Have you ever noticed the tenacity of a flower that blooms through the cracks of a sidewalk? All around is the hard surface of cement but in the crack the flower has found a way to poke its head up, push through the earth and bloom. Becoming whole, becoming adult has been for myself a journey in which it has felt as if I were trying to bloom through cement. What is this cement? Having come through it, I now have a name for this cement–Patriarchy.
Patriarchy in my life has been the hard surface through which I have tried to bloom.
I grew up in a small rural Charismatic church led by a pastoral couple. She preached as much as he did and I had my first picture of what a strong Christian woman might be like. While the little church was not the picture of emotional health, I had been given a picture of a man and woman working together for the sake of the gospel. The Apostle Peter said this about Pentecost in Acts chapter 2.
“‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
This is a picture of restoration.
By the Spirit men and women would speak, by the Spirit a new community in Christ would be formed. In this new community God’s people would become whole–once again partners with God and one another to bring healing in the earth.
I heard very little about the doctrine of headship when I was a child–not that it wasn’t present–patriarchy was all around me. I began paying attention when approaching my marriage and I asked the question, what does it mean to be a Christian wife? It’s funny that being so immersed in patriarchy, I formed my question in gendered terms. I could have asked, what does it mean to follow Jesus as a married person or simply what does it mean to follow Jesus? It was the beginning of an awareness of the hard cement of patriarchy.
At the time of my marriage, our church was sending bus loads of people to a seminar called Basic Youth Conflicts. In backlash to the sexual revolution, the women’s movement and the civil rights movement, the church was seeking a voice of reason and they found it in Bill Gothard’s teachings. He emphasized order in the midst of what the church felt was chaos. Protests were taking place all around and the nation was being confronted with many of its problems. A focus on authority was apparently the answer to this chaos.
One area of teaching Gothard espoused was the doctrine of headship in which there were a set of umbrellas. God was the largest umbrella, the man had an umbrella below God that covered the wife. As the teaching went, if the wife got out from under the umbrella or authority of male headship, then she would be subject to Satan’s attack. (this fed into many of the teachings around deliverance also). The only way for her to be safe was to remain under the protection of her husband’s headship and authority. (putting the fear of God in women to comply and perhaps husbands to rule). The rational for this was because women were easily deceived, they needed a husband’s wisdom to discern truth. In this system the “head” became the one who defines reality for the wife and makes the final decisions in the marriage. Of course it was couched in flowery terms that made it all seem sort of romantic. My husband and I did not attend these conferences but the leaders of our church did and most of my married life was within this stream of understanding. More, these teachings entered the church at large almost without question infiltrating many of its systems including inner healing and deliverance ministries.
The net effect of these teachings for me had to do with the formation of my own identity and voice as a person. I wondered things like, how could I trust my own voice and thoughts? If I shared my thoughts, would I be heard? Even my voting was to be subject to my husband’s voting. I wanted to be a good Christian wife so I sought to comply with the teachings of my church family. I became very dependent believing that my thoughts had to be validated and verified by my husband or some other church leader.
This put a strain on our relationship that had significant effects.
We also followed the teachings of a popular radio program, Focus on the Family that taught a sort of benevolent headship doctrine. This further reinforced the idea that wives and women needed a male leader to guide them. And that Christian homes were to have a set structure with moms at home and dads at work. I could not find a way to develop my voice and began to sink into depression–depression so deep that I thought about ending my life. Worse, I thought God hated women. And I thought there was no redemption for women and while the sin of men was forgiven, women were still atoning for theirs with submission to male authority.
Funny thing–it is the Spirit that brings us into truth.
Then we entered the fires of revival in the mid 90’s. What emerged for me was a call to ministry. It was a powerful force inside of me that began to explode many of the man-made myths surrounding the doctrine of male headship. And the Spirit began to teach me about my identity in Christ. I read the scripture with voracity as the Spirit showed me many areas where I was mis-taught. I also discovered a whole host of literature around biblical equality. I felt like a new human being and that God really did love me and that I really did matter in the world outside of being a housekeeper and a mother. I felt for the first time that Christ’s blood bought salvation was really for me too. I felt as if I had been born again, again.
