Is it Pragmatics or Power in Patriarchy?

As a part of Rachel Held Evan's Week of Mutuality I wanted to offer a meditation on a common argument that patriarchalists often make in response to egalitarian marriages.  I'm sure you've heard this argument before:
"Somebody has to make the final decision. Somebody has to break the tie."
I don't know how many times I've heard this argument (or something very much like it) in discussions about gender relations in marriage. It is the argument that someone has to be the "tie-breaker" in a marriage for the marriage to "work." And, given that egalitarians don't have a tie-breaker, they are believed to fail on pragmatic grounds--egalitarian marriages can't "work."

True, it is argued, day in and day out husbands and wives don't have to function via power relations. No one has to be "in charge" or be "the leader" in getting the marriage or family through the day. Couples simply coordinate, jump in where needed, and get done what is needed to get done. And if the marriage is working well this partnership feels balanced and equal and there is a mutual feeling of gratitude.

So day in and day out, it is argued, the partnership is less about power than mutuality. Still, the defender of patriarchy insists, a power relation has to exist in the background. Though this power structure is generally latent there are times when it must be brought out into the open and used. The moment for this is when the couple is deadlocked about some decision to be made going forward. There is a disagreement about what to do next. And in the face of that disagreement, the argument continues, someone needs to be in charge. Someone needs to make the decision. Someone needs to break the tie.

And God gave that job to the man. So marriages can work.

A part of the persuasiveness of the "somebody has to decide" argument is that it is willing to admit that powerplays aren't the day to day working reality of patriarchal marriages. This puts a softer face on patriarchy and suggests that 99% of the time patriarchal marriages function just like egalitarian marriages. The implication this sets up is clear: Why this fuss over egalitarianism? It's much ado about nothing. Patriarchy, it is insisted, isn't a day to day reality, it is something called upon as a last resort, when the relationship is stuck and we need to make a decision going forward.

Patriarchy, in this view, is simply a way of getting a relationship out of a jam. Sort of like calling a tow-truck.

Patriarchy, in this argument, is about pragmatics, about fixing a problem.

In this there is an implicit criticism being leveled. Specifically, the vision of the deadlocked couple is held up as a rebuttal of egalitarianism. This vision is intended to show how egalitarianism is unworkable. If somebody isn't in charge how is the couple going to get unstuck? Patriarchy, in this instance, is a gift--a gift God gave us to get marriages unstuck. Somebody has to get the relationship unstuck and God, in God's wisdom, picked the guys for this job. To be clear, the argument goes, guys aren't better than woman for inheriting this job. God's interests and the man's interests are strictly about pragmatics, about getting a job done, often a thankless and dirty job.

In short, patriarchy is about pragmatics, not power.

Is that true?

I don't think it's true. And if it's not true--and this is an empirical rather than a theological issue--then patriarchy is stripped of its pragmatic guise to be revealed as the powerplay it always was.

I say this is an empirical question rather than a theological issue because the "somebody has to decide" argument is making (implicitly) an empirical claim: Egalitarian marriages don't work, they get suck. That's not a theological claim. It's a claim about empirical reality that can be tested: Are egalitarian marriages regularly stuck in this way, ways that patriarchal marriages have "fixed"?

While I know I'm working with a very small data set Jana and I have never been stuck in the way the patriarchalist argues we should be getting stuck. But maybe we've just been lucky. Maybe egalitarian couples all around us are getting stuck, unable to move forward without having someone in the "decider" role, without a divinely-appointed tie-breaker. I doubt it. I have no doubt that egalitarian marriages might take longer to reach a decision and that the process might look "messier." But I feel certain that these couples are willing to pay that price in order to avoid powerplays and to remain in submission to each other. Regardless, I don't think these couples are getting stuck.

And if that's the case, if egalitarian marriages work, even when decisions get hard and there is conflict, then what happens to the argument that patriarchy is about pragmatics rather than power?

If marriages don't need "deciders" to work then there is no problem to be fixed. And if that's the case, if patriarchal marriages don't work any better, then the only reason to opt for patriarchy is the allure of power itself. If you don't need patriarchy, pragmatically speaking, why resort to the use of power when it's not necessary?

Let's put a fine point on this: If there is no problem to fix, if patriarchy has no pragmatic function, if patriarchy is not useful, if patriarchy is an end in itself and not a means, then the exercise of power is exposed for what it truly is. Without anything to fix the powerplay is simply a powerplay, one person exercising power over another for no other reason than the desire to exercise power.

If you don't need to wield power then why are you using it?

And with that question we get to the rub of the matter, why the "somebody has to decide" argument has been so critical in the patriarchal worldview. This argument has made patriarchy seem useful. It is an argument that has been used to hide the powerplay by dressing it up in pragmatic clothing. Power isn't about power, it is argued, it's about making marriages work better.

But what if egalitarian marriages work just fine? What then?

Without the pragmatic dress we see patriarchy for what is truly is.

An emperor with no clothes.

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62 thoughts on “Is it Pragmatics or Power in Patriarchy?”

  1. "I have no doubt that egalitarian marriages might take longer to reach a decision and that the process might look 'messier.'"

