How the Bible’s View of Power Devastates Theological Patriarchy

by Jennifer Reil | December 16, 2020

Editor’s Note: This is one of the Top 15 2020 CBE Writing Contest winners. Enjoy!

One of the hardest, yet most satisfying, practices of Christian faith is when we objectively and honestly examine the beliefs and principles we’ve built our faith and perspective on. Some of our theology must be dismantled and rebuilt, while other aspects will shine all the brighter as timeless and glorious truth. This is gut-wrenching work. Yet undoing the lies that we have come to believe about ourselves, God, our Christian communities, theology, or scriptural interpretation can be painful and beautiful at the same time. It requires a deep level of humility and self-awareness on our own part and requires that we allow honest and trustworthy people to speak into our process as voices of truth, shining the light on the way out of darkness and confusion. It can be hard to trust in this process though, and at times, the uncertainty can be blinding and overwhelming. This was my process personally, as well. Patriarchy is all around us, constantly influencing the ways we view our faith and ourselves. By learning to examine Scripture more deeply and recognizing the overarching thrust of the biblical narrative, the theological conditioning I inherited began to crumble as well. 

My Own Dismantling

I’ve always had a strong belief in the equality between men and women. I grew up in a denomination that overall permitted women in ministry, but the local church I attended as a child often talked about “male-only leadership” and “a woman’s place.” Even as a young child, I remember hearing these messages and thinking how wrong this mentality was. I wished to be a boy because they always seemed to get the better deal in life. It’s hard growing up feeling uncertain as to whether God really loves and values you simply because of your gender. It’s also hard to grow up looking out into the world to see women more affirmed in leadership and their contributions in business, medicine, athletics, etc., than their permitted roles in the church. Although there is still much work to do in the world at large as it relates to female equality, it wasn’t hard to notice the discrepancy between my high school teachers telling me I could attend college and have a career in a specific industry and the church’s vision for my life, which was relegated to the home and family with little other support for anything else.

Even though I felt strongly about equality, as a Christian, fear has always lingered in the back of my mind as what-if questions. What if I’ve gotten this wrong? What if God has established some hierarchy between men and women and I’m attempting to defy that? What if God does value men more than women? If God is truly the God of the universe, and that’s how he established the created order, maybe I just need to get over my own pride, arrogance, and even offense at this standard. Can I still love and trust a God who created this perceived established order, even if it means that no matter what, I’m less than men on this scale? These were very painful questions to wrestle through and reflected the deep lies and broken theological conditioning that I needed to fully dismantle in my own mind.

Building a New Foundation

I started seminary training in 2007, unsure how to answer the questions in the back of my mind, and yet feeling assured of a calling into some area of ministry. My research in the field of biblical studies has greatly helped in dismantling the unhealthy and untrue assumptions I believed about Christianity, the Bible, and gender. It has at times also led to more questions than answers, but even this has been a positive experience. I’ve come to recognize the fluidity and ambiguity of so much of Scripture and the tensions that must be held when we try to uncover truth.

There are many passages that we could examine together. Some relevant passages have been discussed extensively within the egalitarian and complementarian camps alike, such as the translational difficulties and the meaning of passages like 1 Timothy 2:11–12 and 1 Corinthians 11, 14. I could also point to the liberating message of Galatians 3:28, or the many examples of women in leadership roles in both the Old and New Testaments.

But recently my study of 1 Peter and Mark has led me toward the heart of my questions surrounding women’s equality. There is a core truth exemplified throughout the whole Bible that interpretations of any given passage must be weighed against. That truth is this: if our theology and interpretation of Scripture, whatever it might be, leads us to a place of power and domination over others in order to fulfill our own desire for control, power, status, superiority, greed, or the like, we’ve missed the heart of God’s message for us.

