Patriarchy is not a bad word. Period. Neither are radical feminism and matriarchy comforting words.
Patriarchy, in its pure sense, is a society made up of family units that is led by the oldest male, usually the father of the household.
Have humans done patriarchy well? No. And that is why we are here discussing why patriarchy is not a bad word.**
According to the Meriam Webster dictionary, patriarchy is a “social organization [or societies] marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line; broadly : control by men of a disproportionately large share of power.”
And matriarchy is defined as “a family, group, or government controlled by a woman or a group of women”; “a social system in which family members are related to each other through their mothers.”
But my observation is that you cannot have a true patriarchy without a matriarch present also. That’s because patriarchy is originally a biblical concept. It was designed by Creator God for the preservation of mankind, His image bearers.
So, what is true patriarchy?
Well, let’s consider what it is not. Patriarchy is not abuse of power or authority. It is not oppressive, immoral, greedy, lustful, self-serving, dismissive, neglectful, or chaotic. In short, it is not idolatry—where man is the center of his glorious universe. Misogynist men, what used to be called “male chauvinist pigs”, cannot implement biblical patriarchy. History is full of examples of imperfect patriarchies. The Scriptures also directly and indirectly allude to these imperfect male leaders. It seems to rational, sensible observers that only a Christ like man, who serves to protect, provide for, lead, and die for his bride is fulfilling this God given privilege and responsibility.
But the opposite of patriarchy is not radical feminism.
When patriarchy is not done right, we get shrill, abusive women who call themselves “feminists.” Radical feminism, as it’s sometimes called, seems to be the modern day version of the women’s rights movement. However, there is really nothing feminine about a woman who is barely surviving in this harsh world of corruption and deception. Her unruly behaviors are merely a reflection of her suffering at the hands of the very people who are supposed to honor her as a co-image bearer of Creator God. If you are a helping professional, you might be able to see the underlying hurt, neglect, abuse, trauma, or oppression endured over the years by these female survivors.* It is no wonder that radical feminists dismiss patriarchy as espoused in the bible.
However, what postmodern America forgets is that women can display toxic femininity.
We can also inflict major pain and suffering on others, especially on family members. Women’s victims include the young and old alike, rich and poor, male and female, black and white and all skin colors in between. Continual ridicule, condescension, anger outbursts, physical abuse, sexual molestation, and emotional manipulation, however understandable, can truly wreak havoc on a person.
Young children especially get hurt by women who behave like extreme, men-hating feminists. Male students who are denigrated by female ideologues in the classrooms (helped by worldly values propagated in the mainstream media) will become alienated from their positive sense of self. Instead of connecting to their role and purpose in society, they become disillusioned, frustrated, or depressed. Young boys in these types of environment are likely to grow up to be misogynists or passive, wounded men who are incapable of carrying out their role as patriarchs of their households. Or, they carry out patriarchies badly, oftentimes leading to matriarchies.
Matriarchies are intimately tied to profound loss. The man is either absent or so severely wounded that he is not the functional head. Therefore, the opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy either.
The Bible honors women, but does not promote radical feminism or matriarchies. And not everyone who advocates nobly for honoring women behaves like a radical feminist. Those on the political left point to the example of Jesus Christ as the first radical feminist. Yet, there are also thoughtful, nonabrasive, god-fearing women who engage in social political activism. Christian actress Candace Cameron Bure has called the Christian version of this kind of feminine leadership “strength under control, or bridled strength.” Christian femininity follows the complementarian model of biblical marriage.
Scripture promotes the complementarian model of marriage just as much as it endorses patriarchy. God created humans in his image, male and female he created them. Neither is right or wrong. Instead, the biblical framework differentiates holy from unholy, sinless versus sinful, godly versus ungodly. Contrary to what some might believe, strong women leaders in the Bible do not compete with patriarchies. Rather, they enable the patriarchy to be more stable and effective for their loved ones. The two are not mutually exclusive. Like in the Confucius yin yang theory of opposites, the male leader is neither dominant nor superior to the female leader. Both are equally distinct entities, yet interdependent in an egalitarian way.
