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American Evangelicalism isn’t patriarchal or feminized. It’s matrilineal.

August 26th, 2020 | 21 min read

By Anthony Bradley

For many years, researchers have pondered the growing absence of men in conservative Protestant churches, especially evangelical churches. In fact, losing men has been a problem for Christian denominations since the late 19th century, which ushered in the era of “muscular Christianity” as a way to win men back to the church. During the early 20th-century, church leaders had deep concerns about the ways in which church life was skewing primarily towards the interests and concerns of women and the ways in which urban life began to redefine men’s roles in society.

Men were falling away from church life. As sedentary life was becoming an industrial revolution norm, due to advances in technology and improving economic mobility, religious leaders introduced sports, fitness, adventure, and social justice as way to reconnect boys and men to the church. This explains the partnering of church life with the YMCA, the Boy Scouts, outdoor camps, and enlisting men in the Social Gospel Movement. As Clifford Putney explains in his book, Muscular Christianity, by 1899 women comprised three-quarters of Protestant church membership and nine-tenths of its attendance. Recent studies on gender disparities in American churches report that women regularly attend church more than men at 61 to 55 percent, respectively.

Over the past twenty years, much ink has been spilled raising alarms about the “feminization of the church” in evangelical circles as a way to explain the absence of men. Women naturally balk at these accusations because it is hard to conceptualize a feminized church when most, if not all, of the leaders are men. I believe this discrepancy makes sense because we have not been using the tools of human anthropology to analyze our society. Evangelical churches are actually not patriarchal, even with mostly male leaders. Nor are they feminized. They do not emasculate men in order to appeal to women’s sensibilities or desires. “Feminized” is the wrong word to describe the sermon content, music styles, programs, décor, and the like of many evangelical churches. The study of human anthropology provides another possibility: Evangelical churches are, in fact, matrilineal.

What Are Matrilineal Societies?

Matrilineal societies are centuries old systems that organize community life so that the day-to-day activities of women are placed at the center of social thriving for successive generations. In an article titled, “The Expendable Male Hypothesis,” Siobhán M. Mattison, Robert J. Quinlan and Darragh Hare explain that, traditionally, a matrilineal society is a “system of kinship in which descent and inheritance are conferred along the female line.” More specifically, the authors state that matrilineality is a

system of behaviours that bias investment towards matrilineally related kin. Our definition includes inheritance of resources, rank, title or information and other forms of cooperation that are biased towards matrilineally related kin. The focus on observable behaviour separates our definition from more ambiguous metrics of matrilineality such as corporate descent, which arguably apply only to humans and, while affording greater opportunities for certain forms of cooperation among relatives, do not preclude alternatives. Finally, our definition requires observation of actual behaviours as opposed to stated norms. Kinship behaviors frequently contradict stated norms and natural selection acts on behaviours—not stated norms—because enacting norms through behaviours is what generates differential fitness outcomes.

What matters in identifying whether or not a society is matrilineal is neither who does what, nor who holds certain offices; what matters is which gender is largely responsible for passing down what matters to children. Women both depend and rely upon cooperation among other women to ensure that needs in the community are met in these societies. Matrilineal societies are different than matriarchal societies. In a matriarchy, women hold the highest levels of authority and social power. Matriarchal women are outward-facing representatives of the community.

In matrilineal societies, by contrast, the outward-facing office does not determine which gender is socially dominant. Rather, as Sarah Lowes observes, “men often retain positions of power and authority within the kin group.” Men may hold an office, but women control the operations of community life. Lowes cites Anthropologist Jan Vansina in explaining that matrilineal societies exist to accommodate life in agriculture and sedentary villages.

That is, as agriculture became more and more a part of meeting caloric needs than, say, simply relying on hunting for meat, societies naturally became more and more reliant on women as the primary food gatherers to compliment hunting for meat. The roles of men shifted and broadened, especially in a context where pair-bonding was not the norm. Women found other uses for men, rather than relying on them for food, because women were able to rely on each other.

