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Newsletter #34: Building Up Our Churches Means Building Up Our Pastors
Welcome back to the Masculinist, the monthly newsletter about Christianity and Masculinity.
A Father’s Day Exhortation
Sunday is Father’s Day. So congratulations and best wishes to all you dads out there. Fatherhood is a noble calling.
If you are a pastor I’d like to strongly encourage you to unconditionally honor fathers on this day. Too often Father’s Day at church is a time when fathers are critiqued or spoken of as a source of harm.
To help you understand this, imagine if on a holiday called Pastor’s Appreciation Day, someone at your church got up and prayed the following prayer right in front of you: “Lord, we thank you for our pastors and all they do for us. Please bless them on this Pastor’s Appreciation Day. Lord, we also pray for all those for whom the word ‘pastor’ is a source of pain – those whose pastor molested them, those who were lied to or betrayed by pastors. Lord, please be with them and bring them peace and healing on this day.”
I think you’d be taken aback if this happened. But I’ve heard the version of this prayer aimed at fathers on Father’s Day several times. Now that I am a father, it especially doesn’t feel good to hear it. There’s a time for calling out fathers, but this day isn’t it.
I would propose a simple rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t say it about mothers on Mother’s Day, don’t say it about fathers on Father’s Day. Please make this Father’s Day one of unconditional honors to the fathers in your congregation.
Thank you for considering this.
A Follow-Up on White Knighting
I got a number of great notes in response to Masc #33 on white knighting. A female reader wrote to say:
Stories of white knighting where the man also just happens to always be attractive anyways remind me of all the “strong is the new beautiful” language about women – where all the women shown also just happen to be very beautiful! No one wants to see an ugly Captain Marvel or Wonder Woman. It’s like this cultural inversion of the emperor’s new clothes where the emperor DOES have something that everyone’s pretending he doesn’t have.
And a male reader says:
I’m 31 and have been married for almost a year now to an amazing woman. She definitely has her act together and is the highest quality. I love her very much. But when I was in my 20’s, I definitely fell into the White Knight role. But my reasons for doing so were internal and different than what you’ve laid out. I agree with your analysis and wanted to share my experience with these issues. Perhaps a lot of men deal with the same dating issues as I did.
I played the White Knight role because I was scared to death of not having anyone and being alone. As a result, I would date anyone who showed interest. My bar was pretty low. I dated women with broken families and traumatic experiences because I thought I wanted to save them. They were all Christians and nice people but ironically, these weren’t the things I was attracted to. I was just trying to save myself from the loneliness I felt I could not bear. I believed if I could fix them, this would in some way fix my issues and validate my existence! It would prove I was worth something. I was never really interested in them. I was interested in how they could be used to fix my insecurity. It makes sense that someone with this mindset would attract women who are damsels in distress. It never ended well.
The white knight issue is definitely an issue. I think one addition I would make to your article is that the motives of the white knight are not always purely about saving the girl. Sometimes the knight is trying to save himself through the girl. This led me into a lot of the pitfalls you describe so well.
Building Up Our House
I always stress that I’m a social and cultural critic, not a theologian, but in this issue I am going to give a few theological viewpoints because I can’t see an easy way to avoid it.
This issue talks about what we should do when we think our churches are getting something important wrong. I have subscribers from many denominations, but in this issue I am specifically addressing Protestants. I don’t know enough about the Catholic and Orthodox norms to speak here, although I know they both have long histories of reformist traditions to draw on.
In the Masculinist I’ve strongly criticized the church’s teachings on gender, and have cited a number of the biggest names out there as offenders. I have discussed some of what they teach, why it is wrong, what the negative implications are, and provided more accurate replacement views. I haven’t comprehensively covered everything – and wouldn’t claim that they are wrong on everything either – but I’ve gone through some fairly important items, such as the basics of attraction.
Chances are that your own pastor teaches the bad ideas that I’ve addressed here. So how should you think about that and what should you do about it?
