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Published Date: April 30, 1997

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Women Keep Promises, Too! Or, Christian Life is for Both Men and Women

People both within and without the church have been expressing amazement over the rapid growth of Promise Keepers, the Christian men’s movement that was founded by former college football coach Bill McCartney in 1990, and which drew a little over one million participants in 22 cities in 1996. Men involved in this movement are finding the inspiration to live righteously as honest and loving husbands, fathers, and friends. They are learning to take responsibility for their families, to be faithful to their wives, to care for their children, to avoid pornography, to be involved and responsible members of their churches and communities, and to regard people of other races as their equals. In all of this, Promise Keepers offers a bracing antidote to the poison of male irresponsibility that evidently has become pandemic in American society. What can one say in response but what everyone seems to have said already, namely, that PK is doing a vitally good work in the lives of many people in the church today?

Perhaps, however, we ought to express amazement not only at the size and success of Promise Keepers, but also that the idea of someone keeping his promises should be considered so revolutionary as to start a movement! Perhaps we should pause to ponder what kind of church we have become, now that many Christian men seem to require their own books, videos, magazines, Bible study guides, conferences, seminars, support groups, even their own praise and worship music in order to find the motivation to lead lives of godliness and moral virtue. Is not the problem as startling as the size and success of its purported solution?

Nevertheless, if Promise Keepers is, in fact, providing a necessary corrective to a deplorable moral lassitude among men today, then the cheers and hallelujahs we have been hearing from PK enthusiasts everywhere are quite justified. The concern that many PK leaders exhibit with respect to the need for racial reconciliation in churches and communities is especially admirable. Promise Keepers is backing up its words with some of its financial wherewithal in its cooperative effort with other charitable organizations to help rebuild Mrican American churches in the South that have been destroyed by arson.1 The miserable effects of racism-no less than of other sins traditionally condemned by the church—need desperately to be corrected through the wisdom of Scripture and the love and power of the Holy Spirit.

Not only is Promise Keepers distinguished by these many beneficial features, the organization does not appear to be guilty of the things for which it has been most vehemently criticized in the secular press. Promise Keepers is a religious, not a political movement, and as such does not specifically promote any political agenda. Nor is it a gay-bashing enterprise, although PK leaders do rightly indicate that homosexual behavior is contrary to biblical morality.

However, we do not believe that it is justifiable to assume, as so many Christians appear to do, that because this is a “move of God,” it is beyond reproach. The size, rapid growth, and beneficial results of the movement do not necessarily give it the divine imprimatur in all of its aspects. Promise Keepers seems to have made a start in reversing certain cultural trends and in modeling Christian manhood to society at large. PK men are repenting of many of the ways in which they have failed their families and their churches, and in doing so they appear to be avoiding the common tactic of blaming women (especially  “career women “) for all the woes of family life today. However, it seems to us that many PK men lack a clear understanding of what, exactly, they should aspire to be and do. The zeal for reformation and renewal is certainly present and commendable; but care must be taken in order that this zeal be directed toward truth and protected from error or confusion.

In our article we wish to express our concerns as well as our commendations. Our concerns with Promise Keepers pertain not so much to what is explicitly taught as to what seems often to be implicitly assumed. Naturally, the implicit elements of PK are more difficult to perceive, explain and understand than the explicit elements. Because of this, and because so many Christians are aware only of PK’s explicit message, we must devote most of our space to articulating what seems to be a largely unspoken message of PK, namely, that men have a place of primary importance in the spiritual scheme of things —a place not shared equally by women.

It might help forestall some of the inevitable protestations that our “egalitarian agenda” is driving our critique of PK if we note at the outset that this article has turned out quite differently from our expectations. Many of the negative things we expected to find (such as an overt and consistent advocacy of hierarchical gender roles), we did not find; and many of the positive things we did find were unexpected. (For example, we came across one article in New Man magazine that was particularly insightful for our own situation as a couple.) Moreover, what ended up as our primary criticism of the movement (the conflation of manliness and godliness) was discovered quite by surprise (and with no small dismay) through a meticulous survey of PK literature.

