The Weakness of Men, the Power of Women

The Weakness of Men, the Power of Women

An Atlantic article from over a year ago has been recirculating in the wake of what feels like a Spirit-lead reckoning of the SBC over institutionalized failures to protect and affirm women. The article considers the case of the now departed Wells Fargo CEO’s brazenly un-self-aware congressional testimony about dishonest business practices to ask a prescient question:

“What is it about power that makes powerful people abuse it without seeming to know that they’re abusing it?

As Christians, we know the Sunday School answer – sin – as surely as we know the secular answer – science. Or more specifically – biology. This is the angle the Atlantic article pursues, as it reviews various behavioral and neurological studies that explore the effects of power on the brain and the behavior it drives.

Notable among the results is the observation that one of the most negatively influential consequences of power is the development of what’s described as an “empathy deficit”. As people with power interact with others, those in their charge will “mirror” their attitudes or words (as a way to signal acquiescence), but the people in power will not do the same with their subordinates. This impulse might be rooted in good intentions – a desire to filter what feels like extraneous data to focus on the end goal. But when other people’s feelings or perspectives, particularly differing ones, are put into that “extraneous” data bucket, lack of empathy and awareness ensues. According to the research described in the article, that response is traceable to specific neural pathways that deteriorate over time the longer a power differential persists.

TLDR – Unchecked power can literally damage your brain.

I’m not the biggest fan of  “science proves what the Bible says about X” arguments. Too many Christians have a tendency to embrace the scientific assertions that affirm their beliefs (rock music is demonic) but dismiss the ones that don’t (climate change is a deep state conspiracy). Not to mention – as could be the case here – there’s a swift and predictable rhetorical progression from “power causes brain damage” to “brain damage absolves abusers of authority of accountability for their actions.”

I read several valid objections to the scope of the research, and particularly to the hyperbolic framing of the results as literal “brain damage”. As the article itself goes on to lay out, the “damage” to the brain caused by power isn’t necessarily permanent and is in itself a corollary of the person’s self-awareness of the problem. It can be resisted. And that’s why what really grabbed my attention wasn’t the description of the theoretical causes of the problem, but an anecdote offered as an example of an effective strategy for mitigating it.

On June 29, 1940,  as Hitler and his troops were marching down the streets of Paris, Winston Churchill received a letter from his wife. In the letter, Clementine. Churchill lovingly confronts her Prime Minister for what she has observed, and others have reported to her, concerning his deteriorating attitude towards some of his subordinates. It’s a classic case study in how a leader’s unkind or even abusive behavior demoralizes those in his charge. After Mrs. Churchill clearly and unapologetically exhorts him about his need to change, she wisely concludes with the most compelling of reasons why – that his behavior won’t yield the outcome he desires.

We don’t know what the Prime Minister’s immediate reaction was to his wife’s letter, but we certainly know what Churchill eventually accomplished. And it’s not hard to see the role the loving, yet honest, words of a trusted woman played in helping him do it.

As I read Mrs. Churchill’s letter,  I couldn’t help think of the way her interaction with one of the most powerful men in Britain (who just happened to be her husband) mirrored that of so many women in the Bible with powerful men –

Abigail with King David

The slave girl with Naaman

Esther (and Vashti) with Ahasuerus

Pilate’s wife with Pilate

The women at the resurrection with the apostles

In each incident, a man (or men) in power stands at a fork in the road of redemptive history. The women they encounter give them specific direction about the path they should take. The men who heed their wisdom become woven into the stories of all the others who furthered God’s plan. The men who don’t become commemorative object lessons in folly.

Several months ago, when John Piper was asked about his perspective on the #MeToo movement, he replied that it was the logical consequence of egalitarianism – specifically, the rejection of the notion that men have a particular call to protect women.

Piper described this call as  “…not merely mutual honor; this is a special honor flowing from the stronger to the weaker. This is an honor of a man toward a woman precisely because he’s a man and, in general, men are in the position of physical power and strength over women. God inserts between them in that relationship a special duty, a special responsibility that a man has.”

Piper’s appeal to the power differential between men and women is the one that is commonly deployed in conversations about gender. A man’s physical size and strength is symbolic of greater power, while a women’s smaller size is symbolic of her lesser power. This same argument often extends to men’s larger brain symbolizing greater intellectual power,  or the “power” of reasoning vs. the “weakness” of emotions.