My general approach is based around Proverbs 14:1, which says, “The wise woman builds her house, but the foolish tears it down with her own hands.” This is a good principle that’s applicable to men as well and in a variety of contexts other than the home. And there’s a roughly analogous text aimed at men in Ephesians 5:28-30, which says, “So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body.”
It’s impossible to build up the family by tearing down husbands and fathers. Similarly, we can’t build up our church if we are tearing down our pastor.
When we find ourselves addressing some family conflict or similar situation, we keep in mind that our ultimate goal is for our family to be strong and healthy. We should seek to resolve the immediate dispute in light of that higher-level goal. We might easily “win” an immediate conflict but in a way that does long term relational damage to our marriage or our connection with our children.
Similarly, we want to be building up a stronger, healthy church for us to attend over time. So we need to keep that in mind as we navigate the various relationships within it, including our relationship with our pastor and how we approach disagreement.
The Rank and File Pastor
In my experience, the average pastor is a sincere, basically solid guy. I was raised in a rural, fundamentalist, Pentecostal church. And while Pentecostalism is not my cup of tea, I greatly admire the pastor there (who is still around). The Holy Spirit is genuinely at work in that place, in the truest sense of the word, in that it has seen more lives radically changed for the better than at every other church I’ve attended put together.
I’ve attended four churches in four different cities as an adult. My pastor in Chicago was a Moody Bible Institute guy (basically an Arminian Baptist). My Reformed pastor in Providence was the smartest theologian I’ve ever known personally. In Indianapolis my pastor had attended a Reformed seminary, but was avowedly neo-Anabaptist in his ministry approach. Today I attend a Presbyterian church in New York with a pastor who is from an elite Ivy League background.
I don’t have the greatest diversity of experience, but I have some, and I’d rate all of these men highly. I trust in their sincerity and goodwill towards me, and feel that everything they’ve taught is what they honestly believed to be true. Of all of the teachings I received as an adult, I can only think of a handful of substantive items I have ultimately rejected.
I also went through the worst three-year period of my life by far with some of these men, a time from which I’m not yet fully recovered, truth be told. Essentially nothing at all went right in any domain of my life during those years. It’s like my own personal Chinatown. But while some of their teaching and advice turned out very badly for me, that wasn’t because it was wrong or bad. It was mostly, if not entirely, pretty good. (I learned the hard way that even objectively good advice can lead to disaster, which is one reason I’m so hesitant to frame anything I saw as direct advice). But even after a long period of bad experiences, I still look back at them positively.
You’ll have to make your own judgment about your own situation, but assuming you’ve done some level of diligence on where you attend church, my default assumption would be that you have a decent man for a pastor. That’s my assumption of husbands and fathers too, by the way. Many of us, husbands, fathers, pastors, may need to level up, but doesn’t mean everyone is a total failure or loser right now.
If your pastor is putting out many of the incorrect beliefs I’ve critiqued in the Masculinist, the first thing to keep in mind is that it’s overwhelmingly likely that he is simply repeating what he was taught in seminary or heard from other, bigger name people or simply absorbed from secular culture. This is actually healthy in many respects. I want my pastor to hew close to what has traditionally been taught and what was passed down to him. We don’t need theological innovation. We do not have a faith that is new. But if somebody gets bad information, that can be a problem.
The key is that it’s highly unlikely an ordinary church pastor is teaching something that he has reason to believe isn’t true. In my experience, most of these folks have never even encountered a different viewpoint, except for rival theological treatments that their tradition has already considered and rejected.
The second thing to keep in mind is that changing his mind is likely to be a difficult undertaking no matter what you do. These beliefs on gender are analogous to political beliefs in some respects. And how often does someone change his political beliefs because of new information? Almost never.
Third, these pastors are part of a community with others in their tradition, maybe even part of a tribe within a denomination. Adopting a position different from the group risks relationships, and even their future career path. Realistically, even if you did convince your pastor there is a problem, it’s going to be very difficult for many of them to go against the party line.
