In Search of Male Leadership: The Logical Inconsistency of Defining a Man’s Initiative in One Way and a Woman’s in Another

Recently I attended a conference on the theology of marriage hosted by Denver Seminary. Over lunch I had a brief conversation with one of the presenters, a megachurch pastor and chair of the theology department at a school in another state. 

We were talking about whether the differences between men and women have to do with leading and following or with something else. My discussion partner explained that he does lead his wife and that this is a very important aspect of manhood in general and his manhood in particular, since he views himself as the priest of his home. As an example of his leadership, he mentioned that he often says to his wife, “Let’s pray.” She usually does the praying, he noted, since she is better at it than he. But his point was that he is doing the leading by suggesting they pray.

This man’s wife is a college professor who also presented a paper at the conference. Obviously intelligent, capable, and accomplished, she was every bit as thoughtful and engaging as her husband. By all appearances the couple is happy and has worked out their relationship in a mutually satisfying way.

Frankly, though, I finished lunch scratching my head trying to figure out how a husband’s suggesting prayer is an example of male leadership. I wondered if it would be leadership if his wife was the one who proposed they pray or if he would call it a suggestion. Or would he describe his wife’s initiative as influence or even support for his leadership? Is making the suggestion to pray a role that only men may fill, though women are free to do most of the praying?

Mostly I’m perplexed by the many explanations of male leadership in marriage that I hear from those who promote a hierarchical view of things. The concept of “male authority” is easier to grasp, since it means a man is supposed to do what he thinks is right when there’s a disagreement. The husband should decide because that’s the way God set things up.

I find the notion of male leadership harder to pin down. Though I understand that most hierarchicalists connect leadership with initiative, my question is why this is viewed as a male trait.

Another example I ran across recently was propounded by a woman. She explained that a few weeks into her marriage her husband asked her to get up early and make breakfast for them. She didn’t see the point and resisted for years. 

After she finally gave in she realized how much starting their day together enhanced their marriage and family life. Now, she writes, she sees that her husband was “leading” her all along but she was refusing to follow that leadership. She goes on to explain how honoring others is a basic Christian principle since God’s word tells us to love our neighbor and look out for the interests of others, so deferring to her husband in this matter should not be considered strange. [1]

I have no argument with applying ideas of honoring others and loving our neighbors to marriage; I have been arguing for as much for some time. Of course we should defer to our spouse just as we are called to defer to other members of the body of Christ. A Christian couple is first of all brother and sister in Christ, after all, so all the principles of Christian community attend first and foremost within marriage. The point of those teachings, however, is that they go both ways. 

Yet here I have pretty much the same question I had with my first example: If the wife had been the one who knew the value of eating breakfast together and had asked her husband to join her for the morning meal, would that be leadership? Or would her initiative be defined as support, influence, or even helping her husband fulfill his leadership role? Or, let’s say he wasn’t interested, perhaps because he simply wasn’t used to eating in the morning or was anxious to get on the road. Would her request be considered nagging, especially if she asked him repeatedly as her husband had of her?

Let’s go a step farther: Would it be leadership if the wife asked her husband to make the meal because her employment required a lengthy commute but his did not? Or would it be considered inappropriate for her to ask him to cook or even just sit down to breakfast, especially if she knew it was something he did not want to do?

In other words, is a particular behavior “leadership” when it arises from a man and something else when it comes from a woman?

However male leadership may be defined by hierarchicalists, apparently Christian men aren’t doing it. Another presenter at the marriage conference said that over his forty years of pastoral ministry women complaining of passive husbands outnumbered those who were dealing with abusive ones “a hundred to one.” 

His point was that the real problem with men is not abuse, but that they are not stepping up. We should never discourage men from being the leaders in their homes just because an extremely small number of husbands take things too far, he seemed to be saying. Vastly more Christian men are passive than domineering and abusive.

What is going on with this scenario? For forty years this pastor taught men that it is their “role” to take the lead yet, at least as far as their wives can discern, they are not doing so. Why is that? Are Christian men passive and irresponsible? Is something out of kilter with guys or have we simply set ourselves up for failure by feeding husbands and wives a tale of “male leadership” that eludes definition? 

I agree that men should step up and take initiative. No one is saying they shouldn’t. Neither is anyone saying that wives shouldn’t get behind their husbands. Good wives love it when their husbands step up and love supporting that initiative. Those aren’t the issues.

The issue here is why so many wives complain their husbands aren’t taking initiative and whether it’s more a matter of misdirected expectations. My thought is that the Evangelical emphasis on male leadership over the past generation may have had the opposite effect, paralyzing men and keeping them from working out life’s problems in partnership with their wives. 

