Don’t Get Excited About Patriarchy

4:41 PM


In yesterday’s comments, someone said that we are all missing the point: the question is not whether or not a husband has headship over his wife, but what headship actually means. Her comment redirected me back to what excites me about mutual submission in a relationship: the household codes found in Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3 chart the future of headship in light of the Gospel—and it has nothing to do with authority.

I’m afraid I jumped the gun in titling yesterday’s article, “Do We Even Need Headship?” I failed to present my thought process on why I’m even asking that question in light of Paul’s obvious statement that “the husband is the head of the wife.” The reason I’m asking whether a love-centered marriage requires hierarchy is because Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3 lead towards the eradication of hierarchy.

That may sound crazy to those of us who grew up hardcore complementarian, but hear me out.

Peter and Paul’s household codes address patriarchal households. Without a doubt, the pater familias held authority over his wife, slaves, and young and adult children. Teenage women married much older men, were generally uneducated, and had no influence in society or the family structure.

The household codes found in Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3 follow the exact pattern of classical household codes, like Aristotle’s: “Of household management we have seen that there are three parts—one is the rule of a master over slaves…another of a father, and the third of a husband. A husband and father 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 older and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature…” (Politics).

Neither Peter nor Paul come right out and say that in the name of the Gospel, the husband should disband the patriarchal structure. They acknowledge the patriarchal structure and say nothing against it, like they do with slavery and the corrupt Roman government. (Interestingly, Peter implies that the patriarchal household structure falls under “human institutions.” See 1 Peter 2:13ff. Never noticed that before!)

But just look at what Peter and Paul tell the pater familias to do: submit one to another, love the wife as his own body, and live with her in an understanding way. They tell the top dog to empty himself of his authority and become a servant—not a servant leader. Merely a servant. Sounds kind of like Jesus, you know?

The emphasis on the husband’s “role” is not leading his wife. It’s not bringing home the bacon. It’s not making the final decision when he and his wife cannot agree. It’s not even initiating daily Bible study. It’s radical humility that puts the wife first, prefers her in all things, and submits to her weaknesses and differences.

It boggles my mind that complementarians get all excited about the fact that Peter and Paul seem to acknowledge the husband’s authority and completely miss that the apostles command the husband to lay down that authority in order to become a servant to his wife.

Woman’s curse is to be ruled by her husband (Genesis 3:16). In a patriarchal culture, nobody was questioning a husband’s right to rule as he saw fit. Patriarchy is not counter-cultural. Peter and Paul were not reinventing the wheel when they addressed the pater familias as the absolute ruler of the family.

What’s radical about the apostles’ household codes is that they introduced something subversive to hierarchy: love. Unconditional, humble, selfless love.

When a husband puts his foot down, makes a decision against a wife’s better wishes, and avoids the hard road of compromise, he’s not loving his wife as the apostles commanded. When he tries harder and longer to understand his wife, honor her wishes, and reach an acceptable compromise, he’s loving her as the apostles commanded.

You know what that looks like? Mutual submission. You know what that doesn’t look like? Hierarchy. Which do you think is more important to Christ-like love—authority or laying down that authority?

Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3 done correctly only pays lip service to hierarchy. Sure, you can say the husband is the head and the wife must submit, but when the husband lays down his “authority” to love his wife (as he should do all day, every day), there is no more “right to rule”—just love. And that was the apostles’ sneaky way of subverting unjust power structures via the Gospel.

It’s this emptying of authority that allows the married couple to become united. In both Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3, the apostles ultimately charge husbands to raise their wives up to a place of unified equality with them. Peter succinctly says, “Show honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7).

Paul tackles it more elaborately: Christ gave Himself up in order that He might bring a seemingly unfit church into perfect unity with Himself. Therefore, husbands should give themselves up in order to bring their brides into unity with themselves as one flesh—“for the two shall become one flesh.” In case husbands miss the point, Paul summarizes: “Let each one of you love his wife as himself” (Ephesians 5:33).

