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.

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Harmful Counsel Harming Women Is A Church Problem (Not Just An SBC Problem)

Harmful Counsel Harming Women Is A Church Problem (Not Just An SBC Problem)

Last month, Rachael Denhollander’s prophetic question about the worth of a little girl’s life brought the topic of institutionally ignored abuse of girls into sharp relief. Now Christians are asking a different version of that question all over again, about girls who grow up to be women who are being severely abused by their husbands,  and go to their pastors for help.

Last week, RNS journalist Jonathan Merritt brought an 18- year old audio file of Paige Patterson comments at a CBMW conference about a woman in an abusive marriage asking him for help, out from the shadowy depths of the Christian watch-blogosphere into the bright light of Twitter. There are transcripts of Patterson’s remarks floating around, but to feel the full impact of Patterson’s recounting of his initial counsel to her, and its aftermath, it’s best to listen – it takes about 5 minutes.

Patterson’s counsel is that the woman should pray by her bedside after her husband goes to sleep, and then to prepare for the possibility that her treatment might get worse. Sure enough, it does, and the woman returns to Dr. Patterson with two black eyes.  The woman asks if the consequences of his counsel make him happy. Patterson replies that it does, because he’s noticed that the man had shown up at church, professing to be repentant.

When I first heard the audio, the only hope I felt was that its relative age meant that since then, Patterson’s happiness had turned deep sorrow over how his counsel enabled the dehumanizing assault of a woman. But later that same day, Merritt tweeted a much more recent piece of video from a conference in which Patterson, from a teaching pulpit, turns Genesis 2:22 into an anecdote involving an attractive teenage girl two boys’ objectifying comments about her, and his blessing their comments by referencing the same Bible verse. (Once again, it’s helpful to watch the segment, although if you have teenage daughters like I do, best to watch/listen where only Jesus hears anything you might say out loud.)

Far from repentance and change, Patterson’s attitudes about women seem to have deteriorated and atrophied in, I believe, a ministerially disqualifying way.

In the week since all this has come to light, a growing chorus of leaders in the SBC has called for Patterson to remove himself from leadership or be removed. So far, Patterson has refused. We don’t know yet whether he will relent, or whether the SBC will do the right thing in removing him themselves. But if either of those scenarios play out, many Christians might be tempted to believe that when Patterson goes, his views will go with him. They will be mistaken.

The tragic fact is, Patterson’s approach to applying Scripture to the subject of divorce is one that leaders in other, equally broad streams of conservative evangelicalism not only use themselves, but proffer as a model for the church as a whole.

Take Heath Lambert, the recent president of the Association of Christian Biblical Counselors.

In a live-streamed Q and A session at the most recent annual ACBC conference for the ACBC, Heath Lambert fielded the kind of hypothetical question Paige Patterson had experienced in real life. What could be done for a woman in an abusive or deeply broken marriage – involving things such as emotional abuse or sexual addiction – where there was not currently physical violence?  Was there any Scriptural justification for a woman in such a marriage to pursue separation, or divorce?

Lambert’s strategy for answering the question is notably similar to Patterson’s.  In Lambert’s case, he employs two separate texts – Mark 10, followed by 1 Peter 3 – to argue that the Bible says “no”.  Once again, it’s best to watch the video to get the full context of Lambert’s remarks. The question begins at 44:58, and the segment lasts about 5 minutes.

In referencing Mark 10, Lambert’s statement that he’ll let Jesus’ words “sink in and go uninterpreted” is unfortunate, because it’s that lack of consideration of context that leads people to believe that Jesus is making some kind of a blanket statement about divorce, rather than a right framing of it for Jesus’ particular audience at that moment.

In Mark 10, the group posing the question to Jesus about the legality of divorce hardly has the welfare of abused women as their leading concern. They are the Pharisees, infamous for making the Old Testament Law a means to their various ends, chief among them playing legal gotcha games to try and challenge Jesus’ expertise in the law. Men in Jesus’ day were, ironically, doing the very thing of which women in abusive situations are often accused – making exaggerated claims about their spouse’s sinful or displeasing behavior as an excuse to abandon her. Moses recognized that divorce was a way of protecting women who would be at risk of worse than mistreatment if hardhearted men were not given the option. And yet those same hardhearted men were using the option to do the very thing Moses was trying to prevent. Jesus knew all of this, like he knew the Pharisees’ hearts, and both schooled them and indicted them in the process.

With 1 Peter 3, Lambert takes even more hermeneutical liberties, asserting that the phrase “even if some do not obey the word” represents a kind of MadLibs “fill in the blank” representation for any kind of sin being committed by any kind of husband (rather than the likely subcategory of an unbelieving husband vs. a professing believer). But in the very same breath, Lambert raises the category of physical violence as an exception, without giving any justification for why the exception he chooses is legitimate, but others, including ones Jesus himself names, are not.

Lambert’s counsel terminates at the same place as Patterson’s initial counsel – that a woman is to stay in a marriage where she’s not currently being physically beaten. Unlike the Patterson case, the question posed to Lambert is theoretical. But when we note the fruits of the application of that hypothetical borne with the real woman Paige Patterson counseled and then dismissed with such callous disregard,

I can’t help wondering about women who have come to the pastors and ACBC counselors who sat in that audience, or who were listening to that counsel directly online.

I can’t help thinking of the women and children I know personally, who bear deep mental, spiritual, and even physical scars from the verbal and psychological abuse they have endured.

And I can’t imagine what it would feel like for a woman to hear that her desperate desire to be rescued from such an environment, or to have her children delivered, was really a wrong desire to just feel good. (:49.50)

Given all that’s transpired since then, it’s notably providential that the theme for this year’s ACBC conference is Abuse. Hopefully, the events of this month will have a clarifying effect on the conference agenda. Were Heath Lambert continuing on as president, he might take the opportunity to reconsider the remarks he made at last year’s conference, and state them very differently.

But last month, Lambert announced that he was stepping down from the ACBC to focus on his role as senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, and that a new president will be officially installed at this year’s conference.  The new president is Dale Johnson Jr., who earned his Ph.D in Biblical Counseling just three years ago from the seminary where he currently serves as a department professor – Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary – the seminary whose president is still, as of this writing, Paige Patterson.

This appointment might make the ACBC potentially appear to be positioning itself as the counseling wing of the SBC. But the reach of the ACBC extends far beyond the SBC, into numerous other denominations, and innumerable independent evangelical and Reformed congregations across the country.

That’s why I’m praying that Reformed and independent evangelical pastors and leaders don’t observe what’s being exposed within the SBC and think that this issue is confined there. It’s not. T women in those congregations, just like the women speaking up within the SBC, are praying that this harmful teaching, masked as biblical fidelity and compassionate shepherding, is eradicated, once and for all.

The safety and well-being of women, and children, quite literally depend on it.