If experience is any indicator, men are more likely to step up in marriages characterized by mutuality than in those that follow rigid gender roles. I don’t know if it’s because their comfort level is increased when they don’t feel the pressure to make so many “final” decisions, or if they simply have a greater sense of accountability to their wife in a marriage of equals. 

Either way, my experience is that men take more initiative – sometimes a lot more – when they let go of being the one and only leader. Wives do better too, stepping up, solving problems, and working together with their husbands rather than burdening them with unreasonable demands or even fighting against them. And, before long, the couple has settled into a comfortable pattern of initiative-taking that leaves neither spouse overburdened or overlooked.

Tim and Anne Evans, after counseling hundreds of struggling couples for decades, agree that this over-emphasis on male leadership may actually be the cause of a lot of male passivity.

Many church leaders default to telling husbands they do not lead right, pray enough, parent the kids well, lead in devotions enough, manage the finances effectively, or provide the spiritual cover they are responsible to provide over their wives. 

Our experience is many husbands get frustrated and desert – they may check out emotionally, physically, spiritually – and others just give up. Regrettably, some husbands get so discouraged, they reach the conclusion that I’ll never be the spiritual leader my wife wants and church leaders say I’m supposed to be, so why bother? And they invest their time and energy in other interests.[2]

Part of the reason may be that societal changes have made a man’s risk-free exercise of leadership obsolete. In previous generations a man could walk in the door, announce he had resigned from the Navy or was running for political office, as former President Jimmy Carter did, without it once crossing his mind that he ought to consult his wife before taking such steps. A man could simply do what he thought best, no questions asked.

That world has long since vanished, at least in the West. Nowadays wives are more likely to speak their minds, push back, and resist decisions that do not consider their needs or have not been properly thought through. In his book A Full Life Jimmy Carter says that he now finds it inconceivable that it did not occur to him to consult Rosalynn before giving up a good income to try to make a living out of farming or forever sacrificing his family’s privacy by going into public service. 

The challenge for men with the way things are now is that taking initiative is accompanied by deep risks: the risk of his wife’s resistance, the risk of his wife having a better idea, the risk of her unhappiness about what he wants to do, the risk of being viewed as incompetent. Yet the Bible never teaches that the husband has to have all the answers or is the only one who ought to be hearing from God and suggesting solutions. We have put way too much pressure on men and restricted women far too much. 

Through their highly successful marriage counseling service Tim and Anne Evans have discovered that couples do best when they understand their union as one of co-leadership. They base this view of marriage on two facts: the dominion mandate was given equally to the man and woman in Gen. 1:28, and male dominance only comes into play after the fall.

Let’s go back to my final example and turn the tables one last time: What if it happens to be the wife who is being passive and irresponsible? Would her passivity, her refusal to pull her weight, take initiative, or solve problems be considered a lack of leadership? Or would it be identified as a lack of submission to her husband’s leadership? 

I suspect that for those who promote a hierarchical view of marriage her behavior would never be considered a lack of leadership. Rather, it would somehow or other be tied to submission. 

So there you go. Looking at typical illustrations, my search for a definition of male leadership seems futile. Exactly the same behavior is defined in opposite terms, depending on whether it arises from a woman or a man. Though I try, I cannot make sense of the concept from the examples I am given.

And I find that fully illogical.

[1] Emily Jensen, “Wives, Honor Your Husband’s Preferences,” The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, November 13, 2015, https://cbmw.org/topics/marriage-public-square/wives-honor-your-husbands-preferences/

[2] Tim and Anne Evans, Together: Reclaiming Co-Leadership in Marriage (Colorado Springs: Real Life MInistries, 2014) 155-56.

What I Learned from the "Perfect" Wife: Sarah, Abraham and 1 Peter 3:1-6

I’ve mentioned this here before, but my marriage went through a radical transformation a number of years ago. For a long time my husband and I tried to work out our relationship according to traditional “biblical marriage” teachings, with him “leading” and me “submitting.”

We were committed to this path since we thought it was the only “biblical” way, even though we ended up far more frustrated than happy. Then about ten years ago we went through a crisis that brought all of our unhealthy relational patterns to the surface. At that point we either had to figure out how to change or face the possibility of losing everything we had worked toward for so long.

After a couple of years of struggle we did end up successfully changing not only our marital dynamics but also our fundamental conception of what a Christian marriage ought to look like. A big part of this process entailed my realizing how I had listened to the wrong voices and embraced the wrong ideas. I found it difficult to change, but in the end it was more than worth it. My life, my marriage, and my heart have been transformed in a beautiful way.

