Why the Term Patriarchy Needs a Vacation
God gave us the role of ambassadors of his heavenly kingdom to our earthly nations. We are to communicate His message of love and reconciliation in a way others will understand. When an ambassador travels to a foreign country, he must learn the native tongue. He can’t just speak his own language and feel like he has done his duty. He must also seek to understand the baggage that words or concepts may have accrued.
The spirit of Christ-like love compels us to put the needs of those around us ahead of our own. I think the way this applies to communication is that when we speak, we don’t just focus on being articulate and polishing our words; our goal is to make sure the person we are speaking to accurately receives the message we are sending. We need to ask the other person to repeat what we said in their own choice of words to see if what they received matches up with what we meant.
Your backstory is showing
To achieve clear communication, we need to be sensitive to be people’s backstory – how their past shaped the way they feel about certain words. People often hear a term, and shut their brain off after assuming what you mean by it. We can’t merely attack or defend a term; we need to be aware of how our audience is using the term, because that is what they will hear you attacking or defending. For instance, I talk to people about avoiding sexualized dating, and occasionally call my alternative “courtship.” A person in my audience may have experienced “courtship” as fathers controlling adult children, and that you are worthless if you have dated or have had premarital sex. This is not at all what I meant when I said “courtship,” but that person’s past associations caused them to assume I was teaching those other things as well. We could get into a sharp debate about “courtship,” but until we take the time to listen to how we are each using the term, we will never reach an understanding.
In the homeschool community right now, many cases of abuse are coming to light. Abuse of authority, abuse of scripture, abuse of family roles, and even sexual abuse. These are terrible and it is our mission in advancing Christ’s kingdom to deal with these abuses and defend the oppressed. God cares greatly about the abused. Psalm 10:14 says, “But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted; you consider their grief and take it in hand. The victims commit themselves to you; you are the helper of the fatherless.” Psalm 103:6, “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.” In Luke 4, Jesus said that part of his mission was to “release the oppressed.” If you have been mistreated by sinful humanity, God cares deeply!
Recently Michael Farris, chairman of Home School Legal Defense Association, tried to do his part in protecting our future liberties by distinguishing healthy mainstream homeschooling from the aberrational abuse that is sometimes found in legalistic circles. Abused homeschoolers are coming out in droves, making some very serious accusations of the homeschool community, and painting with broad brushstrokes. If these abused young people become the face of homeschooling, congressmen are going to be forced to act, and our liberties will be greatly jeopardized.
In this stance, I applaud Farris’ good intention. However, he took it a step farther when he claimed that patriarchy caused these abuses. A large segment of homeschoolers was pleased and another sizeable segment was horrified by Farris’ claim. Since Farris’ letter was posted online, patriarchy has been vigorously defended and attacked on social media, splitting would-be allies and friends. My own thoughts on the matter created conflict with some friends that I deeply respect and with whom I feel I share similar convictions. Why is this term “patriarchy” causing so much controversy? To understand, we need to look at the recent travels of the word.
A Brief Cultural History of Patriarchy
To speed things up a bit, I am going to skip over the Old Testament stories of the original patriarchs, and jump into the late 20th century. The feminists have made great strides in winning freedom and supremacy and now men are lampooned as clueless idiots and worthless bigots in film and television. In other places, fathers are becoming nonexistent with the divorce rate skyrocketing. Against this backdrop, a group of men began a counter-cultural revolution that sought to revive a biblical vision of manhood and the family. They cared little about political correctness and were steeped in Puritan writings. Puritan views and political ideas shaped the vision these men had for the way the family and the country should operate. They decided to use the term “patriarchy” to describe their version of biblical manhood.
Their historically influenced perspective, set against the backdrop of modern liberated womanhood, made some of their ideas look even more extreme. Nevertheless, these men began to have a huge impact on homeschoolers. They called men to stop being wimpy, fearful, irresponsible doormats, and to take dominion of the spheres that God had given them. During the 70s and 80s, end-times rapture hysteria caused many people to second-guess whether they should even start a family. A large number gave up trying to influence the culture and instead focused on becoming a “faithful remnant.” In contrast, the leaders of “patriarchy” were inspired by the Puritan’s postmillennial multi-generational vision for widespread Kingdom growth. Their excitement and alternative vision was contagious and thousands of people began lapping up their material.
