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Published Date: January 30, 1997

Published Date: January 30, 1997

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From My Point of View: Men’s Psychological Barriers to Adopting an Egalitarian View

I have been told on a number of occasions that men who adhere to an egalitarian view of the marital relationship and who see no ministry restrictions for women in the church approach the Bible from some personal bias that keeps them from seeing the truth. What usually follows in the conversation (lecture) is armchair psychologizing as to why such men want or need to hold an egalitarian view. I find armchair psychologizing somewhat specious and boring when it occurs among my professional colleagues, so I am quite intolerant when laypersons enter into such endeavors, particularly when I know they are applying their theories to me! Nevertheless, in violation of my own rules in this regard, I offer some of my ideas as to why men have a psychological investment in holding to a hierarchical view and thus may show little willingness even to entertain the possibility that an egalitarian view could be scriptural.

I am borrowing somewhat from the work of Deborah Tannen, You Just Don’t Understand, for some of my basic concepts as I psychologize on this matter. I think Tannen documents well the inclination for men to view relationship dynamics, including simple conversations, as negotiations for status. Men seem to attempt to gain the upper hand in interactions, or at least make sure they are not put in a position of lower status. I think this natural tendency, which is predicted in Genesis 3, is one of the primary reasons for men not relinquishing a hierarchical view of all relationships, but particularly relationships with women. However, I have yet to find a Christian male willing to admit that power and status motivations are inherent to men’s nature and I must admit that I have met many Christian males (hierarchicalists) who are quite humble in most aspects of their lives. Therefore I suspect some additional psychological processes must be operating.

According to Tannen, a second aspect to this negotiation for status is more subtle and likely operative. Men have difficulty admitting they are wrong, because such admissions involve a loss of face, which lowers one’s status.

From my point of view, even many sincerely humble Christian males have difficulty admitting they are wrong, particularly on doctrinal matters. I believe, particularly for males in leadership positions, that admitting one is wrong on a doctrinal matter carries with it the fear that one’s followers will lose total confidence in the leader and possibly in their (the followers’) faith. I have heard many men state that it is more important to remain firm in one’s decisions, even though those decisions may be poor ones, rather than change them. Changing a poor decision will create a crisis of confidence that will be far worse than the impact of the decision itself, or so goes the reasoning.

I have also counseled with numerous fathers who privately admitted they wished they could retract poor decisions, but feared their family members would lose respect for them, so they firmly enacted such decisions while insisting to their family the decisions were appropriate. I sometimes wonder how such men can live with themselves as they force their families to suffer the consequences of decisions the men know are unwise. I also wonder how they can handle the sense of responsibility that must accompany such reasoning.

I suppose this crisis of confidence could be even more personal. I recall one man commenting that if it were possible that he were in error on this matter of women’s subordination which seemed so clear to him in Scripture, how could he have confidence in his ability to interpret Scripture on other doctrinal matters?

Such barriers generally keep many males from even entertaining the possibility of an egalitarian view. But a related psychological barrier that I think is far more powerful arises when men begin to study gender matters and recognize the possibility of the egalitarian view being correct. The barrier they feel is a fear of having to admit they were doctrinally wrong and consequently have caused a great deal of pain to the women in their lives. I have met few males who, after serious soul searching, readily confess to others having sinned against them and express willingness to hear the pain they have caused through their sin. So consider the difficulty many men will experience when considering not only having to admit holding to false doctrine, but further, to having used that false doctrine in such a way that they have severely injured others.

In my marital therapy, I have found few husbands willing to hear the anguish they have caused their wives, even when they have grievously sinned against them. I think this anguish would be even harder to hear when a male has been convinced he was acting righteously. One does not easily admit to having oppressed another, particularly the persons one loves most.

Further, a male must face the reality of having hindered the work of the church by denying women the use of their spiritual gifts, surely quenching the work of the Spirit. The male hierarchicalist must also face the likelihood that he has perpetuated a view that in many societies makes the Gospel a severe stumbling-block to unbelievers. Sincere believers would find both of these ideas difficult to admit, let alone openly confess. I once suggested to a male friend (a hierarchicalist) that rather than his holding to a doctrinally accurate view that attempts to recreate the (so-called) creation order, he was actually helping to maintain the consequences of the Fall. Needless to say, this was not well received.

To summarize: I think subtle, but deeply personal, elements of pride make changing to an egalitarian view particularly difficult for all too many males. Humility and confession come with great difficulty, particularly when males must acknowledge they have not only been doctrinally in error, but have hindered the spread of the Kingdom of God and injured those they love in the process. I hope my theorizing is in error, but my intuitions tell me it is not.