Saturday, September 27, 2014

"Thus, Male Headship" - Christianity and Gender Essentialism

My last two posts have involved the use of sociological studies by Christians, in support of the doctrine of male headship, known in its harsher and gentler forms, respectively, as "Christian patriarchy" or "complementarianism."  Using science as a support for our premises is very characteristic of the culture of Western thought in which most of us have been steeped since birth. And of course, rebutting or debunking the science or scientific methodology behind premises we disagree with, comes from the same basic mindset.

The problem, as I mentioned in my last post, is when we pounce on evidence that seems to support our own position, while simultaneously ignoring evidence that seems to point the other direction. This is called "confirmation bias," which is defined in Science Daily as "a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions."  In addressing the science presented by male headship proponents, then, I'm attempting to avoid this bias myself.  Thus far, though, I have not seen any evidence that compellingly supports their position.

In this post I want to look a little deeper at underlying assumptions.  Why are these sociological studies being used to support male headship?  What is it that they are supposed to prove, that can then be used to say, "thus, male headship?"  The answer, I think, is this:

The studies examined in my last two posts, as used by male-headship proponents, are supposed to show that certain fundamental human traits are specific either to men or to women.  And these fundamental differences are then supposed to prove that men are meant to be in authority, while women are meant to be under authority.

This idea of specific, fundamental traits belonging to either one sex or the other, is called "gender essentialism."  Gender essentialism goes beyond biological differences between the sexes* to personality traits, fundamental desires and leanings, and so on.

This article at Ignitum Today illustrates Christian gender essentialism very clearly:
I am sorry to be the one to raise this issue but I am going to put it straight out there so there is no confusion: men and women are not equal. For two things to be perfectly equal they would need to be the same and it should be self-evident that a man and a woman are not the same. . . 
This is where society is getting it wrong; a false notion of equality. It begins at a subliminal level where the message is diffused that one’s gender is a social construction, meaning that a woman is a woman because she was dressed in a skirt and given dolls as a child, and a man is a man because he was dressed in trousers and given toy trucks. . . 
When a society fails to understand the nature of men and women it is true that everything can look unfair but we set rather arbitrary standards of where fairness lies. Men dominate senior positions in the largest global companies, most likely because they have particular natural abilities to do those tasks well. Women dominate the raising of the next generation of humanity and professions which nurture and educate, most likely because they have particular natural abilities to do those tasks well. 
Gender essentialists tend to resist the distinction between one's "sex," which is biological, and one's "gender," which is sociological.  They believe to be a man and to be masculine, or to be a woman and to be feminine are (or should be) the same thing.  They often do make a sort of disclaimer that not all men fit the pattern, nor do all women; as the article above goes on to say:
Of course there will always be men and women who have certain talents which mean they are better in tasks that are not as common for their sex and that is fine also.
However, when it comes right down to it, this deviation from the gender-essential norm usually isn't "just fine" after all.  The studies I examined in my last two posts show that there is always a percentage of the study group that goes against the trend-- but that doesn't stop male-headship proponents from confidently saying that the studies show the way "men" are and the way "women" are-- not "some" or even "most" men or women, but simply "men" and "women."  And thus, male headship.

My real problem is that the Christian assertion of gender essentialism is fundamentally unfalsifiable. That is, the way it is presented keeps it above the possibility of disproof, so Christians who believe in it never have to question it.  The argument is usually that if a man is presenting masculine traits, or a woman feminine traits, it is evidence of God's gender-essential design-- but if they fail to present those traits, or present opposite ones, it is because of human sinfulness.

Therefore, though deviation from the norm is acceptable in theory, in practice it's not, and many men and women who simply don't fit the norms are treated as if they were in sin.  As the Touchstone Magazine article I quoted two posts ago puts it, men who have been "feminized" by the Church of England's theological training become
wet, spineless, feeble-minded, or compromised. . . malleable creatures of the institution, unburdened by authenticity or conviction and incapable of leading and challenging. Men, in short, who would not stand up in a draft.
To not be "masculine" (which these gender-essentialists apparently define, fairly typically, as authoritative, independently minded and leadership-oriented) is to be weak and sinful. Similarly, the True Woman  website teaches that embracing the submissive, responsive, nurturing "Divine design of His female creation" will save us from the sinful, unfeminine pattern of unsubmissive, worldly womanhood:
Whether they realize it or not, the vast majority of Christian women have bought into this “new” way of thinking. In the home, the church, and the marketplace, they have adopted the values and belief system of the world around them. The world promises freedom and fulfillment to those who embrace its philosophy. But sadly, millions of women who have done so have ended up disillusioned, wounded, and in terrible bondage.
Thus, it becomes impossible to refute gender essentialism using the evidence of real women's experience. If a woman is quiet, gentle and submissive-- it's because it's natural for women to be that way. If a woman is assertive, extroverted, and leadership-oriented-- it's because of her sin nature that is fighting against her true nature. For real Christian women just trying to be themselves, it's a shaming and muffling experience. One kind of personality is honored and the other rejected and silenced, because God is limited by their interpretation of the Bible, as to what kind of woman He is allowed to make.

