Men and Women in Christian Patriarchy: Masters and Slaves or Equals?

My parents always taught me that men and women were equal. Indeed, I was never made to feel inferior for being a woman. My parents taught me that men and women were different and had different roles to play, but that men and women and their roles were also equal and of equal worth. The male role is to provide for his family and protect them, to engage in politics and spiritual warfare, to have a career and make the decisions for his family. The female role is to keep the house and home, raise and teach her children, exercise hospitality and offer service to others, and support her husband. I was taught that these two roles are equally important and that men and women were thus different, but equal.

I was actually taught that this view is more positive toward women than is the feminist view that women should compete with men in the male sphere and abandon their God-given female sphere. After all, men only truly succeed when they remain within their sphere, and women only truly succeed when they remain within their sphere. I was told that feminism has twisted these spheres and jumbled the natural order of things, resulting in a world where men and women are lost and confused. In contrast, within their natural spheres men and women were equal and had equal roles.

Except that this is a load of bull. How are men’s and women’s roles equal when women are told that they must always be under and obedient to male authority, be that a father or a husband? How are men’s and women’s roles equal when men are given the option of a myriad of different careers incorporating different interests and skills while women are shoehorned into homemaking? They aren’t.

I recently came across an article by Debi Pearl that illustrates this perfectly. For those of you who don’t know, Debi Pearl wrote a horrible book called Created To Be His Helpmeet, and then a similar but equally destructive volume called Preparing To Be A Helpmeet, targeted to teenage girls. These books teach that wives are always to obey their husbands, period (okay, so she offers a few exceptions, such as if a husband is sexually abusing his children or if a husband tells his wife to watch porn with him). According to Debi, even questioning your husband’s decision in a matter is a no-no. My mother keeps her copy of Created To Be His Helpmeet by her Bible.

Almost at the very beginning of her article, “Learning To Become A Multi-Colored Girl,” Debi reveals that all the talk about men’s and women’s roles being equal is nothing but rhetorical flourish:

As Adam was created in God’s image, Eve was created in Adam’s image. God could have shaped two clay figures and breathed life into both, but he chose to take the woman from the man’s own flesh and bone. I have come to see that tiered process as very significant, making it consistent with nature that the woman should be the helper in the chain of command.

I could stop here. Man was created for God, woman was created for man. This is not equal. You can dress it up in fancy language all you want, but you’re not going to change the fact that you’re essentially talking about servanthood here. The man belongs to God, the woman belongs to man.

The whole premise of Debi’s article is that women must shape themselves to their man and his needs – and she makes it clear that this is a one way process.

God did not create women as he did men, strongly fixed in one type or another. Being created in the image of man, we are more muted and flexible in our types.

You see? Man is fixed and set. Woman is muted and flexible, waiting for a man about whom to shape herself. What? This is like saying that men have characters and personalities, but that women are born empty, like clay to be shaped at the whims of men. Which is, by the way, exactly what Debi says next:

The woman was called to be her man’s helper, to fashion herself to be what he needs her to be.

Somehow, I’m not seeing a lot of equality going on here… There is man, and then there is woman. Man is what really matters, and the woman lives only for the man. This is actually what Debi says outright in the introduction of her book – that woman was created solely for man, and that serving and helping him is her purpose in life. Debi continues:

When a girl marries a man she becomes a new person. She becomes his bride, his woman, his helper. It is God’s will that her life be fashioned to help him. If a girl comes into marriage knowing that she is equipped and appointed to be this one new person, then she can adapt and find fulfillment in her new self expression.

Again, man is fixed. Woman, in contrast, is but a possession of man. The woman’s own character and personality do not matter; all that matters is that she fashion her life to help her man. Is the man called on to fashion his life to help his wife? NO. Man was created for God, and woman was created for man. Woman matters not, except to serve man. Finally, Debi’s advice for young unmarried women:

Practice being flexible in your likes and dislikes, how you feel about things, and what you hope to accomplish. Start striving to shape your life to help others, and hide God’s Words in your heart concerning becoming a wife. Lastly, make a written committment to honor the man God provides for you.

Ah, so the woman’s own likes and dislikes and feelings about issues or goals for the future do not matter. The woman is to adjust to the likes and dislikes and feelings about issues or goals for the future of her man. Also, don’t be fooled. In Debi-speak, “honor” means “obey.” And what’s with the “written commitment” here? It sounds like a slavery contract to me.

