When Christians ponder the ongoing departure of men from the church, we have an unfortunate tendency to sound like Hillary Clinton pondering her failed presidential campaign. It’s understandable that Americans would vote against a candidate who holds them in such thinly veiled contempt. It should be just as understandable that men would avoid organizations that are obliviously contemptuous of males.
It’s an all-to common attitude many readers encountered in Ross Douthat’s “God and Men and Jordan Peterson” New York Times column this past Holy Saturday. His lament about Christianity’s gender gap begins with a curiously stilted take on the first Christians’ response to the crucifixion and resurrection:
The men fled; the women stayed.
That’s the story of Easter weekend in the New Testament. Most of Jesus’ male disciples vanished when the trouble started, leaving his mother and Mary Magdalene and other women to watch by the cross, prepare his body for his burial, and then (with the men still basically in hiding) find the empty tomb.
Male absence and female energy has also been the story, albeit less starkly and dramatically, of Christian practice in many times and places since.
As one blogger quickly pointed out, two key issues with Douthat’s presentation of the story highlight a disregard for men. First is the enormous factual error: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, both men, were actually the ones to prepare and bury Jesus’ body (John 19:38-42) while the women watched (Luke 23:55-56) and returned with additional spices several days later. Unlike Douthat, Mark the Evangelist is quite right to observe that Joseph “took courage” before going to the guy who just had Jesus executed and asking him for the corpse (Mark 15:43).
The second and larger point, however, is that all of Christ’s disciples were faithless regarding the resurrection. After all, men and women alike expected to find Jesus dead, no matter how many times he told them beforehand that he would rise. Angels gently chided the women who encountered the empty tomb: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise” (Luke 24:5-7).
Later that same day, Jesus admonishes two male disciples on the road to Emmaus: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26) There’s absolutely no merit in men and women keeping score here, since Jesus is the only one who earned any points on Easter Sunday.
So Why Did Douthat Frame Things Falsely?
Since he’s presumably read the gospels, then, one has to wonder why Douthat rendered the story in this erroneous and stilted way. Why put so much effort into twisting the narrative into such a pretzel just to take a cheap shot at men? Since I’d rather not engage in faux mind-reading, let’s ask a different question: how would one expect men to react to this kind of contempt?
Unless circumstances drive one to fight, the ordinary response to contempt is to create distance. Nobody wants to be around people who hold that attitude towards them, so they try to avoid such people. We saw this last year with the NFL. Numerous players began showing contempt for America during the national anthem, and Americans responded by watching less football and buying fewer tickets.
Even when one can’t help being around contemptuous people, one creates different kinds of distance. The henpecked husband, for example, increasingly retreats into work and hobbies to minimize dealings with his wife. It would be silly to think the same kind of dynamic wouldn’t happen in our congregations.
Accordingly, it is ironic that immediately after his swipe at men, Douthat goes on to detail men’s growing disengagement from various Christian churches. In religious identification, he notes “a 55-45 female-male split” among most branches of Christianity, with a slightly deeper split in African-American churches.
He also observes that other factors like frequency of prayer and belief in God show even deeper differences between men and women. While he does not settle on a specific cause for this discrepancy, Douthat does conclude that this must result from something unique to Christianity, due to the very different situations in Israel and among Muslims.
This Is Not at All Unique to Christianity
I’m forced to disagree. Male disengagement spans many different cultural institutions in an increasingly post-Christian West, not just our churches. We’ve long been observing the same kind of sex gap in higher education. According to recent numbers, women make up a 57.3 percent majority of college students. The academy hosts an even more virulent contempt for men, what with perpetual pontificating about so-called toxic masculinity, ongoing treatment of male students as larval rapists, and so forth.
People have likewise been observing for a while that many men are disengaging from careers and family. As I and others have pointed out, this disengagement is an unfortunately rational response to irrational changes in social incentives for men. Investing in family and home can be a hard sell when there’s a 50 percent chance that your family and home will be taken from you through divorce. And if there is no social respectability attached to being a good husband or father, many men fail to see the point in putting in the extra effort those roles require.
If this is a broader Western cultural phenomenon, then it’s probably not something unique to Christianity. Rather, this is an instance of churches absentmindedly following social trends instead of deliberately following God’s Word.
My point is not that worldliness in general or contempt for men in particular are the primary reasons for this gap. After all, church engagement is down across the board in the West for a variety of reasons. However, whether it’s a major or a minor contributor, Christians should care that Christ condemns worldliness in no uncertain terms.
Churches Need to Repent of Our Failures
Now, liberal churches don’t perceive this as an indictment. The whole point of theological liberalism was to “save” Christianity by baptizing fashionable politics. But among Christians who believe Christianity is actually true, this is a real problem, and our response must not be to ask how we can be better at hiding our contempt for men for the sake of fixing our stats. Our question needs to be how we can repent of it.
The first step is to recognize and repent of our fear. Like most Americans, American Christians are absolutely terrified of being labeled misogynist (and racist, homophobic, transphobic, etc.) Alas for them: popular culture judges anything contrary to feminism as misogynistic, and the Bible is by no means a feminist book.
