Patriarchy: What’s in a Word?

Patriarchy: What’s in a Word? August 27, 2014

Today Michael Farris published a white paper titled “A Line in the Sand.” In it, he called out patriarchy and legalism directly, and condemned both. I am grateful for any additional freedom his words may bring children in Christian homeschooling families influenced by his words, but I am very concerned that we are once again getting caught up in what amounts to a word game.

I’m going to leave aside that the biggest reason Farris gives for “treating children well and treating women well” is that “if public policy makers believe that the homeschooling movement promotes teachers and teaching that have a strong likelihood of damaging people—particularly children and women—then our freedom will suffer.” I’d like to think that Farris would speak against discrimination and abuse even if he didn’t think the freedom to homeschool was on the line, but I honestly don’t think he would. But again, that’s fodder for another post. What I want to get at here is a slightly different point.

Here is an excerpt from Farris’s white paper:

Phillips’ teaching of patriarchy goes far beyond even a very traditional view of Scripture’s teaching about the roles of men and women. Some people who subscribe to nothing more than traditional complementarian views (as do I) have occasionally used the term patriarchy (something I would never do). However, there is a real distinction between complementarianism and Phillips’ form of patriarchy. In this article, we seek to address teachings about the subservience of women, which can never be justified from Scripture.

In sum, patriarchy teaches that women in general should be subject to men in general. The Bible teaches no such thing.

That’s . . . not what anyone says “patriarchy” means. I’ve used the term plenty of times and I’ve never meant that. Even Doug Phillips never believed that women in general should be subject to men in general. No, the idea is that wives are to submit to husbands, that women’s primary role is in the home, and, in the case of Phillips, that adult daughters should obey their fathers.

Farris mischaracterizes Phillips’ position throughout. Phillips would never say that his daughters Liberty or Jubilee are to be in subjection to all men rather than simply in subjection to him. Similarly, Farris later claims that Phillips taught that adult daughters must not leave home until marriage, but this is not true. Phillips taught that daughters could leave the home at their fathers’ behest—that is how the young nanny Phillips sexually abused came to live with them, sent there by her father.

Farris also plays fast and loose with his own. Farris stated above that he ascribes to “traditional complementarian views,” but isn’t very upfront about what those involve. Instead, he describes his views as follows:

While people are entitled to personal opinions within a broad range, there are some views within the patriarchy movement that go too far. Women are not to be the de facto slaves of men. Women are created with dignity equal to that of men. Women have direct and unmediated access to God. Daughters should not be taught that their only and ultimate purpose in life is to be the “helpmeet” of a man. While being a godly wife is a worthy ideal, the only statement that is universally true for every woman is that she should love and serve God as her highest priority. My wife and I raised our own daughters to believe that being a wife and mother was a very high calling but did so in a way that would not crush them if God’s leading had been different.

Farris contrasts his views to those of Phillips, presenting himself as reasonable and even egalitarian. But he’s not. He’s very, very not. He’s a complementarian, which means he believes in male headship and female submission, but there’s more than that. I recently broke down and bought his 2003 book, The Spiritual Power of a Mother, because I was tired of guessing what was in between the tantalizing sentence excerpts available on google books. It’s of course possible that Farris has changed his views on male headship and female submission since 2003, but I find this unlikely, especially given his continued espousal of the term “complementarianism.”

Here is an excerpt from The Spiritual Power of a Mother:

I have been in marital counseling situations where the wife says essentially, “I am quite willing to follow my husband except when he is wrong.” (Please leave aside the rare situations where a husband asks his wife to do something that is morally or legally wrong such as joining him in cheating on their income taxes. We will return to these situations a little later.) The real test of being submissive is being willing to follow her husband when a wife thinks he is making the wrong decision.

He then explains that “many men were once willing to lead their wives” but that “after constant resistance, they have just given up.” He uses the example of a teenage boy who breaks his curfew so frequently that his parents eventually give up to illustrate this phenomenon. He goes on:

When you are truly willing to follow your husband, even when you think he is wrong, you are on the first step toward contentment for you. This is the most important thing you can gain out of the situation. Your decision may prompt him to be a better leader. But even if this doesn’t happen right away (or ever), you have gained contentment, which is to be highly prized.

