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Patriarchy, Marriage & the Future of Evangelical Christianity
by Russell D. Moore
Would a woman and her children rather see their husband and father sitting in front of the fireplace with a copy of Car and Woman magazine or a copy of The Purpose-Driven Life? Would they rather Dad be found on the golf course on Sunday mornings or in a church pew? Would they rather he model his life on the epistles of the Apostle Paul or on the autobiography of Hugh Hefner?
While the answers may seem obvious, much of the media and academic establishment insists with regularity that “right-wing” notions of male headship and female submission produce homes seething with resentment, with husbands who neglect, exploit, and even physically abuse their wives and children.
Yet, conservative Evangelical men are actually more likely to hug their children, help their wives with housework, read Goodnight Moon for the 114th time over a toddler’s bed, and coach Little League baseball. “Right-wing” Evangelical fathers are unlikely to abuse their families, as compared to their secular or liberal Protestant counterparts, but are more likely to say “I love you” to their wives and children.
They are, in the words of University of Virginia sociologist Bradford Wilcox in his groundbreaking book Soft Patriarchs, New Men, “soft patriarchs”: men who hold both to male headship and to the responsibilities and sacrifices that headship entails. They are closer to Mike Brady than to Homer Simpson—or, better, to Jesus than to Herod.
Conservative Evangelicals have much to rejoice about in this book, since it demonstrates what confessional Christians have always known: Male headship is not about privilege or priority but about the joyful burden of responsibility and protection. Even so, the book is not unambiguously good news for gender traditionalists. When compared with several other recent works on Evangelicals and gender, Wilcox’s research shows that the Evangelical patriarch may be “soft” in more ways than one.
If Evangelicals lose their countercultural edge on this one, we will lose more than simply our orthodoxy. We will lose our wives and children, too.
The Softest Homes
Wilcox’s book describes how Evangelical men actually think and live. He brings forth the demographic statistics and survey results on issues ranging from paternal hugging of children to paternal yelling, from female responses about marital happiness to the divisions of household labor. In virtually every category, the most conservative and Evangelical households were also the “softest” in terms of familial harmony, relational happiness, and emotional health.
Unlike many researchers, Wilcox actually studies real, live Evangelicals, rather than simply speculating on how such “misogynist throwbacks” must live. He has read what Evangelicals read, listened to Evangelical radio programs, and otherwise immersed himself in an Evangelical subculture that few academics seem to understand.
Wilcox demonstrates that his results are not an anomaly. They are not akin to discovering that nineteenth-century slaveholders had less racist attitudes than northern abolitionists. Instead, he shows that the “softness” of Evangelical fathers is a result of patriarchy, not an aberration from it. When men see themselves as the head over their households, they feel the weight of leadership—a weight that expresses itself in devotion to their little platoons of the home.
Wilcox argues that churches strengthen fatherhood in ways that directly and indirectly bolster soft patriarchy. He finds that “the discourse that fathers encounter in churches—from Father’s Day sermons to homilies on the Prodigal Son—typically underlines the importance of family ties in general and father-son ties in particular.” Moreover, the educational and social programs of conservative Protestant churches tend to endow fatherhood with “transcendent meaning.”
Wilcox notes that this emphasis is grounded in the Evangelical insistence, taken from Scripture, that human fatherhood reflects divine fatherhood. In studying Evangelical writings on the disciplining of children, from Focus on the Family’s James Dobson and others, Wilcox notes that several theological truths frame the question. Conservative Evangelical dads view their children as sinners in need of evangelism. They also see disobedience to parental authority as dangerous “because they view parental authority as analogous to divine sovereignty, and they believe that obedience to parents prepares a child to obey God as an adult.”
Combining older theological truths about the fatherhood of God and the sinful nature of all persons with newer therapeutic thoughts about emotional expressiveness leads, Wilcox finds, to “a model of fathers who balance their patriarchal commitment to authority and control with an equally powerful commitment to a newer, softer, more active and expressive style of fatherhood.”
