Does Patriarchy Exist in Heaven?

by MeeRha Hahn


Scripture: John 5:19-30

Feminist Assessment of the Father-Son Relationship

A. Feminist Approaches to the Image of God

Feminist scholars have so far attempted either to ignore or to rebuke this kind of patriarchal text. As Pamela Milne says, "The Bible is everywhere patriarchal."1 Feminists tend to think that the Biblical text cannot be rehabilitated as a spiritual resource for women. Letty Russell also concludes that feminist Biblical scholars are marginal to feminist scholarship because they continue to emphasize the value of Biblical materials in spite of their patriarchal bias against women.2 Radical Christian feminists have already left the Church or their believing community because of their deconstructionist approach to analysis of Biblical texts.

Conventional Christian women may experience crises in their identity when their concept of Jesus is challenged or changed. Those women who have Christian faith in their hearts have been confused by recent feminist notions of God -Feminine God, Maternal God - or even Goddess - Mother God or God the Mother.

First of all, it is necessary to clarify what alternative can be possibly presented in feminist hermeneutics of the patriarchal texts. I assume that two ways of pursuing feminist hermeneutics are plausible. One is Mary Daly’s propaganda, which is a call for the castration of sexist texts from the Bible. This needs both courage and the sacrifice of our sentimental attachment to Biblical lessons that we have been taught since our years in Sunday school. Mother is to construct a new paradigm for understanding the concept and image of God in conjunction with feminist studies. This approach would retain the admittedly patriarchal texts but would not retain the patriarchal hermeneutic.

There are, by and large, two approaches to imagining God. One may be called the "destructionist approach" toward the monogenetic image of God. This seeks a non-male gender, which is often presented as Goddess or as the Mother God. This is an euphemism for seeking and collecting Biblical texts which prove the feminine image or maternity of God. In Mary Daly’s radical language,3 the castration of the maleness of God is the epitome of such an attempt. Another approach is the reformist one which seeks both the maleness (animus) and femaleness (anima) of God. In Patricia Wilson’s terminology, a bisexual image of God is to be found through this approach.4

Both approaches take reluctant positions against the paternity or father image of God. For instance, Mary Daly opines that the image and symbols of God are made by men. Thus, she asserts that women perceive the demise of God the Father. Her point is that the idea of God the Father is derived from a patriarchal religion and society. A patriarchal religion supports and perpetuates patriarchy.5 Daly declares that Christianity is a sexist religion which creates symbols of and language about God as God-man or God-male, a master or a father figure. Women at war with the sexist religion are sexists. She proposes a method of liberation-castration-exorcism which will liberate women from patriarchal oppression by castrating the symbols and language created by men and exorcising the demonic spirit of patriarchal evil currently within women. Daly’s paradigm seems to be radical. However, it manifests well the needs of women’s new consciousness, or in her own terms, the unfolding of women s consciousness. The unfolding of women’s consciousness is an intimation of the endless unfolding of God.6

B. The Meaning of Patriarchy and Paternity

It is now necessary to look at how patriarchy itself has been treated within Christianity. The given text, John 5:19-30, provides profound evidence of how patriarchy affects women’s consciousness within their churches.

According to Gerda Lerner, patriarchy and paternalism are defined as follows:

"Patriarchy in its wider definition means the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over women in society in general. It implies that men hold power in all important institutions of society and that women are deprived of access to such power. It does not imply that women are either totally powerless or totally deprived of rights, influence and resources."7

Lerner argues that the word patriarchy is not used only by feminists. She claims that people use the term to imply a limited historicity for it: patriarchy began in classical antiquity and ended in the 19th century with the granting of civil rights to women - married women in particular.8 She asserts also that it began in the third millennium B.C. and was well-established at the time of the writing of the Hebrew Bible. Furthermore, she explains that male dominance within the family simply takes new forms and has not come to an end. Patriarchy in its narrow meaning refers to the system historically derived from Greek and Roman law in which the male head of the household had absolute legal and economic power over his dependent female and male family members. Thus, a narrow definition of the term would hinder any claim for its continued presence today.

