Talking back to patriarchy, part 3: It all comes down to authority

submission-umbrellas“But saints are those who are obliged to come to terms with authority structures which come from the hand of God.” – Sarah Faith Schlissel, “Daddy’s Girl”

Consider the case of Sarah Faith Schlissel.  The quote above, offering a definition almost in passing of what it is to be a Christian, was part of a treatise on courtship.  The author was a teenager, home educated, living in Brooklyn, and by many accounts part of an active, successful and emotionally healthy family.  Sarah Faith Schlissel Hodges is now married, a convert to Roman Catholicism, the mother of seven, and still writing.  She’s publicly modified some of her ideas about courtship – and perhaps about authority?  But the original piece she wrote remains in various places on the internet, offering a view of a father’s authority over his daughter that I find troubling.

As strange as it may sound, in the peculiar relationship of the father and daughter, God, as it were, takes a back seat.  God has created a hierarchy such that the daughter is directly answerable to her father , and her father then answers to God…So I really am “Daddy’s girl.”  And no man can approach me as an independent agent because I am not my own, but belong, until marriage, to my father.  At the time of my marriage, my father gives me away to my husband and there is a lawful change of ownership. – Sarah Faith Schlissel, “Daddy’s Girl:  Courtship and a Father’s Rights”

Sarah Faith nearly derailed this post.  I’d read “Daddy’s Girl” sometime back and found it to be a perfect example of skewed patriarchal theology.  When did we return to the idea that women are property, passed from father to husband?  And who on earth would promote the idea that God “takes a back seat” to anyone in our lives – particularly in light of Jesus’ teachings on family.  When trying to explain what  I’m critiquing, this essay was a great Exhibit A.

And then I read Sarah Faith Hodges’ mommy blog, and I like her.  I don’t know her, of course, but she doesn’t seem like an oppressor of women.  Finding out that she wrote the essay in question when she was 15 complicates things further.   It is one thing to ask a 15 year old to submit to her father’s will in romantic entanglements:  perhaps Sarah Faith Schlissel could not anticipate that women into their 20s and 30s would be looking at her essay as a model for biblical courtship.  Nor could she imagine, apparently, that there were unhealthy, abusive family situations in which her ideas could be applied in demeaning and destructive ways.

For  a few hours after running across Sarah Faith’s blog I wanted to abandon this post entirely, and maybe the whole series.  I thought, “Leave these poor people alone, even if they are wrong.  Who are you to criticize?  Who made you the judge?”  Valid questions, by the way, and ones I need to ask myself often.   But then I pressed on and did some more reading – accounts of people whose families had been involved in Bill Gothard’s programs.  I got my motivation back.

This was, however, a reminder to me that sometimes nice, well meaning people are behind  distorted teaching and practice.  Part of the function of the church is to challenge, ask questions, point out potential problems, have the hard conversations, keep the iron sharpening the iron.  But I also must remember that to dish it out, for whatever reason, means that I’d best be prepared to take it.

Chicken or egg:  did the patriarchists start from an ideology of gender and allow it to shape their theology?  Or did they find patriarchal theology in scripture and allow it to shape their lives and teaching?

Either way, there are very distinct themes that run through the teachings of the biblical patriarchists.  See the image at the top of that post?  That’s a good starting point.

basic-seminarBill Gothard is the president of the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), a Chicago-based ministry.  IBLP (formerly the Institute for Basic Youth Conflicts) offers a 32 hour seminar on the seven “non-optional principles found in the Bible” that explain “every problem in life”.  Over 2.5 million people have taken this course over the last 40+ years, and many more have been exposed to Gothard’s teachings through his homeschool curriculum, Advanced Training Institute, and various other branches of his ministry.

So what are the Seven Basic Life Principles that equip us to “make wise choices and avoid failure”?  Here they are:

1. Design

Understanding the specific purposes for which God created each person, object, and relationship in my life and living in harmony with them. Thanking God for my design brings Self-Acceptance.

2. Authority

Honoring the responsibilities of parents, church leaders, government, and other authorities and learning how God works through them to provide direction and protection. Honoring my authorities brings Inward Peace.