So Christians “defend” the Bible by placarding a few passages that sound maybe-sort-of feminist (e.g. “Deborah!” “In Christ there is no male and female!”), while ignoring and even obfuscating all the passages that cannot possibly be reconciled with feminist philosophy (“Wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man”).
If we try to overcompensate in this fashion even on Scripture, how much more do we do so regarding the men in our midst? We already noted the attempt to elevate women by disparaging men in Douthat’s opinion piece, which is hardly uncommon.
American Pastors Frequently Disparage Men
We often get the same thing from the pulpit. For example, pastors using a Father’s Day sermon to disparage fathers is pretty common in American evangelicalism. For fun, I Googled “Father’s Day Sermons” and glanced through the top results. Leaving out the ads and sermon libraries that popped up, the first result began by noting few good men are left before including “The Men’s Thesaurus,” 17 “translations” of what men say that reveal what buffoons we supposedly are.
The introduction of the second one is careful to note, amidst a collection of jokes at dad’s expense, that “Maybe we’re not quite as sentimental about Father’s Day because, after all, most fathers are not as sensitive to children’s needs or alert to sentiment as mothers are.”
Next up was a pair of sermon ideas for Father’s Day. The first is the importance of forgiving fathers because so many are terrible. The second is inspired by a grandchild’s rhetorical question, “You’re a man; what do you know?” which the author believes is a great question because “Everything I know on this subject I learned from the women in my life or from reading.” (The “subject” was his previous observation that the pain of childbirth fades but the beautiful child remains.)
The first one that didn’t rely on cheap swipes at fathers was from 1986. And no, you do not generally see the same dynamic in Mother’s Day sermons.
You even get the same thing in popular Christian movies. Take “Mom’s Night Out,” for example. Even the critic at feminist Dame magazine was upset by how badly the men in the film were portrayed:
The moral of the story isn’t that the women are supposed to stay home and not have fun, but that the men are totally hapless morons without them around—and that this lesson is still being drilled into our heads in 2014. We’re supposed to feel better about this ‘men are total idiots, the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world’ philosophy (and that latter piece of wisdom was actually uttered in the movie in case you missed the point). But this story of the helpless manchild is a disservice to men—and families—everywhere.
When even feminists are saying “Hey, maybe your portrayal of men is too negative,” you know you’ve got issues.
The sad reality is that many Christians are terrified of the world’s judgment, and our fear makes us clumsy in our attempts to prevent it from passing sentence. We need to heed Christ’s warning: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” We also need to trust in God’s promise: “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” If Christ has overcome the world, why fear it?
Our Churches Neglect Half the Sexes’ Equation
When we repent of our fear, we can begin the second part of our repentance: teaching the whole counsel of God, as Paul describes it. We need to teach all of Jesus’ teachings, even the parts that make us really uncomfortable. To be sure, this is a big problem in the modern church in general, but for space sake I’ll focus here on contempt for men.
God’s instructions to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 is probably the most hated Bible passage in America. Without exception, both in church and at seminary, every time I have heard Ephesians 5 taught, the “husbands, love your wives” part was laid out straightforwardly with a healthy dose of shame for men who do not aspire to love their wives as Christ loves the church.
This is as it should be—flattery of men is not the solution here. Nevertheless, when those same teachers taught the part that instructs wives to submit to their husbands as unto Christ, they spent the entire time hedging—explaining nothing while piling up (often dubious) exceptions until submission had no tangible meaning at all. And that’s if they didn’t just gloss over it entirely.
This is poor instruction, particularly when we consider which part our culture is most apt to rebel against. If we teach the female half of our congregations that God’s instruction is to be carefully avoided, the male half is going to learn the same lesson—and they won’t be oblivious to the blatant hypocrisy.
Our churches similarly neglect God’s teaching on divorce. To our shame, while conservative Christians will usually stand firm against “liberal” sins (abortion, homosexuality, etc.) we’re less apt to address sins that involve most of the people in our congregations. This is true of many sins, but divorce is the big one of which men are disproportionately the victims.
After all, depending on what study you look at, between 60 and 80 percent of divorces are unilaterally carried out by wives against their husbands. While many Christian traditions recognize Christ’s exceptions of adultery and abandonment to his ban on divorce, these are by no means the most common reasons for divorce.
Once again, men notice this. It’s understandable that pastors are cautious in the way they address sins of this kind. Nevertheless, exaggerated sensitivity to perpetrators will always mean exaggerated insensitivity to the victims. If God’s law makes us uncomfortable, we should seek comfort in Christ’s death for our sins, not obscure the law.
Let’s be clear. As bad as all of this is, this is not a valid excuse for men to disengage from Jesus’ church. To those men who do avoid church for these reasons, I need to say this: God has attached his promises of life and salvation to the preaching of his word and to the sacraments, all of which you find at church. The sheer scale of these gifts outweighs any amount of contempt from contemporary Christian culture.
But to those of us in the church who have been contemptuous of men, let’s not be like Mrs. Clinton—oblivious to the way we treat the people who run away from us. Let Christians instead examine our behavior in light of the teachings of Jesus. And when we see how badly we have failed, let us repent instead of stubbornly persisting in our contempt.