In her article, Debi explains how she would have been a completely different woman if she had married a factory worker instead of her husband, or if she had married a minister, or an Amish man. Her goal is to show how flexible women have to be, shaping themselves around their husbands and their husbands’ needs. What Debi forgets is that her husband’s life would have been completely different if he had chosen to be a factory worker, or a minister, or to become Amish. This assumption that men are steady and know where they’re going and that women are fluid and simply fill in the margin’s of a man’s life is crap. Everyone makes choices in life, and those choices affect who they are and where their lives will go. For example, my life would be very different if I had chosen to study law instead of getting my Ph.D. in a humanities field, or if I had gotten my degree in library science. But this is true for both men and women. Men and women are equally steady and flexible, having some character traits that don’t change and others that evolve over time as life circumstances change. Debi doesn’t seem to realize this.

But more than that, Debi’s article makes it clear that “different but equal” is not equal. Men’s role is to serve God, and women’s role is to serve man. And it’s not just Debi Pearl who believes this; rather, it is an idea universally held within Christian Patriarchy. And so I have to ask, how can men and women be equal if women were created to serve men? How can men and women be equal if men’s role is to act in the world and women’s role is to serve men? I don’t understand how I didn’t see this as a child or a teen. I totally bought the lie that men and women have separate but equal roles. I never felt pushed down as a woman. Rather, I prepared to excel within my female role, being the best I possibly good be and serving God by serving my husband. How was I so blind?

It’s not just me, though. This lie helps to keep women in the Christian Patriarchy movement, persuading them that they are not being treated as inferior, or being degraded or used. Indeed, they are convinced that their role as wife, mother, and homemaker is of equal worth and value to men’s role as protector and provider, and work to excel within their role, for which they gain praise and admiration from their companions. By some slight of the hand, Christian Patriarchy convinces women to willingly and eagerly be subservient slaves while seeing themselves at the same time as being of equal value to their masters. You have to give some credit to the Christian Patriarchy movement: such a feat is as mind-boggling and impressive as it is horrifying and tragic.

The standard defense of the idea that men’s and women’s roles are equal in spite of their differences that I have heard is that a man couldn’t make it without his wife. This meant, somehow, that men’s roles and women’s roles were of equal worth, both necessary in building the Kingdom of God. Well, I have news for you. The plantation owners in the antebellum South could never have “made it” without their slaves. That did not, however, mean that the slave owners and the slaves were “equal.” Rather, one side had all the power and the other all the drudgery.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Ophelia Benson

    Damn right.There's a whole section on this in the book I co-wrote, Does God Hate Women? It uses papal encyclicals instead of Debbi Pearl but it's exactly the same crap: women are different but equal. Like hell!

  • Anonymous

    I find it interesting that you did not feel inferior growing up. That that probably the worst thing about the whole patriarchy thing for me (and for some of my sisters). It was pretty clear to me that in this system girls were not as desirable as boys and women really were worthless compared to men. I remember feeling angry about that even when I was pretty small. My father was always drumming in that girls were made to serve boys and men. That was supposed to be our sole purpose in life. I think that is where a lot of the depression and hopelessness that some of my sisters and I experienced came from. Reading Debbi Pearl makes me so angry…kateri @

  • Becky

    For years I believed the lie that I was created for my husband and his will was God's will for me…what a depressing way to live for both myself and my husband. We're so much happier since we've left patriarchy!

  • Katy-Anne

    You are so right and I think any healthy person despite their religion or lack of will probably agree with you on this one.

  • brokendaughters

    Great post Libby. "How can men and women be equal if men's role is to act in the world and women's role is to serve men? I don't understand how I didn't see this as a child or a teen."That's exactly how I feel now. It made so much sense back then, now I'm having problems to understand how I saw it back then. It doesn't make sense to me anymore.

  • Karl

    This is like arguing about whether Holmes or Watson were equal, gay, in a helpmeet relation, or whatever. So what if the fiction favors one answer over another or is indeterminate; it is still fiction.

  • Exrelayman

    From the male perspective: how the Hell (excuse my French) can a resentful subservient companion ever compare to a joyful equal partner? What price dominance?

  • Wendy

    It's not just within Patriarchy that these ideas are hurtful. Even in my more or less secular home, I remember each of my daughters asking me if God was a boy or a girl. In that moment, probably before I even answered, they understood something vital about their place in the world. And it made me sad.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    I agree. Formalized religious patriarchy just makes explicit what's implicit all through our culture.