3. Responsibility

Realizing I am accountable to God for every thought, word, action, and motive. Asking forgiveness of those I offend brings a Clear Conscience.

4. Suffering

Allowing the hurts from offenders to reveal “blind spots” in my own life, and then seeing how I can benefit their lives. Fully forgiving offenders brings Genuine Joy.

5. Ownership

Understanding that everything I have has been entrusted to me by God, and wisely using it for His purposes. Yielding my rights to God brings True Security.

6. Freedom

Enjoying the desire and power to do what is right, rather than claiming the privilege to do what I want. Regaining ground surrendered to sin brings Moral Purity.

7. Success

Discovering God’s purpose for my life by engrafting Scripture in my heart and mind, and using it to “think God’s thoughts” and make wise decisions. Meditating on Scripture brings Life Purpose.

There is much that could be said at this point, just based on reading that list.  But I want to stay focused on Gothard’s teaching on authority (which, you may have noticed,  is closely connected to other principles).

The “umbrella of protection” depicted above comes to us through Gothard’s teachings and further explains his “theology” of authority:

An umbrella is designed to provide protection from various elements of nature: rain, hail, snow, wind, or sunshine. As long as a person is under an umbrella, he finds shelter from harsh weather conditions. If he steps out from under the umbrella, he exposes himself to the environment.

God-given authorities can be considered “umbrellas of protection.” By honoring and submitting to authorities, you will receive the privileges of their protection, direction, and accountability. If you resist their instructions and move out from their jurisdictional care, you forfeit your place under their protection and face life’s challenges and temptations on your own.

There is a clear chain of command or “jurisdictional structure” in Gothard’s worldview.  Within the family authority is held by husbands and parents (with mothers having authority over their children as delegated by their husbands).  Outside the family, authorities include government leaders, church leaders, elders and other believers, and employers.

Submission to these authorities is the path to blessing.  What happens when one does not submit to jurisdictional structures?

The concept of an umbrella of protection is illustrated in what the prophet Samuel said to Israel’s King Saul when Saul disobeyed God’s instructions: “Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft” (I Samuel 15:23). Those who participate in witchcraft directly interact with destructive, satanic influences. Rebellion is similar, because through disobedience you remove yourself from God’s full protection and are therefore far more susceptible to the attacks of Satan.

That’s right; not submitting to someone who is over you in the chain of command is comparable to practicing witchcraft and will bring similar consequences.  It’s worth mentioning that those in authority are seen as responsible before God for spiritual failure in their “jurisdiction”, too, so there is strong motivation to address insubordination in the ranks.

You may not have heard of Bill Gothard, but his teachings have shaped generations of conservative evangelicals.  My youth pastor and his wife went to a “Basic Principles” conference, as did other young adults in the church I attended as a teen.  The umbrella analogy was carried over whole into a parenting book that we studied in my church several years ago.  Rick Perry and Mike Huckabee have both spoken at IBLP conferences.  The Duggars are “Gothardites”.  Gothard’s teachings had a significant influence in shaping the conservative evangelical church, even though Gothard himself has always kept a low profile.

Alongside Gothard’s authority teachings, a very similar expression of the doctrine worked its way through the charismatic movement starting in the 70s and 80s.  If you’ve ever heard it suggested that you need a spiritual “covering”, you’ve encountered the charismatic version of Gothard’s teaching (both heavily influenced by Watchman Nee).  Here are a few of the principles of “covering” theology:

  • Sin is disobedience to God’s authority
  • Grace is the power of God to obey him
  • All authority is instituted by God
  • Obedience to the Lord requires obedience to God’s delegated authorities (employers, church leaders, civil authorities)
  • Rebellion against God’s delegated authority is rebellion against God
  • Rebellion to authority opens one up to the demonic realm resulting in deception
  • People should live by the principle of obedience rather than reason
  • People should always obey  authority unless they are clearly instructed to violate scripture
  • The line of authority extends in the home where the father holds the highest authority
  • Spiritual authority and blessing flows to those who suffer under authority

In the Reformed movement spiritual authority is often described in terms like “federal headship”, “jurisdictional spheres” or “spheres of dominion”.

