The Patriarchy Movement: Five Areas of Grave Concern

The church is an environment of extremes. The trouble with extremes is that they always contain a seed of truth, making them look and sound plausible to the careless bystander. By virtue of this fact, the church is also often full of susceptible bystanders ready to lap-up the latest and greatest fad. One example of this is seen in the Christian Patriarchy movement. Popular now, for some thirty years, Christian Patriarchy, and its twin the "Quiver-full" movement, contain truths about headship, gender roles, and attitudes towards authority in the home. God has ordained such matters, but the question arises, what has God ordained concerning them?

This posts does not seek to trash the patriarchy movement or those found in it. Neither does it disagree with the biblical truths concerning headship, gender roles and attitudes towards authority. Rather it seeks to identify a number of issues that do great harm to those within the movement specifically and Christ's Church as a whole. To be fair, not all in the Patriarchy movement hold to an identical set of beliefs and so I will, in this post, necessarily paint with a broad brush.

  1. Christian patriarchy tends to supplant ecclesiastical authority. This is manifested when the local church's rightful role and authority is taught (either in word and deed or in function and practice) to be inferior of that of the patriarch of the family. Christian fathers may not usurp the rightful authority and function of the church. For instance, Christ has not entrusted to non-ordained men the public ministry of the word, the administration of the sacraments, church discipline etc. I have known of families, with patriarchal leanings, who determined that they had the right to trump ecclesiastical authority by refusing to allow the church to discipline their rebellious teenager. What the Patriarchy movement often fails to emphasize is that even the patriarch in the home is a man under authority in the church. It stands to reason that so is his family. Moreover, men in general are not the head of women in general. Biblical headship pertains only to the marriage relationship and the parent-child relationship. There are few things more dangerous than a failure to recognize and willingness to submit to the authority of the church. A failure to recognize the authority of the officers of a biblically faithful local church is a failure to recognize the authority of Christ, the Head of the Church.
  2. Christian Patriarchy tends to supplant ecclesiastical community. The Patriarchy movement has far too frequently produced a family that is separate from the local church, rather than a family that is a microcosm of the local church. This is, of course, a natural product of a misunderstanding the authority of the church. When this happens, family is elevated to a place of greater importance than the church. Yet, in Scripture the church is held in the highest esteem. After all, our Lord did not shed his blood for the family, but for the Church (Acts 20:28). Such a misunderstanding frequently produces socially stunted children, as well as carbon copies of "the patriarch" himself--that is, someone in a continuous power struggle with the church. In turn, this becomes the death-knell of evangelism in the church.
  3. Christian Patriarchy tends to pervert the father's God-given role in the home as prophet, priest and king. Anyone familiar with Scripture must agree that the spiritual head of the home certainly holds, in some way, these functions. They are not, however, ecclesiastical offices. Rather, they are parental functions. Acting as prophet, in the home, the father is to teach his family the Word of God. Acting as priest, he is to intercede in prayer on their behalf. Acting a king, he applies the law of God to his family and provides such direction as is rightful. The problem with the patriarchy movement is that it interprets these functional roles as offices. Moreover, it often emphasizes the office of King over the other roles. In reaction, many have turned from these biblical functions and denied that heads of households should function these ways. In short, Patriarchy has damaged, rather than enhanced, true biblical headship.
  4. Christian Patriarchy tends to pervert the mother's God-given roles in the home. Can anyone who has read Scripture--or examined the workings of an average Christian home--deny the reality that the mother is also frequently acting as a prophet, priest and king of the home? The Proverbs frequently call the son to listen to the counsel of his father and his mother. Additionally, the law of God commands children to "Honor your father and you mother." It is the mother who teaches, intercedes for and rules and guides in the home for substantial portions of the day. Is the mother tied to the sink or oven or bed? No! She is a teacher, a counselor, a prayer-warrior, a master in the home, for and on behalf of her children. Does Christian Patriarchy pervert this model? It seems to do so in many cases.
  5. Christian Patriarchy tends to be a man-made, law-based system. There is a great danger for sinful men in a singularity of authority! Nowhere else do we accept it! In American government we have (in theory) a separation of powers, a system of checks and balances. In the legal world we have a series of appeals courts. In the ecclesiastical sphere, God has ordained a plurality of elders for the purpose of keeping authority out of the hands of one man. Patriarchy, ultimately, centers all authority in one man. In order for authority to function, there is need for rules and laws. My fear is that the singularity of authority found in patriarchy, not only creates a system of self-preserving laws (which tend to be man-made), but it also squeezes out the Gospel from daily life. Being most concerned about behavior modification proponents of the Patriarchy movement have often forgotten the real need for heart-modification, not by law, but by the grace of God in the Gospel.

It is simply a poor hermeneutic to find a detailed explanation of how we should live by examining the lives of Abraham and Job. Clearly there is much to learn from the Patriarchs; but they too were sinners (dare we say it, with, "multiple wives!") living in the shadows of the preparatory and anticipatory Old Testament era. Ecclesiology was not fully developed in the Patriarchal era. When seeking to develop a fully biblical ecclesiology, we have to ask what Peter, Paul and our Lord Jesus have to say about these things. After all, redemptive-history finds its fullness in the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. As we read the New Testament, we find an absence of teaching on anything that remotely resembles most of the principles of the Patriarchy movement. If we want to be biblically faithful, we need to examine all the biblical data, regardless of whether it fits our presuppositions or not. We must be willing to have our presuppositions corrected by the Scriptures if we are to be the fathers and mothers God intends for us to be.

Matt Holst is the pastor of Shiloh Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC. He is a graduate of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Matt is a frequent contributor to the Christward Collective.