Finally, speaking the truth on these matters is risky and could create a lot of blowback. Just as a simple example, keep in mind that in today’s world, the people sitting in the pews are reading books, listening to podcasts, etc. from various big name people. So if their pastor starts teaching something different, they may get angry or push back, citing what they think is a superior authority. Most pastors aren’t very interested in that, so they are going to do what they can to stay on the safe side. So just as with going against the tribal party line, they are likely to do everything they can to square the circle and speak things they can credibly believe to be true while avoiding any risky statements.
So I don’t think there’s any warrant for jumping to the conclusion that someone is a heretic or deliberately spreading bad teaching. When it comes to the rank and file type pastor, I’d say it’s the opposite. That doesn’t mean it will be easy to change his mind or that the likelihood of doing so is high. Be realistic about that going in, and try to understand the world from his perspective.
The first thing I’d do in a situation like this is pray. We should be praying for our pastors regularly in any case. Beyond that, what I suggest in these cases is to think about how you would have approached your father in a similar situation growing up (see 1 Tim 5:1). Or how you would want your wife to approach you if she thought there was something you were saying or doing that was wrong. (If you aren’t married, you can still do this as a thought experiment). That’s probably the kind of approach you want to use on your pastor. It would start with respect, affirming the relationship, respecting his authority in the church, and caring about improving things for him, not just you.
This isn’t necessarily easy to do, especially for men, who aren’t always experts at interpersonal communication. But maybe that will give you added empathy for your pastor, who is frequently put into the position of having to operate as an influencer in the various counseling situations he deals with.
I recommend going back and reading Masc #19 on “accentuating the positive” which gives a few tips, such as the 5:1 positive to negative interaction ratio I took as a heuristic from the work of John Gottman, and also the A-B-A’ structure of delivering negative feedback.
If you are specifically concerned about the gender point, feel free to share relevant issues of the Masculinist with him. You can always position it as asking his opinion on something you found on the Internet, which is true. I have many pastors already on this list, so it has resonated with many of them, for what it’s worth.
But even apart from areas of disagreement, our church communities are in great need of strengthening. That’s not really possible to do without strengthening the head of the community. So whether you feel there are errors in your pastor’s teachings or not, we should all be looking for ways to build up the leadership of our church. The more you are investing in building your pastor up now, the more relational capital you’ll have later if you ever need to have some difficult conversations.
When You Don’t Agree With Your Pastor’s Teaching
Let’s assume your pastor continues to teach things you don’t agree with. What then? This is perhaps where we get into theology.
As moderns, especially those of us in America, we tend to reject the idea of authority in favor of our own autonomy. But I’m personally persuaded that Christianity teaches a high respect for authority – even explicitly respect for actively unjust authority. Frankly, the scriptures are overwhelming on this point. While I may not agree with something my pastor teaches (which for me, again, has been pretty rare), my practice is to submit to his teaching within the boundaries of his authority.
There are some caveats here. If I heard a pastor teach obvious and gross heresy, such as denying the divinity of Christ, I’m outta there. Also, if I had evidence of serious pastoral malfeasance, I’d have to take action such as reporting it to the police if it were a crime. I would hope and expect both of these to be very rare and not a matter of practical concern most of the time.
A more serious question, and one I’ve never heard a pastor directly address, is that of scope of authority. In my view, a pastor has spiritual authority and institutional authority in the church, but how far does that extend? There are other spheres of authority directly established by God, such as the household and the state. In particular, how much authority does the pastor hold in those spheres?
One of the great sources of historic tension and conflict in the West has been that over the definition of the scope of authority of the church vs. that of the state (the Pope vs. the Emperor). Today, we live in an era of strong church-state separation, and religious leaders are by and large extremely reticent to assert any authority over their congregants who are in public office when it comes to their decision-making in that office. For example, even very conservative Roman Catholic bishops who are extreme opponents of abortion have declined to apply ecclesiastical sanctions to pro-abortion Catholic politicians, even when pressured to do so.
Similarly, I don’t see many pastors second-guessing business decisions of CEOs or other corporate executives in their pews. They limit their claims of authority in these cases to objective moral behaviors, such as prohibiting embezzlement. They may preach general sermons about conducting business in a godly way, but that’s not applied directly to try to overrule people in their business activities.
