Some pastors have been asking me to blog a bit on my thoughts re: complementarianism, egalitarianism, male/female roles, why it’s become such a polarizing topic, and perhaps even why it’s become a new litmus test of fidelity to the Gospel. I’m hesitant to address such a big subject. It’s so polarizing. And it’s sad to me. I find myself sinking into a depression when I consider some of nonsense that goes on, and how it divides a church that ought to be a witness in its unity. But, here are some thoughts. I’ll be highlighting some themes I think are worth considering. Below are some of the questions I get, and some of the responses I’ve given through email exchanges, etc. It’s a longer post, but broken into smaller chunks of Q & A.
Why do you think churches are losing men? And don’t you believe that men are returning to some churches because they are re-asserting a man’s proper authority in the church?
I’m no church historian and I’ve heard this case made, but I have a very different take. I think the early church was filled with courageous men who saw in Jesus the way of real manhood, for lack of a better way of saying it, the way of masculine vulnerability. Now, some men ran for the hills. This wasn’t the militant Divine Warrior they expected. It was the need for power and authority that got them in trouble! Look at Peter – he needed it too much. So, Jesus defined the terms in John 21 for him – when you’re young, you’ll pull yourself up by your bootstraps, but as you mature you’ll realize your vulnerability and dependence. Men left the church because they no longer had this grand vision of cruciform risk-taking and suffering servanthood for the sake of witness to the way of Christ in the world to live into. I assume this began post-Constantine, when they gained power. Now, this attracted a certain kind of man, but I wouldn’t call this man “Christ-like.” Power and authority became way too important to the post-Constantinian church leader. And I think it is way too important for some male pastors today, to the point that it’s really destroying the witness of the church to a crucified God and a cruciform, self-sacrificial people. We’re obsessed with debates about power and authority! How sad! Jesus was never about claiming position, but relinquished position to meet people “from below” – from a place of servanthood and vulnerability.
If real masculinity isn’t the issue, why do so many men flock to John Eldredge books, or Christian men’s conferences, or churches with hardline positions on male roles?
I definitely think masculinity is an important issue, and I’m not wanting to blur male/female distinctions for some asexual theology. Now, I think men are hungry for some sort of vision for their lives. We’ve largely lost the male initiatory traditions in the West, where men were sent out at an appropriate age into the wilderness to learn key things – that they’re vulnerable, that failure is inevitable, that the world is bigger than them, that they’ll need to plug into a larger source for real strength! Sadly, men today are hungry for strength, but find a substitute in power/authority. Eldredge got this much right. In Wild at Heart, he tapped into this primal hunger. But he didn’t build the narrative around Jesus, I’d say. In my mind, the focus became on finding your “wild” self…a necessary part of the journey…but not enough. Maybe I missing Eldredge on this…I haven’t read the entire Eldredge “canon.” I’d reframe it by saying that ultimately, we “find ourselves” as our lives become caught up in the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Jesus…as the paschal mystery is formed inside of us. And while I think you can find get a taste of this as you escape into solitude in wild places, more often than not we find it in the wild, risky world of relationship – where we’re compelled to deal with our own hearts.
I don’t hear this cruciform message in the Christian male pep talks today. I see a lot of testosterone energy, but not as much Jesus. There is too much chatter about finding yourself in your proper male headship (back to authority and power again!), as if headship (kephale) is about claiming power. It’s precisely about sacrificing, suffering, relinquishing. Dictators claim power. Jesus relinquished it. But we worship Jesus…not because he claimed it and demanded it, but because he served us, suffered for us, chose the way down. Always be wary of pastors, male or female, who over-speak about authority, who don’t seem secure enough to be insecure (as Richard Rohr says), who need to “defend” the rightness of their positions. You’ll know them by their love, not their defense of authority.
The older I get, the more I want to give away power, the less I want or need to be up front, the more I’m hesitant to write blogs like this. I just want to be out doing it, living it, loving…that’s where I’m at my most “cruciform” self. All the rest is usually my false self, my egocentric need to feel powerful, to be listened to, to be needed. God help me.
How do you understand the proper roles of men and women?
First, I think the question is problematic. My best sense is that the idea of “roles” is relatively new in the theological landscape (and in mid-20th century), and that role language is actually rooted in bad Trinitarian theology (the heresy of eternal subordinationism). But my bigger concern is that roles become a conversation of who leads and who doesn’t, who can speak and who can’t, who has authority and who doesn’t. It’s an exercise in missing the point. This was never the agenda of Jesus. He ticked off the religious “authorities” (always be careful when he hear that word!) precisely because he empowered the powerless – women, outsiders, the broken. I think we’ve completely misread Paul on this stuff. We’ve missed how he empowered women in the early church too, and we’ve focused on a few “exceptions” that served, I believe, as pastoral advice for specific temporal situations. How are we different than the Pharisees on this? We’ve missed the forest for the trees. We’ve somehow come to believe that it’s “biblical faithfulness” to put women in their place when Jesus came freeing women, empowering outsiders. I see a parallel in all our talk about the heretics “out there” – the Muslims, the Mormons, the liberals. How have we come this far? Men don’t need to be worried about their roles. We need to be concerned about whether or not we’re living the cruciform life of Jesus, suffering and serving. When this becomes about ra-ra “be-a-man” spirituality, the church has lost its witness, and the world laughs at us (and I think they ought to…)
What guidance do you give men who need a vision for their lives?
This is tough, because we’ve largely lost the initiatory tradition. We’ve even turned baptism into a sweet ceremony instead of a very somber “death” ceremony (we go down into the waters in order to die, and we’re raised through Jesus). Classically, men needed the initiation precisely because they were in the one-up position, always prone to abuse power. The wise tribal elders knew that the boy needed to leave home (sound like Jesus? You must leave home…mother, brother, sister) and enter the wilderness, in order to discover just how small you are. The Israelites took this journey. Jesus took it. But today, we’re creating narcissistic young boys who don’t know their limitations, their smallness in God’s big world. They feel power as they play video games, watch UFC fights, and get told, “You can do anything and be anything you want when you grow up.” It’s deadly. Young men have no other path than to become angry, violent. They don’t know what to do with their strength. I see it all the time in therapy. Somehow, we’ve got to find ways to invite young men into the larger story of the Gospel, the suffering servant, the way of the Cross. We need to find meaningful ways of showing them their smallness, their vulnerability, the inevitability of failure, or else they’ll find out the hard way when they get older. By the way, I’m convinced this is why “Gospel language” is so prevalent today. We’re dying for someone to tell us we don’t need to perform, that we can fail, that the story doesn’t revolve around us. But this is a message that needs solid and meaningful rituals around it. If we can re-discover the power of the sacraments and tell this story well, maybe that’s a start.