Since this article is co-authored by a man, many will wonder if he has attended a PK conference. The question is given urgency by the oft-heard PK epistemology that attending a conference is both necessary and sufficient for understanding the movement. However, a conference provides the emotional context of Promise Keepers, but not necessarily its conceptual context. Conferences can differ greatly from one another in terms of the different speakers’ messages about the roles and relations of women and men. In view of this, the written word —PK books, magazines, newsletters, advertising brochures, and so forth—is probably more likely than the shouted word of the mass rally to reveal the conceptual premises of the movement.

The fact is, I (Doug) have not yet found myself motivated to spend an entire day sitting amongst a huge crowd in a sports stadium, exposed to unpredictable elements while listening to various speakers who are not, typically, among those whom I am most interested in listening to. This lack of motivation arises out of personal preference, not moral principle. I do not consider myself more spiritual than those who attend or speak at PK rallies, nor do I believe they are wasting their time. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, many men are called to greater obedience to Christ and many entrust their lives to the Savior for the first time. For this I praise God. Yet I do not believe that my own sanctification will stagnate or be impoverished if I fail to attend Christian stadium events for men, nor do I think that this is the case for Christian men in general. While such activities are evidently helpful for some, they are not necessarily helpful for all. My own Bible study, prayer, marriage, church life, and circle of family and friends provide the best incentive to godliness that I know.

Had a PK conference been scheduled in our area when I knew I would be working on this article, I probably would have attempted to attend the event for the sake of research. However, we believe that our analysis of PK’s large supply of printed material is sufficient to make an informed judgment on the movement, a judgment that need not stop short of recognizing the clearly positive results that are testified to by many of the men who have attended the conferences.

It is, however, interesting to consider why PK men so readily equate knowledge of Promise Keepers with the experience of a conference. Frequently, the conference experience is all that it takes to  “sell” PK men on the entire movement. We suspect that the conferences have this effect because they utilize the imagery of the sports arena to key into a powerful emotional response among men, many of whom have learned to remain emotionally impassive in the face of virtually every life situation-except when it comes to cheering on their favorite sports team. When a similar emotional response is transferred to the very personal and spiritual issues that are dealt with at the conferences, the experience may engage these men’s emotions in a way that nothing else pertaining to their spiritual and personal lives ever has. As a result, Promise Keepers becomes their  “team,” which they defend, root for, and believe in no matter what. This is only a hypothesis, of course, but it does help account for why PK adherents tend to be so fiercely loyal to the movement and (as we have learned through unpleasant personal experience) tend not to suffer criticism kindly.

Conflating Manliness and Godliness

Along with its efforts to make men virtuous, Promise Keepers also aims to make men masculine. There is certainly nothing wrong with encouraging men to be both godly and masculine-although the former certainly exceeds the latter in importance and eternal significance. The problem is that, in PK talk, these two goals tend to be conflated. For example, the PK motto is that  “a man’s man is a godly man”—which seems to be saying that what makes a man manly is godliness. Jesus Christ is looked upon as the ideal model of masculinity. And the seven promises of a Promise Keeper are held up as descriptive of true masculinity.

Yet PK’s seven promises address basic biblical principles of righteousness that should characterize the lives of all believers, whether male or female. These principles are, in brief:

  1. the primacy of Christian worship and obedience,
  2. the importance of friendship with and accountability to other believers,
  3. moral and sexual purity,
  4. faithful commitment to one’s marriage and family,
  5. support of the church,
  6. racial reconciliation, and
  7. evangelism.

These are excellent moral guidelines, but they do not define masculinity; they simply define essential aspects of godly character.