The percentages of deviation from the gender norms in the sociology cited by male headship proponents, therefore, might as well not exist.  Those who deviate are not being "real" men or "true" women, but are merely capitulating to wordliness or to sinful rebellion against their own natures. The sociology then becomes an unequivocable support for what male headship proponents believe the Bible teaches about the divine creation of the sexes.

But does the Bible actually teach that there are separate and distinct personality traits which God designed for one sex and not the other?  And even if it did so teach, would that lead irrevocably to "thus, male headship"?  Interestingly, Marc Cortez at Everyday Theology, who appears to be a complementarian, would answer "no" to both questions:
[T]he main problem lies in thinking that these two are logically connected such that complementarianism requires gender essentialism to work. So egalitarians invest considerable effort in defeating gender essentialism, and complementarians conversely go out of their way to defend it. As interesting as that conversation might be, though, both sides need to realize that complementarianism does not require gender essentialism. . . .
There does not need to be any essential difference between men and women for God to decide, for example, that only men can be elders. He can decide this for any reason he wants. He is, after all, God. 
People might worry that eliminating step 2 would render God’s decision somehow arbitrary, as though he simply flipped a coin to determine how the gender qualification would work. But that doesn’t follow either. The fact that God’s decision does not necessarily rest on some essential difference in human persons does not make his decision arbitrary; it just means that his decision rests on something else, possibly even something he hasn’t told us about.  [Emphasis in original.]
I don't think Cortez escapes the charge of arbitrariness simply by saying God, being God, must have some mysterious reason for denying and limiting women in church roles (the article doesn't discuss male headship in marriage).  If, as I have contended, denying and limiting women based purely on the fact that they are women is against "do unto others" and "love your neighbor," there seems very little justification for God to thus negate what He taught through His own Son, that "this is the law and the prophets." Matthew 7:12.

But Cortez is quite correct that this is a viable alternative to believing that God designed men and women according to gender essentials, such that men are designed for authority and women for submission to that authority.  As he says:
[T]he simple fact is that even if complementarianism is true, it’s hard to find the Bible giving any clear reason why certain roles/offices are limited to men. Some might point to 1 Timothy 2:11-15, a notoriously difficult passage. But whatever Paul intends by his explanation there, he doesn’t point to any essential differences between men and women. However you understand the reference to Adam being created first, that’s not an essential difference. My brother was born before me, but that doesn’t make his humanity essentially different than mine. And my parents may well give him greater authority in the family because he came before me, but that’s not an essential difference either. The same holds true for Adam and Eve. Adam’s being created first doesn’t present some kind of essential difference between men on women on the basis of which God decrees male headship. If the order of creation is significant for understanding gender roles in the church, a question for another time, it would only be because God decided to do it that way for reasons that he has not ever explained to us, not because mere temporal order establishes some kind of essential difference between the two genders. 
Again, I’m not going to walk through all the relevant passages. . . But for now I’ll leave it with saying that I don’t think there are any biblical passages that even complementarians should read as grounding ministry roles in some kind of gender essentialism. [Emphasis in original.]
Many times the Scripture passages that are used to support male headship are read in terms of gender essentialism: words like "head" are understood as showing God's design for men to be natural leaders and women to be natural followers.  But taking account of literary and cultural contexts results in grounding male authority firmly in the culture in which the writer was writing, and not as a divine mandate.  And when real, devoted Christian men and women just don't fit the norm, it doesn't make sense to simply write them off as being sinful or worldly.

There are plenty of other Bible passages that we don't interpret in the teeth of the evidence, insisting on face-value readings no matter what-- the passages on slavery, for instance.  We don't commandeer all the evidence we can find to prove that slavery is good and God-given (though we used to do just that), while we ignore all evidence to the contrary.

So isn't it time to give up on "thus, male headship"?

*This whole argument by Christians also tends to ignore completely the existence of transgender people or others who don't fit into the binary boxes of male/masculine and female/feminine.  It's not my intention to ignore them or their struggles here, but in examining gender essentialism as used to support male headship, it's easier to stick with the categories used by male-headship proponents.  Let me here promote the voice of a Christian sister who is not cisgender, to show that there are more sides to this story.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

"Men Need Respect, Women Need Love" - Really?

