The Patriarchal Protection Paradox

Standard

The order and protection of patriarchalism and purity culture could appear to be the alternative to the chaos, confusion, risk and hurt of sexual liberation.  We know that women are taken advantage of all the time by men who have no intentions of making a commitment, they do naturally bear the higher cost of sexual promiscuity and therefore it does make sense to offer them some special protection, right?

Men should be protectors.  This is a role that men are well suited for and, in correct form, actually enables women to thrive and be the best version of themselves.  Does this mean that women can’t do what men do?  No.  But it is simply optimal, in a trade relationship, that both parties specialize and do what they are better suited to do.  For the betterment of the whole and ultimately for themselves.  My grandma kept the books for the farm while my grandpa ran the equipment and did the field work.  Why?  Well, it’s simply what worked for them. 

The patriarch, the elder man of a household or a community, should indeed protect those who are under his care.  That’s what he is there for.  He can provide food, shelter, shepherding and defense for the vulnerable.  His age and experience, his humbly knowing his own place under God, can give him perspective valuable to his children and appreciated by the woman that he has committed to love.  This may be patriarchy, I’m not sure, but the good kind.

Unfortunately, patriarchalism, like that often found in religious purity cultures, tends to be the wrong kind of protection.  It elevates women while simultaneously not treating them as equals.  It protects some women, but not all.  And, while framed as a male advantage, because it does privilege some men, actually hurts men.  It may prevent some promiscuity, but it doesn’t protect people or truly show Christian mercy to anyone.  Worse, since it never gets to the heart of the matter, it often only covers for abuse.  That’s the paradoxical part: Below the surface it is not really any different from the degrading and demeaning alternative. 

1) Paradox: Both Elevates And Demeans Women

Patriarchalism is often framed in terms of dominant men who think women should follow two steps behind, which is certainly one part of it.  But it can also be much more subtle than those notions of women remaining barefoot in the kitchen, pregnant, submissively waiting on their husbands. 

In fact, many men who identify with feminism are very often unwittingly patriarchal in their overzealous protective and preferential treatment of women.  Coddling or patronizing women, assuming their motives are always pure, is ultimately another form of patriarchal protection.  This is, incidentally, the reason why some feminist women resent having the door held for them.  Is it a kind gesture or is it an assumption of her inferiority and need for male help?

What I’m talking about is this idea that a woman can do no wrong, that assumes that she is always a hapless victim of male abuses and basically lacking any agency or discerning capacity equal to a man.  

I know women like this, who look adoringly at their husband as he compliments her (patronizingly) for her being able to pick the drapes.  He gets to make all of the real decisions and she can live comfortably without the stresses of adulthood. 

And, not surprisingly, some women are completely fine with this arrangement.   Why not stay on the gravy train if you can?

However, many more women are uncomfortable with this protection.  They sense this treats them as if they’re not fully formed humans and, in the end, will stifle their God-given potential. 

Of these backhanded insults that intelligent and capable women face constantly in this current social paradigm is that they are either a) in need of some crusty politician to help them or b) they are some sort of faultless Mary Sue, with no need of character development, who only had to show up to dominate men.  Nobody truly wants to be treated as special simply because they have a certain type of genitals.  Putting women on a pedestal (even if called feminism) is patriarchalism.

The protection of patriarchalism is the wrong kind of protection.  It treats women sacred objects, idols, faultless and not real people with complexity or depth.  It protects the female body, at least in theory, yet neglects her soul.  It objectifies.

2) Paradox: Protects Some Women, But Not All

In purity cultures (both secular/political or traditional/religious) only those who meet a certain standard or subscribe to a particular ideological agenda are actually protected.  Those who do not conform the cultural expectation are not valued or respected.

In the religious culture which I was born into, the woman who follows the rules (kept up outward appearances and acted the part of innocent) is always treated as pure-minded and virtually incapable of evil.  A young woman, who outwardly obeys, is her daddy’s little angel, practically divinity, and subject to unceasing praise.  Women are protected, but not as equal to a man, and only so long as they represent the ideal.

