I have been involved in an online discussion among evangelicals regarding whether the Bible teaches patriarchy or egalitarianism. *Patriarchy believes that the Bible, while viewing male and female as equal in worth and dignity, teaches in the family and the church God has granted leadership responsibility to the male. Egalitarianism recognises there are differences between the sexes, however, for egalitarians equality between the sexes leaves no room for gender based hierarchies of leadership; the Bible, for egalitarians, does not teach male leadership in the home or in the church.
Evangelical egalitarians mount a case that many will find convincing largely because it gives a theology for a younger generation that gels with society’s egalitarianism. Egalitarianism is a powerful force in a society fed by abusive patriarchy and militant feminism. It is hard to stand against it for it seems eminently virtuous. It liberates women how can this be bad? Yet, I would argue that patriarchy is woven into the fabric of the biblical story as the way God intended society to best function. It is not egalitarianism that liberates women but a biblical patriarchy. Despite egalitarian protests to the contrary, patriarchy is written into the warp and woof of the biblical story.
For 2000 years the church has been patriarchal in its theology (advocating male leadership in the home and church). In fact, all societies in history seem have been patriarchal. Have Christians been wrong for all this time? Have they simply been embracing the values of the secular culture as egalitarians claim? Or is it egalitarians who are buying into the prevailing culture as they echo the egalitarianism that has engulfed Western culture?
My aim in this post is limited to sketching the contours of biblical patriarchy and commenting a little on the weaknesses of egalitarianism.
Patriarchy in creation
Patriarchy is built into the creation story. Egalitarians strenuously reject this and understandably because if patriarchy is integral to the creation narrative then egalitarianism has lost before it even begins. Its game over. Yet despite egalitarian protests patriarchy is evident in the creation narrative.
Genesis views creation from two perspectives. Genesis 1 shows humanity in its relationship to the rest of creation. Man is created on the sixth day as the crown of creation. All previous creating has led up to the creation of humanity. Humanity is distinct. It is created by the special breath of God and is made, both male and female, in the image of God. To humanity, both male and female, the responsibility is given to rule creation on God’s behalf. The equality that exists between male and female is the main emphasis of Ch 1. Both are made in God’s image. Both rule creation. Yet even in this egalitarian chapter hints of patriarchy are present; the male is first mentioned and the human race is named ‘man’ not ‘woman’.
It is in Genesis 2, however, that patriarchy is properly developed. Genesis 2 focusses on the relationship between Adam and Eve in Eden. In Ch 2, Adam is created first. Eve, in the words of the NT, was created from Adam and for Adam – she was to be his ‘helper’. (In the narrative Adam is not created to be Eve’s helper, however true this may be in everyday life). Egalitarians point out God is our ‘helper’ implying a ‘helper’ is in no way inferior. However, patriarchy is not suggesting there is inferiority in the designation ‘helper’. Differentiation of function need not imply inequality. Paul in his epistles refers to the priority of Adam in creation and to Eve being made from and for Adam and sees these creational elements as signalling male headship or leadership (1 Tim 2; 1 Cor 11).
The patriarchal narrative continues in the garden story. Adam, names the animals and subsequently names Eve. Naming is a signal of authority (we name our children). It is to Adam the command with a sanction is given forbidding the eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When both Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit it is to Adam God calls in the garden. In the NT, it is Adam who is considered the head of the race and the one responsible for humanity’s fall (Roms 5:12). The signals of patriarchy are unmistakable.
Eve’s role in the narrative is significant. It is she who is tempted by the serpent. Adam has clearly told her the fruit is forbidden (Gen 3:2,3) but she is persuaded by the serpent and is enticed by the fruit. She decides to eat and persuades Adam to do so too. Adam eats the fruit in weakness (to please Eve). Adam is not deceived. Adam eats knowing it is wrong to do so. Eve, however, as the NT points out, is deceived which is one reason according to Paul she should not hold an authoritative leading role in teaching in the church (1 Tim 2). In fact the narrative of the fall is predicated on role reversals between the man and the woman.
If, in creation, God grants to Adam the responsibility of leadership in marriage – a leadership of love and delight and one flesh with his wife (this is bone of my bone..), the judgement of the fall hardens loving leadership into a more autocratic rule; husbands will not be the kind of husbands God intended marked by Christ-like sacrifice for their wife. The judgement of the fall upon the man and women is straightforward. The sphere that was intended to be their joy and delight becomes instead a source of frustration and hardship. For Adam the ground will produce all kinds of weeds and working it will be arduous. For Eve, both child-bearing and her husband will prove to be difficult.
Egalitarians argue that patriarchy began with the fall and is not God’s intention. It is overcome, they claim, by grace. In Christ, they point out, there is neither male nor female (Gals 3:28). However, patriarchy did not begin at the fall as we have seen. The fall corrupted generous leadership into something ugly. It created a distortion of the true grace overcomes the fall but it does not obliterate God’s patriarchy in creation rather it restores it. Christ models what male leadership looks like for his people (Eph 5:25). Gals 3:28 is not describing roles in marriage and the church but the standing of believers before God.