The one time the power differential conversation is reversed is in the area of sexuality. Whenever the conversation focuses on sexual attraction, men are described as inordinately vulnerable, by virtue of their libidos and their positions of power. Only here are women in possession of greater power – in particular, to stumble a man into moral compromise, or to take out a man’s ministry or his livelihood with false accusations.

This is the power differential that drives the Pence rule, that attempts to protect a man from the power of women by limiting his proximity to them.

But what the Biblical stories like David’s and Naaman’s and Pilate’s, and historical anecdotes like Winston Churchill’s, and the stories of the last several years, months and weeks from evangelical institutions teach us,

is that there is a particular masculine vulnerability to power that can be mitigated by the particular power of a woman’s influential wisdom. But the taller and thicker the hedges are against it, the less capacity men will have to receive it, and the more vulnerable they will actually become.

This is a strength worth protecting.

What the Bible repeatedly shows is that man’s particular calling to protect women is not simply because he is stronger, but because he is weaker as well.  He is as in need of a woman’s complementary strength to protect him, as she needs his to protect her.

It is not good for man to be alone.

That Atlantic article concludes on a decidedly pessimistic note – that the “…malady seen too commonly in boardrooms and executive suites is unlikely to soon find a cure.” From the perspective of secular research studies, that’s certainly true.

I wonder what conclusions the writer might have drawn if he’d also studied the Bible.

Advertisements

On “Conversation” and Controversy

When is a conversation not a conversation?

Even though many of us use the word “conversation” to mean “anything people are thinking about in a collective way”, the traditional definition involves people talking audibly, and in real time with one another. In the Internet age, the majority of our communication platforms – email, texting, tweeting, blogging – free us from those constraints, making communication faster and easier. That’s the theory, at least. But as anyone who’s ever gotten into a Facebook feud about politics will tell you, or who’s been caught in an ugly dustup at work after hitting “send” on an email a tad too quickly, or, say, engaged in an online debate about complementarianism and the nature of the Trinity, the chasm between communication and genuine understanding enabled by the digital world can sometimes make meaningful communication harder, instead of simpler.

In her latest book, “Reclaiming Conversation”, Sherry Turkle explores the effects of the growing ubiquity of digital interaction on our most basic relationships at home, at work, and in our communities, and how developing (or re-developing) and modeling habits that protect and promote real conversation can be beneficial – personally, professionally and societally. It’s a thought-provoking book for those of us who are pondering the effects of the Internet on our relationships, or our souls. And it’s replete with imago dei ideas. Her central argument boils down to this: the more machines and screens mediate our discourse, the thinner and less effective that discourse becomes.

With all of the recent referencing of the Nicene Creed in the latest round of Trinitarian debate, we haven’t spared much thought for seemingly minor details such as the significance of somewhere around three hundred Christian bishops from across the Roman Empire traveling for weeks to meet in one place and collectively agree. This was way before the days of Google Flights and Uber, don’t forget.  But in the spirit of the Apostle Paul himself, when the truth was at stake, and error was encroaching, nothing but face to face interaction would suffice to sort things out. The result? Almost seventeen hundred years later, the words of the creed written by some of the earliest Church fathers are ones around which followers of Jesus pursue the most elemental basis of their unity, or their division.

Sherry Turkle’s arguments about the critical role real conversation plays in our humanity came to mind as I was reading this concise recap of the debate by Steven Wedgeworth. It’s an almost perfect summary of the substance of the debate.* Wedgeworth earns Taboo-grade bonus points for addressing the “tone” issue without using the word, and extra bonus points for noting that “some contributors have invited open and spirited debate, but others have taken offense at the very idea.” The occasionally problematic and personal nature of the controversy, and the outspoken willingness of some to address the issue through direct debate, are complementary (oh yes I did) case studies  in both the problem Sherry Turkle identifies about the limits of online engagement and the relational deficits it creates, and the solution to those deficits, namely, a return to the pursuit of genuine conversation to foster real and lasting understanding.

You’ll understand, then, why the genuine feeling of rising hope in my heart at reading Wedgeworth’s next phrase:

“We would like to try our hand at clarifying the real issues under dispute, and we plan to carry out this conversation in ….”

dissolved into forehead-thudding-on-desk-level discouragement to see it followed by this:

“…a series of (blog) posts  over the next few weeks.”

