“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.
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
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 1:27-28, 31).
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.
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.
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.
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.