Because they so often have to go against the grain, many homeschoolers are independent thinkers. Consequently, the degree of influence these revivers of patriarchy had on families varied greatly. Some families simply took inspiration and adopted the term patriarchy for their own convictions of what the family should look like. Other families commandeered the ideas of male headship and ran with them, trampling their wives, daughters, and churches in the process. Sinful man is ugly enough, but combined with the steroid-like idea that “God wants me to be King,” Charles Ingalls changes into Bruce Banner. This version of patriarchy released a torrent of arrogant control and insensitive domination.
The patriarchy movement was morphing into two very different things. On one hand, some families saw “patriarchy” as a new way to reclaim kind, loving fatherhood. In a world that seemed full of families falling apart, sons and daughters being broken by drugs, alcohol, and sex, this biblical alternative seemed the way to go and the word was acquiring positive associations.
But on the other hand, people were being abused in the name of patriarchy as men took the patriarchy ideas to the extreme and did not balance them with gentleness and an understanding spirit. These hurt people were growing to hate patriarchy with a passion.
A divide grew as reports of abuse and Scripture-twisting painted a very different picture from what modern happy, wholesome Puritans were experiencing. When the moral failure of one of the founders, Doug Phillips, was exposed, the homeschool community was jaggedly torn. The divide has only widened and I believe much of it has to do with the diverse understanding of patriarchy.
Would Patriarchy by any other name smell as sweet?
The men who started the movement gave patriarchy a very specific definition. So what these men teach is, in one sense, what patriarchy means.
When Farris attacked patriarchy, he seemed to make it synonymous with oppressive male leadership, the subjugation of women, and legalistic misuse of scripture. He also implied that patriarchy inherently taught the following: Women should not vote, should not work in business with men other than their husbands or fathers, should not attend college, should not run for public office or serve in the military or leave home until they are married.
I’m not going to discuss the merits of such convictions. My primary concern is about teaching them as universal biblical commands. Unfortunately, some within the patriarchy movement teach these convictions and people hurt by this version of patriarchy have legitimate complaints. But there is more to this issue.
That’s not what patriarchy means to me!
The cultural influence of the patriarchy movement was such that the term patriarchy was adopted by thousands of men who did not embrace all the doctrinal points of the movement’s founders. Because of this, patriarchy has also taken on a popular cultural meaning that is not as narrowly defined as it was originally. For many, patriarchy simply means male headship, in contrast with matriarchy (female headship). The term has been embraced by those who teach truly biblical male headship, where the father is not the king, but a servant leader. The liberal left and secular media use the term patriarchy as a pejorative term, and they use it to describe anyone who believes that the father should be head of the home. Because patriarchy is being used in very different ways, there has been much dissension lately.
What Michael Farris seemingly failed to realize was the large part of his audience that has embraced the popular meaning of patriarchy (i.e., biblical male headship), and do NOT teach the aforementioned things either.
My concern is the division that is happening in homeschool circles. I want to attack the misuses within some patriarchy circles, without attacking all who use the title. I also want to defend those who use term patriarchy in the loving biblical sense, without it seeming like I am defending the teachings mentioned above. I would love to see more careful usage of a term that means very different things to different people. I think it is so important right now, though, that the leaders who are attacking the abuses do not paint all who use the term patriarchy with the same brush.
Is patriarchy gay?
In a conversation I had recently, someone suggested that using the term patriarchy to describe “complementarianism” (the view that God created men to assume headship in the home and the church, but that women are created equal to men and given complementary roles) was like using the term “gay”, expecting people to think you mean happy. There is truth to that analogy. I am all for being culturally sensitive, and the term patriarch is covered in manure right now. Those who use it to describe their biblical views of loving leadership need to be sensitive to the fact that the word is picking up very negative connotations and its meaning is changing drastically. If you want your message to be heard, you might need a fresh word.
