Worst Clobber Verse EVER – Christian Patriarchy Edition

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.

A picture made by someone who doesn’t understand how umbrellas work.

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.

If you haven’t already, you can read some of my other writing on women and Christianity by clicking this link.


*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.

17 thoughts on “Worst Clobber Verse EVER – Christian Patriarchy Edition

  1. Thank you for addressing this important issue. Some neopatriarchialists have gone to the point where they justify their teaching with a horridly heretical teaching called The Eternal Subordination of the Son to the Father.

    When I asked what about the Third Person of the Trinity, I was told that He is under the authority of the Father and Son similarly to a Child.

    I find this teaching highly offensivel

  2. While I agree with some of your points in this article, I think that you are simply using a straw man argument to defend your position on patriarchal hierarchy. It’s true Jesus doesn’t always guarantee physical safety to His followers, but this in no way diminishes His position as Head of the church, which is the assumption you seem to be making.

    The verses in Ephesians and 1 Corinthians refer to authority. Jesus is Lord and Head of the Church—this is His indisputable position of authority (backed up by numerous Scriptures), which gives Him the right to guide and direct the church as He sees fit. Does this authority involve protection? Of course, but only so far as we submit to Him, and the protection He offers us, even if not always physical, is far better: it is spiritual and eternal. Likewise, if the hierarchical structure (I don’t see any way of really arguing that it isn’t hierarchical) outlined in Ephesians and 1 Corinthians is lived out correctly, with the husband first being submitted to Christ, and then the wife being submitted to her husband, then this assures safety for everyone involved. And that is the very purpose of many hierarchical structures, which, whether we like it or not, were ordained by God. (We are also told in the Scriptures to submit to the rulers placed over us and to be in subjection to one another within the Body of Christ.)

    I think the confusion and antipathy toward hierarchical structures comes mainly from the way these structures, when they aren’t ultimately in submission to the Lord, become tools of oppression and abuse. This seems to be where your grievance comes from. And I totally understand that. Of course, such oppression and abuse is wrong and grieves the Lord. I think it’s important to remember the rest of the verses in Ephesians 5 that follow the one about headship. Verse 25 is especially important: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” If a husband is not loving his wife sacrificially, as Christ loves the church sacrificially, then he is not in submission to Christ.

    The key to living in submission, whether it is to the Lord, or to a husband, or some other authority figure, is love. Likewise, love is the key to headship and authority. Christ is our ultimate example in that, as He showed that even though He has absolute authority over us, He chose to lay down His life for us and come to us as a lowly servant. True headship behaves in the same manner. When I look at the whole of Scripture—not just a few verses here and there—I can’t argue away that certain hierarchical structures, including patriarchal ones, are merely man-made constructs. God put many of these structures in place, not to say that some people are better than others, and to promote power and control, but to create order, safety, and harmony. Sin, and our propensity to either rebel against authority or abuse it, naturally corrupt the systems He puts in place, but that doesn’t mean the systems, in and of themselves, are wrong.

    Despite my disagreement with you over this particular issue, I think you write beautifully and eloquently, and have some great insights in other areas. Keep up the good work. (Sorry this comment was so long.)

    1. I reject utterly the the Christian Patriarchal concept of what headship means, which is what this discusses. God’s concept of headship is about service, freedom, lifting of oppresssion of the oppressed, etc. Power, authority and control are worldly, NOT Godly concerns. If it had been up to God, his people wouldn’t have even had a KING, for goodness sakes! (1 Samuel 8) Christian Patriarchy is a model which has been used by human beings across time and religions. It is a manmade construct. Jesus’s radical vision of freedom, of MUTUAL submission (Ephesians 4). It is one where divisions of power are destroyed. We are all one, working together for the best of everyother person. I refuse to reject this beautiful, life affirming vision for something which is no different in essance than what is practiced among pagans, Muslims, Hindus, Shintos, etc.

      And you are correct that heirarchy has a well earned bad reputation due to the abuse which is so accompanies it. As Jesus said, “by their fruits you will know them.” It’s not a coincidence or an abberition that heirarchy is so often associated with abuse. It’s the entirely predictable bad fruit of a worldly idea. Teaching people to love, serve, allow freedom, protect, comfort because that is Christ’s way isn’t associated with abuse because it is completely incompatible with abuse. It comes from God, in whom there is no darkness. Patriarchy plays with issues of power, control and authority which humanity always, always, always, always ends up abusing. It is as far below the ways of God as the earth is below the heavens that way.

