Three Ways Patriarchy is Bad for Men

Tim Peck

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iStock Patriarchy and Men

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Many egalitarians (and even some complementarians) have pointed out the negative impact of patriarchy on women. 

Whether it is contributing to violence against women, restricting women from using their spiritual gifts or discouraging women from pursuing education, it is easy to see why patriarchy is bad for women.

However, few seem to consider why patriarchy is bad for men as well.

If patriarchy is part of the curse brought about by human sin (as Genesis 3:16 indicates) then it makes sense that perpetuating this curse would be bad for both men AND women. Here are some of my thoughts about why patriarchy is bad for men, two related to the church and the last related to marriage.

1. Patriarchy puts pressure on men to operate in realms that they may not be gifted for

If one’s role in the church is based on gender alone, some men may find themselves in church leadership roles they lack the competency to fulfill. By disqualifying more than half of the potential leaders in a church by virtue of their gender, the need for leadership will be larger than the pool of available male leaders.

Thus men will be pressed into leadership roles they are not called to, gifted for, and equipped to fulfill, while women who are called, gifted, and equipped are passed over.

The result will be overworked, overwhelmed men, some of whom might not be competent in the roles they are filling. This runs contrary to the New Testament picture of the church as the body of Christ, where members fill roles based on the Holy Spirit’s empowerment and gifting (1 Corinthians 12:7).

2. Patriarchy tends to sexualize male/female relationships

Married men in complementarian Christian circles are often encouraged to avoid interactions with women other than their wives. Single men are sometimes discouraged from having friendships with women unless they want to pursue a dating relationship. Women are envisioned as “temptresses,” and anything beyond superficial contact is rigorously avoided.

I was part of a pastoral accountability group for years with two other complementarian pastors. One of the questions we asked each other each month was, “Have you been with a woman anywhere this last month that could be perceived as compromising?” While it is important to avoid temptation, this question encouraged me to avoid contact with the women in my ministry. Years later I would learn that many women in my ministry experienced me as aloof, uncaring, and unapproachable.

Such assumptions are not new. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day believed that the key to eliminating male lust was for men to avoid all contact with women, even if it meant walking into a wall with one’s eyes closed rather than looking at a woman. Rather than taking responsibility for one’s own actions (as Jesus commands his followers to do in Matthew 5:28), these Pharisees assumed that for men the problem of lust lies within women.

Such patriarchal assumptions are also found in other religious systems embedded in patriarchal narratives (for example the Taliban’s legislation of a burka for women in public). Such assumptions also promote a rape culture in the church, where violence against women is blamed on the victim.

While having accountability and avoiding temptation is extremely important for the Christian life, such assumptions about men and women impoverish men of the many benefits of having healthy, godly, female friends and acquaintances. Within appropriate boundaries, friendships between men and women (both married or single) can be spiritually enriching and encourage discipleship. Dan Brennan’s book Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions is a great guide to forming these kinds of relationships.

3. Patriarchy sets men up to fail

Many complementarian groups teach a model of marriage that urges husbands to “be Jesus” to their wives. I have heard this rhetoric in countless men’s groups, as Christian men berate themselves for their flaws and imperfections. This model teaches that a husband’s primary role is to embody Jesus to his wife, sacrificially and unselfishly giving of himself. While such an intention is praiseworthy, the unintentional consequence of this way of thinking is that it sets a husband up to be “messianic” in a wife’s life. No matter how much like Jesus the husband strives to be, he will never be Jesus. He will remain a fallen and imperfect man with both positive and negative traits.

As Martin Luther said, Christians are simultaneously saints and sinners. A godly husband will seek to pursue Christlikeness and character in the midst of his sin, frailty, and flaws. However, a messianic view of the husband leaves no such room for such ambiguity. When it comes to messiahs, they are either true or false. A husband will fail every day at “being Jesus” to a wife. A wife will either have to minimize her husband’s failures (thus creating an illusion), or conclude that he is a bad husband. Such a model sets wives up to have unrealistic expectations, sets husbands up to fail, and misapplies Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5.

