What is Christian Patriarchy? An Introduction

In a nutshell, Christian Patriarchy is the belief that God has ordained a specific family order, and that this family order must be followed. The husband leads, the wife submits, and the children obey.

There are two important aspects about Christian Patriarchy. The first is the belief in the importance of male headship or authority, and the second is the belief that men and women have vastly different roles to play. A third issue involves the role of children.

Male Authority

Christian Patriarchy holds that women must always be under male authority (or headship). A woman is never to be independent of male authority. First, she is under her father’s authority, and then under her husband’s authority.

(A widow would be under her son’s authority, or, if she had no sons or her sons were young, she would return to her father’s authority. If is not possibles possible, some argue that widow should place herself under the authority of a church elder or pastor.)

Many evangelicals use the rhetoric of “male headship” but see it as merely spiritual or figurative. For Christian Patriarchy, though, being under male authority includes obedience. This obedience is absolute; a woman is only excused from obeying if her male authority orders her to do something illegal and immoral (some dispute this, and argue that she is still required to obey, but that God won’t hold her accountable for any sins she commits at the order of her male authority).

I Corinthians 11:3 - 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.

Under Christian Patriarchy, the framework in this verse is extended to women in general. Every woman has a male authority, and that male authority looks to Christ as his authority. A woman is to obey her male authority, whether it is her father, husband, brother, or son, and he in turn is to obey Christ. By obeying her male authority, a woman is obeying God. This is seen as the natural and God-given order. 

Separate Roles

Christian Patriarchy holds that men are to provide and protect and women are to care for the home and the children. This is seen as the divine order for the family. The idea is that the two sexes are equal, but that they have different roles to play. Both roles are highly important, and neither sex can fulfill the role of the other. Men and women are simply different.

The man’s role is to hold a career and provide for his family, to protect his family, and to represent his family to the world in politics and in the church. The woman’s role is to bear children and raise them, to cook and keep house, and to support her husband, building him up as a man through her affirmation and obedience.

Hard core followers of Christian Patriarchy hold that women are never to work outside of the home in any capacity – even if their families desperately need the money. Yet just as with Quiverfull, there are plenty of families who are influenced by the ideas of Christian Patriarchy without being completely hard core. These families most often hold that married women, or married women with children, should not hold jobs outside of the home, and that it’s not women’s place to have “careers.”

Children 

Under Christian Patriarchy, all children are expected to offer their parents absolute obedience while they are minors. No disobedience is accepted, and children are taught that obeying their parents is obeying God, because God has placed them under their parents’ authority.

Daughters remain under their father’s authority until married to a man he approves of, generally through a parent-guided courtship. While under her father’s authority, it is the daughter’s duty to obey him and accept his will for her as God’s will. Many in the Christian Patriarchy movement reject college for girls, and the Stay At Home Daughter movement is growing.

Sons are under their father’s authority until they become men. The point at which this occurs isn’t so clear, but it definitely occurs sometime between when they turn eighteen and when they marry. Once he becomes a man, a son no longer need to be under male authority, and he becomes the male authority for his wife and children.

Some families in Christian Patriarchy have trouble completely letting go of their sons, however, and there is in some circles the idea that even an adult son should be obedient to, or at least highly respective of, his father’s desire. This is where you get Geoff Botkin’s 200 Year Plan (also known as Multigenerational Faithfulness).

Conclusion

The most important thing to remember about Christian Patriarchy is its emphasis on a hierarchical family order, which it regards as the natural order ordained by God. Men and women have different roles to play, the man as protector and provider and the woman as nurturer and homemaker. Women are always under male authority; daughters are to obey their fathers and wives are to obey their husbands. When everyone fulfills the role God has created for them, the family prospers.

The things I find most troubling about Christian Patriarchy are its emphasis on women offering absolute obedience to their male authorities – when you think about it, there is nothing really to differentiate this from slavery – and its emphasis on strict gender roles, which classes people by their sex rather than by their talents, interests, or abi.ities. Christian Patriarchy fails to recognize the huge diversity within each gender, and pushes people into prescribed slots based on their genitals rather than seeing people as individuals first.

The vast, vast majority of Christians do not hold to the teachings of Christian Patriarchy. In fact, many Christians actively fight against these ideas, arguing that they represent a fallen order of mankind and that Christ has ordained equality between the genders. However, it should be noted that even as some Christians fight these ideas others are unknowingly influenced by them, and that is what makes understanding the ideas behind Christian Patriarchy all the more important.

