The Alleged Biblical Basis for Christian Patriarchy

Untold numbers of Christians believe women are not equal to men and are subject to male leadership. This very harmful belief leads to terrible consequences such as the oppression and denigration of women and to an environment of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse against women and girls, as we discussed last time.

To be fair, I must point out that those who teach patriarchy did not create the idea from thin air but used a few biblical passages to come to patriarchal conclusions. However, I contend that they are misguided in applying these passages as they do because of their commitment to inerrancy–the view that the entire Bible is directed, dictated, or protected by God so that every statement is the very truth of God.

These passages are used as if they are the words of God—eternal propositional truth. But these opinions were written by people (not God) to local congregations within the culture that existed at the time, and applying them as the eternal word of God does not consider the contexts in which those passages were written. Let us look at some of them.

Biblical Passages from the New Testament Used to Support Patriarchy in Marriage

Three passages from the New Testament call for wives to submit to their husbands:

Colossians 3:

Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.

Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.

Notice that the author, who tells wives to be submissive, also tells slaves to be obedient. I contend that this does not reflect the eternal will of God but cultural considerations. Just as culture has changed with regard to slavery, so it has in regard to the status of women.

1 Peter 3:

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight…

Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.

It seems that the focus here is on being humble rather than pretentious, and again I think it reflects common culture of the time—perhaps in contrast to the haughty culture of the upper classes.

Ephesians 5:21-33 and Patriarchy

But the most popular passage seems to be Ephesians 5:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself…each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

In this passage nothing seems more clear than that the author is actually telling wives to submit to their husbands. Who this author is we don’t know; some think it is Paul but most scholars suggest it is not Paul but an unidentified follower of Paul.

But lets look at this passage more closely. First of all, what is the basis for the assertion that wives should, ‘submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord’? Nothing is put forward to support this opinion other than comparison, without further clarification, of marriage to the metaphor of Christ and the church.

So why would the writer offer this opinion? Who can say? But I will point out that in the culture of that time and place wives were NOT considered equal to their husbands. I suggest that, in this new movement of Christianity which introduces many new ideas, the author is simply reinforcing the prevailing custom of submission as opposed to some novel behavior; but we have no idea what kind of behavior was emerging among Christian wives in the area of Ephesus.

I propose that the issue is cultural rather than an extension of the teaching of Jesus, whom we know was very favorable toward women. And let me add that the authentic, recognizable, revolutionary voice of Paul in Galatians 3 is that:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

While Paul does not suggest immediate emancipation for wives or slaves, his insight does lay the groundwork for such development in the future. I do not believe these calls for wives to submit to their husbands represent an eternal law of God but are a reflection of the culture of the time.

Patriarchy and Genesis

Those who teach patriarchy also appeal to Genesis, which I think involves a particular difficulty for them. We will talk about that next time.

Articles from this series: Harmful Christian Patriarchy

See also:


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34 Responses to The Alleged Biblical Basis for Christian Patriarchy

  1. Lilly says:

    Sadly, many Christian women have been so brainwashed with the misuse of this scripture that they get angry when someone tries to tell them what could be their liberating truth. They defend their spiritual abusers, preferring their abusers’ protection from the unknowns that might come with freedom. It’s what I call SSS…Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome.

    Liked by 3 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Lilly, I think you are right about the brainwashing of patriarchal women; and I really like your term–Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome. I’ll have to use that sometime.

      And it is so very sad; there is little we can do for such women until they begin to question the issue themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Gabe Lambert says:

    The Ephesians passage came to mind yesterday. What strikes me is that even though the author begins with wives submitting, not many then pay attention to the next section where men (husbands) are to lay down their lives for their wives as Christ did for the church. I have always taken this to show that a man should be of a character that invites his wife to want to submit. Marriage is for 2. Both have a part in it and if one is not an active participant in this way, then strife and strain happens in the marriage. These passages give men the harder task and this is why I think that part has been gleaned over most of the time.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Gabe, I agree. Patriarchists put the emphasis on ‘wives submit’ and don’t spend much time on the love part. Neither do they seem to notice the previous verse (21), ‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.’ This seems like an encouragement for equality, compassion, and care–and yes! genuine love. This is not an imposed, bullying, oppressive thing.

      Yet what patriarchist see is ‘wives submit’.

      Liked by 1 person

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  4. Actually, we do know a bit of what was going on in Ephesus at the time; Ephesus had been a primarily female diety worshipping culture – Artemis to be exact. Ephesian women held places of prominence in religious and political life – and Ephesus was allegedly founded by the Amazons. The early church in Ephesus had both Jewish membership and gentile converts; the comparative status of women between the Jewish Christians and the Ephesian converts caused much conflict between these groups (as did circumcision, food choices, etc…).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. In the KJV there’s a bit about “broided” hair, that sounds like you’re not supposed to braid your hair. And yet so many modest Christians braid their hair. 😉 But submission! Oh, yes, you MUST do that! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Paz says:

    Some interesting passages from Proverbs 31 / Old Testament which may also be helpful to include in this discussion:
    10 ” A capable wife who can find?
    She is far more precious than jewels.”
    11 ” The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.”
    26 ” She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.”
    28 ” Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her ”
    23 ” Her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land.”
    31 ” Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Paz, thanks for bringing this up. This passage does not represent the lack of independence and decision-making I see among many women in Christian patriarchy.


