Awakenings / Culture / Theology

Dismantling Patriarchy to Recover the Blessed Alliance (Part 1)

In April 2019, when fire destroyed the Notre Dame Cathedral in the heart of Paris, you didn’t have to be French or Roman Catholic to grieve the loss. The whole world shared in the tragedy.

The majestic cathedral spire collapsed. Flames and smoke inflicted extensive damage to the cathedral’s structure and interior. In the devastating aftermath, donors, skilled architects, computer technology experts, and specialized construction workers joined forces in the daunting task of restoring this once breathtaking historic landmark. 

The goal was not to modernize the cathedral, but to recover what original architects had in mind when construction first began in 1163. That challenge was intensified significantly by the fact that they didn’t have the original blueprints. 

Imagine what those ancient original architectural drawings would be worth today!

Christians face a similar but far more serious challenge than the rebuilding of the Notre Dame Cathedral. We live in the ruins of a broken world, sifting through the rubble for scraps and clues to tell us who we are and how we are to live in God’s world. Every day we’re confronted with devastating reminders of just how broken this world is. 

Deadly pandemics and natural disasters are destructive enough. But by far, the worst damage inflicted in the world is what human beings do to each other — on battlefields, behind closed doors, and, to our profound shame, also inside the American Evangelical church. 

In 2017, the #MeToo and #ChurchToo global Twitter tsunamis confronted us with devastating evidence1 that the world’s brokenness doesn’t stop at church doors. It sweeps right in. #ChurchToo exposed a frightening “Who’s-Who” list of Christian pastors and ministry leaders as perpetrators of sexual abuse. Many of their loyal colleagues engaged in cover-ups to protect abusers and their ministries. Victims were mistreated, disbelieved, and shunned — or pressured to forgive, forget, and move on. 

#ChurchToo blindsided many Evangelical leaders, even though survivors had been speaking up for years! As one leading Evangelical theologian insisted, “We did not know — we thought this was a Roman Catholic problem.” 

It took #ChurchToo and countless survivors to sound an alarm revealing the fact that clergy sexual abuse was festering at epidemic levels inside American Evangelicalism as well. 


God invests human beings with responsibility to participate in divine revelation. God's reputation is on the line in how we treat other image bearers in the world. Our mission as God's agents is to steward the earth well. (1/2) Click To Tweet

Our Imago Dei identity is an implicit call to leadership. We have responsibility for what happens in God's world. Our Creator commissioned all humanity to work for the flourishing of the whole creation, including men and women. (2/2) Click To Tweet


Unfinished Business

In the wake of #MeTo and #ChurchToo, experts and survivors produced invaluable resources to raise awareness of the church’s abuse pandemic and to enlighten leaders how to respond to allegations without making things worse. 

Yet still today, clergy sexual abuse scandals continue to surface.

If the Coronavirus pandemic taught us anything, it is that a pandemic won’t go away until experts identify the virus and develop an effective vaccine to stop it before it starts. It is wishful thinking (at best) to imagine ending the church’s clergy sexual abuse pandemic, much less tackle other forms of abuse, if we are simultaneously creating an environment that is conducive to abuse in the first place. The abuse pandemic will continue to persist as it is doing if we fail to identify the root cause of the virus before it starts. 

In 2006, the Secretary General of the United Nations released a study that named patriarchy as “the root cause of violence against women.”2 This raises major theological problems for the Church, but is a crucial place to start. In good conscience, we must ask ourselves as Christ-followers: How is our theology part of the problem?

The Bible emerges from within an intensely patriarchal culture. Patriarchy is on nearly every page of the Bible. God chose patriarchs to move his purposes forward for the world. Patriarchy (“father rule”) centers on male power, empowering men over women and children, and even some men over other men. 

Patriarchy continues to shape much of our Christian church theology in our current day.

Bear in mind, Christian theology is a human construct. It’s a never-ending work in process. We always have corrections to make and more to learn. So for starters, here are a few questions we must ask ourselves: 

    • Are we creating and cultivating vulnerability when we teach women and girls that the Bible’s watchwords for them are “silence” and “submission”? Or are we equipping females to give a firm “No!” when anyone crosses the line with her? 
    • Are we pressuring men and boys to “be the man” and take charge simply because they are male? Or do we point them to Jesus as the ultimate role model for masculinity? 
    • How does church teaching regarding leadership emphasize responsibility to care for others? Or does our theology of leadership embolden the abuse of power, no matter what form it takes?
    • Are we even asking why it doesn’t seem to matter whether abusers and their enablers are Complementarians or Egalitarians? How is that possible? 

