Why Patriarchy Is Abuse
I have been writing on this blog for about 2 years now and my main topics of discussion have been freedom from abuse and equality for women.
I have received some remarks asking me to focus on abuse in the Church, but to do so separately from discussing equality for women. I have been told that I will boost my following and more people will be able to get behind my efforts if I leave Egalitarianism out of the discussion. The logic goes something like, “ending abuse is a cause almost everyone can get behind, but Egalitarianism and Christian Feminism are divisive issues that will distract people from the real problem of abuse.”
I have given this a lot of thought, especially when promoting The Courage Conference, and I have come to the conclusion that I must speak out about Patriarchy. I witness the destruction patriarchy causes every day. I interact with victims on a weekly basis who suffer from patriarchy-induced abuse.
I firmly believe we cannot end abuse in our society or our churches unless we put an end to all forms of Patriarchy and embrace Egalitarianism.
This might seem like a bold assertion, so allow me to explain.
What Is Abuse?
According to The National Domestic Violence Hotline abuse is defined as “a repetitive pattern of behaviors to maintain power and control over [another individual].”
In other words, abuse is motivated out of an untamed lust for power and control.
When an abuser verbally demeans a victim by yelling or name calling, they do so not simply out of anger, but specifically as a means of establishing power and control.
Abusers who emotionally neglect their partner with the silent treatment are not primarily poor communicators, they are using this form of manipulation to gain power and control.
Spiritual abusers are not motivated by religious zeal for the Scriptures, their coercive use of the Text is a means to establishing a structure of power and control.
Likewise, sexual predators do not violate victims because of sexual desire, temptation, or passionate love, if this was the case they would find a consenting partner to have sex with, instead they are forcing sex with their victim for the purpose of establishing power and control.
Below is a graphic known as The Wheel Of Power And Control. This is a portion of The Duluth Model developed in the 1980s to help combat domestic violence. This chart is widely used by abuse response and preventions organizations as a way to visually describe power and control scenarios to help victims identify dangerous relationships.
How To Stop Abuse?
Stopping abuse is a multifaceted issue. There are a variety of angles that need to be broached. I feel it is important not just to address the circumstances where abusers have easy access to victims, but to get to the root cause of abuse itself, which is an untamed lust for power and control. I believe the best way to dismantle the power and control factor of abuse is not to embrace powerlessness, but to instate the power balance of equality.
Below is the inverse of The Wheel Of Power And Control, know as The Wheel Of Equality.
Creating a functional power balance in relationships is an important start in the right direction. I believe we must also change the culture by instilling a mindset of equality between sexes. This mindset change must come from both secular and religious teachings, as both religious and secular culture are widely patriarchal, if we wish to dismantle the power and control hierarchy that fosters abuse.
What is Patriarchy?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines patriarchy as, “social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line; broadly: control by men of a disproportionately large share of power”.
The very definition of Patriarchy denotes a system of control in which men have an unequal share of power over women.
Patriarchy varies on a scale from overt sexism to “benevolent” sexism (sometimes known as Complementarianism), and every degree in between.
Sexism: “1. prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially: discrimination against women. 2. behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex” - Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Overt sexism or hard-core Patriarchy may manifest itself in obviously misogynistic ways, such as enforcing male power and control through physical or verbal aggression and openly demeaning behavior.
Overt sexist logic may sound something like this: “On this account, all women are born that they may acknowledge themselves as inferior in consequence to the superiority of the male sex.” -From Calvin’s Commentary on 1 Corinthians (Chapter 11)
“Benevolent” sexism or soft-core Patriarchy is often more discreet. It is may be enforced through spiritual and emotional abuse that suggests women are unqualified to make final choices for themselves or hold equal authority with men.
