Imagine attending a weeklong conference every single year for as long as you can remember. A conference that drills ideas into your head about God and human relationships. A conference that gives you simple, black-and-white formulas for success in every area of your life.
Imagine marinating in those ideas your entire life until they become the lens through which you view everything, including love, marriage, parenting, decision-making, and your relationships with God and others.
Imagine you get married, and your spouse dismisses you, neglects you, blames you, shames you, mocks you, constantly criticizes you in front of friends and family, and scapegoats you on a regular basis.
Imagine that the formulas you grew up with taught you that he is superior to you because he is your husband. That he must be respected even if his behavior is selfish and cruel—emotionally abusive. That your duty is to serve him and protect his reputation at all costs to your own needs. That you were designed to die to who you are as a person so that he might thrive and reign as king over you and your children.
Imagine that you live like this for two decades, groveling in false guilt, apologizing over and over for your negative reactions to his cruelty and neglect, begging God to love you, and feeling that you are worthless and unlovable because you are female. Your mental well-being is in the toilet, but any time you express or show you’re uncomfortable or feel bad about the status quo, you’re told you’re the issue (because of your lack of faith or dedication or your rebellious heart), not your controlling husband.
Imagine trying to cover up the pain in order to be accepted by other religious people who all believe the same “rules” about male and female behavior and relationships. Your mental health may be in the toilet, but you’re so steeped in the formulas you were taught, you don’t make the connection between your controlling husband and absolute misery. You just keep trying to make things work as you bleed out, day by day.
Is that you? It was me. The belief system I lived and breathed my whole life was Patriarchy.
What is Patriarchy?
Patriarchy is defined as a form of social organization in which the father is the supreme authority in the family, clan, or tribe and descent is reckoned in the male line, with the children belonging to the father’s clan or tribe; a social system in which power is held by men, through cultural norms and customs that favor men and withhold opportunity from women. (Source)
Patriarchy, simply put, is men in charge. Men at the top of the social structure, men with all the economic power, men with all the control. Men dominating women (and children). It’s more than a bunch of one-off relationships; patriarchal systems rule entire societies, governments, and religions.
Patriarchy is the assignment of power and final say to men in relationships, marriage, families, education, faith, work/industries, and government. It’s the assignment of gender-specific roles—what women can and cannot do and what men will and will not do. It takes every relationship, every interaction, every aspect of men’s personalities, and turns them into power transactions.
We hear jokes about the battle of the sexes, but it’s just another name for patriarchy, and an apt one at that.
It’s not just a relationship approach, marriage perspective, or a theological cornerstone; it’s an entire worldview. It shades everything. Patriarchy defines every aspect of life along the lines of the sexes and pigeonholes men and women, with men always, always, on top.
What are Examples of Patriarchy?
If you look at human history, you can see a theme or thread of patriarchy running through it. Lineage was passed down through men; women couldn’t work outside the home; women couldn’t get divorced; women were considered unclean, weak, fallen, and in need of guidance, protection, and discipline.
If a woman acted odd, she was a witch and dealt with. If a woman didn’t obey her father or husband, she was MADE to get in line or done away with.
Women couldn’t own private property, open bank accounts, claim marital rape, walk alone, wear clothing that showed their ankles, stay single, get an education, become spiritual leader, take on physical labor, and on and on and on.
Women were treated as something to be bought and traded for the sake of economic power. They were not allowed any say in their future and had few options for a safe, fulfilling livelihood. To this day, women are “given away” in marriage. (A great example of how we cloak patriarchy in “tradition” or “normal” or “godly” to make it less stinky, insidious, and destructive.)
The social structures and norms that support patriarchy sometimes change, but the underlying beliefs are the same. Women are less. Men are made to be dominant. Women exist to be eye candy and to serve. Women are weak. Men are strong. Women are incubators or things to be used for men’s pleasure.
Though there have been great gains in equality and equity for women in the past 100 years especially, the patriarchal structures that guide our society and religious communities are deeply entrenched in the psyches and realities of men and women. In fact, the gains women make are often met with backlash—faith communities, politicians, and regular old Joe Schmoes determined to put women back in their place (think “The Danvers Statement”).
Purity culture is a great example. Women are worth more if they are “untouched.” Men are held to no such standard (a double standard, really). Women must be beautiful but not too beautiful. Men’s physical looks are unimportant. Women shouldn’t have any sexual desires or they’re a slut. Men are just made for sex; it’s a need, so they can’t help doing anything to get it.
