Saturday, November 24, 2012

"Men Must Be Spiritual Leaders" - Real Life Consequences

"The man should be the spiritual leader of the home."  That is the standard teaching of most Protestant, evangelical churches.  The Open Bible website has a whole page of Scriptures which apparently support this-- many of which I have addressed elsewhere on this blog.  I believe this teaching springs from a misunderstanding of the historical-cultural assumptions which the writers would have shared with the original readers, which we in modern Western culture are not necessarily privy to.

But the idea remains pervasive that God has decreed that men are meant to be spiritual leaders, and women to be spiritual followers of their men, from the moment they get married.  Some say that God designed men and women this way; others say that He simply decreed this for unknown reasons, and who are we to question?  But if we believe that God is holy, just and good, then we must believe that God's decree and/or design is somehow good for both men and women.

All men and all women.  Or at least every man or woman who feels no call to celibacy and who desires to be married.

Christianity Today's website for Christian women, Her-meneutics, recently ran a blog post by Marlena Graves on this very issue:  "He's Just Not a Spiritual Leader" and Other Christian Dating Myths.  The author's main point was that this teaching was being misunderstood, so that women were refusing to marry men whom they did not perceive as spiritual leaders:

Some time ago in the school cafeteria, we ran into a young woman we knew well. Shawn and I had counseled her and her boyfriend the year prior. I asked her about their relationship. “I broke up with him a month or so ago,” she said sheepishly. Shawn and I tried to veil our shock.

A few minutes later, I asked her why. “He’s just not a spiritual leader,” she answered. After we parted ways, Shawn turned to me and said, “I can’t help wondering how many otherwise beautiful relationships have ended due to misconceptions about spiritual leadership.”

As we processed the news and recalled some of our conversations with the couple, we remembered her saying that he had a patient nature, was intelligent, a hard worker, and of peaceful demeanor, complementing her quite well. But she also mentioned that he rarely initiated prayer or Bible study. For her, in the end, not initiating in those areas was a deal-breaker. . . . 

It seems that initiating prayer, Bible study, and other similar devotional activities is a litmus test for male spiritual leadership in some branches of the American church. And the common complaint by women on our campus is that men are failing in spiritual leadership; they aren’t passing the litmus test. They aren’t initiating.

Marlena Graves goes on to explain that spiritual leadership isn't just about initiating prayer and Bible study; that men can be spiritual leaders without showing any of the characteristics traditionally associated with spiritual leadership.  And she goes on to give a new definition for spiritual leadership:

I started wondering about all the godly men who may have other spiritual gifts—just not the ones traditionally considered “male” spiritual gifts. For example, what about men who have the gift of mercy or hospitality or service or encouragement, and who are full of the fruits of the Spirit? Do we devalue them simply because they’re not at the helm or out in front but rather operating alongside their partner? Is initiating devotional activities within a relationship really what it means to lead? . . .

A spiritual leader is someone who is full of the Holy Spirit—someone who evidences the fruits of the Spirit in increasing measure. Some women prefer that their partners initiate prayer and Bible study. Of course, they’re free to have such preferences, and even to believe that such initiation is a “male” spiritual gift. But we, as the larger Christian community, should find ways to recognize the men who don’t initiate devotional activities and yet model Christlike leadership because they display the fruits of the Spirit.  

Emphasis added.

The problem, of course, is that given this definition, any Christian who is being led by the Spirit and bearing the fruit of the Spirit, is automatically a spiritual leader.  And women can and do bear the fruit of the Spirit just as much as men do.   Marlena Graves seems to me to simply be redefining "spiritual leader" so that it will fit any man, just so that any man can be called that. 

When I got engaged to my husband, I too thought he should be my spiritual leader, and it troubled me that he showed very little evidence of being one.  I prayed to the Lord about it, and I received the reassuring impression that Jeff was everything I needed him to be, and not to worry about the rest.  So I went ahead and married him. 

But as we relaxed in my uncle's cabin on our honeymoon, I wanted very much for my new spiritual leader to lead Bible study and prayer-- so I asked him to.  Very reluctantly, he complied.  It felt-- well, it felt sort of fake.  But since the Bible said he was now my spiritual leader, I believed that leading me was exactly what he should be doing. 

So I found myself in the ludicrous position of trying to make him lead. 

Needless to say, it didn't go very well.  Fortunately for our marriage, I decided this was ok, that he just wasn't that kind of spiritual leader, and I backed off on the leading-Bible-study thing.  We were both much more comfortable.

