Why Christian Patriarchy Cannot Prevent Abuse


Here I will further demonstrate with an analytic argument that patriarchy in theory is incoherent and cannot prevent abuse.

Patriarchy, as I have previously argued, is the denial of the gift of the Spirit for all who are one in Christ (which I have argued elsewhere in regards to Galatians 3:28). Under this basis, patriarchy is the denial that a woman could have the gift of the Spirit in leadership (apostolic or general), teaching, prophesy, etc. whether in the church, society, or marriage.

Patriarchy is the position that holds to an inherent hierarchy within the male-female relationship where men have a position of authority or leadership by the merit of their gender, which usually is applied to a marriage (where the man has the power of decision in some way) and church leadership (where men only can be pastors), but also to other aspects of society in general (some argue against women holding any position of authority). However, for purposes of this paper, the marriage example will be used as the normative referent, since it is the male-female relationship at is most basic (where a congregation of pastor-congregants involve relationships not just of a man and women) and it is abuse in marriage that is most distressing.

I find this term is a pretty muddy term because some will argue that Christian marriage and church leadership is by the gift of the Spirit, therefore a man leads, either as husband or pastor/elder, by that gift where a secular marriage or institution does not have this grace. Christian patriarchy is in theory something that only good Christians can do. In other arguments, since gender is apart of the creational design, in principle all marriages and all institutions should naturally work best under this scheme. In this account Christian patriarchy is something that is natural and therefore should work for all. However, Galatians 3:28, forbids the idea that a man would get a gift the Spirit (i.e. leadership) that a woman could not. This leaves the basis of leadership and authority in the realm of the natural. This should grant us some level of demystification. If it is based on natural and rational order, it should be accountable to natural principles of reason.

Thus, I will now argue that Christian patriarchy is incoherent by the fact that it cannot offer an accurate description of its own criteria of success. I will also then argue that it is condemnable by the fact of its inability in principle to restrain oppression and abuse of women. That sounds strong. After all there are so many good husbands, fathers, marriages, pastors, churches, etc. that hold to this. That is fine. This is why we should qualified this and say its inability in principle not reality. In reality there are lots of good marriages that display patriarchy, however, we are analyzing the natural logic of that conviction. To this we will return to the second assertion that argues patriarchy examples of success do not offer the criteria necessary to understand that success. What I mean by that is that patriarchy in successful Christian marriage, is one where there is a practiced intimacy, equality, and mutual accountability, which actually implies the opposite of any hard version of patriarchy.

1. The Incoherence of Patriarchy

Christian patriarchy cannot sustain the assertion that it is good that a man can have a role by the merit of him merely being a man over a woman. It has to argue this assertion by saying he has to be a good man and a capable leader, but cannot sustain that every man is good and capable. This slides the criterion of authority and leadership from a criterion of gender essentialism to pragmatism: a man does not have authority because he is a man, but because has the ability to do so and the character to do so well.

If this is the case, patriarchy has already failed on two fronts. The first is that if a man does not have good leadership and good character he should therefore be disqualified from leadership on principle. There is no basis by which a woman must listen to a man of incompetent judgment, unsound mind, or questionable character (as we will see, the insistence otherwise, therefore, creates the inability for patriarchy to prevent abuse).

The second is that if it is actually on the basis of skill and character (or the gift of the Spirit) that leadership is based, then if a woman manifests these qualities (as we have argued previously in regards to Gal. 3:28), there is no objection in principle that she could in fact lead and the man should in fact submit.

A patriarchalist is then left with three very uncomfortable options: (1) Resort back to arguing that leadership is in fact based on gender without character and ability. This option is incapably of offering criteria that could prevent abuse. (2) Deny that any woman does have naturally the skill and character capable of leading. This option leads the patriarchialist into bigotry. Good female leaders, whether in the church, marriage, or society are ignored, or worse, explained as if they are abnormal women. This option is left explaining away any good preacher, politician, business owner, or administrator that is a woman. As I said, nothing short of calling this bigotry will do because the vast amount of life data one has to explain away virtually makes this position on par with insisting that the earth is flat. So, we come to the final option: (3) Admit that a patriarchalist holds a double standard, either principled inequality or even intentional repression. Inequality is seen in either allowing a man to do something that a woman could do, and overt repression is seen in any act of actively preventing a woman to do something a man is privileged with. If it is the third option, they are left with having to deal with Galatians 3:28 again: the Spirit does not discriminate in regards to the gift of the Spirit on the basis of gender, ethnicity, or wealth. Therefore, theological patriarchialism is left without foundation. Fideism offers no shield to the accusation of the double standard. If a woman is in fact capable of leading there is no position of these three that does not result in a type of authoritarianism (the wrong use of power) or ignorance (refusal to be informed).