An anonymous commenter on my last blog post told me this:
God, in His wisdom, made man the head of the union between man and his wife. He has created a desire in the woman to be loved, and in the man to be respected, and there is no amount of social re-engineering that can change that.
This seems to me to be a good opportunity to address the whole love-vs-respect idea that most male-headship proponents espouse.  Where does this idea come from, that God made women to need love more than respect, and men to need respect more than love-- and that this is a basis for belief in male headship?

The chief source of this idea appears to be the very popular complementarian book Love and Respect by Emerson Eggerichs.  Eggerichs is quoted in his guest series on this topic on the Focus on the Family blog:
Women need to feel loved, and men need to feel respected. This may explain why Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:33 that a husband must love his wife and a wife must respect her husband. Both commands are unconditional. The hard part is that respect comes more easily to men, and love comes easier to women.
To be fair, Eggerichs doesn't teach that men need only respect and not love, or that women need only love and not respect.  On his Love & Respect Website he elaborates:
We all need love and respect. I preach this and I teach this. I am not dogmatic in suggesting that a husband does not need love. I am not dogmatic in suggesting that a wife does not need respect. 
However, because Ephesians 5:33 reveals that a husband must love his wife and a wife must respect her husband, we see a distinction that is full of significance. Maybe we can answer this way: though we all need love and respect equally, like we all need water and food equally, a wife has a felt need for love and a husband has a felt need for respect. Said another way, she feels hunger pains for her husband’s love more often in the marriage and a husband feels more thirsty for his wife’s respect.
Ok, but is this really what Ephesians 5:33 is talking about?  Do men really feel more need for respect and women for love?

Psychologist Shauna Springer, PhD., wrote a rebuttal in This Psychology Today online article, questioning the universality of the results Eggerichs obtained from his study samples of 400 men and a similar number of women.  Four hundred is not a very big number from which to extrapolate to what all (or even most) men vs. women want.  Springer used a sample group that was deliberately weighted towards highly achieving women, and obtained the opposite result from Eggerichs' sample of women:
To test my theory that respect is equally critical for many women as for many men, I set out to profile the marriages of some of the smartest women I have known and their equally capable friends (The Lifestyle Poll). The first phase of data collection for The Lifestyle Poll was based heavily on a Harvard college graduate sample. In this group of 300 women, 75% reported that they would rather feel alone and unloved than disrespected and inadequate.

In other words, within this group of highly educated, accomplished women, the tendency to favor respect over love was equivalent in degree to the preference expressed among males that was used to launch a best-selling book predicated on what now seems to be an inaccurate assumption of a consistent gender difference. [Emphasis in original.]
Given the differences between Eggerichs' study results and Springer's, it appears that at least for women, their felt need for love vs. respect depends a lot on individual differences between women. The same is likely to be true for men.  If Eggerichs' study samples contained, for example, a high proportion of evangelicals, then the results he obtained may have been more related to the expectations of evangelical culture than to any general tendency in all men as opposed to all women.

In any event, common sense tells us that respect is part of love. You really can't love someone if you don't respect them, and a person who is treated without respect will not feel loved.  As the same Psychology Today article puts it:
At times, I thought that Eggerichs might begin to see how disrespect is at the core of many marital problems for wives as well as for husbands. For example, he says that a wife “yearns to be honored, valued and prized as a precious equal” (p. 11) and that wives “fear being a doormat,” (p. 53) and informs his male readers that a wife will feel “esteemed” when “you are proud of her and all that she does” and when “you value her opinion in the grey areas as not wrong but just different and valid” (p. 73). Why not just substitute the word “esteemed” with the word “respected?”
Words like "honor" and "esteem" are really pretty synonymous with "respect."  In fact, the Bible does indeed tell husbands to respect their wives:
Likewise, you husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honor unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered. 1 Peter 3:7, King James 2000 version, Emphasis added.
Honor, especially in the honor-shame culture of the New Testament, is pretty much respect and then some.  To give someone "honor" in that culture was not just to be respectful and show esteem in your private lives together, but to give them public recognition and respect.

The Bible also advises that wives should love their husbands:
The aged women likewise, that they be in behavior as becomes holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; That they may teach the young women to be sensible, to love their husbands, to love their children... Titus 2:3-4, King James 2000 version, Emphasis added. 
 So why this emphasis on respect vs. love in terms of men as opposed to women?

Some of this is simply confirmation bias, which is defined as "a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions."  We Christians may think we believe in male headship because the Bible teaches it, but we have to watch our tendency to conclude that the Bible teaches male headship because we believe in it.*

The idea that men feel the need for respect more than women do, tends to confirm the idea that men are natural leaders, and the idea that women feel the need for love more than men do, supports the idea that women are emotional, dependent beings-- and thus, male headship.  So a verse like Ephesians 5:33, which tells husbands to love their wives and wives to respect their husbands, is easy to read as a statement of fundamental gender differences underlying the principle of male headship.