The rhetorical tools Wedgeworth generously offers to employ to build a bridge of peace between the feuding factions, are the same tools the two factions have been using to beat each other up with.

Sherry Turkle would be…disappointed. I can only guess what the Apostle Paul, or our brethren of the Nicene Council might say, were they not all blessedly and most gloriously otherwise occupied at the moment.

I don’t know what the final taxpayer cost per participant worked out to be after Constantine counted up the final bill. I can only imagine the discomfort the bishops and their traveling companions endured as they made their way on camels and ships and on foot to an ancient Bithynian town. But if they were able to choose from any of the methods we have today that enable learned brothers from different parts of the world to debate and deliberate over the critical issues of our collective faith in the spirit of “Reformed irenicism” Wedgeworth advocates for, I find it hard to believe protracted blog posts would be the method they’d pick first.

Should the major participants in the online debate thus far actually concede this point, the next step would likely be to decide who would be willing to participate in a real conversation, and then what the form and format of the conversation would be. In the spirit of Wedgeworth’s blogging partner Mark Jones’ exhortation that we name names,  Mark himself has been a major participant for the non-ESS side, and has stated publicly that he’d be willing to engage an ESS proponent such as Owen Strachan in a debate. Whether those two were to represent the two positions alone, or to be accompanied by other leading voices, might be for them to decide.

I just saw that Mark tweeted today that he’s written a post for Desiring God on the Trinity on which he hopes we can all agree. I can certainly hope that way too. If those hopes are realized, and one blog post is sufficient to bring unity and clarity where so many others seem to have done the opposite, that would indeed be a mighty example of the wonders our God mysteriously moves to perform. I look forward to reading it. But whether our hopes are realized or not, I hope all of us take time to consider the relative merits of continuing to pour the new wine of 21st century debates in what are now relatively old wineskins of social media engines like blogposts and Twitter threads, forgetting that our faith centers on the Word who became flesh for us.

and that that might have some significance about how his shepherds, and his sheep, engage with one another, for our greatest good, and His highest glory.

—————————————————————————————————————————————-

*Wedgeworth states that “The relationship between the eternal Father and the eternal Son in the godhead has been appealed to as an archetype for the submission of the wife to her husband within marriage”. As various women participants have noted, the actual archetype proposed is for submission of women to men ontologically as an expression of femaleness, thus spreading across all categories of interaction, not just the covenant categories of marriage and church. Rachel Green Miller reviews a new book by two leading ESS proponents that makes this connection very strongly and distinctly. Aside from the usual egalitarian suspects, no one who rejects ESS (that I know of) rejects the classic complementarian arguments regarding the covenant boundaries of marriage and church incorporating submission of wives to their own husbands, and church preaching and oversight being confined to qualified and called men.

On Imago Dei and Ways Forward Down Winding Roads

“Are women human?” Dorothy Sayers asked the world that question in an essay she wrote in 1947. And the evangelical church, at least in the last century or so, has tried to dodge the issue by pulling a Princess Bride – “Skip to the end – say man and wife!” Conversations, conferences, books and blogs about biblical womanhood abound, but not about biblical person-hood. But there are a myriad of problems in considering the practical implications of womanhood, without understanding their foundation in a woman’s humanity.

The most common model for examining, and then defining, biblical womanhood has been to consider the passages where women are addressed or featured prominently, and then to stretch and pull the applications from those texts across as many groups of women as possible, like so much pizza dough on a peel. Women who fit the demographic in question are privy to a plethora of books, memes, and ministries dedicated to the minutiae of obeying a subset of a single chapter of Scripture. For women outside the demographic – those not yet married, not married anymore, or currently without children – the conversation becomes either about making yourself perpetually ready for a particular season, like some kind of womanhood- prepper, or about supporting other women in it – as though womanhood were some kind of spectator sport only certain women are qualified to play, while the rest stand on the sidelines with pink pompoms and cheer.

