An Orthodox Defense of Patriarchy

Saints Peter and Fevronia

“Patriarchy” is not a monolith. There is the patriarchy of fallen nature, whereby fallen men rule for the sake of ruling, and the patriarchy of Christianity, whereby men rule lovingly for the sake of peace. Christian patriarchy is feared or hated because of the abuses of natural patriarchy, and it’s admittedly difficult to distinguish the two because men sometimes use faith to legitimate their selfish desires. They are distinct, nonetheless, and in what follows, I’m going to expound on and defend this particular form.

The Marital Polity

The marital union could be described as the smallest polity, and there’s no less a need for leadership in it than there is in a larger polity. “Where there is equality of authority,” wrote St John Chrysostom, “there is no peace. A household cannot be a democracy.”1 “Nevertheless,” he continued, the wife “possesses real authority and equality of dignity while the husband still retains the headship.”2 If, instead of conflating the different equalities, we follow St. John in acknowledging their distinction, we’ll understand that his vision for marriage doesn’t fit comfortably in either the liberal or so-called conservative (i.e., natural-patriarchal) box. This will be especially apparent as we read the following advice that he offered to husbands:

Even if you see her belittling you, or despising and mocking you, still you will be able to subject her to yourself, through affection, kindness, and your great regard for her… One’s partner for life, the mother of one’s children, this source of one’s every joy, should never be fettered with fear and threats, but with love and patience… suffer anything for her sake, but never disgrace her, for Christ never did this with the Church.3

To be sure, either form of patriarchy – whether it’s of the natural or Christian type – will be vehemently rejected by hardline feminists. Be that as it may, St. John’s model of the husband ruling in humility and selfless love bears little resemblance to their caricature of patriarchy.

Furthermore, we should be conscious of the unintended effects that may result from promoting “equality” in the household. A highly-publicized Norwegian study found that divorce is more likely among couples who share housework equally than it is among couples in which the woman does most of the household chores. As one of the co-authors commented: “One would think that break-ups would occur more often in families with less equality at home, but our statistics show the opposite.” No, I am in no way suggesting that chore-sharing, in and of itself, is bad and is causally linked to divorce.4 A good husband, no matter how patriarchal his values, will voluntarily assume more of the burden simply out of love for his wife. What I am suggesting is that the particular sort of “institutionalized” chore-sharing that we find today evinces a certain authority structure that is far from the ideal. (Of course, couples who can’t attain to that ideal will need to adjust to their unique circumstances – be they cultural, psychological, economic, etc. – in order to reach an even higher universal ideal: marital harmony.) In the context of marital relations, I define authority as the ability to unilaterally-make decisions on key family issues (e.g., over finances, where to live, the rearing of children, etc.). Lest there be inertia or “civil war” within a marriage, one person, alone, should possess this authority, if not across all issue areas, then at least in each one.5 This is especially true in modern Western societies, where “irreconcilable differences” over these key issues are far more common.6

Authority and Worth

In the context of marriage, the connection we often draw between authority and worth helps to explain why patriarchy is increasingly shunned today. When a woman submits to her husband’s authority, she is supposedly acknowledging her inferiority to him. Ironically, as Wendell Berry correctly observed, those holding this view also tend to “regard as ‘liberating’ a job that puts [a woman] under the authority of a boss (man or woman) whose authority specifically requires and expects obedience.”7 Further, however much they advocate for nuptial equality – should a couple choose, for whatever reason, to participate in the “obsolete” institution of marriage – feminists don’t seem to generally mind the reverse inequality that is often modeled in popular TV sitcoms (those key instruments of Leftist social engineering) in which the husband is presented as an immature, effeminate, fool. It’s difficult not to conclude that the desired (or, at the very least, an acceptable) alternative to patriarchy isn’t equality, but matriarchy.

Finally, in most other social settings, we are far less inclined to see authority as a measure of one’s worth. For example, one could acknowledge the president’s authority without in any way imagining himself to be inferior to him. Put another way, a husband’s authority doesn’t imply his superiority over his wife any more than a political leader’s authority implies his superiority over his citizens.

Complementarity, Not “Equality”

As a side note, our conception of gender relations, overall, should be informed by a proper – i.e., traditional – understanding of equality. I recall a lecture several years ago in which I cited scientific evidence that men are, on the main, physically stronger than women. One of my students – who actually ended up becoming one of my favorites – took umbrage to this. “That can’t be true. I beat my brother’s a— every day!” she retorted, half-facetiously (I think). It became apparent to me that she understood my belief in gender differences – however scientifically supported they were – to imply a belief in the overall superiority of one sex over the other. Such an understanding would be correct if I took physical strength to be indicative of a person’s inherent worth (in which case I’d probably need to be on suicide watch). On the contrary, since I personally consider altruism to be a more important quality, I’m more vulnerable to the charge of being a self-loathing man, given neurobiological evidence that women are more “pro-social” than men – that is, more “generous, altruistic and inequality averse.”8 I’ve discovered this through personal experience. My daughters practically plead with me to have one of their fries or take a bite out of their ice cream; apparently, their joy isn’t complete unless I share it with them. When I was a little boy, by contrast, I probably couldn’t have cared less if you rejected my offer, assuming that I would have been crazy enough to make it. I am convinced that this beautiful attribute is hard-wired in them.

A complement is defined as “something that fills up, completes, or makes better or perfect,” as in wine completing cheese. Therefore, something that complements another is necessarily different from it in some respect. Yet this difference should be celebrated, not condemned, for without it, perfection or wholeness is not possible. Such virtues as strength and compassion are complementary; they make individuals (who might otherwise vary in the degree to which they manifest each virtue) and societies whole. For this reason, I’ll always prefer complementarity to what society means by “equality”.

  1. St. John Chrysostom, “Homily 20 on Ephesians 5:22-33,” in On Marriage and Family Life (Trans. Catherine P. Roth and David Anderson), Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, p. 53.
  2. Ibid.,p. 57.
  3. Ibid., pp. 46-47.
  4. For a skeptical take on this study, see “Does Shared Housework Really Lead to Divorce?The Week, October 2, 2012,
  5. In my marriage, my wife is the designated “food czar”, endowed with full authority on what our children eat.
  6. C.S. Lewis addressed the reasonable question of why there ought to be a specifically male-based inequality of authority: “If there must be a head, why the man?…as far as I can see, even a woman who wants to be the head of her own house does not usually admire the same state of things when she finds it going on next door…There must be something unnatural about the rule of wives over husbands, because the wives themselves are half ashamed of it and despise the husbands whom they rule.” See Lewis, C.S., 1952, Mere Christianity, New York: HarperOne, p. 113.
  7. Berry, Wendell, 1990, What are People For? Essays by Wendell Berry, New York: North Point Press, p. 183.
  8. Soutschek, Alexander, 2017, “The Dopaminergic Reward System Underpins Gender Differences in Social Preferences,” Nature Human Behavior: 819-827.

About johnazarvan

Amir Azarvan is an associate professor of political science at Georgia Gwinnett College. His work has appeared in such venues as Inside Higher Ed, Truthout, Crisis Magazine, the Imaginative Conservative, the Catholic Social Science Review, and the New Oxford Review. He has also published essays for Orthodox sites like Orthodox Christianity and Pemptousia.

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