Spousal Abuse, Pastoral Theology, and Pastoral Practice. The First Step.

In preparation for an upcoming full Greystone course in Domestic Violence in Theology and Ministry, I’ve been working through a pile a volumes on the topic that I’ve read over the last decade or so. Some have been truly helpful, many less so, and more than a few have been misleading, even dangerous. With precious few exceptions, all of these books have been written in the mode of the counseling movement and its often frustratingly thin thinking, or written for a general audience interested in social or relationship issues. Only a negligible number are written in a mode that recognizes the issue of domestic violence as a properly theological issue requiring serious biblical, historical, and theological work. This unfortunate blind-spot–combined with the increasing frequency with which I am asked to assist other pastors, church sessions, and church bodies with domestic violence, divorce theory, and related challenges–prompts the Greystone initiative reflected in this upcoming class (Spring 2017), as well as the three-course credential to which it will belong.

For far too long, many have approached these questions within the ambit of that poorly disguised and misnomered field of inquiry, “practical theology,” where so much is “practical” and so little is “theological.” But domestic violence is in fact a rather prominent biblical theme, requiring serious exegetical labor if we will hear the Word faithfully, and it is also a densely theological subject area, involving various commitments in theological anthropology, Christology, and ecclesiology. How the material and immaterial facets of the human person relate, how to characterize and quantify non-physical forms of abuse or misuse in light of the human telos, the nature and purpose of marital and other domestic relations, and so on: they seldom enjoy a serious role in the go-to book in the minister’s library on how to think about bad marriages, spousal abuse, or personal oppression. Sociologically, I have found that much of this subject area spooks confessionally Reformed folk because the vocabulary is foreign or seems to recall pop psychology, humanistic social theories, or the no-fault divorce culture. But the eye-opener that the Scriptural witness can be as it confronts us with these questions, and learning that the Reformed tradition has been far from silent on them… this disturbs the comfortable, and in life-giving way.

The first volume in this subject area that I will note my next post is a very slim one and, like all the examples I will survey in the days and weeks to come, it has its strength and weaknesses. But before we turn to that book for the first time, there is something else that requires mention. It will embarrass me, since few enjoy pointing out personal errors, especially consequential ones, but I hope my failure will serve as a useful lesson for others, even a warning.

The Discovery, Too Late, of a Classic Profile

Recently I was able to take a small step toward righting a wrong, a wrong of my own doing from many years ago. In my first encounter with a form of domestic violence, I failed. Badly. And it has haunted me with alarming regularity ever since.

In a former congregation that I served alongside another pastor, the session and pastor of that church leaned on me for help interpreting and assessing a situation of spousal abuse. I was unprepared for what I faced, unprepared for the timely, urgent, important service I was rightly expected to be able to render. Only later, and much too late, did I learn that the characteristics of this situation were not only far from unique, but that they remain frighteningly common to the point of providing a predictable profile for abusive husbands in church contexts. In this case, as in very many, the husband was a publicly magnanimous, generous, respected, amiable, and visibly earnest or sincere fellow; he had been through some seminary education and was on a ministry track, and was being considered for church office; he wore his allegiance to (his version of) Reformed theology loudly and publicly; he was active and energetic in contexts of service and visible support of the work of the church; and he was also especially eager to develop and strengthen close friendships with those in positions of influence in the congregation, particularly the ministers.

He was also a monster, at first only behind closed doors with his wife, who was not (also rather characteristically) of the visibly active and verbal disposition that he was.

The session had already started working with them before I arrived. They became more involved through the increasingly focused counseling work of the pastor and myself, and, as the marriage deteriorated the more the dark reality came to light, eventually I carried much of the load of the meetings. The sessions with him began with the most earnest expressions of humility, love for his wife and children, and commitment to repentance and reconciliation. As the reality became clearer, though, his tactics shifted toward minimization of egregious wrongs, the domestication of destructive sins into a more ordinary and ostensibly palatable form, the questioning of his wife’s credibility and sanity, until finally there was rather conspicuous signs of a deep-running duplicity and manipulative strategy.

There came a point, which the literature (as I later learned) consistently alerts ministers to watch out for, when the man’s veneer unintentionally cracked (through a discovered lie) and the dark reality always lurking beneath the facade suddenly peeked through. With that unintended slip, what the books say to expect started to happen: with increasing energy, and attempting to involve more and more people in his project, the husband began to turn toward me some of the ferocity that had so far been reserved for his wife. Having suggested the proverbial emperor sitting before me had just been found to be naked, I instantly became the object of scorn, ridicule, intimidation, threats, and contempt. The anger started to show, the need to keep such things hidden having ended, and the counselor started to see something of what the wife had been living with.

(With this experience always fresh in my mind, I was recently able to warn a new friend– a minister faced with a fairly new but tragic spousal abuse situation in his own congregation– about the likelihood of this strategy finding expression in his own situation. Stunned at what he heard, he told me it had already begun.)

The senior pastor of the church later told the session he had had the wool pulled over his eyes by this man for years. He was right, and many others could have said the same about this man. But I was more at fault. At a certain point in the story, just before the man left the church (he is presently on the ordination track in the Roman Catholic Church) and some months before my time at that church ended, the senior pastor entered my office with a question and a very sensible expectation that I could answer it well. He asked,

“Does she have grounds for divorce? Is abuse a ground for divorce? I’ve always heard our Confession only allows for divorce in cases of adultery of desertion, but this isn’t that, is it?”

The correct answer is a strong yes, that even within the terms of the Westminster Confession’s teaching on valid divorce, and most importantly within Holy Scripture, abuse is certainly accounted for as it severs or ruptures, rather than merely bruises, the matrimonial bond, and thus is a valid ground for divorce. The reasons for this will have to wait another post.

