Monthly Archives: August 2014

Well-Meaning Harm

For a brief moment, it was encouraging to see our politically and religiously divided country unite in the common cause of dousing each other with ice water to raise funds for research on the debilitating and often fatal disease ALS. Alas, it wasn’t to last; before long, I started seeing warnings on Facebook against supporting the ALS Foundation because their disease research makes use of human embryo stem cell lines.

ALS research isn’t the only target of pro-life advocates; recently I read an article entitled “God Does not Support Vaccines,” warning Christians that all the childhood immunizations contain “baby parts” from aborted fetuses (see

I can appreciate a concern to avoid the ending of human life in the service of a “greater good.” If, as I once believed, a microscopic embryo is a person, then ending its life is murder, whether on the part of mother who sleeps around irresponsibly and doesn’t want to incur the inconvenience of bearing a baby, or on the part of a researcher seeking to cure a human scourge.

I later learned that an estimated two-thirds of all human embryos are naturally aborted as they fail to implant in the uterus and are washed out, never seeing the light of day. I began to wonder why I was so unconcerned about this holocaust that ends more human lives than all other causes of life combined, if it was really people who were dying. Maybe my pro-life stance had been rooted in black-and-white thinking that didn’t want to have to figure out where to draw a fuzzy right-to-life line somewhere between an unfeeling, microscopic embryo and a cooing, dimpled full-term baby. Maybe also I wanted to hold accountable the women who couldn’t control their sexual urges. Maybe I also feared that terminating an embryo would lead to a slippery slope culminating in rampant adult euthanasia without consent.

Over time I came to adopt a form of consequentialist morality. When considering whether a course of action is ethical, I stopped asking whether it violates sacred or traditional principles, but instead began asking, What is the practical effect of a given action on sentient beings? Does it cause suffering? Does it lead to well-being or happiness?

Sometimes religious pro-life advocates will appeal to consequentialist arguments in an attempt to bolster a position based on what is sacred. For example, we’ll hear that a fetus suffers pain when aborted, or that women who undergo abortions experience higher rates of cancer or depression, or that adult stem cell lines are more effective for disease research than are embryonic stem cell lines. These arguments seem to be to be disingenuous. An embryo can’t feel pain, nor is there any well documented link between abortion (let alone egg and sperm harvesting) and cancer. And what if embryonic stem cells really are more useful than adult stem cells in pursuing a cure for a given disease? And what if societies that permit abortion have not seen a rise in non-consensual euthanasia or murder? Can any of these arguments have an effect on way or another on a sacred position, which by definition cannot be negotiated?

An appeal to the sacred, however well meaning, can sometimes unwittingly lead to a net increase in suffering. An embryo feels no pain; those who suffer from ALS, and any children who die because of their parents’ misgivings over the “baby parts” in vaccines certainly feel pain.

I don’t pretend to know exactly where to draw the right-to-life line between an embryo and infant, but I will not allow my discomfort for ambiguity to stand in the way of research and vaccines that offer a very real chance of alleviating true human suffering. The loss of a single-celled, unfeeling, unconscious, socially unconnected zygote is simply of no consequence compared to the murder of an adult who is, for example, a friend, a spouse, a daughter, and a mother. For those of you who see an equivalence between the two, I implore you to ask whether you are needlessly causing harm, even if you mean well.


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Do husbands have to earn respect?

“Your husband doesn’t have to earn your respect.” These words, the title of an article by conservative Christian blogger Matt Walsh, raised my hackles when I first read them yesterday. A sampling of thoughts that hit me up front: Why should husbands deserve unconditional respect and not wives? Does every man deserve automatic respect (beyond the basic respect we owe all humans by virtue of their common humanity), even if he abuses his wife, sleeps around, or shirks his responsibility to provide for his family? Can a wife manufacture respect for her husband if, deep down, she doesn’t respect him?

To be fair, I proceeded to read the full blog article and found it to be more balanced and less provocative than I had feared. Walsh does make a number of valid points, for example, that no husband deserves to receive the kind of treatment he describes here:

…[S]ome time ago, I found myself in the same vicinity as another married couple.
I certainly can’t read their minds, and I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes, all I know is that the husband couldn’t seem to utter a single phrase that wouldn’t provoke exaggerated eye-rolling from his wife.

She disagreed with everything he said.

She contradicted nearly every statement.

She nagged him.

She brought up a “funny” story that made him out to be incompetent and foolish. He laughed, but he was embarrassed.

She was gutting him right in front of us. Emasculating him. Neutering him. Damaging him.

It was excruciating.

It was tragic.

It also was, or is becoming, pretty par-for-the-course.

