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The Church in a Time of Gender War
Why marriage can do what ideology cannot.
My wife and I lived in Wheaton, Illinois, for three years. During those three years, we were amazed at how many single women we knew who were lovely, godly, and eligible, and what a difficult time they had even getting asked out in some of Wheaton’s very large, affluent evangelical churches. Christian men aged 20-40 seemed to be falling off some invisible precipice; it was not, as far as we could tell, that there was something stilted about the dating environment (as was often the case at the Bible college I attended), but that the guys simply were not interested. As we shared these observations with family and friends, we started hearing similar things going on elsewhere. Sometimes it was the same story of the Missing Christian Suitor. Sometimes it was different: Christian ladies who were committed to Christ and the church, but who rifled through potential mates for years, always seeming to discover some disqualifying trait. We also started hearing (and seeing) evidence that the emerging generation of Christians really had no idea how to talk to the opposite sex. The men were paralyzed, passive, and clueless; the women were easily turned off and aloof. The number of our single friends in their 30s and even early 40s has seemed to grow.
These observations are, of course, borne out by data in the wider American culture. Here is a pretty stunning chart that my friend Wyatt Graham posted online:
In other words, this chart suggests that the nationwide decline of marriage and sex is not something that men (or women) are protesting. Instead, we seem to be adapting to it. The first thing I thought of when I saw this chart was the recently chronicled rise of “single woke females,” i.e., how unmarried women’s political and social views seem shaped by their lack of a mate, and why these views are especially potent in American culture today. This is of a piece with Internet-era trends among single men who express deep dissastisfaction, sometimes rage, with the offline world in general and women in particular. In a post from February, I reflected on how these male “incels” and “single woke females” (SWFs) suffer from a lack of genuine encounter with each other:
But to me, the more significant subtext of the SWFs is the orientation of both our economy and our philosophy away from the very life choices that facilitate genuine encounters. The story of the single woke female is hardly different than the story of the Very Online “incel:” a hardening of dogmatic convictions and a skeptical view of others, especially the opposite sex, that attend a life mostly without genuine encounters.
The technological aspect is important, but it’s not the whole story here. Another, perhaps bigger, piece of the puzzle is that there seems to be an ambient resentment and distrust between the sexes right now. Further, I don’t see any real evidence that Christians are countering this resentment within our own communities; instead, I see signs that some of the deeper and more gaping fault lines might actually be within evangelical spaces.
Yesterday I happened to see two very different posts on Twitter that summarize what I’m talking about. Michael Foster, a conservative pastor who does a lot of writing about masculinity, posted a long tweet about the stories he’s been hearing from men whose wives are having affairs (often one-night stands) and eventually abandoning the family. Foster explains how these women are cheating on their husbands, yet there seems to be very little interest from Christian pastors and others in condemning this behavior as specifically female behavior. Whereas men are often exhorted from the pulpit as men to be faithful to their wives—to not cheat, to not look at porn, etc.—Foster, and several others who shared or chimed in on his thread, argues that evangelical culture is often unwilling to call women to broad repentance in this area.
The second tweet I saw came from writer Sheila Gregoire. Gregoire is one of the most vociferous critics of evangelical “patriarchy” and has devoted most of her online platform to strongly criticizing ideas, books, and individuals who, in her judgment, inflict abuse on women through regressive teaching. In a thread where Gregoire was actually apologizing to author Nancy Pearcey for some intemperate comments she made about Pearcey’s new book on masculinity, Gregoire mentions that she’s “not in a good headspace” currently becuase of all the stories of man-on-woman abuse that she hears every day. Her point was that her reaction to Pearcey’s book might not have been charitable, but the context of her reaction was hearing frequently from women who have been greatly harmed by elements in the conservative tradition that Pearcey represents.