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.

  • machintelligence

    Ahh. Now I understand why Jessica Ahlquist was so frequently accused of being a mouthpiece for her father or uncle!

  • Kevin

    Of course, it’s not just Christians that practice patriarchy.

    Islam’s version features honor killings.

    • Brawne Lamia

      Now, to be fair, it’s not just Islam with honor killings. There’s a large number of them within Hinduism for similar patriarchal reasons and it’s not totally unheard of in Christianity or any other religion or society that relies on heavily patriarchal rules.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        True. We should not forget that patriarchy is a world-wide, trans-cultural, trans-religious, trans-national phenomenon. Christian patriarchy is just one manifestation of it.

    • MadGastronomer

      And, of course, it’s a minority of Muslims who practice honor killings.

    • Judy L.

      Islam doesn’t sanction honour killings. Honour killings are not a feature of religion. They are a feature of deeply misogynistic cultures, many of which are populated by people who follow Islam. People may talk about the ‘Islamic world’, but that world is as culturally diverse, if not more diverse, than the ‘Christian world’.

    • Steve

      Some Christian sects would love honor killings too if society and the law would let them get away with it. The only reason you don’t see it is because society doesn’t sanction it

  • karmakin

    To be sure it’s only a minority that actively follow Christian Patriarchal thinking, however as you said, I think that the core ideas are a pretty big influence, even if never said or transmitted via the Christian community itself.

    But I think that the whole concept of a “Natural Order ordained by God” can and does go deeper, even past the family unit. Especially if said god is willing and able to intervene in our world. Those things combine together, I think to create a sort of thought pattern that can be used to justify things in our world as being part of said natural order. (Then you bring a counter-force into play, such as the idea of a “devil” and things really get ratcheted up). Then you start applying this to things such as economic policy (like unemployment benefits and programs to help out underwater homeowners), and as people see unemployment and failure as part of the “Natural Order” they start opposing it on what is, to them, core religious grounds.

    The Tea Party movement was a coming out party of sorts for this line of thinking.

    I also think that this way of thinking actually has a lot of verisimilitude, assuming the existence of a directive, interventionist deity. This is why it gains traction even within religious groups that do not actively teach patriarchal and social order concepts.

    I see Christianity (and most religion as a whole) not as a monolithic block, but as a spectrum that goes with the strength of one’s theistic (or deistic or pantheistic or universalistic) beliefs.

  • ohioobserver

    Libby Ann, First, I love the posts you have been doing on these extreme Christian movements — very educational!

    I have what seems like a trivial question, given the big issues raised by you and your commenters in this post; but bear with me because I think the answer might reveal a lot about the CP movement and the way they think:

    What if a man likes to cook?

    I know, silly question, we’re talking about the oppression of women here, what does this have to do with anything? Well, what you’ve described (very eloquently) is a system that forces everyone into Procrustean roles based solely on their sex. Of course a woman dare not depart from her role. But dare a man, also? Can a CP male, head of the house, share in “wifely” work, such as cooking and cleaning? Lots of American men do. Are they less “manly” in the eyes of CP Christians? Misguided? Tools of Satan? The answer to this question would help me understand whether men have REAL authority in the CP culture, or whether they are just as stifled as women — and that the real authority lies in the clergy who pass judgement on the propriety of all behavior as it relates to assigned roles (shudder).

    • Libby Anne

      It varies. In my own home, chores were strictly divided by sex, with the girls doing the indoor work and the boys doing the outdoor work. However, my dad did like to cook occasionally, and that was accepted. If he had been the person cooking the majority of the meals, though, I think that would have been a problem. As a once in a while thing, it was fine. I’ve heard of some more hard core situations, though, where guys don’t cook at all, and cooking even one meal would be seen as them doing “women’s work.” So I suppose the amount of flexibility varies.

      • Pteryxx

        I’ve heard of some more hard core situations, though, where guys don’t cook at all, and cooking even one meal would be seen as them doing “women’s work.” So I suppose the amount of flexibility varies.

        …This is how my community worked. I remember once overhearing an adult man admitting he did some chores while his wife was disabled for some reason, but he was careful to only do it at home where nobody would see his disgrace. Apparently the other women in the community were supposed to come over, bring food, and do the womanly chores for him.