I’m on board with Walsh here (with the exception of his use of the sexist term “nag”, which it seems is never used for men); I’ve witnessed wives treating their husbands this way, though I’ve also witnessed the reverse in equal measure.
Walsh continues by making a case that this lack of respect for husbands is responsible at least in part for our soaring divorce rates. I would certainly agree with him that overt disrespect does nothing to improve the odds of marital success. And I am all for marital success; I’ve been happily married for 22 years, and I have every intention of remaining faithful to my wife for the rest of my life, despite our very profound religious and political differences.

Yet I’m still uncomfortable with certain aspects of Walsh’s article (as I am with many of Walsh’s other views). He asks us to take for granted that men need respect more than women do and that women need love more than men do. Perhaps that really is the case, but where is the evidence for it?

Why is Walsh inclined to believe that husbands are more in need of respect than wives are? One possibility is that his belief is a true belief, supported not just by folk wisdom but also by the data. Another possibility—and I suspect this to be the case—is that respect for a man is a necessary prerequisite for maintaining the biblical order of male headship in the home. In any organizational hierarchy, from politics to the military to the corporate world to the family, effective leadership cannot be maintained without respect for the leader.

There’s no denying that many biblical passages place the responsibility of family leadership on the husband, not on the wife. For example:

I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety (1 Timothy 2: 11-15).

For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord (1 Peter 3:5-6).

So it follows in Walsh’s biblical worldview that, even if both men and women deserve respect, a man is particularly needful of it in order to maintain his divinely appointed role in the family, as the one the wife is to obey and consider as lord.

While training to serve with Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT) in the 1990s, one of my WBT-affiliated professors, Dr. Kenneth McElhanon, whose wife was serving at the time as a counselor for WBT members, asked our class to guess the number one issue driving couples to seek counseling. None of us guessed the correct answer, which turned out to be fallout from male headship in the home. In retrospect, why should it be a surprise that a woman who’s every bit as gifted as her husband might chafe when required in all things to obey her husband and call him lord?

Mark Walsh’s view that wives are to be subordinate to their husbands and that each partner is to play a complementary role in the marriage and family is referred to as “complementarianism,” in contrast to “egalitarianism,” which holds that women should not be limited to the roles or offices they can hold (including pastorship in a church) and should not be subordinate to men in a family hierarchy. Religious egalitarians like Dr. McElhanon argue that God’s long-term vision for humanity is for women to be on an equal footing with men, to be emancipated from their hierarchical subordination to men, just as it was his vision for slaves to be emancipated from their hierarchical subordination to their masters. Egalitarians acknowledge that many biblical passages do indeed uphold both slavery and male dominion, but these were simply concessions to the hardness of the people’s hearts, while God’s intent was that the Church would eventually take its cue from the following touchstone passage and emancipate both its slaves and its women from its traditional authoritarian structures:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

I was a complementarian at the time Dr. McElhanon made this argument to our class, and I objected that “being one in Christ Jesus” does not necessarily entail hierarchical egalitarianism; a wife can be subordinate to her husband, and a parishioner can be subordinate to her pastor, while still being “one in Christ Jesus.” He immediately shot back that this was precisely the same argument used by racial segregationists (“separate but equal”), nineteenth-century slave-owners, and southern evangelical pastors in response to the use of this passage by abolitionists and civil rights leaders. He then proceeded to project on the classroom screen excerpt after excerpt of sermons by southern pastors vehemently excoriating the northern liberal and progressive Christian abolitionists for their misuse of God’s word, marshaling biblical passage after biblical passage affirming slavery as a God-ordained institution and enjoining slaves to obey their masters. For example:


Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly (Leviticus 25:42-46).

If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property (Exodus 21:20). (KJV: “Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.”)

Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:18-21).

It goes without saying that the above passages were not favorites of the abolitionists, while Galatians 3:28 was, just as it is for the modern-day egalitarians. But the above passages were certainly useful for pro-slavery southern pastors, just as passages like 1 Peter 3:5-6 are useful for complementarians arguing that wives are to obey their husbands. (Side note: the “Southern” in “Southern Baptist” and “Southern Methodist” stems from their split from the more liberal northern counterparts over the issue of slavery; the Southern Baptists did not apologize for their support of slavery until 1995; see

Yet it seems that even the most enthusiastic complementarians of today—those that cite chapter and verse as a blunt instrument to drive the “absolute truth” into the rebellious skulls of the egalitarians—are reluctant to cite chapter and verse to resurrect the divinely sanctioned institution of slavery and require slaves to obey their masters (a directive which assumes the existence of slavery).
This is but one of many manifestations of a tendency on the part of some fundamentalists to press a biblical agenda on their opponents, claiming the mantle of biblical authority without realizing how far they fall short of following the Bible themselves.

