Not your grandfather’s patriarchy

In addition to arguing that patriarchy is more faithful to the Bible, modern-day complementarians claim the mantle of historic Christian orthodoxy. “What we believe is what the church has always believed,” they argue.

But it’s not.

There’s a big difference between modern-day complementarianism and traditional patriarchy.

Most complementarian marriages today are more or less egalitarian. That is, most husbands rarely (if ever) exert authority over their wives, except maybe when a “tie-breaker” is needed.

For example, earlier this week I partially quoted Tim Keller, a moderate complementarian, speaking about the husband’s headship. Here’s the rest of his quote:

But there can’t be a misuse [of the husband’s authority], where it’s done so ‘I can get my way.’ The only time a husband can use his authority to overrule is… in order to serve and to take care of his wife and his family.

Or take Russell Moore. Even though he doesn’t like the fact that most complementarian marriages are “functionally egalitarian,” he nevertheless warns men against abusing their authority:

[There are people who] think they are complementarian and what they mean by that is ‘Woman, get me my chips.’ Male headship [asks], ‘What is in the best interest of my bride and my children?’

Yet when you start reading the church fathers, what you find is precisely a “Woman, get me my chips” attitude.

And worse, in some cases.

Tertullian (155-235 AD), for example, would’ve had a fit over modern-day complementarianism, because it teaches that both women and men are made in God’s image. Not only did Tertullian reject this; he laid full blame for the fall at the feet of women everywhere:

You are the devil’s gateway. You are the unsealer of that forbidden tree. You are the first deserter of the divine law. You are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man.

Or how about Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD)? He seemed to think women were only useful for “spinning wool and weaving, and helping with the baking of bread… also fetch[ing] from the pantry the things we need.”

Woman, fetch me my chips!

Perhaps things like… chips?

Or how about Augustine, who apparently felt that women were good for little apart from procreation? (And even that was sinful, as far as Augustine was concerned.)

Or Basil the Great (329-379 AD). His advice to women whose husbands beat them was essentially, “Sit there and take it.” In a homily on 1 Corinthians, he wrote:

However hard, however fierce a husband may be, the wife ought to bear with him, and not wish to find any pretext for breaking the union. He strikes you, but he is your husband… he is henceforth one of your members, and the most precious of all.

Complementarianism claims to be in lockstep with the historic church, but the truth is: they, like their egalitarian brothers and sisters, have dramatically softened the patriarchal worldview of the Bible and the church fathers. The main difference between complementarians and egalitarians is one of degree.

We all find it necessary to adapt parts of our faith and practice to the world in which we live. The question is whether we’re honest about it.

The divinely inspired books and letters that we call Scripture were written to people living in a much different world. Their problems and cultural hang-ups were not our problems and hang-ups (and vice versa). That’s why it’s not always a simple matter of just “doing what the Bible says.”

It’s no use claiming one side is faithful to the whole Bible while the other side “picks and chooses.” We ALL pick and choose.

The real question is, what assumptions, values, and presuppositions drive our choices?

How about “love your neighbor as yourself,” which Paul said was the fulfillment of everything else in the Bible? How about a commitment to the fundamental equality and dignity of every human being — which demands (among other things) the full participation of women in the church?

These values are rooted in the creation narrative, where every single person, male and female, is said to bear God’s image. They’re rooted in the cross — the ultimate expression of love, which leveled the playing field for humanity. They are the foundational values of the church, a renewed community of faith where distinctions like “Jew and Greek,” “slave and free,” or “male and female” are rendered irrelevant.

If we’re going to “pick and choose” — as we all do — then let’s choose the path that best reflects these values.

2 thoughts on “Not your grandfather’s patriarchy

  1. “The real question is, what assumptions, values, and presuppositions drive our choices?”

    I agree, but I’m not sure I like the ““love your neighbor as yourself” answer. Maybe that sounds like a crazy thing to say, but the problem is that we don’t always know *how* to love someone. The issue of homosexuality actually makes this a bit clearer, I think – conservative Christians think that fighting gay marriage and telling homosexual couples that they need to end that sort of relationship *is* a loving thing to do, because God loves us and God is against the behavior. Ironically, liberal Christians are often in favor of gay marriage and whatnot *because* that seems to them like the loving thing to do (a sure sign that the most straightforward reading of the Bible’s commands must not be the best one).

    Therefore I think we need some better rubric for picking and choosing than “love” or “equality”, two words that both carry a lot of other assumptions around inside them.

    (I also think complementarians are much more concerned to follow the commands they find in the Bible than they are to follow the later church fathers, all of whom were flawed. No doubt there are many Biblical commands we follow better than them, and vice versa.)


    1. I agree we can’t just say “love your neighbor” and assume it will be obvious to everyone what that means. We still have to do the hard work of unpacking HOW we love our neighbor.

      I wasn’t suggesting this as an easy answer to all our problems; my point is that most of us don’t even bother to START here.

      Take the gay marriage debate. Like you said, It’s possible for both sides to claim love as their primary motivation. But in reality, most conservative arguments I’ve heard against gay marriage boil down to self-preservation — a fear that somehow allowing gays to marry will infringe upon MY rights or adversely affect MY heterosexual marriage. Whether or not these are valid concerns (I don’t think they are), that’s not “love your neighbor.”

      We may not always agree on where we go next, but how would our role in the public square change for the better if the FIRST thing we asked was, “What does it look like for me to love my neighbor in this situation?”


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