In this case from years ago, importantly, we were not talking about spousal disagreements, ordinary marital squabbles and challenges, her impatience with his sin or a refusal to reconcile. We were dealing with spousal abuse. The correct answer to the senior pastor’s question on that day and in that situation was yes. But I answered the question differently, in a way perhaps many others might answer it today,

“I think your understanding of the Confession is probably right. At least, that’s how I’ve heard it. It seems she should have grounds for divorce, but I don’t see it there. I have to say I don’t know, but I can’t see it. I’m sorry.”

And with that, I failed. Horribly. Not just on a point of theology or biblical interpretation, not just on a point of confessional interpretation, but in the care and protection of real people needing thick, strong, faithful pastoral care as they hold opposite roles in a living horror. I failed. I failed that senior pastor who looked humbly toward a younger man with more education than he had enjoyed and who should have known better. I failed the session who counted on someone in my position understanding the Scriptures and the Reformed tradition much better than that. I failed the congregation who rightly expects church officers to defend the cause of the vulnerable and the weak, and to protect them under the authority and command of the Lord and King of the Church, the faithful Shepherd of the sheep. I failed that wife and I failed that husband, who both needed a minister who would be ready and willing to read the situation properly and act confidently, with the proper combination of self-sacrificing resolve and patient compassion. But I didn’t. I wobbled in uncertainty, didn’t know what I should have known, didn’t love my neighbor as my own self, and failed. And ever since I left that church many years ago, and every time I have encountered the same profile in abusive husbands and/or fathers in other church contexts, I remember that man, I remember that woman, and I remember that conversation with the senior pastor in my office. And I’m ashamed.

The Return, and the First Step

Recently, I had the opportunity to meet briefly with what remains of that session, and to apologize for failing them, that husband and wife, and the congregation. They graciously accepted and forgave me. Most delightfully for me, the wife from those many years ago (since divorced) was present in the service the day that I visited, though she was not usually at worship in that congregation. I was able to talk with her at some length, apologize to her, encourage her that her suffering is bearing fruit for others through the Lydia Center, and communicate my prayers and the prayers and efforts of others who are determined to assist ministers and sessions or consistories with solid and reliable guidance through the biblical, theological, historical, and practical facets of what many have concluded is a pathological phenomenon in Reformed contexts.

It’s small as a return on an investment on her suffering. Only a pittance, really. And it does nothing to absolve me for my failure. I am still ashamed. Pastor make mistakes at least daily in the care of their congregations, sure, but this one is unusually sore for me, especially as I see “the issue” more and more, and grow in understanding its pastoral urgency. Only Christ and his righteousness can be my hope there.

But I suggest that others learn from my mistake and consider the possibility that returning back to the site of the disaster, if there is one for you as there is for me, may be the most fitting first step in our quest for greater faithfulness in attending to these issues properly. The study and the reading and the theologizing are not only more stimulating and potentially enjoyable but also may keep us at arm’s length from the real human beings who remain in our (often) rear view mirror. Instead of moving directly to the books and the important theoretical questions, perhaps we should first return to those human beings, those we may have already failed on this front, and telling them so, humbly and apologetically, assuring them that their suffering is bearing fruit through us to serve and protect others–and may our God make this so.

Next time we will survey the start of our first book entry on spousal abuse, domestic violence, and the theology and ministry of pastoral care in those contexts.

How to be a friend to someone facing abuse: Guest Post by Alice Childers

a-cord-of-three-strandsOpening Remarks to the Guest Post

The words of our enemies aren’t as awful as the silence of our friends.

Daisy Coleman

Last weekend, I watched the documentary Audrie and Daisy, which explores the ‘public square of shame’ of young girls who have been sexually assaulted. While this documentary is a powerful expose of rape culture (in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence towards women is normalized), it is also a disturbing portrait of secondary victimization via bystanders. When a victim of some kind of gender-based violence (whether that be physical or psychological) reports her abuse, the response of those around her can either be a source of great comfort and empowerment or they can be themselves a form of violence.

The devastating effects of secondary victimization are well-documented (see Chapter 8 of this book for a start). However, also worthy of attention is what some call the ‘friendship protection hypothesis‘. In short, when the friends, family, and acquaintances of a victim and officials tasked with responding to sexual assault, bullying, or other kinds of intimate partner violence believe, support, comfort, encourage, and assist, victims of such crimes, good things happen. Not only are victims better equipped to heal from their trauma, but they are less likely to be re-victimized.

Mark and I had the great privilege of meeting two ladies, one a survivor of spousal abuse and the other her friend, at the inaugural Lydia Symposium a few weeks ago. Both drove a long distance to attend, and having heard their story, we asked the friend to write a guest post for us in response to the question: What does it mean to be a friend to someone facing abuse? We are grateful to be able to publish her account in her own words here.

How to be a Good Friend to Someone Facing or Leaving an Abusive Relationship

Walking with someone who is coming out of an abusive relationship will not be like any other situation you have faced.  At least, this is what I have found.

I have learned throughout this experience with my best friend, that there are a number of things she needs.

First of all, she needs to be believed. This may sound trivial, but there will be many people who will not believe her, or will minimize what she says or what she has been through.

She also needs to hear you say you will never leave her.  You should show her this with both words and actions.  For my friend and me, this means having my cell phone near at all times, especially by my bed at night, when her fear is often the greatest. She needs to be reassured and listened to.  Her fear is very real and at times almost unbearable. You can be that calm voice to reassure your friend she is not alone.  She will have triggers, memories that come back which have been suppressed, sometimes for years, because of the fog she has lived in.

Listening and praying, reading scripture and reminding her of truth; these are ways my friend has needed me.  Encourage your friend and let her know this did not happen overnight, and won’t change overnight.  Patience is key.  Leaving an abusive relationship is a huge life change for her. But you being there as a faithful, consistent presence will make the journey so much easier and better for her.