Susan Cady, Marian Ronan and Hal Taussig define the term in the contemporary context: patriarchy is that interlocking system of oppressions - racial, sexual, political and economic - which aims to subjugate and control the Earth, the poor, females, people of color, feeling and spontaneity.9 They expand this term to include patriarchal spirituality, saying that "patriarchal spirituality is the extension of that system into our hearts and minds. It is a demonic aspect of classical Western spirituality, a system of images, beliefs and practices which has glorified and entrenched ‘power over’ in Western culture and in Christianity."’10 They include within patriarchal spirituality everything that wars against our realization of connectedness with one another and with the rest of reality, everything that wars against our experiencing and feeling deeply in our own bodies. Patriarchy obstructs spirituality within us and outside of us. Patriarchy has created disconnection, competition, control, domination and exclusive dichotomies (personal vs. political, sacred vs. profane).11 Patriarchy as an institutionalized system of male dominance gradually helps to form, over time, a structuralized evil through which women become the major victims.

Paternalism is a subset of patriarchal relations. Lerner explains that "paternalism, or more accurately paternalistic dominance, is the relationship of a dominant group - considered superior - to a subordinate group - considered inferior - in which the dominance is mitigated by mutual obligations and reciprocal rights."12 This concept derives from family relations as they developed under patriarchy in which the father held absolute power over all the members of his household. The male children’s subordination to the father’s dominance is temporary. It lasts until the sons become the heads of households. On the other hand, the subordination of daughters and wives is lifelong. Lerner says that "the basis of paternalism is an unwritten contract for exchange: economic support and protection given by the male for subordination in all matters, sexual service and unpaid domestic service given by the female."13

In an interesting study, Carol Delaney argues that paternity has meant begetting. She asserts that "it has meant the primary creative role while maternity has meant nurturing and bearing. This monogenetic meaning of paternity is made explicit in Christianity and exemplified by the Virgin birth but is consistent with the theological concept of monotheism."14 Even though the Father is divine, the meaning of paternity is the same as for the human father; even though Mary is unique among women, the meaning of maternity is epitomized by her. She asserts that it is a "monogenetic" theory implying that a child originated from only one source. This is due to the belief that a man is a seed, a woman is soil and the child comes from the seed: the child comes from the man.

This belief is very common in the Korean context. Such a belief among Korean women, including Christian women, leads to a preference for male children in pregnancy. When a married woman, especially an eldest son’s wife, cannot give birth to a son, she will continue to become pregnant until she gives birth to a son. This kind of patriarchal nonsense causes women -thanks to modern gynecological prediagnosis of the fetus - to have more abortions. In this context, patriarchy constantly threatens the health of women and the prenatal life of fetuses. Countless female fetuses have been offered as sacrificial lambs for the worship of patriarchy. In cases of infertility or of not bearing a son, women have been regarded as bad soil or as an ill-omen for the family. Large numbers of women have been abandoned by their husbands or families-in-law; many were divorced or forced to tolerate their husband’s second wife or concubines until they have a male child. This attitude is still deeply latent within the Korean family.

One can conclude that the Johannine community was rooted in patriarchy, as that has been defined in feminist writings. The way the evangelist writes about Jesus’ relation to God as the "Father and Son" reflects the family and social norms of his time. The father’s authority in a Jewish family is absolute. It is well-reflected in the given texts. The fourth Gospel cannot be divorced from a community in which strong patriarchy and paternity play the primary and essential role of the seed. The evangelist might have thought that Jesus was the Seed of the Father God. Below are several of the Biblical sources for the seed-soil relationship:

"And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, ‘for God has appointed another seed [child] for me instead of Abel whom Cain killed’ (Gen. 4:25)."

"The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, the field is the world, the good seeds are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one (Matt. 13:37-38)."