The problem is that other verses (like 1 Peter 3:7 and Titus 2:2-4) simply don't support the use of Ephesians 5:33 as a proof-text for a love-and-respect difference between men and women.  After all, if we were to base our theory of gender relations on 1 Peter 3:7 all by itself (as we've been taking Ephesians 5:33 all by itself), we would conclude that what women need most from their husbands is actually public honor.

So, since the social science doesn't seem to bear out this love-vs-respect differentiation between men and women either, then it's most likely that Ephesians 5:33 is talking about something else altogether.

What it comes down to, I think, is a fundamental failure to consider the Ephesians 5 passage in terms of its original authorial intent, as it would have been understood by its original audience. As I've said before, until we understand what it meant to them, we can't understand how to apply it to ourselves.

The real question to ask, then, is what were the basic dynamics of marriage in the time and place Paul was writing Ephesians?  To refrain from asking this question is to read into the Ephesian passage the modern, Western dynamic of married life: that is, that two people who are essentially social equals, with equal rights and responsibilities, fall in love with one another and choose one another to commit themselves to.  Thinking of marriage in this way does give us very little reason to think why Paul would tell men to love their wives and wives to respect their husbands, if these instructions were not related in some way to the male and female psyche.

However, what Paul was thinking about when he taught on marriage, and what his first-century Ephesian audience would have had in mind, was a different dynamic entirely.  As this brief synopsis on states:
Marriage in Roman times was often not at all romantic. Rather, it was an agreement between families. Men would usually marry in their mid-twenties, while women married while they were still in their early teens. As they reached these ages, their parents would consult with friends to find suitable partners that could improve the family’s wealth or class.
As this article from Women in the Ancient World explains, marriage in the ancient Rome-controlled world did require the consent of the man and woman involved, but they often did not choose their spouse, but only consented to their family's choice.  And for a woman, especially if the family had substantial assets and it was her first marriage, there was an even greater expectation for her to go along with her father's choice and put his authority first:
[Y]oung girls were in no position to fight their parents even on something as important as the choice of a marriage partner. Over the years there was a gradual increase in women’s economic power and in their status in society, but a father’s right both in theory and in practice to choose at least the first husband of a daughter remained constant throughout the Republic and the Empire. . . For the last century or two of the Republic and throughout the Empire most marriages were “without manus.” That is to say, the wife remained under the authority of her father. If a woman had to be under someone’s control, a doting father living in another house was a much better bet than a husband.       
Further, though men also may have simply consented to, and not chosen, their bride, the groom was not expected to confine his sexual activity only to his wife. This scholarly paper by Claude Dauphin states:
The fourth century BC Athenian orator Apollodoros made it very clear in his speech Against Neaira quoted by Demosthenes (59.122) that 'we have courtesans for pleasure, and concubines for the daily service of our bodies, but wives for the production of legitimate offspring and to have reliable guardians of our household property'.
So instead of our understanding of a marital union by mutual consent of two partners who love each other and both swear to be faithful, the shared assumption between the writer and the audience of the letter to the Ephesians would have been an authority-subordinate arrangement for the benefit of the man, in which he would most likely have been 10 years or more older than the woman, and where she had little choice and few options.

I have written at length elsewhere about the historical-cultural understanding of marriage in Ephesians, in which I summarized:
Paul was trying to grow an infant religious movement, which meant not fighting existing authority structures– but if within the body of Christ, Christians in positions of authority did not act on that authority, but laid down their privilege and served, and where those in subordinate positions did not passively resist or actively rebel, but willingly gave their best and served, it would all end up in a kind of functional equality, existing in Christian households in an age where the concept of “equal rights” as we now know them, did not yet exist. Paul’s teachings on Christian relationships would, if followed, undermine ancient societal norms from within, eventually resulting in more just, equitable social structures in cultures influenced by these teachings.
 In light of this, what might Paul have been getting at by telling husbands to love their wives and wives to respect their husbands in Eph. 5:33?

As the Scripture4All online interlinear informs us, the Greek word Paul uses for "love" in this verse is transliterated "agapato," while the word often translated as "respect" is "phobetai."  "Agapato" or "agapeo" is, according to Vines' Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, a kind of self-sacrificing, deliberate love that seeks first the good of the beloved, which is "the characteristic word of Christianity."(1966 ed., p. 20-21).  "Phobetai" or "phobeo," on the other hand, actually means "fear," and often refers to the respect one has for social structures of authority, as in Romans 13:6-7:
For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. (Emphasis added.)
Understood this way, what Paul is probably saying about love and respect in Ephesians 5:33 is probably something more like this:

Husbands, in this marriage relationship you have a lot more power and agency than your wife does. I've already told you to lay down your power and position just like Christ did, in order to raise your wife up as Christ raises up the church.  So love her as Christ loves the church!  Deny yourself for her sake; don't deny her for your own sake. Don't treat her as only a vessel to give you offspring, or as a servant to take care of your house.  Don't go visiting prostitutes or keeping mistresses.  Put her needs first, give yourself for her, and treat her with the care you use to take care of your own body.