  7. sheila0405 says:

    Women are forbidden from speaking in church in 1 Corinthians, I think? Women had to ask questions only at home, deferring to husbands. No authority over men was permitted, which barred women from the clergy. I think all of these passages hurt women.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Sheila, I agree. But I am not sure patriarchist consider the special cultural circumstance in Corinth.


      • sheila0405 says:

        Of course not. I was raised as a Fundamentalist & 1 Corinthians was one of the go to passages used. Most especially the first chapter, which is used both against LGBTQ & atheist communities. Fundamentalism ruined me.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. newtonfinn says:

    In the prior thread on patriarchy, I said I would read through my alternative synoptic gospel—“Life of Truth” (available on the Kindle)—and attempt to determine whether Jesus left us any clues (other than his message itself) about how to bring diverse people together, people who not only differ in their views and values but who are longstanding opponents and sworn enemies. I noted that Jesus’ small group of followers included both zealots, who sought through violence to overthrow oppressive Roman rule, and tax collectors, who facilitated that rule while profiting from exploitation and corruption. Was there something in the life and teaching of Jesus—other than the authoritative power of his divinity (however one understands the incarnation) and the universal appeal of his message—which helped to draw both oppressed and oppressor under one tent, to the point where they not only participated in Jesus’ larger mission but actually came to love one another? Given the importance of this question in our deeply divided, increasingly hostile world, I followed through on my self-appointed task and can now report on the results. While rather meager, they may be of some interest to others.

    Jesus’ mode of imparting information seems to have been primarily threefold: (1) short, pointed sayings, sometimes hyperbolic; (2) simple yet often surprising stories rooted in the common life of the people; and (3) rhetorical questions frequently used to culminate these stories. His overall strategy appeared to be to penetrate and unsettle ordinary common sense and social conditioning—to re-imagine and rework religious tradition, for example, into something fresh, provocative, and revolutionary. The direction in which Jesus moved was relentlessly into the future, the past being commonly referenced only as backdrop for, or transition to, the startling, transformative, upside-down reorienting new. Whether this style of communication, perhaps unique to Jesus, could be used today in some form or fashion to begin to bring us together and loosen the rigidities of right and left, may be worth considering. I would be interested if other readers of “Jesus Without Baggage” agree or disagree with my broad-brush description of Jesus’ mode of communication, and whether they see any possible way to employ something like it in our overheated, polarizing public discourse.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Paz says:

      Thank you newtonfinn for sharing these interesting views/results! Just sharing some of my thoughts…
      Human existence relies on tradition as a means of transmission of history, culture, knowledge, wisdom, experiences, beliefs, events, etc. Personally, I am not convinced that the problem is actually with tradition itself !? I think we need to learn from the past and tradition (including its failures) to teach us not to repeat the same mistakes, such as the use of violence to resolve differences, etc etc. I think tradition teaches us to rely on this transfer of lessons from the past to helps us understand our present so that we can hopefully continue to EVOLVE In Christ.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Chas says:

      Newton, what is striking is the similarity to the methods of Socrates, who challenged his students by asking them questions that made them look at things in a way different from the norm. The method of unsettling the normal view of how things are has been used by revolutionaries down the ages. For centuries, it was the norm that the nobility owned the land and the poor depended on them to some extent for their livelihood. Some degree of social mobility was possible, but forces acting within society tended to keep people within their existing place in that society. Revolutionary thinkers, particularly those of the French Revolution, caused this norm to be questioned and eventually overthrown; however, since this revolution was founded on violence, it was unstable and it was subsequently reversed and re-reversed before a stable state was achieved. Throughout history, there has been a tension between the rigidity of absolute monarchy and the need for greater flexibility when resisting its excesses and undermining and replacing it. In England, the weakening of the power of the monarchy and its eventual replacement by a more democratic constitutional monarchy has been a gradual incremental process, rather similar to evolution, but it came from the nobility serially resenting the power of the monarch and working to undermine it. Even the supposedly proletarian led revolution of the Russian type was really led by those who were better educated and really using the workers as the means to achieve their own aims.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. sheila0405 says:

    Ok, I was wrong. It’s 1 Timothy that forbids women speaking in church. That epistle was probably not penned by Paul. And it is Romans chapter one that condemns the LGBTQ community & insists no one is an atheist. Whew. My mind is addled by Las Vegas & Puerto Rico. Sorry about that!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. michaeleeast says:

    It is interesting that those passages contradict Galations 3.
    I have recently heard suggestions that they were notes made by scribes.
    I have also heard that they were instructions to stop prostitutes having authority.
    I personally think that they were probably Paul’s words.
    But that Paul was not infallible. He had residual teachings from his strict Pharisaic sect.
    Which is why Paul’s letters should not be considered sacred scripture.
    They cannot be applied universally. They address specific problems in specific Churches.
    And they are Paul’s opinions not Christ’s. They should be treated as subsidiary writings.
    Not scripture at all.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      “Paul was not infallible…Paul’s letters should not be considered sacred scripture.
      They cannot be applied universally. They address specific problems in specific Churches.
      And they are Paul’s opinions not Christ’s. They should be treated as subsidiary writings.”

      Michael, I think this is an excellent way of looking at it.


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