This submission is one of our top ten CBE Writing Contest winners. Enjoy!
A massive amount of ink has been spilled in analyzing the decline in male participation in the American church. Even as the number of women leaving the church rises, you can find countless articles pointing to a variety of root causes for the dearth of men. Many blame the “feminization” of the church. Some fault the church for not engaging men’s sense of adventure enough; others suggest that men in our culture have developed a lazy streak.
The hypotheses are many, but usually boil down to one of two culprits: women, or some defect in men. The offered remedy is typically the same: the church needs to become more “masculine.” Various churches have tried to do this—and still, the numbers of men (and women!) in the pews have continued to decline.
I can’t help but notice that the majority of articles which try to solve this “case of the missing men” are written from a complementarian view. From this perspective, men are monolithic. They suggest one solution to the problem because they assume all men have the same essential male nature—which is not finding what it needs within the walls of the sanctuary.
Men aren’t individuals with different backgrounds, personality types, and communication styles. Rather, they are the half of humanity that would prefer more sports analogies in their sermons and more camping trips offered through their men’s group.
An egalitarian perspective requires viewing men not as a monolith but as individuals who have complex histories with church, an array of doubts and questions, and varied experiences of God. There can’t be one single reason for their collective absence; there are clearly many reasons.
However, while all men are different, what they are being told in most churches about themselves and their gender is not. Rather than simply inviting men to sit at the feet of Jesus and let the Spirit transform them, complementarian theology brings in a whole set of rules about what it means to be a man, telling them they must shoulder a weight they may have neither the capacity for nor the inclination to bear. I’d like to suggest it possible that this very theology, and its corresponding view of humanity, could be one of the many factors that have resulted in the case of the missing men.
American culture has already created a burden for men with its rigid prescription for masculinity. Regardless of the product being sold, “Are you man enough?” is the message of much of the advertising targeting males. Movies, shows, commercials, and sports all generate a ubiquitous and blaring message: if a man is not at all times in charge, playing or watching sports, pursuing women, ready to physically fight someone, or any other of a dozen masculine stereotypes and tropes, his identity as a man is called into question.
Being a man is not enough to ensure one’s masculinity; a man must also repeatedly prove he is a man. Instead of rejecting this as antithetical to centering human identity in Christ, the American evangelical church has largely embraced this cultural conception of masculinity, and even added to it!
In many churches, even as men bear the cultural weight of maintaining vigilance over their “manliness,” they are taught that they must also bear the weight of complementarian masculinity. This teaching tells them that they alone need to take the reins of spiritual authority over their spouse and family. On the extreme end of the complementarian spectrum, men are told that they are the spiritual “covering” for their wives and daughters.
Perhaps you have seen the famous “umbrella of protection” diagram, where God shelters men, who in turn cover their wives, who in turn cover their children. The men are supposed to protect their wives and children from the influences of the world or attacks of the enemy; they are supposed to be the spiritual authority over them. In some churches, men are told that they alone will be held accountable by God for the spiritual state of their families, and that failure to “cover” them will expose them to attacks.
On the softer end of that spectrum, men are told that they are to be the spiritual leaders of the home, and that their function is to always lead their wives, while their wives submit to their leadership and decisions. Men are additionally told that they own sole responsibility for the decision-making and teaching within the leadership of the church. Every man is assumed to have all of the leadership qualities needed to lead both home and worship communities.
Cruelly, this conception of masculinity means that admitting you are overwhelmed or that you would prefer that your wife share spiritual authority in your home calls into question your identity as a man. A true “God’s man” would not experience either of these things. When you’re the “umbrella” covering your wife, you’re not allowed weak moments and bad days, and there’s no one to hand the umbrella to.
Rather than making room for the God-given gifts that individual men and women bring into their marriages, this kind of narrow masculinity says that there are whole areas of life—including the spiritual growth of the individual woman they married—that men must shoulder alone.
Rather than allowing men to admit that they feel too weary, distant from God, or full of doubt to bear all of this authority, it ensures their silence by telling them there’s no one else to pick up the slack. The full burden must rest on the men’s shoulders and their shoulders only, because that is what God uniquely designed them alone to do—alone.
All of this sounds like the opposite of the words of Jesus, who says “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” He says, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
In Luke 11:46, Jesus warns the religious leaders, “…woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.”
Jesus promised to lighten burdens, not levy them.
A doctrine that tells men to carry the whole weight of the decision-making in their home, that the spiritual health of their spouse rests only on them, that they are to be sole provider and protector of their wife and children, and that failure to do any of that means not only personal failure but also failure to be a “real” man is a tremendously heavy burden.
Meanwhile, the women—with all of their gifts, experiences, faithfulness, intelligence, and creativity—sit on the sidelines, boxed in by the similarly restrictive prescriptions for their “roles.” They are told to give over the responsibility for the direction of the family and their own spiritual journeys. They are encouraged to sit back and let their husbands do this work. In many evangelical homes and churches women are reined in and prevented from helping men assume the spiritual and emotional burdens of living.
I don’t have any evidence of my theory of the missing men and I’m not sure it’s even provable, because complementarian theology is something like the water a fish swims in. This view of “true” masculinity is so pervasive that it’s taken for granted by many as being plainly what the Bible says. Men may not even be consciously aware of the impact this theology has had on them because it’s invisible to them; they may not be able to put into words what part it might play in their absences from church.
But I can’t help but wonder what might happen if the majority of evangelical churches started calling men into a broader, transformative vision of what their everyday lives and relationships could look like, characterized by partnership and teamwork with women.
If masculinity was re-centered on Christ alone and not on Western culture, and men and women co-labored in the work of faith, life, and leadership, might some men feel called back to the pews? The narrative of the “strong and godly Christian man” who bears the whole weight of decision-making, protection, spiritual direction, and provision asks men to take on the kind of burden that Jesus promises to lessen. He has given us what we need to lessen it! I pray that more churches will let women step out and take up their side of the yoke.