Taking the texts above, Jesus was seen by the Johannine community as the Seed, or in other words, as the patriarchal notion of a male child. Before Jesus was born, patriarchy had existed in the Hebrew Bible and in Jewish tradition for a long time. Even though Jesus lived for all humankind, the historical Jesus cannot be totally free from the social and historical context of his time. The meaning of Jesus’ relation to God, his authority and power, thus, should be reinterpreted in light of the anti-patriarchy for which contemporary women are struggling.

The Feminine Characteristics of God in the Bible

Painstaking efforts have been made by feminist Biblical scholars to discover the feminine characteristics of God. Some of their approaches assume the feminine characteristics of the Trinity. The feminist scholars search the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament to find relevant texts for the feminine reality of God’s mystery. Numerous texts found in the Hebrew Bible refer to the feminine characteristics of God. Maria Clara Bingemer presents Old Testament texts, such as Isaiah 49:15, Jeremiah 3 1:20, Psalm 77:9, etc., as evidence of the feminine reality of God. She asserts that "the chesed of God, God’s profound mercy, God’s faithfulness to the people in spite of their infidelity and sin, comes from God’s motherly heart, which is rachmim in Hebrew. The faith of Israel is directed toward this God as toward its mother’s womb. It calls and asks for loving protection."15

The second item supporting my proclamation is the fact that the image of Sophia, which is described as the activity of Wisdom in creation, is feminine (wisdom in Greek is sophia, a feminine word). The feminine image of Sophia often refers to maternal love. The word used in Johannine writings that has meaning in relation to the mystery of God’s love is agape (1 John 4:8-16). Agape also is revealed in the fourth Gospel: God loves this world so he gave us his begotten Son (John 3:16). God loves the Son; this love does not withhold. God’s love is for humankind. He does not exclude women, the poor and the "lesser" or Gentiles; rather, he opts to love them. The Son Jesus shows a preferential option for the poor, for the sick, for the have-nots and for women in his ministry.

Third, the historical Jesus described in the Gospel accounts initiated an itinerant charismatic movement in which men and women worked together as partners.16 In other words, Jesus was male and the Son of God; however, he was the founder of a community of men and women in his time. Bingemer asserts that the Jewish rabbis of Jesus’ time were known for thanking God for three things: for not being born a Gentile, for not being ignorant of the Law and for not being born a woman. In this context, Jesus was not only innovative but shocking! She asserts that none of Jesus’ teachings directly addresses this issue, but his attitude toward women was unusual.17 She takes texts from the Gospels-Matthew 11:21 and 11:25-27, John 11:35 and Luke 13:34 and 19:4 1 - and interprets them as fllustrating feminine aspects of Jesus. All of these reveal Jesus’ tenderness, compassion and infinite mercy.

The second person of the Trinity is the Word. The divinity of this person is feminine, according to Bingemer, and belongs to the most profound mystery of the love of God.18

Bingemer claims that the third person, the Spirit, is uncreated motherly love. For instance, she takes examples from the fourth Gospel: "The Spirit will not abandon us as orphans (14:18)"; "the Spirit consoles, exhorts and comforts us like a loving mother (14:26)." This view of the Holy Spirit with its feminine and maternal characteristics makes it possible for us to feel that we are not only under God but in God. This frees us from false images of a monotheistic God and helps us experience the fullness of God with our whole being within the community of men and women where the helpless and exploited ones of this world - the orphans, widows, the poor and the alien - have a secure place in our midst, are cared for, loved and protected.19

Reviewing recent feminist studies of the Bible and of Christian theology, I have come to the point where I feel I can proclaim who Jesus is, who God is and what the relation of Jesus to God is.

First, Jesus was sent by God, the love of God, by which we become children of God. Jesus is called the Son of God, but the concept of the divine Son should be distinguished from that of a human son. When the Gospel was written, the Johannine community was strongly rooted in patriarchy.

