Tamar: The Righteous Prostitute

Image by Justin Heap at Missio Alliance

“Warring Brothers” is an appropriate subtitle for the book of Genesis.

Fierce sibling rivalry among brothers dominates the entire Genesis storyline. Jesus warned that there would be “wars and rumors of wars” (Matthew 24:6). History has played out exactly as he said with warring brothers on a personal and global scale. Even America’s Civil War is often described in family terms as “brothers against brothers.” That reality is no more evident than in the book of Genesis: Cain vs. Abel, Ishmael vs. Isaac, Esau vs. Jacob, and the all-out-war among Jacob’s sons.

Tamar, a young Canaanite girl, enters the Genesis narrative during a dangerous time in redemptive history (Genesis 38). The covenant family of promise (only in its fourth generation) is in disarray — torn apart by a bitter rivalry between Jacob’s ten older sons and Joseph (son number eleven). Jacob’s fourth son, Judah, is the ringleader when the brothers plot to murder Joseph — the son their father loves best and the younger brother who inflamed their resentment by bragging of dreams in which his whole family bows down to him. 

The brothers abandon their murderous plan, instead selling seventeen-year-old Joseph as a slave to a group of Midianites (Genesis 37:12-36). A cover-up follows. The brothers shred, then soak Joseph’s royal robe in goat’s blood, present it to Jacob, and let their father interpret the evidence. 

Jacob is inconsolable. In Egypt, the Midianites sell Joseph to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s captain of the guard.

Literary Misjudgment or Tactical Decision?

Then, just as the Joseph story reaches a fever pitch and readers are on the edge of their seats, instead of following Joseph into Egypt, the narrator follows Judah away from his family into Canaanite territory and into a salacious R-rated story involving prostitution with his daughter-in-law Tamar. From a literary perspective, the narrator’s choice seems counterproductive — an irritating disruption. From a pastoral perspective, this sordid story is problematic, unsuitable for a G-rated family audience, devoid of any spiritual value. Pastors often skip it. 

In his Genesis commentary, Walter Brueggemann explains the problem, 

This peculiar chapter stands alone, without connection to its context. It is isolated in every way and is most enigmatic…It is not evident that it provides any significant theological resource. It is difficult to know in what context it might be of value for theological exposition.1

Recent Old Testament scholarship has produced evidence that, far from being a literary gaffe, the narrator’s decision to include this “enigmatic” episode is strategic — that Genesis 38 is actually the hinge that holds the Joseph story together. It bridges Jacob’s destructive favoritism and the searing father wound Judah suffers with the climactic meeting between Judah and Joseph in Egypt where warring brothers finally make peace. Events in this often-neglected chapter and Tamar’s role in particular actually hold the key to understanding the story it seems to interrupt. 

A strong case can be made to vindicate Tamar and demonstrate she has been unjustly vilified. Not only does she play a heroic, redemptive role that benefits Judah and his immediate family, the impact of her controversial actions ripples out globally to advance God’s redemptive purposes for the world. The royal line of Jesus is at stake. Her story is one of many remarkable instances recorded in Scripture when God raises up a woman to advance his purposes.

Contrary to pastoral hesitations, Genesis 38 contains rich fodder for pastoral application and is especially relevant for today’s church and world.

Vindicating Tamar and restoring to her the honor she rightfully deserves as a courageous agent for God’s purposes begins by considering three questions:

First, what evidence does the Bible present that warrants us to reconsider Tamar’s story in the first place? 

Second, how does the patriarchal cultural context of the Ancient Near East shape the Tamar/Judah narrative and the larger Joseph story?

Third, what pastoral and theological relevance and wisdom does the Tamar/Judah story offer us today? 

Reasons to Reconsider Tamar

In the court of religious opinion, the word “prostitute” governs our view of Tamar as a loose, vindictive woman who stoops to selling her body for sex in her desperation to have a baby or to get even with her father-in-law. Interpreters and preachers alike find it impossible to see her in any other light. One pastor thundered accusingly from his pulpit, “Tamar corrupted the line of Christ!”

It should, however, give us pause to note that this isn’t how her descendants or other biblical writers view her. 

First, Tamar is named in a beautiful blessing to honor the marriage of Boaz and Ruth. “Through the offspring the LORD gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah” (Ruth 4:12). At a sacred moment like this, it hardly seems appropriate to bring up a shameful skeleton out of the family closet. 

Second, both King David and his son Absalom named their daughters Tamar. In the Hebrew culture, parents gave their children names to cause their children to aspire. 

Third, in an unusual departure from standard genealogies, Matthew in the New Testament names Tamar in Jesus’ royal genealogy (Matthew 1:3) — along with three other women (Rahab, Ruth, and Solomon’s mother, a.k.a. Bathsheba) whose stories should also be re-examined. 

But the fourth, and by far the most compelling reason to reconsider Tamar, comes from Judah himself. He publicly vindicates Tamar by calling her “righteous” (Genesis 38:26). 

The Patriarchal Context

Contrary to Brueggemann’s assessment, Tamar’s story doesn’t exist in isolation. It is embedded within the Ancient Near East patriarchal culture and nested within layers of dysfunctional family history — both Judah’s family of origin and the family he fathers. Understanding both contexts is essential to make sense of her story. 

The importance of patriarchy as a hermeneutical tool is hard to overstate. As Americans and Westerners, we interpret these ancient biblical narratives at a significant disadvantage, for we are culturally as far removed from the patriarchal world of the Bible as you can get in today’s world. The fact that patriarchy appears on virtually every page of the Bible has led to the mistaken conclusion that patriarchy (at least a softer version) is the God-ordained way for us to live. In my book Malestrom: How Jesus Dismantles Patriarchy and Redefines Manhood, I submit that:

“Patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. Rather, it is the fallen cultural backdrop that sets off in the strongest relief the radical nature and potency of the Bible’s gospel message. We need to understand that world and patriarchy in particular — much better than we do — if we hope to grasp the radical countercultural message of the Bible.”

To understand Tamar’s story clearly, we must grasp the reality that at least three aspects of full-fledged patriarchy existed in biblical times and still have a pernicious hold on our cultural worldview today.

First, patriarchy (“father rule”) invests men with priority, power, and authority over women. 

Patriarchy relies on female submission and deprives women of agency, voice, and legal rights. Women are essentially the property of men.3 This creates a chilling power differential between men and women. Marriage between Tamar and Judah’s firstborn makes Tamar the property of Judah’s family. Judah exercises life-and-death powers over her when he orders an honor killing for her prostitution. Patriarchy’s disempowerment of women puts them at risk and places an exclamation point beside Tamar’s audacious actions. 

Second, primogeniture (“the firstborn son’s right to inheritance”) ranks sons by birth order. 

The firstborn son is crown prince in the family with primacy and authority over his siblings, plus a double inheritance. Primogeniture intensifies the outrage of Jacob’s ten older sons beyond ordinary jealousy, when their father bestows firstborn privileges on Joseph, son number eleven. Jacob’s favoritism takes on physical dimensions when he gives Joseph a royal robe — hard evidence that Jacob “loved Joseph more than any of his other sons” (Genesis 37:3). 

The Bible repeatedly overturns primogeniture — most often by God’s decree, choosing Abel, not Cain; Isaac not Ishmael; Jacob not Esau. Still, primogeniture is deeply ingrained in the Ancient Near East culture and in the Abrahamic family’s DNA in particular. It wreaks havoc in Judah’s family of origin and creates conflict among his sons. 

It is entirely possible that Judah felt entitled to firstborn rights. His three older brothers disqualified themselves by dishonoring their father — Reuben by sleeping with Jacob’s concubine, Simeon and Levi by slaughtering the Shechemites. Judah, son number four, was next in line. This may explain Judah’s leadership among his brothers and also his intense hatred of Joseph.