Again those are strong words, and I shall qualify: the traditional marriages that we know and respect are ones where the man has the character and skill in leadership, which the woman is content to trust. In other words, while it is undeniable that our gender does affect our relationships and positions, the notion that masculinity as such is the prime criterion of leadership has been exposed as inaccurate. A male leader will inevitably lead in some kind of “male” way, but that is nothing more than a tautology. A female leader will inevitably lead in a “female” way as well. We express ourselves with gender, but gender is not the deciding factor. If woman can in fact possess the qualities of leadership and skill in using authority, gender is incidental.

The opposite scenario (authority without character) offers the falsification criterion required to prove my original point: If we can agree that the logic of even patriarchy of good character is incoherent, (it always requires the ability and character to lead, which is not restricted to gender on the basis of experience or theology) it attests to the fact that patriarchy as such is potentially abusive. The potential outcome is why a logic of egalitarianism is the preferable and in fact necessary one for any successful display of Christian leadership.

Authority can be defined as the power to make decisions, give direction, or have control over something, and to control something is to exert force to direct or restrain. If a man, empowered by the ideology of patriarchy, is set up as an authority in a marriage or an institution, there is now the potential that power can be utilized without a moral or even rational criterion. As we already established, if male-authority is based on skill and character, then that is not patriarchy, it has pragmatic criteria. If authority is actually based on skill and character, than a woman can lead if she displays these skills and character. In fact, as we just demonstrated, with regards to the gift of the Spirit, there is no basis for discrimination.

However, if authority is wielded on the basis of male gender (thus, truly patriarchial) the decision need therefore not be a good decision; the direction need not be a good direction; and the exertion of power need not be a good exertion of power. The obliged response by the female is submission, trusting that any decision by virtue none other than it was a decision by a male is worthy of trust.

This makes things complicated. I have heard some patriarchal Christian valorize this kind of blind submission, and in fact, many resort to this defends in order to dismiss the existence of good female leaders (option 2 above). They would resort to a fideism of trusting in the order of male-authority/female-submission despite the perceived impracticality of it and examples to the contrary. Again, this option fails by its lack of theological basis (if the Word of God in Galatians has anything to say about it) and is therefore a retreat not into the mystery of faith but into the perpetuation of the irrational.

However, most Christian patriarchialists will oppose this fideist notion and qualify that women have to a degree of liberty to inquire and even challenge an unfit decision by a male authority. This, ironically, falls back into the logic of egalitarianism. The criteria to evaluate the validity of a decision, the right to challenge the validity of a bad decision, and the power to refuse to submit to a decision by an authority once it has been made, all imply that authority and leadership is not validated by positional authority alone, but rather by the degree of skill and character an authority or leader has. Again, the criterion is pragmatic not gender based, and therefore any gender that displays these qualities may lead. Any relationship that permits the freedom to question a decision, the freedom to apply a set of criteria to evaluate a decision rationally (and not accept it on merit of positional authority), and the freedom to even refuse a decision if it is incorrect rather than be compelled to submit to it, implies that the relation operates within the parameters of equality: mutual accountability, mutual submission, not hierarchy. If it claims differently, as many do, the description of the relationship is inaccurate and even disingenuous to the reality of the practiced relationship.

In fact, no successful Christian example can be offered in which a man can wield power and authority, well or not, without the woman also allowing him to, implying she exerts her own power and authority over him, if only to relinquish it and empower him. Authority is reflexive. In a marriage, his exertion of power actually is dependent on his legitimating power of his wife’s consent, approval, and ongoing accountability. This is not patriarchy, however. This is egalitarianism that expresses itself in mutually agreed upon traditional roles. The site of authority is equally in each person together, but the execution and operation of power is entrusted to one on behalf of both. However, as I insist, there can be no defeater offered for what a couple cannot agree for the opposite.