Just not in the way you might assume. Continue reading “What I Learned from the "Perfect" Wife: Sarah, Abraham and 1 Peter 3:1-6”

Five Reasons I Don’t See Male Authority in Genesis 1-3

I recently recorded another podcast with Dr. Juli Slattery, cofounder of Authentic Intimacy and author of Rethinking Sexuality. This time the discussion was about husbands and wives who control their spouses. The other guest that day was Dr. Ron Welch, a counseling professor at Denver Seminary and author of The Controlling Husband.

Our topic was prompted by this response to an earlier podcast Juli had done with the Welches about how Ron had overcome his tendency to be a controlling husband.

Juli, I would love to hear you discuss this topic, with the added element of spiritual abuse. My husband sounds so much like Dr. Welch, except he also acts as the voice of God in my life. He accuses me of resisting God, of being unsaved and not the kind of woman God esteems, etc. I’m in counseling and have had a pastor friend reach out to him, but he refuses to consider marriage counseling or meeting with a pastor. He says I’m unempowered by God because I’m seeking outside help.[1]

Continue reading “Five Reasons I Don’t See Male Authority in Genesis 1-3”

Adam and Eve Didn’t Reverse Roles

Some of you who read my post A Bad Decision and the Fallacy of the Role Reversal Argument had questions about the whole idea of a role reversal. What I want to do today is explain how Genesis 3 is interpreted to get the idea and how this position misses the point.

In case you haven’t heard, “role reversal” is basically the idea that Adam and Eve sinned by reversing their God-ordained gender roles. Eve wanted to be in charge and Adam didn’t.

Bingo. Roles reversed.

To help you understand this perspective first-hand, I will refer to what is probably the most thorough defense of the position, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship: Genesis 1-3,” by Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., commenting as I go along.[1] Ortlund’s article progresses in two phases: 1) Genesis 1-3 establishes male authority over women; and 2) Adam and Eve sinned by reversing their roles.

In this post I’m going to respond to the idea of role reversal. In my next I will rebut the perspective that headship means authority. Continue reading “Adam and Eve Didn’t Reverse Roles”

A Bad Decision and the Fallacy of the Role Reversal Argument

Now and then my husband and I make a bad decision. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Sometimes it’s one we arrive at together, sometimes it’s his decision, and sometimes it’s mine.

Recently we made a killer of a bad business decision.

The painful consequences of our fecklessness prompted Jim and me to reflect on our decision-making process and how we can improve it. Our bottom line: we didn’t work together the way we should have. We need to improve our commitment to sharing our gut-level hesitations with each other, to taking more time in conversation before signing on the dotted line.

One thing that never crossed our mind, however, was that our bad decision was due to a role reversal. In other words, we don’t believe that if I would just stay out of it, Jim would make terrific decisions. Continue reading “A Bad Decision and the Fallacy of the Role Reversal Argument”

Domestic Abuse, A Second-Class Wife, and a Bible Horror Story

Sometimes reading the Bible will make you sick. Unflinchingly honest about man’s inhumanity to man, there is more than one narrative that is nearly impossible to stomach. We are left wondering how and why such horrors came to be and, in our disgust, prefer to look the other way. We tell ourselves we don’t need to study these passages, since we would never do such things.

Of course not.

So we move on.

Yet if we skip the ugly stories we miss what God wants to say to us through them, how he wants to warn our minds of their dullness, open our eyes to their carelessness, awaken our hands to their blindness.

The account of the Levite and his second-class wife, found in Judges 19-21, is one of those. I know its general purpose in the Old Testament is to explain what in the world happened to the tribe of Benjamin, once so strong and powerful. But I am convinced its purpose for our hearts goes much deeper than that.[1]

Continue reading “Domestic Abuse, A Second-Class Wife, and a Bible Horror Story”

Rethinking Christian Marriage

Most people I know have an intuitive sense that men and women are equally capable and that in the best marriages they work together as a team. Yet many of these same individuals assume that it is God’s plan for the man to be in charge, based on the fact that the Bible commands wives to submit to husbands in a way that it does not require of husbands.

They believe it was God who established this patriarchal, hierarchical system of marriage.

I don’t fault my friends, though, since I thought the same thing for a very long time. I thought it, I taught it, I lived it. I wouldn’t have couched it in precisely those terms, but I was convinced that the Bible gave men the authority in marriage.

What hadn’t occurred to me was how the Bible’s instructions on marriage compare to the ones about government and employment, how we understand and apply those commands, and how that ought to instruct the way we understand the marriage teachings.

It was time for me to rethink Christian marriage.

Continue reading “Rethinking Christian Marriage”
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