The World in Miniature

The ancients understood something about the world that we, too often, don’t.

They understood that the patterns of being and interacting in each sphere of the world were establishing ways of being and interacting that affected the others.

When Aristotle wanted to make hay about politics, he started with the most basic political unit: families. More specifically, he started with husbands and wives.

The assumptions he made at one level permeated each other level. In the home, as in society at large, there are people who are given to foresight and planning–who are, in short, superiors. Things would only work well if these superiors ruled their inferiors.

Where does such superiority come from? From the ability of the reason to conquer the passions of the body. From the ability of strength to subdue the weakness that would ruin a home, a city, or a kingdom.

Men were to rule at home for the same reason that Alexander the Great should be the great emperor over all the inhabited world: each epitomizes reason, virtue, and physical power.

At a conference recently, some folks were wrestling with why male power in the church is such a difficult thing to dislodge in America–a place with enough theological education that we should know better.

If we look around we see the seeds of undoing the models of society that uphold the power of patriarchy: when we say “all men are created equal” we actually have to mean all human beings, not just all males. Once we’ve said and meant such a thing, there is no longer any basis for ascribing rule to men alone.

If we look “down” we can see the seeds of undoing the models of society that uphold the power of patriarchy: we strive, now, to have our children settle their disputes without fighting. We call exercise of physical power of intimidation “bullying,” not “manliness.” Our change in vocabulary says that we refuse to be a society governed by physical might as though this is some demonstration of the superiority that gives you the right to lead.

But when we look “up,” it’s an entirely different picture.

While we bemoan gun violence at home, our country is perhaps the greatest perpetrator of gun violence around the world–through exporting of not only arms but also of persons to pull the triggers.

While we righteously deplore the justice of human rights violations in places like North Korea, we violate the human rights of our own political prisoners either in Guantanamo Bay or through extraordinary rendition.

A couple of thoughts about all this.

First, the ancients were right. And, we will not be able to have the microcosms of safe and flourishing communities we desire while we are creating a cosmos of danger and destruction. As long as the national narrative is one of power through violence, that will be the micronarrative of our communities as well.

Second, in the United States, Christians are the greatest hindrance to the alternative economy of peace coming to fruition on the national stage. This is because Christianity is the strongest perpetuation of the narrative of patriarchy in our country.

Patriarchy is about a way of understanding rule through power. And Christians are the boldest, loudest group of people who still maintain that the power of the man (which is always a power of physical might and of a presumption of fundamental inequality and of exceptionalism) as the order of the cosmos.

There is a power in the narrative we teach our children, that simple narrative whose mandate is, “Use your words.” I.e., don’t use the coercion of your fists.

That microcosm has the power to create a different kind of cosmos. Here, I would argue, the power comes not from any inherent power in words, but in the economy of the kingdom of God as put on display in the cross of Christ.

Peace has a chance, not because weakness is inherently better than power, but because of the promise of the power of the God who gives life to the dead.

13 thoughts on “The World in Miniature”

  1. I love this. It does mean, on the other hand, that Christians in the US can do the most to move toward peace by changing our narrative. There are hopeful signs I think among many evangelicals moving toward a pacifist/egalitarian stance.

    I am so glad you’re blogging again.

    1. Thanks, Aric.

      I agree that there are hopeful signs. Recently, though, I’ve become aware that the new great “polarization” in (at least my corner of) the Christian world is between the “Neo-Reformed” and the “Neo-Anabaptists.” I worry that such a rubric will mean a retrenchment in the hermeneutics that have so long kept the church from listening to (and following) Jesus.

      1. Polarization generally is lamentable. Personally I think that there is so much in the Reformed tradition (which is usually the more patriarchal side) which speaks against patriarchy it astounds me when it is used to justify misogyny, imperialism, and exclusivism. Just a few starting points I see:

        If God is truly sovereign and sin is truly as dangerous as Reformed types claim then a kind of pacifist-anarchy makes the most political sense. Who could possibly be trusted with the power of a military or a police force and if God is in control of history what have we to fear?

        The same distrust of human sin and trust in the goodness of God makes egalitarianism much more compelling than patriarchy. What man could possibly be trusted to lord over a woman?

        If God is truly the fount of all goodness (and sovereign as above) then universalism makes the most sense, and we should freely identify all good even from non-christians as originating from God.

        It’s sad to me that my tradition has often been at the forefront of movements in Christianity that are most distant from Christ.

  2. I don’t want to attempt a defense of ecclesial patriarchy, per se, but if “the economy of the kingdom of God as put on display in the cross of Christ” is self-evidently anti-patriarchy, how do you explain the Apostle Paul’s explictly pro-patriarchical letters to Timothy (which of course were written after the Cross)? It seems like you’d have to deem the Apostle mistaken or naive, or if not, that the new economy of Christ had some sort of “timed release” perhaps.