An egalitarian vision of marriage will let Jesus be Jesus to both the husband and the wife.

Both husband and wife will mutually submit to each other out of reverence to Christ (Ephesians 5:21), each responsible for nurturing their own relationship to Christ. Both will seek to live unselfishly and sacrificially toward each other, yet both will fail frequently, needing to ask for and offer forgiveness. But because neither is relying on the other for messianic help, these failures are more easily overcome. And just as ordinary and imperfect bread and wine lead us to encounter Jesus during Communion, ordinary and imperfect husbands and wives living in mutual partnership will likewise point to Christ’s amazing love for his Church (Ephesians 5:31-32).

Perpetuating patriarchy is bad for women, but it’s also bad for men.

Pursuing gender equality and justice in the Church, home, and society at large will not just benefit women, it will benefit men as well.

Tim Peck

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21 Comments

  • Thank you for bringing up #2: Sexualizing all male/female relationships.

    As an executive woman I find that some conservative Christian men don’t want to be seen talking with me one on one. Of course, that only hurts them since in most cases I out-rank them and out-earn them.

    If they don’t want to meet with me or go to lunch or dinner with me, I send one of my staff.

    Do you think they get good deals from my staff? No. They should have met with me.

  • This is such a powerful article; my husband and I eventually came to this conclusion after years of trying to work it out in a complementarian way, which is prescriptive and incredibly restrictive to all parties. OUr 42 years of happy marriage are owed in great part to the fact that God helped us work it out. Thanks for this.

  • Your voice is so very important in this wonderful ongoing conversation at TJP. Thank you for thoughtfully outlining the ways in which patriarchy damages us all, male and female. Really good stuff.

    • Thanks Diana. I’m glad to be part of this conversation!

  • Excellent points!

    Not to mention that husbands are asked to be utterly sacrificial in one breath, but then told in the next breath that they have authority to get their way if they “feel” that “it’s best” according to their “headship”. What a confusing message! What a setup to be always failing, always confused, always in conflict within yourself. The system enables you to stay selfish while encouraging you to be unselfish, then hits you with guilt if you can’t live the paradox.

    • That is such a good point! I’ve never heard it worded that way but it is so right on. It’s definitely a paradox. I get so frustrated that so many people seem to think that this kind of system is okay because men are encouraged and called to be selfless, while the system itself completely contradicts this message.

  • Well said!

    I have said most of these things in one form or another. But the thing I really think is foundational is that patriarchy, IMO, actually can stunt the maturation process of men — both spiritually and socially. When one doesn’t have to do the hard work of collaboration and cooperation and mutual submission, one can be come pedantic … very much like a toddler in a tantrum. It is a very sad thing to see people stuck in stunting modes.

    There is no brighter refining fire than marriage — unless it is parenting — and when we require/support the men as leaders and require the women/children to be obedient followers, our results are so much more impoverished.

    Lord have mercy!

    Thanks again….

  • Fantastic post – especially the first point. Isn’t that precisely what we see in churches today? Unqualified pastors? weak churches? It’s like my Toyota Yaris with half it’s cylinders out of action…just not going to work.

  • This is on point, Tim. ON POINT. You’ve articulated everything I have perceived before I seriously started considering Biblical egalitarianism.

  • Thank you for recognizing the difficulties that gender-based roles have caused to men, as well as to women. My husband and I, both ordained ministers, have pastored for 22 years. It became clear after about 6 years that leadership was not his gift, although he excelled at provided pastoral care. I did all I could to assist him but he was overwhelmed. We then moved to a pastoral staff position so that he could learn from another pastor. He still excelled at pastoral care but struggled with providing leadership to his department. During this time, I was constantly struggling as I could intuitively see what needed done but lacked the authority to do it. We moved to another church, trying lead pastor again. After 10 years, the church was in a bad place and my husband was ready to leave the ministry. It was during this time that he read the book “Strength Finders.”
    After reading this book, he came to me and said, “Let’s be honest. We have both living under the assumption that I am to be the lead pastor simply because I am male. I’m not good at it and I am starting to dislike the ministry. Meanwhile, you are going crazy trying to do the pastoral functions without anyone knowing that you are behind the scenes keeping things going. How about we ‘come out of the closet’ and switch to the roles we were designed to take – you function in the leadership role and I stick to pastoral care?”
    We made this change 3 years ago….and are happier in both our marriage and ministry and the church has shown healthy growth as a result.
    Our ministry was almost lost due to the understanding that my husband HAD TO have these leadership gifts just because he was a man.
    I wonder how many others like this are out there….quietly overwhelmed men and frustrated unfulfilled women?

