Patriarchy: The Third Option in the Comp/Egal Debate

I asked this question shortly after I got this blog started: is there a third option in the comp/egal debate. My reasoning was fairly simple. Much of what I see being labeled as complementarianism is not very complementary has produced strained, and in some cases manufactured role differentiation. After reading this rather perplexing article by D.A. Carson, What’s Wrong With Patriarchy, I’ve been ruminating on the topic and have come to the conclusion that the third option has been there all along: patriarchy.

Now, I have the utmost respect for the Don, as he is affectionately termed among my theological discoursers. You’d be hard pressed to find better scholarship in New Testament studies. But this article left me a bit perplexed and confused, especially this statement here

In a similar vein, while “patriarchalism” may refer, rather neutrally, to a social order in which fathers rule, the mental associations connected with the term may be hugely variable. For some, it may conjure up order, stability, and fathers of the “Father Knows Best” variety. When one examines family breakdown in many of our communities, with fathers known rather more for their absence than for anything else, a little “patriarchalism” may have its attractions. On the other hand, for many others “patriarchalism” conjures up macho condescension toward women, self-promoting arrogance at the expense of “the little woman,” and even (God help us) terrifying sexual abuse. Why would any Christian organization want to defend such grotesque distortions of what God has ordained? Similarly, “traditionalism” in male/female relationships calls to mind, for some older Americans, the stable families of the Eisenhower years (even while all sides acknowledge that the white picket fences sometimes enclosed more unseemly realities), but for many others “traditionalism” is associated with nothing more than preserving the status quo. If one associates that status quo with a refusal to overcome manifold injustice, then traditionalism itself is evil.

So John Piper and others coined the expression complementarianism. One of its virtues was its newness: it did not (yet!) have a history of wretched connotations. Denotationally it encapsulated what many of us were trying to say. The Bible does not present men and women as if they are interchangeable in every respect, save for the fact that only the woman has a uterus and can therefore produce babies. Rather, both men and women were made in the image of God and are of equal worth before him, but in God’s good design they fit together in mutually complementary ways that go way beyond mere sexual mechanics. The substance of this complementarianism has to be filled out by careful and reverent study of Scripture, study that is as suspicious of agenda-driven traditionalism as it is of agenda-driven egalitarianism.

Now terms matter and I can see how there is a need to distinguish between complementarianism vs. patriarchialism. But the terms must be compatible to the practice of those you are applying the term to and that is where I found a disconnect in this statement. I really appreciated this commenter’s statement and thought it was on point;

I will have to try a bit of flattery first and say that I really appreciate your teaching and the thoughtful and logical way you approach a problem/ dispute. And its for this reason that I am writing this response in that I believe you are open to logical argument and it will bother you if it can be demonstrated your position is not reasonable.

So on the point I wish to raise completarianism (a catchy title) I do have a problem with this for the following reasons:-

1/ It doesn’t describe what is distinctive about the position held. Your “egalitarian” opponents (within the evangelical church) would also agree that men and women are complementary. In fact it seems to me the bible actual says very little about how men and women complement each other except for the biologically obvious and the disputed point in relation to hierarchy. In fact on the disputed point of hierarchy the way that men and women seem to complement each other is that the Man gives orders and the women obeys….of course in the nicest possible way in this gentle mannered version of a form of patriarchy. I think say reformed/gentlemanly patriarchy or would be a better description….

2/ It is an attempt to try and occupy the high moral ground. It is quite a clever political move in that it attempts to undermine your opponents in trying to claim what they agree with anyway making out that they believe in some feminist sameness. I think for this reason it seems to lack integrity and a genuine attempt to try and understand and come to a common mind on this topic.

Best wishes

If anything, I think the term complementarian has been co-opted for patriarchy. As this gentleman states, patriarchy need not be abrasive or non-gentlemanly. But if attitudes and actions are aligned with patriarchy then why try to cover that up to mean something else. That doesn’t mean patriachalists are unkind or oppressive, as the picture Carson portrays, but that patriarchalists are what they are.

