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


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.


Vicky 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.

Read it all here VERY MUCH worth the read.

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