Liberal Christians acknowledge the scriptures are profoundly influenced by the human thinking of the era in which they were composed and that they don’t all necessarily represent God’s ideals. They appeal to higher principles (e.g., “do unto others” or “one in Christ”) to bracket off the texts that violate these principles. By contrast, many fundamentalists (myself included before 2000) can admit neither that imperfections exist in the Bible nor that they routinely bracket off any of its teachings (particularly those of the New Testament).

But in fact many, no doubt most, fundamentalists bracket off more texts than they realize or care to admit, all the while castigating progressive Christians for doing the same. Few conservative believers today call for slaves to obey their masters, while insisting that wives submit to and obey their husbands. In the following paragraphs, I draw from my book for more examples of this bracketing practice.

Most American evangelicals seem not to believe Jesus’ teachings on violence and wealth. Consider Jesus’ injunction:

But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matthew 5:39).

I recall how as a missionary in Nigeria my father kept a baseball bat at his bedside to protect the household against nighttime intruders. Though he never had occasion to use it physically (other than as a threat), he was prepared to do so. Thus, he not only did not subscribe to Jesus’ clear teachings, but he violated those teachings in a deliberate, premeditated manner. Note that I am not criticizing his decision; I believe he did the right thing, as does anyone who practices self-defense when threatened. My point is to demonstrate that common sense can sometimes trump even clear biblical teachings for those who claim they subscribe to the Bible in its entirety.

If we insist that a passage such as the above has to be interpreted correctly (meaning other than at face value), then we demonstrate that we, and not the text, are the final arbiter of what is right and wrong. We decide it’s unreasonable to interpret it according to its apparent meaning, so we search for other possible texts to mitigate its implications and settle on an alternative ethic we consider to be both biblical and reasonable. But in so doing, we have violated the unambiguous teachings of Jesus; we have cherry picked the texts we prefer.

The teachings of Jesus and his followers concerning wealth are both equally clear and equally disregarded by many of his followers. Consider these passages from the Gospel of Luke:

6:24 But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.

2:32 Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

14:33 In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.

Or consider Paul’s socialist ideals:

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they [the church in Jerusalem] need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you [the church at Corinth] need. Then there will be equality (1 Corinthians 8:13-14).

In summary, both liberal and conservative Christians routinely pick and choose from the text what they will believe. The difference is that liberals freely admit this, while conservatives do not, using special hermeneutics to explain how Jesus didn’t mean what he really did say about wealth, violence, etc.

Given that they have a choice, why is it that conservative American evangelicals opt to focus on particular texts and particular issues while ignoring others? In other words, if as I maintain, they are picking and choosing, why are they picking male headship as an issue and not economic inequality, for example? I can only tentatively speculate, but I’ll give it a shot, acknowledging I may well be mistaken.

On average, males are physically stronger than females. In most societies throughout human history, males have held sway over females. This is true even of most traditional societies that have never come into contact with Judeo-Christian-Islamic scriptures. The Bible does not have a monopoly on calling for men to stand above women. Even among most mammals, the males “control the roost.” Witness the absolute control a male chimpanzee has over his harem of females, or the tendency of male lions to kill the females’ infants after defeating a rival male and taking control of his harem (bonobos, relatives of chimpanzees, are a more matriarchal exception to the general rule of male domination). If this tendency is so deep and prevalent in nature, I see it as the default position, the deeply ingrained status quo, even perhaps our instinct. Gender equality, if it is to exist in a society, must be taught; otherwise, male domination will prevail by default.

To a certain extent, the same primordial tendency may exist for polygamy (the Old Testament not only reports it but sanctions it when God informs David in 2 Samuel 12:8, “I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms”), for warfare (as far as I’m aware, all human societies engage in war to some degree, as do chimpanzees), for the right to possess great wealth (see Proverbs 24:3-4), for racial/tribal rivalry and inequality, for retributive justice, and for homophobia. These primordial predilections exist in the human breast, predating the Old Testament, where they all find divine sanction.

Over time, religious communities came to see the downside of some of these tendencies and began to teach against them. For example, Jesus, bracketing the Old Testament primal principle of retributive justice, taught, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” Unfortunately the New Testament never explicitly advocated abolition from slavery or female equality, though these principles find a kernel of expression in Galatians 3:28 and in a few other passages. And over time, the Christian community after many centuries came to understand the evils of slavery and repudiated it, so that by dint of history, it’s no longer acceptable to use the Bible to promote slavery. The same process is gradually occurring with regard to gender hierarchy, though primordially ingrained tendencies don’t die without a fight. Unfortunately, its demise, like that of slavery, is retarded by the belief that it is divinely instituted and that it is a virtue, rather than a vice, to promote it.