This fits perfectly into the new kingdom: the first go last, the last go first, and the Master of Everything empties Himself to become united with His Bride. It affirms the promise in Galatians 3:26-28: “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, though faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Elevation to sonship, equality, and unity—it’s all possible through putting on Christ’s humble love. 

God’s heart isn’t to affirm patriarchy—a system that provides ample opportunity for the curse of male abuse and oppression. It’s to get the ones the world appointed as rulers down on their knees in sacrificial love for the “weaker” ones. 

And that’s something to get excited about.

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21 impressions

  1. I'm not sure that Christ-like love means laying down authority. It is probably more along the lines of allowing whatever authority one has to be absolutely controlled by Christ, even at the expense of one's own preferences. Being like Christ means being humble and loving but it doesn't mean abdicating completely. Jesus never abdicated completely. He preached as one with authority, and the people were amazed. He calmed the storms and healed the sick and cast out demons. He conquered death on our behalf and brought about reconciliation between God and man. And yet he was a humble servant who treated others with love and dignity, particularly those who were not accorded much worth by the culture in which he lived.

    Not trying to be argumentative; I just don't clearly understand your reasoning here. :) Personally, I used to be quite egalitarian, but I've suspected for a couple months now that the gospel is just as destructive to our modern egalitarian notions as it was (or rather, ought to have been) to the patriarchal culture of the New Testament era. I just haven't been able to collect my thoughts enough to adequately express them in words. At the moment, it's more like an impression, half-formed and half-unseen.

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    1. I'm sorry I didn't make my reasoning clear! Let me see if I can explain better.

      Since everyone agrees that "man is head as Christ is head" analogy has its limits, it's crucial that we understand how exactly the husband as head is imitating Christ. In Ephesians 5, husbands are told to submit and give themselves up for their brides as Christ did for the church. It has an allusion to the washing of the water, which could be referencing how Jesus washed the disciples' feet. In any case, when Christ gave himself up for his church, he underwent adject humility --- submitting to death, emptying himself and becoming a servant, all that stuff mentioned in Philippians 2.

      It's the obedient, humble servanthood of Jesus that Paul is asking husbands to follow --- not Jesus' authority. In all the household codes, husbands are commanded to love, honor, and submit --- not to lead, direct, or rule. It seems backwards to me to teach the household codes as, "Husbands, lead your wives" when the actual imperatives of the passages are "submit, love, honor, and understand."

      I am sorry if that still does not make sense. Many people have written more eloquently and technically on these passages. My main point is we get so caught up about headship but miss that the apostles wanted equality and unity in marriage, as in all of society and the church. Equality should excite us --- not hierarchy!

      It's fascinating that you were egalitarian and now leaning complementarian while I was hardcore complementarian and am now leaning egalitarian. I don't know if that makes it easier or harder for us to understand each other, but I appreciate your perspective!

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    2. Okay, now I understand what you're saying. Yay!

      Honestly, though, even though I lean complimentarian (but still far more egalitarian than the average complimentarian), I think most debate on the subject misses the big picture. It's not really about headship. I believe headship is there, but it's so not the point. The point is, I think: Is the husband sacrificing himself through love and is the wife sacrificing herself through submission? The husband and wife start from different points, but end up at the same place: sacrifice for the sake of their partner.

      Like I said, this is a fairly recent conclusion, so I'm not claiming absolute rightness. Just what I'm thinking now, as opposed to what I used to think. I do know that for me personally, egalitarian thinking really fed into my natural selfishness in really unhealthy ways. I mean, I'm not even married, and I was thinking selfishly about future theoretical relationships and what my husband could do to make me happy. Looking more at the differences between husbands and wives instead of our equality as men and women before God has really given me a much better perspective in this respect.

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    3. And now I get what you're saying! Look at us being all understanding. :D I'm comfortable with that sort of complementarianism. I think it does justice to Ephesians 5, at least.

