Why Patriarchal Christianity Was Doomed from the Start.

I’ve been reading and watching great numbers of Christians try to either defend the Duggars in their current scandal or condemn them. I’m glad to say that the people condemning this scandal–and those who spent years covering it up–are growing more vocal and numerous. Of the people condemning him, some wholeheartedly do so while others condemn only the extremeness of the Duggar’s patriarchal ideology. As one example, when Doug Phillips and Bill Gothard (two men the Duggars revered) first began to topple from their patriarchy thrones last year, Michael Farris–the head of the Home School Legal Defense Association–spoke out against the teachings of these men and called them “truly dangerous.”

But his real beef was that these two had taken teachings he basically agreed with to an extreme he no longer agreed with.

It’s time for us to declare that there is no salvaging this ideology. It is warped at its core and doomed from its beginning. There is nothing in it that is worth keeping–not for non-Christians, and not for Christians. It is a non-starter. It is sick and broken beyond redeeming.

Sometimes very serious dangers are hard to see until unusual circumstances bare them to the light. (Credit: Andrew E. Russell, CC license.)
Sometimes very serious dangers are hard to see until unusual circumstances bare them to the light. (Credit: Andrew E. Russell, CC license.)

The ideology of patriarchal Christianity hinges around the idea of spiritual authority trickling down. “God” (or at least their idea of what their god is) is at the top of the hierarchy; pastors below that; husbands below them; wives and then children dead last. There is no veto power for anybody below anybody else. Wives cannot veto their husbands and must obey them unflinchingly, cheerfully and unquestioningly, in all ways; children must obey their parents in the same way. Families must obey their pastor. And the idea is that pastors obey “God” and relay his wishes to the flocks below him. The very worst sins someone in this system can be accused of are “selfishness” and “rebellion,” and these sins merit the strictest, most manipulative, and most cruel punishments imaginable to bring the offender back into obedience and submission.

Patriarchy’s conceptualization of family and church life is about ownership–about who owns who and who has what rights of control over others. This desire for authority lies at the very core of the shrunken, blackened heart of the entire ideology.

And it’s why patriarchy is failing.

Ownership is why extremist Christians so often try to dictate other people’s experiences, history, feelings, and thoughts. Patriarchy tells its followers that someone else always knows better than they do what is best for them, for their religious practices, and for what they’re really thinking and feeling, and that they have both the right and obligation to ignore what others say to the contrary because they know better.

That is why they are absolutely positive that they know how to “save” us, and why they are absolutely convinced that even when we refuse their efforts to control us, that they are doing the right and correct thing in redoubling their efforts to control us.

That is why they are so genuinely baffled by our refusal to accept their lordship over us and at our repeated objections to their overtures–and why they often simply don’t accept our explanations, calling us liars or deceived somehow–if not demonically possessed!–when our experiences are at marked variance with their own impressions about us. At no time do they accept that our opinions and experience are valid–and if that means that their attempts to “save” us are not in the least compelling, then they will find us to be in the wrong long before entertaining the idea that they’re doing or saying anything remotely incorrectly.

And it is why they can say, with utterly straight faces, that even though the rest of us may feel abused and injured by their words and deeds, that they are simply doing what is best for us–like we are little tantrum-throwing toddlers who are incapable of recognizing when Mommy and Daddy are right. Mommy and Daddy are, of course, the extremist Christians; they strip their own children of rights and genuinely believe they own their children like you own your shoes, so don’t be shocked when they do it to adults who dissent and reject their control. Ownership and control are part and parcel of extremist Christianity.

The clear implication I get from such Christians is that they are absolutely, completely, utterly and unquestionably convinced that if they can only get total control of us and force us, by law or pressure or manipulation or however else, to obey them, then we’ll quickly see how much better life is when we listen to our superiors. We’d be so much happier if we’d only listen to them! Their job therefore is to force us to listen and obey them somehow; Jesus will do the rest in our hearts once we’re going through the motions of obedience.

It is a form of gaslighting, yes. It is also a case of Christians being convinced they are the “Designated Adult” over others.

As obviously dysfunctional, cruel, disastrous, and evil as this philosophy sounds to us, remember please that people use arguments that make sense to them. Someone did this to the person trying to control us, and whatever that someone did, it worked on that person. So he or she is running out and doing the same thing in hopes of getting the same results. People who try to control others are themselves controlled by someone, except for the folks at the very top of the pyramid and controlled only by their own lust for power (and they do not take well at all to control of any kind, weirdly enough–I know, right? It’s so very strange).

The reason such Christians like this idea of ownership and control so much is that they have this vague concept of “the good old days” where they imagine that this is how families operated, and think if they can reproduce this concept in the modern age with modern families, then they’ll be happy, safe, and prosperous and that golden age will dawn again. I often heard this exact sentiment while I was a Christian, and it doesn’t take long to see Christians pining everywhere for it. Every heartfelt cry of “I want my country back!” hides a naked yearning for those imaginary days of easy answers, effortless respect and deference, safety, and clear-cut understanding–and of regaining that which was so cruelly taken away. Very few people in positions of privilege like losing any of that privilege; most will fight against any such loss and be convinced that they are being hard-done-by with every inch they cannot regain. Indeed it is almost a rule by now that any Christian in America whining about “persecution” is really expressing his or her butthurt over lost privilege. And as much as some Christian leaders and bloggers may caution about yearning for those gauzy days, I heard–and still hear–Christians pine for it constantly–and openly denigrate anything they think is moving society further away from the world they want so much.

