What's Behind That Buzzword "Patriarchy"?

Being awakened to the world of women’s equality has literally changed my entire life. Obviously. It’s an overwhelmingly liberating world…particularly because if you know me you know that given no limits, I will do anything and everything for the advancement of God’s Kingdom. You see, before I learned how to study Scripture, I believed man when he told me I couldn’t do everything…just some things... But as I’ve said, a deep study of the Word showed me that I indeed can actually do all that God has called me to do. At Pentecost the Spirit was unleashed on all peoples—both men and women—to partake in the up-building of the Church.

As you can imagine, this egalitarian world is still so new to me. On the one hand, I’m feeling alive and encouraged. I’m being supported by so many incredible humans around me—not just BOSS women, but insanely amazing men. Really. Those of you fighting for our cause are literally heaven-sent. Some of the people that have been advancing my work and my ministry in this new season have been men using their platform and privilege to step aside and give me opportunities to grow. More than that, they’ve put themselves aside in such a way as to allow the Spirit to work through me. As a dear friend recently reminded me—it’s not about gender, it’s about God. When women aren’t given freedom to flourish in all their gifts, the Holy Spirit is stifled and the Church suffers.

On the other hand, however, I fight feelings of betrayal….strange feelings toward people I once looked up to and admired whom I thought had my best interest in mind. Specifically toward “friends” I was once close to now tearing me down by posting my articles on Complementarian pages to receive help in catching me in my “heresy”… but refuse to engage with me personally when I ask for input. Or even members of my own family consistently opposing things I (and my husband) post. It’s not easy, but I tell myself it’s not personal.

The beautiful thing, however, is that for every kick in the gut I get, I receive insurmountable amounts of encouragement in return…like countless messages from women I’ve never met reaching out to thank me for speaking up, or even random men finding my phone number through my business site and leaving me a voicemail just to encourage me to “keep being bold no matter who comes against you. You’re a daughter of the king” (God knows what you need when you need it).

Part of the problem is that many people have been trained to believe that their interpretation is theonlyand theright interpretation (most of these interpretations coming from 16th-19th century White European colonialists). Now, the different interpretations aren’t the problem…it’s thinking yours was the one sent down by God from Heaven that’s the problem. What’s particularly dangerous is when certain interpretations disempower, silence or oppress people.

When it comes to women in particular, most of the people who tell me I can’t preach believe Paul said women shouldn’t “exercise authority” as a universal truth for all peoples at all times. Yet, most of these same people also believe women don’t need to listen to Paul’s instruction (which is in the same passage) anymore concerning head coverings or braided hair because these instructions don’t apply. This is an example of picking and choosing what to obey from a text... which is in itself…an interpretation. A deliberate decision was made when coming to this conclusion—a decision to choose what is cultural and what is not from one specific text (for more on this, check out my post on Patheos).

Needless to say, I’m big on getting people to understand that NO ONE comes to Scripture without their own cultural lenses and biases. Considering this, I argue that the cultural lenses through which these texts have traditionally been built upon are patriarchal in nature.

Okay, I’ll admit… I’ve been throwing around the word “patriarchy” a lot lately. We all know what it’s referring to, but I never thought too much about the specifics behind it until recently when I heard this incredible podcast with Carolyn Custis James where she shares about her study concerning women, specifically in a cross cultural sense.

She explains that patriarchy literally means “the rule of the father,” and refers specifically to inheritance, in which the first-born sons are considered the crown prince of the family. To put it simply: it’s a social system that’s impacted every culture in which men prevail according to their family line. We see this every day in simple things like last names being carried on by sons instead of daughters, etc.

While patriarchy bears much weight on Western society, its fullest effects are seen in many parts of the non-Western world, particularly in places where women are still sold for a bride price, or in places where babies are left to die when they are born female. So, as much as I try and stand up against it here in America, I know our situation is trivial compared to how many women have it across the globe (a problem of which I can’t fix, but I am committing to doing what I can on a global scale—more on that later).

As we know, the backdrop of the Bible comes out of a patriarchal culture—while it isn’t the message of the Bible, it’s certainly in the background. Interestingly, though, Scripture (and more specifically, Jesus) when read closely offers narratives that are radically opposed to it. Unfortunately, many people in the West miss the radical implications of anti patriarchy in Scripture. But lets not forget that if we lived in a culture where women aren’t even allowed to show their faces in public (which is still true in some parts of the world), we’d feel the weight of stories like that of Debra, Ruth, Esther, or Judith (hers found in the Apocrypha).

Truthfully, the more we understand patriarchy’s implications, the more radical the message of Jesus will appear to us even here in America.

If we’re wondering if patriarchy was God’s good, original plan, we must start at the beginning. In the first two chapters of Genesis, we see God creating male and female to rule Creation together. Initially, Scripture doesn’t show humans ruling each other. Men and women were created to be a reflection of God—to speak and act for him—together. Interestingly, patriarchy is nowhere to be seen in the Creation narrative.

The most significant example of this is found when Scripture says, “for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and cling to his wife” (which is echoed again in Matthew). This fundamental implication for husband and wife found in the second chapter of the Bible (before the Fall—before sin entered the world) is significant, as it is a statement completely opposed to patriarchy. You see, in patriarchal systems, women leave their families to become their husband’s property. In a sinless world, God’s plan is the opposite—showing that a husband is to leave his family to join his wife.

It isn’t until the Fall—until sin enters the narrative—that human’s outward rule is turned laterally toward one another and patriarchy is introduced, creating the rule of men over women.

Going further, Jesus interacts with women in a way that violates how things typically worked in patriarchal systems. This can be seen in things as simple as Jesus having public conversations with women. The story of Mary of Bethany offers a great example of Jesus going against the grain, as she is praised for sitting at His feet, namely, being His disciple (for more on this, check out this post). It’s hard to get excited about this text in the West, where women are able to go to the university and become professors. But imagine what its like to hear this message if you’re a woman in a culture that doesn’t allow you to receive an education, and if you attempt to do so, you run the risk of getting poisoned or having acid thrown in your face. Imagine how liberating it would be to hear of Mary being affirmed by Jesus for being his disciple.

You see, the Gospel is liberating for all peoples and sometimes, putting on the lens of someone else can help us see it a little more clearly. The Bible comes alive when we look to see how God is revealing himself and how the stories of people show his love empowering them to do his work in the world.

For more on patriarchy, check out Carolyn Custis James’s book Malestrom.