    1. To start, I personally think Timothy is pseudepigraphical, but even if we just embrace the canon and look at it I think the NT is fairly anti-patriarchy generally. I find this hermeneutical approach helpful: place the most weight in the text where it stands in contrast to the society of its time. It is not surprising at all that Paul reflects some of the patriarchal attitudes of his period. What is frankly profoundly shocking is that he calls a woman an apostle, freely works alongside women as equals, instructs heads of household to submit to their wives, love their slaves as neighbors, and serve in the manner of Christ. He offers dignity and encouragement to women and slaves by extending the household codes to them (very unusual for the time period). He outrightly proclaims that in Christ there all are free and the differences between women/men slaves/free have been erased. It’s all pretty radical stuff for his time.

      As such when we read Paul I think we should make the same move relative to our culture that he makes relative to his. It is not that we should replicate Paul’s attitudes precisely (making women cover their heads bla bla bla). For us that would be regression. What’s more significant there is that Paul assumes women belong in the same assembly as men and manifest gifts of the spirit including prophecy. We should be more egalitarian than our culture just as Paul was more egalitarian than his.

      1. Then perhaps we agree to disagree. You’re only advocating a more “hip” brand of Restorationism. Instead of objecting to wine, sacraments and infant baptism, you’re objecting to a lack of female pastors. In short, I don’t accept your suggested hermeneutic because I don’t accept Restorationists’ hermeneutics. If that sounds trite, it’s not meant to be. I honestly see it as simply as that.

        1. Huh? Restorationism is trying to get back to some imagined version of the early church. What I described was part of a method for reading the New Testament which included examining the social context of the period, but in no way some kind of restoration or return to purity. Kinda the opposite actually – it was about understanding how to do church in our time not by copying the results of early christians, but by copying their methods.

  3. “Patriarchy is about a way of understanding rule through power.”

    Hi Daniel. I agree with much of the article but I don’t agree with this. Christianity – with God as our Father – is clearly a “patriarchy.” Jesus as King is a Monarchy (which could also be substituted and viewed in the same negative way.

    I think it comes down to how power is exercised. Patriarchy that is top-down, domineering is one thing. Patriarchy that is servant oriented (as with Eph. 5:25-27; 6:1-4) is another.

    I like what Richard Bauckham wrote in his excellent essay “The Bible as Story” in The Art of Reading Scripture:
    “The tragic irony of Christian history has been that so often Christian empires have taken over the symbol of the kingdom of God to justify the same kind of rule as that of the empires it was forged to oppose.”
    “Not only is the biblical narrative a story of God’s repeated choice of the dominated and the wretched, the powerless and the marginal; it also breaks the cycle by which the oppressed become the oppressors in their turn. The passage in Philippians 2 means that Jesus’ obedience to the point of identification with the human condition at its most wretched and degraded, the death of the slave or the criminal, is what qualifies him to exercise the Divine rule from the cosmic throne of God. Only the human who has thus identified himself irrevocably with the lowest of the low can be entrusted with the power that God exercises. Distortion of the biblical story into an ideology of oppression (human rule or authority) has to suppress the biblical meaning of the cross.”

    1. “Only the human who has thus identified himself irrevocably with the lowest of the low can be entrusted with the power that God exercises”…

      What about those who not only identify with, but actually ARE the lowest of the low? If the statement is true, isn’t it really saying that women are fit for God’s service as equals?

      The Father-Son (patriarchy) paradigm was instituted as an Old Testament picture – like Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, the Passover Lamb, the Tabernacle, David’s kingship and so many other areas – as a picture from God pointing to Someone God wants us to truly “get”, to not miss. He wanted the nation of Israel to not miss that He was going to send His only begotten Son. When Jesus was born, Seed of the woman, He broke the earthly patriarchy paradigm. There is no longer a need for it. The o ly geneology that matters is His. We are in Him and part of the Lord’s geneology, with God as our Father, or we are not, and nothing on this earth matters.

  4. Hey Daniel, it’s great to have you back blogging! Here’s hoping to another season of regular productivty here:)

    I like where you are going with this–i.e critiquing the the abuse of power in Western culture and Western Christianity, and how the cross needs to challenge that, yet Christians themselves are so often the ones who are underwriting our culture’s selfish, violent, economically greedy mythologies.

    But I have to push back and dissent against how you get there. As someone who still remains a soft complementarian, I agree with you that the forms of patriarchy in conservative churches in the West are often dominated and validated by sinful narratives. But I also think the liberal tendency to reduce male and female to just two interchangeable ways of saying “human being” is equally destructive and broken, and I think Christ-centered egalitarians and complementarians (and there are some on both sides who fit that description, and more on both sides who do not) should join hands in not associating the abuse of power or God’s right cosmic order in Christ with the other side, per se.

    What I mean is this: in Matthew 20, Jesus critiques the fallen world’s forms of leadership, power, authority and influence, yet without doing away with the integrity and goodness of leadership or power per se. In other words, Jesus neither affirms nor eliminates leadership; rather, he redefines it around the story of the cross. The real leaders are those who serve; the true great and powerful ones are those who are least, who die for others who are under their authority.

