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