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:
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
- How Christian Patriarchy is a Misguided and Harmful Belief that Does Tremendous Damage
- The Alleged Biblical Basis for Christian Patriarchy
- Examining Passages from Genesis Used to Support Patriarchy in the Church
- Complementarian Patriarchy and Fundamentalist Patriarchy are Both Harmful; But How are They Different?
- John Piper and Christian Patriarchy
- John Piper Tells an Unconvincing Story to Illustrate Gender Differences between Men and Women
- The Many Women Leaders in Paul’s Circles Don’t Seem to Represent Christian Patriarchy
- 5 Ways Christian Patriarchy Harms Men
- The Feminine Side of God in the Bible
- Patriarchy, Bill Gothard, and the Umbrella of Protection
- An Overview of Bill Gothard’s Role in Today’s Cultish Fundamentalism
- Resources on Christian Patriarchy, Abuse, and Extreme Fundamentalism