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Why Modern Patriarchy Is Not Biblical

by Kathryn J. Riss, Th.M.
For a short bio on Kathryn  click here

Patriarchy is defined as “a state or stage of social development characterized by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family in both domestic and religious functions, the legal dependence of wife, or wives, and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line” (Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language 2nd Ed. unabridged).

Patriarchy is the nearly universal social system by which men dominate women and other men.  Unfortunately, combined with the fallen, sinful nature of humanity, a misogynist attitude toward women, and the aggressive nature of males, it has produced many evils.

In pagan societies, this mixture produced rape, the kidnapping and enslavement of wives, the exposure of female infants, and the human sacrifice of virgin girls.  Jewish patriarchy practiced polygamy and the disenfranchisement of Jewish women.  Christian patriarchy produced a 500-year witch-burning craze which resulted in the torture and murder of as many as 1,000,000 women and girls.

Although the rights of women have improved over the centuries, the excesses of patriarchy have not ended.  Modern Hindu societies still practice wife-murder in order to maximize financial gain from dowries and the burning alive of wives on their husband’s funeral pyres.  Moslem societies enforce the seclusion of women, denial of their rights, and the mutilation of young girls, often leading to their death, under the religious euphemism of “female circumcision.” Throughout the world, but especially in China, where population control is strict, millions of female fetuses have been aborted due to the preference of parents for a son.  And in all societies, rape, pornography, prostitution and the sometimes violent subjugation of women continue to multiply the evils and injustices of unfettered patriarchy.

Biblical revelation was given within the patriarchal contexts of ancient Israel and the first-century Roman Empire.  This revelation limited the practices of patriarchy by commanding children to honor both father and mother, holding men accountable to God for the treatment of their wives, and God’s directive in Genesis 2:24 that marriage should be between one man and one woman.  However, patriarchal abuses continued.  Polygamy was a common practice under ancient Judaism, which continued into Jesus’ time.

In America today, the physical, emotional, spiritual and sexual abuse of women and girls is unintentionally enabled by religious organizations that fail to confront abusers or correct the patriarchal belief system they use to justify their behavior.  In this article, we will consider how the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures deny that belief system, leaving room for the development of a model for male-female relations more in line with the revelation of Jesus Christ.

1.  God created woman, as well as man, in the divine image

  • In Genesis 1:26, God created BOTH man and woman TOGETHER in the image of God:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind (adam) in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind (adam) in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:27, NRSV).

  • All humanity, not just the male, were created in God’s image.  The word adam basically means earthly.  Genesis uses it for the human race and also for the first (male) human being.  Since it is joined to plural words in Genesis 1:26, it cannot mean the first human being alone.  The generic usage is doubly confirmed by the statements, “let them have dominion” and “male and female He created them.” Women are specifically included by God!
  • God’s image includes all the divine characteristics that separate humans from the animal world.  Sovereignty and dominion are major aspects of the character and image of God that are given to all people.  In fact, Genesis 1:26-27 indicates that God’s purpose for creating human beings in His image was so that they could exercise dominion!
  • Women are created with these godly characteristics just as much as men.  Human sexual differences were created and designed to function for reproduction, not governance.

2.  God gave both man and woman a divine mandate to exercise dominion over Creation, not each other

  • God did not give a domestic mandate to woman and a governing mandate to man, but addressed the same double mandate to man and woman together.  In Genesis 1:28, God addressed man and woman together, blessed them together, and invested them together with the mandate to rule over the rest of creation.

“. . . male and female He created them.  God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’”

  • Since sovereignty and dominion are God-given gifts to all human beings, they are NOT faults in women but virtues in men.  Rather, they are virtues in all people when rightly used.  As a result of the Fall, men have misused these gifts by dominating women and other men.  Wars, violence and rape have resulted.  Women have forfeited their sovereignty and dominion gifts by allowing themselves to be subjugated by men, desiring their approval.  These misuses of God’s gifts are results of the Fall from which Jesus Christ came to redeem us and are sins from which we need to repent.  We need to crown Jesus Christ as Lord over us, so we can serve Him together!
  • According to Genesis 1:29, the proper use of our God-given dominion and sovereignty is to govern God’s creation wisely.  This dominion includes control over ourselves, good stewardship of the natural world, and subjecting evil spirits to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  If we obey God’s commandment to love others as ourselves, we should exercise dominion jointly, through mutual cooperation and respect.
  • Therefore, to rob woman of her sovereignty is to violate her creation as a human being in God’s image and her God-given mandate to subdue the earth.  Like a man, a woman may use her sovereignty to yield willingly to others, but it should never be taken away from her.

