The “Patriarchy” Problem

“Patriarchy” means, “father rule.”  The concept of father necessitates a child or children (“father” is not equivalent to “husband”), so the word patriarchy might be thought to imply that the father as father bears unique and final human authority in the family.  If so, this assumption is false.  From the Biblical teaching that the faithful wife must submit to her loving, sacrificial husband (Eph. 5:22f) some spring to the conclusion that the mother does not bear equal authority with respect to their children.  They believe that the familial hierarchy in descending order goes like this: father –> mother –> children.  The problem is that this is not what the Bible teaches.  Paul teaches, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother,’” (Eph. 6:1–2a; cf. Col. 3:20, emphasis supplied).   Paul does not teach (nor does anyone else in the Bible teach), “Children, your father is the ruler in the family, and you must obey your mother to the extent that she obeys your father, for he is the final human authority in the family — Father Rules!”  It is notable, in fact, that whenever the Bible has in mind children’s obligation to parents, it never depicts a paternal hierarchy, only a parental hierarchy.  This parental parity is especially striking in the Book of Proverbs:

My son, keep your father’s command, And do not forsake the law of your mother (6:20).

The proverbs of Solomon: A wise son makes a glad father, But a foolish son [is] the grief of his mother (10:1).

He who mistreats [his] father [and] chases away [his] mother [Is] a son who causes shame and brings reproach (19:26).

Whoever curses his father or his mother, His lamp will be put out in deep darkness (20:20).

Listen to your father who begot you, And do not despise your mother when she is old (23:22).

Whoever robs his father or his mother, And says, “[It is] no transgression,” The same [is] companion to a destroyer (28:24).

[There is] a generation [that] curses its father, And does not bless its mother (30:11).

The eye [that] mocks [his] father, And scorns obedience to [his] mother, The ravens of the valley will pick it out, And the young eagles will eat it (30:17).

No reasonable reader of this wisdom literature, calculated to instruct the naïve young man in the way of wisdom, would assume patriarchy, “father rules”; rather, he would get the distinct impression that God vests the parents with a parity of authority.  Interestingly, in fact, the term father rarely appears in Proverbs without the term mother. This is another way of saying that with reference to their children, father and mother share equal authority in the family.

Therefore, the Biblical familial hierarchy goes like this: parents –> children.  The father has no more say in the children’s rearing than the mother, and therefore “patriarchy,” denotatively speaking, is no more valid than “matriarchy.”  The Bible does not teach that the father is the head of the household; it teaches that man is the head of woman (1 Cor. 11:2–3), an altogether different issue.

Alleged Biblical Support for Patriarchy

In opposing this view the document  “The Tenets of Biblical Patriarchy” lists as support Genesis 18:19 and Ephesians 6:4.  The latter warns the father not to provoke his children to anger but to rear them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.  It implies that of the two parents, the father may be most inclined to employ his parental authority sinfully, but it in no way implies that his authority trumps the mother’s authority.  In Genesis 18:19 God credits Abraham with “commanding his children and household.”  It is a statement in the context of verifying God’s covenant with Abraham.  The reason Abraham’s wife Sarah is not mentioned as commanding the children (as the mother in Proverbs is depicted) is because it was not Sarah with whom God directly made a covenant.  Genesis 18:19 is a statement about paternal faithfulness, not familial hierarchy.  A similar text is 1 Timothy 5:14, which teaches that a chief task of younger widows who marry is to “guide” or “manage” the house.  The term means to serve as master or to rule a household.  If, therefore, we had only this text by which to formulate our understanding of familial hierarchy, we would conclude that the wife and mother (not the husband or father) is the head (master or lord) of the household.  But this text is not teaching that the wife and mother is vested with greater household authority than the husband or father.  It is teaching that in her domestic role she is the principal authority.  The husband is the primary breadwinner (1 Tim. 5:8) and less occupied with domestic duties, which do consume the life of the mother (Prov. 31:23, cf. 10–31).  The wife and mother in this sense is the lord, head and manager of the family. This is the explicit meaning in 1 Timothy 5:14.  Within these parameters, we might even say that while the husband is the head of the wife, the wife is the head of the household.

This paradigm helps us to better understand the Bible’s hierarchical familial arrangements (note the all-important plural): husband –> wife / parents –> children, not husband-father –> wife-mother –> children. This is to say that the father and mother must agree on decisions relating to their children and have veto power over each with respect to their children.  A father who runs roughshod over the mother’s authority pertaining to their children is no less sinful than a wife who refuses to submit to her husband’s leading.

Nor does this paradigm deny a division of labor, such that each parent must be consulted on every conceivable decision.  The husband may delegate to the wife his authority for deciding the children’s diet, for example, just as the wife may delegate to the husband her authority about what sports their children may play.  But any husband whose attitude toward vital decisions like whom the minor children should date or court is, “I’ll let their mother handle that,” or any wife who says of their children’s education, “Their father will decide where and how they attend school” has abdicated his and her obligation before God.  A mother who permits the father to usurp her authority in rearing their children will stand responsible before God for violating a sacred trust that God has given her as a mother.


“The Tenets of Biblical Patriarchy” trumpets, “Egalitarian feminism is an enemy of God and of biblical truth.”  This is correct, but patriarchal machismo is also and equally an enemy of Biblical truth, and it, no less than egalitarian feminism, must be exposed for the false teaching that it is.

Author: P. Andrew Sandlin

I am founder & president of the Center for Cultural Leadership, core faculty of the H. Evan Runner International Academy for Cultural Leadership and De Yong Distinguished Visiting Professor of Culture and Theology, Edinburg Theological Seminary, and an ordained minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity. I am happily married to Sharon Lynn Sandlin (nee Habedank) and have five adult children and four grandchildren.

8 thoughts

  1. Thank you for this post, Andrew. I think it’s spot on and the topic is probably worthy of a more extended treatment.

  2. Although I can’t give you the footnote, I remember several years ago reading (or perhaps hearing in a lecture) by Bruce Waltke that — in comparison with other Ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature — the emphasis on the mother’s parental authority and role in Proverbs is quite unique. He probably mentions the point in his commentary on Proverbs somewhere, but I didn’t take the time to look for it. It’s an interesting observation, since pagan “patriarchy” was so often monstrous, and it’s “baptized” modern version often partakes of the same spirit.

  3. Is this a joke? The Head of the woman is the man, the head of the man is Christ, the head of Christ is God. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

    If the head of the woman is the man, it would apply to all aspects of their marriage, including child rearing. A godly husband will gladly respect his wife’s opinions and desires, and godly wife will do the same. However, there can never be perfect equality in any relationship, let alone marriage, which is scripturally shown to be a husband lovingly leading and his wife willingly following. Eventually, someone has to make the final decision, and the authority of scripture makes the husband the one who must make the final decision.

    Don’t be fooled into egalitarian doctrine. It is false, wicked and destructive. Be true to God’s Word and let Him show Himself faithful!

    1. I was just directed to this article and have to agree with Rachel. I might not always like submitting to my husband, but I do it as submitting unto the Lord and trusting Him with the results. 🙂 My sons are now grown, but they always knew dad had the final say and this brought great peace and order to our home.

  4. I’m finding this argument quite difficult to follow in light of even a cursory reading of Scripture. 1Peter3:1-7 seem rather straight forward. Was not part of Adams sin his allowing Eve to sin? How does Num 30 fit this egalitarian scheme of parenting? Is the God of the Bible our Father? Maybe I’ve missed something but it seems to create nothing but strife and confusion when someone is not in charge.

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