  • Nathan Salo Tumberg

    Oh, one more thing: I told my wife that someone named Debbi Pearl says she's supposed to obey me, period. She stared at me for almost a minute, with a look that said "are you kidding me?" as I tried to explain that she can at least object if I'm abusing our future kids or ask her to watch porn. Her response: "fuck that noise."

  • Anonymous

    Exrelayman, that's why they work so hard to instill a sense of servility and compliance in the women when they're young – it certainly isn't that they want the women to enjoy their lives for their /own/ sakes! It's because women resenting their oppression is really a drag… you know, for the poor /men/ who have to put up with it.This is a fascinating post, Libby! Thanks for piling up the evidence that fundamentalist religion is deeply intertwined with oppression, and for the insightful analysis and former-insider's perspective. I haven't looked at your other posts yet (but I will). Debbie Pearl and her husband are moral monsters in general; their "parenting" methods are possibly even more disturbing than their gender politics.-Classical Cipher, OM (led here by Ophelia Benson)

  • Young Mom


  • cartographer

    I hate that "Different but equal" spiel, no matter how it's dressed up if you peel the layers back far enough you always get women being there just to serve and support men. I was bought up with a weird double bind, men were in charge but women were responsible for all their faults,

  • spectral_ev

    My mother said that women were supposed to submit to their husbands, but my father couldn't even sneeze without her permission. Me and my sister actually started to stand up for him when we became adults. I think our husbands have an easier time with secular feminist wives.

  • BrianMI6

    If Debbi Pearl's book left off as you say, (and I don't know because I've not read the book yet) then you were fed a half-truth concerning the roles of men and women in the Bible.The concept of having equal significance but different roles is accurate, if portrayed accurately.The context of the section of scripture in Ephesians where women are instructed to obey their husband comes AFTER Eph 5:21 where both the husband and wife are instructed to submit to one another.Furthermore, the Holy Spirit chose to spill more in on the pages of the New Testament outlining the HUSBANDS role in the marriage, the defining characteristic of which is the requirement to love his wife as Christ loved the Church. That's a lot of love. His form of submission, then, is to submit to the NEEDS of his wife as an act of life.This being the case, all husbands need to filter family decisions through the love of their wife. No husband who is fulfilling his responsibility to God if he does not take his wife's feelings on any family directive into consideration. Period.That being the case, the Bible is clear that there is a chain of command. The husband is to lead. There can be no democracy in a home where there are two people, each of whom have a single vote, and both vote for their own position on an issue. The frame of your writing indicates that, perhaps through proper communication techniques, an agreement should ALWAYS be able to be made. This is, of course, idealistic…a mere fairy tale. These types of situations will arise, even if they are not often. This being the case, it would seem that your position would be that if no agreement could be struck, then no decision would be made. The issue would just fade away. This is impossible. NOT taking any definite action on an issue is just as much a decision and has consequences just the same as taking some form of action.It is for this reason that God decided to assign a chain of command. For better or worse, when a breach is reached, one party must submit to the other. God has deemed that it be the wife that submits to her husband. If you say that this is demeaning and ridiculous, then by the same logic the man could say that it is demeaning and ridiculous that he submit to God. It then becomes clear that you simply wish that the Bible was written differently than it was. You wish that it said that both the man and the woman were to submit to God in the same way that the man alone is told to right now. We might all want to rewrite the Bible. Lots of people take scissors to it now. They usually start with the idea of hell and move on from there. Your writing reveals that you have decided to fashion a god to your own liking in your heart. This is just as much idolatry as fashioning one of wood or stone. You are guilty of breaking the second of the Ten Commandments.Hebrews tells us that its is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. It's not really fearful to fall into the hands of the (non)god that you've created because he's totally accepting of you and would never judge you as the God of the Bible promises to do. The good news is that, you're right…your god won't pitch you into hell for your unrighteous actions and attitudes. The bad news is that your god doesn't exist and the God who DOES exist is keeping tabs for the Day of Judgement.

