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An Ethos of Mutuality

On August 01, 2012

New York Times columnist David Brooks spoke last year at the Aspen Ideas Festival about the narcissism of American culture in a talk called “The Modesty Manifesto.” Lamenting the loss of humility in American culture, he points out a number of social trends. For instance, our math scores have been steadily declining in relation to the rest of the world. Yet, we are persistent in believing we are the best.

In another striking example, executives in the “computer industry” (not sure what that means, exactly) were given a test that asked questions about their own profession. They were also asked how well they thought they did. They believed they got 95% of the questions correct. In fact, they answered 20% of the questions correctly. We’re performing worse than ever, but we’re more and more confident in our own infallibility.

Brooks also mentions that this tendency exhibits much more strongly in men. That’s why men are also twice as likely to drown (apparently by getting drunk, then going for a swim). Maybe this is just the way men are, and maybe it’s not. That’s a question for another time. For now, let’s just look at some implications. Does this matter for the church? What about for men and women?

Christianity ought to model an alternative to the world’s obsession with self. Yet, the male-only leadership of many churches and Christian homes does the opposite, providing a breeding ground for these very same problems.

Non-religious audiences recognize that Christianity has historically had something healing to say about pride and humility. Indeed, in his talk (about the 30-minute mark), Brooks praises CS Lewis’ thoughts on humility. This has changed in contemporary society, in part because the church has often become as self-absorbed as anyone else. One area this holds true is the insistence by many churches that male-only leadership is God’s ideal.

If there is one lesson to be learned from current social trends, it is that more voices are better than one—or in church terms, a body is better than a single organ. Yet, many churches are led exclusively by one gender, and it’s the gender most vulnerable to (at least some of) these disturbing patterns. And it goes beyond the local church. Seminaries and Christian families are often exclusively male-led. This should not be. Men and women both bring a lot of qualities as leaders. But just like I don’t trust myself to always be right, I don’t trust men alone (or women alone, for that matter) to do what’s right. We need balance.

Brooks states that we used to believe we needed people with different opinions to temper our passions, rein in our extremes, and minimize our follies. Of course, for most of our history, this did not extend across the gender divide, though the Bible clearly indicates that it should. Joint leadership of men and women in the church and home would go a long way toward cultivating an ethos of mutuality in the church and in our culture. Maybe I’m just enamored with my own ideas, but mutual leadership is, I believe, indispensable to a biblical alternative to the prevailing culture of self.

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