WARNING to parents! Mature subject matter. Some of the topics in this article are not appropriate for children.
Nearly all of it contains expressions of appreciation and testimonies of changes made in individual lives and families. But we have also received some criticism, as we do with nearly everything we write.
Dear Mr. Pearl,
As a father of 9, in fear and trembling, I write from Nathan to David. Consider my own little lambs together with the majority of your audience: tens of thousands of young sons and daughters who, like me, know little or nothing about the “patriarchal” doctrine against which you have crafted such a skillful attack. Understanding that it’s not your intent, I pray for you to see how the effects of these articles fans the selfish, youthful attitudes so dominant in our world and contrary to the biblical principle repeated over and over again (Ex. 22:7, Ex. 20:12; 21:17; Le. 19:3; 20:9; De. 5:16; 21:18; Pr. 1:8; 4:1; 6:20; 10:1; 15:20; 19:26; 20:20; 23:22; 30:11, etc.; besides Ep. 6:1, 2 and Co. 3:20). And so it is written: “Let him that thinketh he standeth…” “And if any man think that he know…”
God’s mercy on our generation and grace continue to abound. And we have so appreciated and continue to praise God for your insightful articulation of the sound doctrines pertaining to child training, family, and marriage.
Holding you in prayer,
I do appreciate this letter from Don, and I appreciate his praying for us. I also take note of the need for balance in discussions such as this very critical one. This article is an effort to achieve that balance.
Don feels that my articles and the published letters will provide justification for discontented youth to rebel against their parents. To those who share his concern I say, a healthy, loving parent/child relationship will not be disturbed by either the truth delivered out of balance or by a blatant lie. Children raised in a wholesome training environment will not be looking for a way out. They will be pleased to walk with their parents far beyond the time when they are free to do otherwise.
And in regard to discontented youth: It is a fallacy to think that by shielding a discontented nineteen-year-old from the truth of his autonomy as a human being, he and the family will be the better for it. A young man who feels the need to sail on his own wings but is constrained from doing so through guilt imposed upon him by false premises will not be better served if he is kept in the dark. He will stew and sour at the injustice, wrestling with guilt that he knows is unwarranted, until the lid eventually blows off with an earthshaking bang, leaving lifelong bitterness. When a young adult feels ill-treated, but out of a sense of duty continues in a submissive role, it negatively affects his emotional and spiritual development. He will be a lesser man than God intends him to be. To constrain him and have him continue in that state is counterproductive for everyone, including the younger children remaining at home. For those reasons, I cannot remain silent and thereby enable parents to continue such an injustice toward their children. To do so, I would become complicit in the almost irreversible harm being done.
Now, I would like to deal with the issue of balance. Published truth is too often delivered like a pendulum; it swings from side to side, extreme to opposite extreme, always seeking rest. Each person receiving it is responsible to assimilate the whole spectrum and to strike a balance. That is the continual challenge of one’s intellectual existence.
It is difficult―nearly impossible―to effectively press any urgent point and be balanced at the same time. If a writer does not challenge the comfortable status quo, he will often avoid offending everyone, but will not have struck a balance. It takes a forceful warning to save a blind wanderer from a deadly fall. Balance responds to the urgency of the moment in a voice that sounds one-sided and extreme. But in the never-ending tug-of-war for truth, one must frequently lean far from the center, or out of balance, lest his voice be of no consequence. So, now that I have shaken parents loose from comfortable commitment to a bad premise, it is time for balance.
We parents instinctively want our children to avoid the mistakes we made. We have taught them, protected, guarded, and prayed for them, spending nearly two decades of our lives looking to their welfare. Suddenly, they want to do it all themselves, and we know they are not yet ready. So, we hang on, trying to extend childhood into their late teens, and some parents even try to extend their oversight into their children’s twenties and beyond—afraid to let go. It has always been so—always will be.
But today, there is a twisted Christian doctrine preached that justifies not cutting the umbilical cord, all in the name of “Children, obey your parents.” It is based on the assumption that one’s offspring remain children, duty-bound before God to always be subject to the chain of command. This doctrine, misnamed The Patriarchal Family, has been around long enough for us to see the fruit, so I have characterized the extremes in this movement as Patriarchal Dysfunctional Families. When you see young adults continuing in the family unit in cloistered confinement, protected from making bad decisions, you are witnessing a PDF, even if they have never heard of the doctrine.
