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.