  • Charles Bartley

    The same verses that support this get applied to female priests and pastors, so IMHO, there is a continuum on how to apply these verses within a conservative Christian belief system. They all come from the same place, and they all have the same end result (no matter what the practitioners say) of lessening the equality, status and power of women over their own lives. Separate but equal is NOT equal.

    My ex was severely mentally ill. I had power over her even without this belief system just based on her lack of capacity. It SUCKED and it drained and lessened both me and her. The #1 thing I have been looking for from a prospective partner since my divorce is independence–partnership, not lordship. I have found that person, and we are getting married this summer. Having a true equal partner to go through life with is the best thing ever.

    Additionally, I am a natural caretaker. It is part of my personality and emotional buildup. I would be less me if I were not this way. I am not less of a man for being a caretaker. Even with this, being a full time caretaker over just one person wore me out completely. No one should be forced into that role full time, although some times it is unavoidable. People in those positions need support and love, not lordship.

    Charles

  • Monimonika

    One thing I find unclear is whether sons are under the authority of their mothers.

    I can understand that sons would have to obey their mothers when the sons are obviously little children, but at what point do the roles change?

    Does it change when the son “officially” becomes a man? A bit before that? Or does the mother’s authority still stand as long as the father is around? (This is not an exhaustive list, so feel free to add more.)

    • Libby Anne

      Ah, very good question! There is some variation, but in general the mother’s authority over a son lasts until he hits puberty. After that point, the idea is that, as they’re now in the process of becoming men, sons “chafe under the authority of their mothers.” At that point, they’re basically just under their father’s authority.

      • Monimonika

        Ah, thank you for the answer. I’m guessing then that while the mother does not have authority over the son anymore, the son in turn still has no authority over the mother (so long as the father or other elder male is alive).

        I’m suddenly reminded of the show Meerkat Manor for some reason (although that family is most definitely a matriarchy).

      • Fortuna Veritas

        That’s… that’s just an impressive bit of hypocrisy there, though it does serve to underscore that it’s mostly a method to control women rather than about family order.

  • kraut
  • scotlyn

    Hi Libby Anne. I’m really enjoying this series, as well. My own growing up years in a missionary household took place in the 60′s and 70′s. Although we were Bible believers and proclaimed the gospel’s good news, and were motivated to bring others to a rebirth in Christ, I do not recall much stress then on any of the following themes now associated with evangelical christianity…creationism, abortion, the rapture, end times, male headship, etc. As I recall, myself and my three sisters were expected to think for ourselves, speak up, and to accomplish great things – all of which I took to heart in my own journey ever further away from the faith. Yet a sister of mine, with the same upbringing, has embraced all of the above – homeschooling a not small number of children with creationist materials, deferring to her husband, teaching my nieces to do the same, instant obedience demanded of all children, and so on, much as you have been describing.

    In correspondence with my older, now college-age nieces and nephews, it strikes me how careful they are with their words, never hinting at anything less than joy and happiness with all of God’s works. In giving that observation some attention, I’ve had a sudden, blinding realisation.

    And that is this: a Christian has no right to privacy, because God is always watching. And so long as you believe that, your whole life is one endless Big Brother house, with an inner camera always rolling and recording everything you think. It’s not enough to be outwardly compliant or modest or obedient. The care with which you have to police the very deepest inside of your own head must be crazy making, especially if you have reason to be angry at your parents, for example, or doubtful that your pastor’s advice comes from God. Whoops! Can’t think THOSE thoughts.

    And this has shown me how far I’ve been able to come in 30 years since I left home. I have well and truly learned that I’m entitled to, and in fact have, the privacy of my own head. That my actions will be out there for all to see and judge, but what’s inside my head is my very own. No Gods, no mind spies. Spells peace and inner contentment.

  • sailor1031

    “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”

    So now I’m confused again. So Paul says that christ is not equal to god, not god itself but under god and subject to it?

    • http://bibicalpersonhood.wordpress.com Retha

      This proves that the Greek word for “head” – a literal head on the neck – did not mean leader in 1st century Greek.

      In English, being “head of” is a metaphor for leadership. But God is not the leader of Christ, but part of Him and source of Him.

      And Christ is not the leader of every man. Men include atheists and Hindus and animalist witch doctors in Africa. Nor was Christ the leader of every man in the world where Corinthians was written. Once again, the answer is that being the head was a metaphor not for leadership, but for something else.

