Ordered Order—Conservative Christians’ Love Affair with Hierarchy

By Letha Dawson Scanzoni

stained-glass windowsRecently, I was looking for an online video of the hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful”.  It’s a song about the beauty of creation, praising God for making “all things well.”  Having always liked the hymn, I was startled to run across one choral rendition that included a stanza I’d never heard before and that’s usually (understandably) omitted. It went like this:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate;
God made them high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

I immediately thought about the Freedom’s Song DVD I had watched a few days earlier. It’s a film about the early 1960s civil rights struggles in the Jim Crow segregated South.  In one scene, an administrator walks into the school cafeteria where one of the employees, an African American dishwasher, and her teenage son are talking.  The administrator, a privileged older white woman, tells them she’s worried about signs of agitation for racial integration among some of the town’s black young people. She says she heard there was “almost a riot” at the Woolworth’s store after a sit-in at the lunch counter.

“Can you imagine a race riot here?” the white administrator continues. “It made me so upset I couldn’t sleep.  All night long I kept thinking—God made us to be separate.  He must have a reason. Finally, I realized it must be because He wants each of us to know our place. And to stay in it. Otherwise, there would be disorder. And God doesn’t want disorder.”  (Here’s the video clip that contains that scene.)

It’s all about order

What do the hymn’s “rich man in his castle” stanza and the white woman’s improvised theology of segregation in Freedom Song have in common?  An emphasis on order.  An order with a place for everything and everything in its place.

In times of social change, any hint of change in the status quo stirs up fears of disorder.  The more rapid the change, the more loudly come the calls for clamping down, holding back, conserving the status quo, stressing hierarchy over equality, law over grace.

Not that anyone wants chaos, and not that social order isn’t important.  But the kind of order in both opening anecdotes is an order imposed from the outside, not a matter of choice.  One category of persons is assigned to privilege, power, and dominance, and the other category is designated for a life of subordination. This prescribed order has been “ordered” for you, not by you.  If you’re in the subordinate category, you’re taught you have no choice but to submit and stay in your place.

Who ordered the order?  In both examples cited, God was said to have ordered it—both the economic and racial inequality.  To say a hierarchical system comes from God gives it more power.  Who wants to argue with God?

Those who benefit from systems of power have long used their power to make sure that those in subordinate positions hear warnings about rebellion against God if they question the “ordered order.”  During our own country’s years of slavery, on those occasions when slaves were permitted to hear the Bible preached, they were likely to hear sermons about their duty to submit to masters. Not to submit was rebellion against God. Similarly,  proof texts about wives submitting to husbands have long been accompanied by warnings about “God’s view” of rebellious women who display a “Jezebel spirit.”

Whenever I hear or read that a sermon topic is “God’s plan for the Christian family, “ or “God’s pattern for Christian marriage,”  I’m quite sure the text will be from one of the New Testament lists of duties for separate categories of persons, lists called “household codes,” with the sermon’s emphasis on a wife’s subjection to her husband’s headship, with all sorts of warnings— and promises— added by the speaker.

An overlooked message

Overlooked are the historical and cultural contexts of these biblical passages and their subversive approach toward helping the early Christians, who were living in the midst of rigidly stratified social systems, to navigate prescribed patterns of daily living in ways that would gradually undermine the hierarchal systems of the cultures in which they were living. Viewed this way, these lists of instructions for wives and husbands, and slaves and masters, lay the groundwork for gradual change toward the freedom, equality, and mutuality that is such a crucial part of the message of Jesus. That message of not lording it over others and emphasizing that the last shall be first and the first last turns the world’s system of domination and subordination on its head.

But most people don’t realize these New Testament household lists of duties for various categories of persons were actually written in ways that would undermine the status quo and encourage social change.  The shouting of the biblical hierarchalists has been so loud and insistent that many people have no idea there’s any other way to interpret such passages than the hierachalists’ literal reading and universal application, without regard to context or culture. That’s why it’s so important that we spread the word about such informative articles as Reta Halteman Finger’s “Submission, Subjection, and Subversion in Household Codes”    and Shawna R.B. Atteberry’s “Mutual Submission in This Time and in This Place” on our website, which were written in connection with the  cooperative synchroblogging venture suggested by both Esther Emery and Rachel Held Evans in their respective series on “submission.”