Perhaps this ‘protection’ is motivated by guilt and a way to make up for the extra pressure put on women to conform and submit?  Or simply a way for some men to advantage themselves over other men by playing the hero?  Maybe it is just a bias of those in a culture where everything is judged by outward appearances and men can’t imagine their female counterparts as being anything but porcelain dolls, where it is unimaginable that a beautiful young woman, from a good home, wearing the prescribed attire, could be anything but sinless and a saint.  Whatever the case, it is real and is a privilege (albeit perverse) that women enjoy in patriarchal purity cultures.  

This privilege, and pedestal, of course, does not apply to ‘worldly’ women.  No, only the girl who meets the patriarchal religious standard is sort of viewed as some kind of unattainable perfection.  A woman is either a paradigm of virtue, a Madonna, or she is a Jezebel, a Potiphar’s wife and temptress, with very little room in between.  An too often, the woman who stands up for herself a bit or defies their cultural expectations, to the patriarchal men, are comparable to a prostitute and totally debased.  They need women to be weak so they can feel strong by comparison.

The patriarchal paradox is that it does elevate and protect women, but not in a way that humanizes or allows women to have the same fullness of character as a man. Patriarchalism doesn’t protect women as people, but rather as they represent an image of femininity and cultural ideal.  This is revealed or exposed, in the reality that patriarchal men do not protect all women.  No, they only protect their women and only so long as they fit the cultural prescription. 

Furthermore, the protection patriarchal purity culture is mostly focused on defending the physical body of a woman, managing her outward behavior, rather than her actual spiritual well-being.  She is the trophy on a man’s shelf, a conquest, but not recognized as a fully formed person.  Women are valued for their virginity and only protected if deemed pure by some cultural standard. A woman is only worthy of protection if his purity fantasies can be projected onto her feminine frame.

This ‘protection’ (or at least as it is combined with purity culture) labels those who fall short as “defiled” and treats them like damaged goods rather than broken people to be loved. The paradox is that patriarchalism protects a cultural ideal for women rather than protect women.  It offers condemnation, not care, for those who fall short.

3) Paradox: Hurts Rather Than Helps Most Men

Patriarchal treatment of women also leaves many men feeling inadequate amongst women who are truly their equals and not perfect as imagined.  In my own life, I’ve put Mennonite women so high on a pedestal that their rejection felt like a judgment from God.  That is unfair to the men, it is unfair to the women, and yet is very common in patriarchal religious purity cultures.

Again, in patriarchal purity culture, so long as a woman dressed and acted in a particular manner she was basically immune from criticism.  I’ve seen very patriarchal pastors side with a wife against her husband, when she was as much at fault, and suspect it was a matter of sexual preference.  And I do mean “sexual preference” in the crassest and literal manner, in that they were protecting women to preserve their own sexual status with her.  Somewhere, in their reptile brain, they needed to impress the woman, play savior to the damsel in distress, and did a terrible disservice to both sides with their prejudice.

Young conservative Mennonite men, unlike the females within the culture who are treated as blameless, are frequently called out for their more open expression of their lusts and pornography addictions.  It is as if it never registered to them that Jesus called out those who appeared to be righteous more harshly than those caught in their sin.  Mennonite women sin.  They have their vices, even if less obvious.  Anyhow, when some are left feeling dirty and irredeemable rather than sinners in need of God’s grace like anyone else, this is patriarchal purity culture and unChristian.

Men in patriarchal purity culture, rather than love other men, enjoy eliminating competition.  By highlighting and haranguing about the more visible weaknesses or inadequacies of other men they hope to increase their own social stature.  This is even more pronounced in purity cultures where polygamy allowed.  The “lost boys” of fundamentalist Mormonism, where young men are accused and run off, a clear example. 

Other men are a far bigger threat to abusive patriarchal men than women.  And this is why Biblical fundamentalist (Protestant) men demand submission to themselves and yet absolutely refuse to fall under any authority other than their own.  It is not so much about women or purity as it is about protecting the overblown ego of some men and comes at the expense of all.  It is actually about power not protection.

