28 December 2017

The Mirage of Spiritual Leadership


The Complementarian Marriage Wish Lists reminded me that I had more -- a lot more! -- to say on the topic of "spiritual leadership" in marriage. No time like the present to get that out of the way!

The complementarian obsession with husbands "leading spiritually" is a belief that is both incredibly strong yet surprisingly unexamined. It's a lot like a mirage: If you've ever seen one, you know what I'm talking about.

Mirages look so real. Like smoke, they appear to have substance at first. When you see one, you almost think you could reach out and grab hold of it. But when you move toward it to inspect it up close, it disappears. Dries up, evaporates -- vanishes. Mirages are quite common in the desert, and many desert travelers have died of heat exhaustion or thirst while chasing after optical illusions that they mistook for a life-giving body of water. The mirage gave them hope, but it was false hope. They counted on something that looked good from a distance, but up close, turned out to be nothing at all.

The notion of "spiritual leadership" behaves much the same way as a mirage does. From a comfortable distance, it really looks like something. People stake their lives, their marriages, and their ministries on it. But move a little closer, subject it to examination -- and you'll see it disappear, fast.

So what does Scripture say about spiritual leadership in marriage? Well, the Biblical justification for this concept is kind of hard to pin down. It appears to be based on a conglomeration of (misused, misinterpreted and/or taken out of context) verses speaking of the woman as the man's helper (Genesis 2:18), the man as "the head of the woman" (1 Corinthians 11:3), and/or the submission of wives (Ephesians 5:22-23). There isn't really one single passage that you can point to and say, "This is where we get this doctrine." It seems to stem from an overall impression people get when they read the Scriptures through a patriarchal (male authority-based) lens. And that, unfortunately, is a worldview problem. As such, the process of debunking the spiritual leadership myth isn't quite as straightforward as simply talking your way through a few misunderstood Bible verses. If, however, we start to experience a shift in our thinking to understand that patriarchal rule and human hierarchy isn't in fact God's best plan for how His people should live, then "spiritual leadership" becomes a moot point almost instantaneously. (In the meantime, though, I've included some links to pages that explain the egalitarian understanding of the verses above.)

But there's another issue, one that nobody talks about: There's no widespread consensus as to what, exactly, a "spiritual leader" is. This isn't the first time I've pointed this out, but if you ask five different people for their definition, you'll likely get five different answers. In fact, you don't even have to go to that much trouble: Google "husband is the spiritual leader" and you'll see what I mean. Here's a sampling:

He must have a strong connection with his Heavenly Father, finding his happiness in Christ first, realizing that he can lead effectively only if he maintains an intimate relationship with the Lord. He must be balanced in his commitments and nurturing in his concern for the mental and emotional needs of each family member. He must be proactive, spotting potential challenges to the welfare of his wife and children and coming up with workable solutions to problems. And he must be characterized by integrity, seeking to be the safest, wisest, and most respected man his family has ever known. (Focus on the Family)

Leadership simply means influence. Therefore, a biblically-based husband should influence his family... They should exemplify, with their voice and their actions, attributes that bring glory to God and value to their spouse and family. The fruit of a good biblically-based husband is a strong, confident, spiritually mature wife and family. 

I think we have heard too much from radio programs like Focus on the Family or from pastors up at the front of the church about the importance of spiritual leaders, and giving the example of a man who leads family devotions after dinner or who gathers the family to pray. I am not saying this is wrong; I think it’s wonderful. But I think it’s set up this expectation that a spiritual leader is someone who does those particular things. And I don’t believe that is true... A spiritual leader simply means that he sets the tone for the family, and that ultimately he is responsible before God for the spiritual condition of his family. (Sheila Wray Gregoire)

Remember, it's a husband who ought to initiate this [reading the Scriptures and praying together]. "A man may not be a vocational theologian," says Doug Wilson, author of Reforming Marriage. "But in his home, he needs to be the resident theologian." (Cru)

That is the main issue, a sense of responsibility that moves the man to take initiatives in the family so that God’s will is done as much as possible by every member of the family.... It includes things like taking initiatives with lifestyle issues for the family, like what are we going to do with social media and television and entertainment and leisure and sports and vacations..... the husband should feel a special responsibility to lead the family in a pattern of prayer and Bible reading and worship. (John Piper)

My big mistake early on was thinking that spiritual leadership meant you have devotions each day. I didn't realize that a man can give spiritual leadership in all kinds of other ways just by the interaction he has with his children. If he is pointing his children to Christ, and to the Scripture, then he is giving spiritual leadership. It doesn't have to just be in a formal Bible study. (FamilyLife.com)

I could keep going, but I think you get the idea. And these are just the top half dozen Google search results! Here, we have several answers saying that the husband/father initiating family Bible reading and prayer is a nonnegotiable. We have several more answers saying exactly the opposite, that to believe this is a mistake. We have other answers staying in comfortably vague territory with terms like "intimate relationship with the Lord", "influence", and "exemplifying attributes that bring glory to God." We even have the suggestion that spiritual leadership extends right down to the nitty gritty of deciding "what are we going to do with" the family's social media and leisure time.

Why the confusion? If spiritual leadership is one of the critical absolutes for the Christian life, don't you think it's strange that it seems to be up to everybody to decide for themselves what it is? Is it really too much to ask that we define our terms before we use them (and build theological frameworks that are supposed to inform major life decisions like marriage)?

That said, there is a common thread of understanding in all the above responses: A husband has greater authority and responsibility before God than does his wife, despite disagreement as to how that should work out practically.