You know the old saying:  if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  And so those who think problems with authority explain every problem find proof all over the Bible.  The original sin was not simply violating God’s command in the garden, or seeking to become “like God”.  Instead, Adam sinned by abdicating his role as spiritual authority over Eve, and Eve sinned by usurping her role – receiving spiritual instruction from the serpent, rather than from her husband.  Almost everything in biblical patriarchy seems to trickle down from this theology of hierarchy and authority.  The chain of command must be honored, or blessings from God are lost.  Rebellious congregations, wives, and children are open to attack from Satan and without protection.  We wind up with Christians who define their relationships with God almost entirely in terms of how completely they submit to “earthly” authority.  Our identity as the saints is no longer centered on the redeeming work of Christ, but on how well we “come to terms” with authority structures.  What follows are authoritarian, patriarchal models of parenting, courtship, marriage and church government.

When I read the Bible I find a much more complicated picture of authority, hierarchy, control and submission.  I would encourage you to check out the writings of people like Jacques Ellul, William Cavanaugh and Walter Wink in order to get a better picture of another perspective.  However, I’m much less concerned with arguing theology than I am with pointing out the strong connections between theology and authoritarian practices in every area of life.  If you want to understand how a totalizing patriarchal lifestyle can be defended within Christianity, you must look at the what the patriarchists believe about spiritual authority.

I’ll leave you with some quotes that give you a sampling of authoritarian theology at work.  Does this sound like the gospel to you?

You can freely call your husband “lord” when you know that you are addressing the one who put him in charge and asked you to suffer at your husbands hands just as the Lord suffered at the hands of unjust authorities.

The chain of authority must never be broken, even if it means allowing some abuse (of the husband’s role).

…first know that a husband has authority to tell his wife what to wear, where to go, whom to talk to, how to spend her time, when to speak or not to, even if he is unreasonable and insensitive. – Debi Pearl, Created to Be His Helpmeet

I had to turn my heart, and I still do, daily to my father. It wasn’t a one-time turning. I have to continually search out my heart, and make sure that there is no discontentment or bitterness in it. And I seek out what pleases my father, for this is my duty as a girl, and as a daughter, to seek out what pleases him, and what can make him strong in his vision — that I, too, should embrace his vision and make his passions my passions.  – Rebekah Zes, Vision Forum, “A Special Word for Proverbs 31 Tomboys”

We’re not ready to consider ourselves eligible for marriage until we’ve learned to trust an imperfect individual with our lives. To communicate with a man, which will always be a struggle. To submit to an imperfect man’s “whims” as well as his heavy requirements. To order our lives around another person. To accept the burdens a man places on us cheerfully. To esteem and reverence and adore a man whose faults we can see clearly every day. – Anna Sophia and Elizabeth Botkin, Visionary Daughters, “Authoritative Parents, Adult Daughters and Power Struggles”

Children raised in homes run by the rule of law, enforced with the rod, understand the concept of law and accept their duty to submit to it. To appreciate the laws of God and his jurisdiction, a child must first respect the lesser laws that govern his daily life…When a child is bound in self-blame and low self-esteem, parents are not helpless. God has given them the gift of the rod. The rod can bring repentance, but it goes much deeper than that. The rod in the hands of a righteous authority will supply the child’s soul with that moment of judgment that he feels he so deserves. – Michael Pearl, To Train Up a Child

This fact is entirely true of the creation order of the positional priority of the man and the submission of the woman to him as his appointed helper. All of Scripture promotes and illuminates this created order and applies it to all areas of life. Although the semi-complementarianism of modern evangelical thought limits the created order to the spheres of the family and the church, the Bible consistently applies it to all spheres of life — family, church, and state. The biblical view is that the creation order of male and female applies to all of the creation….The divine order of authority is thus: God – Christ – Man – Woman. As God is the head of Christ in all areas of the divine government of the world, so is Christ the head of man in every aspect of man’s life. Thus, the only logical conclusion is that the man is also the head of the woman in every aspect of man’s life; i.e., in all spheres of government: family, church, and state. – William Einwechter, Vision Forum, “Men and Women and the Creation Order, Part 3”

