from standing tall to on the floor: conversations on patriarchy.

Years ago a friend from The Refuge hosted a Listening Party for Christian men to listen to a panel of women on our experiences as female leaders. It was a brave thing to pull together. We looked forward to having a space to share our experiences and be heard by our Christian brothers. The only problem was when we showed up, there were about 40 women in the room and 7 men. His efforts were incredibly sincere; the reality is that men just didn’t come.

Listening to the other participants on the panel as well as the sincerity and depth of the responses from the audience was beautiful nonetheless.

As I was sharing, I felt strong, clear, empowered.

However, afterward, I went home and literally curled up in the fetal position on the couch and sobbed for the rest of the afternoon (and I’m truly not an easy crier).

That much pain, that much reality, that much oh-my-goodness-these-are-such-amazing-women-and-how-could-we-be-treated-as-less-than-for-this-long really got to me. I was flooded with painful memories of countless instances of sexism, power differentials, and lip service that never equated to any real change.

Others present expressed a similar response; we have so few venues to let out these feelings that when we do, it floors us.

Last week at House of Refuge–a wonderfully eclectic group that meets weekly at our house for spiritual conversation–my male friend (who is a millennial and gives me hope for the future) facilitated. He started with a simple opening about patriarchy’s power. Then he shared that no men were allowed to talk that night, opening the floor for the women. What did men need to know? What was our experience? What needs to be said?

As I shared, I could feel an intense and overwhelming feeling of wanting to yell for not just a few minutes but for the rest of the night and into the morning.

The space was sweet and tender and I was grateful for it. Yet, I could feel the magnitude of this many years of trying to stand tall in the face of the deep grooves of patriarchy as a female Christian pastor and leader.

Frankly, it’s just taken its toll.

Here’s what’s so hard about this stuff.

It reminds me that even though I, and so many women I know, have come a long way in Christian ministry over the last chunk of years, we are still on the bottom rung in many systems.

It’s owning that even though there are anomalies people can point to, on the whole men still hold the power, even in the moving-toward-being-more-progressive systems. Many are making space for women in new ways; however, the truth is that if women replaced men as leaders in the identical capacity, their donors would dissipate. Power does beget power, and in the end, white males (especially evangelical ones, but not only) form a significant and hard to reckon with power base of money and resource that truly does affect a Christian organization’s ability to sustain a true move toward equality. We see this when a group becomes LGBT+ inclusive or begins being bolder about race, too.

That night after House of Refuge, I scrolled through the list of Denver ministries and organizations that I love and respect and are lead by men who are dedicated to equality and trying to do things differently. One by one, I realized that if any of them shifted to a woman as the executive director or lead pastor in the near future, their donor base would quickly crumble.

That puts me back on the floor.

Yes, we’ve come a long way, and I am grateful for the organizations working toward change, but we must acknowledge the truth—we’ve got a long way to go to full equality.

It will take a power shift I don’t think we truly respect yet (#metoo is helping).

Until we strongly acknowledge patriarchy’s deep and dangerous grooves into all of our systems, we will keep denying and minimizing, spinning around the truth, hoping for an easier way out.

Patriarchy sucks.

It robs dignity, limits potential, destroys passion, and damages organizational health.

It harms those on the underside of it as well as those who benefit from it.

It offers crumbs to the hungry while the fat are feasting, and is often so familiar that sometimes we don’t even notice it.

Patriarchy’s tentacles are strong and insidious; things will not shift without some major heavy lifting from the men.

This is where despite all my efforts to stand tall and push against the patriarchy and do whatever I can to empower other women and nurture healthier systems, I sometimes land back on the floor again.

Here’s why: I know so many humble, kind, compassionate and willing-to-give-up-their-power men. I have watched them listen, learn, play their part in change, and embody Jesus’ example.

Yet, to be honest–they’re rarely the ones at the top of a system.

The power at the very top rarely shows up, rarely listens, rarely plays, rarely changes. That’s why the bigger system never changes.

So why keep trying?