3.  Domination of man over woman is the result of sin

  • The first mention of man ruling over woman occurred AFTER Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit.  It was not part of God’s original design, but resulted from their sinful, fallen condition.
  • “He will rule over you” was spoken to Eve, not Adam.  It is not an imperative, but future tense.  The fact that her husband would rule over her was a consequence of sin that God told Eve would occur.  It was not addressed to Adam, let alone a commandment given to him! Rather, God warned Eve of what would happen as she turned toward her husband for what she really needed from God.
  • Adam’s statement, “the woman you gave to me, SHE gave me the fruit and I did eat,” emphatically blamed Eve for his own violation of God’s commandment.  This shows his alienation from and rejection of his wife.  He was more concerned about himself than about her.
  • Adam’s independence from and blame toward his wife created an imbalance in their marriage in which her love for and reliance upon him was not reciprocated in the same measure.  This relational imbalance has enabled men to dominate their wives, who tolerate the behavior in order to preserve the relationship.
  • The dominion God gave, both to man and woman, was over the animals and the earth.  Nowhere did God grant some men dominion over other men or women.  They just took it! The result was violence, lust and oppression, which grieved God so much that He decided to wipe out mankind with a flood.

4.  Scripture nowhere directs a husband to rule over his wife, nor a wife to obey her husband

  • The Ten Commandments contain no directive for wives to obey their husbands or husbands to govern their wives.  The second commandment directs children to honor both father and mother, showing that the marriage partners share equal authority over their offspring.
  • No command of Scripture anywhere directs a husband to govern his wife.

When God blessed Abraham, He said, "For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord. . . "(Genesis 18:19).  Abraham’s wife is not mentioned!

In I. Timothy 3:4, Paul says that a bishop should be “one that rules well his own household, having his children in subjection,” not his wife! Verse 12 says that deacons should be “husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their households well.” Roman husbands were legally the rulers and judges of all those belonging to their households.  Yet, Paul deliberately omits any reference to Christian husbands ruling over their wives!

The New Testament never uses the active voice of hupotasso, “to bring into subjection,” in relation to marriage.  Nowhere in Scripture are husbands allowed to bring their wives into subjection.  Christians are to bring evil into subjection, not other Christians!

  • The New Testament instructs wives to “submit” to their husbands, not to “obey” them.  Obedience was instructed for children and slaves.  The voluntary decision to submit by the wife is under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  She submits to her husband as she is submitting to the Lord; that is, with Godly wisdom.  Absolute obedience belongs to God alone!
  • The original, Greek word translated “submit” or sometimes, erroneously, “obey” (hupotasso) means to defer to someone respectfully.  To quote the Bauer, Arndt, Gingricht Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, the middle or passive voices, which are always used in NT marriage contexts, mean a “voluntary yielding in love.”
  • The Greek words to “obey” (hupakouo) and to “obey a ruler” (peitharcheo) are not used in any New Testament command for wives! Nor is a husband ever described as “ruler,” archon, but “head,” kephale, which means source of life, as Jesus Christ is the source of life for His bride, the church.

5.  The New Testament teaches that a married couple should come to a decision by mutual responsibility, equal authority, and consensual agreement. 

  • I Corinthians 7:3-5 is the ONLY passage that directly addresses how a married couple should make a decision, and it tells them to decide the matter “by consent” or “by agreement.” It is also the ONLY passage which uses the word “authority” (exousia) regarding husband and wife, and Paul gives it to both equally!

Paul gave the wife authority over her husband’s body, counterbalancing the husband’s first-century legal power over his wife’s body.  Paul’s declaration removed a husband’s most basic “right” to control his wife, replacing the patriarchal norm with Biblical mutuality.  In stark contrast to the legal positions and social expectations of the first century, Paul upholds the rights and responsibilities of husband and wife as equal in I Corinthians 7.  Although first-century parents customarily arranged marriages between their pre-adolescent daughters and much older men, Paul recognizes the rights of both men and women to remain unmarried.  Ancient societies did not expect husbands to be faithful to their wives, whereas women were secluded to ensure their chastity.  By contrast, both Jesus and Paul held both husbands and wives equally responsible to remain faithful within marriage.

  • Nowhere does the Bible tell husbands to break an impasse by making the final decision.  That would leave the couple in disagreement.  As Abraham Lincoln said, “a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” The same is true of women! Agreement is essential for effective prayer and Christian service, because without it there is no true unity.  The New Testament urges Christians to be of one mind in Christ.
  • Scripture teaches that Christians should settle an argument by seeking the Lord together.  Paul counseled, “I beseech Euodias and beseech Syntyche that they be of the same mind in the Lord” (Philippians. 4:2).  When these two “women who labored with me in the Gospel” disagreed, Paul humbly asked them both to come to an agreement.  He did not “pull rank” of one over the other or mandate a decision by the rest of the Philippian church leadership.  He did not even impose his own apostolic authority.  Apparently, Paul believed that mutual love and respect were more important than who had the last say.

Whereas patriarchy practiced a “chain of command” from the oldest male over the clan, Jesus forbade His disciples to rule over one another, calling them instead to exhibit humility and love.