Incorporating things which might give a sense of normalcy to her life, is another important thing I have learned. Planning fun times like shopping, going out for coffee or a movie, or whatever your friend enjoys, is another way you can help her feel like she is moving on.  Laughter, music, time with other friends or family can all be a blessing, as well as healing, for her. Supporting her in different ways will be essential.

Leaving an abusive relationship is a very courageous thing to do.  But it is also scary and creates more fear in your friend’s life. Validation is so important.  Love her.  Respect her. Treat her with dignity.

My friend is not a victim anymore.  She is a survivor.

I believe one of the most important things to give her is unconditional love. I have spent many days listening, praying, and often, crying with my friend.  She has had so many emotions; grief, anger, despair, shock, betrayal, and a host of others.  Unconditional love is vital.  She will need it in your hugs, and by holding her hand when she finds out yet another lie.  Through it all, you can tell her and show her that you will stand with her and weather the storm together.

As a friend who has walked closely with someone who is leaving an abusive marriage, I can tell you that God has taught me in a whole new way, what it means to bear another’s burdens.  Don’t be surprised when your friend is accused or not believed, over the one who is abusing.  Even you, as her friend, may be ridiculed or talked about badly if you support her.  All the more reason you must stay with her and stand by her side.

Supporting my friend has been humbling and life changing for me, in a very good way.

It truly is a privilege to be the hands and feet for my Savior.  At times, to be the anchor, and to remind her of God’s precious truth and His sovereignty over all these things.

How can you help a friend who is facing or leaving an abusive relationship?

Take her hand, look into her eyes, and tell her, “Friend, we will get through this together.  I am here, and God will see us through.”

Alice Childers


Milton, Poet and Provocateur

Announcing a Greystone Theological Institute event this Thursday:

John-Milton-portrait-008Greystone Study Day: “John Milton, Poet and Provocateur” at Greystone in Coraopolis (Pittsburgh), July 28, 9:30 am – 4 pm.

This one-day seminar will feature Dr. David Head’s survey of Milton’s work as a poet followed by a close examination by Dr. Mark A. Garcia of the bewildering yet influential seventeenth-century models of gender as well as Milton’s controversial teaching on marriage and divorce, which factored significantly in the work of the Westminster Assembly.

Cost: Donation only. Donations help cover the costs of running free events and programs. (Thank you for making your donation here.) 

Announcing the 2016 Inaugural Lydia Symposium

Mark Garcia and I are thrilled to announce the inaugural Lydia Symposium, to be held  16-17 September, 2016 at Greystone Theological Institute in Coraopolis, PA. We intend this event to act as an introduction to our work and an opportunity to engage with and hear from all those who are interested in investigating, discussing, and working towards solutions for issues facing Christian women. We are especially pleased that Dr. Rebekah (Becky) Josberger will be joining us as an invited speaker, delivering two talks connected to her work on the Torah and specifically the father in Israel. (You will learn more about her important work soon.) Please also note that I will be leading a roundtable discussion during this event, intended to provide opportunity for reflection and dialogue amongst attendees and presenters.

This event is free (Register here!), and we hope this will facilitate your attendance. It is our hope that supportive donors will subsidize this event. If you believe in the work of the Lydia Center and would like to attend the event, please consider making a donation in whatever amount you are able. Even if you cannot attend the event, your valuable donation allows us to offer this and other events for free.

I hope to see you in Coraopolis in September.


After Patriarchy, Part 2: The Story of a Model

If I had a flair for the dramatic, I would say patriarchy died on November 23, 2013.

There is some truth in that claim, though it’s a truth having more to do with the world of scholarship than the everyday realities many people live with. Instead of going that route, then, I will suggest that November 23, 2013 is one of the most important dates in the convoluted story of patriarchy in the world of biblical scholarship. It is at least a date students of the topic should try to remember.

On that date, Carol L. Meyers, Mary Grace Wilson Professor of Religion at Duke University, delivered her presidential address to the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). Fernando F. Segovia, the SBL Vice-President, introduced Meyers with a truly impressive report of her accomplishments in scholarship over many years. Her address was titled, “Was Ancient Israel a Patriarchal Society?” (later published in the Journal of Biblical Literature 133, no. 1 [2014]:8-27; I will refer to the pages of the published article).  She has published on the question in several places, and those familiar with the literature will know Meyers has long been at the forefront of biblical scholarship on gender and the Old Testament. But her 2013 address focused her thinking on the subject in a new way, placing it helpfully against the backdrop of scholarly work in various related fields.

In his introduction, Segovia highlighted several noteworthy features of Meyers’ career in biblical studies. Meyers entered the world of biblical studies in the 1960s and 1970s, the tumultuous heyday of the sexual revolution and political unrest. She started teaching at Duke in 1976, where she has continued to this day, and her now more than forty years of work bear the imprint of the rapidly changing ideology of feminism. “To my mind,” says Segovia,

“she represents an ideal signifier of the times — a product of and an agent in such years of transformation. In terms of faces and voices, she belongs to the first generation of women who break into the patriarchal world of the academy and the field of studies. In terms of method and theory, she stands with that circle of scholars who begin to reach out to other fields of study, such as the social sciences and feminist studies, for grounding and inspiration of the study of biblical antiquity” (5).

Her often-awarded, critically acclaimed, interdisciplinary publications bear this out. Her very many scholarly articles and essays, and particularly her highly influential 1988 study of women’s roles and everyday activities in ancient Israel, Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (Oxford), and its later revision and expansion as Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (2013), remain important, even standard and representative examples of the best of feminist-oriented readings of the Old Testament. And they have proven valuable and insightful even for those scholars who work very far indeed from feminist ideology.

