Posted by: rogermitchell | July 20, 2020

Undoing structures of patriarchy

Those familiar with my theological research and writing will know that I regard our contemporary Western system as a continuation and consummation of empire. The good news is that this may at last be coming to an end, and the redemptive potential of the coronavirus and its aftermath is that it is accelerating this. In my view, patriarchy has been a core structure within this system and it too must come to an end if we are to find a new genuinely collaborative and loving way of life. It is my conviction that it is the task of the politics of love to hasten the end of the Western empire and the undoing of patriarchy. As you might expect, I believe that the gospels can help us with this.

Last week Sue and I were reading Matthew’s account of Jesus’ address to the crowds and his disciples about the patriarchal empire system of his day of which the scribes and Pharisees were key promoters and representatives. This was clearly seen in their role in the world of fashion, culture, religion and commerce. As Jesus puts it “they do all their deeds to be noticed by men.”

Jesus then proceeds to make four very strong statements about the motives of these social pillars followed by three uniquivocal directives to his followers that undo the structures that this kind of behaviour upholds. “But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.”(Mtt 23:5-10)

In exposing and cutting these deep roots of empire it seems to me that Jesus identifies a strategy that can begin to undo the endemic institutional structures of patriarchy. If we undo these three core elements of empire then other evils will begin to unravel with them. If no-one elevates the role of teachers, fathers and religious or political leaders over others then the demonic hierarchies of men over women and white supremacy will begin to come down. Let none of us think that this is going to be easy. It’s about both how we view others and how we view ourselves. Let’s be clear right away that this is not decrying teaching, fathering or leading. Jesus commissioned his disciples to teach the nations (Mtt 28:20), affirmed the exhortation to honour father and mother (Mtt 19:19) and gave the twelve leadership roles (Mtt 10:5ff).

At issue is the use of the roles of teacher, father and leader as a means of acquiring honour and position for oneself, compared to others, and thereby affirming the hierarchical organisation of the governing institutions of the social order. The key clarifying statement is later in the chapter which records the list of Woes that Jesus unleashes on these selfsame scribes and Pharisees. Jesus uses his famous metaphor of “white washed tombs filled with dead men’s bones” to describe them. “So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Mat 23:28). More than anything this is about an appearance of propriety which in fact covers up self promotion. Self promotion, or what the apostle Paul calls “vainglory” (Phil 2:3) is the fulness of lawlessness. Drawing on apparently proper laws and protocols it actually conceals “all uncleanness” (Mtt 23:27). Titles that harness teaching, fatherhood and leadership in the cause of self promotion are primary levers of institutional patriarchy, prejudice and injustice.

While it is good to be a teacher, father or leader it is not okay to turn these jobs into positions of power and authority over others. They are roles and can be callings, but they are not hierarchical titles or positions. Titles entitle and entitlement is one of the worst characteristics of empire. Entitlement carries the assumption that some jobs, tasks and identities are intrinsically and self apparently more worthy of respect than others. They are not. While the scribes and Pharisees were political players they were religious leaders. Given that Jesus’ woes were reserved for them and his warnings were directed to his followers and disciples, I conclude that the gravest kind of patriarchy is to be found among those men who use their expertise in teaching, fathering and leading to carve out for themselves positions of entitlement in the ecclesia or to advance their role in the workplaces of the world. Those familiar with my post-renewal ecclesiology will know that I understand the primary task of the ecclesia to be repositioned in the world for the overall wellbeing of the whole family of humanity and the cosmos. Hence the behaviour of Jesus’ followers within the life of the city and the spheres of society absolutely matters and is essentially counterpolitical. We are here to embody and embed the politics of love, not to take power for ourselves.

This has set me doing some deep thinking personally. Being awarded a doctorate for my theological research nine years ago was incredibly healing for a working class boy. It has also enabled me to speak up for the poor and the oppressed and to challenge the empire system. I think that academic, ecclesial and political titles can do the same for women and those from oppressed racial groupings. But I am aware that for me at least it can be a cover for the self promotion and personal entitlement that maintains patriarchy. So I’ve decided to stop using the title doctor. I will use the letters PhD and describe my role in various academic workplaces where it helps give validity to my theological writings and activism, but I’ll get rid of the title from now on!


  1. Continuing to enjoy your writings Roger and your big heart for the poor and oppressed. Keep on doing it – minus the Dr tag!!!

    • Thanks Paul, it’s good to hear from you.

  2. Thanks so much for this Roger, deeply challenging and discomforting and life enhancing.

  3. Kudos to you for dropping the “doctor,” which you’ve never been to me anyway. In terms of propriety covering self promotion, I’ve been astounded reading Luke wherein Jesus tells us to “humbly” take the lesser seat at a banguet SO THAT you’ll be noticed there and promoted to a place of honour. It is absolutely tongue in cheek as humbling oneself to be promoted is hypocitrical and not humility at all!

  4. Excellent stuff, Roger. Thank you for keeping on challenging me.

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