It’s Time to End Male Spiritual Leadership

Husband Accepting Influence

I stopped attending Christian men’s conferences over ten years ago. The increasing hype, dopamine rush energy, and teaching left me feeling empty. Unfortunately, things have not improved (Read about a recent debacle at a Missouri men’s event here). During events like this, men frequently hear messages about being male spiritual leaders in their homes. My goal in this blog is to explain why it’s time to end male spiritual leadership as a common teaching in Christian communities.

Men’s conferences grew following the Promise Keepers movement of the early 1990s. If you want to read an excellent resource and analysis of how these events became a significant part of evangelical church culture, check out Jesus and John Wayne but Kristen DuMez. Like DuMez, one of my primary concerns with these events is that they do little to promote significant change or discipleship in a man’s Christian faith. Of course, there are good and often anecdotal life-changing impacts, but the overall result is often veneer only.

Like most, I would often walk away from these events with an energy and a passion for “doing good” or “better.” But getting back home to the family, I would quickly run into the wall of real life. The event’s energy is quickly deflated, and there is little staying power to change anything. My wife and I have often lamented that, similarly, going to church marriage conferences does little to help the couple that leaves the event and is right back to fighting as they get into the car. These weekend events’ high energy and adrenaline have minimal staying power to facilitate lasting change in everyday life. In church language, they are highly “attractional” but short on meaningful discipleship. And as I suggest in this blog, some of the teaching might be counterproductive to what we know makes healthy marriages.

Many of these men hear specific teachings that they need to step up and be the male spiritual leaders in their homes. The message is often received as a call to action. If you have not been engaged or active in your marriage or family, you need to “do something.” If you have been “leading,” you need to do more or do it better. Encouraging men to take charge and be decisive suggests that men have some power and authority in their homes. It is then assumed that this God-endorsed authority and power delivered in the pulpit and supposedly endorsed by scripture should result in a “blessing” of your family’s health. That all sounds good until it does not work that well. In my experience, it often leads to men feeling inadequate and women feeling hurt and disappointed. Ultimately, it just disconnects.

High-energy events do little to help the family or marriage face a “dark night of the soul.” All marriages face moments that rattle our sense of security and faith, and we need to ask if these events and the call for men to be male spiritual leaders, truly prepare men for moments of deep uncertainty. Let me offer you a few examples of dark nights that I have heard far too often in my work with families. (See note at bottom).1

  • Having attended so many church events growing up, the young man is now married but not experiencing the blissful union that he thought he should expect. He thought they “did it right.” He and his bride saved themselves for marriage sexually, but on their honeymoon, they struggled sexually. Sex caused her pain, and he became frustrated. And in his ignorance, he has angrily insisted that they continue to have sex despite the pain. Three months into their marriage, they have already grown distant and hopeless.
  • The 30-something-year-old husband whose wife cannot conceive. They decided to adopt. They could not have predicted the behavioral difficulties and stress of their now five-year-old. There are daily phone calls from the school. It negatively impacts their work, and the comparisons to their friends who seem to have perfectly well-adjusted kids are discouraging. This husband’s wife is now saying she wishes they never adopted this child, and she does not even like this child. This man often fights with his wife over coaching her on her parenting.
  • The 40-year-old’s teenage son was the “ideal child” and always made great grades in school, but he is now failing over half of his high school classes. He is at risk of losing his starting position on the football team, and he has come home to report that his girlfriend is pregnant. This husband harbors anger at his wife for not managing their household well while he was the primary income earner.
  • The man in his 50s has worked for his company for over 25 years and was told he is being let go. There is no severance. He is looking for jobs and running into many dead ends. He finds himself yelling at his wife because she is overspending and cannot follow a simple budget.
  • The retiree whose wife died ten years ago from a terrible cancer and whose children have refused to talk to him. He is lonely and angry and experiences many doubts about his faith over his lifetime. He privately stews that his wife made him out to be the bad guy to their children.

There have been and may continue to be many good things said to men in conferences. However, the examples of the men above illustrate how efforts to “lead” and assert “authority” only disconnect in times of challenge and pain when a connection is needed most. Unfortunately, telling men to stand up and be strong male spiritual leaders in their homes falls short and is often responsible for only more conflict and pain. It’s time to end male spiritual leadership.

Revolutionary Marrige Book

In my book, Revolutionary Marriage, I address the topic of male spiritual leadership. I share that in my practice as a marriage therapist for many couples over the years, this idea has not helped. It has done more harm by destabilizing the marriage unit. I’ll explain the problem in detail, but first, I’ll provide some history.

In the mid to late 1980s, conservative Christian leaders began to dialogue about the changes in American culture and politics specifically related to a rise in feminism, called second-wave feminism. Many in these circles viewed this as a threat. What rose out of these conversations was the idea of complementarian marriage. It is the idea that men and women have specific, scripturally defined roles for marriage. A central tenet of this view was that men are hierarchically in charge of the family and serve as “head” of the wife. They argue scripturally that this “authority” was established before the fall of man because Adam was created first, and Eve was created from Adam. You can read a very important historical document related to this view called the Danvers Statement. You can find it here. What is most important to note is that this idea of male spiritual leadership is a modern idea and little connection to the ancient church.