      I appreciate your kind words about my writing and do know that you are speaking from your own understanding and with a good heart. But so may people have suffered under the teachings you are promoting. God’s ways don’t cause that sort of harm or pain. “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Jesus came to set us free – “it is for freedom that you have been set free.” I cannot be silent as people are told to carry a yoke of oppression and imprison themselves to the restrictive ways of man in the name of my Savior who came for the freedom and comfort of his people.

    2. Also, never forget that the religious rulers of Jesus day were able to oppress people by using scripture. Simply because an idea can be constructed from scripture doesn’t make it Godly. Is it possible to support heirarchy using scripture? Yes, of course. The pharisees were excellent at this. But Jesus read that same scripture and came away with love. He saw forgive 7 times seven. He saw himself, and knowing hiself knew that the way the Pharisees were reading scripture was completely incompatible with who he was and his desire for his people.

      There’s a reason Jesus warned to beware of the yeast of the pharisees. It takes just a little legalism, a little bit of playing with power, a little bit of taking away freedom to destroy the whole thing. But love and freedom? Those are his perfect gifts to us which are will always allow us to use scripture to “penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” When we understand God as revealed in Jesus, we can use his living word to overcome those who would use scripture to return us to worldly oppression and use scripture to remove the freedom Jesus died to grant us. So, be careful about “biblical” arguments in favor of anything which can be used to oppress or abuse. That’s the sign that they are being made by a pharisee’s heart rather than a heart which knows and is submitted to God’s ways.

  3. Hi Rebecca–thanks so much for the thoughtful responses to my comment. I totally understand where you are coming from, believe me! I grew up in a strict, legalistic home and church, so I know about oppression and abuse from personal experience. I was taught from an early age that a woman’s place was in the home and that all she was essentially good for was to have babies and serve her husband. I know now that was Scripture-twisting, and I’m wholeheartedly against such nonsense. It was not my intention at all to justify either oppression or abuse. Far from it. I would flee from any version of Christianity that twists Scripture to justify oppression or abuse.

    My point was simply that just because something CAN be used to justify oppression or abuse does not automatically make that something inherently wrong. The fact of the matter is that God DOES delegate authority, and He DOES ask us to submit to that authority, in love and humility. We are certainly called to freedom in Christ, and I totally agree about mutual submission, but neither of those facets of the kingdom of God completely eliminates some of the hierarchical structures God has put into place within the family, the church, and society. For example, God has given parents authority over and responsibility for their children. God commands children to obey and respect their parents. This is a hierarchical structure. Do some parents abuse and oppress their children with this God-given authority? Sadly, yes. But this does not automatically give children everywhere the right to disregard the authority of their parents and disrespect them. So the authority of the parents is not what is wrong–it is the misuse of it that is wrong. Likewise, the authority of the husband over his wife is not wrong simply because some men choose to misuse that authority.

    I think too there is this idea that just because one person is given authority over another it means the two people are unequal. Pardon my language, but that is crap. Before Christ, we are all equals. There is neither male nor female, slave nor free. I think here at least we probably agree. A woman’s submission to a man in a marriage has nothing to do with her being “beneath” him or unequal to him in the sight of God. Just as a king’s sovereignty over his people has nothing to do with his actually being “better” than his subjects. He is simply fulfilling his God-given role and position. The same is true in a husband-wife relationship.

    I hope this clarifies my position somewhat. And it grieves me to think anyone would ever misconstrue my arguments as coming from a pharisaical heart. I grew up in a pharisaical church and have absolutely no desire to play the part of a pharisee. If I am wrong in any way, I am certainly open to the Lord showing me.

    I appreciate your input regarding this touchy subject. You have a lot of wisdom and I don’t mean to demean that in any way. May the Lord bless you!

    1. The thing is that rejecting heirachy and authority isn’t at all the same thing as allowing disrespect, refusal to co-operate or selfish behavior. We offer respect, submission and cooperation because these things are good and when we act out of Christ in us, we are being made good. I have nominal authority over my children because they are too immature to be wholy self-responsible. But ultimately, they too are my equal as human beings and my authority is to be used to help them get to a point where they are mature enough to operate independantly. Just like Jesus did with his authority over his disciples. This is the pattern of authority we are to following.

      We must also keep in mind that at the time that Paul was writing instructions to the church, men married girls, not women. So there may well have been an element of parent-child relating between husbands and their girl brides. A 14 year old girl who has been married to a 25 year old man will have issues to deal with that don’t translate well into modern society. In modern society, the idea that a husband has authority over his ezer kenegdo is inherently oppressive. To the extent that it exists at all, it must be as part of a movement towards mutual equality and independence, not as an ongoing structure to have imposed on people whose very spirit rebels against it.