“Benevolent” sexism may sound something like this: “In the family, husbands should forsake harsh or selfish leadership and grow in love and care for their wives; wives should forsake resistance to their husbands’ authority and grow in willing, joyful submission to their husbands’ leadership… In the church, redemption in Christ gives men and women an equal share in the blessings of salvation; nevertheless, some governing and teaching roles within the church are restricted to men.” -The Danvers Statement
“Benevolent” patriarchy uses softer, more flowery language to present male power and control over women as a kind of protection and leadership arrangement that is beneficial to the woman considering her “delicate nature.” Nevertheless, at the end of the day men are still exercising a position of power and control over women, and women’s roles are still defined as being in subjection to men. Often times “benevolent” patriarchy is not outwardly aggressive, but uses tactics such as bounded choice, gaslighting, and “holy guilting” where subtle language manipulation causes the victim to believe that not adhering to patriarchy is an act of rebellion against God with Divine consequences.
To say “benevolent” patriarchy is a holy and healthy system is like saying if a slave owner does not beat his slave he is participating in a holy and healthy system of power and control over another human, beneficial to both slave and master. Many Christians used to believe this was the case and sadly some still do. However, a system of oppression, the state of being subject to unjust treatment or control, cannot be good no matter how much we try to soften the language.
Patriarchy is by nature a system of abuse because it is a system that gives power and control to an entire sex over the other. This is not to say that everyone who believes in Patriarchy is abusive, in fact many who believe in sexist theology practice functional equality, but the system itself is abusive. I believe the church has been heavily influenced by the prevalence of patriarchy in secular society, and that both men and women can be tricked into believing Patriarchy is God’s design instead of a result of the Fall.
Studies have shown that sexist beliefs greatly contribute to abusive actions and even men who believe in “benevolent” sexism are more likely to believe in rape myths. Our beliefs generally affect our actions and responses.
When patriarchy of any kind is enforced, women’s gifts and potential are squelched and their deciding power is stripped, and that in itself is abusive. The lack of power and influence makes women more vulnerable to other forms of abuse. Even Jason Meyer, a writer for The Gospel Coalition (a leading para-church organization pushing patriarchy) states that patriarchy causes women to “take the most vulnerable position” and that it can “quickly become a dangerous position when [these] views get distorted.” Patriarchy has been the backdrop of history, so it is not surprising that women are abused at statistically higher rates than men. It is also no wonder that in a patriarchal society the women’s equality movement seems to attract more criticism than the men who tortured, raped, beat, force-fed, and jailed women throughout history.
Patriarchy hurts men and boys too. When we push for hyper-masculine environments (church, home, sports, politics, business, etc.) where a man must dominate to express masculinity, men and boys feel shame when they do not fit the “ideal expression of masculinity.” It is also difficult for men to come forward in abusive situations, as they are less likely to be believed. Men fear they will be seen as less manly (or more precisely, as feminine) and therefore be lower on the totem pole. When femininity (and women) are seen as lesser, men who display traits deemed as "womanly" by their culture are ridiculed and may lose chances for advancement. In many spaces it is said that men must be dominant, initiators, or aggressive towards women in sex, so if they are on the receiving end of sexual dominance (as in the case of sexual abuse), they are perceived as less than manly which can be devastating to a man in a patriarchal environment.
Examples of “Benevolent” Patriarchy Intersecting with Abuse
Lastly, I would like to list just some of the many instances where mainstream “benevolent” patriarchal supporters either encouraged abuse, failed to address it properly, or overtly perpetrated it. Please keep in mind this is just a small sampling. Every day my inbox produces one or more stories of abuse in patriarchal environments.
John Piper’s response to Should A Wife Submit To Abuse
C.J MaHaney's abuse scandal coverup
The Gospel Coalition’s neglect in addressing abuse situations
Tullian Tchividjian’s clergy sexual abuse scandal
Emerson Eggerichs “Love and Respect” book promoting coercive sex in marriage
Doug Phillips of Vision Forum Ministries abuse scandal
Bill Gothard sexual abuse scandal
Patriarchy hurts everyone, women and men, and it is explicitly tied to abuse. This is why I cannot sever the discussion of equality from the discussion of ending abuse in the Church. We cannot end abuse unless we end Patriarchy in all of it’s forms, and we cannot end patriarchy unless we fight for the equality of women.
Notes and Sources:
Please understand that engaging in traditional roles, women being homemakers and men being breadwinners etc, is not necessarily patriarchal. These are fine choices if indeed they are choices and not expectations based on sex.
Read more misogynistic quotes from prominent church fathers here.