Additionally, according to Vansina

[M]atrilineal systems could incorporate unaffiliated men into the matrilineal group, which is more difficult in patrilineal societies where male membership is established through birth. [Mary] Douglas makes a similar observation: ‘If there is any advantage in a descent system which overrides exclusive, local loyalties, matriliny has it. Furthermore, matrilineality, by its ambiguities, gives scope to the enterprising individual to override ascribed roles’. . . .Matrilineal societies are argued to be more beneficial with certain types of production, such as hoe agriculture. In contrast hunting, which requires skill development and male cooperation, is argued to be more compatible with patrilineality.

In fact, the reproductive advantage shifted to women in terms of determining suitability for procreation. It was the woman’s choice of a man that mattered, not the other way around. As Mattison argues, in matrilineal societies “women are relatively free to make mate choice decisions based on criteria other than male provisioning.”

As a result of women being the center of mate selectivity and the social economy, the empowerment of women could even more focus on child development. Matrilineal societies, therefore, increase the social power and influence of women because they largely take on the bulk of the responsibility for raising children and their voices, when joined with other mothers, take precedence in norming values and practices of the community.

As Lowes observes, “[m]atrilineal societies may empower women because of structural elements of the society or because they intrinsically value women more. Examples of structural elements of matrilineality include matrilocality, which is the practice of living close to the wife’s relatives.” Living closer to the wife’s relatives may enable women to better implement their preferences and norms in family life as a manifestation of a different kind of empowerment that exists outside of official public leadership roles.

Jared Benson, who teaches history at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, observes that matrilineal societies are societies in which anything of any real consequence is passed on through the mother’s lineage, like titles, the distribution of resources, and so on. Additionally, says Benson, mothers would enlist platonic males in the community, usually male relatives, to have an impact on a child’s life for the good, to compensate for the absence of or lack of commitment from the father. Again, in ancient cultures, permanent pair bonding was not the norm.

Not only are women the life-givers in matrilineal societies, they are also the life sustainers. As such, in matrilineal societies, mothers are revered. Mothers, above all other women, are held in highest esteem because they are the life-giving and life-sustaining centers of community life. In many ancient cultures, the importance of mothers was depicted in sculpture and art in ways that men in general, and fathers in particular, were not. Without mothers, these societies could not function.

Women were responsible for gathering food and providing the caloric intake for the entire family. In matriarchal cultures, men were often physically away from the family to hunt, as external representatives of the family or communities with other groups, establishing trade networks, or handling conflicts with other groups. In contrast, women in matrilineal societies do almost everything—planting, harvesting, childcare, caring for themselves, other women, and so on. Without women and mothers, life does not happen.

What Does This Have to do with Evangelicalism?

Everything. Just as women were the glue and the engine that made life function in ancient matrilineal societies, they are most certainly the key to making life happen in America in 2020. Matrilineality explains so much about how evangelical churches brainstorm about their programming and staffing needs. Entire churches are structured to function adjacent to, and to complement, matrilineal social norms. Many matrilineal churches falsely believe themselves to be true complementarian churches. In reality, many churches are simply a complementarian façade living a matrilineal reality. It’s why the “felt needs” in a church often are what they are.

After the industrial revolution, not only did the economy change, so did family life—especially in a society where pair-bonding through marriage was made normative by Judeo-Christian values. For lower class families, the industrial revolution severed the ways in which families worked together as a unit, in partnership with other kin networks to sustain life. Men, and often children, were away from home working long days in physically demanding environments while women tended to either be left at home caring for young children or working in a less physically demanding place of employment. For the growing industrialized middle-class family, men were able to acquire less physically demanding work in the marketplace, children were free to attend school, and women were free to become something called a “housewife.”