      The reality is that heirarchies have never produced good fruit. Just like there were some slave holders who lived up to the ideal, the reality is that human beings were given dominion over animals, the soil, the plants – NOT over other human beings. Only God has authority over men. We’ve been told to submit to earthly authorites just like slaves were told to submit to their masters. We are not to be disruptive, but subversive. But just like despite the instructions regarding slaves and masters, the seeds of the destruction of that way of doing things were planted right along with the instructions on slavery. Men no longer marry girls (at least in the context we live in). The time for the fulfillment of that verse from Galatians is now. If we stand in the way of its fulfillmet, we are no different than the slaveowners of yore.

      The thing is that probably millions of women have tried to accept the reasoning by which being under someone else’s authority doesn’t make us less than and been broken by it. We get told that the pain it causes is our own rebellion – our own fault. And when they just couldn’t labor under the oppression and pain, they finally stepped away and found freedom and joy. The sort of freedom and joy which Jesus said he came to bring us – and not the false freedom of this world which is rebellion and self-indulgence, either. Freedom marked by joy, giving, peace. They’ve been released from struggle and found the easy and light yoke which Jesus promised. I am one of these women. And the thing is that once you have traded the yokes of men for the yoke of Christ, there is no going back. The Spirit in me and in millions of other women won’t allow it.

      1. As always, I need an editor. I was listening to my husband who needed some advice and encouragement when I typed it. He values having an equal who he is not responsible for leading to turn to for guidance and perspective when the shit hits the fan. He also appreciates that I don’t need to be protected from the reality of life going wrong. My father never had someone he could turn to like that because although he loves my mother dearly and treats her like a queen, he doesn’t view her as an equal who he can turn to and take advice from and share burdens with. He believes his job is to protect her from the harsh realities of life and always find the way forward for himself. Heirarchies aren’t just bad for women – they can be a terrible burden on men and deprive them of something good and life giving as well. So, it makes me happy to have a husband who doesn’t see himself as an authority over me, but who treats me as the ezer kenegdo God created woman to be for man. But talking, listening and typing all at once does make for even worse than usual writing errors!

        (BTW – ezer kenegdo is the hebrew phrase which ridiculously gets “translated” as helpmeet. It really means no such thing and is a phrase indicating equality, strength and rescue. http://www.godswordtowomen.org/ezerkenegdo.htm )

  4. I used to read an Orthodox or other Christian “blog” here or there, and of course I’ve long made use of the World Wide Internet for reading on other subjects, but last year, when I was intimately burned by the insanity of what I soon learned was the “Christian Patriarchy Movement,” I started obsessively reading about that. So I eventually found my way here.

    Although I tend more towards beijaflor77‘s reading of Scripture, I was glad to read your blog post and its commentary about the abuses that flow from foolish proof-texting. (I had not come across the term clobber verse until just now, but I am well acquainted with the misuse of proof texts.) The notion that, say, an unmarried twenty-five-year-old woman must remain in her father’s home and obey him in all things is idolatry. Recognizing the “headship” (this English word doesn’t sound right: or perhaps the problem is just that it has been tainted by nitwits who misconstrue it) … recognizing the headship of a man in the family structure ought not mean transforming him into the Lord of his underlings.

    My own experience was the direct witness of the misery that followed for all the people around such a man, and the misery of the man himself.

    1. Something most people don’t realize about the language of headship is that at the time scripture was written, the head was NOT seen as the seat of rational thought and decision making. That was the heart. Until the 2nd century no one actually knew what the brain did. It was commonly thought, for instance, that the brain was used to cool blood. Or it was the seat of the senses, given its proximity to the eyes, ears, nose and mouth. So even something which is that basic and obvious – that being the head is somehow related to ordering and hierarchy doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s us imposing our own ideas about things onto the biblical texts. Once you really look at it, in all honesty, once you really dig in, it’s kind of astounding how weak the case for men over women is.

      BTW: here’s some info on ancient ideas regarding the brain:

  5. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church and Christ washed the feed of the disciples and was crucified.(Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing[a] her by the washing with water through the word, Ephesians 5:25) Men are called to be the spiritual leaders, but are also called to be humble and love their wives unconditionally. the whole bit about women not speaking in church was a suggestion by Paul according to tradition just like he suggested against marriage so people would be able to focus more on God rather than have to also focus on a marital relationship. (Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. 1 Corinthians 7:1-7)

  6. Paul was talking to a specific situation in the Church of Corinth in the above scriptures FYI, also i mean no hostility or resentment.

  7. Rebecca,
    Only about 14.5 months ago i commented to one of your posts.  You replied to my reply. I kinda flaked out ans forgot and shortly thereafter, was taken out for a good long while by computer problems. but thanks to wordpress reminding me of my blog comments, I have actually  replied to your reply to my reply!
    Don’t fall out of your chair or anything.

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