Patriarchy in Name Only?

Patriarchy in Name Only? June 1, 2014

Evangelical Christians who believe in male headship and female submission but do not like the word “patriarchy” tend to use the term “complementarianism” instead. They speak of men naturally being better at some things (protecting, providing) and women naturally being better at other things (nurturing, caregiving), and speak of the two as “complements” of each other. While softer and gentler as eschewing the term, complementarianism, too, is patriarchy.

But there’s something very interesting that goes on in some of these relationships.

My in-laws believe in male headship and female submission. My father-in-law has told Sean and I many times that he and my mother-in-law discuss decisions at length and generally make them together. He says he has only had to pull rank on a decision maybe once a year. For the most part, in other words, my in-laws have a functional egalitarian relationship, even while verbally endorsing male headship and female submission.

I actually think this is more common than we might realize, especially among evangelicals and those who use the word “complementarianism” instead of the word “patriarchy.” There are many many many couples who verbally endorse male headship and female submission while in fact carrying out egalitarian relationships. Interestingly, defendants of complemnentarianism tend to unwittingly promote this by arguing that if a husband truly loves his wife, he will include her as an equal in the decision-making process and not simply pull rank.

Here I want to turn to two recent comments from readers.

AnotherOne: I have seen conservative evangelicals who subscribe to patriarchy/complementarianism and who have good marriages and good relationships with their children. But it always entails the husband/father 1) not invoking complete authority, and 2) not taking complete responsibility for everything. In other words, people who manage to live healthily under this philosophy are just paying lip service to it. They may subscribe in theory to the man having full responsibility and full authority, but in practice they’re behaving like cooperative, mutually respectful adults. I always want to ask them why, if the philosophy is correct, does the only healthy expression of it have to involve seriously tempering it with the “servant” caveat? Just dump the patriarchy and continue on as healthy adults in a mutually respectful relationship as equals. That’s what my husband and I did when we realized that neither of us actually believed he was in charge, and we’re much happier for it.

Mariana: I was talking to a conservative (married) Christian couple who are friends of mine the other day about how they implement patriarchy in their relationship.

They said they do consider their relationship to be in line with “biblical patriarchy,” and they gave me a definition that matched Stacy’s description fairly well. He considers himself the spiritual leader of the relationship, but he also strives to lead by serving her a lot.

For instance, she’s in law school and he has a bachelor’s degree and works full-time, so he does most of the cooking and washing dishes while she studies at home in the evenings. (So obviously, though they consider themselves conservative, they are pretty mainstream compared to Quiverfull / CP folks described in this blog – also I’m pretty sure they use birth control because they’ve been married for at least two years and don’t have kids.)

I described some of the situations from the Pearl books to them, where a woman wants to give her husband a suggestion, but can’t come across as openly questioning or critical of her husband, so she has to resort to shitty, passive-aggressive tactics, and they looked at me like I was crazy. They both laughed out loud, and said that they just talk through all of their decisions, even though she still looks to him as her leader, and this works very well for them.

So I guess my point is, I think some people really do live a version of “patriarchy” that is so un-patriarchal, it truly is harmless. I got the feeling that they wanted to live according to “biblical patriarchy” so they could feel that they were living life according to the bible/Jesus/etc., but essentially had a completely secular/modern-style relationship, with a focus on good communication and basing work load and chores on practical matters unrelated to gender.

Of course, I didn’t tell them that.

Yes, yes, and yes. I would echo both AnotherOne and Mariana in saying that these couples really ought to dump the patriarchy/complementarian rhetoric and openly embrace egalitarianism.

If you listen to mainstream defenders of complementarianism you soon realize that they cases they hold up as examples are those where relationships are functionally egalitarian. In other words, it’s false advertising, and it’s misleading. “Complementarianism works so long as you are actually egalitarian.” The trouble, of course, is that they don’t actually say that, and their use of egalitarian success stories to support patriarchal marriage structures can lead to serious problems for couples whose marriages are as patriarchal as the rhetoric.

I’m glad that there are couples out there who use patriarchal rhetoric while forming egalitarian relationships, but I wish they’d realize the problem this creates for those who don’t get the memo that success only comes if they make a divide between the rhetoric and the reality.


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