Today, almost 25 years later, I asked Jeff to look back on that time and explain what he was feeling then.  Here's what he said:

"I'm not a take-charge kind of guy.  I knew I was supposed to be your spiritual leader, and I also knew I really wasn't.  And that made me feel stupid and inadequate.  I didn't want to initiate Bible studies, because I couldn't be your teacher.  I had been a Christian two years, and you had been a Christian for almost 10 years.  I wasn't going to disrespect all your experience, learning and knowledge by going on pretending I was leading you, which was all it was-- just pretending."

The Her-meneutics blog post shows that I'm not the first woman, or the last, to go through verbal gymnastics to make an interpretation of Scripture-- in terms of male "headship"-- fit the actual facts. Any adult Christian can be spiritual leader of his or her children. But for one Christian adult always to be the one to lead the other Christian adult in every marriage-- regardless of knowledge, experience, gifts, or years in Christ-- now seems to me to be an arbitrary and difficult box to force married couples into.

For Retha, the blog author at Biblical Personhood, the consequences of this teaching were also very negative.  In her post What "the man should be the spiritual leader" did to me, she explains:

I believed a Christian woman only belong with a man who can lead her spiritually. Any other kind of man cannot be the will of God for the life of a Christian woman. In practical terms, that would be a man who knows more of Christianity and love Jesus more than I do. . . .

Needless to say, any man who started to give a slight indication that he likes me, I judged on whether he could lead me, spiritually and otherwise. The few men who did give spiritual leading in my life was already married, and gave spiritual leading to many. The men who showed an interest in me? I simply showed no interest in return. How could I, because I, as a dedicated believer, thought that if he cannot lead me spiritually, the relationship cannot be the will of God?

Laugh if you want. They say many people have an unrealistic view of marriage. “Spiritual leadership” is part of the unrealistic expectations of many Christian women.

Well, I don’t complain about my time of believing that. Knowing God is great- with or without a man. But on age 36, not only a virgin but someone who never had a boyfriend, I looked at the Bible again . . .

Retha also came upon a redefinition of "spiritual leadership" in terms of loving one's family, expressing that love often, praying with one's spouse and family, being an active participant in church, and being strong but gentle.  Her response? 

But then, a woman who loves her husband and children, expresses that love often, prays with and for her family, is an active participant in her church, etc., who is strong, but gentle-- is an equally good thing!  For some reason they call it “spiritual leadership” when a man does it, but not when a woman does it. Why not???

After I sworn off the ridiculously unbiblical “man should be the spiritual leader” idea at age 36, I had my first boyfriend last year – at age 37. This was also a man who could not be my spiritual leader, but it did not matter. Even though the relationship did not work out, it is still a beautiful memory.

Perhaps I will still have a husband some day. Perhaps it is too late. But dammit, I wish nobody ever told me the rubbish of “the man should be the spiritual leader!” I could have been married, with children. I always liked children a lot. And now that I don’t think men fall horribly short of a leadership standard God sets for them, I find I like men a lot more for what they are. 

Emphasis in original.

Being single is a beautiful way to serve Christ, and I know God will lead Retha in whatever future path He has for her.  But how painful this was for her!  -- and I can't help thinking about what this idea also did to the men she met in her earlier years, who were trying to find a spouse but were considered to be failing a spiritual mark: a mark that they simply weren't designed to achieve. How easy for a man to lose confidence in his manhood, when he is given this false idea of what manhood is!  How many good Christian men, men who desire to be husbands and fathers, have found themselves in this boat? 

The truth is that there are only two ways to respond to this teaching.  One is to define "spiritual leader" in the usual way, and find that many men fall short.  The other is to redefine "spiritual leader" so that it can fit any man-- which also means it can fit any Christian, woman or man, who is sincere in his or her faith.  

With regards to the first response, only those who find that their natural personalities already fit the box they are being stuffed into, will find it really works for them.  And with regards to the second-- many people, like my husband and I, will eventually realize that the over-broad definition is really just a way of pretending.

If spiritual leadership of the home really is God's design and/or decree for men who are meant to be married, then why is it not good for all such men?  Why is it not good for all women?  Doesn't a good tree bear good fruit?

Maybe the problem is that it never was a good tree, and it was not planted by God, but by human tradition and human misunderstanding.  Maybe God's desire is that each man and each woman be who they were created to be-- whether spiritual leaders or not. 


Charity Jill said...

When I first read that Her.meneutics piece I was excited to share it with my complementarian friends because I thought it at least encouraged a more sane view of "male headship," an idea that they are loathe to give up. But you are right; it's a bit absurd to say that a male's exercise of the fruits of the spirit equals leadership but a female's does not. Fantastic points.

Douglas Humphries said...

Great post. It's funny how we stress spiritual leadership but never bother to ask whether or not the leadership is "good". Lots of people can be effective leaders, but that is meaningless, worse dangerous, if they are not leading any place we'd want to go.

Anonymous said...