  • Jesus condemned authority being exercised among His followers.  He said, "The princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them and they that are great exercise authority upon them, but it shall not be so among you.  But whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister, and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant, even as the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:25-28)
  • Jesus’ commandment precludes ANY rulership over others.   Instead, Christians are to love, honor, prefer, and submit to one another.   This instruction is given to ALL believers, not just women.
  • It is better to walk with God than to follow a “chain of command” hierarchy.  Mature believers should walk in love, in obedience to God’s Word and the leading of the Holy Spirit.  Consistently issuing “commands” outside of an emergency situation demonstrates failure of leaders to disciple church members, a love of power by such leaders, or both.
  • Leadership is given by God for the benefit of others; not to dominate, but to guide, teach, encourage and set an example.  Scripture asks, “Can two walk together unless they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3) And “Love does not seek its own way. . .” (I Corinthians 13:5, NRSV).  If love does not seek its own way, no husband who loves his wife can insist on imposing his will on her.  That is fallen man’s way, not the way of Christ.  God does not bless a domineering spirit!

The Bible shows patriarchy to be a result of the Fall, not God’s original design for marriage and family.

  • While patriarchs were the religious leaders of their extended families, the New Testament teaches that all believers are on an equal footing before God.  Galatians 3:28 states, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” All become followers of Jesus on the same terms: faith and repentance.  Natural distinctions are irrelevant in God’s Kingdom.
  • Entrance into the community of Christians is by baptism, administered to all.  By contrast, Jewish patriarchy required males to be circumcised into membership.  Ten male Jews were required to establish a meeting; women did not count. 
  • In the church of Jesus Christ, all believers, not just men, are priests.  The Bible says, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation that you should show forth the praises of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9, AV).  This word is addressed to all believers, including women!
  • Christian ministry flows from giftedness over which the Holy Spirit is Lord.  Scripture nowhere states that some gifts are given to men and others to women, but says “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” (I Peter 4:10, NRSV).  This means that like men, Christian women should function freely in the abilities with which God has endowed them. 
  • Spiritual gifts are manifestations of the Holy Spirit, who lives and works within every Christian.  We operate in them according to God’s empowerment, our faith, and the need of others, not gender.  The life of the Holy Spirit in Christians equalizes all in Jesus Christ, who alone is Lord of His church.

While patriarchy leads to polygamy and other abuses, the Biblical pattern is marriage between one man and one woman.

Patriarchy was characteristic of the Old Testament.  Free to rule, the men did what they wanted; and being fallen, they didn’t always want what was right.  The Old Testament patriarchs married multiple wives, and so accumulated huge clans.  The ten tribes of Israel descended from the polygamous marriages of Jacob and were perpetuated under the Israelite monarchy.  David had numerous wives; Solomon over 1,000.  Continuing into Jesus’ time, Jewish men still could marry multiple wives and divorce them at whim.

  • When asked by the Pharisees if this practice was lawful, Jesus told them, “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives; but from the beginning it was not so.” (Mt. 19:8, AV).  Jesus pointed them back to Genesis where God created one man and one woman for each other.  Polygamy did not originate until Cain’s descendant, Lamech, a murderer, married two women (Genesis 4:17-24).
  • God’s pattern “in the beginning,” which Jesus re-established, was the exact opposite of patriarchy.  Instead of the woman leaving her own family for her husband’s, the Bible commands a man to leave his parents and be joined to his wife.  Jesus directs us to God’s original plan for marriage, the unity and equality of Adam and Eve before the Fall.
  • Jesus quoted Genesis 2:24 to the Pharisees: ‘Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and shall cleave unto his wife; and they shall be one flesh.” Jesus’ words reversed the patriarchal practice of sending a woman to live with her husband’s family.  Note that the word “man” in Genesis 2:24 is NOT the generic, which would include women, but means a male. 

God designed His family organization in the interests of the wife, who remained under the protection of her family of origin.  Under God’s original commandment regarding marriage, the wife would enjoy the support of her relatives during pregnancy, childbirth and lactation.  Under this system, the husband could not easily abuse his wife, for in joining her, he would be accountable to her parents and brothers.  Also, the husband couldn’t marry another woman, for it would be impossible for him to join more than one woman’s family! God’s design for marriage precludes patriarchy and its excesses.

Conclusion: We should work together to overcome the results of the Fall and reinstate God’s design for marriage: Not patriarchy, but mutuality. 

The challenge for a fallen man is to yield his independence and take responsibility for his own faults instead of blaming and denigrating women.  He must turn back to God and to his wife.  The challenge for a fallen woman is not to make her marriage relationship more important than her relationship to God.  She must be strong in doing what is right and not compromise God’s standards in order to please a man.

Both men and women need to put God first in their lives, obeying Him rather than their own sinful tendencies or the ungodly demands of others.  In addition, they need to repent of their particular sinful tendencies: men to dominate others instead of loving them; women to seek the approval of men rather than of God. 

We should base our marriages on mutual love and respect, not a power struggle.  Both husband and wife should defer to the other.  Decisions should be made by mutual agreement.  The process of coming to agreement will build Christian character into both partners as they listen to each other, consider each other’s needs, and seek the mind of Christ.


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