Here's where it's really necessary to slow down and think this through carefully.

Do we realize that if we give credence to this idea, then the next logical step is to accept that every married man's relationship with God should, ideally, be stronger and deeper than that of every married woman? (After all, a leader has to be "in front" in order to lead, doesn't he?) Furthermore, every Christian woman who is "single and looking" must ascertain that all prospective partners are more devoted to Christ than she herself is -- otherwise, it's really not advisable for her to get married.

Can I point out that quantifying the level of someone else's commitment to Christ is pretty much impossible, since it requires an inside view of their heart? (Yes, there are outward clues, but appearances can be deceiving! I'm sure we can all think of at least one person whom we thought was on solid ground spiritually, and then we were shocked to discover that was far from being the case.)

There are millions, perhaps billions, of Christians on planet Earth right now. A huge proportion of that population is married or of marriageable age. Can we comprehend that all of the men being stronger in their faith than all of the women is, at bare minimum, a statistical impossibility?

Ah, but you say, the husband doesn't have to be more spiritually mature than his wife. He is just the one held responsible. His wife might be the stronger of the two, but he is nevertheless the one whom God will hold accountable for his family's spiritual health. What about that?

Well, for the sake of argument, let's say that's true. In that case, since the husband is accountable to God no matter what, he has two choices: He can either act as a leader (rather than simply occupying the position of one in name only), or not. If he takes the first option, then it would seem that he does in fact have to be the stronger Christian, especially if he shares part of the responsibility for his wife's spiritual condition. I just can't see this working any other way, given what we know about how greater leadership responsibility entails being held to a stricter standard (James 3:1). Not to mention the mess that would result from him attempting to make decisions for his family and oversee their spiritual development, if he isn't putting in special effort over and above the rest of them.

So really, the only practicable option is for the husband to be stronger as the leader. I think there's good Biblical support for the idea that God requires much of those to whom He gives much (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 12:35-48), so simply hiding behind a title won't cut it.

This brings up the thorny problem of what the wife is expected to do if her husband isn't leading. If you're still unconvinced up to this point, here's where it gets really good.

My aforementioned Google search brought up a number of Christian "Q&A" type pages in which women write and ask, "How can I help my husband take on spiritual leadership?" and "How can I motivate my husband to get right with God and become the spiritual leader of our family?" The web page authors respond with helpful hints such as: she can place a Bible next to her husband's place at the dinner table, or she can suggest he lead them in prayer.

These women are in the rather interesting position of having no choice (in their minds) but to try to influence their husbands to be leaders. The advocates of male spiritual leadership are more than happy to provide her with suggestions as to how she can do this, which I naturally take to mean that they see nothing wrong with her asking the question. Yet according to the above explanations which state that a spiritual leader is the family's "person of influence", the person taking the initiative to "make sure God's will is done by every member of the family", then that would make these women... spiritual leaders! 

These wives are, quite literally, leading their husbands to be leaders, all because God (supposedly) has forbidden them to be leaders. 

And no one thinks this is the least bit strange or illogical. No one thinks this is evidence of a double standard.

It boggles the mind.

Or, here's an enlightening exercise. Take anyone's definition of spiritual leader and change the pronouns to make it about women -- for example, Focus on the Family's. Now it reads like this: "She must have a strong connection with her Heavenly Father, finding her happiness in Christ first, realizing that she can lead effectively only if she maintains an intimate relationship with the Lord. She must be balanced in her commitments and nurturing in her concern for the mental and emotional needs of each family member. She must be proactive, spotting potential challenges to the welfare of her husband and children and coming up with workable solutions to problems. And she must be characterized by integrity, seeking to be the safest, wisest, and most respected woman her family has ever known."

Aside from the bit about leading, would Focus on the Family (or any Christian organization or individual, for that matter) take issue with this statement -- for example, with a wife having an intimate relationship with the Lord, or nurturing her family? Absolutely not. However! A wife can exhibit the very same spiritual fruit as her husband, but -- for whatever reason, God only knows -- this does not make her a "spiritual leader." It makes her a godly woman, certainly, or a "virtuous" woman, or even "a good example"... but not a leader.

Or how about this one? "A biblically-based wife should influence her family...  She should exemplify, with her voice and her actions, attributes that bring glory to God and value to her spouse and family."

Again, no problem! The Christian book market is flooded with books for women that contain the same message in almost the very same words. But, as before: in a woman's case, these are evidences of salvation, not of leadership. In a man, they evidence both salvation and leadership. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. But I do know this: Fruit of the Spirit for Men vs. Fruit of the Spirit for Women is a distinction of which Scripture knows nothing.

Hopefully it's becoming apparent that the attempt to describe "spiritual leadership" in coherent terms is a self-defeating effort. I even have to wonder if all the complementarian hoopla about spiritual leadership is a smokescreen to distract us from the real truth:

A "spiritual leader" has but one primary qualification: he possesses external genitalia. I hate to be crass, but if we're going to be honest with ourselves, this is really what it boils down to. Which means that "spiritual leadership" has everything to do with a person's private parts and little or nothing to do with their character.

At this point, another group comes to mind. A group in the New Testament that was overly concerned with their... er... male members, shall we say, and the ways in which these supposedly afforded them special privileges. (Hint: it was the pro-circumcision Judaizers.) If you've ever read the books of Romans or Galatians, you may recall that the Holy Spirit, through the Apostle Paul, was not exactly affirming of this nonsense.

I can't help but wonder what he would say to our churches today.

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