Thankfully, we are not left to feel our way blindly through the dark like the restorers of Notre Dame. We have our Creator’s original blueprints! We’ve had them all along, and most of us didn’t even know it.


In 2006, the Secretary General of the United Nations released a study that named patriarchy as 'the root cause of violence against women.' As Christ-followers, we must ask ourselves, how is our theology a part of the problem? Click To Tweet


Our Creator’s Blueprint for Humanity

Two scholars in higher education coined term “Threshold knowledge”3 to describe “core concepts that, once understood, transform our perception of a given subject.”4 Threshold knowledge is key information that defines and changes everything that follows. 

The Bible begins by giving us vital threshold knowledge: 

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

At the starting line of human history, the Bible doesn’t leave us guessing whose world this is or who stands at the center. Miss or forget this one point, and everything that follows is wildly off course. Any discussion of what it means to be human begins here. Every other text of scripture must be rigorously subjected to the scrutiny of the blueprints God revealed “In the beginning.” 

  1. First, God created human beings to be his Image Bearers (Genesis 1:26-27).

“Let make humans beings to be like us!” (Genesis 1:26a)

This is not taxonomy or some way to distinguish humans as a higher life form than plants or animals. God is unveiling his universal blueprint for every human being. God bestows on each of us the highest stature imaginable that shapes our stories from first to final breath. The Imago Dei calling is every human being’s God-given birthright and it comes with enormous responsibility. Here are a few critical responsibilities that an Image Bearer carries, although this is certainly not by an exhaustive list:

    • To know God, who created us to be like the him
    • To embrace and emulate God’s heart for the world 
    • To represent God — to speak and act on God’s behalf
    • To rule outward over creation, not over each other

God invests human beings with responsibility to participate in divine revelation. God’s reputation is on the line in how we live together and treat other image bearers in his world. Our mission as God’s agents is to explore, cultivate, utilize, and steward earth’s resources. Our Imago Dei identity is an implicit call to leadership. We have responsibility for what happens in God’s world. Our Creator commissioned all humanity to work for the flourishing of the whole creation, including the flourishing of each other.

The slightest abuse or diminishment of any of God’s image bearers is an appalling affront to God himself. We must consider any form of abuse under that light.

We could park right here for the rest of our lives and never fully exhaust the full life-changing significance of God’s foundational blueprint. No other cultural system comes close to what God gives us.

  1. Second, God created human beings to forge a Blessed Alliance to do God’s work in the world. (Genesis 1:27-31). 

“God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish and the birds and every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:27-28).

The Creator is launching the most ambitious enterprise imaginable and the team God commissions to do the job together is male and female. This alliance between male and female is one of the boldest countercultural concepts presented in the Bible. It isn’t merely suggesting “Wouldn’t it be nice if men and women could get along better?” The ‘Blessed Alliance’ is God’s kingdom strategy. It proceeds with God’s emphatic blessing and shouts the good news of Jesus’ gospel wherever it shows up.

No second of our lives and no square inch of earth is beyond its scope. No human being is excluded.

Our Creator is the center — the true North Star — of this Blessed Alliance. We are agents of God’s work in the world, commissioned to look after things on God’s behalf. This isn’t limited to what happens inside the church. It encompasses every human endeavor — education, science, agriculture, medicine, explorations, and inventions. The list goes on and on. 

It’s worth noting that the Blessed Alliance isn’t about “making space” at the table for women either. It means we work to address systemic female disadvantage and the cultural blind spots that persist if we only work with people who are just like us. As an aside, even popular culture gets this. After the 2008 financial crisis, economic experts were asking if we’d be in this mess if instead of “Lehman Brothers” we were working with “Lehman Brothers and Sisters.”