We see patriarchal structures ingrained in many church cultures, either explicitly or by default: Women should care for their children and the home; they don’t belong in the workplace. Men can take up any job they please. Women do all the volunteer work; their job is to serve endlessly. Men are entitled to rest. If a woman is attacked or harmed or abused, the first question is “What did she do to deserve this?” If a man is even accused of wrongdoing, much less proved to be a deviant, the first question is “Who caused him to sin?” or “Why are we casting the first stone?”
We see this in popular culture and the news. A woman is “somebody’s wife.” Passive language is often used to lift the responsibility of men: A woman was attacked. A female was murdered. A lady was kidnapped. A single woman had an affair with a married man. An underage girl had sex with a 30-year-old man. No mention of the men who harmed them. No assignment of blame. The perpetrators are absent or inactive.
Patriarchy in its mature form makes victims of women and abusers out of men. It has been consistently demonstrated that men who accept very patriarchal beliefs about gender roles have a higher likelihood of engaging in violence against women. (Source)
Women are required but rejected, hated but desired, destroyed, and then hated for their brokenness. And what’s worse: Patriarchy says they deserve it. That’s their lot in life.
Does Patriarchy Still Exist?
Though patriarchy is a caste-type of system that was prevalent in ancient times, it’s still used as a propaganda tool in Christian (and nonreligious) circles to elevate men and maintain control over women today. It’s collective brainwashing on a global scale.
Patriarchy is embedded in the language we use (“You throw like a girl. Don’t cry like a little girl. What, are you on your period?”). It’s obvious in male-dominated industries and positions (the number of female engineers, women in tech, and women CEOs is minuscule compared to men, for example). It’s clear in the most common marital issues (“I do all the housework even though we both work full time; he won’t change a diaper to save his life”). It’s prevalent in most parenting (“Boys will be boys. Girls are good at doing chores and taking care of people. You can’t cut your hair. Your brother can date but you can’t. Once she’s 16, get a gun!”)
Patriarchy is implanted in our brains and taints every facet of our reality: Being emotional is feminine. Being feminine is weak. Girls are just made to care for kids. Women who don’t want to be married or have children are unnatural and selfish.
We see patriarchy in the jokes we tell, the way we talk about marriage, the disparate expectations we have for boys and girls, and the way we hate ourselves because of the impossible standards and destructive messages society gives us as women.
But remember, the messages are twofold, and they’re not based on actual, inviolable differences between the sexes or the fact that all men are abusers (they’re not): Men don’t abuse women because society tells them it’s OK. Men abuse women because society tells them they are entitled to be in control. In fact, society says that if they are not in control, they won’t succeed – they won’t get the girl, they won’t get the money, and they will be vulnerable to the violence and control of other men. It says that if they fail to assert themselves like “real men”, they will end up poor and alone.(Source)
Brainwashing only works, after all, if everybody is bought in, if it’s comprehensive, if it fully captures its audience with false promises and a “gospel” that’s worth endorsing.
This points to the saddest part of all this: Many women are so bought into it, they either can’t see the damage it’s causing, or they endorse it in order to stay safe in their little bubble.
But make no mistake: There’s no safety in patriarchy. There’s only destruction. You cannot dehumanize a person (or people) without treating them as less than human. And that means abuse. Every type of abuse, is normalized. It means generations of men coached to become monsters instead of honorable, life-giving spouses, partners, fathers, sons, and friends.
If you think about all the ways the “feminine” is held in contempt, all the ways girls are brought up to serve others, to shut up, to play nice, to let people walk all over them, and to subvert themselves to others, it’s clear that patriarchy isn’t just present in our society, it’s thriving.
Patriarchy and Christianity
When it comes to Christian women, patriarchy doesn’t just put them more at risk for domestic violence, health problems, C-PTSD, and emotional abuse, it also creates utter confusion and pain because it squelches their God-given potential and prevents them from fulfilling the purpose for which God created them. Patriarchy does this under the guise of being “Biblical.” And who can argue with the Bible, right? If someone wants to control a Christian woman, all he has to do is say, “God says so!” and if she loves God, she’s stuck. This is called spiritual abuse.
Is Patriarchy From the Bible?
You might think patriarchy is biblical since the people who lived during the time of the Bible operated under its system.
But it’s not. It’s actually antithetical to all that God teaches us in Scripture about men and women and their relationship to one another and to God.
You might think patriarchy is biblical if your pastor and counselor and small group leader and Bible translators all operate under its biased system and have taught it to you for as long as you’ve been a Christian.
But it’s not. Patriarchy is a lie from hell rooted in prejudice, and it’s designed by the father of lies to keep half of the Church of Christ tied up and gagged. This has serious negative repercussions on the impact of the Church in the world. Exactly what Satan wants.