4) Paradox: Patriarchal Protection Often Covers For Abuse

The great irony of patriarchal purity cultures are that they are as focused on sex as the ‘worldly’ whom they condemn.  Even in their condemnations of promiscuity there is this “methinks thou dost protest too much” feeling and sense that this constant bluster is for their titillation or pleasure.

But, more than that, this display doesn’t mean these moralizers are free from sexual sin themselves. 

No, they are as obsessed with the physical bodies as anybody in the world outside their cults. 

And, while they consider themselves to be moral authorities, they often blame-shift responsibility for their own lust onto women.  From pulpit pounding sermons about “immodesty” (in front of an audience of women wearing  long dresses) to men who literally blame the young girls they molested for the abuse. 

However, the worst part is when those in these cultures are more concerned about the victims remaining silent than they are about the abuse.  This is probably not so much about keeping individual abusers from justice so much as it is about protecting the culture.  To feel good about themselves, to keep up the “holier than thou” show, they must conceal the impurities.  It is about protecting image not people.

Purity cultures are about preserving an outward image of purity and avoid looking inward at all costs.  They need to externalize blame, keep the focus on the sins of those outside of the group, or it would be impossible to sustain the system.  So deny the extent of their own problems, to try to keep their sins secret, is a means to protect their special identity and culture. 

The Wrong Kind Of Protection

In the end, patriarchalism protects the cultural ideal of purity rather than actually loving people.  It is concerned primarily with a woman’s body, or outward behavior, not her being.  It is centered on the physical rather than the spiritual.  It stifles women who don’t fit the cultural mold, does not protect their dreams or ambitions, and also gives cover to bad behavior that flies beneath the radar of dress standards and superficial obedience.  It protects the power of a few men at the top, but does not serve many (or most) of the males within the culture very well. 

It does not follow the example of Jesus, who did associate with prostitutes and others who did not keep up their righteous image according to the standards of the religious paradigm of that time.  He intervened on behalf of a woman accused of adultery and condemned the sanctimonious elites.  They Pharisees were obsessed with maintaining an outward image, creating physical separation between themselves and those deemed impure, yet knew nothing of spiritual transformation or even their own need of an inner change.  They loved status and outward image, they protected a religious ideal, but not real people.

The problem with the patriarchal purity culture protection is that it protects women like property, as sex objects, and not as people.  It is dehumanizing in the way that it puts women on a pedestal.  The problem is not male leadership.  The problem is any leadership that does not protect other than for it’s own benefit.  Despite what it claims, patriarchalism is about defending the status of some men, keeping their lust satiated, rather than Christian love.  It is ‘protection’ of the wrong spiritual source. 

And, thus unlike what popular mythology would suggest, this is not a problem that would be solved by replacing men in leadership with equally domineering women.  That is the one big absurdity of our time, we are told that women would be better more empathetic leaders than men and then given purple-haired Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo berating a subordinate man as an example.  That’s not an empowered woman, that’s a woman that is dangerously entitled or so uncertain of her own command that she needs to make an example of anyone who dares to question.

It is the spirit of patriarchalism that’s wrong and why it creates such resentment.  Most of us would fall willingly behind a fatherly figure that we trusted was not in it for himself and had our best interests in mind.  If we knew that our unique personhood was being protected rather than how we fit into their own cultural ideal and scheme then we would be less skeptical.  More would fall into place as God intended if we would all start here, with humility and a truly serving spirit:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

Philippians 2:5‭-‬7 NIV)

Godly Men Should Honor (Not Patronize) Women

Standard

I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head and wept. ‘All right,’ I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool–that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’

That quote of Daisy, from The Great Gatsby, about the birth of her daughter, sardonically expresses her resignation to the male-dominated society of her time. She is saying that it is better for a girl to be a fool—because for a girl to be anything other than that would be to live a frustrated and repressed life, like her own life.

