Christian Patriarchy may be following the wrong trajectory

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Patriarchy seems to be a dominant word at the moment. It’s being used as a term of accusation and abuse against complementarians. For example, Beth Allison Barr whose book I reviewed recently identifies this as the big problem with conservative evangelicalism. It is also being used as a badge of honour by some who say “absolutely, we are not just talking about the roles and relationships of elders and husbands in a narrow manner but in the responsibility of all men everywhere to exercise authority over women and for all women to be submitting to a man for their care, protection and guidance in life.”

So, here’s the thing. Patriarchy is there, it’s in the Bible, it’s a positive thing and it’s something we should believe in and welcome. Read your Old Testament and you quickly realise it is very much patricentric. The OT looks to fathers to provide for and protect their families. It clearly expects children to look to their dads for decisions. Now, this is something that feminists and liberals have spotted for years. I noticed that one criticism of Barr’s book came from the opposite end of the spectrum to me by someone whose complaint was that she let the Bible off the hook. People have tried to get the OT off the hook by suggesting that it could not possibly mean patriarchy. It definitely could not be endorsing it. We must either have misunderstood the texts or we need to make allowances for the cultural context and see Scripture as accommodating to it.

Yet, I’m with those feminists on this. We don’t just see some accommodation of patriarchy like we do for example with polygamy. Rather, it is very much endorsed in the OT Law.  The question is not about what the OT asked society at that time to do with patriarchy, it is about what it asks us to do with it today. And, writing as a complementarian, I want to suggest gently that my fellow conservative evangelicals who are applying it to family life have got it wrong. The problem is not that they’ve attempted to apply something that is not meant to be there and not meant to be applied today. It’s that they’ve followed the wrong trajectory and applied it in the wrong place to the wrong people.

The issue I have here is similar to the one when I read the following statement about husbands:

“I believe it helpful to borrow from the classic categories applied to Christ: prophet, priest, and king. We are prophets who speak the word over our households; priests who give ourselves to intercessory prayer, speaking to God on behalf of our loved ones; and kings who govern, defend, and provide for them”.[1]

It’s not that husbands aren’t meant to lead. Biblically, they are. It’s not that are aren’t meant to speak God’s word to our family, to pray for them and to provide for them. We should be doing those things. Rather, it is the clumsy taking of titles applied to Christ because he and he only can fulfil those roles al rolled up in one.  If my job is to lead, then it is to lead my family to Christ at the foot of the Cross.[2]

In the same way, we need to remember that the purpose of patriarchy in the Old Testament is to point us towards the perfect care of the heavenly Father. He is the patriarch we need. It is into his hands that we need to commit our lives, it is to him that we need to swear loyalty. He is the one who will provide for us and protect us. He is the one who must have final say and authority. He is the one who will live us unconditionally with the eternal love of an eternal father. Let’s learn the right lessons from the Old Testament. Let’s make the right applications.


[1] Greg Morse, Prophet, Priest, and King: The High Calling of Christian Husbands, Prophet, Priest, and King: The High Calling of Christian Husbands | Desiring God

[2] This follows a pattern of attempting to apply the titles to pastors and elders which I’m equally unkeen on.