2. Complementarianism and the Possibility of Abuse

Some will note that I have only used the term “patriarchy” which some might found offense to their position because it sounds harsh. They would prefer the term “complementarian.” My intent in using patriarchy is because it is more basis to what I take issue at: gender hierarchy, not the notion of similarities within a gender and differences between genders. Some will insist that they are “complementarians” not patriarchialists offering something similar to the description given in the last paragraph, but less objectionable.

Complimentarianism in this case might be essentially the dual thesis that men, by the merit of their gender, are called and best suited to lead or have authority, and women, by the merit of their gender, are called and best suited to submit. This position insists on the need for men to exercise power and authority well (whether as a husband or a pastor, etc.) and a woman (whether a wife or congregant) to submit well. Both together are understood as forming the basis of a successful male-female relationship.

This is more nuanced than patriarchy, but essentially it is just as incoherent. While it offers a more holistic account of how power is applied (i.e. rarely one-sidedly), the notion that a man must lead well and a woman must submit well does not prevent the slippage from a positional criterion of power to a pragmatic one that we just talked about. A man can lead (and a woman submit) only if he actually has the skill and character to do so, and therefore, if the woman possesses these qualities, there is no reason why a man then in turn should learn to submit to her or pray and ask God for help in doing so.

However, I will argue that complementarianism is just as bad and in some cases actually worse. While complementarianism recognizes the dual notion of the relationship, patriarchy is overt in placing the emphasis on male power and control. In patriarchy then the onus is, typically, on the power yielded by the man. Complementarianism is in many ways identical to patriarchy, but when unsuccessful, creates the possibility of female scapegoats. The marriage failed, so one could complain, due to lack of complementarity, not the deficient use of male-power. In other words, the person that refused to fulfill their role is to blame. While it could be the man in refusing to take responsibility, the possibility is offered that it is in fact the woman’s fault for refusing to submit since that is her role. This could create the situation where that a man in merely asserting power on the basis of his gender is deemed virtuous, even though in other regards he is not a supportive husband, but a woman who defies his orders is deemed immoral for failing to uphold her role. This creates a potentially terrible situation: Her displeasure and defiance to the authoritarian nature of her husband’s authority therefore become her fault, purely because she expresses her displeasure and defiance of it.

What is worse is that if authority implies the application of power, if position is legitimated by gender without character, and if decisions can be implemented apart from the ongoing consent and accountability of an egalitarian logic, the result is something that is indistinguishable from abuse. What happens when a wife refuses to submit to her husband? There are two outcomes. The first collapses positional authority into mutual-accountability: the man explains himself and offers compelling reasons for the decision. This implies the logic of egalitarianism as the execution of leadership is based on the pragmatics of ability and character with accountability and equality.

So, the worse outcome is where patriarchy becomes dangerous, which will serve as my closing cautionary example. If the woman refuses to submit, she is in defiance of the order of the relationship, legitimated purely on the basis of gender. In fact, I would point out that if the relationship does not qualify the criteria of accountability for decision to be challenged, all disagreement could potentially be understood as defiance. Rather than accept negotiation or accountability, the failure to maintain this order could be seen as requiring the application of simply more force.

Here is where the possibility of abuse in patriarchy cannot be prevented in theory and is, in fact, bolstered by bad theological analogies. Obviously this does not mean self-espoused complementarians are all abusive, but I have already accounted for why that is not the case, and it is because the relationship is in fact disingenuous about its own pragmatics. However, I will maintain the potentiality in principle.

If a man can wield power and authority purely on he basis of gender and a woman called to submit, if the power is truly positional then power can be wielded without the legitimation of another, without a woman’s approval or accountability. This implies then that he is at liberty to exercise power against her will.

There is dangerous analogous logic that can reinforce the abusive nature of this power. Power relationships often imply the use of force. After all, bosses can fire bad employees. Police can imprison deviant citizens. A teacher can expel a student. A parent can, in traditional understanding, spank a child.

While it is not our project to exegete 1 Corinthians 11, a misapplication of its logic would be thus: God is head of Christ; Christ is head of man; and man is head of the woman. Apply the logic to divine headship over humanity, as some do, to marriage, and it starts to get scary: a very coherent set of logic in its own right is thus offered for the use of force by a man over a woman for the purpose of carrying out the decision. If God is head over humanity and can exercise power regardless of the consent of people and if the male is the head of the female as God is the head over humanity, then the man can analogously wield power regardless of the opposition of the woman. He may think he can do so even to punish her for her own good as God does to humans. The fact that God is morally perfect and people are not can get ignored. The man, if he thinks he is in the right, is now able to exercise the force of punishment against the woman’s will. It us under these schemes that we see examples of “domestic discipline” and abuse perpetrated by Christian fundamentalists. Patriarchy, if it gravitates to this level of theological analogy, can delude itself into laying claim to God’s infallibility and wrath for its own.