It is very important to get the patriarchy of the garden story firmly established in our minds for it is upon this patriarchal beginning the development of the Biblical plot rests. The creation story of Adam and Eve is historical narrative and not metaphorical or mythological narrative. The NT, on a few occasions, speaks of Adam as a real person (Roms 5:12; Acts 17:26). Eve is also treated as historical (1 Tim 2). However, even if it were mythical or metaphorical the story carries the same meaning and integral to that meaning is a patriarchal narrative. Patriarchy pervades the garden story.
Patriarchy in the OT
The patriarchy of Genesis 1-3 informs and shapes the rest of the OT. It is a story undergirded by patriarchy. Egalitarians claim patriarchy in the OT is the effect of the fall; I repeat, the fall corrupted it but it did not create it. The story of Israel is not patriarchal because of the fall or because God’s people copied the nations. Israel is never excoriated by the prophets for a misplaced patriarchy. Instead patriarchy is advanced by God himself. From the beginning of life east of Eden the story is patriarchal. The Gen 4-11 authorial account is patriarchal. It is about men. The genealogies that pervade are traced through the males.
In Gen 12 we meet the first of the three male patriarchs. It is to the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) that God gives the promises. The covenant is made with the male and it is the male who carries the covenant sign of circumcision. It is Jacob’s sons (and not his daughter) who form the 12 tribes of Israel. Israel, the nation, is viewed by God as as a ‘son’. The priests and elders (the appointed leaders in Israel) were male. Later, in the land, Israel’s judges (bar one) were male. God entered a covenant with a male king of his choice (David) which extended to his sons. Kings ruled in Israel and rarely queens. Indeed, the promised Davidic Messiah would be male. Prophets could be male or female though they were normally male and all the canonical prophets were male. Male leadership pervades the OT.
Rule by women was considered a sign of weakness and of some dishonour.
My people—infants are their oppressors, and women rule over them. (Isa 3:12)
It’s impossible to read the OT and miss the patriarchy.
Patriarchy in the NT
In the NT, the 12 apostles were male. It will not do to see these as in some sense pre-Christian as some egalitarians claim. The 12 were the foundation of the Christian church. In any case, patriarchal instruction about marriage and the church was founded on creation and OT examples (1 Tim 2; 1 Cor 11; 1 Cor 14; Eph 5; 1 Pet 3:1-7). We could add conventions like using the male ‘brothers’ as a generic title for the church. Also believers are most often called ‘sons’ who will reign as ‘kings’. Patriarchy is very clear in the NT. Where significant acts of church leadership occur those involved are male.
In fact, God himself is presented in both the OT and the NT in male terms. His OT names have a male gender and male pronouns are used to describe him. In the NT, two of the trinity are explicitly male – God the Father and God the Son. The incarnate Son, as we have observed, is male. God is not our Mother and Jesus is not God’s daughter. Patriarchy extends in some way into the heart of the trinity.
To my mind patriarchy is indelibly painted on the page of Scripture. It takes a special kind of ‘seeing’ to miss it.
Egalitarians find support for their view in texts referring to Priscilla, Phoebe and Junia. Without examining these texts I simply note that by anyone’s measure these terse texts are asked to carry freight they cannot really bear.
Let me briefly outline some of the problems with egalitarianism
1. Egalitarianism is a Johnny-come-lately theology that sits on the back of an egalitarian culture (the first of its kind in history). Its newness makes it suspect.
2. Egalitarianism makes the exception the rule. Typically egalitarians will point to Deborah the judge and one or two other prominent OT women as part of their case for egalitarianism. But cases are not built on exceptions. Actually, in Deborah’s case, she pointed out to Barak that if he did not lead Israel into battle then the glory would go to a woman; she assumes this is belittling for Barak. Patriarchal assumptions are being expressed by Deborah (Judg 4:9).
3. Egalitarianism tends to privilege the opaque over the obvious. From a few terse texts about Phoebe and Junia in Romans 16 egalitarian assertions are made with a certainty that far exceeds what the text permits. We are browbeaten by what we are told is the assured results of scholarship. We aught not be intimidated by such claims; if the meaning is not clear in the text then we need not cow-tow to supposed scholarship. Scholarship is valuable but it is as open to bias as ordinary Christians are. It is also prone to serious error as its history reveals. Find out who the scholars are making the assertions and decide if they are trustworthy. Sometimes it is obvious scholarship needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. For examples when, as here, an interpretation is an inverted pyramid that flies in the face of other Scriptures we may justifiably be skeptical however assured the scholarship supporting it is.
4. Egalitarianism loads texts with weight they cannot carry . From Priscilla and her husband privately correcting the theology of Apollos a theology of female teaching in the church is constructed (Acts 18:18). The text cannot carry such freight.
