchy filter” is in the workforce, where men have historically received higher wages and been given more opportunities to hold positions of power.
Take a look at these statistics: https://www.dol.gov/wb/stats/stats_data.htm.
One cannot help but wonder why women are paid less than men for the same jobs?
Is it because men are considered to be more valuable?
Is it because of the myth that only men should provide for their families financially while women stay home?
Is it because of the false notion that women aren’t as good at being leaders as men are?
Wage equality would mean that:
Another area in which we can apply the “filter of patriarchy” is in the area of sexual assault.
Women who are sexually abused are often accused of inviting the abuse, while men are rarely held accountable for their actions.
I don't know about you, but I have heard many of these statements over the course of my lifetime:
Perhaps they (the women assaulted) were wandering in dark alleys they shouldn’t have been in.
Maybe they (the women assaulted) were wearing “slutty” clothing.
Maybe they (the women abused) were not being submissive enough to their husbands, or maybe they weren’t adequately “meeting his needs”.
This list of myths about people who are sexually abused sheds light on many of the cultural assumptions surrounding sexual abuse: https://www.ourresilience.org/what-you-need-to-know/myths-and-facts/
Do you see how often these myths let the perpetrators off the hook?
Do you see how this is about excusing those who hold more power?
I remember being teased by a group of boys when I was a young teen.
The teasing hurt deeply.
I was told, however, “those boys were just being boys” and, “they actually like you” (because if they didn’t like me, they wouldn’t be paying me any mind).
One of the areas in which I see patriarchal injustices in our society (and especially in the church) is in the implication that it is a woman’s duty to satisfy her man sexually, while downplaying or overlooking her right to pleasure.
I cannot help but wonder if, in those agrarian societies which first embraced patriarchy, women who “had a man” were more privileged and protected, and therefore focused on pleasing, and keeping, their men.
I will be writing more extensively on this topic in a future post.
We can apply the “patriarchy filter” to the treatment of men in our society as well as women.
As I mentioned earlier, many boys are taught they must grow up to be the providers and leaders in their families. They are admonished to be strong and not demonstrate too much emotion (“big boys don’t cry”).
Carolyn Custis James addresses the harmful effects of patriarchy on men in her book Malestrom. She warns,
“It isn’t overstating things to say there isn’t a man or boy alive who isn’t a target. The malestrom’s global currents can be violent and overt, but also come in subtle, even benign forms that catch men unawares. The malestrom is the particular ways in which the fall impacts the male of the human species—causing a man to lose himself, his identity and purpose as a man, and above all to lose sight of God’s original vision for his sons. The repercussions of such devastating personal losses are not merely disastrous for the men themselves, but catastrophic globally.”
Read more of her thoughts here: https://carolyncustisjames.com/2015/04/23/the-manhood-crisis/.
These are just some of the many ways in which patriarchy has affected our society in negative ways.
Patriarchy, The Bible, And The Church
As we have seen, patriarchal ideology is definitely at play in our society, and its effects are not beneficial.
As a child, I was taught that a system in which the man is the head of the family is biblical. Does this sound as patriarchal to you as it sounds to me?
Many scriptures were used to support this:
I believed that in order to be a woman of God I needed to be submissive to my husband.
I always wondered about single women, though. They were really not able to be “godly” without husbands, were they?
Guess what many of the single women I knew were taught (overtly and covertly)? That until they found husbands, they were under the authority of their fathers.
As I grew older, I saw so many ways in which "Christianized" patriarchy was harming women with the church:
I was tired of hearing “God’s wisdom is not our wisdom” as an explanation for why this hierarchical power structure must be followed.
What if there was another way to see scripture?
What if patriarchy was a societal structure in which the writers of the bible found themselves but not necessarily a god-ordained system?
I thought about slavery.
Many slaveholders used passages in the bible such as “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything” to condone slavery as biblical.
Yet most Christians would agree that the only reason Paul wrote these instructions to slaves was because slave-holding was a facet of the society he lived in. They would say there was a general redemptive bent to Paul's instructions.
What if the same thing were also true of the biblical instructions for women, specifically wives?
In other words, what if Paul’s thoughts on women and submission had more to do with the patriarchal cultural system he was writing from than with patriarchy being a God-ordained system?
After all, we can’t ignore other passages in scripture such as Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.”
As we have discussed in a previous post, Christian complementarians have coined the term “equal yet different” to address this issue. "Yes, we are all equal," they say, "however, we have different roles: leader and submitter."
Yet, what if equal truly means equal?
Thanks again for all your thoughtful comments, critiques and stories, friends. I really appreciate you.
Tune in next week for a deeper exploration of my journey into “what the heck is the Bible saying about patriarchy?!”
Follow me on Facebook to stay up to date on my latest posts. Comment here or on Facebook and share some ways in which you have felt the heavy weight of patriarchy in your everyday life.
Click on the links to catch up on Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
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I'm a busy mom of three asking hard questions about my faith.