This may all sound very extreme and quite offensive to a complementarian or gentle Christian patriarchialist. Thankfully, most who hold this position out of Christian conviction object strongly to the use of force. However, this is the challenge of convictional consistency:  What restrains the use of force as a virtue that comes from patriarchial values or an unadmitted egalitarian one? If complementarianism promotes power over women, how is force that much different? As I said, many complementarians are in actuality egalitarians first, who together mutually consent to traditional roles. However, if the logic that God is an authority with the capacity to use force is analogous to the male power in the patriarchy, the refusal to use disciplinary force is actually disconnected within the linear implications of the logic. This is why patriarchy, as such, cannot prevent its own abuse.


It is for this reason that Bible believing, Spirit-loving, reason-using, and justice-promoting Christians should seek to reform any form of patriarchy. This does not mean demeaning well-intentioned marriages and churches, but it does mean taking seriously the task of clarifying Christian convictions (as we have done here) and promoting the most coherent theology of authority and gender. The most probable exegesis and the most coherent account of relationships is one that works within the bounds of egalitarianism. Patriarchy, as I have shown, in its purest theoretical form, cannot offer a compelling logic to prevent abuse.



  1. Nate

    Philosophical reasoning and the principles derived can only go so far to determine truth. You admit very early that your theory is not observably accurate in reality. This admission prompted me to ignore your thoughts altogether and go back to the real world where truth matters, but here is my quick response to your culturally driven hermeneutic fallacies. Historically time and time again empirical evidence has crushed airtight grandiose philosophical reasoning. I believe that empiracle evidence does not support a hypothesis regarding abuse being more likely in complementarian marriages. This is in fact the only possible hypothesis that could be derived from your thesis to prove it to be true. If patriarchy as a system cannot protect from abuse inherently, there would be more abuse in a patriarchal system than an egalitarian one. The burden is on you to prove that there is more abuse in one model as opposed to the other. You theory does not reflect reality, nor is it grounded in biblical truth. The glaring false premise in your argument is your belief in the feminist definition of equality being best / biblically encouraged for the greatest possible human flourishing in churches and society. Again the burden of proof is with you are backed up by reality. If you attempt to prove that it is biblical / best to deconstruct traditional patriarchal church leadership structures and gender roles first determine the measurement for flourishing and then find a sample group to evaluate. Next you need to define abuse, then evaluate another sample group. You also might analyze currently existing data regarding both of these cases. Please do some research to see if you can find God’s spirit more at work in your preferred model so that we can avoid being fruitless dying churches.
    The other option if you don’t like to research or study your position is to research and analyze historical data that either conforms to your theory or rejects it. You would imagine that God’s spirit would bears more fruit or grow Christians into maturity, or protects from abuse better in egalitarian modeled churches. Again the burden is on you to prove that the complementarian conservative model is bearing less fruit. I don’t think that the Spirit would gift liberal egalitarian churches with closed door like reality and history seem to suggest (prove me wrong with facts if you disagree).
    I won’t adress your biblical interpretation or lack there of. I won’t adress your philosophic presuppositions either. I will only say you have a theory which can be empriaclly proven to be true or false. Look at reality, do some research and prove what you say to be true rather than arguing that you are right.
    My post may be a bit strong but I don’t believe you are leading the church in the right direction. I have determined what is right from biblical truth not hypothetical principles.


    • spencermboersma


      I think you are misunderstanding what I am saying on several fronts.

      First, while this essay critiques the logic of complementarian convictions, I did not arrive at my own egalitarian position by a kind of raw rationalist analysis or “culturally driven” hermeneutic. I became an egalitarian in Bible College. I was a devout complementarian at the time, but I always resolved to study both sides of an issue. Assuming egalitarianism to be laughable, I read Grudem and Piper’s book alongside Rediscovering Biblical Equality. By the end of the study, I had to admit to myself, I found the egalitarian position, while a bit more complex in regards to some passages, made way more sense of the whole of the Bible. IN fact, at many parts I was surprised to find that complementarian were the real “liberals,” imposing assumptions on texts to make them say what they wanted. I am an egalitarian because it is the best biblical position. You might see my position as “liberal,” but as far as how I arrived at my position about gender, it is only because I think egalitarianism is biblical.

