Let My People Go: The Impact of Patriarchy in the Church

Bob Edwards


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Patriarchy is an oppressive cultural norm with a history that predates Christianity.

Fortunately, it is fading from our global community. Unfortunately, it persists in some corners of the institutional church today, where some Christian leaders still teach that it is the God-given right of men everywhere to exercise authority over women at church and at home.

From my vantage point as a male social worker, psychotherapist, and former department head at a multi-denominational Bible college, I’ve had many opportunities to observe how patriarchy impacts people every day on a very practical level.

Once, while giving a lecture on gender socialization, I asked students to share their views on the roles of men and women in the home. What I heard was not surprising, but I still felt shocked and saddened. Men, I was told, have the “final say” over everything that takes place in the home. In the event of a disagreement, a wife is expected to submit to her husband’s point of view. Men are responsible for managing the family’s finances, and presumed to be the chief wage-earners. Furthermore, they are in charge of disciplining the children, and providing spiritual guidance to everyone in the family.

When I asked students to identify the source of these ideas, one confidently declared, “They’re biblical!”

I asked the same question in a different class and received a similar response. With this class, however, I asked them to look in the Bible for clear instructions that men are to perform all of the roles that had just been assigned to them.  I also asked them to search for evidence that women were to be precluded from these activities. As you might expect, they did not find this evidence. They found verses related to the concept of “headship”, but they did not find clear explanations of how this was to be implemented day-to-day in Christian homes.

They recognized that they had filled in the gaps with role descriptions that were part of their institutional church traditions.

During a chapel service a young man walked out angrily as a woman took the podium to give the message. He looked to be about 19 years of age. She was an exceptional speaker with a master’s level education, but was apparently disqualified in this young man’s mind, solely on the basis of gender. Sadly, this was not an isolated event, as more than one student verbally expressed indignation about women teaching the Bible in chapel.

Observing the impact of male domination as a psychotherapist was also profoundly disturbing. I learned that many Christian wives are expected to submit to all of their husband’s sexual advances, as their duty before God. They are told that any failure to do so might cause their husbands to have sexual struggles ranging from pornography use to affairs or soliciting prostitution. Women who had been sexually assaulted, sometimes by a pastor, were often accused of bringing the abuse upon themselves by dressing inappropriately, or by being “too friendly” with a man.

My observations of the treatment of women in the church mirror my experiences as a teacher and a therapist. Attractive women who are newcomers may find themselves the target of male lust and female hostility. Women, in general, are told that teaching the congregation or holding leadership positions is beyond their ability. Their place is in the Sunday School, the nursery, or the kitchen. Even these roles, however, are subject to veto by a Christian husband.

Male domination places women in a very cruel cage:

  • Can you imagine what it’s like to be blamed for someone else’s sexual sins…against you?
  • Can you imagine what it’s like to be told that by virtue of your sex at birth, you are less qualified to be a leader or an educator in the church?
  • Can you imagine what it’s like to be told that it is your duty before God to submit to someone’s sexual advances, regardless of your feelings, health, or circumstances?
  • Can you imagine what it’s like to be told that by default, disagreements in your marriage will always be decided against you, because this is the will of God?

Tragically, many women in the church do not have to imagine these things; they are part of their daily lives. A woman may be a deeply committed Christian, but as far as a patriarchal church is concerned, she will never, ever, be quite as spiritual as anyone who just happens to be a man. The message you’re given is that there’s something inherently wrong with you, even dangerous, simply because you’re a woman.

Malcolm (1982) provides a description of patriarchy in the church that aptly summarizes what I’m describing:

“Many women I have counseled have moved directly from a home where the father had the last word to a home where the husband played the same role. They first learned about their limitations as little girls growing up. Then as the men they married continued to treat them like children, the problem was compounded. Finally, if their churches do not encourage them to use their talents for others, they shrivel up in their service and often in their love for the Lord.” (p. 31)

I submit that this is not an accurate description of the life of freedom that was purchased for all people, men and women, through the shedding of Christ’s blood on the cross.