Third, under patriarchy, wives were responsible to produce sons for their husbands. 

It is not possible to overstate the pressure this obligation placed on women. A woman’s value was determined by counting her sons. Barren women in the Bible are desperate for sons, not daughters. The urgency of producing sons meant puberty signaled a girl’s marriageability. Presumably Tamar was a young teenage girl when Judah acquired her for his firstborn son, Er.

The greatest calamity for the ancients was for a man to die without a male heir. It was tantamount to being erased from history. This happens to both of Tamar’s husbands and is central to what motivates her deception of Judah. Levirate practices (later formalized under Mosaic Law) required the surviving brother to marry the dead brother’s widow to father a son to take the deceased’s place on the family tree, including his inheritance. It was a matter of family honor.

Tamar clearly felt the weight of family honor and was ultimately willing to risk her life to fulfill her duty to produce a male heir for her dead husband.

By the time Tamar enters the story (Genesis 38), Judah is in a spiritual nosedive. He has left the covenant family, moved into Canaanite territory, married a Canaanite, and is behaving like one. This dark, sinister figure was capable of murder and guilty of human trafficking and a cruel cover-up. Before the story ends, he will solicit the services of a prostitute — an evil act that reigns down judgment on Tamar, but for some reason, slides by Judah, although his present depraved moral state is evident. 

The Patriarchal System of Primogeniture

Judah fathers three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Judah acquires Tamar as a bride for his son, her father placed her in the power of evil men. The Bible describes Judah’s first two sons as evil men who lose their lives in divine judgment. Thankfully, Scripture spares us the details of what Tamar may have suffered in marriage to her first evil husband. The truth comes out with respect to Onan, son number two, who marries Tamar allegedly to produce a son to replace his deceased brother Er. It is an objective Onan has no intention of fulfilling. Primogeniture (“the firstborn son’s right to inheritance”) reveals his motive. 

Under a patriarchal system, a father would divide his estate by the number of his sons plus one. Judah had three sons, and so would divide his estate into four portions. Two portions (the double portion) would go to his firstborn. Each of his younger sons would inherit one fourth. 

When Judah’s firstborn, Er, died, firstborn rights transferred to Onan. Onan’s inheritance skyrockets from one-fourth to two-thirds. Fathering a son with Tamar to replace Er will come at a major cost to Onan, shrinking his inheritance back to one-fourth. Clearly, Onan understood the math. It was a sacrifice he was unwilling to make. So he feigned loyalty to Er and family duty by marrying Er’s widow Tamar, allegedly to produce a male heir for his dead brother. But Onan repeatedly abused Tamar, using her for his pleasure, but spilling his semen on the ground to prevent impregnating her. God intervened. It cost Er his life.

Now bereaved of two sons, Judah sends Tamar back to her father to wait for Shelah (son number three) to reach marriageable age. Time passes, and Tamar realizes Judah’s promises are worthless. 

By then Judah’s wife had died, the mourning period was over, and he was going to the annual sheep shearing — a festive time of food and drink. That was when Tamar, aware of Judah’s deception, posed as a prostitute and stationed herself in Judah’s path. (It says a lot about Judah that Tamar could count on him taking the bait, which he does.)The deed is done, and Tamar walks away with his seal, cord, and staff as a pledge of payment — the equivalent of his passport and driver’s license. No paternity test is necessary to identify the father of her child. 

Tamar may even have been within her legal rights. Ancient Hittite and Assyrian laws permitted a father-in-law to marry his son’s widow if no brother fulfilled the family duty.4 

When Judah and Tamar Collide

On learning that Tamar is pregnant with a child from prostitution, with blinding speed and shocking hypocrisy, Judah orders her to be burned to death (Genesis 38:24). Neither the horror of that moment nor his flagrant double standard should escape our notice.

Judah is a dark, violent, angry, utterly lost man. But that is about to change. The watershed moment for him comes when Tamar produces evidence exposing Judah as the man by whom she is pregnant. 

Judah’s response has interpreters scratching their heads and fishing for explanations. Several translations [NIV, NKJV, ASV, ESV] depict a chastened Judah making a comparative statement, “She is morerighteous than I” (Genesis 38:26, emphasis added).  

It strains credulity to imagine Judah exonerating himself as “righteous,” when Tamar has publicly exposed him as a hypocrite and a solicitor of prostitution. 

Gordon Wenham’s translation reveals an absolute contrast: “She is in the right, not I.”5 Bruce K. Waltke, agrees, translating “She is righteous, not I” or “She is righteous, I am not.”These more accurate translations of the Hebrew text compel us to re-examine our assumptions of both Tamar and Judah.

This is the moment when the prodigal looks in the mirror, sees the man he has become, and comes to his senses. And Tamar is bold enough to hold the mirror. 

The radical impact this has on Judah shows up in Egypt when he meets Joseph again during a devastating famine (Genesis 44). A terrible crisis erupts when Joseph’s cup is found in Benjamin’s sack, planted there by Joseph who is now tormenting his older brothers. Benjamin, Joseph’s only full blood brother, is now Jacob’s youngest, and newly favorite son. 

Judah commands the spotlight in what is one of the most powerful scenes in all of scripture (Genesis 44:18-33). With a throbbing unhealed father wound, without realizing he’s talking to Joseph — the brother he wanted to kill and sold into slavery twenty years ago — with his father still playing favorites and talking as though Judah, his mother, and brothers don’t exist, and with Benjamin now heading for the living death Judah once chose for Joseph,

Judah stepped forward and said,

“Please, my lord, let your servant say just one word to you. Please, do not be angry with me, even though you are as powerful as Pharaoh himself.

My lord, previously you asked us, your servants, ‘Do you have a father or a brother?’ And we responded, ‘Yes, my lord, we have a father who is an old man, and his youngest son is a child of his old age. His full brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother’s children, and his father loves him.

You said to us…’Unless your youngest brother comes with you, you will never see my face again.’

 …Later, when [our father] said, ‘Go back again and buy us more food,’we replied, ‘We can’t go unless you let our youngest brother go with us.’ . . . 

Then my father said to us, ‘As you know, my wife had two sons, and one of them went away and never returned…Now if you take his brother away from me, and any harm comes to him, you will send this grieving, white-haired man to his grave.’

And now, my lord, I cannot go back to my father without the boy. Our father’s life is bound up in the boy’s life. If he sees that the boy is not with us, our father will die. We, your servants, will indeed be responsible for sending that grieving, white-haired man to his grave. 

My lord, I guaranteed to my father that I would take care of the boy. I told him, ‘If I don’t bring him back to you, I will bear the blame forever.’“So please, my lord, let me stay here as a slave instead of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. For how can I return to my father if the boy is not with me? I couldn’t bear to see the anguish this would cause my father!7

Genesis 38 may be the most neglected chapter in Genesis — but it is where the gospel breaks through to Judah, and is simultaneously the turning point in Joseph’s story. Judah’s transformation ultimately reconciles warring brothers, bringing peace to generations within the entire family. 

Judah ultimately vindicates Tamar (Genesis 38:26), and Yahweh blesses her with twin sons who replace her two undeserving husbands (Genesis 38:27-30). Bruce Waltke describes Tamar as “a heroine in Israel because she risks her life for family fidelity.”8 Her courageous actions rescue Judah and her two dead husbands, bringing peace to Jacob’s family. Tamar also secures the royal line of Jesus which moves forward through her firstborn, Perez.