Patriarchy and the Oppression of Women in Christian Marriage
The very same churches who proclaim that marriage is the ultimate analogy of God’s great love for the church will also declare that marriage is meant to be a relationship of power over women. Male dominance tied up with a pretty bow. They also claim that a family led by a godly man will be a place of peace, prosperity, and faith.
The problem is that godly men don’t desire power. They understand that you can’t control someone and love them at the same time—that’s emotional abuse, not a marriage. They know that God, who loves perfectly, doesn’t force himself on us or supersede free will, so neither should we. They realize that women are fully human, fully equal, fully capable, fully worthy of honor, and not an enemy or lesser animal to be controlled. They don’t even think in terms of power structures.
If the Bible can be used to legitimize slavery, racism, doing drugs, and nearly any other evil you can think of, you can bet it can (and is) used to warp and destroy the foundational relationships of our lives: with ourselves (as individuals), with each other as friends, in churches, in our families, and in marriage.
And if oppression and dominance worked, then all the women who bought it hook, line, and sinker (including me) would be glowing examples of its success. Instead, we became shells of our former selves, destroyed from the inside out by our controlling husbands, our physical, mental, and spiritual health slowly falling apart.
The Bible says that we should judge a tree by its fruit. Everything patriarchy produces in Christian marriage serves to demean, disempower, and destroy women. It’s rotten to the core.
11 Signs You Are in a Patriarchal Relationship
If you’re reassessing your marriage through a critical lens of patriarchy for the first time, it may be hard to identify the telltale signs (i.e., what’s normal to you) of a controlling relationship. I’ve spelled out the 11 most common symptoms:
- Male Authority. Your husband uses the Bible to establish his authority over you (and your children). The focus isn’t a relationship; it’s power over. If you are allowed to make decisions, it’s because he doesn’t have an opinion on the subject. But when he does care, it’s his way or the highway. If you question his controlling behavior, you’re in the wrong.
- Double Standards. These are expressed directly and indirectly in your community and marriage. There are justifications for the failings and immaturity of men and boys but judgment for women and girls. Men need freedom and rest and time alone; women are selfish for wanting it. Men should be thanked and fawned over for their work and help; women are expected to serve without complaint or acknowledgment. Men should be given the lead on everything; however, women are expected to take the head in Sunday School, extracurricular activities, childrearing, etc. (anything that men don’t want to do). If a man cheats, a woman led him into it, or his wife drove him to it. If a woman cheats, she’s a vicious whore. Women, after all, are inherently wayward, weak, and sinful. Men are hapless victims. (Ironic, eh, that they’re meant to lead because they’re stronger, but they have all these reasons for why their weaknesses should be excused?)
- Abusive Sex/Sexuality. There is nothing mutual about it (and often nothing pleasurable). You feel obligated to give sex. If you don’t succumb to your husband’s sexual desires, he pouts, criticizes, punishes, withdraws, cheats, or forces you. He treats your body as his private property, and his sexual satisfaction, no matter how demeaning to you, as his right. He resents your beauty unless he’s making use of it.
- Uneven Workload. There is often an uneven division of labor in the household, or it’s lopsided by force. Household work is your domain, even if you work full time (and controlling husbands often don’t want their wives to work outside the home). You have no right to rest, but he does. You are treated as a servant. You shoulder the physical and emotional load; he takes over the “spiritual” load when it serves to reinforce his authority.
- Coercive Control. Who you see, what you wear, how you spend money, your hobbies, what you watch, read, listen to—every area of your life is open to policing by your husband. Coercion might be as subtle as mocking and as explicit as physical force to get you to do what he wants. Regardless, whatever is natural and human about you, whatever your opinions or preferences, whatever is shiny and lovely and unique and free, is not allowed or disparaged. You are his Lego person.
- Veiled or Explicit Misogyny. This overlaps other areas, but it manifests in blanket statements that draw lines between the sexes: “Women are just bad drivers. They’re too emotional. They can’t be CEOs because of their hormones. Men are just better at engineering. Men are supposed to protect women. You throw like a girl. Don’t cry like a girl! Men can’t help themselves. Is it just that time of the month? Girls are either ugly or they’re mean; they can’t be both. Women only dress nice because they’re sluts. She was asking for it.” It’s often drawn back to the Bible to sound less disgusting: “Remember that Eve was the first to sin; all women are…”
- Constant Criticism. What you do is never enough. How do you do it is never enough. Compliments are as rare as a snowball in summer. Subtle digs, sarcastic comments, snarky jokes, and haughty looks abound. Conversely, you have no right to reciprocate. Even so much as a suggestion is seen as an attack on his character or a subversion of his authority.