The Biblical Case for Laying Down Power

1 Peter 2:18–3:7

1 Peter is a case study in honor, shame, power, and status—all in the context of suffering for the sake of the church’s commitment to Christ. Many look to the household codes in 1 Peter 2–3 (as well as in Paul’s writing) as proof for wifely submission and authoritative leadership by a husband, yet this interpretation is plucked out of its context within the letter as a whole and its historical setting. This letter, addressed to several Christian communities in Asia Minor, repeatedly upholds the Christian identity as honorable before God, despite their shameful experience within their social context. The author teaches about the values of mutual submission, mutual care, and love within the community, alongside the virtues of humility and sacrifice.

These same values—expectations set for the entire community—are exemplified in the household codes as values modeled by slaves and women (2:18–3:7). The author’s point is not to uphold a misguided sense of goodness for social systems of injustice, but rather points to examples of those who model Christlike virtues despite the injustice they face. These are virtues expected for the whole community to promote communal thriving and cohesion. This is revealed further by looking at 1 Peter 1:14–19 and 3:13–19, where the author is clearly addressing the entire audience. These additional sections of the letter mirror the instructions given to women in 3:1–6. Additionally, the instructions given to slaves in 2:18–20 are proceeded by the author’s claim that the Christian audience members are “slaves” of God (2:16), and it is followed by the example set by Jesus as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 (2:21–25). The author’s point suggests women and slaves are models of Christlikeness and should be followed as examples for the entire body of believers.1

Mark 10:35–45

While I could continue dissecting the household codes in 1 Peter, my research on that passage led me to another piece of Scripture not often thought about in the discussion surrounding perceived “roles” acceptable for women in the church and home: Mark 10:35–45. All of Mark 10 is an example of Jesus’s perspective on honor, shame, and status, which is set in contrast to the Greco-Roman social system of honor and shame.

Mark 10:35 specifically records an exchange that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, have with Jesus. Here, the brothers request that Jesus place them in positions of honor and status when Jesus reveals his kingdom on earth. This request upsets the other disciples. Through this exchange, Jesus reveals two important aspects of his kingdom that his very disciples had yet to really grasp.

First, Jesus’s kingdom would be marked by suffering, and second, that “greatness” in his kingdom is not marked by positions of power, status, and domination as it is in systems of earthly, human rule. Jesus says,

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42–45 NIV)

Settling into a New Perspective

My fears about whether God intends for men to hold authority over women have been settled by the biblical understanding that God, as revealed through Jesus, does not support systems of power, control, and domination over others. If one’s theology and biblical interpretation of any given passage in Scripture leads them to idolize their own power, status, and domination, they’ve missed God’s heart revealed in his word. God consistently is the one who brings liberation to those oppressed, freedom to those in bondage, and uplifts those who are weary and broken by injustice. He is regularly at work on behalf of the people who have been the most marginalized and made the most vulnerable. Status, power, and control are vices to be uprooted from our lives and communities, not virtues to be embraced and protected.

Theologies that seek to uphold status and privilege, relegating half of the church to the sidelines and promoting inequality and power differentials in the home are systems of injustice that lead to death. Not only that, these theologies also stand in opposition to the overarching message and narrative of Scripture. If members of Christ’s body find themselves arguing about “who is the greatest,” and “who can occupy the seats next to Jesus,” or “who can or can’t teach,” “who can or can’t lead,” or “who holds the power and authority over the other,” they may be surprised to find themselves sitting at the wrong table, in the wrong kingdom altogether. It’s time for the church to examine our own hearts on these matters of theology and Bible interpretation, and choose the path of life and freedom, over control, power, and status.        

Note
1. See also Betsy Bauman-Martin, “Women on the Edge: New Perspectives on Women in the Petrine Haustafel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 123.2 (2004); Joel B. Green, 1 Peter, Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007); Paul Achtemeier, 1 Peter, Hermeneia (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996); David Horrell, “Fear, Hope, and Doing Good: Wives as a Paradigm of Mission in 1 Peter,” Estudios Biblicos LXXIII (2015).


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