Reflections on Tamar’s Story for Faith Communities Today

Here are some final reflections for pastors pondering how to connect this ancient story with twenty-first century faith communities:

  1. The power of hope — God loves the unloved and the unlovable. He has the power and desire to rescue, redeem, and radically transform prodigals.
  2. The power of wounds — They can destroy or make us into people who reflect the God who redeems our stories.
  3. God calls his daughters to be bold agents for his purposes— to do what is right, even if we have to do it alone. Tamar is far from the only biblical example of courageous females who shed patriarchy’s restraints to advance God’s kingdom and bless their believing brothers. Women and girls in the church desperately need to hear these narratives – and so do men and boys!
  4. In the ongoing #MeToo / #ChurchToo epidemic, Tamar’s story gives pastors a call to courageously engage domestic abuse. Tamar is a #MeToo story.

*Editorial Note: This article (currently published in 2-parts at www.MissioAlliance.org) was originally presented in an earlier form at the release of Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, Sandra Glahn, PhD, editor (ETS, November 16, 2017). The Narrative Analysis participants were biblical scholars who contributed chapters focusing on women in the Bible whose stories raise eyebrows. The article below is based on the chapter I contributed: “Tamar: The Righteous Prostitute.” Judah’s story is found more fully in Malestrom: How Jesus Dismantles Patriarchy and Redefines Manhood. 


Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, ed. James Luther Mays, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 307-308. 

Carolyn Custis James, Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 31.

Contrary to Genesis 2:24.

Posted in #MeToo, abuse of power, Books, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Check out these Podcasts!

At the risk of overdoing things, below are links to 3 podcasts I want to recommend. Recently, all three invited me to discuss my work and, in particular, Malestrom: How Jesus Dismantles Patriarchy and Redefines ManhoodAll three were interesting, encouraging conversations—people and podcasts definitely worth knowing. 

First, my good friend, Pastor Danny Cox, host of The Open Table Collective PodcastOur first “encounter” was in a Fuller Seminary classroom, where Professor Wilmer G. Villacorta uses Malestrom in his classes and quotes it in his own book, Unmasking the Male Soul. Reading Malestrom raised Danny’s curiosity about my other books, which led to an invitation to speak on The Gospel of Ruth at his church in Troy, Michigan. That led to an ongoing conversation. Ever since, he’s been a great friend and a huge encouragement to me. His newly launched ministry, The Open Table Collective—is a welcoming place for any who may never enter a church door and, if they do, may find they don’t belong. Here, they will find a warm welcome, friendship, and the love and hope of Jesus.

Second, Mary Margaret O’Connor is host of Your Radical Truth Podcast. She is Catholic, seminary trained, and shares the kinds of struggles and concerns that are all too familiar to Protestant women. We had an intriguing conversation about Malestrom and patriarchy and God’s vision for his daughters titled “From First to Final Breath: The Role Women Truly have with God.” Our discussion also wandered beyond patriarchy into feminism, women’s true role in the Bible, religious scandals, and more. Struggles women face in this broken world are shared by women everywhere! Her own story is fascinating but also heartbreaking. I loved interacting with her and felt afterwards that I’d made a new friend.

Third was The Hopper Podcast hosted by two PCA pastors, William Spofield and Dave Baggett, who describe themselves as “Too progressive to be conservative; too conservative to be liberal. Politically homeless Christians, tackling LGBTQ+, Gun Control, Racism, Universal Basic Income, Abortion, Grief, Politics, Social Media, and more with nuance and respect. Taking God seriously, and ourselves lightly.” And now they wanted to talk about Patriarchy and Malestrom with me. I told them this wasn’t the first time I’d been outnumbered by PCA pastors, but I must say this discussion was refreshing, rich, and deeply encouraging. As their description indicates—these pastors are fearless in taking up topics that impact us all, but are all-too-often pushed aside because their either deemed “taboo” or the answer is set in stone.

Posted in ezer, Malestrom, Patriarchy, Power and Privilege, The Gospel of Ruth, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

DetermineTruth Podcast: The Blessed Alliance

God’s Spirit has a marvelous way of harnessing those painfully confusing stretches of our stories to take us deeper in our relationship with himself. Our struggles provoke new and different questions about God and life that we would otherwise never consider. Many of us are learning that we gain new clarity about his heart for us and for his world when the lights go out, darkness engulfs us, and we feel most wounded, forgotten, and lost. 

One of the times that happened to me was when my story veered from the church’s roadmap I’d been taught was God’s calling on me as a woman. It made me realize I was not by far the only female for whom that roadmap was out of reach. That inevitably led me to ask bigger and different questions about God’s purposes for his daughters—all of us, from first to final breath—and eventually for his sons too. It led me to understand that God calls his male and female image bearers to forge a Blessed Alliance to advance his good Kingdom purposes throughout creation (Gen 1:26-28). In essence, men and women need each other to fulfill God’s calling in every point in history, every spot on the globe, and in every situation.

A lot is at stake—not only for women and girls, but also for men and boys, if we diminish or ignore God’s vision for his daughters.

I am still asking questions and am always grateful for opportunities to share what I’ve been learning. It has been life-changing for me and for countless other women. One unexpected outcome is that although my ministry originally focused on women and girls, it is proving crucial to men as well. They have their own struggles and questions. Many also are profoundly interested in what’s happening to their sisters and are ready to listen.

Rob Dalrymple and his partner Vinnie Angelo are in that group of men. Their DetermineTruth Podcast has given me another opportunity to share with others what I’ve been learning. My discussion with Rob that began as a single podcast segment has expanded into two segments. While you’re checking out Part 1 of our conversation (which I hope you will), be sure to take time explore other thoughtful segments Rob and Vinnie have recorded. 

To hear Part 2 of this podcast discussion go here !

Posted in Blessed Alliance, Books, ezer, Half the Church, Theology, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Something to ponder . . .

“Reading the signs of the times requires a church capable of standing against the legitimating stories of the day.

American Christians often think that if we had been confronted with someone like Hitler we would have been able to recognize that he was evil. Yet in many ways, the church in Germany was a church more theologically articulate than the American church has ever been; still the German church failed to know how to adequately challenge the rise of Hitler.

It failed because Christians in Germany assumed that they were German Christians just as American Christians assume that they are American Christians. Churches that are nationally identified will seldom be able to faithfully read the signs of the time.

Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees and Sadducees for their inability to read the signs of the times, that is, to recognize all that has been and all that is still to be must now be read under the sign of Jonah, remains a challenge for us.

Jesus has previously criticized the Pharisees for their failure to do what they profess. Indeed Jesus will soon recommend to the crowd that they should do what those who “sit on Moses’ seat” teach, but “do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (Matt. 23:2–3). Jesus demands, as we have seen from his Sermon on the Mount, lives of integrity. To see the truth, to recognize the signs of the kingdom, requires that we be rightly formed by the virtues acquired by following Jesus. To know the truth requires the acquisition of the habits of truthfulness. Knowledge and virtue are inseparable.

Jesus’s refusal to give the Pharisees and Sadducees a sign has profound implications for how Christians understand truth.

We believe that the truth of the gospel cannot be separated from the kind of lives required for the recognition of that truth. Because we are aware of the inadequacy of our faithfulness to Christ, we are tempted to separate the truth of what we believe from the way we live. But Jesus refuses to allow us to abstract our knowing from our living. The gospel is not information; it is a way of life.”

Stanley Hauerwas, Theological Commentary on Matthew

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PODCAST: Recovering the Tamar/Judah Story

Find Hope Here Podcast:

“If you’ve ever struggled to understand the story of Judah and Tamar from Genesis 38, I’ve got you!! In this episode, Carolyn Custis James shares a framework for understanding the stories of scripture. And why Tamar, who posed as a prostitute to seduce her father-in-law, is considered a hero…Wait, WHAT???”