5. Egalitarianism makes what Paul declares is creational merely cultural (1 Tim 2; 1 Cor 11). Egalitarianism is strongly opposed to creational patriarchy for creational patriarchy, if true, collapses the egalitarian edifice.
6. Egalitarianism employs an over-realised eschatology (Gals 3:28). We are told that ‘in Christ there is neither male nor female’ means that patriarchy has no place in the church. The patriarchy of the fall we are told is overcome by the gospel. However, we should note that Gal 3:28 is not addressing ecclesiology or sociology but soteriology; it is not about church structures or marriage norms but salvation. Its point is that all are saved on an equal basis. It is true that in the consummated kingdom gender distinctions will have no significance but presently this is not the case. To argue patriarchal distinctions have been expunged in the new age is an example of over-realised theology which crops up regularly in the NT. Indeed, the move for women’s participation in Corinth and elsewhere. was probably an example of over-realised eschatology (See I Corinthians).
We should remember that only contraception and sanitary-ware have made it possible for women to take the roles they do today. Previously, patriarchy was not only biblical, it was virtually inevitable; nature demanded it. This should prevent us dismissing it out of hand.
We have yet to see the full impact of egalitarianism on marriage and the church. I am not convinced the effects will be good. Patriarchy is undoubtedly abused but, as with many good things that are abused by fallen human beings, it is better to correct the misuses rather than throw out the principle itself. If Christian men learn to lead in the home like Christ then Christian marriages and Christian churches will be a light in the darkness of our egalitarian world.
1 Timothy 3… the husband of one wife.
There may be circumstances that oblige women to take a leading role in a church but it is not the normal. Egalitarians argue that women can be elders. They point out that no Greek pronouns are used in 1 Tim 3 to describe elders. Patriarchy argues male leadership is so established that the male gender of the elders is assumed. Just a few verses earlier women are denied a public preaching role because it usurps male authority – how much more female elders. We are told that the elder must be ‘the husband of one wife’. Egalitarians argue that this word simply means something like ‘monogamous’ and can apply equally to a woman elder. I doubt if this is merely an idiom applicable to both; the ‘husband of one wife’ seems very specific. Pressure sits on the egalitarian at every point to prove his case but he regularly fails to do so.
1 Cor 14… women silent in the churches
Often 1 Cor 14: 34,35 is dismissed as an interpolation by some egalitarians. Fee argues this is the case. Carson argues there is no basis for Fee’s view. It is certainly highly suspicious when egalitarians, opposed to any restrictions on women’s ministry, are keen to champion the case for an interpolation. Motivation must be examined here. We should note that no manuscripts are without these words. Some change where they are in the text but all include them. The case for an ‘addition’ to the text is apparently weak.
1 Tim 2… women not permitted to teach
1 Tim 2 we are told is not forbidding women a place of public preaching but is criticising some women who were teaching false doctrine and perhaps in a high-handed way. This is a classic example of egalitarian hermeneutics. It constructs a background not evident in the text that will relativise the prohibition and shape it according to egalitarian concerns. Meanwhile it bypasses the interpretation that is self-evident. Paul is not permitting women to teach for that is taking a position of authority over a man. He roots his teaching in the priority of Adam in creation and Eve’s deception by the serpent; the patriarchy of Genesis finds expression in the church.
1 Cor 11 … the head of the woman is the man
Headship – the cause of much angst and debate Egalitarians argue the word head means ‘source’ though some may concede in some biblical texts it suggests ‘’authority’ or ‘leadership.’ Wayne Grudem, in an extensive study of the word, shows it very frequently carries the idea of leadership or authority (Cf. Eph 1:22). In any case even if it did mean source often source contains within it an implied authority over that of which it is the source (e.g. parents over children)
Clearly, egalitarian arguments require greater analysis. My intent here is simply to flag up the main egalitarian arguments and some of the patriarchal responses. I am convinced by the patriarchal position. It seems to me to be basic ally irrefutable. However, we must not allow patriarchy to stifle women in ways which the Bible doesn’t. It is clear that women played active roles in both marriage and the church. We must be sure of our ground before closing down a role to a woman. Women with their husbands are heirs together of the grace of life. They have self-evidently many gifts enabling them to build up the body of Christ. We must not use patriarchy as in the fall to rule women but as in creation to respect and revere women giving them their God-given place.
*It seems that both sides in the debate wish to claim the title ‘complementarianism’. Patriarchy claims the title rooting the complementarianism in male and female differences among other differences. Egalitarianism, wishing to avoid any sense that the sexes are the same, also lays claim to complementarianism. Perhaps patriarchy and egalitarianism are more more accurate titles. The issue is not complementarity. Nor is it equality. All agree men and women are different and all agree they are equal. The issue is whether leadership lies with the male. Patriarchy says it does while egalitarianism says there is no leader.