But when it comes to the household, pastors seem much more likely to claim the right to intervene and to de facto set the church up as a superior authority over it. It’s hard to say what they actually believe their authority is, because I’ve never actually heard any pastor put forth a theology in which he delineates his claim of the scope of the authority of the church in the household. But clearly pastors can and do “take sides” in marital disputes, for example.
In my view, I am the authority in my household, and my authority is independent of and not subsidiary to that of the church. I’m aware that the church used to in practice exercise more authority in the household in the past. But the church also claimed authority over the state in the West, too, which they no longer do. And that authority came in a context of thick community in which the pastor had real skin in the game, which is not the case today.
The flip side of that is that I’m responsible. I can certainly ask for counsel from my pastor in personal situations, but the consequences of the actions I take are going to land on my family and me, not him. We live in a free country where no one is forcing us to do anything, so we can’t pass the buck for what we do to our pastors or anyone else. We have to take responsibility for our decisions. That’s why I could confidently today sit under the spiritual authority of the pastors of the churches I attended while my life was going so badly. Because the ultimate authority of the decisions I made during that time was me, not them. If they were the legitimate authority, then they’d owe me bigtime damages right now.
Clearly in all domains, there are places where spheres of authority overlap. I am in authority over my son. But the state also says that I have to make sure he’s educated, etc. And there are Bible verses about how fathers should treat children, so it’s legitimate for the pastor to preach on that. But in my view pastors should stick to what’s objectively Biblically true here, not just use general statements as an opening to second guess husbands and fathers, which some of them unfortunately do.
In short, I believe we should submit to our pastors within their scope of authority, but that scope of authority over the household is limited. That may not be the right relationship in all times and all places, but in our world, when the church is not a real community in many respects and at the end of the day has very limited skin in the game, this is the right balance to strike. Pastors may disagree on my view of their authority in the household. At a minimum I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect them to articulate, in advance and with some degree of specificity, what they think the scope of their authority is.
Professionally, I come from a consulting and technology background. I’ve heard it said that 90% of computer code is exception handling. I think it’s that way with writing sometimes too. We spend most of our text talking about rare cases, and that can, simply by virtue of time spent on it, end up unintentionally over-emphasizing the importance of those cases. That could well be the case here. So let me just list again what I think are the key, most important takeaways applicable in the vast majority of cases:
The average pastor is sincere and teaching what he genuinely believes to be true.
We should be doing whatever we can to encourage and build up our pastors, not to tear them down.
We should be regularly praying for our pastors.
Approach a pastor you disagree with in the same way you would have approached your father or that you would want your wife to use approaching you if she disagreed with you.
Be in submission to the authority of your pastor.
My Personal Strategy
I’m actually trying to do all of the above, which is made easy by the fact that my current pastor actually is a great man I support 100%.
You may also recall that one of my guiding principles is only to get into disputes with people who are in the public square. So I don’t attack everyday pastors. The people I critique are bigtime folks who are operating as public intellectuals, not as pastors. Some of them aren’t even pastors at all, but purely free-floating retired pastors, theologians, or public intellectuals.
Unlike the pastor of your ordinary church, I have every reason to believe that these bigtime folks actually already know and have heard many of the things I’ve written in the Masculinist. They are not just naïvely repeating what they learned in seminary. They may still believe what they teach, but if they’ve got it wrong it’s not because they’ve never heard the “minority report.”
Somebody asked me the other day if I thought we needed a Christian Jordan Peterson. My answer was an emphatic No. We need another celebrity, especially a parachurch type celebrity, like a hole in the head. What we really need is stronger rank and file pastors in local churches who are equipped to train and build up men. That’s why I’m very glad to have so many pastors on this list. And why I say in this issue we have to be helping our pastors level up.
To be honest, starting the Masculinist was not something I really wanted to do. There’s no obvious upside for me in it, and a lot of potential downside. My original plan about three years ago was to start a for profit web site on a completely different topic in my spare time. Instead, I decided to devote that time to this mission. (If you are wondering, I’m writing this at 11:24pm on Sunday June 2).