Simply put, it is not Christianity at all.


Adapted from Bob’s book: Let My People Go: A Call to End the Oppression of Women in the Church, Revised and Expanded (2013), available through Amazon.

Reference: Malcolm, K.T. (1982). Women at the crossroads: A path beyond feminism & traditionalism. Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

(Ed. Note: For more on abuse in the church or the home, see the excellent series by Carolyn Custis James, Part 1 here, or Jenny Rae Armstrong’s post with additional resources, When Love Hurts.)

Graphic Credit: Kate Hickman

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  • Bob, it came as both a reminder and a refreshing to me, too. I had a conversation with my boss about patriarchy today. I asked him the exact same thing: that he must show me where in the Bible does it expressly state that the man is the leader, provider, king, priest and prophet of his home. He couldn’t answer me.

    This teaching gives rise to the flesh in the lives of godly men. I’ve seen two pastors, a very cherished spiritual older brother and my boss insult their wives and speak to them in condescending ways in public and from the pulpit. If that is what they do in public, I really do not want to know what happens in private.

    Someone on the CBE blog stated recently that some men really don’t respect women, they just have some kind of benevolent condescendence towards us.

    Thank you so much, Bob, for the work you are doing. 🙂

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the article Elspeth, and thank you for the encouragement :).

  • I always find your articles insightful and, emotionally, very refreshing and strengthening. Please keep it up!

    • Thank you for the encouraging feedback Raya. I’m very glad that God uses the posts to refresh and strengthen you. I see that as an answer to prayer, and yet another sign of God’s unfailing love :).

  • A friend of mine shared the following quote in her book entitled, Dethroning Male Headship: “Ware also touched on a verse from First Timothy saying that women ‘shall be saved in childbearing,’ by noting that the word translated ‘saved’ always refers to eternal salvation. ‘It means that a woman will demonstrate that she is in fact a Christian, that she has submitted to God’s ways by affirming and embracing her God-designed identity as…wife and mother, rather than chafing against it, rather than bucking against it, rather than wanting to be a man, wanting to be in a man’s position, wanting to teach and exercise authority over men'” (Taylor, 2013, p. 109).

    Sadly, this view of salvation adds an extra condition to the gospel. Salvation–for women–is no longer by grace alone, through faith in Jesus Christ. Women must also apparently submit to male authority in order to be saved.

    This doctrine is a direct contradiction to the gospel of grace portrayed throughout the New Testament.

    It is also a direct reflection of 4th century Bible commentary written by St. Jerome. He believed that women are the root of all evil; and that they experience eternal salvation by bearing children.

    Today, most Christians would consider that to be bad theology at best. It is certainly sexist. Yet, Jerome’s interpretation (and translation) of 1 Timothy 2:12-15 has been accepted in some corners of the church as the gospel truth for centuries.

    My research has persuaded me that his views are a result of reading the New Testament through the lenses of a very patriarchal Greco-Roman society. (This is the period in history in which the church became the state religion of the Roman Empire.) I think its long past time for the church to put these lenses aside. They have distorted our understanding of the Bible for far too long.

    • Btw, this is a response to earlier comments made by Joyce and Kristen. I’m still getting the hang of the interface here :). Apologies for any confusion.

    • So, what do women like me do, who are in their 40s, never married and never had a kid? I guess there is no salvation for single or childless or childfree women.

      • Yes, the complementarian definition of what it means to be a Christian woman can be very marginalizing and discouraging. This is one reason I’m so passionate about highlighting the fact that it is not God’s message.

        God’s love does not depend upon us following a rigidly defined social script. God loves us because we are infinitely precious to him, and God is love. In the language of the Old Testament, we are the apple of God’s eye, a special treasure, his own dearly loved children, and Jesus tells us that we are his friends.

        This is “good news.” When we open our hearts and lives to this love of God through faith, we are signing up for the adventure of a life-time. God will love us, heal us, liberate and transform us. He will also call and equip us to share this incredible love with others. According to the New Testament, the manner in which we are equipped is not decided by our race, our social status or our gender. We are equipped according to the will of God’s Spirit, not some human idea of how society should function.