The Characteristics of a Dysfunctional Patriarch
- A dysfunctional patriarch believes he has a divine right and mandate to not just lead, but to command his wife and children perpetually. The key word is “perpetually.”
- A dysfunctional patriarch finds personal satisfaction in the power of his authority.
- A dysfunctional patriarch doesn’t have confidence in his ability to train his children or in their ability to overcome the world, so he protects them from temptation.
- A dysfunctional patriarch discovers that his elevated position meets some deep unfulfilled needs to be respected and honored, something he may not have fulfilled outside the home.
- A dysfunctional patriarch makes his leadership role the centerpiece of his Christian experience.
- A dysfunctional patriarch uses his family and their submission to the process as a way to commend himself to others and gain respect and honor.
- A dysfunctional patriarch is in search of community and seeks to establish it in his family.
- A dysfunctional patriarch is fearful of and suffers a sense of loss at the thought of the breakup of his family unit. This is the most telling characteristic of a dysfunctional patriarch.
- A dysfunctional patriarch will use guilt to control his children and prevent them from developing independence.
- A dysfunctional patriarch ends up holding his sons and daughters back from life, rather than helping them build a life.
- A dysfunctional patriarch is most likely to be an Amillennialist or Postmillennialist—anything but a Premillennialist. Accordingly, he believes the church has replaced Israel, and thus views the family much like a Jewish theocracy—trying to emulate the ancient Middle Eastern cultural forms, which are incidentally revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures. Vision Forum Ministries actually admits to returning to the Law in support of the Patriarchal doctrine:
“It is in the context of such ‘testing times’ that God’s people are often reminded to ‘open the lost book of The Law,’ and return to the ancient paths — the eternal, unchanging truths found within the pages of Holy Scripture.”
—The Tenets of Biblical Patriarchy, VisionForum.com
The Characteristics of a True Patriarch
- A true patriarch never demands respect; he inspires his children to greatness through example.
- A true patriarch teaches his children to choose the good and reject the evil, and provides carefully-controlled exposure to temptation and careful admonition.
- A true patriarch passes along his wisdom and culture—“here a little, there a little,” as they “walk in the way.”
- A true patriarch does not invoke his authority to avoid discussion and reason by his children.
- A true patriarch does not act like someone on a throne, but like the Lord Jesus, with a towel girt about his loins in service.
- A true patriarch does not covet his authority. He knows that his job is not to remain at the head of the parade, but to train his children to take the baton and lead, following their Heavenly Father.
- A true patriarch, like John the Baptist, knows he must decrease and has his joy fulfilled when his children leave him to follow their calling in life by God. He will actually rejoice to see that his children are walking in truth—on their own!
- As you read these two contrasting lists, you may have noted that the most prominent characteristic of each is the attitude of the father in regard to the specific duration of his authority over his children. The father who believes that God designed the family unit to exist as a clan, a pyramid ruled by the eldest male, with grown children expected to remain under their father’s umbrella of authority long after they have reached natural maturity, produces what we call the dysfunctional patriarchal family.
In contrast, a father who believes that the largest family structure is one man and one woman and their minor children easily accepts as his chief duty the readying of those children for their inevitable development into the autonomy of adulthood. Faithfully and resolutely he prepares his children to that end, releasing them to autonomous action as God, through physical and spiritual maturity, readies them. This constitutes God’s natural patriarchal ministry of a father.
The healthy parental attitude comes from a presupposition that human autonomy is an unalienable right and responsibility endowed in each human being by our Creator, and that it develops in each child incrementally in the natural course of physical and mental development, commencing fully at the commonly recognized onset of adulthood.
The arguments for patriarchal authority extending beyond the onset of adulthood are not based on nature or any command found in Scripture. They rest only on the basis of “apparent” examples in the Old Testament of patriarchal authority in a tribal and clan society that extends well beyond the commencement of adulthood, even until the end of their natural lives.