Fast forward to the 1950s and the elevation of the self-sufficient suburban nuclear family. The nuclear family introduced a need for women to be the centers of holding families together and making sure the needs of children were met, often by themselves, without the help of men. In some communities, maintaining the internal life of the home and caring for children were designated “women’s work” while the man’s role was limited to expectations about financial provisions and caring for the physical infrastructure, such as the house, automobiles, appliances, and the like, and being the chief disciplinarian for the children.

Whose job was it to make sure children were clean, in good health, provided all of their calories, properly fed with a balanced diet, properly educated, appropriately clothed, religiously formed? Mothers. When children had to buy presents for birthday parties for their friends, teachers, and other family members, who primarily does all of that work? Mothers. When children need to bring food for events at school or have costumes made and designed? Mothers. Who largely does all this work? Mothers. Without mothers doing the lion’s share of the day-to-day work, family life would implode.

Moreover, women have always been more religiously active than men. The further and further we moved away from the 1950s, the more centralized the mother’s role became in connecting children to the life of the church. Whose job was it to get the children ready for church on Sunday morning? To make sure the children made it to Sunday School? To ensure they completed their catechesis, memorized their lines for the Christmas and Easter programs, and so on? Again, mothers. Without the active presence and initiation of women, not only would churches implode, the presence of active children would subside as well.

The data supports America’s matrilineal status. In the book The Boy Crisis, Warren Farrell and John Gray highlight a Pew Research Center report that reinforces what most people experience in America, namely that “women still run the home that men financially support.” Even in dual-income households, the woman has more say in the decision-making regardless of whether or not she earns more or less than her husband.

Some will deny that their homes and churches and churches were matrilineal because of personal experience in conservative contexts. Granted, some fundamentalist church communities may be somewhat different. The exceptions to evangelical matrilineal systems, however, tend be in more fundamentalist, biblicist, and legalistic church settings in which men have, at times, abused power and subjected women to second-class status even after the 1950s with clearly defined “gender roles.” Women often found themselves immersed in these patriarchal religious settings either by choice or coercion. Many of those settings are abusively patriarchal. What does this mean? The matriarchal development in any given church may not have happened until decades later.

Perhaps it was not in the 1950s but later, say in the 1990s, especially as wealth and sedentary life increased in the suburbs and kin networks were more disrupted as parents moved around the country chasing careers and dragging their children behind them, that many churches developed a matrilineal expression.

Therefore, matrilineal dominance was simply a matter of time, especially in the modern home. By the time we reached the 1970s and 1980s church planting boom in sprawled cities, it meant that women had to increasingly rely on each other in schools and churches, in a matrilineal fashion, to make life work. As women cooperated more in education and religious life, men were less and less present. Some might argue that as life grew more sedentary, men became less and less needed in terms of their physical strength at home and in the community.

Suburbanization, non-denominationalism, and the reliance on new social networks at church and school to care for children significantly increased the burden on women to serve as the primary sustainers of life. Without women and mothers, family life, schools, and churches would implode. Ask any school principal or pastor today about the role of women versus men in sustaining their churches and Christian schools. As men’s roles shifted more outside of the home and school, women naturally needed people to impact their children.

As stated above, women in matrilineal societies would enlist the help of platonically connected men, often brothers, uncles, and grandfathers, to have an impact on children’s lives. In suburban churches, that role was professionalized in the office of “youth pastor” or “pastor of youth and families,” and so on. It should come as no surprise that the children’s and youth ministry roles emerged as central to evangelical churches because of the economic and geographical nature of the nuclear family in a matrilineal America. It is not true, as it is often intimated, that youth ministry exists to “assist” the family or to reach the children. Many believe themselves to be doing that as a justification for their existence.

But in today’s matrilineal America, especially in the suburbs, children’s ministry, youth ministry, family ministry, and other post World-War II church staff titles specifically exist to serve and assist mothers in passing down the essentials of faith. Ask any children’s or youth ministry staff what would happen if all of the mothers pulled out of helping them run their ministries versus the fathers. Children’s ministry and youth ministry exist because communities and churches are primarily matrilineal.