  • http://www.ayoungmomsmusings.blogspot.com Melissa@Permission to Live

    Do you get Above Rubies Magazine? I still get it because I haven’t cancelled it yet after breaking out of patriarchy. They recently did a whole issue filled with stories of women quitting their jobs outside the home and all the ways god blessed them for living in the proper gender roles. They included stories like a guy getting severely injured and needing to be in a wheelchair and his wife going back to work while he stayed home and homeschooled their children, until… they realized how sinful this was and saw how she was getting a big head controlling the money like that and his ego was injured and the kids hated being homeschooled by him. So they decided to follow god’s leading and she quit her job and they lived on nothing for several months and then what do you know, god rewarded their faithfulness and granted her husband a new job, and they were all provided for just like god promised, and all because they obeyed god. The entire magazine was filled with stories like that, I can hardly believe that just a few years ago I would have believed it was all true.

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  • Fortuna Veritas

    I feel ill after having read that. And suddenly being looked at like I was a three-headed dog when I told a fellow student at the christian middle school I went to that she should just be a pastor herself if she wanted to be active in the ministry rather than marry one takes on a chilling and enraging new subtext.

    Kind of hard to believe that I’d heard of all kinds of other whackjobs and groups deemed to be heretical even by the loose standards of protestantism, but hadn’t heard about these sickos until today.

    Still can’t get over how stupid they must be to have actively picked out that name for themselves.

  • Mike

    It sounds a little like cherry picking scripture. The entire topic as treated in scripture should be taken into consideration. The heirarchy concept should be taken from the standpoint of service. We are told “wives obey your husbands” but right after that men are told that they are to treat their wifes as God treated us, with service and self-sacrifice, with honor and gob-loads of love (my paraphrase, of course).

    The family unit mirrors the trinity of God, Father-Son-Spirit, husband-wife-children to some extent and an environment of mutual respect, love and service is expected.

    My children are told that my wife and I make our decisions together, and if one is not around, the other speaks for both of us. If my wife told my children one thing, I would never counter what she said (unless of course she says hunting people for sport is a good thing to do, or something along those lines) and indeed would support whatever she said. It IS true that men and women are different to some extent, but marriage is a partnership and parenting is a privilege and an honor. It is also true that my wife and I tend to carry more weight in different TYPES of decisions where it makes sense. For example, she may want to go on vacation at a certain period of time but she will most certainly defer to me as to when that might be since it could impact my work and our income. I defer to her when it comes to many financial decisions because she manages our budget and plans our expenses. I might REALLY want that new electric screwdriver, but if I want it, she might tell me that she will budget in some savings for it, and I will have to wait to get it. I posted a response to a home schooling blog regarding our move to a more independent form of homeschooling than we are currently doing. My wife REALLY wants to do this, and I am hesitant, but unless I have VALID reasons for us to not move forward with this, I will acquiesce and support the decision 100%. It’s just love and respect. She’s my WIFE… we chose to spend the rest of our lives together and to raise children together. It’s not a game. It’s a true partnership… it’s a MARRIAGE.

    • Malitia

      “The family unit mirrors the trinity of God, Father-Son-Spirit, husband-wife-children”

      Actually older god trinities (like: Isis (wife), Osiris (husband), Horus (child)) mirrored the nuclear family unit a lot better (I deliberately used the gods mirror humans wording). Heck, even the Wiccan God-Goddess pair is closer (as husband-wife and also in many traditions the God dies every year and the Goddess gives him birth anew so also mother-son).
      Helps if you have an actual female part to your god/pantheon to be a “wife” and/or “mother”. To ask the obvious where is Mary (mother of the Son part) in your God? Or is this a gay couple who used her as a surrogate mother? *confused stare*

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  • Pia M

    I was raised in a christian home where everyone was equal. There was no separating, the only obedience was respect and right from wrong. After I became an adult, my path led me to Wicca (commonly referred to as Paganism), again where we are all equal. No I don’t need or want to be a Christian but having been raised in the home I was, I do respect it. Usually. I’d never heard of this so called “movement” until a friend told me of the Duggars, so curiosity led me see what it really was/is, if it really existed. Sadly it does. Obey a man? Never. This is not the middle ages folks….it’s the 21st century. My sister would say those who follow this are NUTS. I agree.

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