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The Pagan Roots of Patriarchy

ORGANIZED UNDER: Faith // Marriage // Parenting // Women

Patriarchy means, literally, “rule by fathers.”

It is an ancient pagan concept, not a Christian one. The word “patriarch” is used three times in the book of Acts: once by Peter in his Pentecost sermon as an honorific for King David; twice by Stephen in his remarkable speech before the Sanhedrin as a shorthand for the twelve sons of Jacob, who are called the twelve patriarchs; and once in the book of Hebrews as a title for Abraham. Nowhere is it presented as an organizing principle for the kingdom of God.

There is quite a bit of teaching in the New Testament about fathers, of course — most notably in Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 — but the principles and picture of the family presented there is in sharp contrast to the patriarchal model of first century Greek and Roman pagan culture.

Patriarchy in Ancient Rome

Roman culture, with its emphasis on the absolute rights of fathers, is the stereotypical picture of pagan patriarchy.

A Roman father had absolute rights over his household. He literally had the power of life and death over his children and slaves. In Roman law, all property was owned by fathers. Wives and children had no legal right to the separate ownership of land, possessions, or even money.

There is a great deal of practical advice written by Roman authors about household matters. It is almost all focused on obedience to the father.

The Scriptural Contrast

In this context, Paul’s summary of household principles in Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 is refreshingly revolutionary.

It is true that servants are instructed to obey their masters and children are told to obey their parents. This is traditional advice. But the rest of his principles for family and household are quite countercultural, and indeed, revolutionary.

  1. Children are told to obey their parents (not just fathers) and the first commandment is cited. But this is so familiar to us and so expected, that we often miss a striking detail. It does not say, “Honor thy father.” It says, “Honor thy father and mother,” giving both parents equivalent status.
  2. Fathers are (a) told to forbear threatening servants; (b) told not to provoke their children; and (c) told to love their wives, and to nourish and cherish them as they do their own bodies! This advice would have shocked and puzzled most Roman fathers.
  3. Wives are told to “submit” to their husbands (Roman fathers would have nodded in agreement), but this comes in the next sentence after Paul has instructed all Christians to “submit yourselves one to another.” So “submit” here is not a synonym for “obey.” Unless we are to understand the previous sentence to mean that all Christians should “obey” one another? Surely not.

In terms of the relationship of believers to each other, we can certainly understand “submit” to include “honor,” “respect,” “show deference to,” “seek to serve and bless.” But it clearly does not mean the same thing as “obey.”

And equally clearly, if all Christians are to “submit” to one another, then Christian husbands and Christian wives are to submit to one another as well.

The structure of Colossians 3 is parallel to Ephesians 5, indeed a bit more concise and direct.

Servants: obey your masters. Children: obey your parents (note, it does not say “fathers”). Wives: submit (not obey) to your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.

Fathers: provoke not your children. Fathers: love your wives, be not bitter against them.

There is, incidentally, another revolutionary principle invoked by Paul with regard to masters in Colossians as well. “Masters: give unto your servants [slaves] that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.”

Masters are obligated to give to slaves that which is “just and equal?” This is deep, countercultural advice — but really, a topic for a different column.

The Biblical Family

The Bible then, especially and particularly the household principles articulated in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3, far from establishing and confirming the Roman, pagan, masculine dominating hierarchy of patriarchy actually undermines it and elevates, honors, and protects the position, worth, and value of wives, children, and servants. True, children and servants are instructed to obey parents and masters, but parents and masters have obligations to nurture and not threaten. True, wives are instructed to “submit” to (not “obey”) their husbands, but in the context and in light of the principle that all Christians are to “submit” to one another. And husbands are directed to nourish and cherish their wives.

I would submit that this has nothing to do with a domineering patriarchy. It establishes the principles of the kingdom of God and servanthood of all the fellow heirs.

A biblical family differs sharply from a pagan, patriarchal one. Read and study Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 carefully, prayerfully. We need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, not conformed to the pattern of this world.

Robert G. Shearer is the husband of Cyndy Shearer, the proud father of 11 children, an Elder at Abundant Life Church, Director of the Francis Schaeffer Study Center, Publisher of Greenleaf Press, and vice president of the Tennessee Association of Church-Related Schools. He has been a college professor, a marketing VP, a demographer, a healthcare planner, a publisher, an author, and a small business owner. He has been reading, writing about, pondering, musing, and reflecting on the lessons of history (Ancient, Medieval, & Modern) for over thirty years. You can find Rob on the internet at GreenLeafPress.com and RedHatRob.com.

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