It shows that Daisy, though always acting flighty and fake, a rich ‘privileged’ woman in the roaring 20’s, has far more depth to her character and real intelligence than she is allowed to openly display.

One might assume that someone in her position, all of her material needs met and sheltered from any responsibility, would be content. I mean, the wealth of her husband, the brutal Tom Buchanan, walled her off from the toils and freed her from work or consequences.

But, beneath the veneer of playfulness, she seems miserable. She was powerless beyond what her husband provided for her and merely acting out the role carved out for her by society, the part of a fool, rather than truly free.

There is only the slightest difference between walls intended to protect and walls that imprison, the smallest gap between guarding someone’s child-like faith and enabling their childish behavior, and a person can claim to be protecting others yet really only be protecting their position. There are many people, men in particular, who like to keep others around them weak so they can feel strong or needed.

A fundamental misunderstanding of the weaker vessel…

The idea that women can’t be expected to handle certain circumstances or rise to the same level of behavior as a man is not something new to me. I know in fundamentalist circles many men regard women to be wholly inferior to them (besides in child-bearing) and thus a comment to that effect was not completely unexpected. However, it was still a bit jarring, in the context it was given, to hear a woman being excused for her unsociable behavior because she, as the “weaker vessel” and thus somehow incapable of doing any better.

I had to wonder what women (conservative Mennonite women in particular) would think of that comment.

Is that what they really want?

Do they truly want to always be regarded as helpless, the perpetual damsel in distress, rather than be treated as an equal and emotionally/intellectually capable?

I have a feeling that is not the kind of male protection that most women want.

But then, I could be wrong, my lack of success in the realm of conservative Mennonite courtship could indicate that my treatment of women as an intellectual equal was a grave error. Perhaps this is why I’ve been described as “intimidating” by a couple intelligent Mennonite women? Could it be that women really do feel better being coddled and patronized?

I will say that many women, especially attractive women, expect to be catered to and this is because men (including yours truly) are generally nicer to them for a variety of reasons—some of those reasons less noble than those more often expressed.

Anyhow, these hidden wants, openly expressed opinions and general tendencies aside, the real question is whether or not this is what the “weaker vessel” of Scripture truly means. Yes, obviously, women are, on average, weaker than men in terms of some measures of physical strength. But does this make women more feeble and less capable in all regards? Are women generally inferior to men?

Here’s the text:

Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered. (1 Peter 3:7 KJV)

I used the King James version because other translations replace “vessel” (σκεῦος) with “partner” or “sex” and potentially muddy the waters as far as this question more than they make things clearer. Again, I’m not an expert on the Greek language, but judging by how this word is translated elsewhere (John 19:29, Romans 9:21, Acts 9:15,10:11, etc), the word “vessel” seems to be a more literal, direct and appropriate translation.

That word “vessel” is an important qualifier to the word “weaker” (ἀσθενής) that precedes it. It is used in reference to objects or physical things and, in context of 1 Peter 3:7, would be reasonably understood to be a reference to a woman’s physical body rather than her person in general.

But more important is the rest of what is said. First, this passage is specifically about the relationship between husbands and wives. Second, the answer to a woman being the “weaker vessel” is for husbands to give “honour” (τιμή) to her, which means to value her, as one “being heirs together” with him, and it never suggests treating her like an inferior. If anything, this is an instruction not to use a woman’s lack of physical strength as means to diminish her other abilities or as a reason to otherwise patronize to her.

Yes, certainly we should protect what is valuable and Paul warns (similar to Malachi 2:13-15) about a man’s prayers being hindered if he mistreats his wife. However, that’s not the same thing as saying that we should be an enabler of weakness or should create unhealthy dependencies in our marriages. It is certainly not an excuse to allow a woman to act in an unChrist-like, inappropriate or otherwise unsisterly manner in the church.

The sexism of lower expectations is not honoring or Scriptural…

For the same reason we tell a bully “pick on someone your own size” we also say “don’t hit a woman” and should always take a clear stand against those who would exploit weaker people. Scripture always sides with the protection of the poor and against the oppression of the weak.

