Russell Moore claims “Christianity is undergirded by a vision of patriarchy.” He writes:
… evangelicals should ask why patriarchy seems negative to those of us who serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God and Father of Jesus Christ. As liberationist scholar R. W. Connell explains, “The term ‘patriarchy’ came into widespread use around 1970 to describe this system of gender domination.” But it came into widespread use then only as a negative term. We must remember that “evangelical” is also a negative term in many contexts. We must allow the patriarchs and apostles themselves, not the editors of Playboy or Ms. Magazine, to define the grammar of our faith.
Moore claims that because Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were patriarchs, the Christian faith is patriarchal. I agree with Moore that we should not let the world define our terms for us Christians, so let us look at what the patriarchs was – and then, from that, what patriarchy ought to be.
“Patriarch” has these meanings in the dictionary:
1. A man who rules a family, clan, or tribe.
a. One of the antediluvian progenitors of the human race, from Adam to Noah.
b. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or any of Jacob’s 12 sons, the eponymous progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel.
3. Used formerly as a title for the bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria.
4. Roman Catholic Church A bishop who holds the highest episcopal rank after the pope.
5. Eastern Orthodox Church Any one of the bishops of the sees of Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, Moscow, and Jerusalem who has authority over other bishops.
6. Judaism The head of the Sanhedrin in Syrian Palestine from about 180 b.c. to a.d. 429.
7. Mormon Church A high dignitary of the priesthood empowered to invoke blessings.
8. One who is regarded as the founder or original head of an enterprise, organization, or tradition.
9. A very old, venerable man; an elder.
10. The oldest member of a group: the patriarch of the herd.
And “patriarchy” has these meanings:
n. pl. pa·tri·ar·chies In both senses also called patriarchate.
1. A social system in which the father is the head of the family and men have authority over women and children.
2. A family, community, or society based on this system or governed by men.
From the “Patriarch” definition, very few believing men qualified as patriarchs. Not every man ruled a family – families those days were not just mom, dad, kids but grandpa, grandma, several adult siblings, in-laws and slaves all together in one home – and the rest of those men in the same household were not patriarchs. Not every man was one of the progenitors of the human race or Israel, is the founder of something, or is very old and venerable.
The patriarchs of the Bible have way more to do with being the source (progenitor, founder, original head) than being the boss. Abraham and Jacob listened to their wives sometimes, for example in sleeping with slaves because their wives say so(both on occasions), or Rachel and Lea deciding who Jacob will sleep with that evening. Abraham was even commanded by God to listen to his wife. Jacob deferred to his wives about when to move away from his father in law. Speaking of which, Jacob lived in his father in law’s household, and worked for him, for years after his wedding – he may have been a patriarch, but he was not the ruler of his household.
To sum up: The difference between Bible patriarchs and current patriarchy is that the former called one man per generation a patriarch, with all of those being literal forefathers of Jesus/ Israel. Commanding had nothing to do with it – there is a lot of commanding non-patriarchs in the Bible, and the few patriarchs did not seem more commanding than other men. Patriarchs were progenitors, the source of Israel and Jesus Christ. (I think this ties in with the debate on whether head mean source or leader in certain New Testament texts.)
“Christian” patriarchy, on the other hand, is “a social system in which the father is the head of the family and men have authority over women and children.” There is no logical progression from a few male progenitors to all males governing their families.
That brings us to where I and Russel Moore agree:
We must allow the patriarchs and apostles themselves, not the editors of Playboy or Ms. Magazine, to define the grammar of our faith.
If Bible characters define our terms, we will refrain from using patriarchy to refer to any system of male rule. It will refer to one man in all the earth per generation. And that man does not have to command or lead anyone, but be the forefather of someone significant. We will not defend male rule by referring to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.