If the historical customs found in the background of the Old Testament stories are sanctioned by God and carry the status of commands, then we would have to promote slavery, beheading of our enemies, mutilating rape victims (including the mailing of their body parts all over the country to stir up the ire of the public), polygamy, concubinage, and government by kings—just to name a few. One will search in vain to find a single passage that commands parents to continue control of their adult children, and no one will be able to substantiate this spurious doctrine from any teachings of Jesus or from the writers of the New Testament.
History of the Modern Patriarchal Movement
Ideas take hold and become movements only when they find fertile ground in a large number of people. The trail leading up to the patriarchal movement began to emerge in the early 1970s.
The passing of the Civil Rights laws of the 60s provided a legal door for anti-American, anti-constitutional, anti-Christian, anti-family, pro-Sodomite, and pro-abortion laws and sentiment. The moral slide supported by law became a “Disney” ride into degradation. Television, with its rapidly degrading programming, opened the veins of every home to direct injections of Hollywood. Where it once took a generation for sin to spread across the country, it can now infect society almost instantly, being distributed to even the most remote communities by the rabbit-eared altar sitting in the most prominent place of every home.
By the mid-seventies, it was clear that the Christian community was a thing of the past. The universities were declaring “God is dead.” The public schools were stripped of what little authority and wholesomeness was left. The media steered the kids into premarital sex, drinking, and drugs, all to the beat of rock music. Parents, troubled by the sinful, hostile conditions of public education, founded Christian schools. But lost kids found their way into the church schools, rendering many of them just another cesspool of immorality, not one stroke different from public schools, except they had prayer before they “hooked up.”
In 1974, my wife and I began teaching our first child at home. At that time, the concept of patriarchy was unknown in our community. We thought we invented the idea. But within five years, we soon discovered that there were thousands of young families just like us who, for their children’s sake, were ready to take responsibility for the training of their children. The only way out of a culture war that we had lost was to retreat to a culture of our making, and there protect our children and prepare them to overcome a world hostile to truth and righteousness. The homeschooling movement exploded into a phenomenon that changed the face of Christianity in America. There was hope for the family once again, for in it we created a way to transmit our Christian culture to our children.
But the shift was not complete. Structured Christianity continued to degenerate along with the world. I read a survey stating that of the Christians who entered marriage having previously lost their virginity, over 50% revealed that it happened in connection with a church youth group. An equal number of those who did drugs and alcohol testified that they were introduced to it through their church activities. And some were even being molested by their church workers. As one homeschool mother wrote, “The only evil influence left in the lives of our children is our church.” So, many homeschoolers became homechurchers. Others downsized to small traditional churches with believers of like mind, where they could control their environment.
Local churches were offended when they and their schools were being rejected as unfit to bear influence on these homeschooled children. Fathers were challenged for their practice of domestic priesthood to the exclusion of all other authorities. They aptly defended their right and duty to be the heads of their homes. Fathers took the place of pastors, and in fact, became the pastors of their homes.
The time was right. With pressure on these fathers to justify their family-centric rule, a doctrine slowly emerged. It was not really new; the seeds of it had been floating around since the advent of the new conservatism in the early seventies. It eventually came to be called “The Patriarchal Family,” meaning, the headship of the father over his family.
In the late seventies, Deb and I attended a Basic Youth Conflicts Seminar taught by Bill Gothard. Much of what he said about dealing with bitterness was very practical information—highly useful in exposing sin and resolving personal issues apart from the gospel. But he also taught a strange principle of domestic authority which he illustrated with an umbrella. He made his point with a story of how a grown man with a wife and children had resolved personal issues by going back and submitting himself “under” the authority of his father, reestablishing the “Divine chain of command.” When we left that day, I remember telling my wife that some of his principles were out of line with the Word of God. Today, I do believe that Bill Gothard, notwithstanding all of the good he has accomplished, and whether knowingly or not, was the key instrument in planting the seeds of the modern patriarchal movement. However, I would never hold him responsible for the excesses that have followed.
