Despairing over “Despair” at the Church’s “Paternalism”

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I honestly don’t set out each day to find something to have a whinge about. I’d much rather be posting up great positive stuff about the gospel, copies of sermons on my podcast, even the occassional funny. I really don’t go out of my way to find things that annoy me. But I find myself totally unable to leave stuff like this alone.

1326115692_LindaWoodhead0Vicky Beeching’s new project, Faith in Feminism, has an interview with Professor Linda Woodhead entitled “Linda Woodhead despairs of the Church’s paternalism“.

VB: What questions does this current reality raise for you?

LW: I think the main question would be: why has gender equality proved so hard for the churches, even churches in liberal democracies like the UK which have been transformed by a gender revolution since the 1980′s?

I ask that because the most remarkable and unprecedented social change in my lifetime has been the entrance of women into public life, and on vastly more equal terms with men than ever before. And the most depressing – if you care about Christianity and feminism – has been so many churches’ refusal to embrace this change and let go of… paternalism.

VB: Paternalism. That’s a great word to describe the root of the problem….

LW: The more I’ve thought about it, the more I think paternalism is the right word to unlock what is going on here. It captures what’s at stake better than “patriarchy”, “sexism”, or “misogyny”.

In the narrow sense “paternalism” means the rule of fathers. The father is the head of the family, with women and children depending on his leadership and discipline. His rule should be kindly and benevolent – like God the Father – but he’s still the master. Daddy knows best.

VB: Do you think paternalism is widespread within today’s Christianity? 

LW: Yes, churches are shot through with it. It’s part of their core symbolism and language – ‘Abba’ God the Father, ‘Papa’ the pope,‘Father’ the priest – and it’s mirrored in their structures and hierarchies of power. Talk about the church as a ‘family’ is usually a reflection of this – it’s a family under a father(s).

Now there’s much here to note and affirm. Yes, properly understood Christianity has “father” language at it’s core and, yes, this fatherhood is a headship by God that is kindly and benevolent. He is the master and He knows best. But Linda doesn’t like this as the disparaging “Daddy knows best” tells us. So note, also, her reference to the church as ‘family’. She is right to observe this deliberate and consistent use of language in the Bible. She just doesn’t like it.

But churches are paternalist in a broader sense too. This is the sense in which political theorists use the word. It’s the opposite of “liberal.” A liberal is someone who believes that individuals should be free to make up their own minds about how they live their own lives.

A paternalist, by contrast, is someone who believes that people should defer to higher authorities. Such authority might be a man or a woman, the Bible, or God – but if there’s a clash it should overrule your own judgement or conscience.

Here is the wider issue. Christianity is also “paternalistic” in this broader sense. We do have a higher authority – God Himself. We know what God would have us do from the Bible. So watch what happens next. After setting up what society thinks as a measure of how well the church is doing as a mark of its success she then turns to explaining how all us paternalistic types have (quelle surprise!) read the Bible wrong these past 2,000 years:

VB: Do you think this paternalism finds its roots in the person of Jesus?

LW: No…the one thing Jesus was not is a father. Nor did he have much time for the family – telling people to hate “fathers and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters” (Lk 14:26). And a great deal of subsequent Christian tradition agreed with him, exalting the “religious” life over the domestic.

Take a moment to process that. It’s certainly true that Jesus was not a father in the strict biological sense (unless you believe Dan Brown) but the imagery and language of fatherhood is used about Him. So, for example, we read these famous words,

Is. 9:6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

A little later Isaiah again speaks of His work in terms of fathering…

Is. 53:10 Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.

Jesus portrays Himself as a father: He is the merciful father of the prodigal who seeks out the prodigals of this world and rejoices over their repentance (Luke 15:20) and speaks to His own disciplies in fatherly terms, calling them “children” (Mark 10:24). This is of course not the only way He speaks of Himself but to deny that He does is hopelessly misguided.