Note that all of this is stated as fact, not opinion.

Farris addresses what a wife should do if she believes God is leading her to homeschool but her husband wants their children in public school, explaining the proper course of action as follows:

In the preliminary stages it is fine for a wife to do some research and give answers to her husband’s questions on the subject. She can also attempt to show that homeschooling is consistent with his goals and priorities for the children. But she should not continue this at length. It is fine for a wife to say: “I accept your decision about priorities and goals. Is it OK if I try to put together some information to show you that homeschooling meets your priorities and goals?” It is inappropriate for a wife to keep going on and on about a subject, because both of them know at some point that she does not really accept her husband’s decisions about goals and priorities and that she is just trying to get her own way.

Farris tells his readers not to make the decision to submit to and obey their husbands without worrying that their husbands may abuse their power. “Don’t get sidetracked by such thoughts,” he says. Yet he does admit that abuse can happen, and says that a wife need not obey her husband “if he demands that you do something illegal, immoral, or unhealthy.” Farris then discusses Matthew 18, which urges believers to approach another believer who is sinning against them, then approach them with a witness, then take it to the church. Farris applies this to the husband/wife relationship as follows:

Here is where the immoral, illegal, or unhealthy requests of a husband can be appealed. If your husband asks you to cheat on your taxes or violate some clear moral command of the Word of God or does something that compromises your health or safety, then he has sinned against you. If you resist and this becomes a point of contention, then you may well need to go to your church leaders or to appropriate family members (his father, for example) and appeal. If he simply makes an improper demand and you say no and he leaves it at that, then you should leave it alone as well.

. . .

Let me sound one additional caution in all of this. Unless you are in a situation where you are in some realistic danger, I think that it is imperative that you take the second step in the Matthew 18 process only with your husband’s advance knowledge. Ask him if he is willing to go have a talk with the elders to get some help resolving the dispute.

If there is actual physical danger to the wife or children, Farris urges the wife to go to the church elders or another trusted spiritual leader alone, without first consulting the husband. Never does he suggest going to the police.

Finally, Farris deals with what he calls “practical questions.”

Should I take my children to church alone? By all means. If your husband doesn’t forbid you, then the issue is easy. Take them to church. If he forbids you from taking the children to church, then you probably need to follow his directions in this. Teach them at home. If he doesn’t forbid playing sermon tapes, do that instead.

But what if he takes them to the house of worship of a false religion? This is the most difficult issue of all for me. But I think you need to follow the example of Moses’s mother. Her son was taken into the house of Pharaoh. We should assume that he was exposed to the education, philosophy, and religion of the Pharaohs. Moses’s mother undoubtedly prayed for her son and taught him the truth whenever she could. You should do the same. . . .

Do I have to go with my husband to a house of worship for a false religion? No. But make sure you are talking about a clearly false religion and not a denominational dispute between varieties of churches that essentially teach the fundamental truths of the Christian faith.

This entire chapter runs contrary to Farris’s claim that he does not endorse patriarchy—and his claim that he is against legalism. These views—what Farris calls “complementarianism”—are patriarchal. They are also legalistic in that they involve a myriad of rules drawn from a text rather than placing people and their needs first.

One more thing. Let’s look at this passage from Farris’s white paper:

It is not sinful to hold a very conservative view of gender roles or child rearing. If people believe such ideas are wise, then our legal system should protect their choices, provided those choices do not result in abuse. My own views, while certainly moderate within the Christian homeschooling movement, might be considered too conservative by some on the extreme cultural left.

What I should not do is claim that my personal views are universal commands of God. Those more conservative or more liberal than I am should not claim that their personal views are universal commands of God. God speaks for Himself, and He does it in the Bible.