Why is “ordered order” so important to conservative Christians?

Shadow Pattern on DoorI think prescribed order is so important to many Christians because they fear freedom.  They don’t trust themselves or others to do the right thing without strict rules to follow. I believe some of those in religious and political power take advantage of this anxiety and use it as a control mechanism.

I also believe many Christians are sincerely convinced that it is God, not the society in which they find themselves, who has set up the hierarchical pattern they’re expected to follow.  Many such Christians, in their desire to please God, are afraid to think for themselves because If they begin to question, someone will quickly remind them that “the heart is deceitful above all things.”  Never mind the fact that Paul wrote “For freedom, Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1).   The insistence on living according to a rigid, imposed order as “God’s way”—especially in gender relations — can serve as a buffer against social change, especially in making sure patriarchy is preserved.

The women’s movement as a perceived threat — The gender hierarchy backlash 

A spate of books with descriptions and charts on “God’s order” for the family and women’s place in the church, home, and society began flooding the evangelical marketplace in the 1970s, no doubt to counter the women’s movement that was well underway. Several of us were doing our earliest writings on biblical feminism at that time, as well as finding each other and forming EEWC.  To counter the changes happening in society, conservative Christians proclaimed, with more fervor than ever, an insistence on hierarchical order.  In the home, the emphasis was on a wife’s submission to her husband as her primary duty. It was even suggested that a wife might think of her husband in the way John the Baptist thought about Jesus. “He must increase, and I must decrease.”

ORDER viewed as a flashing neon sign in bold capital letters

There is almost a kind of idolatry in how fundamentalists regard an imposed order from outside themselves rather than believing families can work out their own way of relating. One of the bestselling books of the 1970s was Larry Christenson’s The Christian Family. Throughout his book, Christenson capitalized the words “Divine Order” (almost  as though it were a Divinity itself). He had chapters on “God’s Order for Mates,” “God’s Order for Wives,” “God’s Order for Children,” “God’s Order for Parents,” and “God’s Order for Husbands.”  It was all about ORDER.  Order defined as hierarchy. Christenson included a flow chart showing the distribution of authority, with Christ as the Head of the husband; under Christ, the husband was given authority over the wife and the children; under the husband was the wife, defined as “help meet” to the husband and secondary authority over the children; and under both the husband and wife were the children.  Authority, “headship,” viewed this way is ascribed authority, not earned or negotiated authority. Any heterosexually married man is considered to have such authority bestowed on him simply by having been born male.

Wives’ submission as an object lesson so that men can understand submission to God

Judith M. Miles, in her 1975 book, The Feminine Principle, took another approach to explaining why a preordained order was necessary. She said that every newborn baby girl provided a “new incarnate picture of the human soul,” who would “grow either to become like the submitted and adorned Bride of Christ or like the harlot of Babylon.”  Miles explained, “Without a beloved, incarnate model of submission and loyalty, the males of the world will not understand how to submit themselves to the mastery of God.”  (I have a feeling that husbands who insist on submissive wives are more interested in power over their wives than in learning about their own submissiveness to God’s mastery.  Just ask counselors who work with abused women!)

Treating husbands like God

Another popular book in some fundamentalist circles in the 1970s was Elizabeth Rice Handford’s Me? Obey Him?  Handford is one of the six daughters of John R. Rice (author of Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers, which was one of  the 1940s decade of books on God’s prescribed order for women). In one of her most disturbing paragraphs, Handford writes that there is no question about whom a wife should obey if she feels God is leading her in a way opposite to her husband’s command, “The Scriptures say a woman must ignore her ‘feelings’ about the will of God, and do what her husband says. She is to obey her husband as if he were God Himself.  She can be as certain of God’s will, when her husband speaks, as if God had spoken audibly from Heaven!”  (Idolatry, anyone? )

Handford’s statement reminded me of a quote from a manual for wives written by a seventeenth century Confucian scholar.  It’s a quote I used in my 1968 article on equal partner marriage for Eternity magazine, but it was one of the parts deleted by the editors. Here is what the Confucian scholar’s manual said:

“A woman must look to her husband as her lord, and must serve him with all worship and reverence. The great lifelong duty of a woman is obedience. In her dealings with her husband, she should be courteous, humble, and conciliatory. . . .When her husband issues his instructions, the wife must never disobey them. . . .She should look on her husband as if he were Heaven itself.”