    I think this is so key -- a willingness to listen, wait and be patient while a solution is worked out that's best for BOTH.  I don't see any other way to uphold the dignity of both partners in a marriage, and to honor and nurture the love that holds it together in the first place.  If 1 Cor 13 defines agape love, then imagine if both husbands and wives demonstrated that toward one another.  It's a good place to start, anyway.  Actually, it's a pretty good rule to learn for living in all kinds of relationships.  (Isn't this just an excellent example of a proof text case that can be taken literally for its pervasively prescriptive application...  If you ask me -- yes!)  Thanks, and  ~Peace~

  2. You can at least double your data: My husband and I don't get "stuck" either. And we're closing in on 24 years of marriage.

    I wonder how the statistics fall in terms of both divorce and domestic violence in the church, when comparing comps and egals. And I also wonder if this insistance on having a marital "decider" isn't similar to the OT Israel's insistance on having a king, when God tried to persuade them that He was sufficient without one.

  3. The marriages I have observed that try to use the "male headship" model are generally disasters.  The more successful ones (again, in my limited experience) tend to be egalitarian, or "complementarian in name only" - i.e they would say that the man is the leader, but in practice they are more egalitarian.

    My own marriage is egalitarian, and I will admit there are times when we get "stuck", but not permanently.  I would rather get stuck occasionally with my wife by my side than be the "head" and drag her behind me.

  4. Thanks for the analysis. I think it succeeds very well in exposing the pragmatics argument. I wholeheartedly agree that egalitarian marriages do not necessarily get stuck.
    Nevertheless, I doubt whether the choice for patriarchalists is between the pragmatic argument and a desire for power. I see the pragmatic argument sometimes used as supportive, but not decisive for the patriarchalist position. Their main argument is theological (in the extreme: "because the Bible tells me so")
    Moreover, when the patriarchalist argument is supported by married women, in what sense can it be said to be a "desire for power"? Or is desire for power somehow also involved in this situation?

  5. Richard, first, is it possible that patriarchy is a bit of a straw man for you, that neither you nor the readers who will be persuaded by you have ever really considered the possibility that non-egalitarian marriages are a good idea?

    Second,is it possible that if on any other issue I said I was going to present "empirical" evidence that a certain sort of marriage worked, and then simply noted that I had an example or two in which it did, you would tell me that I was misunderstanding the word "empirical"? Would you ask me to look at statistical rates at which marriages work? Are you aware of some studies that show that complementarian marriages show slightly higher "satisfaction" rates (especially for the wife) than egalitarian marriages? I'd love for you to let me know why those studies aren't valid. I'd also love for you to spend some time explaining why it is only a coincidence that the few societies (all within the last 50 years) in which marriage has been considered truly egalitarian, truly ruled by individual personal notions of decision-making rather than traditional fixed roles, are also the societies in which divorce rates are at unprecedented highs?

    I guess I should say that I'm in favor of egalitarian marriage and I think the "pragmatic" argument for complementarian (or, as you put it, patriarchal) marriage is a bad one. I'd just love for you to actually think about this issue longer and harder and give me some good arguments that might actually persuade someone, not just anecdotally-supported rhetoric with which to tell people that their position has no clothes.

  6. I wonder sometimes if the power that lies behind the words of "somebody has to decide" is a corrupting influence on the oneness that God has proclaimed marriage to be.  The couples that I know who have serious marital problems are often ones in complementarian or patriarchal marriages where the wife is resentful that her husband has abdicated his "God-given leadership" and laments the fact that the "leadership" falls on her or else she is resentful because she doesn't think he does a good job in his leadership. Likewise the husbands feel resentment because he feels like he continually fails as a man and so he is unable to please God or his wife or else he is resentful becasue he feels disrespected.  My own marriage has always been an egalatarian one, though at the beginning neither my husband nor I knew this term.  Our mutual love and respect has always made this seem altogether natural and Christlike for us.  We have had some tough issues over the years and we have not always agreed upon things, but we have never been stuck or paralyzed by decisions. I cannot remember a time that I felt resentment about a decision or felt that I was disrespected, though each of us has had more that a few problems with selfishness and pettiness at times, but as far as I know, it never occurred to either of us to invoke our "God-given rights" into the situation, proclaiming that "God is on MY side."  Neither of us has carried a Crusaders banner.

    By the way, we celebrated our fortieth anniversary this past December.

  7.  Good point. I agree that the most common reason cited is a desire to please God and do "what the bible says."

    Mainly I'm talking about a conversation that is a bit more downstream from that starting place. That is, when you inquire as to why God wants this sort of power arrangement to exist in marriages the most common answer is pragmatics. But if that argument is taken away it creates some tension on the "what the bible says" position. If patriarchy isn't about pragmatics then why did God just randomly insert a power relation where it wasn't needed?

    My point being, the argument about pragmatics plays a part in keeping the biblical argument plausible.

  8. I couldn't be patriarchal if I tried. It's just not in me. Which didn't work out so well in my first marriage where that was the expectation.

    I've tried to be patriarchal in the past because I thought that's what I was "supposed" to do as a christian. It never went well.

    I'm afraid that in this, as in so many things, our well-intentioned effort to see the bible as a detailed instruction manual has backfired.

  9. To clarify a bit, I didn't say I was presenting empirical evidence. I said it was an empirical question. As to how I assessed the evidence in my own experience I said, note the bold: "I don't think it's true. And if it's not true--and this is an empirical
    rather than a theological issue--then patriarchy is stripped of its
    pragmatic guise to be revealed as the powerplay it always was.

    I expressed an opinion ("I doubt it") and then but it in a conditional ("And if it's not true"). The conditional is even in the final lines ("But if it's not true"). And feel free to count the number of "ifs" in the post.

