29 December 2017

Spiritual Leadership Myth-Busting


I hope you're ready to hear more about this, because I'm not done. Today I want to address a few of the most common arguments I hear in defense of male spiritual leadership in marriage. The first, and without a doubt the most popular, is:

"Somebody needs to make the final decision."

Or do they?

In a society that thrives on schedules and deadlines, I wonder if we have become conditioned to view delaying a decision as procrastination or indifference. But the fact is, in most situations, making a final decision is not the emergency most of us think it is.

Imagine that you and your spouse are facing a choice about something. While considering several potential options, your partner expresses reservations about one or more of them. But you see no cause for concern, and you get annoyed, thinking s/he's just being obstinate or maybe even paranoid.

Well, that's possible, I suppose. But you never know if God might be communicating through your spouse's objections: "This isn't the right thing to do." Or, "Now isn't the right time." And if it is, then that is not the time to push forward in spite of uncertainty. That is the time to stop, to listen, and to pray some more. (As the old saying goes, "When you're standing on the edge of a cliff, a step forward is not progress.")

It seems we prefer to forget that God is perfectly capable of revealing His will to both the husband and the wife if given the chance. Ironically, the Plymouth Brethren -- the church tradition in which I was raised -- are a great example of this. (I say "ironically" because they are completely on board with the idea that God reveals His will to the husband, and the wife's job is to follow.)

In the church I attended growing up, the five elders that oversee the church make their decisions unanimously. There is no voting, and no one's opinion outweighs anybody else's. If they're deciding on a course of action and even one of them expresses hesitation or disagreement, they take it as a sign that the Lord would have them wait and pray until they're all in complete unity. Sometimes the dissenting one "comes around"; sometimes the others realize he was actually right, and sometimes they have to scrap all their previous ideas and start from scratch. But at the end, everyone is 100% on board with the plan, whatever it is.

Here's my question. If God will bring five church leaders to agreement on something (and He does so regularly), why shouldn't we believe that He'll do the same for two marriage partners? (In fact, I think the latter requires less faith, because in terms of percentages, there's a better chance of two people agreeing on something than five people!)

And then of course there are the churches where things are decided by voting, because we have to have a decision, and we have to have it now! What about the leading of the Spirit? Well, sure, we're okay with that. As long as He does it before our Friday deadline.

In the church, in marriage, and nearly everywhere else in life, I wonder if our preoccupation with someone making a "final call" is less about being responsible and more about our impatience and our unwillingness to wait on the Lord. Because unless your house is on fire, you probably have some time to think and pray and consider your options.

"But every team needs a leader."

Yes, it does. But the leader may not be the person you think.

In 2 Corinthians 6:14, Paul tells us, "Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers." Although we understand this to mean that we shouldn't marry someone who doesn't share our faith, I believe the "yoked together" analogy can teach us something else, too.

When two oxen are "yoked" together, they're working as a unit. Both are supposed to pull in unison. If they don't, they won't get anywhere.

Who is actually directing the team? The driver! The driver of the cart commands the oxen. He tells them where to go and how fast, when to turn, and where to stop. And they do so together. In the "yoke" of Christian marriage, who do you suppose the driver is? The Holy Spirit!

The proponents of male spiritual leadership have (perhaps unwittingly) booted the Holy Spirit out of the driver's seat. Or they've decided that being "yoked" somehow means that one walks ahead and the other follows behind. This obviously isn't so, but to the degree that we believe that it is, our marriages will continue to suffer.

I think even complementarians know this somewhere deep down. A couple weeks ago, while hearing a sermon on marriage, I picked up on this oft-repeated line: "Men, God has given you special authority to make decisions for the family, but let me tell you, you had better ask your wife what she thinks -- and listen. I've ignored my wife's advice about a decision on two occasions in our marriage, and both times it was a disaster."

That statement right there, ladies and gentlemen, is your clue that it's time to rethink your assumptions about God's will for leadership and decision-making. If you believe that God wants a husband to consider his wife's thoughts and opinions and that there will likely be consequences if he doesn't, then it's really not so much of a leap to start believing that maybe -- just maybe -- God actually wants them to make their decisions together. Equally. Without tie-breaker votes, trump cards, or "special authority" on either side.

"I need someone to tell me what to do!"

No, you don't. You're a grown adult.

I have actually known women who, if someone invites them to go somewhere or do something they don't want to do, will ask their husbands to "forbid" them from doing whatever it is. Then they can say to the person asking, "Oh, I'm sorry, but I can't. My husband said no, and I have to obey him."