(Years ago, I would sometimes read that quotation during a speech, without telling the source.  I’d ask audiences to tell me where they thought it came from.  It was amazing how many people would call out, “From the Bible,” or “From the Apostle Paul” or “From Ephesians.”  Imagine their surprise when I told them the source.  Most indicated they had no idea that other cultures and religions have taught hierarchy in male and female relations throughout the ages. Many Christians thought the teaching was uniquely and specifically given by God in the Bible.)

Handford’s Me? Obey Him? was for years the book of choice to be given to engaged couples in some conservative Christian circles (it was still around and revised in 1995),  but I’ve been told it has now been replaced by the requirement of some fundamentalist pastors that engaged couples read Debi Pearl’s 2005 book, Created to be His Help Meet. These pastors refuse to officiate at a couple’s wedding until they have read it.

Rachel Held Evans has already provided an excellent critique and list of related resources about the abusive teachings of Debi Pearl and her husband, so I don’t need to say more here.

The Creation Order

Two Rows of RocksIn the 1980s, a renewed emphasis on a created order was another approach to making sure that people—especially women—knew and stayed in their places. Stephen Clark’s 753-page, heavily footnoted book, Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences  was heralded in conservative Christian circles as providing the definitive answer on the social and family positions of men and women.  Subordination is Clark’s theme from the outset. “It is the man who is called ‘man’ or ‘human’ and not the woman. . . . What we meet at the end of Genesis 4 is Human and his wife.” He explains: “The woman (Eve) is the mother of all human beings, but she was not the embodiment of the race. Rather, she was woman (wife) to the man who was the embodiment of the race. That too indicates a kind of subordination.” Clark warned husbands of spending too much time with their wives lest the men become “feminized.”

The Cosmic Order

Still another approach to the subordination emphasis that began showing up in the mid-1970s and 1980s was a revival of notions about a cosmic order—a pattern throughout the universe that is to be mirrored in the social order on earth.  This idea as applied to male-female relationships was especially promoted by the former missionary and author of many popular evangelical books, Elisabeth Elliot, and her brother Thomas Howard. They in essence revived  a version of the “chain of being” idea that was popular in the medieval period and used in some form into the 18th century. It served to justify such things as social and economic disparities, slavery, colonialism, gender inequality, ecclesiastical organization (with orders of clergy), and clergy over laity.  In this concept, hierarchy was built into the universe. A “chain of being” or “scale of nature” idea emphasized a graduated order of beings in the world, like a chain stretching from heaven to earth with God at the top, then orders of angels, then humans, animals, and so on, each having a link on the chain.  Within the categories, there were also rankings, and it’s not hard to see how this philosophy was used to justify superiority of some racial groups and classes over others. The part of the chain that Elliot especially adopted was that of males over females which she compared to a cosmic dance with each gender having its part to play, following a fixed pattern set up by divine wisdom.  (I wrote a more detailed explanation of this approach in the sections on “Paradigms” and “Chains” in an essay for the 72-27 blog.)  

More recently, some Christians who believe in the idea of a cosmic pattern to be followed in earthly marriage relationships are using another tactic to make their point. They are claiming to see a hierarchical pattern in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, asserting that Christ is eternally subordinate to God the Father—an idea which was once considered heresy and which Phillip Cary carefully critiques in an article that can be downloaded from Christians for Biblical Equality. Cary says, “I still wonder how it could have happened. . . .opponents of biblical equality have become so enamored with the idea of subordination that they want to make it part of God.”

Why does a fixed gender hierarchy appeal to conservative Christian women?

