While it sounds virtuous, and is appealing to those who would like to believe that involved fathering is the answer to all society’s ills, the idea that any human being, apart from Christ himself, can take spiritual responsibility for another has no place in historic, biblically-based Christian doctrine.
The Christian community was buzzing about Courageous, the fourth film released by Sherwood Baptist Church’s media ministry, long before it hit the big screen. Released as the number one new film in the nation, it boasted a box office total of nine million dollars in its opening weekend, with over one million people rushing to the theaters to see if it would live up to the hype. Many critics and viewers agree that the film exceeded their expectations.
Courageous follows the story of five men—four law enforcement officers and an out-of-work immigrant—as they struggle to support their families, connect with their children, and live God-honoring lives. The law enforcement angle provides ample opportunity to illustrate, sometimes graphically, the film’s point: involved, intentional fathering is a crucial component of healthy families and societies, one that is too often missing nowadays. Galvanized by tragedy, the men agree to hold one another accountable, and sign a “resolution” committing themselves to serving God and their families.
While the message of Courageous is overwhelmingly positive, there are a couple elements that bear discussion. The primary flaw was neatly contained in the first line of the resolution itself: “I do solemnly resolve before God to take full responsibility for myself, my wife, and my children.” While it sounds virtuous, and is appealing to those who would like to believe that involved fathering is the answer to all society’s ills, the idea that any human being, apart from Christ himself, can take spiritual responsibility for another has no place in historic, biblically-based Christian doctrine.
Unfortunately, that has not stopped this particular tenet of pop-patriarchy from spreading like wildfire. Consider the erroneous and wholly unbiblical notion that men are called to be the “prophet, priest, and king” of their families, popularized by leaders such as Dennis Rainey of Family Life Today (Building Strong Families, 2002). Though proponents would deny it, this view effectively makes men out to be mediators between their family and God, “standing in the gap,” if you will, for their wife and children. Yet, this contradicts 1 Timothy 2:5’s assurance that there is only one mediator between God and humankind—Jesus Christ—and subtly undermines women’s full personhood and equal standing before God. A husband has responsibilities to his wife, and will answer to God for how he fulfills them, but he cannot be responsible for his wife, or answer to God on her behalf. The difference is subtle, but crucial, and has serious implications for how we view a woman’s relationship to her husband and to God.
Another troubling aspect of Courageous arises in a scene between Nathan Hayes and his teenage daughter, Jade. Hayes takes her out for an expensive candlelight dinner, expresses how much he loves her, then asks her to let him give his approval of anyone she considers dating or marrying. The pseudo-romanticism of the scene greatly unsettled me, particularly when Hayes slipped a ring onto her wedding band finger. Jade’s tearful, affirmative response to her father’s attentions gave me the sense that her tender heart had been manipulated.
My discomfort was exacerbated when Hayes began talking about how he would “give her away” to her husband someday. Combined with the benevolent but inequitable covenant between a vulnerable girl and her male authority figure, it gave the unfortunate impression that Jade somehow “belonged” to her father. While it would be easy to brush this off as a soapy bit of melodrama or a scriptwriting flaw, several small but increasingly influential Christian movements are asserting that women should remain under their father’s “headship” until they marry. This is spelled out in Vision Forum’s “Tenets of Biblical Patriarchy”: “Fathers release sons from their jurisdiction to undertake a vocation, prepare a home, and take a wife. Until she is given in marriage, a daughter continues under her father’s authority and protection…Since daughters are ‘given in marriage’ by their fathers, an obedient daughter will desire her father to guide the process of finding a husband, although the final approval of a husband belongs to her” (visionforumministries.org).
Is Courageous promoting this patriarchal “vision” for daughters? At the very least, it isn’t contradicting it. This becomes especially apparent when Hayes’ conversation with Jade is contrasted with Adam Mitchell’s heart-to-heart with his teenage son, Dylan. Adam encourages Dylan to honor God with his choices; Jade is asked to cede her decision-making to her father. While Dylan’s future is left wide open, Jade’s future is focused exclusively on marriage. I couldn’t help but wonder: what if Jade didn’t want to get married? What if she chose to focus on a career path, or dedicate her life to missions? If Jade met a man when she was thirty or forty, would she still be expected to seek her father’s approval? Would she ever be considered competent to make her own decisions? I got the impression that she would not—that she would be passed like a baton from her father to her husband, always securely in the grip of a male decision-maker. The implications saddened me, despite her father’s benevolent intent.
Overall, Courageous was a nice movie with a positive message, one that I would happily recommend to anyone needing a fresh dose of inspiration for their fathering. The negatives I mentioned passed so quickly that they could easily escape notice—but then again, that is the danger in the way the Christian community has responded to Courageous. We should not embrace it uncritically because it was created by a church; instead, we should identify the messages it presents, examine them under the bright light of Scripture, keep what is good and discard the rest. On this point, I am sure, my brothers and sisters at Sherwood Baptist and I can agree.