—Host, Teresa Whiting

Topic: A Woman is a Warrior

Tamar’s story (Genesis 38) is one of the strongest ezer-warrior examples in the Old Testament, and I loved discussing this powerful ezer narrative with Teresa Whiting. Tamar story is one of the Bible’s most overlook stories because readers and interpreters lock onto the word “prostitute” and can’t get past it. It isn’t considered suitable subject matter for a mixed audience in a Sunday morning church service.

But the Tamar/Judah story is the hinge that holds Genesis together and a story that can make a difference for all of us. Without understanding Tamar’s story, we can’t make sense of the radical transformation in Judah when his half-brother and his father’s new favorite son Benjamin faces the threat of being enslaved (Genesis 44). The Tamar/Judah story reveals how God used the courage of a woman to ensure a family’s survival and to transform Judah—one of the Bible’s darkest characters and hopeless cases—into a version of masculinity that shed’s patriarchy’s demands and instead reflects Jesus and his gospel. The end result is the reconciliation of warring brothers.

The story turns on Judah’s statement—usually mistranslated “She is more righteous than I”—when the more accurate translation according to Hebrew scholars is “She is righteous; not I.”1 That was when Judah looked in the mirror and confronted the kind of depraved human being he’d become.

Judah’s redemption should open our eyes to the powerfully wide reach of Jesus’ gospel and the hope-filled fact that no one is beyond the gospel’s good news.

And that, my friends, will preach!

For further reading, see Judah’s story—”The Father Wound”—in Malestrom: How Jesus Dismantles Patriarchy and Redefines Manhood

1Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), p. 513.

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Redemptive Disruptions: How They Shape Our Stories and Reshape Our Theology

The moment the word “why” crosses your lips, you are doing theology.
When Life and Beliefs Collide: How Knowing God Makes a Difference

It is sheer fiction to imagine that following Jesus means we can skate through life without stumbling over large and small disruptions. As Puritan pastor Samuel Rutherford reminded a suffering fellow pastor, and would doubtless say to those of us alive today, “It is folly to think to steal to heaven with a whole skin.”1

In the opening decades of this new millennium, we have all endured direct personal experience with powerful disruptive forces. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the whole planet, costing precious lives and sparking widespread divisions about immunization itself. Global climate patterns are changing, regardless of how you explain it. The Cold War between Russia and the West has suddenly re-emerged with Ukraine in the crosshairs. Issues of human rights, racial injustice, rising gas prices, global economic vacillations, porous national borders, and endless gun violence dominate daily media reports and spur new waves of divisiveness globally, nationally, within cherished relationships, and even inside the American church.

I have lived long enough to know from my own experience that disruptions can be global, cultural, and also deeply personal—sometimes all at once. I’ve had a good many personal disruptions in my own story, and suffice it to say, I have the scars to prove it. I’m also learning in hindsight that these unwelcome disruptions are significant markers in my journey with God that exposed flaws in my theology and drove me to ask questions I would otherwise never have asked. Disruptions shape our stories and our theology.

Redefining Theology 

Let’s talk theology for a moment — what it is and is not. The word theology (mainly understood here as systematic theology) comes from two Greek words—theos (God) and logos (word, teaching, study). Theology is simply the contemplation of God. It is an ongoing, constantly developing human enterprise to understand God, his mission for this world, and how we are to live as his image bearers.

For better or worse, we are all theologians. What we believe about God—whether it is true or false, a little or a lot—is our theology.

For better or worse, we are all theologians. What we believe about God—whether it is true or false, a little or a lot—is our theology. CLICK TO TWEET

Too often systematic theology is viewed as a process of determining divine essences and making logical deductions about God. But theology isn’t taxonomy, and God cannot be reduced to a bullet-point list of attributes, which is how a doctor knows you by your medical chart. The triune God is profoundly relational. One of the first things the Bible tells us about ourselves is that God created every human being to be his image bearer—making a relationship with himself our lifeline. True theology is intensely practical and relevant in every aspect of human life.

I have found Martin Bucer’s definition of theology especially valuable:

“True theology is not theoretical or speculative, but active and practical. For it is directed toward action, i.e., a godly life. . . . It is theology’s aim . . . that we shall ever more firmly trust in God and live a life that is increasingly holy and more serviceable in love toward our neighbor.”2

True theology necessarily requires humility. It is, and forever will be, unfinished business requiring constant repair, revision, and expansion. This never-ending human enterprise to know the God who created us inevitably compels us to admit we’ve all gotten some things wrong and have corrections to make.

Beware of those who believe their theological conclusions have God’s unique imprimatur.

Beware of those who believe their theological conclusions have God’s unique imprimatur. CLICK TO TWEET

As painful and unsettling as disruptions can be, they challenge our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus and inevitably spill over into every dimension of life. Disruptions raise new questions for how Christians should think about contemporary issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, gun rights, racism, social justice, immigration, poverty, and global warming. Again and again disruptions compel us to deconstruct and reconstruct our faith and to struggle with how to follow Jesus into the twenty-first century and to reflect our Creator’s heart for the world. They may even reshape our understanding of what it means to be an “evangelical.”

Divine Disruption 

The Bible is not a textbook of systematic theology. Rather it is full of stories—real stories about individuals and larger stories about tribes and nations. There are also parables that may not be historical but are “true” stories nonetheless. These stories are a marvelous literary vehicle for revealing divine truth and wisdom. They contain a dynamic power that constantly generates new insights and applications in a world unimagined by the original human authors. These stories are designed to teach us more about God. In the process, they teach us a lot about ourselves.

The Bible is not a textbook of systematic theology. Rather it is full of stories—revealing divine truth and wisdom. They contain a dynamic power that constantly generates new insights and applications. CLICK TO TWEET

In recent years, Naomi’s story (recorded in the book of Ruth) has been rightfully restored as a Job story.3 Like Job, Naomi’s story begins on a high note. She is introduced as a successful Israelite wife and mother of two sons. According to ancient patriarchy’s practice of determining a woman’s value by counting her sons, Naomi scores a respectable two.

But also like Job, Naomi suffers an avalanche of calamities that destroy everything that gave her life meaning and purpose. A prolonged and devastating famine drives her hungry family to become refugees in Moab (present-day Jordan)—accompanied with a precipitous drop in social status. From there, her life goes from bad to worse. Once in Moab, Naomi’s husband dies; her two sons marry pagan girls, who, after ten agonizing years without a pregnancy, are certifiably barren. Then, the deaths of both her sons leave Naomi decimated. In despair and desperation, she returns home to Bethlehem to run out the clock and die. Like Job, she cries out in distress and draws a straight line connecting the LORD to her losses:

“The LORD’s hand has turned against me. . . . the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty” (Ruth 1:1321Job 6:47:1116).

Ironically, Naomi’s return to Bethlehem in despair is the prelude to the real story. The centerpiece of Naomi’s losses is God’s hesed — a brand of love no English word quite captures. Hesed is a steadfast, voluntary, costly, sacrificial, never-ending love that defines God’s relationship to his people. Naomi is convinced that God has withdrawn his hesed. Yet in her darkest moments God’s hesed shows up in the bold initiatives and sacrificial actions of her immigrant daughter-in-law Ruth, who breathes new hope and purpose into Naomi’s story.

Hesed is a steadfast, voluntary, costly, sacrificial, never-ending love that defines God’s relationship to his people. CLICK TO TWEET

Although Naomi did not seek it, she became the theologian of God’s hesed. Naomi raised Obed (the son Ruth gave her) on lessons she gleaned in the school of suffering, which Obed passed on to his son Jesse, who passed hesed on to his son David, Israel’s king. Hesed theology became a guiding light for King David who passed Naomi’s theology on to us when he wrote with confidence, “Surely goodness and hesed will follow me all the days of my life” (Psalm 23:6).

