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.
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I'm a busy mom of three asking hard questions about my faith.