This not-so-new doctrine, dressed in old clothes from another time and another culture, continued to be fleshed out for a couple of decades by different proponents, some good, some not so good, but all sensing that it needed systematizing. In time, along came Vision Forum. They canonized it and preached it as gospel. The following quote comes from Vision Forum’s website: The Tenets of Biblical Patriarchy, Editorial note: “…the church should proclaim the Gospel-centered doctrine of biblical patriarchy as an essential element of God’s ordained pattern for human relationships and institutions.” The editorial note continues: “Biblical patriarchy is just one theme in the Bible’s grand sweep of revelation, but it is a scriptural doctrine, and faithfulness to Christ requires that it be believed, taught, and lived.”
If we consider the fruit of the movement as seen today to be what the author had in mind in the above statements, the entire doctrine would be preposterous and dangerous. I do not know what Vision Forum may have taught concerning the actual practice of this doctrine, but if we carefully examine their 26-point exposé defining the Tenets of Biblical Patriarchy, we cannot but agree and applaud their faithfulness to sound doctrine. The 26 Tenets also include cautions and warnings against excess, which proved to be needed.
They do a good job of defining the historic doctrines regarding husbands being the heads of their homes and responsible for the education and training of their children. They are calling Christian fathers to avoid the feminizing of our modern culture and to rise to their duties as the heads of their families—a very worthy crusade.
A restorative movement sometimes has a way of escalating into cult-like fanaticism, as families get excited and share their individual views. The immediate fruit that comes out of any fervency is exciting and provocative, generating a confident atmosphere that can encourage extremes. There are far too many propagating this “gospel” of patriarchal rule who have gone off the deep end. But the fault is not in these 26 Tenets. Spiritually dysfunctional men found that the precepts of the patriarchal doctrine provided legitimacy for their controlling tendencies, so they saw what they wanted to see in the more balanced literature and hijacked the principles of an otherwise legitimate concept to provide Divine authority for the aberrant course they had already plotted. These families existed in exactly the same structure before the advent of the modern patriarchal movement, but they had to remain “in the closet” before their control syndrome was elevated to the status of Bible doctrine.
After a long time of seeing and hearing about the abuses of present-day patriarchy and then revisiting its historic roots, we can say confidently that the Biblical patriarchy revealed in Scripture is not at fault. Nor is it the fault of many of the proponents of a Scripturally-balanced patriarchal ministry; it is the twisted application of it that is to blame. The metamorphism from its original Scripturally-sound tenets to a completely different entity has gravely hurt many of God’s people. It is now being driven by a legalistic spirit that was not present in its historic beginnings.
When patriarchal guidance and ministry turn into patriarchal rule, a father stops being a mentor and becomes a policeman. The children will no longer view Dad and Mom as their ticket to a fulfilled life, but as the primary impediment to life. In many cases, these young adults come to view their parents’ relationship as the anti-example of a heavenly marriage. They do not long to have a life-like their parents’; they long to get away from their parents, so they can have a life.
Dysfunctional partriarchal parents sense this attitude and call it rebellion, and respond by tightening down on the rules and rebukes. They demand obedience, based, of course, on the supposed precepts of the patriarchal doctrine and by employing guilt as the final fence to keep their grown kids “under the umbrella” and in check.
Most of the letters we receive from young adults who were hurt by the cultish patriarchal practice tell us that their mother was the big proponent and instigator. To them, the patriarchal family was really a matriarchal family. Mother used the doctrine to bolster her authority, even to the point of controlling Father with it. Daddy went along with Mama because he didn’t want to appear unspiritual. Mama ruled.
But there is more to the story. There is a healthy patriarchal family!
Testimony of a True Biblical Patriarch
The following letter is a beautiful testimony of a properly functioning patriarchal family.
Dear Mr. Pearl,
I just finished reading your article, “Patriarchal Dysfunctional Families.” Thanks for speaking out concerning this Christian crisis. It is grievous to us that the extremes in this movement have given a negative connotation to the word patriarch. I am the son of a pastor, and have attended church all of my forty years. I am writing this letter in defense of the word “patriarch,” as I have seen it exemplified in the life of my father.
He was faithful through the pain of losing his first and second wives to cancer. He was faithful as he taught his seven children to think, work, and be useful. He sent all of us boys out of the house at age eighteen, knowing that he had done his job well enough for each of us to make wise choices. His sons are also faithful men serving as a pastor, a missionary, and church leaders; his daughters are missionary wives serving in Israel, Mongolia, and Honduras. I do not know another father more esteemed by his children or more honored by his congregation. It is my honor and privilege to be my dad’s son and to follow the Lord as he has.