At one level, Wilcox’s findings should come as no surprise to confessional Christians of various communions who are familiar with the text of Scripture. We must also insist that the “softness” of the newer therapeutic discourses is not needed to temper the “hardness” of biblical patriarchy. We do not ground patriarchy simply in our reading of nature, after all, but in divine revelation—a revelation that defines patriarchy in what Wilcox would call decidedly “soft” terms.
A harsh, abusive patriarchy is not simply a more consistent vision of male headship. It is not headship at all. It is patently unbiblical, and for the same reason that feminism is unbiblical—because it distorts the unique hierarchy God has woven into the order of creation.
The Apostle Peter commands men to deal “softly” with their wives precisely because women are not only “joint heirs” of salvation, but also “weaker vessels” in need of protection (1 Pet. 3:7). It is male headship, the Apostle Paul writes, that demands that men love their wives as their own bodies (Eph. 5:22–33).
Even the biblical vision of corporal punishment of children outlined in Scripture explicitly rules out abuse, since the father’s discipline is to mirror that of God himself (Heb. 12:5–11). Spanking, then, for a Christian father is a theological act with a specific long-term goal in mind. He cannot lash out in anger or irritation, lest he communicate something blasphemous about the love of God. He cannot passively refuse to discipline, lest he communicate something blasphemous about the justice of God.
Biblically informed Christian men simply cannot be “deadbeat dads”—whether through abandonment, neglect, or self-indulgence—because the provision of fathers for their children is rooted in the archetypal provision of God for his Son, a sonship all believers share in Christ (Eph. 3:14–15). Thus, for Jesus, such “soft” acts of patriarchy as providing fish or bread or an egg for the little ones is simply the dim reflection of the overarching fatherhood of God (Matt. 7:7–11).
But Wilcox’s volume is not undiluted good news for Evangelicals and their Catholic and Orthodox co-belligerents in the gender wars. The problem is not that Evangelical men hold to “traditionalist” notions of gender and family, but where they find these notions.
Wilcox correctly argues that patriarchy is “pervasive, at least symbolically, in the world of conservative Protestantism” since “God the Father stands at its Trinitarian core, transcending heaven and earth.” It seems, however, that the symbolism is not well fleshed out in Evangelical churches, since patriarchy in conservative Evangelicalism is so loosely, if at all, tied to the fatherhood of God.
In fact, nothing in Wilcox’s study suggests that Evangelicals have a coherent biblical vision of patriarchy. Instead, it appears that Evangelical men assume a certain kind of patriarchy, and are finding exhortations for “softness” in the increasingly therapeutic milieu of Evangelical spirituality. He rightly identifies the origins of this shift in Evangelical thought in the pastoral care movement of the twentieth century, which sought to “integrate” Christian faith with the so-called insights of contemporary psychotherapy.
The “integration” was easier imagined than accomplished, however, because, as Wilcox points out, the individualistic categories of therapy are inherently anti-hierarchical. Thus, Evangelical seminaries are now filled with “Christian counseling” students planning for state-licensed practices, while Evangelical church members are more and more dependent on secular pediatricians, child psychologists, and marital therapists for advice on what the Scriptures reveal as an aspect of the “mystery of Christ” unveiled in the biblical record.
This therapeutic orientation of contemporary Evangelicalism is the reason, Wilcox explains, why Evangelicals don’t seem to speak often of male headship in terms of authority (and certainly not patriarchy), but usually in terms of a “servant leadership” defined as watching out for the best interests of one’s family—without specifics on what this leadership looks like. Thus, “headship has been reorganized along expressive lines, emptying the concept of virtually all of its authoritative character.”
This understanding of “servant leadership” (read as titular, undefined, non-authoritative leadership) is precisely the model of “complementarianism” several other recent works have observed in the Evangelical subculture.
