“The guys just don’t feel like they would be able to lead you spiritually,” Ryan, one of my best friends at my small Christian college, turned and said to me gently. It was January of sophomore year, and on a late night drive the conversation had turned to me, and whether or not I was the object of anyone in our larger friend group’s affections. Ryan quickly spoke up, explaining how my relationship with the Lord intimidated any potential suitors, convincing them they wouldn’t be able to fulfill their God-given responsibility to lead me spiritually.
Nineteen at the time, I was just beginning to wrestle with issues of gender theology, and had yet to question the rhetoric of “spiritual leadership” I had grown up hearing on the lips of countless Christian leaders. So even though I probably couldn’t have told you where in the Bible it said that men were to lead women spiritually, I was pretty sure it was there. I mean, why else would people describe it as the Christian relationship ideal with such certainty?
I didn’t know then that the next few years of my life would consist of a serious unraveling of ideas about men and women I had previously accepted without question. The rest of my undergraduate career found me searching Scripture, reading commentaries, writing papers, and attending lectures, only to discover that nowhere in this beautiful book did God or his spokespeople set up a model where men were to be the “spiritual leaders” in a relationship, and women, by default, “spiritual followers”. Sure, in 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5 Paul invokes a headship metaphor when discussing marriage, but the idea of “spiritual leadership” is never explicitly mentioned. Even if I understood Paul’s words to mean that husbands are to hold some kind of authority over their wives (which I don’t, for a variety of interpretive and philosophical reasons), one has to read our own western evangelical rhetoric into the text to extract any kind of command for men to lead spiritually.
Outside of my interpretive objections to male “spiritual leadership”, I can’t get past the fact that even the most avid supporters of the idea have difficulty defining it in practical terms. How would one even begin to define or measure what it looks like to be spiritually “ahead” of someone else? The life of faith is not linear; it cannot be measured using graphs or charts. There is no yardstick behind the concordance in the back our Bibles for the purpose of measuring one’s spirituality. Following Christ is a lifelong love affair, complete with bitter valleys and breathtaking mountain tops, years where devotion comes easy, and years where doubt does too. It is a marathon, this life of love, and to expect someone to be “ahead” seems like a surefire way to force them into hypocrisy, or to adopt significant dissonance between their theology and their actual life.
What a terrible burden to bear, brothers, to carry the pressure of always being ahead, despite your own needs or seasons or wrestlings. What a terrible thought, sisters, to think that you must be less in order for your husband to be more, that you have less to offer your spouse when it comes to looking and loving more like our Jesus.
As Sarah Bessey says, “We can miss the gospel forest for the word by word trees.” And doesn’t the forest of Scripture overwhelmingly affirm that all of our relationships (not limited to, but certainly including marriage) should encourage and challenge us to grow up into the full stature of Christ? Doesn’t it speak of how we are each members of a royal priesthood, commissioned to carry out the ministry of reconciliation? Paul’s letters are littered with a “one another” theology that is never gender exclusive. He exhorts all believers to spur each other on to good works, to teach, encourage, and pray for each other, with no reference to gender. If anything, Scripture is adamant that we are in this together, and that none of us can claim to not need, or carry more importance than another.
Becoming like Jesus is a journey centered around relationships, with God and with each other, and sanctification is a far more wild, beautiful, and complex process than our narrow definitions of who’s in charge and who isn’t can capture.