    Don't know how much more careful you'd like be to be in expressing my views and opinions. Sometimes, to switch this around on you, I wish you'd think about my posts a bit longer and be more careful in responding to what I actually say than what you fear I'm saying. 

  10. Just a quip, I think -  why did God give male the choice? He chose the weak things to shame the strong.  He chose the foolish to shame the wise.  The one who is strong has an obligation to bear the failings of the weak. 

    One item of pushback on the pragmatics.  Ancient (and not so ancient) marriages did not really have the divorce option nor did they have the wealth option.  Many marriages today at first real impasse head either to divorce court or to a mutual unspoken agreement buttressed by the wealth creation.  Hence the 50% divorce rate and the growing divide in marriage between upper and lower classes.

  11. This makes me think of authority concepts in general.  I wonder if Dr. Beck would weigh in on whether there is ever a legitimate reason for someone to be in authority over another, or over a group of others?  At the university?  In the church?  In government?  In business?  Should a university simply be a group of professors who make decisions together and therefore all concepts of deans and chairs and whatnot are all just power grabs of some kind?  I'm not being argumentative, I genuinely wonder about the nature of legitimate human authority, if it exists, because I think a better understanding of this umbrella concept may yield fruit for the more specific context of the marriage discussion. 

  12. Good article! I think another dynamic, besides the obvious power play, is that some women I know who embrace patriarchy are actually just avoiding personal responsibility. It's like they embrace being a child and prefer a "daddy" instead of an equal partner. These women perpetuate a power system not because they are so much oppressed as they are lazy.

  13.  Though I saw a very interesting Barna statistic the other day--that divorces in typically more conservative churches (e.g., Baptist and non-denom) are higher than in more liberal churches (e.g., Methodist and Presbyterian). See:  Not completely definitive, I admit, but it should give one pause.

  14. I've been pondering this notion of the husband as "tie-breaker" since pre-marital counseling, where our pastor offered that as one of the models of marriage. I think it's a totally bankrupt notion, even by the 'pragmatic' logic that Richard laid out hypothetically: by definition, a tie between two parties cannot be 'broken' by one of the parties involved without undermining the collaborative process in the first place. Basically, if Wife and Husband are at loggerheads, and Husband gets the final say in the event of a tie, then there was never any real deliberation to begin with: his vote will always count twice in any disagreement, leaving her with no effectual input let alone agency. It's really misleading to call that "tie-breaking" when it's really deck-stacking. True tie-breaking always involves a third-party arbitrator: in the case of marriage, this can come in the form of the wise counsel of friends, families, pastors, mentors, etc. Those extra-marital relationships (respected by both my wife and I) are often in some was the "tie-breakers" which help us dissolve the occasional ruts my wife and I get into--they grease us back into grace with each other.

  15.  That would make sense to me under the growing class divide in marriage.  Along the lines of the very old joke: an Episcopalian is a Presbyterian with a trust fund...on to a Methodist is a Baptist with shoes.  I think to dismiss the pragmatic argument is missing a huge survivor bias in the modern era. 

    But also to accept it, or to accept patriarchy the way it is currently defended (Piper, et. al.), is gross distortion of the biblical story and a theology of glory.  Dr. Beck's question in the thread about why an unnecessary hierarchy was inserted is interesting and a pragmatic answer isn't good.  The theological answer I think is that we can see the foolishness of law based arrangements or the wisdom of the world.  Hence the gospel based marriage ends up looking more egalitarian, but there is also a legal trap there.  Egalitarian often gets glossed as 50/50.  The biblical picture is mutual submission which is tougher.  Its about figuring out 100/0 at the right times.  Usually the times you really want to be the decider are the time you have to give it over.

  16. I agree with the idea behind this but not so much with the word "lazy". I think it's fear much more than laziness. It's so easy to take on a gender role decided for you and fit your life into a little box than take risks and live radically for God.  I think women do abdicate their leadership roles wihtin marriage, but I think it's out of fear rather than laziness. I also know women who favor patriarchy because if they've told me if they don't continuously remind their husbands that they are the leader and they have responsibilities their husbands will barely participate in the marriage at all. Again, this is the opposite of women being lazy. they are stuck applauding their "leader-husbands" for bothering to do the minimal.

  17.  I agree with oranges. I have definitely known some women who fear getting out into the world on their own (mostly because their parents taught them from Day 1 that their gender wasn't suited for it), and they are more than happy to hide behind a man. Patriarchal marriage provides the most efficient way to do that. Doesn't mean that they don't genuinely love the men they married. It just means that they want these guys to save them from something.


    p, li { white-space: pre-wrap; }

    A marriage may work (whatever that means and whatever price either one may be paying) and still be dead wrong. Of course, man and wife are equal in certain respects. For example, they are both humans of equal worth. But, are they 'functionally' equal?

    God is a triune being. Clearly, the 'Father' is patriarchal. The 'Son' always does the will of the Father. And, yet, the Father is not a power hungry tyrant ready to pull out his 'I'm in charge' badge. There is never a need for 'I'm in charge' or 'do as I say.' Each member of the God Head has a role or function and in that area is 'patriarchal.' Yet, I doubt there has ever been an 'impasse' in the God Head.

    What I see missing here is love. IF, in fact, agape love is present there can be no conflict or disagreement about what to do next. Neither party seeks its own (including her own opinion; but only the true welfare of the other). When both parties are doing this the patriarchal vs. egalitarian question is a red herring.