And you wives, I know you didn't choose this man you're married to, and that your consent to this marriage may have meant very little.  I know he's much older than you.  I know that society has placed you as a woman, under male authority.  So I'm not expecting you to be able to give your husband the kind of self-giving love that I'm expecting him to give you.  But since in many cases you're still considering your primary authority over you to be your father, I'm asking you to turn to your husband instead.  I've already surprised you by treating you as not merely a possession for him to rule-- I've spoken to you as one who has a choice in the matter, because you're free in Christ.  I've asked you to choose to submit to him voluntarily, and to consider that a service to Christ.  So don't rebel against your husband, but respect the authority society has given him.  I've told him to lay down his power and privilege and raise you up as Christ raised up the church, so if he does as I ask, you'll find yourself by his side and sharing his power, rather than beneath him and obeying his power. 

Am I putting words in Paul's mouth?  Maybe-- but certainly not more so than those who say Paul was talking about some intrinsic characteristic of all women everywhere to need love more than respect, or of all men everywhere to need respect more than love.  If I'm putting words in Paul's mouth, at least they're along the lines of what he and his audience would have understood about marriage at the time he wrote his letter to the church at Ephesus.

If I'm putting words in Paul's mouth, at least they have the meanings he would have given to the words "love" and "respect," and not what they might sound like to us 2000 years later and half the globe away.

Love and respect are not gender distinctions supporting male headship.  As used in Ephesians 5, they're not stand-alone concepts that can be lifted out of context and used to make blanket statements about men vs. women.

And it really doesn't make sense anyway to build a whole theory of gender out of one verse.


*Of course, confirmation bias can work the other way as well, as male-headship believers often tell gender-equality believers: that we want the Bible to teach gender equality and so we find that it does. Christian egalitarians need to be aware of this possibility-- but there are other compelling reasons to believe the Bible teaches gender equality than simply that we think it should.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Fathers' Influence on Children's Church Attendance: What Does this Study Actually Show?

This week I want to talk about a particular set of social science statistics published in 1994 by the Council of Europe called The demographic characteristics of linguistic and religious groups in Switzerland.  As I have dialogued on the Internet about gender roles in Christianity over the last several years, I have noticed that male-headship believing Christians, or complementarians, really love this study and bring it up over and over again.  Here is a detail of the results of the study, as set forth in Wikipedia's Article on Church Attendance:

Practice of religion according to practice of parents (%)
Practice of ParentsPractice of ParentsPractice of the childrenPractice of the childrenPractice of the childrenPractice of the children

The point, as I understand it, is that a father who attends church regularly is much more likely to have his children attend church regularly after they grow up, than a mother who attends church regularly; and if the father is not a practicing Christian, his children are very likely to grow up to be non-practicing themselves, even if the mother is a regular church attender.

There is also supposedly an American study showing that "If the mother is the first to become a Christian, there is a 17 percent probability everyone else in the household will follow. But if the father is first, there is a 93 percent probability everyone else in the household will follow."  According to this article in The Baptist Press, the study is cited in the book The Promise Keeper at Work by Bob Horner, but I have been unable to locate any reference online to the actual study which generated these statistics.

In any event, I have seen this Swiss study cited over and over again by male-headship proponents as a sort of definitive proof that male headship is God's blueprint for humanity. As one commenter on  this discussion of gender roles at the Wartburg Watch put it:
To briefly summarize, the mothers spiritual life has virtually no effect on her children. But the fathers is HUGE. What dad does is what the kids will do. 
This, in conclusion, is why I contend for comp theology. Can mothers and women be amazing teachers, Godly examples, skilled leaders, etc….Absolutely. Is there an internal wiring that is deeply dependent upon male leadership (in this case…fathers) that shapes us, and our communities, in a way that women, regardless of their “skills” do not have? I think it is obviously and observably true.
Touchstone Magazine wrote an article showcasing the Swiss demographic study in June of 2003, now available online as Touchstone Archives: The Truth About Men & Church.  Here is one of the main points Touchstone used the study to make:
The results are shocking, but they should not be surprising. They are about as politically incorrect as it is possible to be; but they simply confirm what psychologists, criminologists, educationalists, and traditional Christians know. You cannot buck the biology of the created order. Father’s influence, from the determination of a child’s sex by the implantation of his seed to the funerary rites surrounding his passing, is out of all proportion to his allotted, and severely diminished role, in Western liberal society. 
A mother’s role will always remain primary in terms of intimacy, care, and nurture. . . No father can replace that relationship. But it is equally true that when a child begins to move into that period of differentiation from home and engagement with the world “out there,” he (and she) looks increasingly to the father for his role model. . .  
Mothers’ choices have dramatically less effect upon children than their fathers’, and without him she has little effect on the primary lifestyle choices her offspring make in their religious observances.
[Emphasis added.]
Touchstone goes on to blame the advent of women priests for the decrease in church attendance in Switzerland-- and anywhere else where church attendance is declining.  According to them, men just can't stand going to churches that flout God's created order by letting women lead, and when men stop going to church, so do their children.  Touchstone goes on to blame feminism and the rise of women leaders for a plethora of society's ills:

