Right now there is a lot of talk in some evangelical circles about whether or not patriarchy is harmful as a model for Christians.* I am mostly seeing this peripherally because I am not in such circles. I follow exactly one blog that speaks to this issue, so I can’t claim to know all the specifics of what’s being said. Patriarchy among Christians refers to separate roles for men and women in families and in society, with the expectation that women are subordinate to men. In its very mildest form this is sometimes referred to as complementarianism. Both terms could be classified as gender essentialism. Those who subscribe to gender essentialism believe that gender is so important that it can and should dictate the proper role for you in some, if not all, aspects of your life. Common roles assigned to women are those involving childcare and housework, with the expectation that men are better suited to working outside the home. There are Christians who believe that women should never attend college, instead staying home until their father finds a worthy husband for them. On the other end of the gender essentialism spectrum, there are Christians who believe women can get a higher education, work outside the home, or pretty much anything men do, but a wife should defer to her husband for final decisions of import to the family. All along this spectrum wives are expected to subordinate to husbands in some way. Sometimes this extends to fathers directing and controlling their daughters. Often this also means females are seen as unfit for Christian leadership positions. My travels have shown me many churches in which there is a clear prohibition of women to pastorship.
I think it’s time Christians ditched gender essentialism. Some already seen to have done this. I strongly suspect UCC has no specific instructions anywhere for how females should act differently than males. In fact, in 2011 they made a resolution regarding sexual orientation and gender identity that suggests churches should do more to fight discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. I think Christians still debating approval of same-sex relationships will find themselves on shaky ground if they try to toss out one-man-one-woman, but keep gender roles intact. And vice versa. Once you decide same-sex relationships are ok, it seems to me gender roles automatically have to go out the door as well. If you base your marriage ideal on different roles for the man and the woman, what will you do when there is no man? Or no woman? Some might see this as an argument to keep both gendered roles and ‘traditional’ marriage. I see it as exactly the opposite. I resist the idea that as a female I need to like pink, or enjoy shopping, or cook, or care for babies, or any of a hundred different things society sees as my place. By the same token, I resist the idea that I must submit to my husband as a matter of course, or be barred from pastorship if I felt called to it. And if I’m deciding gender should not define what I do in my life or my marriage, I can’t very well tell others that it should make a difference in their marriage. It all goes together; gender essentialism and woman/man marriage are a package deal. Keep it all or lose it all. I favor losing it all.
I see much of the gender essential viewpoint as stemming from the teachings of Paul in the letters of the New Testament. In recent years I have started to recognize the heavy emphasis on Paul over Jesus indicated in certain Christian teachings. I think this is a mistake. There is a reason we call ourselves Christians and not Paulians. In many cases Paul taught things Jesus did not. I think it’s possible Paul sometimes overstepped his bounds in what he taught the new Christian communities. I also think it’s possible we overstep in how we view these letters, which are just that- letters. As I recently pointed out to a friend, I would never pick up a love letter someone wrote to his wife and decide it could tell me how I was to live my life.
There are some real problems with gender essentialism I think don’t fit with the good Christianity purports to do in the world. Putting people into different boxes makes it hard on them in case they need to get out of those boxes. Husband ruling over wife might work just fine in some cases. What if the husband is abusive? What if the husband makes bad financial decisions? What if the wife wants to make even one decision on her own? How many exceptions to the rule are needed before we can get past the rule and throw the boxes out altogether?
*The primary story involves Doug Phillips of Vision Forum. This itself is a lengthy story, but to be as brief as possible, it’s a sex/sexual scandal. Phillips claims he fell into an “inappropriate relationship” outside his marriage. The woman in question claims she was “methodically groomed” for abuse and manipulation by Phillips because he was set up as a figure in highest authority over her from age 15. This directly speaks to patriarchy because of its implications that women are to answer unquestioningly to men.