      Do you mind explaining more about how differences in marital roles helps you think more unselfishly about future marriage? That doesn't intuitively click with me. And as someone in a long-time relationship, I don't think it's wrong to think about what a husband can do to make you happy. In a healthy relationship, both parties should be able to communicate their deepest needs and desires, not as demands, but as a joyful recognition that the other person loves you and wants to serve you. Of course, selfishness always messes stuff like that up, and perhaps that's what you're referring to.

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    4. Sure! For me there was a lot of "I" in egalitarian thinking, or at least in my egalitarian thinking. I am equal. I should get what I want. It's all about me. All animals are equal, but some are more equal. :) There was just a lot of "Why should I have to do what my husband wants if we're equal?" It's not all about me. I shouldn't let my husband walk all over me and never express dissatisfaction or criticism and just keep going along pretending I'm fine when I'm not. But it's not about me. Or him, for that matter. So I guess I'm thinking that instead of the husband and wife being equally... important, I guess, they are equally unimportant in relation to the other. (I know what the idea I'm trying to express feels like in my head, but all the words that I can think of to use are too culturally loaded to really confer my meaning.) It's not a power differential. Power doesn't play into it at all, because who ever went on a power trip by way of humility?

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    5. I see what you're saying! I totally get it. That would be a very real danger in a relationship....which is why it's important for women to remember that they are required to submit too.

      But you're totally on to something -- power shouldn't be an issue. Love should be. I'm trying to learn that in my relationship right now!

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  2. I think one major reason I am disagreeing with you is that patriarchy does not equal Biblical headship, and I think you haven't quite realized that distinction. I know there are a lot of Christian communities that embrace patriarchy, but I didn't grow up that way. I grew up within a system so to speak of Biblical headship, which looks like mutual submission as you are describing it, but with the difference that the wife acknowledges the husband's role as head (which includes authority) and the husband acknowledges the wife's role as helpmeet (which includes submission).
    Have you ever read "Let Me Be A Woman" by Elisabeth Elliot? She addresses this topic from the perspective of a person who is college-educated, has been a missionary, both while single and while married, and has written books for men and women.
    Finally, I am not saying you have to embrace headship/submission in your relationship. I think, however, that you should try out your way for at least 10 - 15 years before you can emphatically say that it works. And I really don't think you should argue from the Scriptures against the structure laid out in them for marriage. That being said, I agree that we should get really excited about unity in marriage and gender equality - as long as the equality is in the area of worth and not roles.
    And yes, Christ subjected Himself to humility, BUT He is still the Lord of the church and of individual believers.

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    1. Hi, Justine! Great points. I really appreciate how you've been engaging with the real issues I'm presenting.

      What complementarians don't realize is that when Peter and Paul are writing the household codes, they're not addressing soft complementarian households. They're addressing patriarchy. They're addressing the paterfamilias with his subservient wife, slaves, and children of all ages. They're not setting up a new complementarian way of doing patriarchy; they're allowing the Roman culture's patriarchal system to stand. Complementarians aren't comfortable with slavery or the father ruling over his adult children and their families, but that's the precise system Peter and Paul are allowing to stand. The apostles are saying, "How do a husband and wife, a master and a slave, a paterfamilias and his adult children, love each other as equals in a patriarchal system?" I think it's soft complementarians, not patriarchalists or egalitarians, who misunderstand what sort of system's set up in Ephesians 5.

      I have read lots of Elisabeth Elliot, though it's been a long since I read Let Me Be a Woman. I disagree with many of her conclusions on the essence of womanhood.

      Can I point to egalitarian marriages who have tried egalitarianism for more than fifteen years? :) There's even research that says egalitarian marriages are reportedly happier.

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    2. Also, check out this guy's belief in headship: http://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/i-believe-male-headship

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    3. After reading that, I still have to say I don't agree with you. I think we can agree to disagree, though, can't we? I don't think either of us is going to change our mind, at least over this discussion :) Thanks for bringing up these topics! But please be careful that in your reaction to the way you were raised and the way you used to think, you don't end up falling off the other side of the road. I remember a pastor saying once that it is a lot easier to fall into various "isms" than to walk the narrow road of Biblical living. Of course, thinking, studying, and discussing ideas is a great way to "figure out" where the narrow road really lies in specific areas. :)

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    4. Of course we can agree to disagree! Thank you for a respectful conversation.

