Some of you may recall an article on Christian masculinity that I wrote for Converge some months back. Well, Converge published another article on the subject for its September/October issues that takes a slightly different approach. It’s called “Stud service: How the Church makes it hard to be a man” and is written by Chelsea Batten.
While Batten’s essay raises some important questions (and for that I am grateful), I can’t help but wonder about some of the conclusions she draws in the essay. Batten—referencing Douglas Wilson—writes that women want men to assume more overt, unapologetic leadership in the Church, pushing back against their own attempts. That may well be the case—though it’s certainly worth pointing out that woman have often taken on leadership over and against their husbands, for better (Esther against Xerxes) and worse (Jezebel over Ahab). I assume this idea for men to rule over women comes out of Genesis 3:16 (“Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you”), though the essay itself never references it.
At any event, Batten writes, women want men to take on more leadership and push back against the feminization of the Church. I certainly agree with her that there’s a distinct lack of strong male Christians in the Church today. But it’s what she says after this that gives me pause: “men need to be allowed a more liberal learning curve, as they face their fear of failure and begin to practice leading.”
So let’s summarize: many (most?) Christian men (as they currently stand) are too immature to effectively lead. But we want them to lead anyway—to let them “practice?” That seems to be asking for trouble.
I appreciate what the author is trying to do: encourage the Church to “develop men with confidence, direction, and mastery.” The Church certainly does need stronger males willing to lead. But I’m afraid that Batten might be doing things the wrong way around: she seems to want men to take up the reigns of leadership now, and then let them become better leaders over “a more liberal learning curve.” But surely we should inculcate leadership ability into people before letting them lead. Surely the bare fact that they are male is not, in and of itself, the only requirement necessary for leadership. Surely we should insist on their being wise before letting them make decisions over practical and spiritual matters. (And surely, only some men will ever demonstrate the skills necessary for leadership; not all men are called to be leaders of the Church).
At any rate, the fact of the matter is, most Christian men today are neither wise nor intellectually clear enough in their theology to effectively lead the Church (or their families or whatever else anyone could possibly want them to lead). I’m not saying that’s a good thing: I’m just saying it’s true.
It’s helpful to note here, I think, that the woman’s desire for a husband who will rule over her is spoken of by God in the context of a curse. The desire for a husband who rules over her is a consequence for Eve’s sin, just as the difficulty accompanying work was a consequence of Adam’s. That doesn’t mean, of course, that work itself is sinful just because it’s hard; nor does it mean that male leadership is wrong just because a woman desires “to be ruled over.” But it does remind us that who a woman chooses “to rule over her” is an important concern: Eve allowed herself to be tempted by the snake in the garden, to allow it rather than God to rule over her. Women seeking male leadership today should similarly be concerned with choosing God-pleasing leaders—who will lead “as Christ loved the Church”—rather than those who would draw attention away from God through their own malice (or foolishness).
So what kind of male leadership is Batten suggesting? What “type” of man does God call Christians to be? You can read my Converge article on that subject elsewhere, but here we’re discussing Batten’s vision. Her idea? An “evangelical James Bond.”
But I have to ask the question: maybe the desire for an “evangelical James Bond” is itself a working out of the curse in Genesis 3:16? It seems on the face of it little different than the cliché of the “handsome-ne’er-do-well guy out misbehaving” who is saved through the Christian girl’s intervention—a trope explicitly rejected a few paragraphs later in the article. But isn’t the desire for a Christian James Bond—devout yet dashing and dangerous—itself just a recycling of the Christianized bad boy?1
If we want to raise up solid Christian men, we need to ensure that they approach faith seriously—and the best way of doing that is to ensure they’ve spending time in the Word. Able leadership arises from wisdom and knowledge. Yes, it’s important that men be confident. But they first have to have something to be confident about in order for their confidence to be a good thing.
Batten suggests that one of the problems keeping men from taking on leadership is “the fear of failure.” And yet, Batten notes, “most of the resources aimed toward male godliness are couched in the language of telling them how far they fall short. If I were a man, I’d have checked out long ago. It’s not surprising that many have.”
While I understand what Batten is saying, I have to disagree, at least in part. If Christian men are going to be able leaders in their churches, families, and communities, they need to understand this one thing: that they are failures. They need to understand that they are sinners. But Batten is right to say this shouldn’t be the only thing they are taught. Here’s why: This sort of teaching is Law-driven. Now, I’m not saying the Law isn’t good. It is. It’s intended to show us in a mirror our sins. And they are many.
But unfortunately, too many resources on Christian masculinity (and too many sermons in wider Christianity in general, for that matter) are focused solely on the Law. But Christian teaching was never meant to stop at the Law; Christians are to be led on to the Gospel. Yes, Christian men are unworthy to lead; they are sinners. But the Good News of the Gospel is forgiveness. It is mercy. It is the knowledge that God’s grace comes to us despite our deficiencies—in fact, because of our sinfulness. The Gospel tells us that we do not have to rely on our own, sinful selves; Christ Himself has accomplished our salvation. The reason any man called to be leader can, in fact, lead is because he becomes like Christ—because Christ works though him. God’s strength is found in man’s weakness. But you can’t appreciate that unless you first realize you are weak. [See my Converge article for more on this.]
I do want to point out here that Batten says some very good things, especially on the subject of lust and sexuality. She’s right in noting that the Church too often makes men “feel embarrassed at best, and guilty at worst, for having a sex drive at all.” “Until, of course,” she continues, “they’re married.” Then they’re expected to have it all together. And whether you’re a guy or a girl, expecting to go from 0 to 100 mph in six seconds is pretty unlikely. The goal shouldn’t be suppressing sexuality, but rather (as Batten rightly notes) channeling that sexuality in healthy ways. To that end she tells an insightful story about a 32 year old single man who doesn’t pretend sexual desire isn’t in him; he instead actively uses it to learn restraint—to grow in godliness, not by pretending the temptation isn’t there but by struggling with it. And this self-mastery creates in him confident, competent leadership qualities.
Despite these good things, I fear that Batten’s article in the end feeds more into the macho-Christianity movement so prevalent in evangelical discourse than it challenges it. “I like to daydream about a world,” Batten writes, “where the evangelical church is known for the manliness of the men it produces.” But this idea—this desire to be recognized by the world as a-man-among-men—has been the dominant voice in Evangelicalism on what it means to be a Christian man for well over a hundred years. If it’s not working, maybe we need to look at a different model—one that focuses more on the men’s ability to lead wisely and faithfully rather than on James Bond-esque confidence.