Listen to our podcast episode here: Red Weather Christians “S2E6: Down With the (Christian) Patriarchy!”
One: The Beginning of Patriarchy
Let me show you, from the world history sources I have been teaching for more than two decades, how much Christian patriarchy mimics the patriarchy of the non-Christian world.
Here we go! I love this sentence from the first chapter because it sets up Barr’s ethos (credibility) as an author. She is a historian. She has studied this stuff for decades. She has taught this stuff for decades. So let’s pay attention when she says that Christians are like non-Christians when it comes to patriarchy. This is a problem, my Christian friends. We are supposed to be set apart, remember?
It was okay to hire a woman to answer the phone, but the job would be demeaning to a man.
She tells the story of her qualified male friend who applied for the church secretary position. He was denied, even though he was in financial need. The pastor assumed he wouldn’t want to answer the phone. Think about what this is saying: “the job would be demeaning to a man.” Hmm.
This example of a man being deemed above the work suitable for a woman fits into a larger social pattern in which men’s work is more highly valued than women’s.
Sounds like the secular world, amiright?
Shouldn’t Christians, who are called to be different from the world, treat women differently? What if patriarchy isn’t divinely ordained but is a result of human sin?
Barr talks about how “Babylonian law allowed husbands to drown their wives for alleged adultery” but also how her students live in a state (Texas) in which “women make up 94 percent of the victims in domestic partner murder-suicides.” Ick. Call it what it is (patriarchy), and stop considering it a point of pride in Christianity. Let’s treat women better.
Instead of looking different in how we treated women, Christians looked just like everyone else.
What happened to Christians being radically different from the world?
The first human sin built the first human hierarchy.
So what if hierarchy wasn’t God’s plan for humans? What if when Adam and Eve ate of that darned fruit, their consequence was that the ground was to be master over the man, and the man was to be master over the woman?
Patriarchy wasn’t what God wanted; patriarchy was a result of human sin.
As Du Mez explains, “For Bushnell, male authority over women contradicted God’s will and perpetuated man’s original rebellion against God.” Women thus “continued to commit the sin of Eve when they submitted to men, rather than to God.” Adam’s rebellion was claiming God’s authority for himself, and Eve’s rebellion was submitting to Adam in place of God.
So what you’re saying here, Barr (and Du Mez and Bushnell), is that if we women have been submitting to our husbands as the authority figure in our lives, we’ve been sinning? Wow. That sure does change things.
Patriarchy walks with structural racism and systemic oppression, and it has done so consistently throughout history.
Well this is uncomfortable.
Clarice J. Martin asks a provocative question: “How can black male preachers and theologians use a liberated hermeneutic while preaching and theologizing about slaves, but a literalist hermeneutic with reference to women?” I would like to ask the same question of white preachers and theologians. When we rightly understand that biblical passages discussing slavery must be framed within their historical context and that, through the lens of this historical context, we can better see slavery as an ungodly system that stands contrary to the gospel of Christ, how can we not then apply the same standards to biblical texts about women?
How can we not, indeed. This picking and choosing of what is liberated hermeneutic or literalist hermeneutic has always baffled me. How to choose? Who gets to choose? Can I choose? Could be fun…
Patriarchy exists in the Bible because the Bible was written in a patriarchal world. Historically speaking, there is nothing surprising about biblical stories and passages riddled with patriarchal attitudes and actions. What is surprising is how many biblical passages and stories undermine, rather than support, patriarchy.
OK, Barr, you’ve pretty well established your ethos (not only does she have loads of experience studying women in history, but she also has quite the erudite writing style), but now — on to the logos, the evidence. Can’t wait to dig into this!
The most difficult passages in the Bible to explain, historically speaking, are those like Galatians 3:26-28: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This is what is radical. This is what makes Christianity so different from the rest of human history.
Isn’t it ironic (not to mention tiresome) that we spend so much time fighting to make Christianity look like the world around us instead of fighting to make it look like Jesus Christ?
Hittin’ us with that pathos — that emotional appeal. This makes me want to stand up on a soapbox with a megaphone (and I can’t stand those people). But it gets me pumped up! And Alanis Morissette would have definitely added this to her song had she read this book first. It’s that ironic.
Two: What If Biblical Womanhood Doesn’t Come from Paul?
Paul frames every aspect of complementarian teachings. Evangelicals read Pauline texts as designating permanent and divinely ordained role distinctions between the sexes. Men wield authority that women cannot. Men lead, women follow. Paul tells us so.
Barr goes on to explain why so many of her students hate Paul. I can say there was a period of time for me when I thought I hated Paul as well. But what Barr continues explaining in this chapter is that perhaps we’ve been “reading Paul wrong.” Oh, suspense!