I had learned through painful experience that much of what the church teaches on gender is flat out wrong. I also had the skills to bring that to broader attention, should God choose to favor my undertaking. So I felt obligated instead to pursue this mission. That’s why I’m here.
My strategy is to speak truth. Then the hearers, hopefully many pastors, are then responsible to God for what they do with it. I just want to take away ignorance as an excuse. The rest is up to Him.
I may change things up in the future. While I don’t want to be the Christian Jordan Peterson, I can see building up a big public profile would definitely be helpful in getting the word out and forcing pastors to engage with the truth. But for now I’m going a different direction.
Positive Family Stories
This month, a note from reader Ben:
This photo isn’t vacation. It is every Saturday for us (until Phoenix turns into an oven soon). Our family experiences deep joy sharing regular rhythms like daily candle-lit dinners, weekly hiking, and weekly pizza nights. Marriage and family life certainly has its rough patches, but those are shadowed by these times of togetherness. We’ll frequently invite others to join us on our wilderness excursions or find a hiking meet-up outing to join. We don’t have wi-fi, have deleted social media accounts, are starting the foster care process and plan to soon start a meet-up group for other young families in our area who like to hike. Life is a good time and your emails are a helpful reminder of this reality which can be all too easy to lose track of. As alluring as alternative choices or lifestyles can be, I experience a deep sense of satisfaction and fulfillment in caring for and raising a family in this way.
If you have a picture of your family or a positive story about family life you’d like to share with readers, please email it to me.
In the Culture: RooshV
Roosh Valizadeh, arguably the Internet’s most well-known pickup artist, has converted to Christianity. He is of Persian Shia Muslim descent, but appears to have been baptized as Armenian Orthodox as a child and returned to that tradition. He recently banned discussion of extra-marital sex on his discussion forum, and withdrew several of his books (though not all) from circulation. I believe this is legit, as he has clearly been on a journey away from his previous lifestyle for the last few years. That should surprise no one, as hedonism never satisfies for long. Men (and women) often make rueful discoveries about the time they turn 40.
Roosh needs your prayer. As those who have escaped by the grace of God from a life of extreme sin know, the first step is hard and critical, but the path ahead is likely to be a long and difficult one, involve a complete personal restructuring, and is not guaranteed to be successful. Roosh is certainly headed for troubled waters ahead if he’s serious, and only the power of the Holy Spirit will carry him through them.
The Observer (UK): Women are happier without children or a spouse, says happiness expert – This is an example of the relentless propaganda people are bombarded with. The claims in this article were torn apart by multiple folks in twitter, including by @graykimbrough.
Kay Hymowitz: Alone – The decline of the family has unleashed an epidemic of loneliness
New York Mag: How Many Bones Would You Break to Get Laid? – “Incels” are going under the knife to reshape their faces, and their dating prospects
The Nation: Want to Dismantle Capitalism? Abolish the Family
I have to tell you, it’s our goal on this Father’s Day weekend to lift you up and encourage you. And I have to tell you from history I’ve learned that often Father’s Day is one of the worst days that dads can ever choose to go to church. Because often it’s the only time churches feel like they’re going to have the ears of dads and so what they do is they plan to beat them up royally for all they’re not doing right. Ever been to one of those Father’s Day services? Oh man, I have. In fact, here in the early days of my ministry here, you know what we’d do? Oh man, we planned. We planned for you guys. And then what we did is we’d sing ‘Cats in the Cradle and the Silver Spoon.’ And we’d talk about how you have so royally blown it, the world has gone to hell in a hand basket, and then we’d try and help you recover. And we wondered why dads didn’t like Fathers Day at our church.
We don’t do that anymore. What we want this to be is an encouragement to you. We want this to lift you up.
– Pastor Brad Powell, Northridge Church (Detroit area). From a sermon on Abraham in a series called “Unlikely Heroes,” June 21, 2015