University of North Carolina sociologist Christian Smith, for instance, in his Christian America, contends that American Evangelicals speak complementarian rhetoric and live egalitarian lives. Smith cites the Southern Baptist Convention’s 1998 confessional wording on male headship and wifely submission as expressive of a vast consensus within Evangelicalism. But, he notes, the Baptist confession could just as easily have affirmed “mutual submission” within an equal marital partnership, and it would just as easily have fit the views of the Evangelical majority.
Both could fit, Smith argues, because Evangelicals have integrated the biblical language of headship with the prevailing cultural notions of feminism—notions that fewer and fewer Evangelicals challenge. He ties this “softening patriarchy” to specific feminist gains within Evangelicalism—gains that few Evangelicals are willing to challenge—such as growing numbers of wives working outside the home.
While some Evangelicals express concern about what dual-income couples might do to the parenting of small children, very few are willing to ask what happens to the headship of the husband himself. How does the husband maintain a notion of headship when he is dependent on his wife to provide for the family?
Likewise, in her Evangelical Identity and Gendered Family Life, Oregon State University sociologist Sally Gallagher interviews Evangelical men and women across the country and across the denominational spectrum and concludes that most Evangelicals are “pragmatically egalitarian.”
Evangelicals maintain male headship in theory, but practical decisions are made in most Evangelical homes through a process of negotiation, mutual submission, and consensus. In this scheme, the “authority” of the father and husband is akin to that of the President of the United States submitting a bill to the United States Congress. Two equal centers of power then struggle over the details until some compromise is reached.
That’s what our forefathers would have called “feminism”—and our foremothers too. And yet Gallagher shows specifically how this dynamic plays itself out in millions of “complementarian” homes, often by citing interviews that read almost like self-parodies. A 35-year-old home-schooling Evangelical mother in Minnesota says of the Promise Keepers movement: “I had Mike go this year. I kind of sent him. . . . I said, ‘I’m not sending you to get fixed in any area. I just want you to be encouraged because there are other Christian men out there who are your age, who want to be good dads and good husbands.’”
This complementarian woman doesn’t seem to recognize that she is sending her husband off to be with those his own age, as though she were a mother sending her grade-school son off to summer youth camp. Not surprisingly, she doesn’t remember when—or whether—her pastor has ever preached on the subject of male headship.
To this therapeutic ethos, Gallagher adds another factor that dulls the ideal of headship in American Evangelicalism: a market-driven consumerism that sees success in the size of the crowds one can draw. American Evangelicals know from their New Testaments that the gospel is scandalous, a “rock of offense,” but they usually know this in mostly quite abstract terms.
Unlike the first-century Church, most churchgoers are not offended philosophically by the idea of the Logos taking on a human nature, as were the early Hellenic hearers of the gospel. Nor are they theologically scandalized by crucifixion in the same way the early Jewish hearers of the gospel were.
But in our churches we do have families where harried wives govern passive men, often not by usurpation but by default. We do have families where children are carted off to preschool at the age of two because, after all, no one can live on just one salary these days (that is, and maintain a lifestyle that includes a DVD player, broadband Internet access, and cable television).
When we preach on the rest of the counsel of God, we are dealing with issues our hearers can translate into abstract and thus unthreatening categories. When we talk about family in specific terms, however, it is strikingly personal. How are we to evangelize the young couple down the street if they hear us talking about something as spookily medieval as patriarchy—no matter how “soft” it might be?
After Patriarchy, What?
Those of us celebrating Brad Wilcox’s findings should pause when we consider the otherwise unrelated new history of Evangelical feminism offered by Wilcox’s colleague at the University of Virginia, Pamela Cochran. In Evangelical Feminism, Cochran identifies concessions to the therapeutic and consumerist impulses as precisely what led to the “egalitarian” gender movements within Evangelicalism in the first place.