Although the above example is silly and perhaps a little extreme (though not fictitious!), the idea that women can't (or shouldn't) navigate the decision-making process on their own isn't uncommon in the church today. This is not a healthy way to live; in fact, it fosters dysfunction and co-dependence. Too many women think that a husband is a "Get Out of Decision-Making and Other Adult Responsibilities Free" card. Along the way, we've also picked up the notion that a wife's independence "emasculates" her husband, that it's demeaning to him somehow if she exercises her full mental and volitional capacity.

The reasoning for this still escapes me, but I do know it's not good for anyone involved. It denies the full humanity of the wife as a capable person created in the image of a highly intelligent God. It also places a heavy burden on the husband to do, by himself, work that was intended by God to be shared.

"But he's supposed to be a servant leader!"


I have to be honest and tell you: I don't have the highest opinion of the term "servant leader." It originally emerged in the 1970's as a secular organizational concept, but it's since been co-opted by the Christian subculture as a churchy nickname for "higher ranking person who cares about you, but still gets to tell you what to do." In this phrase, leader is the key word. Servant is just a modifier. Therefore, the focus is still on the position and power of authority, but wrapped in lofty terminology and benevolence.

The Bible doesn't mention servant leadership, although it leaves us in no doubt as to our obligations to others. We are to love one another as Christ loves us. We are to "wash one another's feet." We are to be faithful to our responsibilities. We are to encourage others toward love and good works. But -- according to Jesus -- none of that makes you a servant leader. It makes you... a servant.

If we're going to be honest, the authority aspect of this is really what most of us are about. How do I know? Re-brand any conference or training event for "servant leaders" as an event for "servants", and see how many people still show up.

"But my husband needs to lead me in my relationship with God."

"For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human" (1 Timothy 2:5). Most of us Christians have a pretty good grasp of the implications of this verse as it relates to salvation -- we understand that only Jesus can save us, and that we don't need to look to anyone else for help.

However, where sanctification is concerned, we're not too sure. Suddenly, depending only on Christ doesn't look like enough. We're convinced that making progress in our walk with God requires the good actions of someone else on our behalf: pastors, spiritual mentors, Sunday School teachers, devotional book authors...

Or husbands.

As I said yesterday, quite a few women are of this persuasion, and they're frantically expending emotional energy to ensure that their husband's spiritual walk is on par with or ahead of theirs. Or, if they're single, that they find someone who looks promising in this regard. But here's the thing: Even if you marry someone who seems perfect, who agrees with you on all matters of faith and practice, and who is "on fire for Jesus", it probably won't stay that way throughout your entire lives. After all, you're with this person for a lifetime. A lifetime is a long time, and time has a way of bringing about change. Sooner or later, one or both of you will experience a crisis of faith, or a personal revival, or "a season of wintertime in your relationship with God" (as I've heard some put it), or one spouse will catch a vision for something that the other takes longer to understand and accept.

The problem is that the traditional view of spiritual leadership makes no allowance for this ebb and flow of normal life. And it certainly doesn't account for the fact that disobedience to God is, unfortunately, the default state of being for some husbands. No, according to this school of thought, your husband is the next link in the chain between you and God, so if he fails somehow, then you're left stranded. Or, as some like to put it more delicately, "not experiencing God's best." Even more so if -- God forbid -- the two of you are separated through death or divorce.

This is not to say that we can go through the Christian life completely independent of anyone else, or that you shouldn't hope and pray that your spouse will seek God. But it will make a tremendous difference if you know that he is a fellow saint and sinner who is running the race alongside you, not in front of you. If he falls behind, you're free to see this event for what it is: his loss, and not something that holds you back. (I don't mean that it won't cause you suffering, only that his actions don't put a block between you and God.) Meanwhile, you depend on God -- and God only -- for His leading, for spiritual nourishment, and everything else. Trust me, there will be far less heartache and fewer unmet expectations that way.

Will the real Holy Spirit please stand up?

By way of summary I'll say that there is spiritual leadership in marriage, but the leader is the Spirit, not either of the marriage partners. And only God can bring about positive change. This, by the way, is my issue with the spiritual leadership definition I quoted in yesterday's post that says, "The fruit of a good biblically-based husband is a strong, confident, spiritually mature wife and family." In fact, spiritual maturity is evidenced by (you know the list): love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is the Fruit of the Spirit, not the Fruit of the Husband. It's high time to stop putting husbands in the place of God.

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