In April 2015, I recorded an interview with Dean Beck on Joy FM. It was part of the Inside Ex-Gay programme produced by Nathan Despott. I was there as someone who had been a Pentecostal minister for many years to reflect on the damage done to LGBTIQ folk who have experienced ex-gay therapy in conservative, evangelical churches. I was also there to apologise for my ignorance and for unwittingly being part of an ideology and practice that created so much pain and death. When the interview aired, some sections of conservative Christians world imploded like the bird on Shrek.
I received my fair share of fury. My partner did too. His, however, came in a different manner. He was criticised for not ‘controlling’ his wife. Surely, he should be able to ‘get her into order’ and have her ‘submit’ to him. Unfortunately, this sort of aggressive rhetoric did not just come from extremist fundamentalist groups, but also from people who should know better – from those who have observed the carnage left in the wake of such ideas. It brings to light an ideology that feeds the modus operandi of some religious institutions: a deeply embedded patriarchal misogyny disguised in religious piety.
Where did this idea, that when a woman in some Christian settings differs from her partner he needs to put her ‘in order’, come from? More importantly, how has this mindset outworked itself in organised religion, culture and society? Patriarchy has ‘worked’ because it has been economical. It also has to keep evolving in order to convince a new generation of its benefits. One of the ways it continues to be upheld in many modern church contexts is through the theology of ‘headship’ (a rather sloppy theology … but I get ahead of myself!) Headship theology has been around for over four decades. Some of the ideas surrounding it came from the controversial Presbyterian minister R.J. Rushdoony, in the 1960s, and was popularised by disgraced, Wheaton College professor Bill Gothard, who argued that it was “God’s chain of command”, in his famous Institute of Basic Life Principles.
Headship theology, part of Rushdoony’s Reconstructionist Theology, was devoured by conservative churches and Christian family groups as ‘sound theology’. It spawned endless amounts of books, video ‘teaching’, and seminars that continue to be popular in many churches to this day. Many of these groups are convinced that society is facing a cultural crisis based on the rejection of a biblical understanding of family, marriage and sex. It also serves their political views and aspirations. Their interpretation of the Bible, of course, is presented as ‘sound doctrine’ and who wants to question assumptions that are rendered as “God’s idea and that are not open for human re-negotiation or revision”? Well, actually, there are quite a few who want to question this paradigm and interpretation – including me. It is time to question. It is time expose some of the underbelly of this dangerous teaching.
Christian conservative fundamentalists espouse patriarchy when they declare that wives must submit to their husbands. This practice and paradigm has greatly contributed to the abuse of women. The recent Mark Driscoll saga is a good example of such. Some argue that most evangelicals practice a ‘soft patriarchy’, which de-emphasises male authority and defines male ‘headship’ in terms of ‘loving sacrificial service to one’s family’ and that the abusive rhetoric like that of Mark Driscoll or John Piper is simply ‘hyper-headship’. Cynthia Ezell counters this with: “Patriarchy is not responsible for an individual husband’s violent action towards his wife. It does, however, create an environment ripe for abuse … Patriarchal beliefs weaken the marital system so that the deadly virus of violence can gain a stronghold.” In other words, whatever form it takes, patriarchy and headship ideals, create environments more susceptible for abuse.
Feminist historians have compiled a large amount of historical data to demonstrate how patriarchy has provided the foundation for male domination which has often led to abuse. It is evident in ancient cultures, and despite the waves of feminism and endeavours of our modern age, this abuse continues. Church fathers contributed to the dilemma. And to this day we witness its effect on women all around the world. So when an individual or an organisation is motivated from a framework that does not just endorse gender hierarchy, but rather enshrines it as ‘God’s idea’, women face several challenges:
- They may themselves be entrenched in these paradigms based on their own personal desire to ‘please God’.
- Any abuse that may (not will, but MAY) follow has ‘God’ attached to it. Spiritual abuse takes a long time to recognise and a long time to recover from. It is difficult to untangle from an ideology presented as “the will or order of God” for those desperately wanting to serve God.
- Any serious critique or debate of people holding to ‘headship theology’ and patriarchal misogyny will be considered as an ‘attack’. Any debate is silenced with “the Bible is clear” (actually, no it isn’t!) or “She is a feminist” (well, yes, I am – you should be one too).
This blog is written for those of you who are have suffered because, for a myriad of reasons, you have sat under religious authority figures who have used theology to oppress you. I want to acknowledge your pain. Abuse of any form is not okay. It is also to remind people who hold positions of religious influence and ‘authority’, or for marriage partners, that to distort the sacred text and to oppress others in “the name of God” is repulsive. If you are experiencing abuse of any kind, including an ideology enforced upon you disguised as “God wants you to submit”, please find a safe place/person to receive help and support, resource yourself, and begin to detangle from toxic religion.
Beware of manufactured political patriarchal ideas peddled on the religious market, often by well-meaning, zealous folk. It is okay to question. Employ critical thinking in what you are being told to believe. You have one short life to live, dear friend. If you have a faith – may that faith bring you joy, freedom, grace and love.
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
Epilogue: For those wondering … my partner and I are very comfortable holding differences. We see it as part of human relationship. We are partners in life, so of course we will discuss anything that impacts our lives – including a radio interview. Sorry to disappoint the detractors.
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