Pastors’ Blog

Husbands Love Your Wives Part 4

Patriarchy vs Male Headship

Categories: Marriage & Family

My wife and I met in college, but she graduated one year earlier than I did. She is nearly two years younger, but probably more than twice as intelligent. Lucky me! We were planning to get married after I graduated, so she stayed around San Diego while I finished up. She was a little frustrated at me wanting to wait, but I was afraid that if I didn’t finish college then, I never would. It’s a good thing I did too. Otherwise I might not be parking cars as a valet seventeen years later. Careers don’t wait! While Andrea was living and working as a single woman, there was a time she rented a room from a certain couple. It quickly became apparent that the husband in this couple was verbally abusive and on the edge of physical abuse. On Sunday evenings I would come over so Andrea could help me with my Greek homework, and I would often hear them fighting. I think he knew I was not a fan of his behavior because he once told me “I’m just trying to be king of my castle, like it talks about in the Bible.” I was so dumbfounded that I did not tell him that the Bible actually never talks about that. I really wish I had. Once he started breaking plates in the kitchen in a fit of rage, we moved Andrea out of there and she had to flee to stay with our then Pastor, Steve Whitten. Steve and his wife Marguerite had the kind of place where you could just show up and move in (I’ve done it myself). Perhaps I shouldn’t tell you that, but I won’t give you the address.

This story illustrates a tragic reality. Teaching about male headship without the full biblical context can create scary situations. Some conservative Christians are tempted to claim that abuses of male headship are a fabrication created by those who do not like the teaching. While the abuses may sometimes be blown out of proportion, unfortunately, if one goes looking for abuses of male headship, one does not have to go far. Dr. Steven Tracy is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Phoenix Seminary. In his superb article titled “Patriarchy and Domestic Violence: Challenging Common Misconceptions” (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 50/3 [September, 2007] 573-94), Dr. Tracy cites research that provides some startling conclusions. Early studies between religion and domestic violence showed that religious men were the most likely to abuse their wives. More recent research, however, nuanced these findings in an important way. This nuance was especially important as it relates to conservative, protestant Christianity. The sad fact is that conservative, protestant men with sporadic church attendance are the most likely men to abuse their wives. However, conservative, protestant men with regular church attendance are the least likely to abuse their wives (see Tracy, “Patriarchy and Domestic Violence,” 580-81, cf. also, Christopher G. Ellison and Kristin L. Anderson, “Religious Involvement and Domestic Violence among U.S. Couples,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 40 [2001) 269-86). Dr. Tracy interprets this data in this way:

“We might surmise from the fact that conservative Protestant men who are regular church attendees have the lowest spouse abuse rates that (1) regular exposure to balanced biblical teaching and preaching on family life detoxifies abusive misbeliefs about male headship; (2) Christian community offers salutary models of loving, non-dominating masculinity; (3) the experience of Christian community increases men’s sense of confidence and masculinity which in turn decreases their need to control women and children (“Patriarchy and Domestic Violence,” 583-84).”

Dr. Tracy then goes on to warn that men with sporadic church attendance in churches that teach some form of male headship will often use the teaching to validate their chauvinistic and violent attitudes toward women:

“When men come into conservative Protestant churches, for the most part they are going to hear some form of patriarchal gender views, that is, male headship. For men who are significantly insecure, immature, and/or misogynistic, patriarchal teaching of any form may merely serve to confirm their views of male superiority and their right to dominate women. This dynamic is particularly true for men who are not well integrated into the church and regularly exposed to biblical teaching (“Patriarchy and Domestic Violence,” 584).”

Dr. Tracy’s findings illustrate the point we made above, “Teaching about male headship without the full biblical context can create scary situations.” However, his findings also support the contention that teaching about male headship, when place in its full biblical context, is the most powerful deterrent against domestic abuse of all.

I have titled this blog “Patriarchy vs Male Headship.” Obviously Dr. Tracy’s article did not make such a distinction, but I think that the distinction is merited. Some may find this distinction a little artificial, but allow me to explain what I mean by it. Looking up the term “patriarchy” in that scholarly online tool known as Wiktionary, I found (to my surprise) a relatively benign and literal set of definitions:

  1. (anthropology,historical) A social system in which the father is head of the household, having authority over women and children, and in which lineage is traced through the male line.
  2. A power structure in which men are dominant.
  3. (Christianity) The office of a patriarch; a patriarchate.

Definition 3 has to do with ecclesiastical structures in Orthodox Christianity, and so has little to do with our discussion. Definition 1 fits perfectly well with a biblical view of male headship. Definition 2 moves more toward the emerging cultural definition of patriarchy, emphasizing power and dominance. In my experience, when many say “patriarchy,” they are going far beyond this second definition and associating the term automatically with violence and misogyny. One could quibble that we shouldn’t allow that term to be so redefined by cultural haters, but the fact is that this is what it means to many. We could say “yeah, but why let them have the term?” I am sympathetic to this concern, but I don’t think it is worth fighting for. I find it more of a distraction when engaging those hostile to God’s Word. As was pointed out earlier, to many non-believers in Western culture, patriarchy represents misogyny and violent dominance by men over women. For me, distinguishing biblical headship in the family from patriarchy provides a way to bypass a lot of misunderstanding. Male headship in the family is perfectly biblical:

But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God (1 Cor 11:3).

For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior (Eph 5:23).

Taken in context, headship involves leadership and authority, but the moment we veer into power and dominance, we have steeped outside biblical teaching about headship and into the tar pit of worldliness. Those who want to insist that “authority” and “power” are synonyms would do well to reread Philippians 2:1-11 and Mark 10:35-45. As the old hymn would have it, “What more can He say than to you He hath said?”

On the other hand, while the term “patriarch” is used in the Bible to describe the founders of the nation Israel, the term “patriarchy” is never used in a male headship context, or any other context in the Bible. If we’re going to fight for terminology, why not fight for the biblical terminology.

Why is it important that we think through this? Again I must return to Dr. Tracy’s article. One of the great tragedies which Dr. Tracy observes is that, while virtually no complementarian Bible teacher condones domestic violence, the subject is hardly addressed at all in the vast annals of complementarian literature (“Patriarchy and Domestic Violence,” 590-91). This is a glaring inconsistency! Typically, when one seeks a definition of male leadership in the home, we hear words thrown around like “provide” and “protect.” And we should. However, talk about protection from men who are unwilling to lift a finger to protect anyone becomes nothing more than self-satisfied drivel. If a women is being beaten by her husband, is a local church a good place to go for help? If not, why not? Are we prepared to provide what resources are necessary and take what steps are necessary to see that the abuse stops? If not, why not? What kind of male leadership are we demonstrating? Are we embodying Martina McBride’s immortal words: “Some folks whispered and some folks talked, but everybody looked the other way.”  

Until church becomes a place where domestic violence will not be tolerated and female members can rest assure that the male leaders will do whatever is necessary to stop such violence, then much of our talk about doing things “God’s way” will fall on deaf ears. Why, because we will not be doing things God’s way. Brothers, let us be the change! Let us make sure we model the love and grace of Christ in our own leadership, and corporately create an environment of servant leadership where abuse of any kind will not be tolerated. For where such an environment is absent, biblical leadership is not being practiced.

Author: Pete Vik

Leave a Reply