However, protection is not the same thing as pandering and nor does having Christian compassion mean we should coddle. No, a man should use his strength to encourage, empower and strengthen the weak. His role should be to give a space for his family to flourish. I believe that is the goal of our protection. Men protect the weak, in essence, by lending them our physical strength against external threats and that allows their abilities to shine rather than be crushed.

It is well-established that countries that protect the property and freedoms of their citizens prosper economically compared to those that exploit and/or do not. This is because people who know their work will likely be stolen have no reason to innovate or be ambitious. Likewise, a man who is a controlling tyrant, who sees his wife or children as wholly inferior, even if he does prevent their being exploited by others, will stifle and destroy the abilities of those entrusted to him.

Sure, maybe some women do employ their weakness as a means to get what they want in a relationship. I also know a couple cases of wives who can’t make their own decisions and depend on their husbands for everything besides picking the color of the drapes. But that level of dependency is not a good thing nor is it something we find in Scripture as an example of exemplary womanhood either:

A good wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from afar. She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and tasks for her maidens. She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She girds her loins with strength and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy. She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet. She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple. Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land. She makes linen garments and sells them; she delivers girdles to the merchant. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates. (Proverbs 31:10‭-‬31 RSV)

That is not a limp-wristed wimp of a woman who follows two paces behind her man to keep in her place. No, that is a human dynamo, a force to be reckoned with and not that extremely anxious woman waiting for her husband’s input before doing anything on her own. No, the ideal woman, according to Proverbs, is the one who “makes her arms strong” and engages in commerce, a manager of a wide variety of affairs, and a wise teacher to boot.

Paul didn’t write so that men would lower their expectations for women. No, Paul has many expectations for women. Including in the verse prior (1 Peter 3:6) where he tells women not to be fearful. Telling a woman not to be fearful (φοβούμεναι) is the same as telling her to be emotionally strong and mentally capable.

It is not honoring of women to treat them as generally inferior or incapable.

How should men honor women?

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, fear not!” (Isaiah 35:3‭-‬5a RSV)

Honoring means to protect and protect means to strengthen.

A wise man knows that he might not always be able to provide for his wife and children. For that reason, he will protect them by making them strong and not only shelter them with his own strength.

Yes, there is a kind of man who likes to keep others around him permanently disabled so that he can feel strong and useful. There are also women who enjoy being fearful and hanging on the arms of any man who will give them attention. But there is nothing in Scripture that suggests we should encourage this kind of codependent behavior and plenty that indicates we should strengthen and bring out the best in each other.

Men and women may serve different roles in the church and home. After all, people are different, regardless of gender, with different strengths and weaknesses. However, acknowledging that the reality of our differences in strength and honoring the “weaker vessel” does not mean treating anyone as our intellectual, emotional, or spiritual lesser. What Paul is really teaching, in a fuller context of Scripture, is that we not use our own physical strength as a means to diminish the abilities of our wife and rather we should honor her as someone capable.

In the end, nothing good comes from pandering to the women. Instead, we should respect them as capable, despite their lack of physical strength, and should encourage them (as Paul does) to be free rather than fearful. Fundamentalist purity cultures do the opposite, they seek to subjugate the weak and twist Scriptures (sometimes ever so slightly) to justify their dishonoring treatment of women. It is very subtle in some cases, it can be as small as lowering expectations based on gender alone, yet it is pervasive and perverse.

Maybe these men need a reminder? The word “helpmeet” used in Genesis 2:19-20 denotes a “suitable helper” and uses the same Hebrew words used to describe God’s help in battle. It does not imply subordination. It implies capability and strength. So, if we do not honor God through our doubt, then we do we honor women by lowering our expectations for women. Instead, we use our own unique strengths to encourage and strengthen each other.

A woman can be so much more than “a beautiful little fool” and we should not deprive them of the opportunity to rise up to the challenge of meeting the standards of competency that we would expect from a man—so do not dishonor her with sexism of low expectations.