- Gender Roles. As a woman, you are relegated to a role; there is no individuality to your life. There is no room for your hopes, dreams, or passions. You are meant to do X (usually bear children, homeschool, volunteer at church, and serve your husband). There is no allowance for seasons of life (kids are all school-age and you want to work), differences in personality (you are an extrovert who hates being home all day), emotional/physical bandwidth (you are worn the heck out; you’re grieving; you’re burnt out by homeschooling), or practicality (you need a higher income to pay bills and could make more in your industry than your husband does in his).
- Lack of Boundaries/Rights. Your job is to submit. That means you have no rights. Any boundaries you set are demolished. There is no such thing as a mutual or productive conversation. Any way you try to upset the status quo is wrong. Your requests for kindness are wrong. The fact that you are female and imperfect is proof enough that you do not deserve to be treated better.
- Poor Mental Health. Not all mental ill health is caused by patriarchy. But, if you’re in a patriarchal marriage, it’s likely that the longer you’re married, the more depressed, discouraged, and despondent you’ll become. Your relationship is not a source of encouragement, joy, or support. It is a thorn in your side—the most painful part of your life. If you could describe it in a word, it would probably be “prison.” You ache for relief, sometimes even in death.
- Deteriorating Physical Health. Physical ill health has a number of causes, but if your mental health is suffering, your physical health is next in line. You’ll likely exhibit signs of C-PTSD, which often manifest in disease and other long-term effects of prolonged trauma.
The Key to Getting Out From Under the Oppression of Patriarchy
If the method of getting you locked up in the dungeon of patriarchy was a lie, then the key to getting out of that prison is the truth.
You need a complete overhaul of your belief system. You need to deprogram from the lies you were taught.
These lies are not just in the Christian community. Culture, at large, is saturated in patriarchal thinking. It’s such a deeply rooted part of humanity, tracing its roots back to the beginning of human history, that we don’t even know just how intertwined its poisonous tendrils are within our souls.
If lies are what keep us trapped, Truth is what sets us free. But what if we’ve been told the Source of all Truth actually promotes this false, gender-biased pile of crapola?
That’s where education comes into play. I never knew the truth, because I never learned the truth. Nobody ever told me. Nobody around me knew it either, and nobody even wanted to know.
What about you? Do you want to know?
Understanding patriarchy and overcoming its harmful effects on women
I found a great resource that will help you get your head around this. It’s called The Equality Workbook: Freedom in Christ from the Oppression of Patriarchy by Helga and Bob Edwards.
Who wrote this workbook and why?
Helga and Bob Edwards have been married for 21 years. They both have degrees in religious education and social development studies and master’s degrees in social work. They specifically wrote this book “to help readers identify and remove patriarchal bias from Bible translation and commentary.” This workbook also explores the following topics to help women recover from the harmful effects of patriarchy:
- Overcoming the lies of shame
- The grief process
- Freedom from codependence
- Setting boundaries
- Patriarchy and domestic abuse
- Managing triggers
- Healthy egalitarian relationships
- Communication and problem solving
- Overcoming negative patterns in relationships
2 Key Truths About Patriarchy
Patriarchy has a false foundation
How would you feel if you found out much of what you had been taught your entire life about marriage and male/female relationships was a lie? That you had made important life decisions based on that lie? Decisions that had tragic consequences not only in your life but also in the lives of your children?
You might feel betrayed at first. I did. I was angry. Betrayal does that to a person. But then you might feel liberated to discover that you no longer have to live under those parameters. You are free to move into a brand new and beautiful relationship with Christ that is rooted in His Truth and love concerning women in general, and you, specifically!
The first thing the authors do in this workbook is to expose the truth about where the anti-female bias you read in the Bible actually comes from. (Hint: It wasn’t in the original words of Scripture!)
We believe the Word of God is inspired by God and is His written method of revealing Himself to humankind (2 Timothy 3:16-17). So it’s important to know if what is wrong is us, the Bible itself, or someone’s false translation and interpretation of the Bible. You will be relieved to know it is the latter.
When the Bible was translated into Latin (the official language of the Romans) in the fourth century, “the meaning of passages within the Bible concerning women began to change.” The translator, St. Jerome, was influenced by Roman culture (which was extremely patriarchal) and Neoplatonism which viewed humans and even the Trinity in terms of hierarchy. Other theologians, including Origen, Augustine, and Chrysostom, were all influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy, and the result was a patriarchal shift in the way the Bible was translated.