Biblical teachings that correspond to primordial human impulses (e.g., gender hierarchy and homophobia) are more likely to persist and to be embraced by conservatives than those that run counter to our primordial instincts (e.g., the economic equality advocated by Jesus, Paul, and John the Baptist, and the nonresistant pacifism taught by Jesus). As Jimmy Carter so ably expressed in his essay on women and religion, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) had a choice whether to emphasize the texts that promote gender equality or those that promote a gender hierarchy, and they chose the latter, leading to Carter’s decision to disaffiliate himself from the SBC.

Whenever I hear conservative evangelicals calling us to live and believe “biblically,” my impulse it to ask them, “Have you given up all you have to the poor? Did you support the American campaign to resist Saddam Hussein, an evil person, even though Jesus said not to resist an evil person? Do you acknowledge that the Bible sanctioned slavery and never called for its abolition, and that slaves are to obey their masters? Do you acknowledge that God approved of polygamy in the Old Testament and never outlawed it in the New Testament (save for church overseers/elders)? If you believe in predestination and eternal security, do you acknowledge there are passages that run counter to your position, and vice versa? If you believe Jesus’ death on the cross was lacking in any way, do you believe Colossians 1:24 (“I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions”)? The list could go on; for every one of these issues, there are passages that suggest conflicting perspectives: Are works required for salvation? Did Jesus return in his generation? Is baptism necessary for salvation?

My view is that Mark Walsh and his allies are predisposed by nature, like the majority of men throughout history, to favor male authority, and it is fortunate for them that the Bible by and large supports their view, conferring on them what they perceive to be a divine mandate to rescue men from the emasculatory trends of our God-ignoring society. I say “fortunate for them” but not “fortunate for women.” While many complementarians treat their wives with respect and dignity and promote a happy family environment, many others, like those that came to Dr. McElhanon’s wife for counseling, have not. You might protest that this is the fault of the individual men, not the teaching, and you would be right to an extent. However, given the reality that men tend by nature to abuse women more than the other way around, it seems misguided to offer any rope to the men by which to hang their wives, so to speak. In other words, men don’t need any encouragement to place themselves above their wives; it’s already in their nature. What they need, rather, is more encouragement to see their wives as equals, to give them an equal say in every decision, to seek outside counsel if they can’t come to a mutual agreement.

Having observed both Western and African marriages, it’s my conviction that, if we were to measure the total amount of suffering imposed by one gender on another within marriage, husbands generally surpass wives in meting out suffering. I’ve seen the enormous loads of wood and water carried by women in Africa while watching their husbands chat by the watering hole. I’ve seen the women walk miles to till fields with a hand hoe, baby on back, while their husbands chat by the watering hole. I’ve been asked by African men whether I beat my wife and been greeted by surprise when I responded No. I’ve seen in pictures the fruit of the Taliban’s righteous zeal after throwing acid on an adulterous woman’s face, or on a girl who defied their ban on education. I know ordinary families in which the wife silently bears the husband’s capricious, sometimes harmful decisions in the name of biblical headship.

Again, I’m with Walsh when he calls for spouses to treat each other with outward respect, refraining from eye rolling and derogatory comments. However, calling for automatic inward respect, especially toward men, potentially opens the door to abuse. If a man knows that her wife owes her unconditional respect, he has less incentive to offer her a tolerable marriage. If a woman must respect and stand by her husband who abuses her or who lazes around on the couch by day and carouses by night, and if she is led to believe it’s sinful to call out her husband or escape from the marriage, she will be consigned to unnecessary suffering for the rest of her life, all in the name of preserving biblical manhood. Divorce is not always the greatest possible evil; indeed, employed judiciously, it can effectively serve as a safety valve against a living hell.

Righteous ideas and teachings sometimes have unintended consequences. It’s an outrage that some of the most misguided ideas, like slavery and male dominion, have persisted for so long due to their support by zealous believers thinking they are on God’s side.

I’ll close by bringing this discussion down to a more personal level. My wife and I have two teenage sons (one almost 20) and a teenage daughter. May my wife always have a husband who treats her with the utmost respect and love, and may her husband never raise a hand against her or impose his will against hers, and may he always look into her eyes and see a perfect equal, one whose abilities and talents are to be given full reign with no artificial or ideological restrictions, and may her husband always provide for and support her, never speaking ill of her. May my sons treat their women in the same way, and may their women return the favor. May my daughter find this same kind of man—one who is sufficiently secure in his masculinity not to require obedience from his wife just because the Bible says that’s the way it should be.


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