Other posts in this series:
Talking back to patriarchy, part 1
Talking back to patriarchy, part 2:  Watch your language!
Talking back to patriarchy, part 4:  Joining the great modesty debate
A footnote on modesty:  Why no one gets to drop the mic
A footnote on modesty:  For my children


About Sharon Autenrieth

Wife, mom to 5, homeschooler, Christian Education Director, idealist, malcontent, follower of Jesus.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christianity, church, family, feminism, gender, marriage, parenting, patriarchy, religion, spirituality, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Talking back to patriarchy, part 3: It all comes down to authority

  1. Anonymity Is Priceless says:

    Just so that I can better understand, what does Ephesians 5:22 mean?


    • A few thoughts: verses 22-23 can’t be understood apart from verse 21. So what does verse 21 mean? And it can’t be understood apart from 1 Peter 2:13-14, and Acts. 4:19. I’d also suggest that you should be willing to tell me whether you support slavery, since some of the same passages used to support hierarchical marriage also advise slaves to submit to their masters. And maybe you could research how the household codes of the New Testament are similar and different from other household codes of the same time period. If you are really interested in better understanding there are many resources that will be of use to you.

      On a side note, I don’t think anonymity is priceless – at least not in blog comments. It’s often a way people avoid taking responsibility for what they say. Obviously you have the option of remaining anonymous here, but I’m asking you, if you’re willing, to share your name.


      • Anonymity is Priceless says:

        Do you insinuate that the Bible supports slavery because it encourages slaves to submit to authority? Philippians might provide you the Biblical view of slavery. As for Eph 5:22 I would still like to hear your interpretation.


      • No. I don’t insinuate anything. What I see in the New Testament is that slavery is dealt with as a matter-of-fact condition of the world in which the church was being born. And so the question the epistles address is, how ought a Christian slave live as a slave? And how ought a Christian slave owner live as a slave owner? The texts are not revolutionary, but they are subversive – pointing toward a value system in which a slave should be seen as a brother, rather than as property (Philemon), and in which the slave is able to direct his service to God rather than simply to his earthly master. This was a very progressive idea, especially compared to other “household codes” of the time. I think a similar dynamic is at work in the instructions given to wives and husbands. In a rigidly patriarchal world the household codes of the N.T. dignify wives and hold husbands to account in a way that was completely outside the box. And so, in answer to your question, I prioritize v. 21 over vs. 22-23 because I believe that’s where the scriptures were headed. The trajectory is toward mutual submission and shared authority rooted in oneness in Christ (Gal. 3:28). I thank God that over time most Christians came to recognize that the gospel calls us away from the hierarchy of slavery. I also thank God that an increasing number of Christians find the gospel calling them away from hierarchical models of marriage.


      • Anonymity Is Priceless says:

        I would say what you feel is important, but isthis your creed, what you feel?


      • My creeds are the creeds of the historic church – the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed, in particular. You know what’s interesting about your question? I never used the word “feel” in my comment. I “feel” that you may be trying to discredit what I’ve written as a purely emotional or subjective response to scripture. I don’t discount feelings – emotions are a part of our design as humans, after all – but I assure you, if my “creed” is simply what I feel I coudl have saved myself a lot of work over the years by just believing whatever I want to believe.


      • Anonymity Is Priceless says:

        I picked a close word to your “believe”. Is what you believe the most important? Should I pick another word instead?


      • If you’re asking me if belief is what’s most important, well, yes, the Bible says that belief is incredibly important. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” But I’m struggling to see how this connects to what is in my blog post. Perhaps you could offer some input.


    • Though I’m not sure if this is the case here, it’s interesting to me when “patriarchalist” folks believe they have the market cornered on right exegesis of Ephesians 5.

      Actually it’s their side that should be on the defensive. It’s their side that usually takes the “husbands” and “wives” of this passage and eisegetes them into broader definitions of all “men” and all “women.” This they must do in order to stretch the meanings out of Biblical bounds and make up additional rules about fathers managing daughters, etc.