I introduce her at such length in order to make her credentials clear as a leading scholar shaped by, committed to, and fueling feminism in biblical studies. Arguably, then, as a representative and ground-breaking scholar identified with feminist hermeneutics, Meyers has as much interest as anyone could in the patriarchy reading of the Old Testament. After all, that critical, negative reading of Scripture’s allegedly patriarchal model of home and society is what gave feminist biblical studies its materials, its vision, its very raison d’etre.

And yet Meyers, the feminist scholar, argues that Israel and her sacred texts are not patriarchal, that examination of the texts themselves indicates “patriarchy” is misleading, and that therefore “patriarchy” in scholarly historical and biblical studies should be left behind.

In what follows I will outline Meyers’ reasons for reaching this conclusion, in which she is in fact far from alone, even among feminist scholars. But I will do so not because I believe Meyers represents the way forward for a more faithful understanding of the biblical text (she does propose an alternative which we will explore in our next post), but because such a highly qualified, scholarly voice against the idea of a biblical “patriarchy,” in the context of a programmatic, agenda-setting, state-of-the-question presidential address to SBL, should give us pause. And when we discover in the literature that hers is a conclusion long in the making, and has been voiced by a wide variety of scholars (both “conservative” and “liberal”), the “patriarchy” question becomes its own kind of educational window into biblical topics the wider literature has been exploring fruitfully for the last several decades.

Patriarchy as a Social Science Theory

Put most succinctly, “patriarchy” denotes the social-science concept of male dominance. In most dictionaries, patriarchy is a system of male power or authority in any form of social structure which, either as a matter of principle or only of practice, includes the relative or complete exclusion of women from that system of power. Meyers opens her lecture with a reference to its use as a descriptor in biblical studies for ancient Israel, a use which appears to date only to the late nineteenth century.

Incidentally, this timetable seems to hold true inasmuch as other scholars have noted how the impact of Darwin’s theories included the search for a biological grounding for traditional assumptions regarding the ontological superiority of males. Though Darwin himself never went the Social Darwinism direction, others quickly did, most notably Alfred Russel Wallace. As recently as 1973, Steven Goldberg, a sociologist at the City College of New York, published The Inevitability of Patriarchy, arguing along Social Darwinian lines for a biological interpretation of male dominance.

As Meyers notes, the term “patriarchy” does not appear in the Bible. It is a social science construct, not a biblical one. It derives, too, not from biblical studies at all but from other fields of study, and so its usefulness must be evaluated against the background of developments in those fields as well as growing knowledge of the ancient, and in our case especially biblical, societies to which the term is applied. Thus Meyers explores its use in the study of ancient Israel, and then notes challenges to the patriarchal model that arise from three areas: classical studies, research on women in ancient Israel, and feminist theory. I will summarize Meyers’ remarks along these same lines. Note that, for accuracy’s sake, I will follow her order and prose as closely as possible, and follow the survey with a few of my own remarks.

Patriarchy in the Study of Ancient Israel

Meyers notes that the use of “patriarchy” in the study of ancient Israel is rather recent and emerged within a clearly definable setting, namely nineteenth-century anthropology. The rise of historical criticism in biblical studies yielded a fresh interest in the social world of the biblical texts, but the challenges and apparent contradictions of the biblical materials proved so frustrating to scholars that they turned to the social sciences for help. This turn by nineteenth-century biblical scholars to the social sciences, says Meyers, “was the first of two ‘waves’ of biblical scholarship that turned to social-science disciplines” (10).

The anthropologists to whom the biblical scholars turned worked from an evolutionary perspective, assuming that human beings pass “through stages of development, from the primitive to the civilized.” Crucially, in the absence of direct evidence from ancient societies, they drew extensively from the then-available body of Greek and Latin sources to construct their theories about the development of family structures. Most scholars concluded from these Greek and Latin texts that the father must have dominated in the original form of the family, and they called this “patriarchy” (as, most essentially, father-rule), though they applied this term only to the family, not to society as a whole.

Meyers notes three figures who were especially important to this development. The first of these is the English classicist and law professor Henry Sumner Maine (1822-1888), who published on ancient (i.e., Greek and Roman) law. He examined and enlarged the classic notion of patria potestas (“the father’s power”) as an instance of “paternal despotism,” arguing that the father had vitae necisque potestas (“power of life and death”) over his servants, wife, and children.

The second figure Meyers mentions is the Frenchman Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges whose 1864 book on the family stresses that the word pater (father) means absolute authority, not just biological paternity, and is practically synonymous in meaning with “king.” As Meyers explains, De Coulanges claimed that the father held all judicial authority in the household and a woman was considered a “mineure” (a minor) with no household authority whatsoever.

The third figure Meyers notes is Lewis Henry Morgan, an early American anthropologist and lawyer whose 1877 book, Ancient Society, explicitly linked the presumed patriarchal family model of the Greeks and Romans to the family type of the “Hebrew tribes.”

Shortly after these scholars did their work, Bernhard Stade, a prominent German historian and theologian (and founder of the biblical studies journal ZAW), published in 1887-88 a two-volume history of Israel which is as much social and political history as anything else it purports to be. Meyers suggests this “is probably the first publication by a biblical scholar in which the terms ‘patriarchy’ and ‘patriarchal society’ are used for ancient Israel” (12). It is a work deeply influenced by the new social scientists and their assertions regarding the Roman patria potestas and paterfamilias. “Stade’s reconstruction of Israelite society and religion,” says Meyers, “had a significant impact on biblical scholarship, especially in Germany, where Julius Wellhausen was among those whom he influenced” (12).