  19. I read this post.  Then I re-read it.  Then I read it again.  So I think I understand the issue.  It is not about marriage.  It is not about power.  It is about everything in life being EQUAL.  This means you must insist on going about each and every day making certain everything is "fair".  It is this notion that has literally torn this country apart politically over the past three years, because it flies in the face of Reality, and dismisses human nature.

    LIFE AIN'T FAIR.  People are selfish and self-centered.  Some are born deformed or mentally retarded.  Some have drive, zeal, and ambition, some are lazy and unmotivated.  Some prefer to lead, others to follow.  It's happening right here.  Authority is not optional, unless you prefer anarchy.  So long as we have any choices whatsoever to make about anything and everything we say and do, we need to exercise the power of discrimination.  That is not a bad thing.  At the most basic level, it keeps us alive.  Otherwise, why bother with education?  Church?  Work?  Marriage?  Parenthood?  Community?

  20. Yes. Good observations too! I especially like what you said about those women wishing for salvation from something. I know some men who are egalitarians married to women that actually prefer a patriarchal marriage. The pressure they feel to always have an answer, always make a decision, always lead spiritually, even when they don't feel like it, is tremendous and daunting! Thank God for my wife, my partner. Sharing the burden and responsibility of leadership is so much easier together!

  21. I don't think a distinction between pragmatics and powerplay can be sustained, except that in "pragmatics" the will to power is projected onto an external "imperative". But "Yahoo!" ... You Always Have Other Options.

  22. These are good comments and I agree with them.


    I think egalitarian marriages are the standard.  It is what I strive for in my marriage.  It works in my marriage because my wife and I are matched together well.  It is natural.  The ying and the yang are in balance.   IE . . . I don't have a stupid wife (and my wife doesn't have a stupid husband).  We can come together and reason together.

    But if I came to a realization that my wife was not reasonable . . . the dynamics in our relationship would change.  For instance, what if she . . . .

    1.  decided that from now on we would spend all holidays with her family because her parents are older and they "might" die before my parents do and her opinion was fixed?  (We only have one car.)
    2.  decided to quit work while we still have kids in college simply because she doesn't like her job anymore and she wants to spend more time volunteering at the church community center?  (Oh, okay, hun.  I'll get another part time job to take care of it, you go play church.)
    3.  decides that we should be vegetarians and refuses to allow meat in the house and throws it away if I bring it home just for myself?
    4.  develops a longing for sex every night at 4:30 am and refuses to let me sleep after 4:30 am?  Okay . . . scratch that one.  I could probably bring myself to be able to deal with that one with a lot of prayer.

    Okay, I'm being silly.  However, I don't think that all marriages can be egalitarian.  Not all marriages are matched well.  This does not mean I'm pushing for patriarchy.  Many times it may be the queen of the house who needs to be in charge.

  23. I've always thought this was a stupid argument. If you're really "stuck" and someone has to be the tie-breaker, why not take turns?  "I made the decision last time, now it's your turn" -- kids on kindergarten playgrounds can handle it.  It's only difficult for patriarchal thinkers because their brains apparently aren't located in their skulls.

  24. I think we might have this same problem in the church, which basically amounts to the "Nicolaitan heresy"; the artificial distinction between clergy and laity, and who gets to "lord it over" the other. Just because one member has a certain role doesn't mean they get to lord it over the other(s).

  25. I lived under "husband authority" for 20+ years of my nearly 30 year marriage.  Reading the comments, it hurts to be judged as "lazy" and "avoiding responsibility" and "resentful because she doesn't think he does a good job in his leadership".

    I lived like that because I thought that is what God and the Bible required of me and I was willing to die to myself and lay down my life to follow Him. 

    “Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so [let]  the wives [be] to their own husbands in every thing. Eph 5:24 (KJV)

    Doesn’t that sound like God commands a wife to “submit to her husband in everything”?
    Doesn’t that sound like a wife is obligated to submit to him in order to be obedient and pleasing to God?
    What Christian wife does not want to be obedient and pleasing to GOD???
    If she has to suck it up and suffer, well, God must have His reasons, right???

    That is how I heard and practiced the teaching for some 20+ years of marriage.

    My husband was not shy about using his "final decision making authority" and he was the spiritual leader.  And I thought he walked on water for many years until my quiver full submissive wife lifestyle completely overwhelmed me with responsibility and burden ("avoiding responsibility" my arse!)

    Anyway, he's still a patriarch wannabe and I am egalitarian which has its challenges at times, but we have 8 children together and they are better off with us under one roof for many reasons which I won't get into right now...

    I don't post much but I appreciate the blog, Prof. Beck.  I sent my husband a link to your post on Orthodox Alexithymia.

  26.  Impasse in decision making may go deeper than the method to solve it. This is where discernment has
    to have a broader perspective. It is possible it is more than resolving expectations ,it could be foreseeing danger and harm in the future. I don't see that the methods of decision making need competition rather they need unity. There are a lot families that wished they never bought a home during the market crash. Does it matter how they got in such a predicament? What is more telling is how they will survive and get out. Is it Pragmatics or Power in Patriarchy?

  27. Fair enough. Sorry. I guess I sounded more critical than I meant to. You were appropriately cautious, making it clear you were talking about opinions and conditionals.

