The University of Chicago News Office
March 17, 1998 Press Contact: Josh Schonwald
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Should Christianity teach patriarchy or equality?

In the first meeting of its kind, scholars from a wide range of Christian traditions met at a conference in New York on March 12 to discuss what Christianity teaches about the role men should play in the family.

Evangelical groups such as Promise Keepers and Focus on the Family have been charged with promoting male headship, or the idea that husbands are divinely ordained to lead their families and make household decisions, but conference found that male headship was not essential to Christianity. Early Christians were among the most progressive forces in the ancient world, promoting husband-wife equality, said Don Browning, the Alexander Campbell Professor of Ethics and the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago, and author of From Culture Wars to Common Ground: Religion and the American Family Debate.

“The Greco-Roman world at the time of early Christianity was dominated by Aristotle’s theory of the family that said free men should be masters of their slaves, constitutional rulers of their wives and monarchical rulers of their children. In contrast, the earliest expressions of Christianity taught that fathers and husbands should be servants to the family,” Browning explained.

There is also evidence that 18th and 19th century Enlightenment teachings did not advocate dominance by the patriarch. Professor John Witte of Emory University School of Law explained that Mary Wollstonecraft and John Mill emphasized family stability in conjunction with political and domestic equality of women. These thinkers saw their views as consistent with the basic direction of early Christian teachings.

Professors Bonnie Miller McLemore of Vanderbilt University and Mary Steward Van Leeuwan of Eastern College backed up the finding that patriarchy is not an essential ingredient in the Christian household. They claimed that feminist theologians, in contrast to many secular feminists, hold that it is possible to reconcile a strong commitment to families with equality between husband and wife.

“The trajectory of early Christianity was toward an equal regard between husband and wife,” Browning said, summing up the consensus of the conference participants. “It is now appropriate for Christian theology to complete its early journey toward equality in marriage. A Christian perspective can now be added to contemporary struggles for establishing marriage on mutuality and equal regard.”

The conference was sponsored by the Religion, Culture and Family Project, located at the University of Chicago, and supported by a grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc. The conference was also sponsored by the Institute for American Values-a New York based think tank. The Religion, Culture and Family Project has produced a ten-volume book series called Family, Religion and Culture, published by Westminister John Knox Press.
Last modified at 03:51 PM CST on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.

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