    It seems to me hard to deny that the New Testament consistently applies this same framework to gender–God’s original order in creation is not overthrown, but neither is its history-long expressions of sinful abuse and power dynamics affirmed. Rather, the headship of husbands and the submission of wives is redefined by the story of the cross. This is why every command in Ephesians 5, for instance, is immediately qualified (or redefined) by the expression “just as Christ…” or “just as the church…”. The gospel now defines what gender relations look like, and this is neither the nullifying of real (not abtract, illusionary, in name only) distinctions, but neither is it anything at all like Focus on the Family or (much worse) ancient patriarchy.

    Now, in my view, when this dynamic is present–husbands lead by doing nothing more and nothing less than feeling and embodying the responsibility to take the initiative daily by dying to their own interests to serve and bless their wives (but this responsibility to be the one initating this dynamic is a real responsibility, not interchangeable with the wife’s calling), and the wife feels and embodies the responsibility of daily choosing to respond to the husband’s self-giving, initiating love by neither mocking it, or being offended by the chauvinism it represents, or selfishly using it for her own advantage, but rather by responding in the same way in giving up her own interests and rights for the well-being of her husband–well, in my view, when this cross-centered, Philippians 2:5-11 gospel is truly at the center of Christian marriages, then godly egalitarians and godly complementarians look a lot more like each other than they do either those to the political left or right of them. There is a mutual dance we are called to–both husband and wife are called to self-denying, self-giving love for the other–but like all dances, someone has to take the first step, and someone has to maintain the rhythm by stepping into the logic and movement of the dance. Thus, I think headship and submission, redefined by the gospel, redefined by the story of Christ and the church, means nothing more and nothing less than husband as initiator of self-giving love, and wife as responder of self-giving love, and thinking humbly through how this concretely looks in each new cultural context.

    So, if you can forgive my long-windedness, I want to conclude with two brief points. First, if this is true, then the problem is neither feminism nor patriarchy per se, nor is the solution egalitarianism or complementarianism per se. Rather, the problem is any gender relation models that do not have the story of Christ at the center, and the solution is always the gospel: not a Christianized version of a political insight that some segment already has independent of the gospel. So I would ask: do you think I am the bigger problem in our culture, Daniel, as fully convinced complementarian, compared not only to more traditional patriarchialists, but also to feminist liberals who deny the intrinsic meaning and order and goodness of God’s differentiation of two genders in His image-bearing creatures? What I mean is, I think if we are truly thinking out of the center of the gospel, the worldview of the New York Times is as big a problem as Focus on the Family (or whatever extreme conservative groups still exist out there). And if that is so, we shouldn’t speak as if gospel-centered complementarians are the problem, lumping them in with any who see male-female roles as still structured around different roles in the new covenant, and it certainly means we shouldn’t talk as if the solution is such that the gospel is optional–which, I admit, I can’t help but think of your analysis above. A secular elite liberal in Boston or NY can fully meet the demands you make, and I think that is a problem for your position. For instance, I have lived in Boston for almost 6 years now ministering at Harvard, and before that I grew up in the NY and NJ area–bastions of progressive thinking on gender which you largely embrace as right. Yet I can say this: the way men treat women in these places is far more selfish and death-dealing than in any complementarian church I have ever been a part of, even though I fully admit that the contemporary complementarian movement is woefully short on realizing or practicing that the cross radically transforms the creational structures of male-female, and thus is filled with abuses of power that are not only not critiqued, but often subtly encouraged. So the problem is not smaller, but it is certainly much larger, than you give hint of here.

    Second, I want to humbly ask if your prophetic critique is fair to those Christians who honestly, genuinely believe that you are wrong on the meaning of gender roles in the New Testament, but who agree with you that everything must now be read through and transformed by the story of Jesus in the gospel? You know better than anyone that the more conservative wings of the evangelical world would write this scathing column exactly as you have, full of indignation and prohpetic critique at those evildoers on the other side of the spectrum, but would simply substitute “liberal” or “Bible-denying” or “heretical” as adjectives where you talk about abuse of power and corrupt dynamics of domination. Simply put, I just do not think your critique above, in blasting all who believe that male-female still includes a very real, yet redefined, aspect of authority at its core, is fair or generous. Do unto others, please?

    Of course, if I am misreading you here, Daniel, or if you think my suggested criticisms are off the mark, please push back and show me where I am wrong. Glad you are back, brother!

    1. There’s so much in your comment that I’ve found it hard to reply.

      In short: I recognize that some people can come close to faithful treatment of women while maintaining complementarian positions. However, I the more I look into patriarchy, the more convinced I am that its basis is and can only be a sexist assumption of the superiority of men. This is explicitly what it was in the ancient world. Bringing Jesus into it can have the unfortunate affect of lending divine power to an unjust human system rather than allowing the gospel to blow up our human systems in favor of a divinely reordered society.

  5. Thanks for naming patriarchy as the problem. Jesus called us to be servants, not leaders. Leadership is the golden calf of evangelicalism. A servant doesn’t need to have authority. A servant simply loves other people and encourages them to submit to God’s authority largely by patiently modeling that submission.

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