      The slippery slope works both ways. Just because I'm disagreeing with a commonly-held belief about marriage doesn't mean that I'm following an "ism" instead of Jesus. Without the grace of God, you could fall off the narrow road into an ism just as easily as I could. The complementarian interpretation of the household codes is not the only orthodox interpretation and is therefore just as fraught with danger as embracing a more egalitarian interpretation. :) That's why I love that we can dialog about this -- we need all perspectives to more firmly cling to truth. And I'm totally fine with you walking away from this conversation more firmly clinging to your original understanding of marital roles! Just please don't peg as me as someone about to go off the deep end, yes? But I will definitely take your exhortation to heart and continue to factor that in to my thinking. Thank you!

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  3. I wouldn't use the term "subversive," but either "conversive," or better still "reversive." As the purpose is not to remove, undermine, and subvert marriage; but return, restore, and revert marriage to its proper function.

    God the Father has all authority. Christ the Son, who is God, submitted himself to the authority of God the Father and became man. Christ did not submit to the Church (his "bride,") but to God the Father's will and wrath against the whole world. The hierarchy of God is not done away, but rather established, by this act. God is not made "equal" with man, but conversely God establishes a place in an eternal hierarchy for man. A place we cannot attain for ourselves. If it was for us to save ourselves, we would be damned.

    God created man with a proper purpose, place, and function; but we sinned and lost that purpose, place, and function. Our reward and just desert for our sin is destruction. But God has reversed our sentence; if we submit to God repenting of our insubmission, sin, we can through his grace revert to our place in his hierarchy.

    The same is true of marriage hierarchy, or government hierarchy, or business hierarchy, or family hierarchy. None of these hierarchies are done away with here, but each has been subverted by our sin, and only our submission to God can revert these hierarchies to what they should be.

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    1. Hi, Tragedy101! I'd like to welcome you back to commenting on this blog, as long as you continue with this sort of respectful, reasoned tone. I appreciate this comment very much -- how you're putting things in the context of the Gospel.

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    2. I will try to be, both, respectful and reasonable, but I am not very good at either one.

      I believe in patriarchy, in that God is my Patriarch. And as a man, I should try to emulate him. Because unlike the certain rulers among men, he does not bind up grievous burdens and lay them upon others, while not lifting them with his little finger. But rather, God came as a man and fulfilled his entire law, he does not at any point break his law.

      I should as it comes within my ability attempt to ease another's burdens, in the same manner as Christ alleviates my burdens - not just my sin, but my cares, fears, and concerns.

      I believe all fathers should do this for their children, regardless of them knowing my God. This is patriarchy, the father taking care of his children.

      Patriarchy is a father's care for his children, but that isn't what you mean by patriarchy.

      Part of my problem is I didn't read the "right" books growing up. And the patriarchy of the Bible is not what you struggle with, but the patriarchy of the "right" books.

      I am very excited about my heavenly patriarch. I know you are, too.

      In C. S. Lewis's "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," there's a scene that comes to my mind of the lion at the witch's house, who is saved by Aslan, "Us lions." Every time I read these posts and comments, the image of "Us patriarchs," floats before my mind's eye.

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    3. That's definitely not the patriarchy I'm talking about here, but I am very excited about the patriarchy you presented!

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  4. It has never made any sense to me that men should be given automatic authority just because they are men. Everyone should be in charge of what they are best at. So much of what I read Christians writing about marriage makes it sound horrible. Why would anyone want to do that? They say you have to sacrifice everything you want for your husband's desires and that marriage is SO HARD. That hasn't been my experience. If you have a partner who is equally invested in your happiness, then you make mutually agreeable decisions through discussion. There doesn't need to be an arbitrary person who is in charge.