I remember the first time I shared my sense of call. As I shared what I felt was my call to ministry, a man in my Bible study, whom I deeply respected said this to me, “you can’t do that, you’re a woman.” And I felt the weight of that cement crushing my heart. I wept with great sobs that came from the core of my being.
As I grew up inside myself, I kept on hitting that cement–running headlong into the patriarchal teachings of headship that had infiltrated the church. While God had freed my own heart and spirit, the hard cement of patriarchy was still in place. So I went back to my roots remembering that I once had a pastor who was a woman and preached powerfully by the Spirit. I reasoned that maybe, just maybe there would be a place for me in the body of Christ. I relished the flow of the Spirit, the worship and I loved the spiritual life. But one Sunday all of that died for me when the pastor got up to preach a mother’s day message. And he outlined the Umbrella Doctrine of Male Headship–on mother’s day of all days! I sat in my row as the tears fell down my face like a river of grief. I couldn’t remain. I tried for a while, I asked to teach a bible study thinking I could just stick to teaching Jesus. Someone in the congregation began to say that I had a Jezebel Spirit and then I knew it was over for me.
And I felt the weight of that cement one more time crushing my heart.
The ironic thing about Jezebel in the Bible is that she was a foreign queen who brought her false gods into the community and no one outside of the prophets spoke up. She intimidated them with threats. The concern is idolatry not women speaking and leading. Being strong and having a voice that longs to preach the word of God is not anything close to what Jezebel was trying to do.
The teaching imposed the Doctrine of Male headship onto the text making it mean that Jezebel was a control freak and her husband was a passive man who submitted to her authority. But Ahab was deceived to follow false gods as well and he participated in the same idolatry as Jezebel.
As the teaching goes, if one is told that one has a Jezebel Spirit, and if that person says, “no, I don’t have such a Spirit” then she surely does have that spirit. What could I say, what could I do? There was no defense. I had tried so hard to honor the people there, to be respectful of their leadership and to try to live within their system. I even told myself that it was OK, that we did not agree–I thought I could live with it because I loved the Spirit. But with enormous grief, I realized that this was not the place for me.
I believe with all of my heart that the church at large needs strong women with strong voices yet we are so attached to the man-made doctrine of male headship–the result of pride maybe. And I long for the new community in Christ that is revealed in the Pentecost narrative.
What would it really look like if we functioned according to our gifts and callings instead of according to the patriarchal rules of the flesh?
I’ve been serving as a Pastor in a United Methodist setting where I am much more free to use my gifts–to lead–to serve as a leader. I have found the freedom in Christ that I long for personally in a soil that has already been ploughed by strong men and women with a vision for the Kingdom community formed in Christ by the Spirit. (No stream is perfect mind you). I wish the church at large were free. It is what I pray for.
(I’ve had other experiences that were more life affirming so this is not the whole of my story. The Lord did place mentors and affirmations in other places and ministry networks).
If you wish to read more about the theology around women in ministry and Christian marriage, I recommend this blog as her writings are astute, Spirit informed and helpful in discerning the man-made doctrines of male headship and authority, this link will help. If you wish to read more about the Bill Gothard fall out, this link will help you.
I want to end with this, Genesis 3:16 says: Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
This is the first description of what happened between men and women after the fall. It is the sin system in its infancy which led to racism, patriarchy and much more when humans sought to dominate one another. The whole world was affected. It is what we see all around the world in which women are enslaved sexually, captive in their cultures, beaten, raped, battered and used–silent and voiceless.
We live in a world that still needs the vision of a new community in Christ within which men and women can speak freely and serve according to their gifts, abilities and callings. I long for the soil to be tilled by the Spirit. We must abolish this man-made cement of patriarchy for the next generation of men and women. I believe this man-made doctrine of headship is the lynch pin of Christian Patriarchy and if pulled, the whole of Patriarchy falls apart.
It is why I speak up. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery Gal. 5:1