Tracing the “biblical feminist” movement from its early days in the 1970s through the contemporary era, Cochran shows that the dispute between “complementarians” and “egalitarians” was not simply about the interpretation of some biblical texts, no matter what Evangelical feminists now say. To make the feminist project fly, she argues, Evangelicals needed a more limited understanding of biblical inerrancy and an embrace of contemporary hermeneutical trends, such as those that had made possible the liberation theologies of mainline Protestantism. The therapeutic and consumerist atmosphere of Evangelicalism enabled this process because it displaced an external, objective authority with an individualistic internal locus of authority.
Thus, for the leadership of the Evangelical feminist movement, “the primary community of accountability was feminist, not Evangelical.” The question was not whether Evangelicals should be accountable to this feminist community but how much. The first test was over the question of homosexuality—a debate that led to a fissure between the pro-homosexual Evangelical Women’s Caucus (EWC) and Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE), a fissure Cochran analyzes at length.
What Cochran does not explore, however, are the implications of such theological accommodation for the future of “moderate” Evangelical feminism. The CBE wing of Evangelical feminism is still opposed to homosexual expression, but is unable to give a theological reason for its opposition apart from appealing to proof-texts.
The Evangelical feminists know that applying the same hermeneutic to this question as they have to the earlier question of male headship (which explained away the traditional proof-texts) would lead them where they do not want to go. And yet, as the culture applies the logic of feminist liberation to homosexual people, it is only a matter of time before the “flexible hermeneutic” of therapeutic, market-driven egalitarianism bends here, too.
Traditionalist Evangelicals should worry in light of the Wilcox, Gallagher, and Smith studies. Most Evangelical Christians do indeed hold to some sort of “traditional” family structure. But, without an overarching theological consensus, what happens when the “traditional” is no longer the norm, even in the Evangelical subculture? This is especially pertinent when more and more Evangelical publishing houses and para-church ministries are pushing feminism with all the fervor of a tent revival. Unless Evangelical churches are willing to be countercultural against not just the secular culture but also the Evangelical establishment itself, the future of complementarian Christianity is bleak.
Wilcox’s Soft Patriarchs is, in one sense, a reaffirmation of what gender traditionalists have known all along: Male headship is not about male privilege. Patriarchy is good for women, good for children, and good for families. But it should also remind us that the question for us is not whether we will have patriarchy, but what kind.
Right now, Western culture celebrates casual sexuality, cohabitation, no-fault divorce, “alternative families,” and abortion rights. All of these things empower men to pursue a Darwinian fantasy of the predatory alpha-male in search of nothing but power, prestige, and the next orgasm. Does anyone really believe these things “empower” women or children? Instead, the sexual liberationist vision props up a pagan patriarchy complete with a picture of a selfish, impersonal, cruel deity.
And ironically, the kind of patriarchy feminists rightly oppose—the capricious use of power by men to objectify and use women—is itself the product of changes the mainstream feminists championed. It does not bear the imprimatur of divine revelation but of the Darwinist/Freudian myth that sex is the measure of all things. This turns out to be a patriarchy too, but there is nothing “soft” about it.
If Evangelicalism is to remain countercultural, it will take more than game-show hosts in our pulpits, parroting pop-psychology to the masses. It will take a full-throated—and deeply offensive—proclamation that the mystery of God revealed in Christ is not just about being happy in this life and going to heaven when one dies.
It is about fathers and husbands who are “soft” enough to nuzzle their wives in the kitchen and to wrestle their sons on the living room floor and to fall asleep with their daughters close to their hearts—and, yes, to take out the garbage with a smile. It is also about fathers and husbands who are patriarchal enough to make decisions about where their children should receive their education, what kind of man can pursue their daughters, and how their families will make financial ends meet so that mom can nurture the children in the home.
But it is also about churches that are “hard” enough to tell some offensive truths. It is about churches that are not embarrassed to tell us that when we say the “Our Father,” we are patriarchs of the oldest kind.
Russell D. Moore is the author of Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches. He lives with his family in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice-President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and as preaching pastor at Highview Baptist Church. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.