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    1. Yeah. I wrestle with the implications of men automatically getting the authority. :/ And it breaks my heart to hear Christian women, even in healthy complementarian relationships, frustrated with marriage and unable to challenge their husband's decisions on the littlest thing. My mom taught us girls to always respect our husbands, but part of respecting and loving them meant confronting them when they're domineering.

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  5. It really seems that you are trying to use historical context to flip the plain meaning of these texts on their head. That sounds rather harsh, and I don't mean to be harsh- I really value our long-term online friendship and want it to continue, even as agree-to-disagreers. :-) But it seems to me we aren't really using Scripture anymore here; rather it's been reduced to historical arguments that allow us to edit Scripture into a more culturally palatable meaning.

    You said this: "It boggles my mind that complementarians get all excited about the fact that Peter and Paul seem to acknowledge the husband’s authority and completely miss that the apostles command the husband to lay down that authority in order to become a servant to his wife."

    The husband is no more called to lay down that authority than Jesus is called to lay down His. Jesus didn't lay down His authority for the Church. He laid down His life.

    So too husbands are called to lay down their *lives*. Give themselves up. Love. Serve. Protect. Defend. Does this entail listening to their wives, giving them preference, considering them more important than themselves? Of course! But that does not negate God's authority structure.

    Why would the husband be exhorted to lead? A general doesn't have to be told to give orders. He needs to be told to love, to serve, to care. That doesn't make him any less the general.

    If we want to see the principle of sacrifice, we should look to the exhortations to the husbands, because *as leaders, as authorities, as heads, that is the area where we are most prone to fail*.

    If we want to see the principle of submission, we should look to the exhortations to the wives, because *as those who are called to submit that is the area where they are most prone to fail.*

    And those are exactly the exhortations we see.

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    1. .....except that's not what we see. We see husbands told to submit, love, and understand -- not lead. :) In fact, the husband isn't told to lead ever in Scripture -- he is called the head, yes, but then headship is defined not as authority but as sacrifice. And I think there's a huge danger in not understanding the historical context of Scripture. The epistles were written for us, but they were not written to us. We're missing half of the conversation if we don't understand the people the apostles were writing to.

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  6. I struggle with this topic, to the point, that I'm not sure if I want to get married someday. Wanting to be single has more to do, of course, than just submission and headship, but that has a big part of it. I am independent, and I'm not saying that in a rah-rah girl power kind of way, sometimes, my independence, stubbornness, and belief in my own right-ness is a huge sinful stumbling block, but I can't imagine submitting my identity to someone else, changing my name to take theirs, feeling like I'm losing part of myself in order to be one with them. The way I hear marriage preached about sometimes makes me entirely reluctant to want to enter into it. If I'm honest, I don't want to be under someone's umbrella. I don't want someone to be my "spiritual authority." I don't want someone getting to have the final say no matter what because that just doesn't seem FAIR to me. Just because he's the man, just because he happened to be born male, he gets to lead and I have to submit? He gets to be right and I have to learn? He's the central figure of the household and I'm just the sidekick, doing laundry and having kids? Now that may just be my pure pride and selfishness talking, and probably is. I'm not at all knocking motherhood, I know there can be almost no more important thing in a child's life than a loving mother, but when people talk about marriage and submission that way, some part of me just rises up. Sometimes I think I'd rather not be married and be my own person, than be married, but maybe I have the totally wrong perspective. Thoughts? (and prayers, I need them :p)

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    1. THAT IS SO NOT WHAT MARRIAGE IS SUPPOSED TO BE. Ew, that sounds awful! Marriage is not about losing one's identity but rather taking two distinct identities and forming a new one. Love requires laying down but not losing.

      For me, I knew I found the right guy because he inspired me to be more of myself. He valued my independence more than my submission, because I was no fun as a doormat. He made it easier for me to lay down my life for him because he laid his down too. He really treats me and values me as a person, and is marrying me not because I'm good wife material but because he's fascinated with me. Find a guy like that, and marriage will sound like the best thing ever. :)

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Hit me with your best thought! I'm very interested in your unique perspective. If you'd like to discuss things in private, feel free to email me! :)