After nearly half a century of strange silence on this front, a new wave of interest in social scientific models of ancient Israelite society emerged in the middle of the twentieth century, but now with a focus on prophecy and apocalyptic movements rather than the household. (Meyers refers to Robert R. Wilson, “Reflections on Social-Scientific Criticism,” in Method Matters: Essays on the Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Honor of David. L. Petersen [ed. Joel M. LeMon and Kent Harold Richards; SBLRBS 56; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009], 507–10 for discussion of why this is the case.) An exception to this shift is Roland de Vaux whose Ancient Israel (1958, 1960; in English, 1961, rep. 1997) became a classic. De Vaux repeated many of the older assumptions regarding Israel as patriarchal, including the notion that fathers held the “power of life and death” over their wives and children.

Major studies and reference works from this period (so formative for twentieth-century evangelical biblical studies and its new interest in ancient Near Eastern contextual topics) contain similar assertions drawn from the older social scientific model. Meyers points to the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (1976) and the entry for “father” in the first volume of the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (1974) as examples. In addition, Max Weber’s 1921-22 work, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Economy and Society), which Meyers says “was arguably the most important sociological work of the twentieth century,” likely contributed to this growing consensus on Israel’s patriarchy (13). Weber influenced the great Old Testament scholar Martin Noth and, it appears, Norman Gottwald as well.

From here, the number of scholars repeating the patriarchy descriptor for Israel multiplied throughout the later twentieth century and into the twenty-first, including such recent examples as Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager (2001), the Pentateuch volume of the Dictionary of the Old Testament (2003), and the article on households in the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (2006).

However, Meyers explains that “adherence to the patriarchal model did abate somewhat in the late twentieth century, perhaps because studies of women’s roles in ancient Israel had begun to contest aspects of the patriarchal paradigm” (14). She points to the entry on “family” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (ABD) (1992), the Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin work Social World of Ancient Israel (1993), the chapter on the monarchic period in the 1997 book Families in Ancient Israel, and the essay on marriage and family in ancient Israel in the 2003 publication, Marriage and Family in the Biblical World (IVP).

As I will note again at the conclusion of this post, I suggest it is a shame that Meyers does not give more space and attention to this last essay, which is by the evangelical biblical scholar Daniel Block (we will return to Block’s work at some length in our next post). She notes correctly that Block

“takes to task interpreters who consider certain biblical narratives to be ‘normal expressions of patriarchy,’ asserts that ‘father’ does not mean ‘ruler,’ and proposes that the term ‘patriarchy’ be avoided altogether” (14).

Despite these dissenting voices, Meyers notes that feminist biblical scholars have persisted with the “patriarchy” reading, and points to several familiar names in feminist biblical studies such as Phyllis Bird (particularly her entry on women in ABD 6), Alice Bach, Esther Fuchs, Kathleen M. O’Connor, and Sharon H. Ringe. Importantly, though, these more recent feminist voices reflect a second wave of the patriarchal model in which the original application of the term to family structures only has been expanded to become a societal structure. In this second wave, patriarchy became a model pervading family as well as all social structures driven by ideologies “that have enabled men to dominate and exploit women throughout recorded history” (so stated by highly influential Harvard theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, cited by Meyers [15 n. 47]).

“In sum,” says Meyers,

“the concept of patriarchy taken up by Hebrew Bible scholars in the nineteenth century still influences the understanding of Israelite households. We still see references to patriarchy and the appearance of paterfamilias and pater potestas. And the all-inclusive concept of male dominance and concomitant female victimhood, as articulated by second-wave theorists, appears in the publications of many feminist biblical scholars” (16).

But Meyers believes this understanding is no longer justified. She argues that “developments in three areas… challenge its appropriateness as a descriptor of Israelite society.” Again, these three areas are studies of classical society, research on Israelite and biblical women, and third-wave feminist theory. I will summarize Meyers’ treatment of those developments more briefly than I have summarized her presentation so far.

Challenges to the Patriarchal Model in Classical Studies

In classical studies, where the concept of patriarchy originated, the challenges to the model have been monumental. As early as the 1960s, reports Meyers, scholars were noting that the idea of the Roman “all-powerful pater familias” doesn’t fit reality. “Perhaps most
important,” says Meyers, “was the realization that different areas of household life cannot be lumped together; that is, male control in one area does not necessarily mean control
in all areas,” and the idea of a father’s life-and-death power was also shown to be a conceptual abstraction rather than a fact of social history (16).

Most significantly, says Meyers, in the 1990s the growing guild of historians of classical societies, no longer made up of legal historians as in the heyday of patriarchy’s scholarly life, demonstrated clearly that the traditional view of patriarchy is not supported by the social and cultural realities evidenced in the texts. Instead of focusing only on legal texts, as the earlier generations of scholars had done, scholars were now examining a broad range of materials, including ones from daily life, and the result was a widely different picture of fathers and their power from the one that had become conventionally assumed to be true.

Meyers points especially to the 1994 work of Richard Saller, Patriarchy, Property and Death in the Roman Family (Cambridge). One important outcome of this scholarly development was the recognition that “the relationship between a man and his wife in Roman society did not involve the same absolute authority that a father may have had over his children,” and that “the term ‘patriarchy’ does not apply to the husband-wife relationship.” Instead, evidence examined by Saller and others, including Xenophon’s treatise on household management, points to the managerial authority or power wielded by Roman women in their households, “sometimes even ‘exercising authority over her marital partner'” (18).

Feminist archaeologists have themselves also challenged the patriarchy model. Meyers summarizes their findings (in words which remind us of recent historical scholarship on the roots and development of twentieth-century evangelical patriarchy). She says these archaeologists dismantled the older patriarchal reading of the Roman household and showed that

“capitalist Victorian household patterns, in which the workplace was outside the home and men had control over their wives and children dependent on their earnings, had been superimposed on premodern societies in which the household was the workplace for all family members.”

Though I won’t go into detail here, Meyers then documents the work of classicists who also challenge the more expansive view of patriarchy as applicable to society and its institutions. These scholars, working with texts, inscriptions, and iconography, have demonstrated that women were not in fact excluded or subjugated in the ways formerly thought.