How? Where the Bible said nothing about female subordination, these theologians would “INFER male authority from the text.” They brought their own assumptions and beliefs about men and women to the text and then read and wrote them into the Bible translations through small word changes and subtle sentence structure alterations that are still in our current translations today.
What if you could read the same Bible verses that patriarchal teachers have used to subjugate and control women in their original language and context?
That’s exactly what Helga and Bob do in this workbook. They address every single passage in Scripture that is used in a prejudiced and biased way against women, and they teach you what God REALLY wrote in the original language along with the incredibly interesting history and culture behind the passage.
It’s eye-opening. And when the workbook promises to set you free from the oppression of patriarchy, it delivers. For me, learning the truth about this one issue took care of so many confusing questions I had about the Bible. What used to appear to be contradictory now became beautiful and seamless truths that made sense on every level. God’s Word says the Truth sets us FREE. Suddenly I understood what that really means!
I’m going to write out just a small portion of one of the chapters so you can see how this book works. I hope this will whet your appetite to find out more.
Patriarchy was born out of a misinterpretation of God’s word
Tradition concerning male authority (headship)
As for a husband’s alleged authority, this was traditionally based upon the notion that because Eve was created after Adam, she must have been subject to him. Chronology in creation was thereby associated with rank. The man was created first; therefore he was assumed to be the “leader.” Complementarians today refer to this as the doctrine of male “headship,” and it has been inferred from the following passage: “But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (I Corinthians 11:3, NIV).
A tremendous amount of literature has been written about this verse. Much of it focuses on the meaning of the Greek word translated as “head.” The word Paul chose to use here is “kephale.” In the Greek language found in the New Testament, this word was often used to mean “source.” The human race was created through Christ (John1:3); he is the “source” of “every man.” Adam, the first man, was the “source” of Eve, the first woman (Genesis 2:22). God was the miraculous source of Jesus’ incarnation as a human being (Luke 1:35).
On the other hand, the Greek word more often used to mean “ruler” was “archon.” Paul chose kephale here for good reason. He is talking about God as the “source” of both women and men in I Corinthians 11:12. He also refutes the tradition of male authority by reminding the Corinthians that just as a man was the source of the first woman, so a woman is the source of every man. “Nevertheless [plen], in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. (I Corinthians 11:11-12, NRSV).
Is Paul teaching here that men are to be the archons of their wives in a Christian marriage? A close examination of Paul’s language in its original context indicates that he is actually saying the opposite. A man may have been the “source” of the first woman, but the woman is the “source” of every man. If source means “ruler,” then women would have every right to claim to be the “rulers of men.” Source, then, is not meant to be confused with a superior rank. Paul is refuting a patriarchal tradition that had wrongly been inferred from the creation account.
Returning to the specific issue of head coverings, did Paul agree that a woman must shamefully cover her hair, submit to a man’s authority, and even take responsibility for the sins of fallen angels? No, he did not. On the contrary, he tells the church that a woman’s hair is her glory and that men owe their existence to God…and to women. Freedom, love, and equality are the principles espoused by Paul, and he tells the church to stop being contentious about such things (I Corinthians 11:16.)
To a large extent, the church has not listened to Paul. Rather than rejecting oppressive oral traditions and hierarchical pagan philosophies, church leaders from the 3rd century forward have confused the teaching of fallible human beings with the revelation of an infallible God. An entire theological system has been based upon the notion that women had to cover their hair in public worship.
On the basis of this inaccurate reference, women are often told that they require the spiritual “covering” of a man to keep them from error. Women in the church are told that they must submit themselves to the “covering” of male pastors and priests. Wives are told to subject themselves to the spiritual “covering” of their husbands. The idol of masculinity is lifted up as that which will guard the church against sin and error. Men assume the role of mediator between women and God.
The doctrine of male authority as a “spiritual covering” for half of the human race stands in direct contradiction to Paul’s words concerning Jesus’ role as the exclusive mediator between God and all humanity: “There is one God. There is also one mediator between God and human beings – and human, the Messiah Jesus” (I Timothy 2:5, ISV). Due to an ancient error in theology, the apostle Paul’s words against oppressive traditions have been turned into an endorsement of them.”
Now, wasn’t that freeing? And it sort of ticks you off to realize that what God was trying to communicate got twisted into its exact opposite message. Sounds like the influence of the upside-down king of darkness, huh?
If this is an area you feel confused about and you would like to learn more, I encourage you to get a copy of The Equality Workbook and find out what God’s Word REALLY says about men and women.