    As a student of rhetoric, I'm really interested in knowing--did you intend for the whole post, subtly yet powerfully, to convey that one answer to the title question is really the true answer?  Did you mean to imply that someone, somewhere had already decided that this empirical argument had already been exposed as an emperor with no clothes, that patriarchy had already been determined to be a power play, and that your post had already revealed that the argument for non-egalitarian marriage "truly is" without clothes? Or did you mean to imply that all this simply might happen--but on the other hand might not, because the evidence might bear the non-egalitarians out, and the emperor might have plenty of clothes?All of this is interesting to me precisely because you make such a good, convincing point about this particular argument being empirical. Yet IMHO, it is only empirical if handled empirically. As long as one side says, "I doubt marriage will work without one person being in charge," and another person says, "I doubt someone needs to be in charge for marriage to work," and they both use lots of ifs and hypotheticals and gut feelings and anecdotes, then there doesn't seem to me to be anything empirical on either side. It's all rhetoric.So I guess I kind of wished that you, as someone who is on the right side, and someone who knows how to actually make empirical arguments empirically, had actually gotten empirical here. At the very moment I wish you'd turned from the "if" to the "what's the evidence" question--at that very moment you turned from the "if" to talk about "what it truly is" (if we assume evidence that we haven't looked at yet).So yes, I'm guilty of spending less time on what you were saying than on what I wished you were saying. You gave an excellently-worded, rhetorically devastating explication of how "naked" these people will look if the evidence goes against them. I was wanting you to address other questions, like what it would mean if the evidence went for them--or how, precisely, we would fairly explore whether the evidence is for or against them.

    Keep having fun, and let me know if you ever tackle the questions I was so impatient for you to address!

  28. I think this is interestingly analogous to a similar argument that plays out in discussions of nonviolence. Arguments for violence are often presented in pragmatic terms. They cede the idea, in principal, that violence should be avoided, but then come back with, "but isn't it necessary for violence to be on the table as a last resort?" "Don't you sometimes have to beat a rabid dog off with a stick?" etc... Essentially, the argument is shifted to extreme hypothetical circumstances and it is more or less asserted that there is nothing anyone could do in such circumstances BUT resort to violence or stand passively doing nothing and so a commitment to nonviolence is really a commitment to having no solution for these problems. Violence is just a tool to solve a problem.

    Both in the case of egalitarianism vs. patriarchy AND nonviolence vs. violence I think the "pragmatic" argument not only disguises a power-play (violence is never really withheld till last resort, but is the default mode of enforcing power structures), but also exposes a surprising lack of imagination. Both patriarchy and violence presume there are an abundance of situations for which there really are no good options. You're completely stuck. Someone has to take the reins of power and enforce their will. There's no way around it.

    The practices of egalitarianism and nonviolence are really imaginative practices. They involve constantly coming at situations from new angles and finding new openings and opportunities. Truly egalitarian couples I know are very creative. Nonviolent activists I've had the honor of meeting are the same. They don't give up when faced with an apparent stalemate, but always seek ways beyond win/lose dynamics.

  29. I'll accept that the tie-breaker argument is unsound. I suppose I can do this easily because it was never how complimentarian marriage was explained to me. I've always seen it, ideally, as inhabiting the tension between "submit one to the other" and "wives submit to your husbands." Perhaps this is merely part of Paul's insistance that Christians live quietly and peacably amid a sexist Roman empire, perhaps it is something else. But I've seen it as God's teaching that in some respects men are called to take on a position of submissive authority, women of submission. (This obviously didn't prevent women from working within the church, being pillars of the faith community, or being active outside the home sphere.)

    I can read this article and still hold those beliefs.

    Maybe my time in Canada created the disconnect. Maybe in America, complementarianism really is about some uber-macho "tie-breaking" Navy Seal "make the call" mentality, and pure egalitarianism is closer to the spirit of the Scriptures than any other option we can imagine.

    But is it not possible to imagine, even in America, a Christianity willing to embrace the tension of Paul's binary, rather than clinging only to the egalitarian pole and ignoring the rest?

  30. I tell my wife all that time that I "need exercise the power of discrimination" over her. For some reason, she objects to this. She asks, "Why can't things be equal between us?" I tell her, "Because life isn't fair. People are selfish and self-centered.  Some are born deformed or
    mentally retarded.  Some have drive, zeal, and ambition, some are lazy
    and unmotivated. Just look at what is happening to this country. The point is, Jana, authority isn't optional. So deal with it."

  31. "As a student of rhetoric, I'm really interested in knowing--did you
    intend for the whole post, subtly yet powerfully, to convey that one
    answer to the title question is really the true answer? "

    Ummm. Do you really need to be a "student of rhetoric" to see how my post ends or that I say "I doubt it" about the patriarchal claim? There's not a lot of subtlety going on in the post.

    The point I'm making regarding empiricism is simply this. The defense of patriarchy addressed in the post is a claim about how marriages work or don't work. The patriarchalist is making the claim that egalitarian marriages can't work. But we know many egalitarian marriages do, in fact, work. So in light of that empirical evidence the patriarchalist is going to have to nuance or change their claim. They can do that. And when they do they can let us know and we can see how that revised claim stands up to real-world marriages. Because the claim as it stands--egalitarian marriages don't work--is empirically false.

