By now, many of you have heard about the controversy that has erupted in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) about how women have been treated by Southern Baptist leaders. It is a subject that I had no intention of addressing. I am an ordained Southern Baptist minister who has deep reservations about the denomination’s complementarian theology. The last thing that I need is to have attention drawn to this area of nonconformity. Moreover, I worry that all of us in American society have become addicted to our outrage. In my experience, outrage is great for motivating action, but it is not a suitable foundation for genuine listening or wise decision-making.
Nevertheless, the urgency of the moment compels me to speak out. The SBC is the largest evangelical denomination in the United States. All of us who consider ourselves to be evangelical Protestants (and even some who stand outside of Protestantism but who appreciate the evangelical commitment to orthodoxy) will be judged by how Southern Baptists respond to the concerns expressed by their female leaders. And that response has to be less about optics and personnel and more about a genuine change in culture.
The Role of Men
So how do we bring about this culture change? It starts with the attitudes and behaviors of individual men. We have to take responsibility for the culture that we create, and doing so will require us to do some things that may not come naturally to us.
First of all, we need to commit ourselves to being genuine brothers in Christ to the women that God places in our lives. This is especially important when we are single or when we are a church leader. What does it mean to be a brother? It means that we love the women around us sacrificially, that we work to promote their interests and protect their well-being, and that we provide them with social and emotional support in times of crisis. This is not to say that we treat them paternalistically; that would produce the opposite result of what we are trying to achieve. Rather, it is to say that we work on their behalf to promote their good—and we hope that they will do the same for us.
One benefit of building authentic sibling relationships with the women that God brings into our lives is that it gives us practice for when we do become husbands. As we will see below, the skills we learn as single men are even more important when God blesses us with a wife. More importantly, building these kinds of relationships helps us to see women as more than objects for our enjoyment. We will return to this topic in a moment.
A second thing that we can do as individual men is to develop our conversation skills. Conversation involves listening and sharing. Listening is important because it allows us to learn more about the women in our lives and about how our attitudes and actions affect them. Sharing is important because it gives us an opportunity to help women understand how we see the world and to explain to our sisters in Christ why we do some of the things that we do.
Mutual understanding is vital to the creation of a culture that is safe, welcoming, and healing for everyone. This is especially true when the issue under consideration is deeply personal. Men are visual creatures, and it is almost impossible for them to interact with women without noticing their physical features. So, they sometimes feel as though they are being criticized for something that they cannot help doing. For their part, women often feel violated by the way that men look at them, speak about them, or act towards them. Even apart from these feelings, women often feel conscientious about their appearance. They sometimes wonder if the men that they encounter care more about how they look than they do about who they are.
As men and women share their concerns with one another—in the context of Christ’s call to love and holiness—opportunities present themselves for genuine understanding and lasting change. As women come to understand the challenges of being a man in the modern world, they have the opportunity to give their brothers advice about which behaviors are acceptable and which ones make them feel unappreciated or even unsafe. As men come to understand the challenges of being a woman in the modern world, they receive motivation for doing the right things and avoiding the wrong things.
In order for such conversations to take place—and for cultures to be transformed—men have to recognize the unbiblical ways that they have viewed women and allow the gospel to transform these faulty interpretive frameworks. Too often, men have viewed women either as objects of sexual desire or as artifacts of divine artistry. The second is clearly better than the former, but both are problematic because they deny women their full humanity. Only when we see women as fully human will we treat them as they deserve to be treated.
The Role of Husbands
The task of creating a culture of respect for women in church life begins with every man who walks the halls of a church, but it is especially the responsibility of those men who stand in covenant relationship with a particular woman. Husbands have a special responsibility to their wives, but this responsibility has often been overlooked or misunderstood.
Ephesians 5:15-33 articulates the responsibilities that husbands and wives have to one another within the context of what it means to be a genuine follower of Jesus. Christians are not supposed to be foolish, self-centered people who are oblivious to the evil around them. Rather, they are supposed to be filled with God’s Spirit, which, in turn, is supposed to result in wise living that takes every opportunity to manifest Christ’s reign and proclaim his message.
What does that Spirit-filled life look like? It looks like men and women worshiping God together and thereby spurring one another on to union with Christ. It also looks like men and women showing genuine respect for one another—so much so, in fact, that they are willing to put aside their own needs, their own agendas, and their own desires in order to see that the needs, agendas, and desires of others are fulfilled (as long as, of course, they conform to the will of God). Men and women do not leave this context of shared worship and mutual respect when they marry; they become examples of that God-inspired cultural framework for the rest of the congregation where they worship and serve.
At this point, complementarians and egalitarians divide on how the passage should be interpreted, and that is not a debate that I wish to engage here. Rather, I want those of us who are husbands to think about why Jesus—who is our model in the paradigm that Paul sets up—does what he does. In vv. 26-27, Paul tells us that Christ sacrifices for the church in order to accomplish two things: 1) to cleanse the church of anything that detracts from its beauty, and 2) to make the church utterly holy and utterly beautiful. In other words, Christ’s goal is nothing short of complete transformation that results in it becoming the best version of itself.
Now, does this have anything to do with marriage, or is this part of the analogy that does not apply (cf. v. 32)? After all, husbands cannot atone for the sins of their wives, can they? No, they cannot. But they can have an attitude that is focused on bringing the best out of their wives rather than on keeping their wives in check. Husbands can, and should, be the biggest champions and cheerleaders for their wives as they seek to become all that God has called them to be. After all, this is what it means to love as Christ loved (cf. vv. 29-30).
Let me be both clear and emphatic about how this works itself out in my own marriage. I zealously guard my wife’s right and responsibility to speak to God’s people as the Spirit gives her wisdom and gifting. She does not speak often in a public, ecclesiastical setting, but when she does, I do not permit other men to silence her simply because she is a woman. And I am especially intolerant of men who are less trained in theology and/or the social sciences than she is but who wish to denigrate her experience, education, or giftedness simply because she is a woman.
And here is the interesting part. My wife is more comfortable with complementarian theology than I am. Why? One reason is because I insist that she read the Bible for herself and bring what she finds to our relationship, but another reason is undoubtedly because she knows that I have her back. She can live with confidence as the woman that God has called her to be because I am more than willing to sacrifice my reputation, preferences, and power in order to see her thrive.
So far, we have discussed how men in general and husbands in particular can work to build a more affirming culture for women in the church. Next week, we are going to turn our attention to the role that congregations and denominations need to play in this process of culture transformation. In the meantime, I hope that you will take a serious and prayerful look at your own life. Are you a force for good in the lives of women in your church, or are the women that God has brought into your life afraid of you? Perhaps you can even take the bold step of inviting some trusted women to speak truth into your life. Be prepared to listen, even if what you hear hurts. And be prepared to change.