Somewhere in the midst of those 300+ comments and several tangential discussions about “what constitutes masculinity and femininity,” someone sent out this article. Though it’s from 2005, the sentiments expressed are in line with what I’ve been told over and over again about male/female roles in the church. As a result, I don’t think it’s unfair to attempt to break it down for this series. It’s from Dr. Albert Mohler and was published in the Boundless Webzine (a place that is going to serve as much inspiration for my exploration of gender roles over the next few months [seriously – months]). I figured, after we’ve established that gender and sexual organs are two different things, and that we need to have the crucifixion (and resurrection) as the focus of our faith, I think it’s good to tackle the specifics of what people think is the focus of “manhood” or “womanhood.”
So just like with my feminazi series a couple of weeks ago, I’m going to make this a series of responses, going down Mohler’s list of 13 points and talking about what, specifically, is problematic in each (and in each point, there is something problematic). I’ll conclude with a general post about gender roles and possibly an open thread for discussion.
Without further ado, here we go.
Spiritual maturity sufficient to lead a wife and children.
The Bible is clear about a man's responsibility to exercise spiritual maturity and spiritual leadership. Of course, this spiritual maturity takes time to develop, and it is a gift of the Holy Spirit working within the life of the believer. The disciplines of the Christian life, including prayer and serious Bible study, are among the means God uses to mold a boy into a man and to bring spiritual maturity into the life of one who is charged to lead a wife and family.
This spiritual leadership is central to the Christian vision of marriage and family life. A man's spiritual leadership is not a matter of dictatorial power, but of firm and credible spiritual leadership and influence. A man must be ready to lead his wife and his children in a way that will honor God, demonstrate godliness, inculcate Christian character and lead his family to desire Christ and to seek God's glory.
Spiritual maturity is a mark of true Christian manhood, and a spiritually immature man is, in at least this crucial sense, spiritually just a boy.
There are a number of things wrong with this, but first and foremost is the first four words of his explanation: “The Bible is clear.” For me, that’s a red flag, especially when there is no citation or evidence to back up such a claim. I could say that the Bible is clear that we should castrate the mentally handicapped, but it’s meaningless if I don’t give evidence to back it up. So there’s my first problem with him, which of course does not do much to start us off on good standing.
This is an issue that comes up again and again in Mohler’s list, so I’ll just go ahead and issue a blanket statement now: The Bible is not exactly clear. Every single reader brings his or her own interpretation to the words, and if there is to be any progress on a disagreeable issue, we cannot start from the point that “The Bible is clear” because it isn’t. That makes an assumption about your audience that you should not make – mainly that your audience agrees with you.
Alright, we have to go deeper. (*inception noise*)
There are a number of vague statements here that bring up a lot of questions: What does spiritual maturity look like? Isn’t spiritual maturity a life long development process? And why, exactly, does a man have to be in charge of the women’s spirituality?
The last comes from a section in Ephesians about the man being the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church (many neglect to note that this directly follows a passage about submitting to one another in the Body of Christ). Christ talks of the Church being his equal a lot – it is his bride (Isaiah 62:5, Jeremiah 2:2, John 3:29, to name a few) who he has been waiting for; we are heirs to the fortune just as he is (Galatians 3:28-29), and the Church is God’s Holy Spirit working through us (what Augustine calls “the invisible church”). While Christ is the model, the reason for being, and the ultimate center of the faith, I doubt this is what Paul was telling men to be – you must be the center of your wife’s life? I doubt it. The way that Paul meant things could have been just as much of an equalizing force as not – it’s unclear how to interpret Paul’s verses in light of the patriarchal culture and the vast upside-down kingdom that proclaims Christ. And Mohler here doesn’t give us a good picture of what “spiritual leadership” even looks like.
Another problem I have with this is that it is marriage focused. A man can only be a man in relation to his spouse, and a woman likewise, apparently. While we are defined partly by our relationships to other people, that is not all we are. Mohler here reduces us solely to how we relate to each other and specifically to the husband/wife, parent/child relationship. And that’s problematic, especially for the modern church. I am the reason that’s the case: I’m 25. I’m single. I have never had a significant other. I have never been put in the position of “submitting” to a man’s spiritual leadership in the course of a marriage relationship.
Am I not a woman? Have I failed in God’s will because I have no man to submit to? That is a genuine, honest question – as many have pointed out, explaining manhood as “the leader of a family” is exclusionary. If manhood is universal, then it must be universally applied and a view of manhood that only works for married men fails miserably on this front.
This is, of course, all a precursor to what this really has to say about women: we are babes, lost in the spiritual world, who need guiding from a big, strong man. By putting both women and children in the spiritual hierarchy under a man – because, regardless of the “nuance” you may try to put in there, it is what this position ultimately does – only serves to infantilize the woman. It makes the woman dependent upon the leadership of the man, which is contrary to many examples we see the in the Bible: Deborah as judge over all of Israel, Esther as basically a rebel against the regime of her husband, Phoebe as a leader in the church, and women as the first witnesses to the risen Christ. It sets up a false hierarchy within relationships and within the church that fails to acknowledge the contribution of women, especially that of single women.
And that is the real tragedy here: If we continually tell women that they are weak, that they need guidance, why, then, would we expect them to be anything else, why would even they feel like contributing? Infantilizing a grown, adult human being only serves to alienate them from the growing body and community of Christ. And that is the real disaster.
Oh. Yeah. Jesus wasn't married. Just saying.