The Creator is launching the most ambitious enterprise imaginable and the team commissioned for the job is male and female. This alliance between male and female is one of the boldest countercultural concepts presented in the Bible. Click To Tweet


  1. Third, God’s creation of the female reinforces the fact that men and women need each other. 

A few points are critical here:

    1. It is essential to stress the fact that God isn’t fixing the man. The man is already a masterpiece. ‘Adam’ has just finished naming the animals, beginning a classification system within the created order.
    2. Second, Genesis 2 is not limited to describing marriage. This is God’s creation of the female, a masterpiece in her own right. Every girl born into the world is an ezer-kenegdo (Hebrew, meaning “warrior-helper”) from first to final breath. 

God isn’t defining separate spheres for men and women; but rather underscoring the fact that the man needs the woman as a strong ally in their shared mission to advance God’s purposes in the world. God calls her “ezer-kenegdo.” Ezer is a Hebrew military word often translated “helper,” but mainly used in the Old Testament (in 16 of 21 occurrences) for God as the Helper of his people when they are under attack and overpowered. Kenegdo establishes the female not as a junior assistant, but as the man’s equal. The female is to the male as the North Pole is to the South Pole. Hebrew scholar Robert Alter asserts that ezer kenegdo “connotes active intervention on behalf of someone, especially in military contexts, as often seen in Psalms.”5

The ezer is a warrior. God mobilized the ezer to bring her full self to their shared mission. Genesis 2 underscores the fact that according to God, it is “not good” when men think they don’t need their ezer-kenegdo allies.


*Editorial Note: Part 2 of Carolyn’s piece, “Dismantling the Patriarchy to Recover the Blessed Alliance,” will publish on Thursday, May 23rd. ~CK


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Carolyn Custis James is an award-winning author who thinks deeply about what it means to be a female follower of Jesus in a postmodern world. Her books include Malestrom: How Jesus Dismantles Patriarchy and Redefines Manhood (2022 edition), Finding God in the Margins (2018), Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women (2015), among others. As a cancer survivor, she is grateful to be alive and determined to address the issues that matter most. Her speaking and writing ministry is dedicated to addressing the deeper needs which confront both women and men as they endeavor to extend God’s kingdom together in a messy and complicated world. She is an adjunct faculty member at Missio Seminary in Philadephia and a consulting editor for Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament. She also serves on the Board of Advisors for Logia, an initiative of the LOGOS Institute of the University of St. Andrews, UK committed to seeing women academics become more visible and valued in the academy and the church. Carolyn is a Leading Voice of Missio Alliance.


God isn’t defining separate spheres for men and women; but rather underscoring the fact that the man needs the woman as a strong ally in their shared mission to advance God’s purposes in the world. Click To Tweet


Footnotes    

1 #MeToo was the global Twitter storm that began in October 2017 and was an initial rallying point for survivors of abuse (particularly sexual in nature) to speak out publicly.  #ChurchToo began in November 2017 out of the initial #MeToo movement and focused on abuse from Christian leaders throughout the Church worldwide.

Ending Violence Against Women: From Words to Actions,” Study of the Inspector-General, (United Nations Publication), 2006, 28. Full quote referenced: “The pervasiveness of violence against women across the boundaries of nation, culture, race, class and religion points to its roots in patriarchy – the systemic domination of women by men.”

3 Jan H. F. Meyer and Ray Land, “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge — Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practicing,” in Improving Student Learning — Theory and Practice Ten Years On, ed. C. Rust (Oxford: Oxford Center for Staff and Learning Development, 2003), 412–24.

4 Ibid.

5 Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary (New York: Norton, 1996), 9. 


*Editorial Note 2: The plenary keynote lecture above, entitled “Dismantling the Patriarchy to Recover the Blessed Alliance,” was given by Dr. Carolyn Custis James, a Missio Alliance Leading Voice. ~CK

  • Purchase the “Dismantling the Patriarchy to Recover the Blessed Alliance, video plenary here.
  • The full Awakenings 2023 Gathering bundle is available here.

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*Editorial Note 3: Awakenings 2025 returns to the DC area this coming March 6th-8th, 2025! Our theme for our 6th biennial National Gathering will be “Wholeness and Beauty in the Life of the Church.” Missio Alliance is thrilled to announce that our first featured speaker is none other than the esteemed Dr. Willie James Jennings.

Sign up here to be notified via email when registration goes live!

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