In my previous post I observed that as women step forward to lead in the mainline denominations, men are stepping back.
But has the withdrawal of men hastened the drift toward liberalism? I believe it has. Women tend to be more politically liberal than men. Therefore, it’s logical to assume that as more women take over the leadership in these denominations their decisions will push the church further to the left.
But there’s a second more subtle reason female-led churches will always move toward liberalism. It has to do with a fundamental difference in the way the sexes see the world. Men tend to put rules first; women tend to put relationships first.
When a group of men is grappling with a dilemma, their first question is, “What do the rules say?” But a group of women will ask, “How will this decision affect our relationships?”
You can see this dynamic at work on any playground. Boys organize themselves into competitive, hierarchical games such as baseball or soccer. They carefully lay out the rules before they play. If there’s a close call they argue over the rules. Obeying the rules is so important that one team will “take their ball and go home” if they think the rules were violated. Boys will sacrifice relationships on the altar of rules.
Girls seem much less concerned with rules. They often play cooperative games like skip-rope or hopscotch. They also like to play fantasy games that revolve around relationships – Let’s pretend I’m the mommy and you’re the daddy. Girl games are less about winners and losers and more about building relationships. Girls will sacrifice rules on the altar of relationships.
Men retain their deep concern for the rules and fair play their entire lives. They’ll argue an umpire’s call for years. Instant replay in football was inevitable. Was his toe on the line? Did he have possession as he fell out of bounds? Men don’t care if someone wins and someone else loses, as long as everything was done according to the rules.
Meanwhile, women spend their lives obsessed with relationships. As teens they read books, watch movies and devour magazines about relationships. They marry earlier and often manage the family’s relational network. They are more likely to plan social events and keep up with extended family and friends.
Now, back to the church. When a male-governed congregation grapples with a moral dilemma, its leaders will consult the rulebook first. “What does the Bible say about this?” they ask. Once the rule is established, the debate is closed. And if enforcing a rule hurts someone’s feelings? “We’re sorry,” the men say. “That’s the rule.” In a man-governed organization relationships are important, but rules trump.
But when a church is led mostly by women (or feminized men), its leaders will see a moral dilemma through the lens of relationships. They will ignore or re-interpret the rulebook so that no one needs to lose. In a woman-governed universe rules are important, but relationships trump.
This is what we’re seeing in the mainline churches today. The rules have taken a backseat to relationships, because women are in charge. Episcopalians appeal to relationships rather than rules when explaining their positions. “God is love. Here are two women who love each other. Why should we prohibit their relationship? Jesus never excluded anyone. He commands us to stand with the marginalized and the oppressed.”
It’s easy to see where this kind of thinking comes from. Jesus fiercely opposed first century Judaism because it was obsessed with silly rules. Many times Christ rebuked the Pharisees for putting the rules ahead of the welfare of people (Luke 14:5, Mark 2:27, Matt 23:23). Meanwhile, Christ always showed compassion toward society’s outcasts. He was all about loving the weak.
Therefore, liberals assume that if Jesus were to walk among us today he’d spend his time rebuking the powerful while giving the weak license to live as they please.
Yes, Jesus opposed a crushing legalism that drove a wedge between God and His people. But he did not oppose the law. He clearly said that he had not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. He refused to abandon even “the smallest letter of the least stroke of the pen” of the law until everything is accomplished (Matt 5:18). Jesus never ignored or bent the rules simply because someone felt offended or excluded – no matter how marginalized or oppressed they were.
It is no coincidence that liberalism has flourished in those denominations that have opened their doors widest to female leadership. This is what happens when you put grandmothers in charge of a church – you get comforting, safe decisions that preserve relationships. The rules get bent – or go out the window. A woman’s top priority is keeping the family together, no matter the cost.
Of course, this drives men nuts. An institution with shifting rules is frustrating. We’re back to the playground again. When the rules are violated, men want to take their ball and go home.
Now, before I go any further, let me make a few things clear:
- I’m not blaming women for the decline of the mainline. The men withdrew. The women stepped up.
- I’m not saying that women are more prone to heresy than men.
- I’m not saying that rules don’t matter to women. They just matter less than relationships do.
- I’m not saying that women should never lead in churches. Since the beginning women have played a vital role in the local church (Luke 8:1-3). The contributions of female leaders such as Henrietta Mears and Mother Teresa are legendary. And today there are a number of very effective female leaders in mainline churches (Watch a video about one here).
Here’s my key point: liberalism rises not when individual women assume leadership posts, but when groups of women come to dominate church leadership, without the moderating presence of men. This is the situation in the mainline. It’s dominated by leaders (both male and female) with a “relationships first” view of the gospel. Mainline churches are no longer able to think like men because they don’t have enough of them left.
And where are those men? They’re in the fast-growing non-denominational churches. They’re in traditional churches that have stuck to male-elder governance. These bodies aren’t even debating human sexuality. Why? The men who govern these churches simply looked at the rulebook and made the call. Case closed. And frankly, they didn’t much care if their decisions made someone feel excluded.
Now, if female-dominated leadership leads to liberalism, does male-dominated leadership lead to legalism? Sometimes it does. But in most cases it doesn’t – because in many churches the women hold a “velvet veto” over the decisions the men make. Every church has powerful women who manage various ministry programs. If the men make a decision the women disagree with, female lay leaders have ways of making their displeasure known to the men. Women may not hold office, but they still have plenty of power. The healthy tension between male elders and female ministry leaders keeps the church balanced.
But female-led churches have no countervailing “iron veto.” I’ve never heard of the men of the church rising up en masse to oppose the decisions of a female-dominated elder board. No, men usually fall in line behind the women – or they quit. And this is what’s driving the fall of the mainline.
The liberal churches may yet experience their renaissance – but I doubt it. Yes, young people share their progressive outlook, but twentysomethings also have very low rates of church attendance. Once these young adults have kids and feel the need to return to church, will they accept a congregation with an “anything goes” policy on sexuality? Even the most open-minded parents will think twice about leaving their infants with a cross-dressing nursery worker. And young men are unlikely to invest themselves in an institution with squishy rules – led by a cohort of middle-aged and elderly females.
The answer for the mainline is to rediscover the rules and repent (See 2 Kings 22). But that seems unlikely in a denomination that’s hemorrhaging 10,000 men a year.
A healthy church needs the influence of both men and women. It needs rule people and relationship people. When one cohort dominates you end up with crushing legalism or limp liberalism. Jesus clearly despised the former – and judging by the decline of the mainline, he doesn’t seem too excited about the latter.