I created this brief sketch might be in order to make the distinctions. I also think we need to differentiate between egalitarians and feminists, as there has been confusion there as well. Although, in the context of a biblically grounded church, I find that position untenable leaving three viable options.

Patriarchialism: Hierachical/authoritarian; male headship dictates female participation; female submission enforced; strong emphasis on role differientation and female restrictions; male domination

Complementarianism: Hierachical/non-authoritarian;  male headship encourages female participation within hierarchy of creative order; female submission organic; roles less differientated more complementary;  male cooperation

Egalitarianism: Non-hierarchical/non-authoritarian; mutual authority and submission; roles complementary; male-female cooperation

Feminism: Non-hierarchical/authoritarian; no authority or submission; enforcement of female roles; female dominated; female cooperation

Note that both patriarchy and complementarianism are both hierarchical and affirm male headship. This will result in restrictions for female participation with respect to church leadership in varying forms and depending on church polity. The difference is that patriarchy imposes restrictions and a masculine oriented structure whereas complementarianism results in respect for creative order and equal value. While I am not an egalitarian, I think it is dishonest to portray them as feminists since the emphasis is on shared authority and submission not the absence of it.

With respect to the home, I agree with Adrian Warnock here, who said that from the outside you really shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a good complementarian marriage and good egalitarian marriage. The extremes of patriarchy and feminisim will be obvious. I might follow this up with some thoughts on how these positions consider Ephesians 5:22-33. Stay tuned.


8 thoughts on “Patriarchy: The Third Option in the Comp/Egal Debate

  1. Suzanne McCarthy August 19, 2012 / 1:05 am

    Feminism means that women can vote, own property, go to university, and not be raped by their husbands. I am not willing to surender these rights. Women got these rights by protesting. They were not freely given to women by men. Men, as a group, have never supported and encouraged the equal participation of women unless women have first demanded it.

  2. ljrobinson August 19, 2012 / 8:44 am

    Suzanne, I talking about within the church. The patriarchialists that t I am referring to would not advocate for the suppression you mention – not voting, owning property or being educated. And definitely not rape. While that may exist in the church that is not what I’m referring to.

  3. miguellabrador August 19, 2012 / 6:39 pm

    Resolving this matter is not possible through conditional hermeneutics. In other words, we can not arrive at a conclusion based on what we see or experience in our culture and in our time. We must approach this issue through many biblical passages, but the at the top of list is Paul’s statement, “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.” 1 Timothy 2:12 This cannot be interpreted culturally because the reason which Paul gives, “For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve,” stands outside of cultural or is trans-cultural.

    That said, The reason which God gives, “It is not good for a man to be alone,” is, in essence complementarian. I’ll say more on that if anyone has a question.

    One thing that I have recently discovered, is that there are veritably no women church planters. These things should not be so.

  4. ljrobinson August 19, 2012 / 6:53 pm

    Well, this post was not so much about determining which position is right but to make distinctions between positions. Based on this delineation, I am complementarian but I think that it is different from patriarchy. The women teaching men is a whole nuther subject.

  5. Suzanne McCarthy August 20, 2012 / 1:26 am


    I am not siggesting that any men today advocate these things. I am just commenting that no men provided these rights and privileges for women out of the goodness of their heart or because they were fulfilling their role as leaders of women. It was feminists who got these rights for women. And no woman I know wants to surrender these rights. So we should be duly grateful to feminists who advocated for laws which protect us from violence. We should express this gratitude, and recognize that feminism, historically is about protecting women from violence. I am not sure that it is female dominated. However, it may recognize that women are the true leaders and protectors of other women, not men. Men can be, but usually only in a supporting role.

  6. Suzanne McCarthy August 20, 2012 / 3:31 pm

    I just want to add that I admire what you are doing, and find a lot of agreement. I do know that modern day feminism seems to include so many things that we don’t want to identify with. I struggled with this. But by definitioin, it really means simply to treat your neighbour as yourself, that is, men would honour women with the same basic human rights that they have increasingly enjoyed. Thanks

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