May God’s grace attend to me as it has my dad.
The fear-based, pride-seeking, and guilt-infecting control mentality in this PDF movement are absolutely not the characteristics of a true patriarch. The “Christian show life” is characterized by self-satiated, insecure carnality under the guise of spirituality. A holy patriarch does not live a life based on legalistic control. A real patriarch always produces good and lasting fruit. I appreciate your analysis following the testimonials. I understand your responses to the trends you see. It has been hard to see the word patriarch maligned by this modern movement.
—Sam, from Washington State
Sam said it so well. “The fear-based, pride-seeking, and guilt-infecting control mentality in this PDF movement are absolutely not the characteristics of a true patriarch.” And I do believe that the framers and promoters of the patriarchal movement, such as Vision Forum and Bill Gothard, would agree with Sam.
There are always those who join a movement just to add their own flavor, and we have all seen supporters of the patriarchal concept who have unwittingly swung the pendulum too far.
Give sinful men white robes to wear, and some will inevitably alter theirs to be more fashionable or to “stand out.” Give men the law of God, and some will teach for doctrines the commandments of men. Teach men about their liberty in Christ, and some will use it to fulfill their lusts. Instruct parents to use the rod to train their children, and some will see it as an excuse to abuse their children. Tell husbands they are the head of their families, and some will feel justified in emotionally and physically abusing their wives and children. Tell wives to submit to their husbands, and some will tolerate criminal acts against themselves and their children in hopes of being a good help meet. And, if you assure people they have eternal security in Christ, some will sin before sundown. It is the way of humankind, the lot of the fallen sons of Adam and the reason Jesus said, “the road is broad that leads to destruction” and there will be many “which go in thereat.” In the day of judgment, no one will be able to point to his teachers and say, “They made me do it.” Every man and woman will stand alone before God and give account of the deeds done in the body, whether they be good or bad.
The Proper Patriarchal Perspective
I cannot think of a better way of communicating the proper parental attitude than through the words of Bob DeBolt. The story of Dorothy and Bob DeBolt is told in a book titled 19 Steps Up the Mountain. This brave couple parented nineteen children—six by their previous marriages, and thirteen by adoption or legal guardianship. Some of the children were paralyzed, one was blind, and one was born without arms or legs. The thing that caught my attention was Bob’s attitude toward these supposedly dependent children. He said,
“We try to raise our children for early emancipation. We give them love, but we are also demanding, and we can be tough. We find that it pays off. The child develops into a more competent, capable human being. We want every one of these children to reach a point where he or she will come to us and say, ‘I think I’m ready to leave now and make it on my own.’ But before a child can make such a break, he must face the fact that the world is not handicap-oriented. He is going to have to function effectively in a system in no way geared to crutches, braces, and blindness.”
Bob said so well what I have tried to communicate. Children are happiest when they are aware that you are raising them, as Bob says, “for early emancipation.” If teenage children are going to be content under parental mentoring, they must be convinced that their parents have a timely plan to launch them into a life of independence, where they can pursue life according to their own lights. A “patriarch” who is actively preparing his children to become responsible and self-supporting as early as possible, will not have to deal with mutiny. When children see their stay as indefinite, they do not feel an urgency to master the arts of living and wise decision-making. Furthermore, children prepared for early emancipation are least likely to “want” to leave home, even after they are emancipated.
From their earliest age, my children were aware that I was preparing them to succeed without me. I was working myself out of a job—seeking early retirement from parenting. They all succeeded at life, but somehow I can’t get rid of them. They have their own homes and businesses, but I have to look at most of them every day. They keep coming around, bringing our 14 grandkids—more to come—to spend time with Big Papa and Mama Pearl. I love it, because I am not responsible for them. I don’t interfere in their personal lives. I never tell them what to do. I don’t try to hold them to my convictions. Our daughters-in-law and sons-in-law never have occasion to be jealous for their spouse’s allegiance. I don’t rebuke them or try to direct them in subtle ways. I do not expect them to ask my advice on anything, but they do. I have all the blessings of being at the top of a wonderful family, but none of the burden of responsibility. I do not rule my family. I don’t even rule my wife. I rule myself by the grace of God and serve where I am needed. It can’t get any better. I want this for you, too. Some of you “patriarchs” simply take too much upon yourselves!