In Revolutionary Marriage, I suggest that these views are flawed. They ignore the creation story of Genesis 1, in which males and females are created together. And I suggest the story of Eve coming from Adams’s rib has less to do with hierarchy and authority (leadership) and far more to do with unity. A brief Google search can help you find many scholars who have written on these ideas and highlighted the problems with positions like the Danvers Statement. I might suggest Philip B. Payne, Beth Allison Barr, Marg Mowczko, Aimee Byrd, and Kristen DuMez.

When men are encouraged and told that they need to be the male spiritual leaders of their homes, it more often than not creates a power imbalance. Someone is in charge. Someone has to have the final say or deciding vote. Any position of power over another is antithetical to the kingdom Jesus established. Readh Marg Mowczko’s analysis of this idea here. Jesus came to turn all systems of power upside down. Consider the above examples about the “dark nights” many face in their married lives. Every example shows growing anger, resentment, and bitterness over their failed attempts to control or manage the situation and even their wives. All this hurt for wives (feeling misunderstood and belittled) and husbands (feeling like they are failing) sounds a lot like the curse from Genesis 3:16b, “You will long for your husband and will rule over you. (NIRV)” Firing men up with adrenaline and dopamine at a conference and sending them back home “to lead” is ripe for fueling these fires of conflict between spouses. When pastors, teachers, and church leaders teach the idea of male spiritual leadership, they are just endorsing the curse of Genesis 3.

A husband having any power over his wife was a part of the curse and never God’s intended plan. Please understand that many in the complementarian community would say that a husband’s authority is a “benevolent authority.” This is just trying to put a bow on patriarchy, and patriarchy was NEVER part of God’s plan. Adam and Eve were co-rulers according to Genesis 1:28a, “God blessed them. He said to them, “Have children so that there will be many of you. Fill the earth and bring it under your control… (NIRV)” I honestly fear that men struggle with this idea because they have bought the lie that power is what defines them as a man. I love the line from the Barbie movie, “I’m a man with no power, does that make me a woman?” No, no it does not.

Research from the Gottman Institute has consistently shown that men assuming authority places their marriages at risk. John and Julie Gottman developed a concept in their research called, “accepting influence.” It is defined as creating an atmosphere where you intentionally honor your spouse’s request and find a way to say “yes” whenever possible. It requires empathy and vulnerability to consider the needs and desires of your spouse. This has the effect of decreasing emotional intensity and deescalating conflict. The Gottman’s found that 65% of men were likely to choose a response to their wives that was resistant, or argumentative. This would consistently ratchet up the level of conflict.

Male spiritual leadership puts men in a position to escalate conflict because they often assert some decision-making authority. The assertion of authority is often resistant and argumentative to wives. However, the research by the Gottmans confirms Paul’s direction: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” Ephesians 5:21 (NIV). In our examples above, yielding to their wives’ influence might have looked a bit like this:

  • A young husband empathically listens to understand his wife’s pain. He needed to allow her to express her needs so they could mutually find safe, comfortable, and pain-free sexual activities.
  • A husband who validates the difficulties of parenting and finds ways they can work together to address the challenges.
  • A husband who invites his wife to explore the fears, grief, and anxiety about facing a teenage pregnancy. He asks for her perspective on how they might teach their son to be responsive to his girlfriend as she copes with this pregnancy.
  • The jobless husband who becomes less concerned with budgets, and listens to his wife’s fears and concerns about the finances.
  • The retired widower, who considers all the years his wife pleaded for his reconciliation with the children, decides to invite his children’s forgiveness and work towards rebuilding their trust.

Another quote from the Barbie movie fits here: “To be honest, when I found out the patriarchy wasn’t about horses, I lost interest anyways.” Christian husbands need to lose interest in the dopamine-high motivational speaker experiences of men’s conferences. They need to lose interest in being male spiritual leaders and become determined to accept their wives’ influence. We must find ways to engage with our wives empathically, collaboratively, and, most importantly, sacrificially. This is the type of love and service Jesus calls us to in our vocation of marriage.

  1. Please note that none of the examples given are of actual clients that I have worked with as a therapist. These are general descriptions of circumstances that I have heard in various forms over the years and in no way are meant to represent real persons ↩︎

A Brief Addendum

The debate over this issue is current and continues. On March 18 Christianity Today published and article by pastor and scholar, GORDON P. HUGENBERGER, titled “Complementarian at Home, Egalitarian at Church? Paul would Approve.”

I agree with Beth Felker Jones analysis of this article. Hugenberger does numerous gymnastics to weave an exegetical narrative of various NT verses in an attempt to bring some unity to the warring camps. The problem is he never addresses the problem of power brought by patriarchy and he attempts to preserve the slightest sliver of power for men in the home. Jesus abolished the use of power for all of his followers. This includes the use of power by husbands over wives.

I highly recommend Beth Felker Jones’s overarching discussion of gender and power throughout the Bible. It is a beautiful analysis.

Reader interactions

2 Replies to “It’s Time to End Male Spiritual Leadership”

  1. Dr. DeYoung, This article is brilliant! You have written a fantastic exegetical theological statement and a scholarly, heart-felt piece. Your work gives me hope for the future of all our relationships and for The Church as Christ intended it. Thank you!

    Reply

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