In a more perfect world, the title of this post would be complete jibberish to all of my lovely readers. But alas, we live in a world which is in the process of being redeemed, so some of you know all too well about Christian Patriarchy and clobber verses. However – joy of joys! – we live in a world which is in the process of being redeemed and I know that some of you have no idea what Christian Patriarchy or clobber verses are. So, for the blissfully uninitiated, allow I to explain a bit.
At its simplest, Christian Patriarchy is the teaching that there is a God ordained hierarchy in which men are over women and children. A daughter is under her father’s headship until she marries and responsibility for her is transfered to her husband. Ideally in this arrangement, the man is responsible for protecting his wife and daughter from other men as well as providing for her and overseeing her spiritual, moral and personal development. In exchange for this protection and leadership, a female treats her father/husband with respect, obedience and deference. Although this arrangement has been propagated around the world and throughout time irregardless of religion, Christian Patriarchy proponents insist that this is a Christian arrangement rather than just something people have had a tendency to do. Like going to war or practicing dietary restrictions.
A clobber verse is a verse of scripture which is used to provide definitive proof – in the mind of the person using it – that a particular idea or teaching is true, biblical and theologically unassailable. Now I have a few verses which I will use this way all day, everyday. “God is love” for example. What makes a clobber verse a clobber verse is that inevitably, they are pulled completely out of the context they were spoken into. Nearly always, on closer examination the verse in question doesn’t even say what the person using it seems to think it is saying. And as a rule, the clobber verse is used to support something which is expressly forbidden by scripture – like oppressing someone, condemning someone or creating division in the body.
Now, the theological problems with Christian patriarchy are so numerous and obvious that books have been written on the topic. (In fact, if someone wants to give me an advance, I’d be happy to add another one to the genre!) Pretty much every point used to support the idea can easily be unwound to reveal it for the hot mess it actually is. But for today, I just want to focus on the clobber verse that gets used as a foundation for the whole thing. It’s 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.
And we may as well throw 1 Corinthians 11:3 into the mix for good measure:
Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
More than any other, these verses get pulled out as incontrovertible proof that it is the job of the husband to protect and lead his wife. Just like Jesus does the church. Except that Jesus offers very, very little protection to his followers. And his leadership of the church is, to put it mildly, not so strong. Now, even among those who aren’t Christian patriarchy types, this idea of Jesus as protector and leader may seem obvious and perhaps I lost you there, but really, let’s look at the evidence.
I know that many of us have and do pray to Jesus for protection which is fine. But really, we’re talking about a man who repeatedly told his followers to expect to be crucified. And many of them were in the years after his death. If it’s protection you are looking for, Jesus isn’t really your go-to guy. In fact, if you’re really big on safety, Christianity probably isn’t the religion for you anyways.
There are two times I can think of that Jesus actually expresses a desire to protect anyone. The first was when he lamented over Jerusalem saying:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”
(For those of you who aren’t up on your barnyard basics – a hen is a FEMALE chicken, btw. Not really a great support for the idea of men as protectors.*)
And then in his prayer over his disciples in John 17:
“Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name—the name you gave me—so that they may be one as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me.”
Which is fine except that the whole prayer is one expressing ideas of equality, mutuality and unity – NOT hierarchy. Jesus protected them so that they would survive to act independently without him, not as a sign of his position above them!
As for leadership, let’s think for a moment how exactly Jesus leads his church. Did he give his followers a plan to follow once he was gone? Nope. Did he tell them how to pick leaders? Nope. Did he tell them how to dress, how to handle their money, where to preach or leave behind a catechism to follow? Nope, nope, nope and nope. If you’re looking for justification for command and control leadership, Jesus definitely isn’t the role model you are looking for.
Of course, Jesus did frequently tell people to follow him. And he was recognized as a teacher by his followers. But even in his life, his goal was always that those who followed him would be able to learn and then go out into the world independently. He sent his disciples out to practice preaching and casting out demons on their own, for example. In Luke 6 he says, “a student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.” Jesus asked people to follow him so that they could become like him, not so that they could be under him.
So, there are elements of protection and leadership between Jesus and his church. But to read that a husband is to his wife as Jesus is to his church and come away with the idea that protection and leadership are what a husband ought to orient himself to is absurd. If we want to take this verse seriously, we need to look at what Jesus’ actual relationship with his people is. Jesus variously said that he came to lift oppression, offer freedom, offer rest, challenge, love, rescue, save, comfort, bring salvation. Those verses which say that the husband is to his wife as Jesus is to the church are saying that men ought to do for their wives what Jesus does for his church: offer freedom, rescue them from oppression, offer rest, love, comfort, etc. Like Jesus did with his followers, husbands are to help their wives get to a point of being able to stand on their own two feet and go out into the world as a strong, whole human being (ie unified). The verses which say that the husband is the head of the wife have nothing to do with hierarchy, power, control or roles and responsibilities. In reality, they teach just the opposite of what Christian Patriarchy proponents take from the verse. Husbands in the ancient world were, as has been common among pagans, over their wives and were significantly older and better educated than their wives. For this reason, wives were in need of freedom, empowerment, comfort and rescue from oppression and husbands were to follow the example of Jesus and offer that to them. Today, thankfully, as the result of the fruit of Jesus’ teachings, husbands and wives start from pretty equal positions in the world.
The truth of the matter is that Christian Patriarchy takes a man-made construct which addresses worldly concerns like who is over whom and attempts to use Christianity to justify it. But it doesn’t work. It’s not consistent with Jesus’ teachings or his behavior. The whole thing is nothing more than an illustration of that bible verse that says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” (Proverbs 16:25) The idea of men over women has seemed right to humanity for a very long time. And yet, it does lead to death. Despite having been tried for thousands of years and in a myriad of contexts, there has never been a culture in all of human existence where placing men over women as worked to make a peaceful, abundant, just society. All too often it has meant literal death for women at the hands of the men who were supposedly placed over them to protect them. Far from being God’s design for men and women, putting women under men is exactly the sort of thing which husbands are instructed to be rescuing their wives from – just as Christ rescued his people what was oppressing them.
*Slightly off topic, but I feel compelled to address the issue of men as protectors a little more. I have had men react very strongly to the ideas I’m explaining here. For some men, being a protector is part of their identity and seen as one of their primary purposes in life. When I have challenged the idea of husband as protector, they felt personally attacked and diminished. So let me be clear: I think that men who view themselves as protectors can be a wonderful, Godly thing. Especially men who feel called and compelled to stand up for those who are too weak to stand up for themselves. I in no way mean to say that this impulse and virtue in men is bad.
However, a willingness to protect is in no way primarily a male virtue. This is shown in scripture where God describes himself as a protective mother bear or mother eagle. As well as in our everyday lives where women are often fiercely protective of others. In fact, I have known several people who were raised with predatory men and always the mother was judged in the harshest terms for not protecting her children from the abuser. For all our talk about men as protectors, we have strong expectations that women be protectors as well.
The problem we often run into with men as protectors is two fold. First of all, protection often becomes a justification for restricting the freedom and autonomy of the people being protected. In contrast, the model seen in scripture is primarily protection by driving away threatening forces so that the protected can live freely and unencumbered. Secondly, male protection has a tendency to fixate on physical safety to the exclusion of the daily need to protect hearts, spirits and even emotions from being crushed. As we see in scripture, Jesus wasn’t really concerned with the physical safety of his followers – he promised them death. But he was careful to protect them from the enemy who could destroy their souls.