The charge that Jesus “did not have much time for the family” is also without much warrant. Rather than telling His followers to flatly “hate their families” He urges them to prioritise following Him over allegiance to everything, even their own families:

Luke 14:25    Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

This is not the despising of family but the prioritising of the new family that Jesus brings about if conflict between the two should arise.

Matt. 19:29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.

Note that this is in the same context as the “children” discussion mirrored in Mark 10 that we looked at above.

Looking from a slightly different angle, the entry of the Christian into salvation may be spoken of as adoption into a family by a Father that we recognise as such (Rom. 8:15 so also the language of Hosea 1:10 for another example of this “restorative adoption”).

Rather than a rejection of family the New Testament sees the appropriation of the language of family applied to the greater family Jesus is forming around Himself. So even at His own cross Jesus will use this language:

John 19:25    Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

As the church was established one of the terms used of it was the “household of God” (1Tim. 3:15; Titus 1:7). There is no sense at all in any of this language, despite Woodhead’s desperately wishful thinking, that Jesus has rejected the model of paternalism and the family/household. Rather, it seems quite evident He and His church have embraced it fully. So when she asserts,

This is the topsy-turvy world of the Kingdom in which the valleys are raised up and the mountains made low, the mighty are put down from their thrones, and the tax collectors and prostitutes enter heaven before you.

Jesus’s teaching is about love. For centuries this was interpreted by some in a paternalistic way – love as looking after. Daddy knows best. But it’s not at all clear that Jesus enacted love like that at all.

and yet the evidence of the New Testament is that Jesus described,expressed and enacted His love in terms that included paternalistic categories. As Daddy He does know best – that was the whole point of using those terms.

But Woodhead saves the very best for last and here, I think, we get an insight into what is really driving all of this:

Despite all the ambiguity of the gospels, he doesn’t seem to have made people dependent upon him, but to have offered them the same relation with God, and the same Spirit which inspired him. And Paul, at his best, does the same.

So much in so few words but let me have a crack:

  1. An observation – it’s always fascinating (and here we have a classic example) that theological liberals make such strong assertions, normally contrary to the text but claiming that it derives from it, and yet also speak of the text’s ambiguity. For such an “ambiguous” text they sure are unambigous in their conclusions.
  2. The claim that Jesus did not make “people dependent upon him” is so laughable as to almost demand rejection of the whole argument. Jesus’ ministry was, rather, one that called people to total dependence upon Him as the only one who could save, could provide forgiveness of sins, could open up the way to the Father etc. etc. etc. The Christian life is one of utter dependence upon Jesus. Yes, He opens up a relationship with God the Father through the Spirit but it is guaranteed by our ongoing dependence upon Him – a life of faith and faith alone.
  3. What the rejection of notions of “dependence” demonstrates is, amongst other things, a refusal to recognise that we need Jesus desperately. Now in part this may very well be a reaction to the enforced dependence that much bad treatment of women has forced upon them. Feminism is not least a statement of independence from wicked evil men who seek to disempower women. But we ought to question whether the response to such bad models is to seek the exact opposite (and so, perhaps, produce an equally flawed mirror image) or, instead, to correct the model itself.
  4. In terms of the categories now established by Woodhead surely we ought to assert that the Christian life, rather than being independence is utter empowered dependence upon the fatherly goodness and familial provision of Jesus. This is, of course, liberating but it is not a denial of the family structure. Far from it. It is the rescue and restoration of it. It is empowerment to be a child of a father with all the rights that flow from that filial relationship (Gal. 4:7).
  5. Woodhead turns the work of the Spirit on His head. Rather than freeing us from paternalism (as she claims) the Spirit is seen to free us for a divine paternalism (so, again, Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:7 etc.).
  6. “Paul, at his best” I’m just going to leave…

So here we are again. Once more we see exegesis thrown out of the window in the pursuit of an unBiblical agenda.

