The Revd Canon Wyn Beynon


Male Headship and Patriarchal Theologies

A shorter version of this was published as my blog on the Inclusive Church web site in September 2019.

When I was about 6 years old I remember playing by the closed kitchen door hearing my aunt tell her sister (my mother) that her husband hit her. I knew I wasn’t supposed to hear and so I kept it to myself. But it registered with me as a bad, bad thing. I never trusted – or liked – that uncle after that.

The belief that men have an inherent task and responsibility to hold authority over women and can have various names but I shall refer to it as Male Headship or as Patriarchal theologies and use the terms interchangeably.

The connection between abuse and Male Headship is obvious but there are plenty of people who will argue that there is no direct link.  Since each case of domestic abuse must be judged on its own it is easy for the supporters of Patriarchal theologies to insist that the vast majority of those who hold to Male Headship do not abuse their wives and so it’s not the theology that is wrong but the individual man. This is like saying that not all slave owners were cruel and so it wasn’t slavery that was wrong but particular slaver owners. In point of fact some recent research shows that there is a pattern to domestic murder and that spotting the unfolding pattern might save lives. The pattern starts with asserting power. (Monckton Smith, The University of Gloucestershire)

Male Headship is the underlying sin of the Christian Church. Within the Anglican Church it has been challenged in various ways but it persists amongst conservative evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics. Just as disturbingly it can also persist as unrecognised gender bias amongst those might well believe themselves to be liberal or progressive.

I believe patriarchal theologies to be the underlying cause for much of the corporate and institutional weakness in the Church in the early 21st Century. This is especially true in the Church of England where the desire for visible unity overrides the responsibility to tell the truth when those two demands clash. I believe this is the wrong way round and that truth, however we see it, must lead unity, dangerous as this is, of course.

There, in fact, no safe road and no guarantee of a quiet journey on the Christian Way. Hope should keep us joyful, but not labouring under an illusion.

Male headship has no more place in the Church than slavery and the arguments for and against are precisely those for and against slavery. To demand male headship is to demand a return to slavery.

As our society slips further into populist ideologies we see these ideas emerging withing the Church and unless they are named for what they are they will shape the Church in 21st century and the Gospel imperative to liberate women (all other forms of inclusion) will be eroded if not lost.

Domestic abuse is too often physical violence and sexual abuse, but it can just as often be psychological abuse, emotional abuse (both of which many victims say they found harder to bear than physical abuse). There is also financial abuse as well as drug, substance and alcohol abuse, all of which are recognised as such in law.

The base condition that creates all forms of estrangement between human beings is the desire to have power and control other another. This may be motivated by the desire to be in charge, or the desire to protect oneself from a perceived threat. But either way the result is the establishment of hierarchy.

When Paul speaks about Christian households – both the actually familial households of the first century and the household of the Church – he is not describing a hierarchical society – like that which was normal in the Roman society around him – but one of differing responsibilities. It is too easy for those maintaining a male headship theology to claim that the New Testament supports a male dominated household because it looks like that to the outsider. But to the insider the Christian household of the the first 3 centuries was a radical departure from male dominated Roman society.

If you want some academic background I would point you to some important books that describe what it is really like to be part of a Christian community in those centuries before Constantine’d conversion and it’s consequences following the events of 309 CE. The first book is Paula Gooder’s novel Pheobe (imagination it may be but imagination from the pen of a superb New Testament theologian and scholar). Then there is Alan Kreider’s Patient Ferment in the Early Church which is essential reading. Together with Chapter 4 of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s “A History of Christianity” these provide a deep and scholarly accounts of how the first Christians formed their communities.

What made the first Christian communities different from Roman society was that they were open to all sorts of people, to the old and the young, to men and women. The authority structures within them did not, by any means, always reflect male dominance, though sometimes they might. But in the gathered community of the Church the slaves and the centurion, the woman and the man, the child and senator, were all equal before God – and each other.

It is clear, however, that this was not a perfect picture and just as the experiment in communism recorded in Acts did not last so there were sufficient pressures on the young Church for it to easily fall back to male domination.

But the roots of Christianity are clearly in a household in the which the relationships between men and women did not to reflect those of the Roman world but the new wine of the Kingdom of God.

That it all went wrong is no reason to dismiss it as God’s will for God’s people and so those who argue for Male Headship are, in fact, arguing out of a failure of the Church, not the voice of the New Testament. There is to be no place for domination of one over another in the Wise Communities of Jesus.

Homophobia and discrimination of all kinds stem from rejecting those who do not conform to the idealised social and familial norms in which male headship with a women and children in an orderly subservience institutionalises prejudice and allows those holding to patriarchal theologies to justify themselves in terms of safeguarding the proper order of things, looking to an eclipsed reading of scripture to back this up.

The basilisk of patriarchy needs to have its head cut off. It needs to clearly named, clearly described, clearly identified as a root of evil that it is. All power and control is demonic, for the demonic is always about abusive possession. The consequences are vile – as human beings are squeezed and diminished, as women, children (and sometimes men too) begin to believe they are worth less, if not worthless, that they are not autonomous or responsible actors but simply those who must be obedient, as those who do not deserve trust or equal respect. And even when there is no physical or sexual abuse there will be emotional abuse, psychological abuse and quite likely financial abuse. And all that is plain evil done in the name of the God of love.

There will be women who will defend Male Headship. And that is perhaps the saddest, one of the most evil results of all. Now  listen to what I actually said. I said the result was evil. Not the people. Let's tackle the ball not the players.

This kind of demon only comes out by prayer, not argument. But it does need us to be prophetic, to boldy rebuke vice, as the collect for St John Baptist puts it.