The disintegration of the family follows hard upon the amorality and emotional anarchy that flow from the neutering, devaluing, or exclusion of the loving and protective authority of the father. . . In the absence of fatherhood, it is scarcely surprising that there is an alarming rise in the feral male. This is most noticeable in street communities, where co-operatives of criminality seek to establish brutally and directly that respect, ritual, and pack order so essential to male identity.
After going on to denounce the feminization of the church (which I have written a refutation of here), the article concludes:
A church that is conspiring against the blessings of patriarchy not only disfigures the icon of the First Person of the Trinity, effects disobedience to the example and teaching of the Second Person of the Trinity, and rejects the Pentecostal action of the Third Person of the Trinity but, more significantly for our society, flies in the face of the sociological evidence! 
No father—no family—no faith.
Never mind that the First Person of the Trinity is also described using mother images. Never mind that the Second Person of the Trinity never taught "male headship," and specifically spoke against the father-rule of His own earthly time and culture.   Never mind that the Third Person of the Trinity was poured out at Pentecost on "sons and daughters" alike. To challenge male headship is to challenge fatherhood itself, and to challenge fatherhood is to cause the demise of society.

The important thing to ask, though, is whether this one Swiss demographic study from 20 years ago really supports all the claims that have been pinned upon it.

We have to take into account, for one thing, the religious climate in Switzerland, especially from around the time of this study.  This Swissworld article on the religious landscape in Switzerland looks at the state of the nation six years later:
In a wide ranging poll of Swiss attitudes taken in 2000, only 16% of Swiss people said religion was "very important" to them, far below their families, their jobs, sport or culture. Another survey published the same year showed the number of regular church goers had dropped by 10% in 10 years. Among Catholics, 38.5% said they did not go to church, while among Protestants the figure was 50.7%.
Given that the same article shows that in the year 2000, roughly 42% of the Swiss population was Roman Catholic and 35% was Protestant (with another 2% in Eastern Orthodox and other forms of Christianity), this means Switzerland was 79% Christian in 2000.  And yet only 16% considered religion "very important."  Does the relative lack of priority given to religion in Switzerland, compared to the United States, have any bearing on possible causes of the study's results?

I think that if we're going to look at this in terms of sociology, we ought in fairness to consider another documented sociological factor: gender contamination.  In short, "boys and men. . . are more tightly constrained by the prevailing views of masculinity that associate being masculine with avoiding anything feminine.”  In a country like Switzerland, where very few people consider religion a high priority, what happens to a family's view of churchgoing if only the mother does it? Touchstone's article itself gives the answer:
When children see that church is a “women and children” thing, they will respond accordingly—by not going to church, or going much less.
Is this really the same thing as there being some intrinsic, God-given authority built into men and not women, so that children naturally follow their father's example and not their mother's?  Even assuming that the study's results are accurate (and corroborating studies seem pretty hard to find)-- and even if the same dynamic is going to repeat itself in every culture everywhere (which is not proven), there are three even bigger assumptions being made, none of which are proved by the study: first, that this father-influence is innate to humanity; second, that it is from God; and third, that it comes from or is part of what Christians call "male headship": that is, the essential spiritual authority of manhood over womanhood.

First of all, it cannot be definitively shown that fathers have an innate influence over their children that supersedes the influence of the mother.  After all, what the study's numbers seem to show is that a mother who wants her children to be regular churchgoers would do better (if the father is a regular churchgoer) to stay in bed eating bonbons and watching soap operas than to go to church with the family.  The numbers show that if the father and mother are both regular churchgoers, their children are 32.8% likely to be regular churchgoers-- but if the father is regular and the mother is non-practicing, this percentage jumps to 44.2!  This actually would mean that the mother actually has a big influence in pushing the children to follow their father even more closely.  But does this even make sense?  Is it logical to think children would react against their non-churchgoing mother to that extent?  Couldn't it be more sensibly accounted for by other factors?