Naomi’s story can and will inspire deeper reflection about God for every new generation. It also sheds light on the redemptive power, value, and, indeed, necessity of disruptions.

Jesus the Disrupter

Jesus was the quintessential disruptor. He disrupted his family, his community, the Jewish faith, the Roman Empire, two thousand years and counting of human history. Jesus disrupted long-held Messianic convictions deeply embedded within the Jewish ethos, including his own disciples’ expectations. Jesus did not come to mount an armed political insurrection against the Roman occupiers. Yet, after three years as Jesus’ front-row students, even after his arrest, crucifixion, resurrection, his disciples were still asking, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:8).

Jesus disrupts our stories too. As a pastor’s daughter, I was taught God’s calling on me as a woman was to be a wife, mother, and volunteer Sunday School teacher in the church. Never did I imagine the disruptions, the heartache, and the course corrections I would experience. Looking back, I realize every painfully disruptive bump in the road, every question they provoked, and every misperception they exposed in what I believed about God, were ultimately life-giving insights I wouldn’t trade for anything, even if I didn’t know it at the time.

Please understand, I am in no way suggesting there’s a silver lining in our disruptions. Quite the opposite. Like grieving Sandy Hook and Gold Star parents, both Job and Naomi went to their graves in grief and with unanswered questions. But their unspeakable losses drove them to God in fierce new ways. Disruptions can create a crisis of faith that ultimately leads to deeper levels of trust in God.

Job and Naomi went to their graves in grief and with unanswered questions. But unspeakable losses drove them to God in fierce new ways. Disruptions can create a crisis of faith that ultimately leads to deeper levels of trust in God. CLICK TO TWEET

In a Facebook post, my friend Pastor Danny Cox reflected on the redemptive impact of costly disruptions in his story:

“I live in a truer state of reliance upon God and learn to enter the mystery of God with a heart that is willing to be continually corrected, adjusted, molded, and shaped . . . that what I know today about God is probably not what I will know tomorrow.”4

More disruptions lie ahead, provoking new questions and issues unknown to previous generations. We may not find a Bible verse to settle every contemporary issue or heartache facing us. But we have Jesus’ example and the Spirit’s presence within our souls to accompany us on our journey and to remind us that disruptions are redemptive.

For further reading:

1 Samuel Rutherford, Letters of Samuel Rutherford, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1973), 69.
2 Bucer was a sixteenth-century Protestant reformer. See H.J. Selderhuis, Marriage and Divorce in the Thought of Martin Bucer, Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, Vol. XLVIII, (Kirksville, Missouri, Thomas Jefferson University Press, Truman State University, 1999), p. 356.
3 The Literary Approach or Rhetorical Method was a mid-twentieth-century breakthrough in biblical studies. It involves analyzing biblical narratives as literature—identifying perspective, conflict, plot, character development, key themes, etc.—story elements you learned in high school literature class. It also illumines the artistry of biblical narratives that English translations obscure. One more power-tool to help us unearth greater riches from the Bible. To learn more, read: Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative(New York: Basic Books), 2011, and Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative,(Winona Lake, Indiana, Eisenbrauns), 1994.
4 Danny Cox, Facebook, October 21, 2022.

Originally published at MissioAlliance.org

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Malestrom 2022

If you’ve already read Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted A Faith and Fractured a Nation, you no doubt agree with Beth Moore’s assessment, that evidence of evangelical clergy abuse (multiple varieties) that Du Mez documents “is staring us in the face.” Even more troubling, since the release of J&JW, further evidence of this crisis continues to emerge as new abusive scandals involving well-known and influential evangelical leaders continue to come to light.

The impact is shattering on individuals who have trusted and benefitted from the ministry of these disgraced leaders. It raises questions that may make us squirm, but we owe it to Jesus to askboth “How can we make the American church a safe place for the vulnerable?” and also “How does accepted evangelical theology create an environment that is conducive to abuse in the first place?”

My book, Malestrom was already tackling the second question when it was first released in 2015. The 2022 softcover release connects the dots between the abuse crisis Du Mez exposed and patriarchy as a major causative force in this crisis.

Anyone expecting Malestrom 2022 to be anti-male will be disappointed. Instead, Malestrom advocates for men and boys and raises issues we should all be engaging on their behalf, as well as for the sake of the church and the safety of all of us. It features a line-up of men in the Bible who are often overlooked, especially when the subject of manhood is on the table. But God is in their stories and encounters them in powerful ways that compel them to shed patriarchy’s demands and embody a gospel view of masculinity that reflects Jesus.

I think you’ll love their hope-filled stories.

This 2022 Malestrom includes Kristin Du Mez’s foreword that connects Malestrom to the serious discussion Jesus and John Wayne ignited. I’ve added a new preface and an afterword.

Don’t miss the special price Amazon is offering. Make sure you order the blue softcover edition: Malestrom: How Jesus Dismantles Patriarchy and Redefines Manhood!

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A word from Malestrom . . .

Malestrom: How Jesus Dismantles Patriarchy and Redefines Manhood
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Review: Malestrom—How Jesus Dismantles Patriarchy and Redefines Manhood 

This review was originally published in the Journal of Urban Mission. It is republished here with permission.

Reviewer: Stephen S. Taylor, Associate Professor of New Testament at Missio Seminary. His comments regarding how we interpret the Bible are alone worth reading this review, but hopefully his review will also encourage readers to read Malestrom 20220 as well.

Malestrom is actually the Second Edition of Carolyn Custis James’s 2015 book, Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World. The “Introduction” and the nine titled chapters remain the same. Yet so finely tuned was the original argument that the subtle changes introduced in this Second Edition have an outsized impact on the clarity and persuasive power of the original. As insightful and transformative as the First Edition was, this is the edition to read, study, and recommend to others moving forward. I will explain why at the end of this review.

First, let’s look at the unchanged substance of the book. In a word, the book is a sustained attack on global and historic “patriarchy.” James adopts what is now the standard definition of the term, originally articulated by Sylvia Walby,

“Patriarchy is a social system in which the role of the male as the primary authority figure is central to social organization, and where fathers hold authority over women, children, and property. It implies the institutions of male rule and privilege, and is dependent on female subordination.”1

The inexorable pull of patriarchy, based as it is in a potent brew of the will to power, male pride, and physical strength, and inter-generational cultural patterns, James likens to a maelstrom, the dangerous whirlpool that sometimes develops in the open seas trapping unsuspecting sailors in its vortex and dragging them down to watery graves. By the clever transposition of only two letters, the maelstrom becomes the malestrom and the central metaphor of the book.

“The malestrom is the particular ways in which the fall impacts the male of the human species–causing a man to lose himself, his identity and purpose as a man, and above all to lose sight of God’s original vision for his sons.”2

The power of the malestrom lies in its initial subtlety and gradualness; boys are given role models that embody competitiveness, domination, and entitlement and by imperceptible degrees, as the rotation of the current becomes tighter and faster, they become misshapen incarnations of patriarchy, exhibiting and purveying its deadly results.

James effectively develops a thick description of these results: a manhood that turns in on itself, shrunk-wrapped around the narrow roles of “impregnator-protector-provider” and “sustained by the submission and obedience of others.”3 (As James wryly notes, such manhood would exclude Jesus and Paul!) The dark depths of the malestrom “lowers men’s sights and aspirations to a horizontal competitive quest for male power to win and achieve preeminence over other men.”4 And deeper still, the suction of the abyss reduces womanhood to a means to male ends: “the value of a wife is gauged by the number of her sons”5–a value that can be supplemented by the practice of polygamy6 and other forms of exploitation. The list goes on.

