In Praise of Patriarchy and Headship

Christ’s Charge to Peter by Rafael Karton, 1520

For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body. (Ephesians 5:23)

He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church. (Colossians 1:17-18)

But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and a husband the head of his wife, and God the head of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:3)

News flash—patriarchy is about fathers, not about males. If that claim sounds like a head-scratcher, keep reading.

The “public enemy number one” of the secular feminist—and occasionally the Catholic feminist—is patriarchy, pure and simple. The only problem is that the term “patriarchy” is not necessarily pure, and not entirely simple. Neither is “headship,” the necessary counterpart to patriarchy.

I believe, strongly, that both patriarchy and headship, properly understood, count as gifts from God to the human family, and that they have existed literally “from the beginning” of humankind. But, like other gifts from God, both patriarchy and headship can be twisted into something not good. What is vital is avoiding erroneously throwing out the goodness of patriarchy and headship when one rightly discards their fallen forms.

To make all this clearer, we need to look at the human history of “original” patriarchy, “fallen” patriarchy, and “redeemed” patriarchy. But even before that, in order to get our “headship” on straight, we should look at divine patriarchy.

Divine Patriarchy
The reason patriarchy (literally “the rule of the father”) and headship are about fathers and fatherhood and not about males is because the Blessed Trinity itself is the original and divine patriarchy. God is assuredly and obviously “Father,” but God is most assuredly not “male”—and not even masculine:

This characteristic of biblical language—its anthropomorphic way of speaking about God – points indirectly to the mystery of the eternal “generating” which belongs to the inner life of God. Nevertheless, in itself this “generating” has neither “masculine” nor “feminine” qualities. It is by nature totally divine. It is spiritual in the most perfect way, since “God is spirit” (Jn 4:24) and possesses no property typical of the body, neither “feminine” nor “masculine”. Thus even “fatherhood” in God is completely divine and free of the “masculine” bodily characteristics proper to human fatherhood. (Pope St. John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, 8)

While God’s generation of the Son is utterly divine and transcends both the “feminine” and the “masculine,” God’s divine Fatherhood of the divine Son is real, eternal, and unchanging. “Father” remains the very Name of God—the Name of the First Person of the Blessed Trinity.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:3). Paul’s words are a good introduction to the newness of our knowledge of the Father as it unfolds in the New Testament. Here God appears in his Trinitarian reality. His fatherhood is no longer limited to showing his relationship with creatures, but expresses the fundamental relationship which characterizes his inner life; it is no longer a generic feature of God, but the property of the First Person in God. In his Trinitarian mystery, in fact, God is a father in his very being; he is always a father since from all eternity he generates the Word who is consubstantial with him and united to him in the Holy Spirit “who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” (Pope John Paul II, General Audience, March 3, 1999)

God has always been Father. Divine Fatherhood isn’t “analogous” to human fatherhood. It’s the other way around. We human fathers are the analogy, quite intentionally. Christians do not call God “Abba” in a human sense, but in a divine sense. Why? Because we are adopted into the very divine Sonship of Christ as members of His Body. By partaking in the “divine nature,” the Son’s divine “Abba” becomes ours, too.

Further, God the Father is also the “head of Christ” as St. Paul says. How can this be? It couldn’t be, if headship denotes merely dominance or potentially unjust authority. Even in the Godhead (there’s that word “head” again!), two fully divine Persons are in a relationship in which one is Father and one is Son, with the Son doing the will of the Father. Dare we call this “patriarchy”? Dare we not call it that? No one doubts that the Son was sent to do the will of the Father, in perfect obedience. Divine patriarchy—yes, it’s a thing. The very perfection of patriarchy is the Blessed Trinity.

In turn, the Bridegroom Christ is “head” of His Bride, the Church, who subordinates Herself to His will. Is there any “injustice” to be found in this divine headship of Christ regarding His Body, the Church? No.

Both patriarchy and headship are perfectly expressed in God Himself. So, what about us mortals?