It is important to remember that matrilineal societies can exist while men are placed in outward-facing leadership roles (say, pastor or elder), but the community’s internal life would implode without women’s authority as mothers. Matrilineal societies are about who does what to sustain life rather than merely looking at who holds which outward facing job title or role. Without women sustaining life, the community dies no matter who has what title in a matrilineal society.

In church life, by extension, there are no children’s services without moms. Moms primarily determine teen presence at church on Sunday morning. Women working with other women do most of the program planning and execution for major church events, such as Christmas, Easter, potlucks, prayer meetings, children/youth trips, and so on. It is the mothers who sustain youth ministry by providing services like food and local transportation. There is no Christian homeschooling without mothers.

In matrilineal Christianity, parents will evaluate churches based on programming and services for children. Doctrine, sacramental practices and beliefs, and so on, are usually secondary. This is why churches will advertise and grow based on children’s and youth programming offerings. Churches will not grow without children’s and youth ministries to assist mothers.

This explains, in part, why the language of “childcare provided” is so necessary to advertise in church programming activities. “Childcare provided” is a signal to mothers, not fathers. Fathers do not need childcare provided because many of them, since the industrial revolution, generally have no problem leaving the kids at home with mothers while they were out at the local tavern or engaging in recreation, and unfairly so in many cases.

In the end, a church can be fully matrilineal and only have men in pastoral positions. As such, accusations that the church is a patriarchal institution due to their exclusion of women from the ranks of pastors or elders, for example, miss the role of women as the authoritative engine and glue that holds the whole institution together. In a matrilineal context, the objections to women not serving as pastors and preachers are often defended on the basis of actions performed in community or society-at-large and obscure other ways in which men are, in fact, passive actors.

Mother’s Day and Marriage

In ancient and modern matrilineal societies, women are revered in cultural artifacts such as figurines and statues because of the vital roles they play in organizing and sustaining community life. The Venus figurines of the prehistoric age are a great example of the reverence given to women.

As America became more and more sedentary and matrilineal, it would be natural, as was true in ancient matrilineal societies, to honor, celebrate, and revere the singular group of people that made it possible for community life to function: mothers. Americans accomplished honoring women as life-givers and life-sustainers in the form of Mother’s Day.

National Geographic tells the story this way:

It all started in the 1850s, when West Virginia women’s organizer Ann Reeves Jarvis—Anna’s mother—held Mother’s Day work clubs to improve sanitary conditions and try to lower infant mortality by fighting disease and curbing milk contamination, according to historian Katharine Antolini of West Virginia Wesleyan College. The groups also tended wounded soldiers from both sides during the U.S. Civil War from 1861 to 1865. . . Largely through Jarvis’s efforts, Mother’s Day came to be observed in a growing number of cities and states until U.S. President Woodrow Wilson officially set aside the second Sunday in May in 1914 for the holiday. “For Jarvis it was a day where you’d go home to spend time with your mother and thank her for all that she did.

As a result of America increasingly becoming a modernized matrilineal society, Mother’s Day is now the second most expensive holiday in the entire country. Mother’s Day only trails Christmas, the traditional day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, as the most important holiday in America. This is also true in church life. The three most important holidays in most American churches are Christmas, Easter, and Mother’s Day. Jesus, then mothers. That is an ancient matrilineal cultural norm to hold women in such high esteem.

In a modern matrilineal society like the United States, it should come as no surprise, then, that Father’s Day plays second fiddle to Mother’s Day and is often turned into a day of shame, in which men are implored to “step up” and get their acts together. Why? Because mothers are the primary life-givers and primary life-sustainers. Without mothers, families would not have much of a social life.