  • Libby Anne

    Brian – Welcome to my blog!Thank you for proving my point! You say that men and women are to have roles that are "equal but different" (which is exactly what I was taught growing up, and what Debi Pearl also teaches), but what you describe are NOT equal roles! Any time you say that one is to lead and the other must submit, this is NOT equal!What if I took this same language and employed it to Caucasian Americans and African Americans? What if I said that whites are to lead and blacks to submit, but that whites are to lead lovingly, thinking of the needs of blacks' needs all the while? You would say that this is NOT equal! You would say that this is racism! Well yes! And I say that YOU are guilty of sexism!You are right that the Bible does have a lot of passages that treat women as mere property. This is because, when the Bible was written, women WERE property. You are mistaken when you think I have taken scissors to the Bible. The truth is, I don't believe the Bible is divine at all – it's merely a book written by men, just like any other book. And I don't believe in a God – any God – either.You say the following:"There can be no democracy in a home where there are two people, each of whom have a single vote, and both vote for their own position on an issue. The frame of your writing indicates that, perhaps through proper communication techniques, an agreement should ALWAYS be able to be made. This is, of course, idealistic…a mere fairy tale."This is incorrect. My husband and I have been married for years now, and have never had a time when we couldn't come to an agreement. I would contend that if you have two people who love each other and want what's best for the family, there will be no situation in which they can't come to an agreement. You may call this an idealistic fairy tale, but actually, it's my life, and it's very very real.Lastly, thank you for being straight up about your belief in an evil, twisted God who sends people to burn in eternal torture for "unrighteous actions and attitudes." Good to know you believe in a God who is so narcissistic as to punish people with a fate millions of times worse than the holocaust for not worshiping him. I don't think such a God exists, but if I die and find myself in hell, I will be the first to lead a rebellion against your twisted, evil God.

    • Erin

      Hi Libby Anne,
      I am a woman who feels very angry about the Patriarchal structure which women must live by in a christian household. (which is what brought me to this site). The Bible is very clear that women were made to serve as men’s companions- not slaves. And that men should cherish, and serve their wives in return as Christ served the church when He died for it. However, Man is still the Head (leader/origin) of the household. Woman is the body. (heart & bones). Even though I am upset about the structure that God created where women were created for the man to Love (as Jesus was created for God to love), I still am POSITIVE that God exists and Jesus died on the cross for us. I have had some run ins with God. He exists. He loves us. But Hell exists too. A Holy God (i.e. perfect in every way) is not capable of letting sin go by unpunished. Hence Jesus and the cross. Please listen to me & maybe try praying about it. I too do not like where I fit in to this world as a woman. But my not liking it does not change the fact that it is so.

      • Minnie

        Your god is a pro-rape monster, I prayed when I was a little girl that christian bible god would stop me from being sexually abused, he never stoped it. If your god does exist he loves child rape. Did you know there are pro-rape bible verses in the bible?

        The Ten Commandments does not say, do not rape. Jesus Christ never said, do not rape.
        If you are against rape start reserching christianity to see it for the evil it really is.

        [Numbers. 31; 17-18]
        “Now therefor, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every women who is not a virgin.
        But all the young girls who have not known a man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.”

      • Retha

        Oh, Minnie, I am so sorry to hear that. I can’t pretend to answer your heart, but I believe in One who dries away all tears one day.

        I won’t try to answer everything you said, but as for that Numbers verse: the “female virgins” were all the pre-pubescent girls, even babies (in Midianite culture, all girls were married at puberty) There is no reason to assume they were being kept for sexual purposes, and at least two reasons against it – their ages, and it is followed by ritual cleansing verses. The style of language don’t sound like it to us, but it implies adoption of all the little girls. What is more, this seems to be the command of Moses, who may or may not have had God behind what he said there. (And the Old Testament is not Christianity, but a predecessor to it.)

        According to David Instone-Brewer, taking Matthew 18:6 in context with the culture and their euphemisms, (“he who offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it will better for him if a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea”) the word translated with offend is a word for sexual acts – Jesus was, in language adults could understand but that is not crude in front of children, condemning child molesting. (I think Matthew deliberately neglected to mention the gender of the little one that stood in front of Jesus at the time- what Jesus said counts about boys and girls.

  • Retha

    BrianMI6,Your judgement of Libby Anne (someone who you don't know, and do not know the circumstances of) aside, I will quizz you on what you claim to know:You say: "That being the case, the Bible is clear that there is a chain of command. The husband is to lead. There can be no democracy in a home where there are two people… It is for this reason that God decided to assign a chain of command."Firstly, give me verses where the Bible say there is a chain of command. "Wife, submit"verses do not count, as you yourself admit that both should submit to each other. Therefore, submitting do not make a chain of command. Secondly, give me verses that say the husband is to lead.Thirdly, give verses which say God's motive for doing so is because He find democracy impossible.You cannot give such passages? Well, you are the one who tells us the disadvantages of "fashioning a God to our own liking." I suggest to you that you fashioned a God to your liking. If you did not, prove it by showing that the Bible actually backs up those three contentions.