The malestrom robs the sunlit freedom of the sons of God: a freedom to see the horizon and to look toward “the loftier calling and the greater dignity of imaging God and walking faithfully before him,”7 a freedom “selflessly to invest [one’s] powers and privileges to promote the flourishing and fruitful living of others.”8

Sadly, James’s book is prompted by the fact that the ark of the church is spinning in the same vortex. This persistent and ugly truth is underscored not only by James in her “Introduction” and “A Concluding Unrepentant Postscript” but also by the timely observations of Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s “Foreword” and Dr. Frank James’s “Afterword.”

Most tragically, many sailors in the churchly ark insist that the powerful currents are not dangerous and that they have navigated to their coordinates using divinely-given Charts. James wisely sounds the alarm: the navigators have misread the Charts (a.k.a. the scriptures)!

“[T]he prevalence of this cultural system [of patriarchy] on the pages of Scripture… can easily lead (and has led) to the assumption that patriarchy is divinely ordained. Many believe this is the way God wants us to live, even though Westerners who embrace patriarchy are selective about the few patriarchal elements they retain from the Bible – which is itself an admission that something may be wrong with the system. Most throw out slavery and polygamy, along with associating disappointment and failure with the birth of a daughter, child brides, honor killings, and inheritance laws, for example. But they cling fervently to male leadership and female submission in the home and in the church. Some extend these male/female dynamics to include wider culture…. [S]o long as patriarchy is enthroned as the gender message of the Bible, it poses a significant barrier to a strong and flourishing Blessed Alliance between men and women and a healthy, fully functioning body of Christ, which in turn inevitably hinders God’s mission in the world.”9

James sets out, then, in the central chapters of the book, to correct this misreading of Scripture and, thereby, set a new course for the church by examining the stories of six men narrated in the scriptures: Abraham, Judah, Barak, Boaz, Matthew and Joseph (husband of Mary). All of these men journeyed after the birth of the malestrom (treated in Chapter 1), after the Fall that compromised the “Blessed Alliance” God has planned for his male and female image bearers. And all of these men resisted in one way or another, to one degree or another, the pull of the patriarchal malestrom.

    • Abraham gave up his prerogatives as the eldest son of his father, followed the divine call to be a landless wanderer, accepted God’s claim upon his procreative manhood and patriarchal legacy by submitting to circumcision and by being willing to sacrifice Isaac, his only son and heir. (Chapter 2)
    • Judah, both a victim and a perpetrator of patriarchal caprice, accepted the rebuke of his daughter-in-law, Tamar, and recovered thereby a measure of true manhood that propelled him to offer his life in exchange for a rival brother. (Chapter 3; I will return to Judah later.)
    • Barak, though a renowned warrior in his own right, recognized his limitation in the middle of a military crisis and insisted on the help of a spiritual superior, the Prophetess Deborah, and unexpectedly but gratefully received the help of another woman as well. (Chapter 4)
    • Boaz, at real risk to his own standing and legacy within the local patriarchy of Bethlehem, had compassion on an embittered widow, Naomi, and married an excluded Moabitess in order to preserve a family line, not for himself, but for his cousin, Elimelech. (Chapter 5)
    • Matthew, though a hated tax collector, contextualized the gospel about Jesus for the very community that had excluded him, testifying to the transforming hope offered by Jesus. (Chapter 6)
    • Joseph, already a kind and honorable man, became willing to sacrifice that honor in the awkward pregnancy of Mary and in a life-long commitment to playing a supporting role to Mary’s higher calling. (Chapter 7)

About all of these counter-cultural models of manhood, James writes with verve and insight. Did you know, for example, that circumcision of the male sexual organ was not simply a random covenantal sign, but actually constituted a divine claim on the foundational patriarchal prerogative of procreative sovereignty? James’ prose frequently achieves an enviable balance between concision, poetic expression, and measured scholarship. This balance is nowhere better seen than in the last two chapters, “The Manhood of Jesus,” and “Liberating Men from the Malestrom.” The second of these is obviously the “what now?” part of the book. James calls Christians, particularly Christian men, seriously and consistently to follow Jesus. Using the examples of Jürgen Moltmann and Paul of Tarsus, James demonstrates how the way of Jesus decisively defeats the ethnic and racial exclusivism that stems from patriarchy. In fact I would venture to say that there is no more powerful description in the English language of the impact of the gospel on the identity and self-understanding of Paul than the compressed account given by James.10

But this is the denouement; the climax is the previous chapter—a passionate description of the manhood of Jesus. There all the lines of the discussion converge: not only what perfect manhood should look like, but also what being human is all about. Accordingly, this chapter cannot effectively be summarized in a book review. Readers of this review will have to buy the book themselves and recommend it to their friends, Sunday-School teachers, and pastors.

It is in connection with the Jesus chapter and its framing that I finally hope to justify my earlier claim about the Second Edition’s superiority: “the one to read and recommend going forward.” I once heard an accomplished church historian minimize the impact of slavery on the moral fiber of the Southern states because, after all, “the agrarian way of life was much more biblical than the urban-industrial way of life of the northern states.” Setting aside for the moment the fact that the Old Testament tends to glorify the herdsman way of life over the agrarian (witness Abel [Gen 4:2] and the Rechabites [Jer 35:6-7]) and that the goal of human history seems to converge on a city rather than a tilled field or garden (see Rev. 21:9-27), this use of the Bible has persistently bedeviled biblical hermeneutics. It trades on an equivocation between what is said or assumed in the Bible and what the Bible says or teaches. An honest reader of the Bible finds many things in the Bible that should be judged or dismissed in the light of the gospel, not merely in the words, deeds, and attitudes of imperfect actors in the story but also in a range of instructions placed in the mouth of God or his agents. The Bible, for example, contains legislation assuming and regulating (but not proscribing) slavery, divorce, and the rules of primogeniture–all with a distinctly patriarchal cast. Examples of these could be multiplied many times over.

But with “The Bible says…” we are making a normative claim which presumably carries some divine authority even for us today. Such claims should never arise from the citation of isolated texts. They cannot safely be made even from multiple texts gathered according to some logical scheme. God, after all, has actually chosen to give us a story arising from an unfolding history whose enduring meaning (or takeaways for our lives) can only be prayerfully discerned or inferred in the light of the climax or goal of the story.

For lack of better terms, we might call the first way of reasoning from the Bible the “Biblicist” way: the Bible constitutes a flat field of unchanging truth within whose bounds we are free to seek normative truths for our lives. If we can find multiple points of support, all the better, but any point will do. The second way of reasoning from the Bible is what we might call the “Christotelic” way: normative truth (in our case, about manhood) can only be ascertained by reading the full story and by thinking through apparently relevant texts through God’s ultimate revelation in Jesus Christ.