With respect to marriage, in patriarchal and patrilineal cultures women usually must pay a dowry in order to marry men. In matrilineal societies, however, men must seek permission and often pay a “bride-price” in order to marry a woman either of his choosing or given in a prior arrangement made by the parents. If America were patrilineal, engagements and weddings would focus more on the husband. In matrilineal societies, however, men are expected to yield and pay deference to women as the primary life sustainers in family life, even if men hold certain offices like king, for example.

In pair-bonded relationships, which is beyond the scope of this essay to unpack fully, the matrilineal nature of marriages can introduce power struggles and tensions because women know that men, in theory, cannot leave. According to a 2019 paper published in Articles of Sexual Behavior and written by Abigal Hughes, Gayle Brewer, and Roxanne Khan, wives will withhold sexual intimacy, words of affection, attention, meeting their husbands’ emotional needs, and so on in order to manipulate their husbands to acquiesce to their preferences.

Esther Vilar’s book, The Manipulated Man, explains how women developed greater power to use physical intimacy as a lever to control their husband’s behavior and decisions. In matrilineal contexts, men often seek help with controlling wives. Sadly, because of the matrilineal nature of the modern family, fathers, and men over thirty years old in general, are typically friendless and lonely because they simply do not have an obvious social role to play in their communities.

The Matrilineal South: An Example

In 1998, country music artist Tracy Bird released, “When Mama Ain’t Happy”, which could be considered the anthem of a matrilineal society held together by a community of mothers and women. Having been raised in North Georgia, this song rings true and almost any man from the South will confirm its reality. Family life, in the end, is about making mom happy. In the song, Bird sings,

I see in those green eyes, her redhead temper
And she can make July cold as December
I love her every way she is
But brother, I’ve discovered at times like this

When mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy
Daddy’s gonna make mamma happy tonight

Clinical Psychologist Marlo Archer, who spent her years earning her PhD in Mississippi, reflects on the title of the song and the reality of the centrality of mothers this way:

The phrase is funny because it’s generally true. In a traditional family of a mother, a father, and some children, everyone generally looks to momma to keep the family organized and functioning as it should. Mom finds her husband some clean socks to wear to work, reminds him to sign the insurance papers before he leaves, and sends him on his way with a loving peck on the cheek.

Meanwhile, she finds her own clean socks so she can take two of her children to school, one of which needs a permission slip signed, the other of which needs a poster about China. She totes the third child with her to the grocery store and has packed an arsenal of toys and snacks to keep him happy and satisfied while she runs the family’s errands and finishes up just in time to collect the two children from school, come home, and prepare a nice meal for everyone. After supper, dad plays with the kids, helps with homework and leaves mom to have some time to herself to relax and get ready to do it all again the next day.

In the modern South, mothers make life happen. Southern mothers are the center of the family, community, and church life. Again, it is in the more sedentary rhythms of post-industrial life that managing family life no longer requires masculine physical strength, instead relies on women’s skills at keeping the family functional for the benefit of the children; therefore, mothers are at the center. Men’s masculine roles were lost or obscured in the process.

One of the consequences of men not knowing their place in a modern matrilineal society is Southern hyper-masculinity, which is performed not for women, but for other men, and which often leads to horrifying outcomes. These performances are constituted by big pickup trucks, hunting trips, sports, the ability to consume large amounts of alcohol, and so on. These are ways that men resist and protest the matrilineal, “mama pleasing,” lives that fathers and sons are expected to live. In matrilineal societies, women will even dress their husbands like dolls as men surrender the sartorial decisions to their wives and mothers that fathers used to make previous generations.

Irwin Hirsch advances a thesis that overly controlling and domineering mothers, say in a matrilineal society, can lead men to perform hyper-masculinity in more tragic ways to seek “revenge for childhood humiliations at the hand of powerful mothers.” That revenge, tragically, can result in men’s mistreatment of women. According to multiple studies, men tend to externalize their pain and this means that men who experienced abusive mothers are statistically more likely to be abusive themselves, though not to their own mothers, but rather to their wives. Much of how some men express “toxic masculinity” is correlated with how their mothers treated them, as well as other factors.

