What's Wrong with Patriarchy?
For many decades, feminists have characterized the Old Testament’s teaching on gender roles in terms of patriarchy, the control and domination of the father in exercising an authoritative, if not oppressive or even abusive, rule over his wife and family. What is more, feminists have often alleged that the Bible is laced with a patriarchal bias that they must “uncover” by a hermeneutic of suspicion and correct with a sort of “affirmative action” through which women’s rightful place in Christianity and in the world is reclaimed, restored, and recast. But is the underlying premise of much of the feminist critique of the Bible and Christianity, namely their patriarchal nature and bias, actually accurate?
Recent scholarship from both feminist and non-feminist circles suggests otherwise. For example, noted evangelical Old Testament scholar Daniel Block, who teaches at Wheaton College, has pointed out that the term “patriarchy” unduly focuses on the father’s rule (the meaning of “archy”) while diminishing significant aspects of the father’s role in Old Testament times, such as his care, provision, and protection of the extended household.
Characterizing the Old Testament teaching on gender roles in terms of patriarchy is misleading and inaccurate.
Carol Meyers, too, professor of religion at Duke University, in her presidential address to the Society of Biblical Literature, recently published in the Journal of Biblical Literature, chronicles how the labeling of the Old Testament teaching on gender roles in ancient Israel as “patriarchy” has fallen on hard times in various fields of scholarship. Meyers, who holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, contends that the label simply doesn’t do justice to the complexity of gender relations in the ancient world and expresses concern that the label constitutes an anachronistic imposition onto the biblical data.
Thus a critical mass of leading evangelical and non-evangelical scholarship concurs that patriarchy in the modern sense of the term does not adequately reflect the role of the father in ancient times.
The bottom line is that even feminists are starting to realize that characterizing the Old Testament teaching on gender roles in terms of patriarchy is misleading and inaccurate. Using the notion of patriarchy as a foil for a feminist critique of the biblical teaching ultimately fails because of its underlying false definition of patriarchy. Rather than engaging this strawman argument where Old Testament “patriarchy” is used as a red herring, we should be more precise in our description and definitions of terms related to the Old Testament teaching on gender roles.
Male Leadership, Male-Female Partnership
In our book God’s Design for Man and Woman, we attempt to trace the plain and undistorted teaching on manhood and womanhood through all of Scripture from Genesis through Revelation. We confirm that there is revealed in Scripture a pervasive pattern of responsible sacrificial, loving, and caring male leadership; this is directly and indirectly seen to be practiced or taught in the lives of Adam and the patriarchs and in the twelve tribes of Israel as well as in the roles of kings and priests; it continues later in the life of Jesus and in the roles of the twelve apostles and those in the Pauline circle, as well as in the elders in the New Testament church (even though, of course, these men often didn’t live up to the divine ideal).
Husband-and-wife biblical scholars set forth a robust biblical theology of gender, examining key texts, employing sound hermeneutical principles, and considering important historical influences related to the Bible’s teaching on manhood and womanhood.
Women, also created in the image of God, under the leadership of their husband, are to partner with their husband in being stewards of God’s creation in fulfilling the cultural mandate. They are to come alongside them as they together aim to be “fruitful, multiply, and subdue the earth.” New Testament teaching for the church affirms what has been taught to God’s people from Genesis onward, and as part of the community of believers in the New Testament era, women and men, under overall male leadership in the church, are shown to partner together in fulfilling the Great Commission, to make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching all that Jesus commanded them. This privilege and responsibility for both in their joint mission in our world highlights each one’s unique yet equally significant and indispensable set of roles in the family and in the church.
Contrary to many feminists, the root problem of humanity is not male authority, or authority itself; the problem is human sin, which affects the way in which both men and women relate to each other. In Christ, we can be set free once again to live out God’s design for us according to which he created us male and female from the very beginning. As Spirit-filled followers of Christ, we can partner in mission for God in love and unity, for God’s greater glory and for our own good.