Neither Foster nor Gregoire are really household names in evangelicalism. But they are both articulate spokespeople who have growing platforms, and who have been boosted by those with much larger footprints (Foster’s work has been promoted by Doug Wilson, and Gregoire’s work has been promoted by authors like Kristin Kobes Du Mez). Foster and Gregoire also seem to have a very dedicated, and very gendered, readership that both express gratitude for how their work has made a difference. It’s not unreasonable to take Foster and Gregoire as symbolic of larger movements that, while perhaps not mainstream in evangelical life, are growing, and figure to keep growing in the immediate future.
My point in bringing up Foster and Gregoire is that I think these two very different writers symbolize the resentment, tension, and alienation that is palpable between men and women, especially in Christian contexts. One of Foster’s books is titled, It’s Good to Be a Man. Gregoire’s newest work is titled She Deserves Better. That these titles seem at odds with each other is not a trick; it’s a profound difference of perspective as to what message is most needed right now. And the difference seems to reflect the same dynamics at work with single woke females and very online men—neither of which are more likely now than they were 4 years ago to want to date or marry each other.
One underdiscussed aspect of marriage is how effective it is—uniquely affective, actually—at cultivating empathy between men and women. Shortly before I was married, a female coworker gave me some valuable advice: “You’re not trying to understand women,” she said. “You’re trying to understand one woman.” Marriage doesn’t unlock all the secrets of the sexes, but it is almost certainly the single most important experience of life for actually learning to care about someone of the opposite sex. This is especially true since acknowledging gender distinctives have largely been banned from polite public conversation. These distinctives haven’t gone away, though, and this is what married people understand better than most. In an economic and sexual culture where men and women are valuable to the extent that they are fungible—a man who can intuit like a woman, a woman whose body acts like a man’s—many people have no clue what the sexes are actually like when the pressure to homogenize completely lets off. When you are in a true covenant relationship with a person, your choices are simple: you can learn to love them and live with them, or you can be miserable (or make them miserable). This is a tremendous incentive to fight resentment.
Evangelical attitudes about this have not always been clear. I admit that my views on this have changed, but six years ago, I didn’t see any problem with the way that many evangelical books and pastors talked about singleness and single Christians. I agreed with these resources that the number one issue for the church and singles should be to normalize being unmarried, to work to remove any pressure or expectation that people should try to wed, and to hold up single people in the church as exemplars of faithful Christian ministry. I don’t think this anymore. I’m not saying I’ve decided that single people cannot be faithful Christians or even elders in the church. I’m not saying that we should ridicule singles or instinctively distrust them. What I am saying is that I now believe most evangelical churches should look at their single members with both eyes open: an appreciation for the wonderful potential of their season of life, but also a desire and strategy, as the Lord permits, to find ways to get these people Christian spouses. In other words, I don’t think we should fear admitting that marriage is, in the majority of situations we will come across, preferable to singleness.
This issue is crucial now because many church members are having to navigate the epistemological bottleneck of a gender war. Which do you believe: that men need to be empowered and encouraged to be manly, or that men need to be rebuked and challenged to not be abusive? That women should be taught to desire a godly husband they can love and submit to, or that they should be reminded that they don’t need to accept mistreatment from anyone, much less a man? All four sentiments here are logically compatible. But they are often not experientially compatible. They are two sets of instincts that challenge one another and predispose people to different postures and responses to the same problems. I don’t get the sense that many are willing to admit just how big of a dilemma this is, and how much worse it has the potential to become.
A lot of the evangelical reaction is going to be ideological. Solve the brewing gender war in the church by convincing people to read more Michael Foster, or, on the other hand, more Sheila Gregoire. That’s surely some truth in both sources. But I suspect that trying to out-publish the opposing camp on this issue is just applying a band aid to a tumor. The dilemma facing evangelicals in the years ahead is more than a war over complementarianism or #ChurchToo. It’s a foundational plausibility problem created by a historic collapse in the very relationship that makes the two sexes find real beauty in one another. The countermoves have to start right there. And they have to start soon.
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