As the pastor of a church that self-identifies (!) as patriarchal, I read with interest Matt Holst’s article critiquing Patriarchy at Reformation 21. Mr Holst’s analysis is a mixed bag, and since many Reformed folk seem quick to grind the axe against patriarchy these days, I thought I'd offer a cordial response. Taking each of his five areas of grave concern, then...
First, yes, Patriarchy does tend to diminish and replace church authority. Yes, and amen. I’ve seen multiple times first-hand the patriarch playing the part of a dutiful church member until the slightest thing crosses his agenda. Then it’s back to home church or skip to the next church that will leave me alone to my family. The accountability tends to be one-way: patriarch holding the church accountable, and seldom the other way around.
Second, yes, Patriarchy tends to isolate families away from even the church, not to mention the world. Again, the slightest thing to impinge on the sacred family schedule is dismissed. Patriarchal churches and families are great for the introverted among us, but not so much for the moms who need connection and encouragement from others outside the family. It’s fine to avoid over-scheduling so that you aren’t at a church meeting away from your family every night of the week. It
is NOT okay to swing the other way, and not connect with your church family at all except a couple hours on Sunday for one worship service.
The third point, that patriachalists turn the roles of prophet, priest and king into church offices, is nearly the same as the first point. I have found more use, though, from pointing parents to the roles, than abuse from those taking it too far. The average Christian father isn’t even aware that he can or should represent Christ to his family in any way as prophet, priest and king. Reviving an awareness of these roles without putting the father’s position in competition with the church’s is the goal.
Fourth. Here’s where it gets really interesting. Yes, bad patriarchy tends to pull apart the husband-wife unity, and set the man on top, isolated from his family in decision making. I have seen this play out in very detrimental ways, first hand. On the other end of the spectrum, in most households today mom usually proposes things verbally and then just goes ahead with them when dad doesn’t say anything against it. This is bad matriarchy, in response to the husband’s abdication of his job. (Funny so many Reformed are on a crusade against patriarchy, when the opposite problem is actually afflicting our main culture far more.) Holst is absolutely right that mom should have authority in the home. But it ought not be a self-asserted authority, separate from what the parents decide together to do.
The fifth point is off base, I think. While a great deal of legalism does tend to crop up around patriarchy, God’s design is that the husband be the head of the wife – that he be the one individual with authority in the home, as Christ to the church (Ephesians 5:22-27). Centering authority in one person in the home was God’s idea. In the family structure, there is not a plurality of leadership in the same way you have in a board of elders. It is not a singularity of leadership as with a bishop or dictator. And yet, the woman is given as a helper IN LEADING. That is where I part ways with bad patriarchy. But there is an office of family leader which the man is called to fulfill. That is where I part ways with Holst. If this seems a contradiction to the fourth point, remember that the isolation is the problem. Every leader needs to both be with his people, and be apart from them to lead them. The trick for the husband is to see his wife as a co-shepherd leading him or helping him to lead others, or to see her as a sheep to be led, depending on what the situation is calling for.
As a post-script, it is also right to point out that men are not over women generally, but that this is specific to the marriage relationship. Holst misses 1 Timothy 2:11-15 here, which does not put men as a class above women as a class. But it does reserve offices of authority for men. In this way, all Christians should be for patriarchy in the literal sense (“men rule”), while avoiding the excesses of bad Patriarchy.