For instance, what may be going on is that in Western culture as it stands right now, it takes a certain kind of man-- one with a great deal of energy, devotion and sense of responsibility-- to get his kids ready week after week to go to church with no help from their mother.

Comparatively speaking, a mother who is devoted to church attendance when the father is not, is a different story. We still have a culture (and this is apparently true in Switzerland too) where the mother does most of the day-to-day dressing, nose-wiping, and gathering-together-and-herding-into-the-car-ing. In short, mothers are used to it. But for a father to get his kids up in the morning, dress and wipe noses and herd them into the car while the mother watches TV or lies in bed, he's got to really want to go to church.

The dynamic, then, wouldn't be so much that the children's tendency to stick with church attendance rises with the mother's slackness at all. The dynamic would be that children whose father puts himself to extra effort to get his kids to church while the mom stays home, is the kind of man who is more than usually devoted to church attendance-- and that superlative devotion is what rubs off on the kids.

I suspect that many dads who want to go to church, but mom doesn't, simply say to themselves, "This is too much trouble," and don't go at all, thus moving the family into one of the different statistical groups.  In short, this influence of the fathers is probably not innate, but a result of social factors. Raw numbers in a sociological study simply don't give us the whole story-- and because they don't, they  certainly don't prove that the fatherly influence they show is innate.

Second, it simply cannot be shown that this father-influence is from God, even if it were innate. Not everything that is innate to humanity is from God; orthodox Christian doctrine states that humanity is deeply affected by sin.  Often, indeed, society's role is to civilize humans so that we can live peacefully together, through the imposition of laws and social rules.  But then again, not every law or social rule is from God either.  As Christians, we can look to the Bible, of course-- but does the Bible ever advise children to pay more attention to their fathers than to their mothers?

Well, in fact it doesn't.  The Bible tells us to "Honor your father and mother." Exodus 6:2.  Proverbs 6:20 says, "My son, keep your father’s command, and do not forsake your mother’s teaching."  Even Ephesians 6:1, which continues from the Ephesians 5 passage so often used to support male headship, says, "Children, obey your parents in the Lord."  Although the Bible often assumes a male power dynamic, it seems to be more in terms of accommodation than in any explicit teaching that says, "men, you are to take charge."

It's just as likely that this extra influence of fathers, if it truly exists, is a factor of sinful human power structures that enhance the influence of one group while marginalizing another.  Children pay more attention to their fathers because the world around them pays more attention to their fathers-- and so, sadly, does the church.  In a culture which still puts spiritual women on a pedestal (a place where we can be admired and yet be prevented from having any real power or influence), is it that surprising that there would be an attitude of “My mother was a saint, but she was just my mother”?  It certainly doesn't mean women should despair that no matter how devoted to God they are, it will do their children no good unless the father is also devoted.  It means we should work to counteract this marginalizing influence, not glorify it.

Third, even if fathers have a greater influence over their children than mothers do, and even if this influence expands beyond this churchgoing study to other areas of life, we can't actually move directly from that to "thus, male headship."

If the Swiss study tells us anything good, anything worth noting, what is it?  Only that children having a relationship with an involved and spiritually committed father is a good thing; something we already knew. Only that fathers have an important role in their children's lives-- that they should appreciate their powerful influence on their kids and act responsibly.

What the study certainly does not tell us is anything about mothers being subordinate to fathers. The study says nothing whatsoever about husband-wife relationships or that men belong in leadership over their wives. Neither does it imply that mothers cannot be leaders in their homes and churches, or that mom must be "first mate" and not "co-captain" with dad.

Finally, the study does not actually give any reasons as to why any of the study group went to church, or didn't go to church, or stopped going to church.  It doesn't address whether or not Swiss culture encourages grown children to do their own thing, like American culture does, or to stay more in line with parents' practices.  It doesn't address the individual dynamics of each relationship between a child and his or her mother, or in what ways it differs from that child's relationship with his or her father.  It's a sociological study; it's not a judge of internal motives, or a cookie-cutter shaper of every home into its own image.

The fact is that many complementarians are taking this one 1994 Swiss study and using it to support a large number of things they already believe, whether or not the study actually justifies or even addresses what they conclude from it.  Wouldn't it be better to recognize the study's limitations and keep our responses more in line with those limitations?

I would suggest that the best way to use this study is for dad to use any extra influence he may have, to make sure the children pay more attention to mom.

That would certainly be the Christlike thing to do.