  32. I like your points, but as so often happens on this thread, while I think the "conservatives" are out to lunch, I think the "progressives" are overstating. It's out to lunch to think that violence and power-play-patriarchalism are somehow "pragmatically necessary." Yet at the same time it's overstating to think that everyone who isn't a pacifist is somehow lacking in imagination, disguising a power-play, and resting everything on ill-conceived hypotheticals. Nelson Mandela didn't have to sit around talking about what happens "as a last resort"; Dietrich Bonhoeffer didn't have to think about a hypothetical rabid dog; my old professor Dr. Fife, who literally helped liberate Dachau, is not simply lacking imagination, nor is my old youth leader, a Dallas cop. Apartheid, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the Sudan slaughters, gang war on the streets of Dallas, and a host of other real things really happened, and real Christians with real imaginations confronted them, and most (not all) of them decided that the way forward required a host of self-sacrificial imaginative responses--including, but not limited to, armed fighting on behalf of the helpless. Even feeding the poor becomes impossible at some times and at some places without some peacekeeping troops handy to fight off the warlords who would otherwise confiscate the food.

    I think that it's as dangerous to caricature all fighting for justice as non-imaginative power-play as it is to caricature pacifism as cowardly passivity. I think it's dangerous to second-guess millenia of good people deciding, AFTER exhausting many other options, to fight, as a faux argument in which pragmatism is simply disguising the will to power.

    Similarly, it may be dangerous to caricature millenia of men (and women!) accepting some form of marriage other than modern egalitarianism, as though they were not solving real pragmatic issues by allocating responsibilities in more than one form. I think it's a bit disrespectful, and disingenuous, to decide that these sorts of arrangements don't serve any real function, but are simply excuses for a desire to dominate. I'd at least look at the real pragmatic problems that come up when every decision must be decided by democratic discussion--maybe it works for too nice people like Richard and his wife, but maybe in a tragic number of marriages this is simply another way of saying, "The most manipulative spouse will always get to run roughshod over the other spouse, because we have no other mechanisms for decision-making."

    I don't like patriarchy and I don't think it's the answer. I don't like violence and I don't think it's the answer. But let's at least admit that there is a question that good people are trying to answer.

  33. An excellent deconstruction of the reality of "patriarchism". I think this is a pragmatic example of Western Protestantism's loss of the doctrine of the Trinity in whose Image we are created and to what we are called to find our fulfillment as human beings in within the context of marriage (which is the first created relationship in the Trinitarian image):  Three Persons in one nature mutually submitted to each other in an eternal movement of love and selflessness. 

  34. If I come In and say, "We're doing such and so and my wife says, "Have you thought about.......?", if I don't think about it, I'm in real trouble.....not with "an attempted userpation," but by not considering things I hadn't thought of that could very well affect both our well-being and maybe even other's...possible or probable consequences. Not to consider her questions would be sheer lunacy not to mention a really dark blot on my awesome leadership skills as a husband.

  35. I'm sorry, Richard. I still can't tell whether you want me to believe (a) that you were simply asking questions and cautiously suggesting possibilities, and I only thought you were making bold claims because I didn't spend enough time reading your post, or (b) that you are indeed making bold claims, such as that the patriarchal empirical argument is "empirically false" and the "emperor has no clothes." Yes, I have to be a student of rhetoric to figure out which of the two you are saying. Sorry.

    I do think that in this reply you clarified the grounds for your bold claims. You shifted (as far as I could tell) the hypothetical non-egalitarian argument from (a) "egalitarianism tends empirically to lead to an impasse and hence isn't the best model" to (b) "egalitarian marriages can never work because they will ALWAYS devolve into impasse." Obviously, the second can be shot down with a single counter-example; just as obviously, the first requires some actual investigation before we know whether the emperor has any clothes or not.Of course, counter-examples aren't always as conclusive as we think they are.You see, the last guy who made exactly the same argument (to me) that you are making, five years later divorced his wife because the two of them had reached a decision-making impasse. Oops. And another couple I know that claims to be egalitarian seems to me more like a matriarchy--the wife overrules the husband at will, and he merely submits, because he is afraid that not letting her make unilateral decisions will brand him an oppressive will-to-power type.Whatever. I still think there is a WHOLE lot of work before these sorts of "empirical" claims, as they stand, are declared "empirically false." And I don't think any "patriarchalist" worth his salt is interested in a single marriage, here or there, which (rightly or wrongly) we deem to have "worked." He's more interested in whether the suffering created by egalitarianism, in the form of marriages that don't work because traditional ways of resolving impasses (however imperfect) have been jettisonned, is a possible reason that tradition has passed down non-egalitarian guidelines.Again, I think he's wrong. But I don't think he's a straw man, and I don't think he's proven wrong by anything you seem to be claiming--with or without the "ifs" and the "I doubt its."

  36. Thanks for this, Richard. It's a very good point. Conservatives can't just say "the bible says" without thinking that there's some reason the Bible says it. And that reason is open to investigation. Thanks so much.

    I do wonder, however, if modern progressivism has a similar problem. If we say that non-egalitarian hierarchies are from humans, not from God, don't we also have to wonder why society randomly inserted a power relation where it wasn't needed? Is it really credible to think that humans were always and only coming up with these non-egalitarian structures because of a will to power, rather than because they found that it worked and served certain pragmatic/ empirical functions? Is it really credible to think that all the pragmatic/ empirical reasons they thought they had for coming up with it was only and always an emperor-without-clothes scam based in the will to power?