    • Hi Pastor Ruthie: What a powerful testimony of the very point I was trying to make. Grace and peace on your ministries together.

    • My husband and I are also both ministers and our story is similar. We are now retiring, but things went better when my husband was able to say, “Dorcas is the one with pastoral gifts, not me.” I served as his co-pastor at two churches but he, being the man, was always the head honcho. Like Ruthie, there were times I intuitively saw what needed to be done…and chafed that I couldn’t do it. Later he served happily in another ministry role and I pastored a church, solo. It would have been interesting to me to see how things would have gone if I had been the lead pastor and he the associate. I have never heard of anyone doing that. Pastor Ruthie, you two are pioneers for sure!

  • I have noticed the idea of husbands being the “priest of the home.” This phrase is not from the Bible and the idea that a husband can or should take the place of Christ as High Priest is not from the Bible either.

    What is a husband to do if his wife is the one with more knowledge and/or a stronger spiritual life? How could he be a “priest” to her? If he is the one with more knowledge or a stronger spiritual life, how does she grow if her service and submission is done to him, a flawed human being, instead of to Jesus, the real High Priest? Personally, if I were a married man, I’d be terrified to even try to usurp Jesus and take Jesus’ place in my wife’s life.

    Your article sure got me thinking. Thanks for sharing those helpful insights.

    • Hi Terri: Great thoughts. The idea of the father being the priest of the home actually comes from Roman society where the father was the paterfamilias (“father of the household”), which included being the pater sacra (“father priest”) for the entire household. The New Testament never uses this kind of language for husbands or fathers.

  • Thank you for this, especially #2! It always drove me crazy that at my undergrad, prayer groups were segregated by gender for fear that praying together would lead to inappropriate intimacy.

  • I think your comments are very gracious and accurate; however I would say it is time for the church to crawl out from under it’s pseudo Old Covenant rock and start to believe what Jesus and the NT says. The pressure on men to be provider, source of all wisdom etc. is not only damaging but also a little idolatrous; furthermore when the man can’t live up to the demands and the woman has been taught to expect them the marriage soon goes into a downward spiral. The problem is made doubly worse when she knows he is acting like a fool but he believes that as the ‘boss’ he can’t be wrong – disaster, abuse and failure are sure to follow. Keep up the good work 🙂

    • I cannot tell you how refreshing your article is. I am personally living in the trenches with women (including myself) who are trying to heal from broken Christian marriages due to infidelity from affairs and/or porn. Aside from the brokenness and betrayal they have found themselves dealing with, they have further been told that this is unfortunate because their husbands were to be their “high priests” and yet they betrayed them this way. Well the damage of this message if twofold. I have been thinking and saying to those around me, with the known alarming statistics of this problem within the church, I wonder if these guys are cracking under the pressure of carrying a spiritual load they were never meant to carry. They are responsible for their own spiritual condition and when told they are to be held accountable for someone else’s doesn’t that remove the other’s free will and put them in the deity role? The popular Love and Respect series is adding to the gender emphasis. I’m pretty sure God thought men needed just as much love as women, so guess what? He sent His only Son to die for men too. And Jesus defied all cultural norms and showed more respect for many women than the Pharisee male leaders, in fact He often rebuked those men and defended the women. I wonder if we as a church just stuck to the message of Christianity and Christ’s example, and quit talking about roles for women, and roles for men, authority for some, and submission for others, imagine how much more we’d get done for the business of reaching others for His kingdom, and just all being Jesus to each other.

      • Good points there – Not sure that you meant to answer my comment, but I found your points really helpful. Thanks.

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