By Dr Valerie Hobbs. Valerie is Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the University of Sheffield. Her book, An Introduction to Religious Language, will be published by Bloomsbury in January, 2021.
Guest blogs are invited to stimulate thought and comment. They do not necessarily reflect the view of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence.
Women’s Holy Burden and Patriarchy
A few weeks ago, an anonymous blogger published a website called Genevan Commons Screenshots, an archive of images and discussion threads from a private Facebook group containing upwards of 1,000 (more recently around 600) Christian church officers and laypeople. While not every member has participated equally, over the past five years many in this group have slandered, harassed and bullied fellow Christians they don’t agree with, both privately and publicly, including me.
The majority of members are officers and laypeople from NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council), various independent churches, and the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC), led by Douglas Wilson.
But this is not just an American problem. The now-redacted membership list also includes names from the United Kingdom, including officers from the Church of England, from churches in Scotland, the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC), and from a church in London connected to the CREC. The membership of this group is broader than some might think, then.
The foes of Genevan Commons members are not that broadly selected, however. Rather, this group consistently targets women and minorities, indicative of the foothold that hard-core, far-right patriarchy, racism and homophobia are gaining in parts of the Christian church. But this is also not just a Genevan Commons problem. Though the screenshot archive offers us another valuable case study of abuse within the Christian church, scholars have been documenting such abuses in the church for quite some time, in the Quiverfull Movement, for example.
There are indeed many layers to the dogma of Genevan Commons and other far-right groups operating within the Christian church. One considerable component I’ll explore in the rest of this post is women’s holy burden (aka the subordinate place of supreme honour or angel in the house).
The holy burden refers to the restricted set of largely invisible and unpaid work assigned to women which forms the backbone of a patriarchal system within organized religion, such as Christianity. Examples of this work can include:
having as many children as possible, home-schooling, doing all cooking, cleaning, emotional labour and emotion work, and having sex on demand (regardless of consent).
Christian patriarchy is a spectrum, for sure. But its various versions tend to share a belief that God ordained distinct roles for men and women bound up in their natures, that both the home and the society are under father-rule, that the proper sphere of dominion for women is the home, that women should not teach men, and that marriage and multiple children is the ideal for all Christians. Some patriarchists also believe women should not vote, should not attend higher education (or even receive any formal education), and that even unmarried adult women remain under their father’s authority.
According to Christian patriarchist ideology, the concept of holy burden is necessary for the mission, a strategy for societal and cultural transformation. And this thinking has a way of trickling down into more mainstream evangelical discourse. Kevin DeYoung recently expounded on this in an article for The Gospel Coalition, not least in his reference to ‘militant fecundity.’ According to DeYoung and plenty others, Christians must keep having babies, babies and more babies (barring a set of unusual circumstances) in order to accomplish a ‘demographic reversal in America.’ We win the world using the wombs of women.
It’s important to clarify that there are plenty of women who commit to various versions of Christian patriarchy and even go on to enjoy the lifestyle that accompanies it. I’m not oppressed, they say! I chose this. But willing or not, married to a benevolent patriarch or a despotic one, women in this system must not only bear their holy burden without complaint, without consideration of their own bodily needs and desires, largely without acknowledgement. They must also do it joyfully. And they must aid men in imposing it on other women, without exception.
And their reward? A sense of purity, holiness, self-righteousness. The esteem of other patriarchal women. This is what sugars the bitter (red) pill. And it’s nothing new. Speaking about the ‘angel in the house’ nearly a century ago, Virginia Woolf puts it like this,
She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught, she sat in it – in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others above all – I need not say it – she was pure.
In the image below, we see the holy burden in action in everyday life. In fact, it seems that the more the woman suffers in completing her duties, the more the man is grateful, the more he may even idolize her.