Challenges to the Patriarchal Model in Scholarship on Israelite Women

Recall that the scholarly concept of patriarchy originated in a reading of ancient Greek and Roman households, a reading that has been found wanting. What, then, of the ways that concept was transposed into the biblical materials?

Meyers participates in the (in my view questionable) practice among biblical scholars of treating biblical materials as windows into ancient social realities. (While it is of course reliable and valuable for these purposes to an extent, I would argue that the Old Testament is redemptive revelation for God’s covenant community, not a history of Israel in a social-scientific or any other scholarly-conventional sense, and this unique ontology of Scripture means it cannot be treated the same way other texts are.) Nevertheless, Meyers accents features of biblical scholarship on the Old Testament that have dislodged the conventional patriarchal reading of the Israelite household.

Meyers also deploys the results of archaeological research, particularly gender archaeology — a discipline which, as Meyers notes, is concerned with people, their domestic and social lives as men and women, rather than only their artifacts and dwellings. Meyers provides an extensive report on findings regarding household remains, the contributions of women to household life, the forms of their activities, and their areas of responsibility. She concludes, with specialists in the field, that women had managerial roles in ancient Israel, supervising the personnel and resources of their own households and occasionally across households (21). They were not the oppressed and powerless women of patriarchal expectation, subjugated to males in all aspects of household life.

More significantly, of course, are the biblical materials themselves. These materials support the same conclusions reached in other disciplines. Meyers briskly points to the managerial agency of women in some legal stipulations of the Covenant Code, in narratives, and in Proverbs; notes the two legal stipulations (Ex. 21:15, 17) which mandate capital punishment for offspring who strike or curse mother or father; includes the narrative of Micah’s mother (Judges 17) wielding decision-making power of various kinds; mentions Abigail (1 Samuel 25) using resources on her own initiative without consulting her husband and exercising diplomatic skill in talking with David; and notes, too, the Shunammite narrative (2 Kings 4 and 8) and the Proverbs 31 woman.

I could wish she had pointed to other, arguably more pertinent examples, and had explained the relevance of these more fully, yet those who read the literature will recognize that her examples function more like indexes to available scholarship than arguments on their own. Reading her list one thinks immediately of specific examples in the literature where these passages are developed at length along these lines. And it should be granted that, against the backdrop of the real history of patriarchy as a concept and hermeneutical model, the mere mention of them does indeed go a long way toward putting at least some errant assumptions to rest.

Meyers’ conclusion is fairly straightforward, even predictable in light of this story of the most relevant scholarly developments over the last century:

“In sum, gender archaeology and biblical texts together provide compelling evidence for the managerial power of Israelite women in the household setting. In addition, the use of bet ’em (‘mother’s household’) as a counterpart to bet ‘av (‘father’s household’) in several women-centered passages also suggests women’s household authority. The term ‘patriarchy,’ as a designation of general male domination and the oppression of women, would thus be inappropriate and inaccurate. Identifying female agency challenges the idea, embedded in the patriarchy model, that women were helpless victims of a male-dominant system” (22-23).

Meyers goes on to note other familiar examples in the Old Testament of women’s community roles, both professional or leadership positions and “lay” ones, their contributions to politics, culture, and their religious activities.

Feminist Challenges to the Patriarchal Model

Further, Meyers also outlines ways that “third-wave” feminist theorists have sought to correct the mistaken assumptions of their earlier, “second-wave” forbears. Interestingly, this has included feminist criticism of patriarchy as a notion resting on a “naturalized” view of women’s inferiority, and according to Meyers and the scholars she cites, the residue of this same notion are present in earlier feminist readings of the evidence. Related to this is the mistaken assumption that if patriarchy, or something approximating it, can be found somewhere it can thus be found everywhere: the universalizing error. Recent feminist scholars have pushed back against this uncritical superimposition of patriarchy upon the ancient world. Just as there is a universalizing tendency, so there is also a tendency to flatten out differences: the assumption that household roles and dynamics are monolithic has also been challenged.

Finally, (though Meyers notes other arguments), and maybe most surprising to those who thought they knew what feminism was, some feminist scholars are pointing out that gender isn’t everything: what may appear in the biblical texts to be a difference in role or function along the lines of gender may not be gender-related at all, and it’s irresponsible to assume that it is. There may be other factors (racial, economic, social, family, health, etc.) which account for things we see in the evidence for particular cases.

Taking Meyers’ presentation into view, we can summarize that she argues that patriarchy should be discarded because, as a

  • scholarly convention rooted in the mistaken nineteenth-century reading of classical Greek and Roman texts,
  • itself limited in a myopic way only to select legal texts read with legal eyes,
  • absorbed from the nineteenth-century ascendance of the evolutionary social sciences, and
  • translated into the very different discipline of biblical studies as part of an effort to describe biblical and ancient Israelite realities (rather than being itself a directly biblical notion),

it has proven to be

  • incompatible with the wider evidence of the classical texts and artifacts of ancient Greece and Rome,
  • incompatible with the wider evidence of the artifacts of ancient Israel,
  • incompatible with the Bible’s own vocabulary and descriptions of male and female roles and activities,
  • and thus inaccurate, inadequate, and misleading.

Some Brief and Transitional Reflections

As a confessional presbyterian and a Reformed theologian, I differ with Professor Meyers on a wide range of matters, in this area and others. These include our views of Scripture, authority, evidence, gender, and ethics. Neither do I find her alternative to patriarchy sufficient, either to move past the problems inherent to the “patriarchy” model or to more faithfully describe the witness of Holy Scripture. I will come to this matter in the next post. Still, I suggest that her analysis is worth our very careful consideration, not least because her work as a highly regarded feminist scholar in biblical studies means her arguments push against the grain of her own scholarly world in a rather fundamental way.