I have counseled many young men over the past twenty years from the South who struggle in their religious and dating lives because of the impact of their overbearing, controlling, manipulative, and/or abusive Christian mothers. In matrilineal societies, the issue of abusive mothers will be ignored as will the connection made to their influence in producing men who later abuse women and the cycle continues. The mistreatment of women by men, then, further justifies the need and advantages of female cooperation within a matrilineal context, and the system perpetuates itself.

In 1981, a master’s thesis by Ann L. Barfield at The College of William and Mary titled “The Matriarchal Society in Flannery O’Connor’s Fiction: Its Characteristics, Treatment, and Purpose” perfectly captures the way matrilineal societies maintain the dominance of women in the South.

In O’Connor’s work, we find:

“[T]he most obvious indication is the recurrence of a character type: the domineering, henpecking wife or mother. While the prominence of this character type is significant, O’Connor employs other more subtle devices to underscore the dominance of women. Women are often described as healthier or physically stronger than the men around them. Further, women are frequently the aggressive partners in the male-female sexual relationship. Finally, women occupy a powerful position in the economy and in their families, serving as the landowners and heads of household.”

In O’Connor’s writings we see the way the dominance of women in the South had to adjust for the post-World War II era as the South, as did much of America, shift from a more rural way of life to a more sedentary, suburban one. Naturally, the anthropological research needs to substantiate these claims further, but the matrilineal norms of Southern culture have largely gone unnoticed because people have wrongly used the categories of patriarchy and matriarchy, rather than patrilineal and matrilineal.

The post-World War II South is a matrilineal society deceptively masquerading as patriarchal because too much of the focus has been on the titles and jobs that men have in the marketplace. In reality, the marketplace is the only place where men have obvious social status. In all other areas of life, the place of the man in the life of a community is uncertain and ill-defined. Truth be told, as in all matrilineal societies, the South would implode without women and mothers holding family, church, and school life together. The modern South is nothing more than a matrilineal society with a patriarchal façade.

Conclusion: What Does This All Mean?

By studying matrilineal societies, the relationship between church and family in broad evangelicalism, with the exception of more fundamentalist churches, we see that the priority churches have to primarily meet the needs of women, especially mothers, in their programming (women’s ministry, children’s ministry, youth ministry), music (more sentimental and therapeutic), the elevation of Mother’s Day in church life, the dependence on women for the life of the church (as opposed to men), and so on, is largely cultural and fits with general trends in American life.

This is why churches do not know what to do with men. Churches do not know what men are for. Men cannot tell you why the church needs them around. Truth be told, most churches do not need men to survive. They would dissolve quickly without women. Youth pastors and family pastors exist to assist the mothers in a matrilineal church. In a patrilineal church, fathers would work with other fathers to impact their children’s faith. Fathers would be doing the majority of the work and home and at church to pass down the essentials of the Christian faith to children.

In fairness, the matrilineal nature of the modern American evangelical churches and the overlap with ancient matrilineal societies will not be an exact, one-to-one correlation. But evangelical churches are more matrilineal than anything else. Matrilineal societies are those wherein girls and women develop faster and are more resource-competitive than men in the long-run. Christian girls and teens are thriving in many ways while boys and young men are falling behind.

What is true is that matrilineal churches need to figure out what to do with men and boys for the 21st-century as girls continue to thrive. The purpose of this essay is not to offer a verdict on the matrilineal world we find ourselves in at the moment, but rather to explain how we got here without having to resort to the negative connotations associated with the use of “feminization.” Some may want to maintain what we have today “as is” and keep their matrilineal social system, serving youth pastors and children’s ministries, and so on, while others may want to make adjustments by reframing who does what to make life work at home, church, and school so that women are freed from the burden of sustaining the family and men move from being passive to becoming actively involved in the spaces that nurture children.

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