Disrupting Christian Patriarchy: Russell Moore is Right (Sort Of)

Disrupting Christian Patriarchy: Russell Moore is Right (Sort Of) February 20, 2019

My husband, however, is definitely right.

He suggested I explain two things before I continue my series. First, I need to clarify patriarchy. Second, I need to talk about Paul. A recent social media conversation underscored the importance of doing this. After reading a posting of my first  Disrupting Christian Patriarchy blog, Facebook commentators suggested I stop “name calling” (my use of the term Christian patriarchy) and quickly dismissed my arguments by quoting Paul’s words from 1 Timothy and Ephesians (women be silent and wives submit). In other words, their assumptions about both patriarchy and Paul hindered their ability to hear my argument.

The Nativity panel from St. Mary’s, Shrewsbury, Shropshire

I don’t want that to happen to you. So let’s go back to Russell Moore.

In 2005, Russell Moore–now the current president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC)–defended patriarchy: both as a word and as a practice. Just a few years later, in 2008, he complained to Mark Dever, “I hate…..the word ‘complementarian’, I prefer the word ‘patriarchy.” More recently, in 2012, an article on The Gospel Coalition hashed out the positions of Moore, Rachel Held Evans, and Denny Burke. The article accepted that complementarianism is indeed patriarchy. Listen to how it states the problem:  “Is complementarianism another word for patriarchy? Egalitarians and many complementarians agree: It is indeed. But a recent debate attempts to determine whether this should be acknowledged as a timeless biblical norm or rejected as an outdated cultural standard.”

Russell Moore is right. It is Christian patriarchy, whatever you may call it (complementarianism, male headship, biblical manhood and womanhood, etc.). Moore even distinguishes it from “pagan patriarchy,” which he argues is women submitting to men in general instead of to just their husbands.  And Moore isn’t the only complementarian to use the word patriarchy. Rachel Held Evans has noted that an article in the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood journal describes complementarianism as the modern form of patriarchy. Clearly patriarchy is a term supported and used by complementarians.

But Russell Moore is also wrong. Well, at least sort of wrong.  And what he is wrong about is the heart of my entire blog series. Russell Moore argued in 2005 that ‘Christian patriarchy’ must win against egalitarianism because it embodies the biblical ideal. As he has written, “Egalitarians are winning the evangelical gender debate, not because their arguments are stronger, but because, in some sense, we are all egalitarians now. The complementarian response must be more than reaction. It must instead present an alternative vision—a vision that sums up the burden of male headship under the cosmic rubric of the gospel of Christ and the restoration of all things in him. It must produce churches that are not embarrassed to tell us that when we say the “Our Father,” we are patriarchs of the oldest kind.” Patriarchy, Moore argues, is under the “cosmic rubric of the gospel of Christ.” It is God-ordained and timeless.

Patriarchy is indeed timeless, but that doesn’t mean it is God-ordained. In fact, my blog series is going to argue the opposite.

But first let’s address the two elephants in the room:  patriarchy and Paul.

  1. Patriarchy:  What is patriarchy? Historian Judith Bennett explains patriarchy very well in her History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. She writes that patriarchy is a general system through which women have been and are subordinated to men.” (55) In other words, even if Moore wants to separate “pagan patriarchy” from “Christian patriarchy,” he can’t. Both are systems which place power in the hands of men and takes power away from women.  We may not like using the term patriarchy, but historically and realistically, it is the right term to use.
  2. Paul:  I recently rewatched Steve Lipscomb’s documentary The Battle for the Minds on the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Over and over, the Southern Baptist leaders quote Paul as justification for their actions. Just last Sunday I had lunch with one of the women who was on front lines of the fight against the takeover (I will have an interview with her later in the series). She told me how, during the SBC conventions of the 1980s, leaders simply turned off the microphones whenever a woman got up to speak. Because of their interpretation of “women be silent,” they literally silenced women….  I have already spent several months arguing that it is time for Christians to stop using Paul against women. There is simply too much evidence suggesting that evangelical Christians have not done a good job interpreting Paul. It is absolutely critical that we consider historical context (as we often do when considering other parts of the Bible).  For example, I was struck by how the SBC leaders in The Battle for the Minds harped on 1 Timothy 3:2–that overseers should be husband of one wife.  They used this as iron clad proof that senior pastors had to be men. This made me laugh! The concept of senior pastor is completely absent from the biblical world. I guarantee you that when Paul wrote 1 Timothy, he was not thinking about Rick Warren. I am going to talk more about this next week, so let’s just leave it at this: we cannot interpret the New Testament church, much less the words of Paul, through the lens of the twenty-first century church. It is also absolutely critical that we understand the role played by Bible translations in shaping our understanding of women (all you ESV folk out there….). For example, we know that Junia (the apostle mentions in Romans 16:7) was regularly and uncontroversially translated as a woman until very late in Christian history, when she suddenly became a man (Junius). Why? Because the male translators could not believe that a woman was called an apostle. In sum: Paul isn’t the biggest problem for women. The biggest problems are our obsession with (mis)quoting Paul against women and our misunderstanding of the historical context from which Paul was speaking.


Whether we like the word or not, patriarchy is deeply embedded in modern Christianity. So is Pauline prejudice against women. But neither have to be there. Believe you me. You can believe the Bible is inspired by God and completely trustworthy without believing that patriarchy is God’s dream for humanity. You can believe that God gifted women and men equally. You can believe that God calls both women and men to use their gifts–evangelism, teaching, preaching, praying, etc.–in the same ways. You can believe all these things and still be an evangelical Christian.

My prayer is that you will be ready to listen. Christian patriarchy isn’t good for any of us. As Sarah Bessey recently tweeted, “Patriarchy is not God’s dream for humanity. Never was. Never will be. Doesn’t matter how your soft euphemism for the word. Stop baptizing the powers and principalities of evil with sacred language. It’s long past time to dismantle this in the Church.”

Until next time……..

Both of the images are from the altar of St. Mary’s in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. 


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