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Covert Patriarchy: Part 1

From the series:

by Nate Brooks

I am what is often called in theological terms a “strong complementarian.” I hold to the traditional Christian position that church leadership should be comprised of men and that women ought not to teach mixed-group adult church gatherings. I also believe that God has revealed in his word that within marriage, the man is to be the kindhearted servant-leader in the home and the wife is to be helpfully supportive through submission (Eph 5:22-33, 1 Pet 3:1-7). I think it’s wise for me to state this at the outset of this series, because I fear that those who might be challenged by what I write will dismiss me as a soft complementarian or egalitarian in disguise. I am neither of those things, and stand quite convinced of the biblical case for strong complementarianism.

Complementarians have done a marvelous job of demonstrating the biblical goodness of rightly-ordered marriages. Most conservative Christians – and especially those who lives are touched by biblical counseling in some fashion – agree that it is good for husbands to lead in their homes and wives to follow. Almost every wife that I’ve counseled has said at some point, “I want my husband to be a spiritual leader.” Most conservative Christian men would likewise agree that God has called them to lead their households, with wise input from their wife mattering greatly to them. The prevalence of these ideas are not because oppressive ancient patriarchal ideas continue to oppress God’s people, but because the Spirit draws the redeemed towards these contours of family life because it is God’s revealed pattern for human flourishing.

Every Christian struggles with living out the truths that we affirm. Complementarianism is no different. I think most conscionable churchgoing men would be quick to deny patriarchy. We believe and have been well-instructed that our wives are equal in dignity, equal in essence, equal in their role as an image-bearer of God. And this affirmation of women is often lived out in clear ways – men who put themselves between gunmen and women, men who detest sex-selective abortion even though the knife is almost always pressed against baby girls, men who earn honest wages to provide for their families. But I worry that we may thoughtlessly embrace other, more subtle, aspects of patriarchy – unintentionally, but in a way that still harms our marriages.

Almost every leader we encounter in daily life has become a leader by merit. Corporate America operates on the assumption that a leader is inherently more gifted or wiser regarding the task at hand than the subordinates. Politics assumes that elected officials are gifted in ways of administration and wise in designing policy. Entertainment and sports elevate individuals to the point of being household names because they possess some talent not held by the average Joe. Leaders are listened to and shown deference because they’ve earned the right to be in charge. Leaders can do what their subordinates cannot because their talents make them far less expendable than those who are less gifted or recognized and yet bring the same baggage. Through all of these facets runs a consistent idea: A position of leadership closely parallels greater worth.

The idea of leader-by-merit cannot be imported into Christian marriages without undermining right theology. To be blunt, men are not leaders in marriage because they are morally superior, intellectually keener, or situationally wiser than women. The Bible equally imputes righteousness and unrighteousness to men and women. Read of David and Abigail (1 Sam 25), Joab and the woman of Sheba (2 Sam 20), the women that followed Christ and the disciples, Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 2-4), Esther and Xerxes (Esther 2), or Deborah and Barak (Judges 4-5). These accounts portray women as providing guidance to men in helpful ways, where men would have acted in detrimental ways without the assistance or intervention of these wise women. These passages do not undermine male leadership in the church and home or advocate egalitarianism. They do illustrate that men and women are portrayed in Scripture as equally wise.

Patriarchy is based on the idea that men are inherently superior to women. However, contrary to the leadership-by-superiority model, a complementarian view of leadership within the church and the family does not parallel superiority and leadership. To be certain, man’s equipment is well-suited to his role as a leader and woman’s equipment is well-suited to the role of helper.[1] However, man’s design as leader enhances his need for a helper who views things from a different vantage point. Adam quickly recognized his deficiency without a corresponding helper. One leader does not necessarily need another leader. But every leader needs a helper who broadens his own understanding of situations.

This post is the first of a four-part series that looks at common ways leader-as-superior baggage (or patriarchy) can be smuggled into marriages. There are certainly more expressions than I will list; however, I want to highlight those that I see most frequently in couples seeking care. Each expression of covert patriarchy is symptomatic of a gap between the theology we espouse and the theology we live out. The next post will specifically look at the ways husbands and wives read and respond to life situations.

Continue reading with Part 2 of 4.

[1] This concept is controversial. However, it simply affirms that God has well-suited us for our roles within the family. Otherwise, God has assigned men to be leaders for no reason other than because he has done so. That kind of fiat-rule is characteristic of Allah, not Yahweh.