I found the beginning of a path through my frustrations with the biblical womanhood framework that was simultaneously confining and full of holes, by way of a book called “Made For More”. In it, Hannah Anderson challenges the “identity myopia” of concentrating our definition as women (and men) on segments of life that are narrow in scope, and temporal in nature. In this “nearsightedness of the soul…(w)e can see the details well enough, but we can’t grasp their significance; and when we glance away from them, even momentarily, everything else is out of focus and blurred.” (pg 12) Anderson argues that the clearest lens through which to view ourselves as women, and then walk accordingly, is not one of temporal roles which last only for a season (if they occur at all), but the lens of the One from Whom, through Whom, and to Whom both women and men live, in every moment of life. Womanhood begins with who God is (in His nature), and what He has done (in the gospel), before it is about the things we do for Him as women. “We forget”, Anderson states, “that we can never understand what it means to be women of good works, until we first learn about the goodness of a God who works on our behalf. We forget that nothing about (our works) will make any sense if they are not first grounded in the truth that we are destined to be conformed to (God’s) image through Christ.” (pg. 105)

For years I had lived with a tension I felt deeply but struggled to understand fully – that my mission to follow Christ was somehow mitigated by my gender, that my ability to be like Christ was limited by the fact that He was and is a man and I was not, and that the real working out of my salvation seemed to be mediated through my identity as a wife and mother. In rediscovering the importance of the doctrine of imago dei to my identity, I began to see Jesus’ incarnation, life, death and resurrection, as not merely about my restoration as a woman, but more importantly, my restoration as a human being. Consequently, the living out of my restored humanity as a woman was as equally about reflecting the full nature of the triune God in my womanhood, as it is for a man in his manhood. And to do so faithfully requires a lifelong pursuit of the triune God whose nature is revealed to us in 66 books about one Person, not just a couple of chapters and prooftexts and characters sketches about women.

In that light, the term “complementarianism”, as it has been traditionally defined, appears be as least one cause of the identity myopia so many women like me have experienced, instead of its cure. In its centering on gender roles, the boundaries of our identity are drawn imprecisely around separate, temporal states (adult manhood and womanhood) and what we are to do in them, instead of more broadly but precisely around the shared state of our humanity – a state that is fixed and constant from the moment of conception to natural death. In its narrow focus on headship and submission, complementarianism distills all of the orbits of the collective creation mandate down to two, and to one relational dynamic within them, in that same temporal season of adulthood. No wonder so much of the current debate has been about what the term “complementarianism” doesn’t mean, or about what 51% of the human race can’t do. A term that is bounded so narrowly doesn’t leave too much room inside it for “is” or “can.”

But the term “ImagoDeian” does.

Inside the meaning of ImagoDeian, there is room for:

  1. The emphasis of Genesis 1 and 2 on male and female’s joint definition as image bearers as the foundation for the way we should see ourselves and every other human being.
  2. The glory of woman being derived from the way in which God makes her – uniquely forming her from one who is already alive with the breath of God, into one who displays the life-giving power of God.
  3. The argument that the order in which God made man, then woman, is about man’s incompleteness, not his supremacy.
  4. The definition of the nature of woman’s completion of man as that of a “necessary ally” instead of the ameliorated “suitable helper”.
  5. Multiple relational pictures of Christ’s oneness with His people: –marriage, and singleness (as depicted by Paul and by Jesus Himself), and the church as HIs unified Bride.
  6. The recognition  because of the Fall,, our bodies to fall short of the glory they were created to display, through aging, disease, sin, and defects whose causes are sometimes known and sometimes yet to be discovered . Nevertheless, as with every other aspect of our humanity, the dignity of our body is found, not in the measure of its functionality, or the degree of its beauty, but in its very existence, which was initiated by God and for God.
  7. The primary axis of conformity to the image of Christ is guided by our common living out of the one anothers, the bearing of the fruit of the Spirit, Who indwells men and women in equal measure, and our common living of the life to which we have been called . The secondary axis of our conformity to the image of Christ is guided by the distinctions of maleness and femaleness through which His image is expressed, the contexts in which those distinctions operate (wife, husband, employee, employer, marriage, home, church) and the specific commands God gives regarding each one. These two axes form the framework inside which we exercise our gifts and callings, in the way God directs, through the power He supplies, with Christ’s life as their source, and His glory as their object, the glory of the One in whose image we are all made.