The Biblicist way continues to predominate in evangelical hermeneutical reasoning. James, however, is astute enough to break from this in the First Edition. She carefully articulates the distinction between what can be found in the Bible (what it assumes) and what it says:

“Patriarchy matters because it is the cultural backdrop of the Bible. Beginning with Abraham, God chose patriarchs living in a patriarchal culture to launch his rescue effort for the world. Events in the Bible play out within a patriarchal context. But patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. Rather, it is the fallen backdrop that sets off in the strongest relief the radical nature and potency of the Bible’s gospel message.”11 (emphasis added)

But James goes even further: she recognizes the story-like nature of the biblical revelation. Using the creative motif of a “missing chapter” between the creation of gendered humanity in Genesis 1 and 2 and the Fall and punishment of the first pair in Genesis 3–a chapter that might have described the life and community of innocent humanity–James observes that we need that missing chapter,

“[its] omission is not a mistake or a publishing snafu, but an Authorial decision intended to make us dissatisfied and hungry for something more and better than anything we’ve yet seen. It makes us hungry for Jesus, who is the missing chapter and embodies the kind of image bearer God created all of his sons (and daughters) to become.”12 (emphasis added)

Yes, this is a story carefully told by the Author. So here is the problem–and it is largely a rhetorical one–the numerous (and fascinating) chapters on Abraham, Judah, Barak, etc., as they stood serially and discreetly in the First Edition, tended toward a flat Bible and Biblicism. Consider this moving description of the chastened Judah, largely attributed to the impact of the Tamar incident:

“Judah pleads for Benjamin’s freedom with the passion of a prodigal who is utterly redeemed and transformed…. Patriarchy is still entrenched, but the malestrom’s power over Judah has been dismantled. Sacrificing himself as a slave in place of his father’s darling Benjamin is perhaps the freest choice Judah has ever made. For the first time in his life he is walking before God faithfully and being blameless. A very different selfless “not of this world” brand of manhood emerges…. He is an utterly changed man–the kind of man who has directly connected with the Center and now seeks the kingdom of God. Judah embodies the radical, self-sacrificing way of Jesus that is “not of this world” and gives us a startling glimpse of that missing chapter.”13

James’ moving depiction of Judah’s substitutionary speech threatens to undo the “Authorial decision.” Jesus simply becomes the fullest elaboration of the “missing chapter,” whose essential lines can already be glimpsed and understood in the lives of certain biblical anti-heroes like Judah. Judah’s failure to make a full confession of his own guilt to Joseph and the later insecurities that festered (see Gen 50:15-21) suggests that James credits Judah with too much. Did she need to, in order to make her case against patriarchy? No, that case rests on Jesus. Judah did grow, but his halfway measures should leave us dissatisfied.

So here is the superior virtue of the Second Edition. Although it leaves the central chapters unchanged, it puts them in a better framework by means of a different title: Malestrom: How Jesus Dismantles Patriarchy and Redefines Manhood (emphasis original). From the get-go, the relationship of Jesus to the other characters is clarified: he is not merely the best example of a well-understood ideal, but rather the ideal itself and the necessary goal of all the other stories. Lest this hermeneutical point should be lost, James underscores this “Christotelic” clarification in the very last words of the Second Edition:

“The fundamental question Malestrom addresses is straightforward: Does the Bible teach patriarchy? The answer can be tricky. Patriarchal abuse in one form or another appears on nearly every page of the Bible…. So is the Bible teaching patriarchy or does patriarchy serve a different purpose? In Malestrom, I concluded that patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. Rather it is the cultural backdrop that sets off in the strongest relief the radical potency of that gospel message…. All too often Jesus seems to go missing in evangelical discussions of biblical masculinity. But Jesus is the perfect imago Dei and should be front and center in any biblical deliberation of what it means to be a man in God’s world.”14 (emphasis added)

Amen, Carolyn Custis James! For the Christian, Jesus should indeed be front and center in any deliberation that purports to be biblical. There is no stronger hermeneutical basis–and no more certain dismantling of patriarchy.


1 Sylvia Walby, Theorizing Patriarchy (Oxford, London: Basil Blackwell, 1990), xxxvii.
2 James, p. xxiv, emphasis original.
3 Ibid., 10.
4 Ibid., 49.
5 Ibid., 79.
6 Ibid., 83.
7 Ibid., 49.
8 Ibid., 10.
9 Ibid., xxxvii-xxxviii
10 Ibid., 158-164.
11 Ibid., xxxvii, emphasis added.
12 Ibid., xi, emphasis added.
13 Ibid., 54-55, please note the ellipses.
14 Ibid., 179-180.

Visit the Journal of Urban Mission website and check out the Journal for yourself. The JofUM is sponsored by Missio Seminary and contains insightful content. It comes out 2x/year (so won’t overwhelm your email inbox) and is worth subscribing.

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Disarming Patriarchy

“Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse. . . It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help. That’s a hard thing to say, but that is the truth.”   —Rachael Denhollander1 

When Rachael Denhollander spoke those words back in 2018, America was reeling from explosive revelations of rampant clergy sexual abuse perpetrated by powerful men inside America’s protestant evangelical churches and ministry organizations. It was the beginning of a devastating reckoning that persists to this day. Survivors were (still are) speaking out—no longer lone voices, but en masse and online. Social media provided the platform. Survivors were using it. Some named names. A few could only muster courage to tweet, “#MeToo” or “#ChurchToo.” 

Suddenly American evangelicalism was in the crosshairs of an abuse epidemic as old as human history. Respected, trusted, prominent evangelical men—pastors, youth leaders, bestselling authors, ministry executives—were facing consequences for abusing the power entrusted to them as clergy leaders. Loyal colleagues and devoted followers mobilized to protect the powerful, ministries, careers, and church reputations. Victims were often mistreated—accused of lying, shamed, blamed, and pressured to forgive and forget. Abusers often recycled themselves back into ministry leadership. 

In the intervening years much has been done to educate church leaders about the multiple dimensions of this destructive epidemic. They’ve been told the necessity to involve law enforcement and trauma counseling experts when allegations surface rather than treat sexual abuse as an internal church matter. But this crisis is far from over. New allegations continue to surface. The fallout among congregants has been devastating: outrage, grief, shattered faith, and a deep sense of betrayal. Many are heading for the exits.  

Denhollander was right. The church is not a safe place. And we have more work to do. For, if the Covid-19 pandemic taught us anything, we are fighting a losing battle if we fail to identify and eliminate the virus. We cannot adequately address this crisis unless we understand the theological context and motives that give rise to these tragedies. This requires posing uncomfortable questions, beginning with: What theological assumptions give rise to this problem?  

Discarding the Patriarchal Assumption

There is little doubt that patriarchal assumptions shaped Christian theology from the beginning and continue to do so within evangelical theology today. They spark endless debates over male/female roles in the home and church. Admittedly patriarchy appears on nearly every page of the Bible. Nor can we deny that the Bible emerges from within an intensely patriarchal culture. Indeed, God chose patriarchs to move his purposes forward for the world. 

Gerda Lerner defines patriarchy (literally, “father rule”) as “the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over women in society.”2 Under patriarchy, a woman’s value depends on men—her father, her husband, and especially her sons. We see this cultural and theological assumption in the Bible where the gold standard for determining a woman’s value is to count her sons. Barren women aren’t begging God for daughters; they’re pleading for sons. 

Under patriarchy, a woman’s value depends on men—her father, husband, and especially her sons. … The gold standard for determining a woman’s value is to count her sons. CLICK TO TWEET

Too often definitions such as Lerner’s miss one very important point, namely that patriarchy includes male dominance over other men. From the outset of the biblical narrative, men have been at odds with other men. One need only recall Cain killing Abel and other violence that follows. When I speak of patriarchy I understand it as a social structure that empowers men over women, over children, and also over other men.  

While recognizing and condemning some of patriarchy’s injustices (e.g., slavery, polygamy), many modern evangelical theologians have historically assumed God’s design for humanity is patriarchy, although a “kinder-gentler” version. However, a careful review of male characters who drive the redemptive arc in the Bible reveals a decisive rejection of patriarchal norms. Again and again, God’s call on men led them to shed patriarchy’s demands and to embody a brand of masculinity that ultimately reflects Jesus and his gospel. These extraordinary anti-patriarchalists used their male power sacrificially to bless and empower others.3

A careful review of male characters who drive the redemptive arc in the Bible reveals a decisive rejection of patriarchal norms. CLICK TO TWEET

The Biblical Dismantling of Patriarchy

I want to argue that the theology of the Bible does not assume patriarchy; instead it dismantles and disarms it. Consider four theological observations.