This, as I’ve said before, is my main grip with all these discussions about gender roles and sexual ethics. It’s not just the issue itself that is so damaging (although that’s bad enough) but that time and time again we see those pushing these agendas model such awfully appalling exegesis and it gets lapped up by the choir they’re preaching to. Woodhead is, we are told, “one of the world’s leading experts on religion’. Her research into religion and gender is highly respected”. To which all I can say is that if that research includes actual exegesis of the Bible then… well… wow. This is supposed to be teaching a new generation of students how to handle their Bibles.

I don’t know if I’m more disappointed in Woodhead or in Beeching who co-runs the English “YES 2 Women Bishops” campaign which I’ve written about previously and gave a free pass to Woodhead on this.

The pursuit of these agendas leads consistently, as we have demonstrated, to a rejection of what the Bible says and therefore what God has to say on the matter. At least some of the liberals are honest about their rejection rather than trying to make the Bible say something it clearly doesn’t say and ascribe to Jesus things He clearly doesn’t believe either. Woodhead, on the other hand, is still trying to have her Biblical cake and eat it.

There’s a reason, as Woodhead noted at the beginning of her interview, that Christianity has fatherhood language at it’s core. That reason is that it’s a powerful way of talking about the wonderful thing that Jesus has done for us. The core  language reflects the core of God’s provision of salvation in Jesus. Therefore the awful irony here is that Woodhead and Beeching’s position isn’t really about a rejection of paternalism. It’s far more than that. It’s leaning towards a rejection of the Father and His Fatherhood and all that comes with it – the core of Christianity. As I regularly have to point out, that’s a terribly dangerous place for anyone who calls themselves a Christian, let alone takes a position of Christian leadership, to be in.

We should all despair at that.

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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. James Chik

    It’s disappointing that there isn’t anything new in Woodhead’s argument, no fresh idea that hasn’t been promoted before. All that’s offered is the same thing under a new word – paternalism. The cynic in me thinks they believe it’s time for another whinge so the only way to get heard this time around is to come up with a new word. Without it the argument is just old news and therefore who would listen?

    1. David Ould

      hi James,

      I think we ought to bear in mind that at least one of the factors lying behind this interview is the push for Women Bishops in the Church of England. That’s always going to be the primary referent for many of the site’s British readership. In that regard, it’s just another move to keep the topic bubbling along – standard practice, you can hardly blame them!

  2. Conrad Gempf

    You’ve correctly critiqued Woodhead on a lot of points, not least that all she seems to really be doing is disliking paternalism, without presenting any grounds for doing so.

    But she could come back with an acceptance of God’s paternalism being the only true one…. that even if we grant that his benevolent and fatherly rule is written into the DNA of Creation, it’s possible that we push the metaphor too far if we set our churches up as paternalistic with male little gods. I don’t know how she avoids quoting Matthew 23:9 “do not call anyone no earth ‘father’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.”

    It could possibly be, you see, that a well-meaning paternalistic church is only as good as a thoughtful slave-owner. For it is not only written into Reality that God is our Father. It is also a timeless truth that He has bought us with a price and we are his. I wouldn’t want that beloved truth to influence people’s thinking on the institution of slavery.

    Blessings. —

  3. Alan Wilson

    Intrigued by your idea that Jesus is the father of the prodigal son, in some way he is not, presumably, the old woman who finds her coin? Never heard it or thought he was either before… ?

    1. David Ould

      hi Alan (your graceshipness? 😉 )

      thanks for commenting here. Can I ask how you found your way to this post?

      I’m intrigued that you’re intrigued! It seems a natural reading to me. The context for the parable is set at the start of the chapter with the pharisees outraged that Jesus is hanging out with “sinners”. He then goes on to tell 3 stories of people who hunt hard or long to have returned something that is very dear and valuable to them.

      hence, Jesus is the shepherd, the woman, the father. Each parallels the deep desire he has to seek and save the lost.

  4. Lucy Barry

    Yes, of course God (and all that flows from that) is paternal. What is missing from her viewpoint and indeed is something you may have explored, is that God is the father of men too! They too must throw themselves on the mercy of Jesus and have their dependence upon Him. Ok, that doesn’t do away with the fact that God is paternal, but how we respond to Him isn’t gendered.

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