  37. 'I don't think any "patriarchalist" worth his salt is interested in a single marriage, here or there, which (rightly or wrongly) we deem to have "worked." '

    I'm not so sure about that. Consider this statement from Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology and senior vice president for academic administration at Southern Baptist Seminary, and his repeated phrase "I fear":

    “What I fear is that we have many people in evangelicalism who can check off ‘complementarian’ on a box but who really aren’t living out complementarian lives. Sometimes I fear we have marriages that are functionally egalitarian, because they are within the structure of the larger society. If all we are doing is saying ‘male headship’ and ‘wives submit to your husbands’ but we’re not really defining what that looks this kind of culture, when those things are being challenged, then it’s simply going to go away...”

  38. Hmmm.  I must have been unclear. It sounds to me like Moore isn't denying that individual marriages can "work" in an egalitarian way--he's acknowledging that lots of them do, functionally. He sounds interested in a broader question--whether a witness is being maintained ("it's simply going to go away") to a different model that preserves something that we value ("defining what that looks like").

    Again, I don't see why we can't acknowledge Moore's project, even if he's wrong, as an honorable attempt to address a real concern--not a naked bid to power whose plausibility is undermined if even one egalitarian marriage "works."

  39. I'd love to see these statistics, which I've seen thrown around on both sides, analyzed by a social scientist whom I trust--such as Richard.

  40. I guess we just see it differently. It sounds to me that he's expressing fear precisely *because* egal marriages work, and not only that, but that professing comps are REALLY, in the nuts and bolts of everyday life, actually functioning egals instead. That "fear" seems to me like he cares more about form than function. Kinda like Israel wanting a king, when they didn't really need one, according to God.

  41. Yes, I like what you said. And my earlier comments about some "lazy" women were actually along these lines. Not that these women do not work hard etc. etc. but that they are not even engaging an issue or offering their true opinion. In that sense, to me they are lazy mentally and emotionally, "Oh whatever, you decide."

  42. I don't see how these examples counter egalitarianism.  If your example of an unreasonable wife were to unilaterally make these decisions, then your marriage isn't egalitarian - she's the one calling all the shots.  It's no different than if you were to unilaterally make such decisions.   

  43. Let's distinguish between violence and force. Having dominion over something implies the option to "force" it to go a certain way, which is the ability to control it. Violence implies "an extreme form of aggression" wherein one has an "opponent" whose welfare is devalued or disregarded. So we can have "moral force", but "moral violence" is an oxymoron.

    I believe that Christian witness requires a willingness to intervene ( = use force) against oppressive situations; so in the case of a rabid dog in the schoolyard one must take control of the situation, but as Christians we are required to keep the best interests of the dog also in mind, and the post-mission attitude ought to be not "I did what I had to do" but "I did my best; I regret that I knew no better."

    Consider the distinction between police and military projection of power (as it should be; these days one of our important social problems is the militarization of policing civilians). Or the difference between "mixed martial arts" and Aikido (Ai = joining, Ki = life energy, Do = spiritual development). It's a matter of attitude, not technique.

    Marriage should be like an Aikido practice, not like a UFC contest.

  44. Thanks for replying. I didn't write anything like what you read though. I said egalitarianism and nonviolence are imaginative practices. I didn't caricature other people as being unimaginative. I didn't caricature anyone in fact. I was careful to say that arguments for violence are often presented in pragmatic terms, and when they are presented that way they tend to rely on extreme hypotheticals and reveal a lack of imagination.

    Perhaps it would be more helpful if you stopped portraying/perceiving the conversation here as polarized and hyper-critical. Doubtless there is substantive disagreement at points, but it seems like you are hearing screeds when what is really being said is much more temperate.

  45. My wife and I have separate gifts, skills, and talents.  We each also have our own faults and fears.  We both understand what they are, yet we remain together.  Decisions must be made every day -- large and small.  Somehow, together, we have managed this way for 34 years.  Neither appears to be outwardly or uniquely exercising power, even as one or the other makes a decision for the both of us and our family (discriminates, becomes for that moment the "authority").  This seems to be a requirement of being alive. 

    However, there are times when one or the other gets "the short end of the stick" in some way or another.  Sometimes things just do not work out, for one, the other, or both.  We discuss, sometimes argue, then move on.  Our marriage is paramount.  It leaves us no "out".  If there is any "power", it is in the truth of that idea.

  46. I have a mildly perverse interest in finding out how people making this argument think things work in same-sex relationships. Who exactly gets to be the "tie-breaker" in a relationship between two women??

    I imagine that these kinds of people have a strong overlap with the kinds of people who imagine that all us queer folks do all day is have nasty sinful sex and corrupt innocent youths, and that naturally we never have to think about things like bills and childcare and calling a plumber, but I'm still rather curious...

  47. The reason for a Christian to opt for patriarchy is never the allure of power nor is it just pragmatics (a false choice), but it comes from the husband’s submission to God who clearly ordained that he be a Christ-like head of his family.   

  48. O.K., I'll bear it in mind. Thanks. If you and Richard both think I'm mis-reading you, then maybe it's my fault. Both of you took pains to tell me how cautious/ careful you'd been. 

    Oddly enough, however, your words are still there:  the pragmatic argument ONLY disguises a power play, violence is NEVER REALLY withheld tlll last resort, and the popular view that violence is sometimes pragmatically necessary reveals a SURPRISING LACK of imagination.I don't see any screed in your words. But again, I'm having a hard time understanding how these temperate, kind, careful words are not a blanket statement that those who make certain arguments (arguments followed by the majority of Christians, I think) are unimaginative, disingenuous, and power-play-driven.