Ah, but that golden age patriarchal Christians want to re-enact never really existed, and not even most patriarchal Christian families come anywhere near fulfilling that ideal. Did you see that link I gave at the beginning about Michael Farris? Check out what he wrote about such families:

As a homeschool leader for 30 years and chancellor of Patrick Henry College, I’ve come in contact with many young people who were raised in patriarchal or legalistic homes. Almost none of them are following these philosophies today. Some have rejected Christianity altogether.

His main beef with patriarchy is that he considers it “legalistic.” But over on his college’s website it’s easy to see that he believes almost the same thing that patriarchal Christians believe:

Husbands are the head of their wives just as Christ is the head of the church, and are to love their wives just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.

When Christians talk about someone being “the head of” something, they mean that person “rules over” the other party in question. Michael Farris is convinced that there’s some magical way to give one group uncontested rulership over another that will work to produce happy, healthy families by its nature, and that won’t result in untold misery. He is wrong. He’s into the same bullshit they are, and thinks that because his bullshit isn’t quite as extreme as their bullshit and is phrased more nicely that he’s obviously more correct than they are. The blog and forum Spiritual Sounding Board has made the same observations–that defenders of patriarchy insist and maintain that those who get hurt within patriarchy are just following the wrong kind of patriarchy–that if those dysfunctional families had only followed TRUE PATRIARCHY™, then everything would have been just peachy for everybody because patriarchy, when practiced perfectly, is totes awesome. It’s a pity that so many people seem so utterly confused about just what TRUE PATRIARCHY™ involves; for a divinely-blessed and mandated system that universally works for families and societies alike, it sure seems to be incredibly easy to mess up, doesn’t it? It’s a bit like Christianity in that respect. And if you’re wondering what avenues victims of “false patriarchy” have regarding justice and vindication, you probably shouldn’t.

This kind of criticism–leveled by practitioners of patriarchal Christianity at those who get caught doing something truly awful–does not actually fix the problem of why so many extremist Christians get caught doing truly awful things. But it does serve two functions: first, it deflects the problem from its true source–religious zealotry and overreach–onto those who fail to make the unworkable work. Second, it keeps the true source of discernment and control in the hands of those in power; since they’re the only ones allowed to criticize anybody or who are thought to know what the right or wrong way is to do anything, those below them are kept dancing and guessing. Remember, in this kind of Christianity, the rank and file are convinced that someone else always, always, always knows better than they do what they are thinking, feeling, and needing.

When a Christian zealot becomes convinced that he or she has the right to totally ignore and discard all outside oversight or checks on power, that’s when abuse happens. There is not some magical mystical way that this kind of control can be enacted on any scale without abuse being an endemic risk and inevitable result of the system. Just like there isn’t a way to make “separate but equal” play out in any way except poorly, just like there isn’t some way to enact slavery without horrific outcomes, there isn’t some way that Christians can make a non-abusive system wherein one group (men) gets every bit of the power and control but another group (women and children) gets none and has no voice in the rules that govern their lives. The power imbalance itself will ensure that the system won’t be anything but abusive.

That’s why patriarchy–and fundagelicalism in general–is doomed.

They’re convinced that there’s some magic way to make an inherently one-sided, abusive system work in some way that doesn’t turn out abusively for those who are stripped of their power and voices, and it ain’t ever going to happen. I’ve heard a number of them claim that if only this kind of Christianity is done “correctly” that these abuses won’t occur, but that’s just wishful thinking. It relies mainly on the idea of Jesus making those with power behave perfectly within the system. Just like how these same Christians will say that “Biblical slavery” is somehow totally different and benign compared to real actual slavery (a shockingly popular opinion among that crowd that is dissected here), they’ll claim that this kind of control is utterly different from how non-patriarchal men do it.

But it’s not, and people are starting to realize what a truly self-serving, flawed, and inherently abusive system patriarchy truly is. If even the movement’s biggest names can’t manage to make it work without constant eruptions of scandals and horror stories, then we can tell that it simply isn’t workable.

As a society, we’re moving more toward a model of consent and mutual respect for all people. We’re starting to wake up to the understanding that all people own their bodies and are the final word on their own opinions, experiences, and needs–and that nobody has the right to rob another person of those essential components of our personhood. We see these extremists’ lust for control and we are genuinely repelled and repulsed. Their response to our revulsion is to try to make us feel that we’re wrong to feel that way (gaslighting failed: add more gaslighting!), but they’re getting fewer and fewer takers on that rhetoric. Because they are in solid opposition to our growing awareness of the importance of consent, respect, and self-ownership, and refuse to accept the importance of these ideas, their downfall is all but inevitable.

The only sad part to the downfall of patriarchal Christianity is the many thousands of men, women, and children who have been–and will continue to be–hurt by their overzealous leaders’ tightening grasp for power. But they are struggling free in greater and greater numbers. Patriarchy’s social experiment is coming to an end, and we can thank patriarchal Christians themselves for their system’s much-deserved demise.

We’re going to take on another blatantly self-serving and delusional ideology next time: faith healing. I hope you’ll join me!

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