Second, Jesus has God’s authority and power because Jesus and God are the same: they are two persons in one. The gender of God has been delivered in a monogenetic fashion that causes Christianity to be monotheistic. The idea of procreation held in antiquity led to an understanding of the Father God as the absolute power and seed in his household. This power and authority can only be transmitted to the Son. The Biblical texts reflect this notion of the Father and the Son in the relationship of God to Jesus. Because patriarchy has been one of the oldest and most obstinate features of human history, Christianity also has a long tradition of patriarchy.

Given texts tell us that God has rather strong powers of judgment. The power of resurrection, of raising the dead from the tomb, was described by John in a masculine tone because of the absolute image of the father in the patriarchal family. However, hermeneutical conversion can still be made at this point. The resurrection power which is transferred to Jesus from God is to be interpreted as life-giving power. Life-giving power is the power of the Creator. In creation, not only the seed but also the soil is required. Human creation cannot be monogenetically explained. Both the male’s sperm and the female’s egg are equally necessary in order for a fetus to be conceived in the mother’s womb. In ancient Israel, however, the soil was not treated as precious but only the seed, which refers to a son. Thus, Jesus was the Seed, but the whole world is the field and soil. He is the Son by his nature. Although he is called male, he is not like other males in this world. His house is not here on earth but in heaven. His mission is to save humankind, and his very nature from God is love. We must not regard him as the son of a human family or as a male who takes his gender within a patriarchal community.

Lastly, God has two aspects: paternal and maternal. I would like to call God the Parent, but this Parent has a preferential option for women rather than men, for the poor rather than the rich, for the have-nots rather than the haves. God has such feminine characteristics as caring, tenderness, a readiness to console, agape, love. Against the Christian tradition of male dominance, women need to talk strongly, loudly, about the feminine characteristics of God. Men have spoken too much, too exclusively and for too long. It is time for women to be resurrected from the tomb of obstinate patriarchy. The power of Jesus to resurrect us is transmitted from God who creates the seed and soil. The Creator God is Mother as well as Father. Jesus is the founder of a community for both men and women. Jesus is the liberator of women. His feminine characteristics make him more compassionate for women; he has a preferential option for women. Let us not allow men to monopolize the images of God and Jesus as Male, Son and Seed. Let us put Female, Daughter and Soil in the same place so that women will no longer allow themselves to be enslaved or subordinated to men. In order that we are not overwhelmed by frustration, we women need to have feminist hermeneutics of patriarchal texts.


  1. Pamela Milne, "The Patriarchal Stamp of Scripture," Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 5 No. 1, 1989.
  2. Letty Russell, "Introduction: Liberating the Word," Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, p.14.

  3. Mary Daly, "Theology after the Demise of God the Father: A Call for the Castration of Sexist Religion," J. Plaskow and J. Arnold (editors), Women and Religion (Atlanta: Scholars Press, American Academy of Religion [AAR], 1974).

  4. Patricia Wilson, "Feminine Imagery in an Analog for God," J. Plaskow and J. Arnold (editors), ibid., p. 22.

  5. Mary Daly, op. cit., p. 3.

  6. Ibid., p. 11.

  7. Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) p. 239.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Susan Cady, Marian Ronan and Hal Taussig, Spirituality, Feminism and Sophia (New York: Harper & Row, 1989) p. 8.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Gerda Lerner, op. cit.

  13. Ibid., p. 240.

  14. Carol Delaney, "The Meaning of Paternity and the Virgin Birth Debate," Man, September 1986, p. 494.

  15. Maria Clara Bingemer, "Reflections on the Trinity," Elsa Tamez (editor),Through Her Eyes -Women’s Theology for Latin America (New York: Orbis, 1989) p. 63.

  16. Ibid., p.71.

  17. Ibid.,p. 72.

  18. Ibid., p. 71.

  19. Ibid., p. 76.

(Ed. note: This is an edited version of the orginal article.)