Marital hierarchy, so associated with patriarchy, appeals to many Christian women because the concept is often pitched as a way to improve their marriages and solve their marriage problems.  Women are seen as bearing the main responsibility for how a marriage goes. They hear statements such as, “If a man is unfaithful, it’s his wife’s fault for not giving him enough attention, or being sexy enough, or nagging him to help with the housework,” and so on.  And so the idea that they can make their marriages “more glorious,” or solve marital conflict, or revitalize family life through putting more effort into submission to their husbands is tremendously appealing to many women.

Adding to that appeal is the assertion that this hierarchical model is “God’s design,” so not surprisingly, many sincere Christian women will eagerly buy the books and turn to websites such as True Woman for guidance. There they can hear that “those who don’t follow God’s design are setting themselves up for pain and brokenness” and are warned about the dangers (and evils) of feminism, which is described in caricatured fashion as a strategy of Satan to “undermine and dismantle God’s design.”

An easily understood pre-designed order of dominance and subordination also appeals to many Christians in general—not just wives concerned about improving their marriages or wondering how God wants them to live as godly women.   This “ordered order” offers a neat, easy-to-grasp formula for knowing one’s place, duties, obligations, and gender-role responsibilities without ambiguity. There’s no further need to think about it, to figure out things for oneself.  Interchangeability of roles in marriage is absolutely condemned. Since the matter is settled by divine revelation, relationships organized in other ways are considered “out of order.”

Mutual submission

Stainded Glass Reflection“Mutual submission (God knew when He set up His hierarchy) will not work,” asserted Elisabeth Elliot in a harshly critical review of the first conference of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus (now EEWC) in 1975. She offered no explanation of why she was convinced mutual submission “will not work” other than to reassert the existence of a cosmic pattern, dance, or drama to be reenacted in earthly life, including the symbolic significance of the husband and wife relationship as reflecting Christ’s headship over the church and the church as the bride of Christ, subject to him.  In her view, If a married couple followed an arrangement of mutual submission instead of the wife’s unquestioned submission to the husband, they violated the symbol and its intent.

But in Elliot’s attempt to prove that “God’s design” was hierarchy by appealing to the passage on wives, husbands, and the church (Ephesians 5:22-33), she neglected to pay attention to the context. The context is all about the mutual submission of all believers to each other.

We see it not only in the verse immediately preceding the passage she alludes to (“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”), but also throughout the whole section that comes before. Christians are instructed to lead lives worthy of their calling, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:1-3). They are given gifts “for building up the body of Christ until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God to maturity to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (4:12-13).  They are to help one another grow, always stretching and moving beyond the limitations of a spiritual status quo. They are not constricted by an expectation that they should not step out of some pre-defined place, as though they were children not allowed to grow up. They were to regard themselves as “members of one another.” They were to “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (4:25; 5:2).  There is nothing in these passages about a hierarchy in which people were told they must occupy a fixed place of “above” or “below” each other because of gender, race, socioeconomic position, or anything else. We are all called to submit to each other.

How does mutual submission work?

Mutual submission works by ridding ourselves of the fear that moving from a fixed imposed order of hierarchy will lead only to chaos, confusion, and disorder.  Mutual submission is not structureless; it is not anarchy.  It’s a negotiated, mutually agreed-upon order that allows for interchangeable roles and flexibility, one that is worked out to the satisfaction of all parties concerned—regardless of the kind of relationship, whether in marriage and family relationships, friendships, or working partnerships. When disagreements occur, they can be worked out on the basis of true respect, empathy, and appreciation of the full human worth of each individual, along with shared values, and goals—qualities that cannot be ordered in a predetermined hierarchy imposed from outside.

Mutual submission is built on the idea of self-giving from both directions, and thus it is dynamic, full of life. This is what it means to “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:2).  “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”


Copyright © 2013 by Letha Dawson Scanzoni.

Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni (1935-2024) was an independent scholar, writer, and editor, and the author or coauthor of nine books. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992). Letha served as editor of Christian Feminism Today in both its former print edition (EEWC Update) and its website for 19 years until her retirement in December 2013.