I offer the following concluding remarks for consideration:

Firstly, Meyers’ definition of “patriarchy,” accurate as it is at the level of dictionary definition, is not as helpful as one would like. It is understandable that she begins its story in the nineteenth century, and that context is undoubtedly immensely important for understanding much of what has functioned as a conventional assumption in many religious circles. Still, as scholars of this development appreciate, the nineteenth-century change amounted to a shift from a “naturalized” notion of masculine superiority to a biological one afforded by Social Darwinianism and its disciples.

But what about that older, preceding, “naturalized” notion? And what about versions of patriarchy to be found in other ancient cultures, such as India and China? To understand the patriarchy topic fully, one must account, too, for the longstanding (though hardly universal) assumption of an ontological superiority of the male, an assumption which is inescapably present in many patristic, medieval, and early modern theological and philosophical texts. To be sure, this is very complicated topic, and it is important to note quickly that we must not confuse this older religious model with today’s very different evangelical patriarchies, but the difference is itself something requiring scholarly exploration. This background, however, is largely overlooked by Meyers and the majority of feminist scholars who treat the idea as though it were in fact birthed a little more than a hundred years ago.

Secondly, and only apparently in contradiction to what I’ve just said, patriarchy — as an assumption that this is what the Bible is teaching prescriptively in some way — is in fact very young, and the nineteenth-century episodes recounted by Meyers (not the older, pre-modern iterations of male superiority) are in fact the ones most proximate, in terms of pedigree, to patriarchal readings found among evangelicals today. The reference works produced in this period up to the mid- to late twentieth century were formative in their effects upon evangelical biblical scholarship, and those reference works were themselves (and sometimes still are) dependent upon an erroneous older scholarship which should be recognized as such.

Lastly, too much feminist scholarship confuses the topic of patriarchy with any notion of uniquely male responsibility or authority. This is worse than unhelpful, and ensures a growing distance between our vocabulary and the beauty of the biblical witness. The value of this scholarship is in exposing the roots, the originally limited but eventually expanding applications, and the liabilities of the “patriarchy” term and model. It serves well to alert us to ways we must rethink our assumptions.

But it does not point the way forward. If scholars working on biblical domestic materials (feminist or not) would consider more patiently the work of Daniel Block and others, perhaps more of the scholarship would appreciate another way of reading these biblical texts. Perhaps they, and we, would see how, biblically, the error of confusing the male role with a role of power is both anticipated in the biblical texts themselves, as well as fruitfully and beautifully overcome.

It is overcome, I will suggest, by a graciously reordered mode of domestic relations which does not in any way involve the displacement of the divinely-ordered unique responsibilities of the husband and father. And I suggest this alternative to the now defunct patriarchy model can be articulated most compellingly not only with a view to quality work in biblical studies but also within a confessional Reformed theological framework of gender and family relations.

We will note some of the important work done along these lines in the next post in this series.

After Patriarchy, Part 1: Now What?

The curtain has been drawn. The questions have been sharpened, the stakes clarified, and the issues focused. And the dust is starting, it seems, to settle. Now — now — is the time to stretch our reading to the other side of this debate, to add Davidson to Davenant, Block to Bavinck, Collins to Cyril, Milgrom to Monothelitism. Now, in short, is the time for those who are able to begin to attend to the large and important scholarly literature in the areas of gender, sexuality, marriage and divorce, abuse, and related areas in the same way we ordinarily attend, with delight, to the literature on other theological topics.

The discussion underway, after all, needs to go somewhere constructively. Having worked in these areas intensively for the better part of the last decade, I can’t help but hope that many will do so. Has this debate led to better reading in the doctrine of God? Likely so. But those who now know Ayres on the trinity might also consider picking up Loader on sexuality. Have we rediscovered the deep wisdom of the early Reformed orthodox who taught with profound nuance about trinitarian relations? Undoubtedly. And those who know Muller on Reformed Orthodoxy might now also take some interest in the longstanding scholarly discussions over the status of women in biblical legal texts. Those who know Gregory of Nyssa on the trinity could now also read him on gender. And so on. No, not everyone needs to become a scholar of such things, but some familiarity goes a long way. Pretend it has to do with the extra Calvinisticum if you have to, but take an interest. Become generally familiar with a body of literature that is arguably at least as relevant and useful for everyday life as most of the other things we study. The fruit of many years of scholarship are ripe for picking, and the ears of many have been newly opened to the urgency of these topics. Having been awakened to the importance of these areas of life and fellowship, perhaps now is the prime opportunity to advance understanding along positive lines.

It is important to remember why this recent trinitarian debate began. The original concern was not trinitarianism per se, or more specifically subordinationism as a lone controversial idea, but the translation of trinitarian subordinationism into prescribed norms of marital, domestic, ecclesiastical, and societal patriarchy. As the subordinationism debate now seems to be resolving somewhat, I suggest that we keep in view the need to be positive rather than only negative. Rather than content ourselves with having learned more of what we should not say and do along these lines, I ask us to account now for the great need of our time, which is to take steps in the direction of what we should say and do.

This is all the more important in light of the collapse of complementarianism as a useful category. Like some others, I no longer identify myself as a complementarian, not because I reject the complementarian conclusion on ordination to certain church offices, but because the term itself has come to include many ideas and commitments I do not and cannot share. Whatever one’s position in these debates, the usefulness of “complementarian” and “egalitarian” is now rather narrowly limited to the question of female ordination to certain church offices. Even then, however,  the terms are arguably far too risky to be serviceable because they are regularly confused with certain specious arguments used in support of those conclusions. Much complementarian scholarship has proven to be question-begging and weak while other examples have been strong. Yet the same can be said of egalitarian scholarship in both respects. Rejecting bad arguments for complementarian conclusions on the ordination question, therefore, is not the same as rejecting that complementarian conclusion. Again the same holds for egalitarian scholarship which one may find compelling on any number of points without thereby being “egalitarian” as a result. Sound scholarship cannot hesitate in the very democratic rejection of bad scholarship of any sort and from any source. It proceeds with a willingness to be perhaps most critical of those with whom we know we agree in the end. It is not only the conclusion that matters, after all, but the way there as well.