Great post! A good reminder of the "man's side," so to speak, of the fallout of incorrect teaching on "spiritual leadership." And, good to point out that "leadership" in Christ encompasses so much more than how the "world" would define it, i.e., a leader is a "take-charge," "out front," kind of person. Leadership is also manifest in the quiet, behind-the-scenes activity which, of course, is gender-neutral. And of course, Christians truly "lead" only as Jesus "leads us."
Blessings and cheers,

Unknown said...

Something about that Her.Meneutics piece felt off to me, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. You've articulated it incredibly well here. Bravo.

perfectnumber628 said...

You always seem to write about stuff that's on my mind. :) I was thinking about this whole "the man has the be the spiritual leader" concept, and how as an undergrad in college, I discussed dating a lot with my (female) friends and we all assumed this was what God wanted- we totally didn't even think to question it. And I was pouring myself into living for God, constantly starting little bible studies with non-Christian friends, sharing my testimony every chance I got, etc etc- because I knew that's what God wanted me to do, but at the same time I knew it would make me less able to have a happy marriage. Because the more I do to serve God, the more I lead bible studies and prayer meetings, the more devoted I am... well, we all know that the guy has to be the spiritual leader (or the relationship surely won't work), and now I would have to find a guy who's done MORE evangelism than I did, who's been even MORE of a leader, who's taken MORE bold risks to share the gospel, who knows the bible BETTER than I do.

I knew that every step I took toward God was a step away from the opportunity to have a happy marriage. And THAT is messed-up.

Anonymous said...

This is great, thanks for pinpointing what is so often wrong with relationships based off of hierarchies.

As for Marlena I know her and her husband from school and I think the reason the piece feels 'off'is that she is an egalitarian writing for CT and thus trying to write from a complementarian viewpoint in order not to drive readers away and to convince them without using 'egalitarian' words. I think she would absolutely agree that leadership is about fruit and a servant attitude and not at all about gender.

Rev. Stacey Erickson said...

Thank you so much for this. I had a very heavy hand in the ruin of my first marriage because I insisted each of us perform roles we weren't meant for. He wasn't a leader; I am and always have been. He was a wonderful human being, but I was struck blind to the obvious situation in my life because of my marriage to ideas that weren't true for us.

Kristen said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

Annonymous, thanks for the information on Marlena Graves-- I just "met" her on another blog and had the same discussion with her. :)

Stacey, that's rough that this teaching was so bad for your marriage. My sympathies.

Perfectnumber, that is so true-- why should women "dumb down" spiritually just to get a man? It's all wrong.

Anonymous said...

Not to be dramatic, but I think that this article has changed my life. I have felt exactly like perfectnumber, especially the "every step I took toward God..." part , but had no idea what to do with those feelings. Thanks so much for this.

Kristen said...

Annonymous, thanks so much for saying that. That's really my purpose in writing this blog-- to try to offer God's healing grace that can make a difference to people. You make me feel that I'm succeeding in some small way, in helping people be free in Christ.

Anonymous said...

So true!

The longer I'm married, the more I believe that God gives each spouse opportunities to lead at different times. There is no one leader who's in charge of everything.

Even a lot of complementarian couples who believe in male headship don't actually live it out--in many families, the wife is technically the leader in figuring out what their children need, organizing their social life, etc. Not saying women's leadership is restricted to these roles, just pointing out that even a traditional view of men's and women's roles will lead to the woman being "in charge" in certain areas.

My husband isn't the greatest at initiating, but I'll tell you what he is excellent at---serving. I can't imagine having given up my sweet, loving, tender, sacrificial servant of a husband just because he isn't a type A proactive Bible study leader.

Lana said...

People always say the man is the spiritual leader but are unable to tell me what a spiritual leader is, Lol. glad to find your blog.

Anonymous said...

I actually must agree with that last point (people not being able to define what a spiritual leader looks like). I am an egalitarian and have had conversations with complementarians about what a spiritual leader actually means. I haven't found anyone who can articulate it successfully. I'm amazed that people would follow something of which they cannot define.

Bec said...

I very much enjoyed reading this article. I come from a long line of strong and leadership oriented women and thankfully I have a father who has also nurtured these gifts. However, I attend a church where the view of men being spiritual leaders of the home is a strong held belief and I have never been able to reconcile myself to that view. This article has helped me put more words to my understanding of what I believe and I feel better able to articulate it to others now. Thanks :-)

Donald Johnson said...

Thanks for you insights, I agree.

I think there is another concern with trying to fit people into boxes. If you happen to fit in the box the comps assign to you, then you are tempted to think you are spiritually mature in this area, which actually it is just your personality. It other words, it can easily result in a fake out where you assess yourself as more mature in Christ that you really are.

So the comp coin has 2 sides, both negative, for those that fit by accident into their model and for those that do not.