      • Yes, yes, and yes. One of the most troubling things to me about the “stay at home daughters” movement is how freely they take scriptures written to wives and apply them to daughters – and don’t even seem to feel the need to explain or defend the change. One more reason that I think they have commitments that run deeper than their stated commitment to be “biblical”.

        Thank you for reading!


  2. Dave Henry says:

    Good knight, those patriarchal quotations are horrifying.


  3. Lana says:

    I saw the picture and thought of Gothard immediately. I grew up in ATI. So done with it all.


  4. Well, I was raised by my mother, so I’m not sure how well that umbrella worked for me. I wonder what these guys say about a family without a father. If there’s no man in the house, who’s in charge?

    I wonder if these are the same people that would be appalled by the thought of a Muslim husband having control over his wife and daughters. Tell them what to wear, where to go, who to talk to, etc. Don’t we call that oppression? Is it not the same oppression here in the states?

    Thanks for posting this. I will check out some of the suggested readings later. I still it find it so strange that people really believe like this.


    • Holly, I wholeheartedly endorse your comparison to the more repressive strains of Islam. Also, the more repressive strains of Mormonism, and Judaism, and so on. While each group tries to ground their practices in their distinct theologies, I think the root is always the same. There’s a tradition of full-on patriarchy that has existed almost everywhere and in every era, and “we” just adapt our ideologies to fit our embedded ideas about gender. So I guess I’m answering my own chicken or egg question.

      Good question about people growing up in single parent families. Also, widows. Also, women who never have the opportunity to marry. I think the reason that the Bible places so much emphasis on caring for widows and orphans is because they were persona non grata in a paterfamilias world – not seen as full human beings in their own right. I think the “chain of command” potentially puts them in the same position.


  5. ES says:

    I was not raised in an ATI family – but was exposed to their materials and have seen that illustration many times. For some reason I just noticed the following about it:
    1. Umbrellas do an aweful job of protection in windy storms. So his “umbrellas of protection” analogy only works in light rain – in a hurricane or tornado your umbrella is useless, even a liability, and you are on your own.
    2. What exactly are the Husband and wife protecting children from that “got past” Christ’s huge umbrella – no matter how you put it, ultimately by adding in the two lower levels of protection you are saying that Christ is insufficient. That his umbrella has holes in it and that somehow a human is capable of filling in for Christ’s shortcomings. Or you could interpret it as the Christ protects the husband from evil, the husband protects his wife from Christ, and his wife protects their children from her husband. Either way its an illogical construct.


    • I know, right? I mean, I’m a parent to young children so I understand that I have an actual protective role in their lives right now – providing physical protection and nurture. But I don’t see my role as their mother as mediating their relationship to Christ. If I fail them spiritually, does that mean that they lose access to God? Has Christ failed them? Let me just answer that: no.


  6. Kate "Paige" Reeder says:

    Ephesians 5:22 “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. ”
    It doesn’t say “instead of to the Lord.”


    • Kate "Paige" Reeder says:

      Well, although many (seems to be most) versions say “as to the lord” or “as you do to the Lord,” the Amplified version says “as [a service] to the Lord.” The two interpretations aren’t mutually exclusive, though. I’m not sure that anyone argues that the more common interpretation is incorrect, I just wanted to make sure I considered multiple versions since I made the statement above.


  7. Dawn says:

    Thank you.
    I am a recovering “daughter of Christian patriarchy”.
    My parents used ATI, Bill Gothard’s home education program, and I was saturated with the fear of both being labeled “rebellious” or worse yet, of God tiring of my rebellious questioning and death being His immediate judgement.
    When I voiced a career dream to my family at the age of 14, my dad’s response was, “I’d rather God took you home than let you succeed at being something less than a wife and mother.” From that moment on, my education was deliberately limited. My dad was not kidding. I struggle to honestly say that I have a high school education on a job application. Consumer’s math was the highest level of mathematics I completed.
    Gothard’s education program actually has a coronation ceremony for fathers listed as an “optional re-enforcement activity” to teach children their place.
    I am so very grateful for people like you who see the life-altering repression and sheer evil of patriarchy and are willing to speak out and take the label of Christian feminist. It is needed. More than you will ever know.