Saturday, September 6, 2014


In the early 1980s I was in college, living on fraternity/sorority row.  But it wasn't a sorority house.  It was the local branch of Maranatha Christian Churches/Campus Ministries founded by Bob and Rose Weiner.  As I have described here and here, Maranatha was a Christian group with strong authoritarian control.   We lived in the Maranatha House and went to church in the meeting room of that house, and we slept on the sleeping porches on the third floor and tried to get our homework done or hold down our jobs, despite endless outreach meetings, prayer meetings and other Maranatha obligations.

On Labor Day this year, 29 years after gradating from college, I went to an annual get-together of  a long-standing group of former Maranatha members from my college town.  The ties I have with these people are very strong, indeed practically unbreakable.  As we ate and talked, laughed and took pictures and caught up on one another's lives, I found myself wondering what it is that binds us together so closely, after almost 30 years.

It's certainly not because we still agree on everything the way we did back then, when we had all the right answers to all the right questions and knew how big a part our group of "God's Green Berets" was playing in the advance of God's "dominion mandate."  It's not because we stayed physically close; though some members still live in the same city, some of us have been scattered long distances. And it's not because we spend our time together living in the past; in fact, I don't think the word "Maranatha" or our experiences there came up once in any of the conversations I had at the reunion this year.

No, the bonds run much deeper than that.

It probably helps that all of us in this group of former members somehow managed to stay married to the spouses we met in Maranatha (which seems a miracle in itself!), and that we all had kids and got jobs and watched the kids grow up-- in short, that we have lived basically similar middle-class lives. And we did all remain Christians.  But those are really just general similarities-- and we have met at least once a year since our children were in infant carriers, and now most of those kids are in college or have finished school and moved out-- but we have not grown apart.

The thing is this.  Even if we don't always talk about our shared histories, the fact is that for several intense years we lived together and ate and slept and washed together (though of course boys and girls chastely slept and showered in separated areas).  We rotated the cooking and cleaning, and we played games in the dining/fireside room and helped each other with homework and gave each other Christmas presents.

We held car washes almost every Saturday of every summer to try to pay expenses for the house's upkeep.  We saved as much as we could to buy oil for the ancient furnace.  When school started, and again in the spring, we had six to eight weeks of meetings every night and were required to hand out flyers for these meetings on campus right after dinner.  There were also shorter "outreach" periods (2-4 weeks each, with meetings 3-4 times a week) at other points during the year.  Once a month we piled into cars and drove to Seattle for a "Maranatha Leadership Training Seminar."  I'm really not sure why we didn't all flunk out of school!

Several times a year we fasted and prayed for up to three days, and sometimes we held all-night prayer meetings, joined via satellite to other Maranatha congregations all over the globe.  (I remember one year the central leadership found out that it's better not to expect even young, strong college kids to pray all night and fast at the same time.  After several kids collapsed, fasting and all-night prayer were never observed at the same time again!  The leadership was actually lucky that no serious health problems resulted that they might have been held legally liable for.)

Whenever we could snatch any spare time, we'd go to movies together (if approved by the local leaders) or watch TV.  One of the girls' favorite activities was to listen to me read stories aloud (Winnie the Pooh, or the Chronicles of Narnia), while they did embroidery or cross-stitch.  (I was glad to be the reader because I loved to read aloud and secretly hated cross stitch, though as a woman I was supposed to like such things.)

We shared with each other the details of our lives and our troubles with parents or siblings.  We bundled up together when the furnace broke down from advanced arthritis or stopped for lack of fuel. We swam together in the house's swimming pool when it was hot (I'm sure the car wash money helped pay for pool treatment chemicals too).  We all knew what each of us looked like in the mornings before showers. We all knew what we looked like in the middle of the night without sleep.

All of this stays with us, even when we don't talk about it.  We have talked about it, of course-- at great length, over the years.  We walked with each other on our journeys out of authoritarian, spiritually abusive religion too.  And it turns out that what we have done together is something pretty rare-- the fact that Maranatha Christian Churches voluntarily disbanded in the early 1990s meant that we could leave Maranatha without shunning or estrangement-- that we were able to come out together.

And though we don't necessarily all agree anymore except on foundational Christian doctrines like the Trinity, the Incarnation, Atonement and Resurrection, we have all, I think, learned certain things from that journey out.

What have we learned?  I think it boils down to this:  that ultimately, there is no value in trying to force one another, or ourselves, to conform to some cookie-cutter standard of who or what we're supposed to be.  That each of us, in our own selves, is essentially and foundationally valuable.  And that our relationships with one another are more important than any differences we might have.

If nothing else good came out of being in a spiritually abusive religious group, this did: that in reaction to authoritarian control, we let go, once and for all, of any desire to control one another. Instead, we simply love one another.

And that should last us another 30 years, and beyond.