First, our Creator dismantles patriarchy before it even starts. Genesis 1–2 record God’s vision for his world and for all humanity—a vision God never abandoned and that Jesus came to restore.

In the opening words of the Bible, God elevates every human being to the highest rank imaginable—as his Imago Dei. This identity establishes humanity’s first responsibility as to know and reflect our Creator. We are participants in divine revelation, capable of conveying about our Creator’s character and heart for the world. God commissions every image bearer—males and females together—to rule over creation (not over each other) and to look after things, to explore, cultivate, and steward earth’s resources on his behalf. What happens in God’s world is our responsibility. This male/female alliance is a kingdom strategy that God blesses and pronounces “very good” (Genesis 1:27-2831).

God commissions every image bearer—males and females together—to rule over creation (not over each other) and to look after things, to explore, cultivate, and steward earth’s resources on his behalf. CLICK TO TWEET

The Creator names the woman for himself. She is ezer—a Hebrew military word used for armies but mainly used for God as the helper/rescuer of his people. God isn’t creating more work for the man who must provide, protect, and think for her. She is kenegdo—his match, as the North Pole is to the South Pole. She is an indispensable ally in advancing God’s kingdom in the world he loves.

It is important to note that the rebellion that takes place in Genesis 3 does not precipitate the unveiling of a new and improved social order. Far from it. God is issuing a prophetic announcement of a total collapse. The enemy cuts humanity off from our Creator—the very center of our being—and drives a wedge into the “Blessed Alliance,”4 dividing male and female. Humanity’s outward rule over creation abruptly turns against other image bearers. 

The rebellion that takes place in Genesis 3 does not precipitate the unveiling of a new and improved social order. Far from it. God is issuing a prophetic announcement of a total collapse. CLICK TO TWEET

Patriarchy is born. Now men rule over women and children and also over other men. The Bible becomes a predominately male story. Women are reduced to their reproductive ability and disgraced (or replaced) if they fail. Violence, injustice, discrimination, and abuse of every imaginable kind now shape the human story.  

This is not the way God intends his world to be, and he never abandoned his vision. It is a fundamental theological assumption that every other text of Scripture must be subjected to the vision God cast in the beginning. 

Second, the remaining Genesis narrative (Ch. 3–50) dismantles patriarchy. 

Walter Brueggemann rightly notes that primogeniture is the linchpin of patriarchy.5 It confers crown prince status on a man’s firstborn son along with power over his younger siblings, including inheriting a double portion of their father’s estate. 

But God doesn’t conform to patriarchal protocol. Instead, he chooses Adam’s second son Abel over firstborn Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob not Esau. Among Jacob’s twelve sons, Jacob chose Joseph (son #11); God chose Judah (son #4). Brothers are infuriated and erupt in jealousy, murder, deception, estrangements, even human trafficking. They’re ready to kill their brother over primogeniture. 

God doesn’t conform to patriarchal protocol. Instead, he chooses Adam’s second son Abel over firstborn Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob not Esau. CLICK TO TWEET

Third, Jesus dismantles patriarchy and restores the Blessed Alliance. The Blessed Alliance was God’s vision in the beginning. It is Jesus’ prayer in the end that those who follow him would forge a community that embodies his self-giving love and displays an uncommon oneness—hard evidence before a watching world that Jesus has come and that his kingdom is not of this world.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you . . . so that the world may believe that you have sent me . . . and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23, NIV).

Jesus’ prayer raises the stakes and heightens the urgency of reclaiming our calling—corporately and individually—a community distinguished by self-giving love and oneness amid great diversity—a community where the entrance doors are busiest because people hunger for this kind of world.

Finally, even the alleged perpetuator of patriarchal theology, the Apostle Paul, joins the movement to dismantle patriarchy. 

The former religious terrorist, Saul of Tarsus, born and schooled in patriarchy, undergoes more than a conversion to faith in Jesus the Messiah. Jesus’ gospel also radically transforms Paul’s understanding of gender. Paul came to depend on strong alliances with women, especially Gentile women. If the last chapter in his letter to the Roman church is any indication, Paul partnered in ministry with women and counted on them for strength and courage as he faced his own struggles.

Paul’s recognition and advocacy for women no doubt triggered a seismic cultural earthquake when he penned his letter to the church in Galatia—a mixed audience of men, women, and children, masters and slaves, Jews and Gentiles. Many rightly point to how Paul dismantles patriarchy’s power hierarchies in the church when he asserts: 

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Against the patriarchal cultural backdrop, Paul makes an even more radical assertion that some of the best English translations obscure. In a culture that privileges sons over daughters, he writes: 

“So in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith!” (Galatians 3:26). 

Modern translations unwittingly dilute Paul’s meaning when they translate “You are all sons and daughters” or “all children of God.” Paul is saying that men and women are “all sons of God.” In one sentence Paul turns patriarchy on its head. 

Patriarchy is not the theological assumption of the Bible. Rather, it is “the fallen cultural backdrop”6 that sets off in the strongest relief the radical nature and potency of the Bible’s gospel message. As Christ followers we will never grasp the earthshaking, radically transforming power of Jesus’ gospel if we read the Bible with Western eyes. The Bible is not an American book, and we will inevitably miss, dilute, sanitize, and distort the Bible’s message if we fail to recognize that fact. The Bible’s message is even more countercultural than we imagine.  

Patriarchy is not the theological assumption of the Bible. Rather, it is the fallen cultural backdrop that sets off in the strongest relief the radical nature and potency of the Bible’s gospel message. CLICK TO TWEET

Our Urgent Theological Quest 

The urgency of uprooting theological flaws that fuel the #ChurchToo abuse crisis cannot be overstated. Every day we witness fresh evidence of a world engulfed in division, hatred, violence, abuse, and corruption. The brutality of unprovoked wars and senseless mass shootings create a perpetual cultural state of trauma. Much of the American evangelical church has lost its moral and theological compass. The good news of Jesus is lost in the misguided theological assumption of patriarchy that shapes so many in the American church. Sanctifying patriarchy, as many evangelicals do, perpetuates power struggles, abuse, and violence that discredit Jesus’ gospel and contaminate his world.

Sanctifying patriarchy, as many evangelicals do, perpetuates power struggles, abuse, and violence that discredit Jesus’ gospel and contaminate his world. CLICK TO TWEET

Jesus is the true path to human flourishing—not just for some, but for all. The church must not be one of the worst places to go for help. It must become the place of refuge and human flourishing in this broken world. We have more work to do. With God’s help we can move toward transformation. 

Originally published at MissioAlliance.org

Carolyn Custis James’ newly updated and expanded book Malestrom: How Jesus Dismantles Patriarchy and Recovers the Blessed Alliance delves deeply into the stories of men in the Bible who subverted cultural hierarchies, revealing how patriarchy distorts God’s image of personhood and showing how countercultural God’s design for men really is.

1. Christianity Today interview, published January 31, 2018https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/january-web-only/rachael-denhollander-larry-nassar-forgiveness-gospel.html.

2. Gerda, Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, revised ed. 1987), p. 239.

3. Carolyn Custis James, Malestrom: How Jesus Dismantles Patriarchy and Redefines Manhood  (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, revised edition, 2022). Malestrom documents the narratives of these counter-cultural men.

4. Carolyn Custis James, Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 135-143. Also: https://carolyncustisjames.com/2012/09/18/the-blessed-alliance/.

5. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, ed. James Luther Mays (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 209.

6. Carolyn Custis James, Malestrom: How Jesus Dismantles Patriarchy and Redefines Manhood (Zondervan, revised edition, 2022), p. xxxvii.

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