But while we need to be aware of when a term is becoming offensive, we also need to be aware of the different ways the term is being used and embraced. So while I won’t use the word gay to describe myself as happy, I also don’t accuse the writer of the Christmas carol “Deck the Halls” of encouraging cross dressing when he says, “don we now our gay apparel.”
We need to recognize that there are still sizeable segments of the homeschooling world that use the term patriarchy, but don’t teach “demented, legalist patriarchy.” So while we should probably start using a fresh term other than patriarchy to describe biblical fatherhood – or at least be very careful to define what we mean by it – we also need to use a new word when we describe the legalistic abuses, so the godly proponents of patriarchy are not falsely accused in the process. We need to recruit as many godly people as we can to join in the fight against legalistic abuse and scripture-twisting. But if we insist on labeling these misuses patriarchy, we are raising the defenses of thousands of godly men and women and alienating them from our cause.
Like it or not, male headship is taught in Scripture. The phrase is used in Ephesians 5:23, “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.” Biblical male headship that is modeled after the character of Christ is such a beautiful thing. Ask any wife who has found a husband like that and she will praise God for the work He has done in her man.
Defining the real problem
If patriarchy is merely defined as biblical loving male headship, then patriarchy is not the problem when a man sexually abuses his daughter, or is filled with pride and arrogance and leaves church after church. Biblical headship is not the problem when a man becomes a hypocrite and falls morally. Biblical headship is not the problem when Scripture is taken out of context and twisted by the zeal of the handler. These are all serious problems that need addressing.
To unite the followers of Christ into action, we need to label these sins correctly and place the blame where it belongs. If we on both sides insist on using the word patriarchy in our own way, we are weakening the body of Christ, and sabotaging our chances at bringing liberty to those who are oppressed. Instead of attacking a label that is being used in different ways, we need to be more specific in our efforts to deal with the abuse and distortion. If you want to raise awareness about teaching that you feel is unbiblical, cite the teacher directly and footnote his claims, so that people can research for themselves and look at the quotes in context. Patriarchy is too diverse a movement right now to be slandering the whole thing.
The loving rule of King Jesus
While male headship is clearly a biblical truth, it is not the whole story. In fact, the Bible places a greater emphasis on man’s obligation to submit to the kingship of Christ. I do not think the Bible anywhere says that the father is “king” of the home. Jesus Christ is the only one worthy of that title.
The heart of fallen man is so wicked that when he claims the right to male headship without first surrendering himself to the lordship of Christ, this un-surrendered authority will bring out the worst in him. Men are naturally, lazy, arrogant, controlling, blame-shifting, and self-centered. To empower man in this natural state is to curse the family unit. This sinful male domination is not a problem because of patriarchy teaching. It is the universal problem in the heart of man. Since the dawn of time, man has been cruel and subjugating to women. It was through Christianity that women became more valued and men were called to sacrifice their time and comfort to serve and cherish the women in their life. Biblical male headship that is modeled after the character of Christ is such a beautiful thing.
Consequently, any man who seeks to promote biblical male headship will do all he can to fight against sinful male oppression no matter where he finds it. I beg of every man who is reading this: If you see a father who is claiming male headship, but is not also showing the fruits of the selfless and sacrificial servanthood, challenge him with the truth: He is not the king of his home. He must surrender to the King of kings, or his family will suffer, and he will face a terrible judgment day!
*My final section here was adapted from the Post Script of my last blog post “When Archie Bunker Met Patriarchy.”
Heather • September 6, 2014
Thank you for saying this. Our definitions of words can really hinder us when we have a different understanding of the words being used.
Ben Bush Jr • September 6, 2014
Part of the problem with “patriarchy” was the idea that the Puritans were wholly biblical in their worldview. That in itself should be a warning to us. This brand of Calvinism is nothing more than Catholicism lite.