Show them the light
I cannot do as many of you parents would like, i.e., instruct your restless young adult children to continue submitting beyond their God-appointed day of emancipation. But I can tell you how to create a relationship with your children that guarantees they will never revolt against your “control.” The bottom line is, how can you, the parent, create an atmosphere that provides structure and discipline without leaving your charges feeling as if they are abused sharecroppers—smothered and trapped, with no future under the present regime?
It’s simple enough. Show them the light at the end of the tunnel before they get there, and put distance markers on the walls so they will know how much farther it is to independence day. Children, at every stage of their development, should know that you view their time under your tutorship as temporary, and that you are preparing them for the day when they graduate to complete autonomy. If their sojourn under your tutorship proves to be a difficult maze with no end in sight, they will grow weary in well-doing and either faint or rebel.
Parents should view their role like that of a teacher with a fixed and limited amount of time to communicate the curriculum on a course called Life. There will be a day already appointed when they will go out on their own with the material you have communicated. You are their pre-school teacher and their 1st through the 12th grade teacher, and that is it. Your job is done. They may come back for a friendly chat or a little vocational advice; they will probably become your good friend, voluntarily seeking advice, but school is over. If you tarry and do not communicate the principles of life by the time they become adults, you cannot keep them sitting in desks too small for them now and listening to lectures delivered years too late.
Their contentment through the developing years totally depends upon what they sense in your attitude toward them. You must make them know that you have confidence in them, in their judgment, their ability to adapt, to overcome adversity, to bounce back from defeat, to rebuke the Devil and to embrace righteous judgment. When your children are aware that you are really committed to working for their productive independence, they will feel respected and trusted, and they will feel equal to the task. They will be able to remain patient in the rough times, and can trust your leading them on to their day of emancipation.
Understanding a Child’s Development
This you must understand and remind yourself of it frequently: Children develop toward adult autonomy in stages. There is not a day marked on their calendar when they will make the transition; the metamorphism from child to adult takes place every day of their lives, culminating at about 19 years of age (give or take a couple of years in more extreme cases). Every day is important in their development, and every day you must try to relinquish just a little more control, hopefully having prepared them for the increased responsibility.
You have full sovereignty over a child until about the time they begin walking. On that day, their journey toward independence becomes apparent. Every day that passes brings a little more independence—hopefully. But when they reach puberty, their development and transformation kicks into overdrive, that is, it becomes abnormally hormonal. It is a gift from God. They will be confused enough just adjusting to their change of feelings and size, but if you try to keep them in a box, they will fight you or shut down altogether. Fighting is preferred to shutting down.
Make them know they are going somewhere grand and wonderful! Your “curriculum” has already paved the way to give them an understanding of what is now happening. They are filled with dreams and visions of what will be. They are romantic and idealistic. It is your job and privilege as a parent to equip them every remaining day of their lives in your home so they can win in the game of life. They should be taught from the earliest age that you are going to be granting them ever-increasing freedom, which will be accompanied by an increase in their responsibility.
If they believe that you are contributing to their future, they will love you and trust you implicitly, never kicking against your directing hand. But if they feel that you are holding them back, not willing for them to take the next step toward autonomy, they will treat you as the enemy.
The only way to gain and hold their confidence is to join their parade, not constraining them to join yours. Find out what their goals and hopes are and help them become equipped to that end. You can’t make a preacher out of a musician or a doctor out of a cook. Respect your grown child enough to allow him to choose his own life.
The bottom line and number one key point of all our discussion on the cloistered homeschool syndrome enforced by the Patriarchal Movement is that, parents must ready their children for emancipation in a timely fashion. To mandate young adults to docilely submit as if they were still children is unnatural and damaging to all concerned. Train them up and let them go, so you can gain them forever. Letting them go is an integral part of all of God’s creation, pictured so clearly in the life cycles of all living beings that He created. On the human level, it is God’s special gift of autonomy to every child graduating into adulthood.