  49. That is an unkind and unreasonable comment.  Please don't demonize or ridicule those with whom you disagree.   The conservatives I know and those who understand Christ-like headship do not root their argument in these pragmatic terms at all, nor in power-hungry terms either.  They may be side points, but true conservatives root their argument in God's clear Word and in His revealed will and in the complimentary principle under which both the husband and wife gain the most when they honor the different God-given qualities and callings they both have in the relationship.   

  50. Christ-like headship, for the husband, means servant leadership.  His power and authority comes through Christ and should works as it did with Jesus.  All the passages calling men to headship in the family root that call in the very headship of Jesus (not in culture).   I learned a long time ago that the Pauline passages on headship mean exactly what they say.  But we men don’t know headship until we know Jesus. 

  51. I think you're right. His fear is that because egal marriages can work, in this culture, we might lose comp marriage, and all be functioning egals. I also think you're right that this fear shows he cares more about form than function. So it sounds like we see it the same.

    What it doesn't sound like is that he is a) trying to claim that only one way ever only functions, in a nakedly naive empiricist fallacy, or b) obviously wrong in his opinion that a different way, less practiced in our society, might function better.

  52. Hi Jh11a,
    I'll reply here. He may not be saying only one way works. But he does seem, at least to me, to be lamenting that a "fix" isn't being applied to what isn't broken. And that seems perversely odd to me. If comp is all about having a "healthy"marriage, but marriages are already functioning in a healthy way that works for both, why the fear and lament? It seems to me that the reasoning behind the fear, then,  isn't really about having good, functioning marriages at all. It isn't really about the prgmatics.

  53. Thanks. This is a good question. I personally don't think any arguments are fully pragmatic--I think that when people talk about things "working" they mean "working according to a certain set of goals." I think I see Moore worrying that those goals won't work in egal marriages, even if those marriages "function." But I'm not sure what those goals are. Is it that he thinks the egal marriages will work for a time, but won't be permanent, and 20 years down the road will reveal the fault lines? Is it that he thinks egal marriages will stick together, but with an individualistic agree-to-disagree rather than a true mutual submission? I don't know. I often wonder what my comp friends think I am missing by having an egal marriage. But I would never say, in the messy reality of a marriage that I know is far from ideal, that I can really "prove" that the empirical reality of my marriage isn't missing something important--or won't get stuck because of a basic weakness in the way we're working together. I can just trust that, whether we're getting it right or not, God's grace is enough!

  54. I think there's a lot of overthinking. Moore's judging egal marriages as something to fear and lament is, I think, sad and absurd. But there's a lot of nutty stuff that goes on in God's name.

  55. It's a falsehood.  I have not trusted Barna Group studies in years.  Extremely poor research methods.  The more famous claim that the divorce rate among those who claim to be "born again" and the rate of the nonChristian population is the same was also proven faulty when a better study found that those who actually attended church regularly had a much lower divorce rate than those who did not.   

  56.  This is entirely untrue...divorce was very common in Roman times (so common that Roman writers made jokes or complaints about it being too easy) and the entire mediterranean including Israel was part of the Roman empire....and wealth, or at least property management, was the main purpose of marriage in antiquity. (if you didnt need to worry about inheritance there was always concubinage...)

  57. Well, for the patrician or rich plebian class in Rome, yes divorce was more common and strictly for managing alliances and wealth.  (Hence Caesar marring Julia to Pompey.)  But even at that level the actions were scandalous - hence the writers comments.  Or the whole appeal of Cato (greater and less).  For village or peasant life, divorce was a much more serious thing.  Divorce would have split the entire village.  The democratization of divorce - along with the weakening of community life - is probably the hallmark of the modern age. 

  58.  It's not "clearly ordained" or we wouldn't be having this discussion. 

  59. While I'm not terribly familiar with the egalitarian / patriarchal dialogue, this post seems mostly concerned with a philisophical line of reasoning (aka - the "somebody has to decide" argument) - your comments about which are good I think (btw).  I'd also be very interested in seeing the egalitarians meet the patriarchalists on theological grounds; specifically an argument grounded in the genesis narrative itself.  YHWY's intent is not this patriarchal system (part of the curse) where "...he will rule over you." (Gen 3:16), rather she is to be an 'ezer' (helper).  The word 'ezer' is used in many other instances to describe YHWY himself as a "helper" - certainly not a patriarchal term (see also Ex 18:4, Deut 33:7, Deut 33:29, Hos 13:9, and many others).  If that was and still is YHWY's vision for the Kingdom (the way we are to live with one another), and we are citizens of that kingdom, then what implications does YHWY's original intent and future vision (one in the same?) have for the way marriages should work?  Anyone know of any authors that have traveled down this path?

  60. Hee hee hee!  Great write-up!  I agree.  Though because you clearly have the ability to think critically and express that pattern clearly (and with grace), I would like to further challenge you about this topic.  Does reaching the conclusion that patriarchy is not pragmatic for the purposes of getting "unstuck" from as-yet-unspecified problem type necessarily make it impossible to be pragmatic for other situation- or purpose-limited experiences?  For example, could a patriarchal system be at least partially useful for the purposes of physical protection?   Anything else?  I wrote an article that might serve as good mental chewing gum, called "Gender Roles: Two Faces of the Same Coin" which you can find at  I've so often heard people arguing all one way or all the other way, but I'm most interested in the discussion that takes place on the fringes or in the areas of overlap, where the real sleeve-rolling takes place.  I invite you to discuss.

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