What now, then? I offer a few remarks here to open a series of posts on our thinking and practice “after patriarchy,” itself an idea which requires careful explanation (and will receive it starting in the next post).

Firstly, the positive alternative to complementarian patriarchy as a program or vision for gender relations must be driven by careful, informed thinking of a biblical and theological sort, and fueled by wide reading, humble conversation, and patience in prayer. As I have said on many occasions in conversations with those who labor in church contexts, the debates over gender relations, spousal abuse, divorce, and the like are among the most immediately consequential debates the church has. Unlike certain debates over, say, the varied functions of the Mosaic law or even subordinationism itself, the outcome of these debates immediately affects real people on the proverbial ground. We must tread very carefully, for lives are ruined or reclaimed by our behavior here.

For this reason among many others, the positive alternative we propose in the context of this recent subordinationism debate must be of a certain sort. Most urgently, perhaps, it must not be driven by cultural pressures, as reactions to complementarianism often are. Critics of those who demur from complementarian patriarchy often assume that objections to that model must be driven by the sexual revolution of our day and age. “There you go again,” they say, “letting the world tell the Church how to think.” Usually they are wrong, but sometimes they are right, and the possibility is always there to err in this direction. I cannot put this strongly enough: in proposing a better way, we must not be driven by mere cultural pressures toward inclusivism, gender confusion, and the like. To listen to the cries of the culture is one thing, to have our thinking determined by cultural pressures is quite another.

Neither do we have to be in order to point to the better way. The positive alternative to complementarian patriarchy is better, but not because it is more fitting in our world today, not because it is more agreeable to contemporary sensibilities, and not because it solves all our problems and answers all our questions. It is better because it is more faithful to Scripture and the gospel. Only if this is true can it be better at all. And in fact a vast amount of solid biblical and theological scholarship over the last several decades warrants — no, demands — the responsible and patient reconsideration of some ideas the complementarian patriarchalists have taken for granted. Not only is it possible to suggest ways forward that are more faithful to Scripture and our Christian confession in biblical and theological terms; it is also a wonderful time to do so. The nature of recent research across the confessional spectrum, the advances in understanding of the tradition and of certain key biblical texts, and the astonishing availability of high quality resources put us in a position of great opportunity to do this work. (See the bibliography to come here soon.)

Secondly, we must not forget that arguing biblically and theologically, in a relentlessly humble and listening way, means being willing for Scripture to require the conclusion we least wanted to reach. This is the way of integrity, and I have been blessed to see it happen in many brothers and sisters who have revisited these questions themselves in recent years. (Speaking for myself, I have often been haunted by mistakes made on this front in the first years of my own pastoral ministry. I have also learned I am far from alone in this.) This is also the way of lasting success: rather than simply translating the gender idols of our society into Christian terms, speaking and thinking responsibly with the grain of Scripture puts the Church in the best possible position of strength for dealing faithfully with those rapidly changing cultural pressures.

Thirdly, the positive alternative must be restrained and careful, not reckless and reactionary. The destructive effects of patriarchy in recent decades have left our churches full of wounded, confused, and hurting men, women, and children. The faces of the problem we have on this front are very, very many. Yet we must take great care not to confuse the painful anecdote with the theological answer. Given the recent interest in rejecting unhelpful and unpersuasive models of complementarian patriarchy, we should acknowledge the temptation to identify with every idea, book, blog post, or social media remark which affirms women in some way, no matter the context or circumstances. Sometimes those affirmations are useful and sober; sometimes they are not. To avoid the dangers of reactionary error, the most responsible and well-informed voices need to be clear that, for example, our rediscovered sensitivity to the dark reality of spousal abuse does not mean we do not need to be very careful in identifying spousal misconduct as “abuse.” Our most responsible reading of what “submission” does and does not mean should not somehow entail, for our thinking or our rhetoric, that Scripture does not in fact teach that wives should “submit” to their husbands in the Lord. The fact of nuances and richness in biblical teaching on the grounds for a valid divorce does not mean divorce has limitless grounds (it does not), that divorce is no longer a significant problem in our day (it is), or that divorce ever takes place without the serious sin of at least one, though maybe only one, spouse (it only ever does). In these examples and many others, we must be painstakingly careful not to confuse our rejection of a bad idea or framework with the acceptance of every possible opposing one.

Put differently, it is important not to over-reach in interpreting the recent exposé of the deficiencies of subordinationist trinitarianism. Importantly, the rejection of subordinationist trinitarianism as a ground for male-female relations does not entail the rejection of any theological rationale for gender relations. Related to this, our vigorous rejection of distortions of headship need not include our rejection of the very notion of head or the neologism of “headship” itself. In my view, it requires instead our thoroughgoing reformation of the notion in the plentiful light of authoritative Scripture.

The opportunity is before us to take steps in the direction of humble faithfulness which serves Christ and his church well. We must remember that the most faithful thinking and practice in service of women and children in the church is also the most helpful and faithful service to its men. To a great extent, the reformation of our thinking about women and children in the home and church, marriage and divorce, and many related issues, is also the reformation of our thinking about Christian men. There are theological reasons for this which we will soon explore.

Next in this series, we will look at what has happened to the idea of marital and societal “patriarchy” in biblical and historical scholarship, its origins and elusive meaning, and why patriarchal complementarians are apparently the last to realize that this social-scientific convention has been abandoned (and rightly) by just about everyone else.