In this way, the holy burden interprets in a very particular way the Christian’s call to serve others, sometimes at self-expense, found in Romans 12 and elsewhere. Rather than the giving and receiving of service the Bible requires of all Christians, the holy burden places this responsibility disproportionately on women’s shoulders and minimizes, even denies the suffering this causes her. The concept of the holy burden is therefore inherently abusive and dehumanizing. It is fundamentally reliant on the dominance of men and the debasement of women.
The patriarchist ideology likewise twists the Bible’s affirmation of men and women’s shared dignity and purpose, their status as allies and partners. It neglects the rich beauty and mystery of Biblical imagery around men and women, single and married, all made prophets, priests and kings through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Instead, to prop up the holy burden, patriarchists believe that women are inherently inferior and therefore more suited to a restricted range of duties. Members of Genevan Commons regularly stated explicitly that men are by design stronger and more suited to leadership. As for women? We are weaker, overly emotional and less intelligent than men. Not naturally equipped as leaders or thinkers. As one member wrote, ‘There aren’t good women theologians because it is unnatural.’
It may come as no surprise, then, that there are clear links between Christian patriarchists and the men’s rights movement, sometimes called ‘The Red Pill.’ Red Pill is a community of mostly men that has ‘morphed into a celebration of all things masculine and a near infatuation with the traditional masculine role itself’ (Kimmel, 2017). Evidence of these links is relatively easy to spot, in the titles of the growing number of Christian books, podcasts, websites and conferences that emphasize a Masculine Mandate and the like. Members of Genevan Commons at times even posted men’s rights videos and used language peculiar to the movement like ‘thirsty white knights.’ A member of the group explained this term’s meaning, referring to men who defend one particular woman Christian blogger, that ‘Some men will do anything for sex.’
And here’s where we come to the punishment that patriarchists inflict on women who reject the holy burden and on anyone who supports such women. To ensure their own dominance, patriarchists use various forms of abuse to make women comply. If that fails, they then mark such women and their supporters as outside the boundaries of Christianity. I have witnessed this many times, in various contexts. Among the cruellest betrayals I have witnessed are the abuse and rejections that some patriarchist women lay on their own Christian sisters who ask for help.
As for me, I first crossed paths with members of Genevan Commons in 2015, at an ecclesiastical trial in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s presbytery of the southeast. The trial focused on Dr. John Carrick’s refusal to require his disabled and chronically ill wife to attend church at the behest of members of his presbytery and the board of his employer, Greenville Theological Seminary. I wrote about all of this for The Aquila Report and in a research article for The Journal of Language and Discrimination.
Members of Genevan Commons disagreed strongly with my conclusion that some officers in this presbytery were abusing a disabled woman and fostering a misogynist culture. They began harassing and slandering me and anyone who offered me a platform. At one point, an admin of Genevan Commons started a website with an almost identical name as a research center I co-founded, in order to direct traffic away from my work. His expressed purpose? ‘Overcoming evil with good.’ He also made clear his wish to recruit co-labourers in his mission.
Since then, members of Genevan Commons have devoted much time and effort to denigrating the scholarship of women who challenge the patriarchal ideology, wherever that may be. But their attacks have been far more personal than principled, referring to women as ‘a pack of dogs,’ ‘pearl clutching toddlers,’ ‘Jezebels of Thyatira’ and ‘ungodly,’ among other things. In their minds, such harsh language is justified to shock the straying, deceived woman and call her home (literally) to orthodoxy.
Patriarchists calling non-compliant women ‘Jezebel,’ etc. is much wider than Genevan Commons, of course. As I’ve heard from many women over the years and experienced myself, it’s common practice. This extreme name-calling demonstrates just how sacred the holy burden is for them. Make no mistake. This is not something about which they are willing to agree to disagree. They are sincere. They are devoted to their cause. They believe it to be righteous. Patriarchist men and women even think that their ideology helps women, saves them, makes them happier as they live out their God-given purpose. But in their eyes, a woman who denies the holy burden, even a woman who questions it, is not even a Christian. The holy burden is the patriarchist’s very gospel. And what a false gospel it is.