Drop the Rope: What We Don’t Notice about Patriarchy

by Rhesa Higgins | April 22, 2020

“You are not allowed to teach any man. Scripture forbids it.”

“Women are invited to use any gift they have been given for the good of the body of Christ.”

“You are too emotional to be a trustworthy leader.”

“Leadership should reflect the diversity of their flock, in gender and race.”

“You aren’t strong enough for the rigors of leadership.”

“Collaboration is a healthy model for leadership that also happens to be feminine.”

“This church has already allowed you to do more public things; how power hungry are they if that is not enough?”

“Authority is an opportunity to share power for the benefit of those who give authority.”

These words still move through my awareness, long after they were spoken to me and about me. They highlight that many churches, in particular the American evangelical church culture that I am a part of, are stuck in an epic tug of war. On one side are the egalitarians arguing for more freedoms, yanking on that rope with all their collective strength. On the other side are the complementarians arguing that change has gone too far already, yanking the rope back just as hard. The power struggle over what women can and cannot do is personal, emotionally violent, and often destructive.

The back and forth of permission requested and denied, opportunities brokered and abused, only destroys trust and relationship. As a teenager, I was allowed to write the sermon that a boy was allowed to speak out loud to the church. As a young woman educated in ministry, my resume was rejected because “this church doesn’t hire women.” My hands have been burned in this battle, and still I am afraid to drop this rope. Why? The rope is power, and I already feel that I have too little power.

The power rope doesn’t have a knot or ribbon in the middle to mark how far you have to pull it in order to win the game. No, this rope is stuck underneath a boulder, and yet it keeps being pulled harder and harder in both directions. The boulder is white patriarchy. This outer display over power is just a surface level symptom of the deeper illness.

In my experience, the belief that white men are superior to people of color and white women is the boulder that these two groups are yelling over and collectively ignoring most of the time. Have we even noticed that the boulder exists between us? The power that each seeks is actually held hostage beneath the weight of the sin of white patriarchy.

As a spiritual director, I often listen for what might be happening underneath the circumstances at hand. When I examine the boulder, I discover that the boulder is held in place by roots that go deep underground. The boulder is made of and held in place by a substance that is less tangible and more deadly than white patriarchy. The boulder holding my tug of war hostage is formed from the Euro-American social belief that God is an old white man.

These images of God as a white man carry ancient Greek and Roman influence, much more than Jewish. Culturally, a Zeus-like image of God has infiltrated and become embedded in the imagination of the western church. This image says that God sits on a throne, has a long, white beard, and is male. Therefore, culture has deduced that being a white man must be the most superior thing to be because that is how we think God looks. This understanding of God allows culture to defend patriarchy as the best reflection of who God is and logically the only way culture can be bountiful or good.

So, we participants scream with effort and pull the rope. But for every millimeter we gain, the boulder just creates more rope and engages more people in the screaming and pulling. Keeping people distracted about power (the rope in our analogy) protects the boulder from closer examination and possible destruction. Make no mistake, the boulder of white patriarchy—all the way down to the cellular level with its projection of God as old white man—is the real enemy.

How do we stop the tug of war? We must start at the cellular level and change the way we think about God. Notice images for God in Scripture that are female or animal or inanimate. Use those images and names for God on purpose, every day for a season. Consider trying to pray “God our Mother . . .” or “God, my rock . . .” Explore ideas of how God is like a mother bird or the wings of an eagle in your journal. Don’t be surprised at the discomfort you might encounter at first. When you find yourself in distress, look to how Jesus, who is not a white man, interacted with those images of God. Lean into your discomfort and engage it with curiosity instead of defensiveness.

Then, we are asked to see all of humankind as God’s beloved. As we behold diversity, we are invited to replace our prejudiced judgment with gentle, accepting love reflecting God who is more than just one thing. Could it be that this person who looks different from you also embodies the imago Dei? Can you soften your gaze to look for that family resemblance?

Finally, it is time for the universal church to remember that the way of Jesus is to lay down power, to surrender power to those on the margins, and to share power equally for the good of all. God redistributed power by taking on human flesh. God decentralized power by surrendering to an unjust murder of God’s self, as known in Jesus. Jesus didn’t fight the sin of Israel’s leaders. Jesus didn’t resist the abuse of the Roman government. Jesus didn’t even rebuke the denial of his own. No. “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7, NIV).

This is the work of reconciliation as given to followers of Jesus in 2 Corinthians 5:17–21. Repenting from the sin of white patriarchy is being reconciled to God. Loving every neighbor as God’s beloved is being God’s ambassadors. As you do this soul transforming work, choose compassion for those who resist this work in you as evidence of the new life in you. Compassion isn’t passive or aggressive; compassion is powerful and gentle, perhaps the best balance of traditionally masculine and feminine traits, a fuller picture of the righteousness of God.