    • Oh, Dawn. What your father said to you breaks my heart. I’m so sorry. Every once in a while I get a comment and wish that I could see the writer face to face so that I could offer a hug – which is weird, I guess, since you don’t know me! Please know that YOU are needed, too. We need people to speak out of their own experiences to help the rest of the church understand that this issue matters, that there are real people suffering the consequences of patriarchal theology.

      Jesus came to bring freedom, Dawn, and I pray that you are experiencing it now. Thank you for reading and commenting!


  8. Pingback: Talking back to patriarchy, part 4: Joining the great modesty debate | Strange Figures

  9. Pingback: A footnote on modesty: for my children | Strange Figures

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  12. Sarah says:

    I very much appreciate your kindness in the treatment of my article written in my youth. It is so rare to see such fairness in reporting. Truly, at the time, I was part of such a loving family and sheltered to the extent that it never occurred to me that there were horrible and control-seeking men who would take the doctrines of “patriarchy” and run so far with them. My life was a living context of the *responsibilities* of the father toward the children: to love, protect, nurture and encourage in their own path. That is the reality I and my sisters experienced. It was not until later in life (after my marriage and more exposure to the harsh world) that I even comprehended how awful it could be for a young lady whose father would take my words, so divorced from the context of my reality, and make her life a living hell. I have since met some of these women and I am friends with them. I deeply regret that my words were used as such, and thank you for also pointing out how young I was at the time. Things seem so black and white when you’re 15 and naive. Of course, since becoming Catholic, I no longer hold that ‘ownership’ theory of paternity, and I’ve considered (even quite recently after being quoted by Rachel Held Evans in her book) writing a retraction/explanation of sorts. The only thing holding me back was the thought that I’d be dragged through the mud again (which is still happening on patriarchy-bashing boards today) in my current role. But it seems you somehow found a way to link my blog/ new persona with the old, so I guess that point may be moot. Anyway, you’ve given me another push to distance myself from that movement which is apparently still hurting people today. (And which my family of origin was never part of. If anything, my dad is a feminist.) Thanks again.


    • What a gracious comment! I really appreciate your contributing to this conversation, Sarah. I’m so glad I found your blog, as it went a long way toward humanizing you – and this is something I need to be reminded of over and over again: the people that I quote, the people that I critique are real people. I wish that I didn’t need to be reminded so often!

      I didn’t realize you were quoted in RHE’s book. I know this conversation (patriarchy and all the attendant subjects) can get ugly and abusive on both sides, but I hope you know that wasn’t my intention here. Like you, I’ve met some young women who’ve been harmed by these teachings and I want to advocate on their behalf. It sounds like you feel the same way yourself, and if you DO try to publicly distance yourself from the movement I pray that you will be heard with respect.

      Also, the idea of photographing your kids on the couch every months is wonderful. You have a beautiful family! 🙂


  13. jubilare says:

    I’m already feeling a bit sickly from my first chemo treatment, but the quotes near the end, there, definitely didn’t help. Even so, I am glad you are airing this.

    “that explain “every problem in life” <– this is the sort of statement that always makes me expect a scam. When it isn't connected to a scam, it is at least connected to overweening arrogance. Life is not that simple, God is not that simple, and any claim of a one-size-fits-all pattern is, in my opinion, a fool's claim.


  14. M91 says:

    ”the most troubling things to me about the “stay at home daughters” movement is how freely they take scriptures written to wives and apply them to daughters…”

    I totally agree! My family was caught up in that movement up until a few years ago. Now I can’t believe some of the unrealistic things taught as Bible truth! For one thing, we are not living in the 1800s, people! And if they and we are trying to please God…does he really want a bunch of girls staying home all their lives doing…nothing? (or nothing more than crafting and cooking and honoring their poor father who has to continue providing for them all their lives)

    Liked by 1 person

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