People are misled when human ideas are wrapped in false claims of being God’s directives. Different forms of critical analysis are necessary when one is examining God’s words versus man’s words. Innocent people follow teachers in good faith thinking they are following God. And when the directives turn out to be only man’s ideas, the followers often find that someone in their family has been damaged in the process. Only God’s ideas are infallible. Man’s ideas will always fall short.

. . .

We have a really easy way to know God’s universal commands. They are written in the Bible.

In other words, Farris draws a distinction between human ideas and God’s universal commands, and argues that both Phillips and Gothard were issuing mere human opinion. Farris claims that he, unlike them, would not portray his personal views as the universal commands of God—but is that true?

Let’s look at this bit from Farris’s book:

I need to give the reader a caveat right now that flows from the fact that I am active in politics. There are people who read everything I write to try to find a basis for attacking me politically. We are about to embark on a lengthy discussion that assumes that it is a good thing for a wife to be submissive to her husband, as the New Testament teaches in Ephesians 5:22-24. No one requires a wife to believe the Bible. That is a free and voluntary act. I am writing to women who believe the Bible and want to follow what it says in every area of life including this one. It is unthinkable to me to enact the teaching of Ephesians 5 into the civil law of the United States. Feminists want to push their philosophy of life into the law in a way that takes the rights and lives of others—abortion taking the life of the unborn child being the chief example. But the vast majority of Christians reject the notion of using the government in this way. If you don’t believe in the principles of Ephesians 5, you are not going to agree with the rest of this chapter. Fine. No one forces you to follow God. That is up to you.

Farris equates believing in his own personal interpretation of Ephesians 5 with following God. He equates his words in this chapter with God’s universal commands. Farris may not realize this, but he is not so very different from Phillips or Gothard. Both of them believed they were teaching God’s universal commands, based not on human opinion but on the teachings of the Bible. No Christian leader sets out to teach the commandments of men—and no Christian leader thinks that is what he (or she) is doing. Farris probably thinks it’s different in his case because he honestly believes his views on things like wifely submission are God’s universal commands—but that is exactly what makes him so little different from Gothard and Phillips.

Farris can’t actually break with patriarchy because he truly believes wives are commanded by God to submit to and obey their husbands. But, distressed by the downfall of Phillips and Gothard, what he can do is create and then burn a strawman effigy of patriarchy, thus symbolically and rhetorically distancing himself from them and seeking to avoid being swept away in the whirlpool that is their demise. And he is right to be worried—his family’s embrace of Gothard goes back decades, and Phillips was a close colleague of his for years and has remained a partner in business.

Farris probably thinks he deserves a pat on the back for his white paper. I can’t give him that, for some very good reasons.

  1. Farris did not speak out against both Phillips and Gothard until both had fallen, even though he now claims he has had concerns about both for decades. Real leaders speak out against dangerous teachings or leaders when speaking out is still difficult rather than letting others do the heavy lifting and waiting to speak out until speaking out is easy.
  2. Farris has yet to speak out against a single leader who is not already engulfed in scandal, in spite of the fact that there are numerous other powerful figures who hold the same dangerous ideas and run in the same circles. In fact, both Farris and HSLDA continue to associate publicly with many of these individuals. Farris’s unwillingness to call out anyone who is not already down speaks of cowardice and of putting his own interests over principle.
  3. Farris’s beliefs and teachings continue to have huge gaping problems. Unless he comes out against wifely submission—and he won’t—Farris’s beliefs remain both toxic and dangerous. He may condemn the idea that fathers have authority over their adult daughters, which I do appreciate, but he doesn’t say a word against the belief that husbands have authority over their wives, and that silence is deafening. His continued insistence on parental rights over and above children’s rights is also both patriarchal and profoundly troubling.
  4. Farris appears to be more concerned about the potential of legal threats to homeschooling than he is about actual harm done to homeschooled children. This is apparent in everything he writes or says on the subject—it’s always about the potential of “threats to homeschooling” and never about simply doing the right thing. It’s also apparent in his continued opposition to legal protections for homeschooled children.

Farris thinks he is the solution to a problem he doesn’t realize he is a part of.

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