        God’s love does not leave anyone on the side-lines.

  • I thought this article is great and the facts so true in so many places still. I applaud all the women and I know quite a few, who have pressed in and pressed through becoming all that God has called them to be.

    Don’t you think the Lord just sometimes shakes his head?

    Ok I might be sensitive…OK…I am sensitive… but the following bothered me,

    you commented…’She was an exceptional speaker with a master’s level education, but was apparently disqualified in this young man’s mind, solely on the basis of gender’

    PLEASE don’t make anyone’s degree or lack thereof a reason or not for a woman to be “qualified” to take the podium. I for one have “only” a High School education and feel as qualified as a man/woman with degrees galore.

    Reading about one with degrees with thoughts leaning like “at least I am not working at a fast food place or cashier or whatever”(I’ve heard them all)

    I BLESS you all who have worked hard for your degrees…you have earned respect, but please do not look down on clerks and cleaning ladies and such

    We need to work to end the men /women inequality in the church…but let’s show grace to ALL. Apply what you are saying to all situations.

    EVERYONE deserves respect/

    • I agree that everyone deserves respect, but I don’t think Bob was showing disrespect by stating that she had a masters level education. It seemed to me that he was just pointing out that she had education that backed up what she was probably talking about. The young man walked about because he thought she wasn’t fit to be a speaker based inherently on her gender, not having anything to do with whether or not she was qualified to speak on what she was speaking about. I think that someone who is educated on a topic is more likely to be qualified to speak on that topic than someone who is not educated about it. That doesn’t mean everyone will agree with that speaker, but their education has given them more qualification for speaking on the matter. Whether it’s formal education or informal education is another matter… I think formal education is definitely a privilege issue.

  • I was thinking about a letter I got from my grandson – he is 20. He had been reading the bible (a good thing) – I had just shared in a letter that I had been given a church and was now a pastor of a small UMC church. I’m nearly a senior citizen with a doctorate degree, seminary work, etc. He wrote to me to tell me he was concerned about my salvation since I was taking on the role that was exclusive for men. This stuff is so entrenched. But since he was my grandson, I chose to just move on from the comment.

    • He was concerned about your salvation? Whatever happened to “by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God”? Honestly, it’s one thing to worry that a person is doing something you sincerely believe the Bible teaches against– but to worry that they could lose their salvation because of this is just completely against everything I’ve ever understood as Protestant Christianity.

      • Ridiculous – yes – wrong – yes… but the point is that he as a kid, my grandson, thought he needed to tell me that I couldn’t do something just by virtue of being female and in his mind, a 20 year old male had more authority than I.

        • Hi Joyce and Kristen, I replied to your comments, but it seems I did so in the wrong place. Still getting the hang of the interface here. Please feel free to see my comment from Sept. 3 at 2:29 p.m., I had you both in mind.

    • Joyce, I can definitely relate to your situation with your grandson. I have been very open about my views in almost every area of my life, but with my dad it is so hard because I don’t know how to tell him my views on these topics without generating conflict or being misunderstood. I have loads of research in my head, but mustering up the courage to address the topic with my dad seems too hard when you can just see how the rift in your relationship might play out.

  • Thank you so much, Bob, for these clear and truthful words. I am stunned by how insidious these belief patterns are and how strongly woven they are into so much of evangelical culture. I am grateful for all voices who speak out clearly and strongly in opposition to the death-grip of patriarchy on the contemporary church, at least certain portions of it. And I’m grateful to see a mix of voices in this new space – we need women and men to speak, teach, model and live the truth. Thank you.

  • Great article. I particularly liked the part that the author quoted from another source. It’s so true and I have had some personal experience with the topic. When I got married I was told that my husband was now the leader over me and that my father could relinquish his role in that area. (Not in so many words, but the idea was very loud and clear.) My husband, praise Jesus, does not think that way at all and we both had a good laugh about it, but at the same time realized that this was the situation many women are sadly in.

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