First and foremost, in The Refuge, I see up-close and personal every day what is possible when patriarchy is smashed. It truly is a taste of heaven on earth, when power is diffused and men and women can lead, love, and live alongside each other as equals.

Secondly, because eventually, over a lot of time with more and more passionate-for-equality women and men standing tall together in creative, beautiful and tangible ways, the healthier power underneath will get so strong it will eventually topple the dysfunctional holdouts on top.

The patriarchy will be smashed not from the top but from the bottom.

Which resonates deeply with Jesus’ ways. 

That’s what makes me peel myself off the floor and out of the fetal position yet again and do what I can to stand tall the next day.

It won’t come down easy, but let’s keep crumbling at the foundation. 

How are you doing with conversations about patriarchy?

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

5 Comments

  • Male privilege dies hard. Sad that the Bible is used to justify male leadership and exclude females from participation in leadership. They ignore the strong women of the New Testament who played an vitally important role in helping the church survive. Can we discount Paul as a homophobe and bigot. To be generous we could deduce that he was a reflection of his culture without discarding his teaching on grace.

    Reply
    • Randy, I loved Kathy’s post, as usual, and am about to comment on it. First, since you’ve raised Paul, here’s something we should remember: He almost certainly did not write I Tim., nor 2 Tim., nor Titus (and real questionable on Eph. and Col.). The enigmatic passage on silence in I Cor. 14 either is just that: very unclear and thus no real argument either way, or, fairly likely was an early edit of Paul’s original. Within a few decades of composition, this was common (cf. Mark 16, John 8, and a few other places). Before enough copies were out and being used to “solidify” a given text, this was very tempting. (We should have no simplistic views about “pure motives” of early scribes, church leaders, etc.)

      So I Tim, for Evangelicals, should offer no “apostolic” (read “authoritative”) support for male-only leadership. That fact is one big reason, I believe, why conservative biblical scholars keep clinging to Pauline authorship of the Pastorals, against the great weight of evidence and the strong consensus of their more open colleagues.

      Reply
  • Thanks for this, Kathy! Great points and great heart!

    I’ve shared this before, but maybe it will encourage you or readers who may not be aware: Some of the “mainline” or more progressive denominations are way beyond just “token” women in leadership. In my United Ch. of Christ denom., I’m pretty sure there is roughly 50-50 male-female mix for pastors. It may even be majority women, as they certainly are many… I’ve not looked for denominational stats. I also don’t know how common or influential women are in higher level leadership, but it doesn’t matter as much in UCC as many denom’s, because of our strong congregational rule structure, with minimal rules and limitations from “above”.

    On your subject of systemic change, here is some great and in-depth(!) work (by a male) on the role of education (“secular”) and, more broadly, what can be envisioned and must be moved toward to continue to “fix” things:
    https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/education-is-the-kindling-of-a-flame-how-to-reinvent_us_5a4ffec5e4b0ee59d41c0a9f

    Reply
  • Some years ago my wife and I delivered homemade cookies to local people who had visited the church we were attending at that time. We remember the day a certain man and his wife answered their door. He said someone had told him that our church believed men should be in control of their wives and daughters and that was what he was looking for. Loosely paraphrased, “If God, the Bible and the church are telling my wife and daughters that I’m in charge, that’s the church for us.”

    We have come across others who have decided to attend church or who chose a particular church because of the church’s stand on not only this issue, but also because of their stand on political issues, current social issues and similar things. These folks were also looking for a church that teaches that God, the Bible and the church are supporting what they already believe about women, other races, gay people, who and what to vote for, and similar issues. Sadly, their decision to attend church and their decision on which church to attend revolve around these issues rather than around what the church teaches about Jesus and loving God and neighbor.

    We do not support these religious organizations with our time, money or our presence. When we are asked by those who are part of these organizations to join them, we politely decline and explain why we are declining.

    Reply
  • The question you pose at the end is a lovely way for me to enter into this conversation. How am I doing? I get overwhelmed when dealing with patriarchal systems and people. I feel like I have to have such well-thought-out arguments and conversation points to be heard that it’s to exhausting to enter the conversation.

    Thank you for listening-
    Nikki

    Reply

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