I like where this is going. I like it a lot!
The truth — the evangelical reality — is that we have focused so much on adapting Paul to be like us that we have forgotten to adapt ourselves to what Paul is calling us to be: one in Christ.
BOOM goes the dynamite. Yeah, I resonate with this. And don’t worry: Barr provides tons of verses in this chapter to support her statements.
By allowing a woman to anoint him with oil, Jesus overturns male headship — allowing a woman to do what only men had been able to do until that moment: anoint the king.
Jesus was a radical guy, what can I say. He’s like, “IN YO’ FACE, MEN!” (Probably.)
Pope John Paul II’s stance: using Paul’s writings in Ephesians 5 to justify male headship and female subordination in marriage would be the equivalent of using those passages to justify slavery.
Again, I’m uncomfortable. And that’s a good thing.
Rather than New Testament “texts of terror” for women, what if the household codes can be read as resistance narratives to Roman patriarchy?
DOWN WITH THE (Roman) PATRIARCHY!
The Christian structure of the house church resists the patriarchal world of the Roman Empire.
Well, as it should. Now what happened between then and now to bring patriarchy back into the Christian community? (I am hearing in my head a reimagining of Justin Timberlake’s lyrics “I’m Bringing Sexy Back,” but instead of “sexy,” it’s “patriarchy” and instead of being sexy, it’s just pitifully sad.)
“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21) Yes, wives are to submit, but so are husbands. Instead of making Christians just another part of the Roman crowd (emphasizing female submission), the mutual submission in verse 21 is “characteristic of a way of life that sets believers apart from the nonbelieving world.”
Isn’t it strange (and alarming) that it seems Christians have become more like the ancient Roman crowd than radically different?
The subjection of women is highlighted in the ESV translation of Ephesians 5, and the call for husbands to submit is minimized — not because Paul meant it that way but because the complementarian translators of the ESV wanted it that way.
And now, for a quick music break: “I Want It That Way,” by the ever-popular Backstreet Boys.
Seven times throughout his letters, as Beverly Roberts Gaventa has found, Paul uses maternal imagery to describe his ongoing relationship with the church congregations he helped found. … What made female bodies weak in the Roman world made them strong in the writings of Paul. … Just because modern evangelicals overlook Paul’s radical use of maternal imagery doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It just means that, once again, we have gotten Paul wrong.
I used to despise Paul because I thought he was the main guy who taught female submission. But now I’m realizing that maybe we’ve simply been missing his point. This gives me hope.
Not only did early Christians place women in leadership roles; they met together on equal footing — men, women, children, and slaves — in the privacy of the home, a traditionally female space. Christianity was deviant and immoral because it was perceived as undermining ideals of Roman masculinity. Christianity was repugnant … because it didn’t follow the Roman household codes — not because it followed them.
Well, I’ve always liked to be a bit of a rule-breaker. You know, to keep life interesting. It’s probably why I married Steve.
What if instead of replicating an ancient gender hierarchy, Paul was showing us how the Christian gospel sets even the Roman household free?
Yes. I choose that.
Paul was an educated Roman citizen. He would have been familiar with contemporary rhetorical practices that corrected faulty understanding by quoting the faulty understanding and then refuting it. … When Corinthians 14:34-35 is read as a quotation representing a Corinthian practice, Paul’s purpose seems clear: to distinguish what the Corinthians were doing (“women be silent”), and to clarify that Christians should not be following the Corinthian practice (“What!”).
“What!” is right! That completely flips the narrative that I’ve been hearing from the pulpit most of my life, that women should be silent. Perhaps Paul is saying the complete opposite. That’s some fascinating stuff right there, gals.
Could it be that, instead of telling women to be silent like the Roman world did, Paul was actually telling men that, in the world of Jesus, women were allowed to speak? … Instead of heeding his rebuke and freeing women to speak, are we continuing the very patriarchal practices that Paul was condemning?
Well if that’s not something important for all of us mere mortals to mull over, I don’t know what it. So go ahead: mull.
Women really did lead and teach in the early church, even as deacons and apostles. Junia was accepted as an apostle until nearly modern times, when her name began to be translated as a man’s name: Junias. … Junia became Junias because modern Christians assumed that only a man could be an apostle.
And here I will simply transcribe what I wrote in the margin of my book: “messed up!”
Seminary textbooks are often written by pastors — not by historians (and especially not by women historians).
That’s juuuuust a little friendly reminder for everyone.
That’s it for Chapters 1 and 2. We’ll see you next time for the next couple of chapters. (I need to take a nap; I’m exhausted.)
Looking for something to do in the interim? Check out my and my husband’s new podcast, “Red Weather Christians.”