  • Autumn M.

    It sounds like Ms. Pearl is suffering from the Stockholm Syndrome. She's being oppressed by Christian Fundamentalism and is siding with her oppressor. It gives me the total creeps to think about submitting to a love partner. "shudder". It's just sick to ask one partner in a relationship to always obey the other. Even before I left Christianity I thought that was sick and misogynistic.Peace,Autumn

  • Jaimie

    If you really get into science and study it in great detail you would find, maybe to your amazement, that there is no way the male came before the female. Even down to the smallest organism, it was either female or an amalgam of both genders. Males came later.The Bible, inspired or not, was written by men. Most of the surviving myths and lengends were written by men. I think it is good to remember that when reading misogynistic passages so as not to take them too seriously.

  • bramboniusinenglish

    Weird stuff, that chain of command thinking, and the idea that the woman is not created in Gods image but in the image of man is just plain heresy contradicting gen 1, no matter how you read that chapter (though some church fathers believed that 'women are inferior' crap too I am affraid) I honestly didn't know that stuff still existed… And I'm glad I've never encountered it. I might be a man, but I don't want to lead and be in charge, I don't care about power and I like my egalitarian and democratic marriage. Neither does my wife want to 'submit in everything' and it would not at all be productive if she did… Love sometimes means submitting to each other, yet, but mutually and it depends on the situation… Your patriarchy approach would destroy everything I'm living… Terrible it is to fall in the hand of such weirdo's who distort the bible to have more power and propagate an old-times-on-steroids system that's trying to go back to a past that never existed and then christianise it… (and Oh yes, I am a christian, and I believe in the bible as inspired and in the old creeds and the supernatural and yadda yadda, and I don't see how this destructive nonsense fits with Christianity)Reading your blog breaks my heart and makes me feel embarrassed for those whp profess to follow Christ. Peace to youBram from Belgium

  • Anonymous

    Those Christians who focus on the maleness or masculinity of God, while asserting that the separate roles of men and women are equal, are actually giving the underlying message that men are superior to women. God = male; God = perfect; all that which is not male is less than perfect. How could anyone think otherwise?

  • Anon

    Late to the party here (and this may be stupid of me), but I genuinely wonder if some education on non-standard lifestyles–in this case D/s or power exchange–might have stopped Debi Pearl assuming that everyone would be happy in a relationship just like hers. That’s of course if she is genuinely happy and not suffering from Stockholm as Autumn suggests.

  • Rosie

    As with all the best lies, this one has a grain of truth in it. That is, that homemaking and parenting ARE, despite the lack of financial renumeration, very important jobs. This doesn’t mean, however, that all women will want or like these jobs, or that all men will eschew them. My upbringing wasn’t as extreme as yours, Libby Anne, but the seeds of the Christian Patriarchy movement were definitely taught to me as I was growing up. My mom said “obey” in her wedding vows and still preaches why that’s a good thing to her granddaughters (my sister’s kids; I’m not cut out for parenthood myself). Unfortunately, I’m a daughter who takes after her father: opinionated, ambitious, intelligent, expressive, un-nurturing, and stubborn. Which is a recipe for disaster and misery in a patriarchally-organized system, or any system that believes in strictly defined gender roles. Some days I’m not even certain I’m female, despite the body I was born with.

    Anyway, I think feminism was onto something when it encouraged women to “become the man you wanted to marry”, but I think it will work a whole lot better when men are encouraged to “become the woman you wanted to marry”, at least a little bit. Even if you don’t have kids, somebody has to cook and clean and do laundry. It just makes no sense at all to assign those tasks on the basis of genitalia, rather than personality, the needs of the relationship, opportunities available, etc.

  • fkawau

    I have been browsing online more than 3 hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours Men and Women in Christian Patriarchy: Masters and Slaves or Equals?. It is pretty worth enough for me. Personally, if all web owners and bloggers made good content as you did, the internet will be a lot more useful than ever before.

  • chris

    If the golden rule of Christianity is to treat others as you wish to be treated, these men must wish to be treated as slaves in their marriage, and severely restricted in their churches. If not, why would they treat women this way. Great article!