But since one partner needs to be the head when there is an impasse, the bible is clear that it be the husband, like Christ is the head of his body, the church. See Ephesians 5:23. The body of Christ seems to connote a feminine identity, and yet head and body are not quite equal parts. So the bible simultaneously promotes egalitarianism between the sexes and also order, a sense of hierarchy.
The Human Journey
We, humans, are all on a journey. Whether you call this the refiner’s fire refining believers to become pure gold, or the potter molding and making us (the clay) into his image, conscientious Christians can expect some painful challenges on the road to becoming more “Christlike”.
And this journey is frustratingly not linear. It is one of self discovery that leads us sometimes around in circles or a few steps forward, a few steps back. We are on this complicated, sometimes joyous, oftentimes trying path of self growth until we are no longer in the flesh.
I was in my late thirties, attending dozens of marriage seminars and retreats, reading books from experts on marriage and men/women differences, when I finally made a realization: No one has arrived. Not even pastors, ministers, priests, monks, nuns, missionaries, “saints”, theologians, best-selling authors, successful public figures, or any other human leader. So, you and I are off the hook!
But just because men and women consistently make plenty of diverse mistakes in life does not mean that we are without a guide. Christians have God as our guide. He reveals His holy character to us in the bible, in quiet devotional time, and through the body of Christ. Yet, even with this guide, Christian fathers will not carry out patriarchy perfectly. Many do behave selfishly or aggressively without any regards to how this wounds the women and children. However, neither can women claim that we’ve played out our roles as matriarchs perfectly. Not withstanding human history, the fact remains that patriarchy and complementarianism are biblical, God-ordained models for the harmony of Christian families and preservation of diverse societies.
Furthermore, God’s Holy Spirit helps believers to see that we are not each other’s enemies (Ephesians 6:12). Even men who hurt women, sexually harass, abuse, or oppress women with their physical strength and societal powers are not our true enemy. Do they deserve consequences? Emphatically yes. Socially, politically, and legally, evil acts by sinful men need to be brought to justice. However, finding effective solutions for #metoo, #churchtoo, and #timesup need not require that we dismantle patriarchy, an orderly system that, for the most part, works. Nor should we join in the choir to denigrate all men and boys for their innate masculinity.
Our menfolk don’t need to be battered, shamed, or guilt-tripped to being equal to their feminine counterparts. De-masculinizing men and boys and destroying patriarchy in human societies will not make human civilizations work any better. It will lead to disorder and dysfunction of the worst kind. After-all, women were not designed to be exactly the same as men, but wonderfully different and complementary —parts and all. Same value to God, different functions for the preservation of humankind. Unity in diversity.
Complementariansim, egalitarianism, and hierarchical order in one holistic, balanced mixture. ***
Essentially, the opposite of patriarchy is anarchy. Chaos arises and structured societies, no matter how homogenous or diverse, destabilize when men do not do patriarchy well.
So instead of dismissing the Bible as a misogynist, patriarchal, hierarchical, sexist book that oppresses women, believers can embrace the entirety of it. According to the ESV Bible, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” (2 Tim 3:16). We can look to Creator God as our guide and Scripture as His instruction manual. We do not need to settle for lawlessness, shortsightedness, selfish ambitions, self-righteousness, pettiness, or vain living. Despite our struggles in the flesh and challenges of a fallen world, the Holy Spirit can live in us and guide us toward righteousness.
It has been my experience that the Spirit gives us greater insight each day into the great, loving character of Father God. He is the solution to the brokenness that we suffer individually and as communities. Believers are blessed to know that our lives have meaning and purpose. God ultimately redeems and restores what has been fallen and corrupted by sin.
And He is the true hope we all have for a better tomorrow. Men and women, young and old, black and white, rich and poor, strong and weak– we can find a way to all coexist in harmony knowing that one day, we will all be freed from pain and suffering.
*Update: Check out the stories of brave whistle blowers, Ronan Farrow and most recently, Linda Bloodworth Thomason.
**This blog is dedicated to my three sons.
***Update: Similar to the mystery of the Trinity.