      If you want, there are two articles I have written on the Bible and egalitarianism on my blog: one on women leaders in the Bible and the other is on Gal. 3:28.

      Second, so, when I critique the logic of complementarianism I am not using the logic to dismiss the Bible. I grant, for instance, that if complementarianism is true, my position would probably be the result of liberalism of some kind. However, think of it from my perspective: if egalitarianism is true, does not my criticism of patriarchy follow? I am critiquing a position that I think is biblically problematic, and thus, obviously should not be coherent, and therefore obviously again does have harmful potentialities.

      As I reflect on the logic, this is not divorced from life experience. Many of the convictions I critique are words right out of complementarian mouths (I did not cite any because I did not want to turn this into finger pointing). At one point I actually held to a lot of what I am critiquing. What you see as “philosophical analysis” is merely looking at statements complementarians have made (that I had made also) and expecting these to be coherent. Is that too much to ask?

      Ironically, your own objections to me demonstrate my point. I pointed out that complementarians have to think certain ways with regards to their convictions, labeling anomalies to make the position make sense. You do just that: You label all churches that are egalitarian as “liberal” (which is not true) and that egalitarian churches, in your mind, must fail. You have to dismiss churches with female pastors as deficient, when, in actuality, there are plenty of successful churches with female pastors. There are women pastors that far exceed the preaching and leading ability of you or I, but I have a feeling you will write these faithful daughters of God off in the exact manner I described. And as I demonstrate, the reasons for doing so are highly problematic.

      I have to ask you, how many egalitarian churches have to been to? Have you listened to many of great female prophets preach?

      Third, I think you are right in that I could be more clear as to the nature of abuse, but I think in the context that I discuss it, I am referring to the abuse of power, which leads in turn to the abuse, devaluing, oppression, and repression of women in many forms. I can put it this way: any time a complementarian man invokes their gender (or the woman’s gender) as the basis of why they should get their way (or a woman is not free to pursue hers) is abusing their power and discriminating against a woman.

      Now, if you wish, there is quite a lot of literature that links patriarchy to the devaluing of women: income inequality, restraining of mobility, untrue gender stereotypes, etc. It seems rather obvious: preach messages where women are not “able” to teach or lead, and that translates into a social practice in business where women are systematically devalued. There certainly are those statistics.

      What is worse, however, and this I specifically mention, is saying that men are closer to God and that if male authority is analogous to divine authority, one is free to use force as God uses force. Again, I am assuming you are not a radical complementarian in this regard, but if you have not heard about “domestic discipline” advocates, I should point out that they are out there in prominent evangelical circles. They are particularly a problem in non-western nations where patriarchy has not been tempered with civil rights movements. As I explain, sadly, their logic is probably more sound than moderate complementarians as theit build it off of the rigid analogy of authority of God using force, and that is why, as I point out, complelemtarians who do not practice this, usually operate under the grammar of equality.

      When I point out that patriarchy cannot prevent its own abuse, I am not calling all patriarchialists abusive, nor do I expect them to. It is the same way that most non-Christians are philosophical nihilists, but are on mass not committing suicide or mass murder or whatever else. The reason why patriarchialists are not more abusive is because they usually have tempered those convictions with others. It is the same reason why those that think they are living in the end times, holding that Jesus will return within years, still have retirement saving plans. Similarly, most churches do not treat gay people as “abominations.” One set of convictions is being tempered by others, and in the case of marriage, the other convictions are usually egalitarian in nature.

      You seem like an honest person that shoots from the hip, so here is my honest response. I will however reiterate that I am critiquing convictions here, not attacking people. While I think complementarianism is incoherent, that is not to say that I know plenty of wonderful brothers and sisters in Christ that hold to this theology. While I would challenge them (and you) on this aspect, I hope you would reciprocate the acknowledgement that this is a “family squabble” and at the end of the day while we disagree here, there is something deeper that binds us, and that is, of course, faith in Christ.



  2. Pingback: The Shack (Part Three): The Scandal of Evangelical Orthodoxy | Spencer Boersma

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