Thinking about Patriarchy
Soon, I will be jumping from Genesis 3 to the New Testament. I have already talked about Deborah, and I think she busts the assumptions we have about the empowerment and competency of women in the Old Testament. Also, I need to do a lot of work in the New Testament with key texts, so we will commence with Jesus and women.
But before looking at texts in the New Testament, it is vitally important to address the matter of patriarchy in the Bible.
Is Patriarchy “Biblical”?
Put simply, patriarchy is the idea that a (certain) society revolves around men and their leadership. In patriarchal societies, men are the leaders and decision-makers, and women play a supporting role. It would be foolish to argue that Jesus did not live in a patriarchal society. Israel had kings. Israel had male priests. Jesus had male disciples. The lives of men dominate the pages of the entire Bible. Everyone agrees on that. But “what is” is not always “what should be.” Just because something happens in Scripture, doesn’t mean that is the way it ought to be. Jesus makes this clear when he allows divorce, but points out that it is a concession, not a new standard (Matt 19:8).
This is where I teach my students about the ideas of progressive revelation and divine accommodation. Progressive revelation means that God does not reveal his full will all at once, but allows it to unfold over time. In the middle of the story, we cannot expect to see what the fullness of new creation looks like (so 2 Cor 4:17).
Divine accommodation means that God might use already existing systems to communicate his revelation in culturally familiar concepts because He has a long term plan to move towards complete redemption. So, for example, Scripture refers to the “four corners” of the earth (Isa 11:12), even though the actual world is spherical. God was communicating partially within existing thought structures, even if they were not factually correct.
I think this matters when we look at ongoing elements of patriarchy in the Bible. Yes, it is part of the reality of life in Antiquity. So, we have male priests, male kings, and male disciples. But scholars like William Webb have wisely called us to look for pointers in Scripture to what it ought to be like. Even in the midst of a patriarchal world, one that I admit Jesus doesn’t condemn explicitly, we catch glimpses of a “men and women together in leadership” vision. One where “sons and daughters shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17).
I believe the fact of Scripture itself deconstructs patriarchy. The Church and the Spirit together embedded the voices of both men and women in Holy Scripture (e.g., women like Miriam, Hannah, and Mary), transforming their words into the Word of God for the people of God. This permanently overturns patriarchy’s silencing of women, and empowers these women to be inspired and authoritative teachers for all and for all times.
I believe when we disarm patriarchy and move towards amphiarchy (shared leadership), we honor the symphony of Scripture and reflect the ideal unified calling of men and women to care for God’s world together.