Human Patriarchy
Just as the Trinitarian communion of persons shares one divine nature while having distinct relational identities as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, human nature can be said to image God in the relational identities of man and woman, the two ways of being human while sharing the same human nature. Thus, we can easily establish both the utter equality of man and woman and the crucial complementarity shared when man and woman form a communion of persons.

And that’s just how “original patriarchy” began. The headship of our original patriarch, Adam, is shown simply and clearly before the fall. He is the first created, the sole custodian of sanctifying grace to be endowed as gift to the human family (Adam’s task, not Eve’s), the one charged with care of Eden. He displays his God-given “headship” over the animals by naming them. Upon seeing his helpmate, his suitable partner, for the first time, he displays his God-given headship toward her by naming her “woman.” Adam is the “head” from which the very body of Eve is generated. In fact, this unique “generation” is more akin to the unique “begetting” of God the Son by God the Father than it is akin to the realm of natural human generation that follows.

So far, so good. But then our first patriarch stumbles and fails to be a proper steward and faithful servant leader. He is supposed to sacrifice himself fully for the sake his “body,” his very heart, Eve. Yet, he chooses sin over true headship. Enter fallen patriarchy, wherein Adam and Eve throw each other under the bus, only to hear God Himself tell Eve one of the consequences of the fall: “Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). Fallen patriarchy is not going to be pretty.

Fast-forward a few millennia. We all know the terrible wound that fallen patriarchy inflicts across the full spectrum of fallen human history. Under the influence of sin, men twist paternal authority and servant leadership into caricatures of abuse and domination. Who can change this history for the better?

Only the Savior who stands at the center of human history. Jesus Christ’s perfect self-sacrifice pushes against fallen patriarchy and restores the promise of “original patriarchy.” By God’s grace, redeemed patriarchy and redeemed headship are mediated through Mother Church, modelled again on the perfected patriarchy and headship that belong to God Himself. The New Adam is Jesus Christ the Bridegroom and Head. His Headship is also expressed via Jesus’ own spiritual patriarchy. Jesus is a spiritual father who generates spiritual sons—the Twelve, the new patriarchs of the New Israel (the Church). In turn, the Twelve generate spiritual sons, too. We call them popes and bishops—spiritual successors of the Twelve.

For the last two millennia, fallen patriarchy has been at battle with redeemed patriarchy, in human hearts and human institutions. Some feminists want to convince the world that patriarchy and headship are always bad. But they are not. Patriarchy and headship are not only part of God’s plan, but they are at the heart of who God really is.

Redeemed patriarchy is the means by which we can rediscover both God’s plan and God’s true identity as Father and Head. When priests and bishops model their lives on Jesus Christ and His Heavenly Father, they become true heads, true patriarchs. When husbands and fathers strive to be the kind of total self-gift to wives and families that God is to the Son and the Son is to God, and Christ is to His Church (cf. Ephesians 5), then they may claim true headship as redeemed patriarchs. When these “sons of Adam,” in Christ, choose selfless stewardship and servant leadership, then they become true heads of their wives, true “rulers” of their families.

As Christians, it is an easy yoke and a light burden to “submit” to Jesus Christ, perfect Head, who Himself submitted to God the Father, perfect Patriarch.

Likewise, how easy it can be, and how sweet, to submit to any human patriarch and head who strives to imitate God the Father and God the Son.

Jim Russell About Jim Russell

Jim Russell lives in the Archdiocese of St. Louis and writes on topics of marriage, family, and sexuality from a Catholic perspective. He can be reached via e-mail at:


  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Redeemed Patrarchy is a difficult metaphor in our contemporary world. True some may call all patriarchy bad, but what reason have they not to do so. As you indicate, the Biblical view of patriarchy is not a redeemed view, take Deut 25: 5-6. The widow has no say who will take her as wife in the male line of the family. The news this week certainly demonstrates that the women of today facing sexual harassment have had little or no say about what they suffer. A redeemed patriarchy will need to demonstrate a sense of powerlessness, a sense of repentence, a sense of equality of the sexes before redeemed patriarchy will make any sense.