In viewing a woman’s place in the world, and in the kingdom of God, through the lens of imago dei, a host of things – from the context for submission, to the exercise of our gifts in different seasons of life – fall into clearer focus (too many to begin detailing in a post that’s already too long, but that merit an entire series of their own). I agree with Fred Sanders – in general, because that is the way of wisdom, but also in this particular point- that imago dei does not necessarily make the way from the doctrine of God to the doctrines of human society more direct. But I would argue that imago dei can still serve as a type of true north for the twists and turns of the journey, especially as the winds of a dying secular culture blow harder and hotter in our faces. More importantly,  it can steer us clear of the potholes and rabbit trails that more imprecise terms can, and have, served to steer so many so far off course.

 

A different way forward?

The past several month’s simmering over some of the increasingly pointed rhetoric of a subset of Reformed leaders about the nature of complementarianism and its connections to the gospel, finally boiled over this week. Much of the early gentle stirring and heating was done by women like Wendy Alsup, Persis Lorenti, and Rachel Miller, although I’ve weighed in as well. Several weeks ago, Aimee Byrd, of the rhetorically spicy Mortification of Spin podcast, decided to kick things up a notch and take on some particularly troubling arguments coming out of the most recent CBMW conference, line by line. That led to some more stirring at the MOS site (including a turn by yours truly). Several of us made various attempts to politely invite a response from the CBMW folks, but were met with relative quiet.

Then, last Friday and Monday, Aimee brought out the big guns in form of one Dr. Liam Goligher, to get the bottom of things with a big infusion of creeds, catechisms, a sprinkling of hints about heresy and a passing reference to Islam. That did the trick. Yesterday, both Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem posted responses. Since then the discussion has been going at a fairly decent boil in three different languages – English, Latin and Greek, all in 140 character-sized morsels and longer form blog posts. I’m glad that the theological underpinnings of hypercomplementarian arguments about headship and submission and their tenuous ties to the Trinity are being examined. It’s important. But I’m a little worried that the practical reasons my fellow Blue Stockings began writing about this issue in the first place are getting lost in the midst of all the twenty-dollar words being thrown around. I’m concerned that this is turning into the kind of “theology-in-the-abstract”argument that gives theology, and tussling theologians, a bad name.

That’s why I’m wondering if this lady with only a bachelor’s degree in one language might weigh in with yet one more Latin phrase – one more familiar to the majority of Christians, which serves as the permanent tether between the transcendence of the Godhead, and the finitude of His creatures.

Namely, the imago dei.

The doctrine of imago dei is grounded in the first two chapters of Genesis, which describe with poetic beauty God’s crafting of man and woman, as distinct from the rest of creation. Imago dei is the place where ad extra and ad hominum meet.

For some time now, complementarianism as a term has been struggling under the weight of multiple awkward definitions, caught up in what men and women purportedly must do differently to define who they are essentially. But the first two chapters of Genesis say not one word about those distinctions. The focus of Genesis 1 and 2 is on God’s creation of the world and of humanity as a whole. It’s about men and women’s unified nature and unified work. The focus is on who God is, who we as human beings are, and what we as human beings are to do. The focus is on imago dei.

I’d like to propose that at least a partial solution to the arguments about the definition and implications of complementarianism and its connections to the Trinity, is to throw the term out altogether, or at least subordinate it (ha!) to one that has a closer correlation to the Trinity.

I’d like to offer up “imagodei-ism”, or being an “imagodei-an”,  as that term.

I’d like to propose that, instead of eisegeting gender frameworks from New Testament texts back into Genesis, we begin where God does, and go forward from there.

And to cut off all the usual objections before they begin, let me say clearly that I’m not arguing that we just quit talking about gender, or the institutions of marriage or church or whatnot.

But what I am arguing is that the reason for much of the last couple of years of increasing debate and doubling down on tertiary issues about who can be a police officer and whether Christianity has a masculine feel, is because we’ve missed some of the implications of the primary issue of what it means for all of us, every human being from conception to natural death, to be made in the image of the triune God.

This is not an original argument, by the way. It’s an argument made by a dear friend of mine in a book that I’ve reread every year since it was published. It got some traction, in some quarters. But judging by this week’s conversations, it didn’t get nearly enough.

On Monday, I’ll lay out the book’s arguments, and why I think they’re central to helping us move forward in a more unified way, at a time when unity in the midst of secular social and political upheaval is sorely needed.