The PK definition of godly manhood does not imply merely that genuine masculinity is—or at least ought to be—godly. The larger implication of the PK treatment of the meaning of masculinity is that manliness and godliness are identical. In other words, the problem is not with the PK teaching that men should behave in a godly manner (which is true enough), but with the PK tendency to describe masculinity in terms that are indistinguishable from a description of generic godliness, thus rendering the two concepts essentially equivalent. The consequence (even if unintended) of such a manner of speaking is for godliness to be seen as a fundamentally masculine matter, and women to be relegated to the spiritual sidelines.

Interestingly, the casting of Christianity as an essentially masculine,  “muscular” religion, and men as its proper representatives, was the tack taken by male fundamentalist leaders of the early twentieth century in their efforts to attain control of the church, lest women be allowed to  “take over.” This fundamentalist strategy was essentially a male reaction against the female initiative in ministry, and the perceived  “feminization” of the church, that had arisen out of the revivals and social reform movements of the 19th century.2 In what sense, we wonder, might history be repeating itself?

An article by Stu Weber in PK’s New Man magazine declares that Jesus Christ is the  “perfect model” of  “maximum manhood,” and describes the  “heart of Jesus’ manhood” as his  “sense of purpose” and his  “clarity of vision.” Waxing rhapsodic over his vaunted view of manhood, Weber declares,  “That’s the heart of what makes a man. That ringing sense of destiny…. A man, you see, was made for a cause. A man was made for something outside of himself. 3 After reading these ecstatic pronouncements, we cannot help but ask whether men like Weber really believe that it is a singularly male condition to have a life mission, a sense of purpose larger than oneself. Was Jesus’ single-mi11ded determination to accomplish the mission with which his Father had commissioned him a uniquely masculine endeavor? Do women have no sense of purpose or destiny outside of their small selves? Are they content to live merely from one meal preparation to the next, with no mind for anything but the practical details of the here and now? Is every woman satisfied merely with helping her man fulfill his mission in life? If a sense of destiny is the distinguishing mark of manhood, then womanhood is left with only a sense of vicarious destiny.

The fact of the matter is that living for a mission outside of oneself is not a sexual need but a human need, and is shared by male and female humans alike. Women and men are both created with the need to love and be loved, to have a sense of life purpose and personal accomplishment, and, ultimately, to glorify God and seek his kingdom (Mt 6:33, Col 3: 17). Both men and women have these needs, because these are human needs, and men and women are both human. When masculinity is understood as definitive of every thing a man is and does, common elements of human behavior that are in reality no more male than female tend to be annexed as part and parcel of masculinity. As a result, maleness can come to be seen as equivalent to or representative of humanness in general, while femaleness is defined solely in terms of those sexual attributes and behaviors that are not a part of the masculine package.

Moreover, if masculinity is the manly behavior that sets men apart from women (and which, therefore, is inappropriate for women), and if Christ serve as a model for this sort of behavior, then women are constitutionally incapable of emulating Christ to the degree that men are able to do. In other words, if Christian men are like Christ not simply because they are Christians but also because they are men, then men are simply more Christ-like than women. Unfortunately, the PK emphasis on the maleness of Jesus Christ ( “truly a phallic male” in the words of Robert Hicks) can only encourage such an assumption.4 The biblical truth of the matter, of course, is that there is nothing that Christ did or said, and nothing in PK’s seven promises (save some gender-specific terms), that is any less applicable to the life of a godly woman than to the life of a godly man.

A view of manhood as more representative than womanhood of both God and humanity may align with the perspective of traditional androcentric culture, but it clearly does not square with biblical teaching. According to Scripture, man and woman are equally created in God’s image (Gen 1:27; 5:1-2), equally recreated as  “sons,” or heirs, of God in Christ (Gal 3: 26-28; 1 Pet 3: 7), and equally commissioned as priests unto God and representatives of God (1 Pet 2:5, 9; 2 Cor 5:20, Rev 1:6). There is a fundamental, essential equality here that precludes imputing to one gender a greater humanness or spiritual significance than the other. And, doubtless, PK folk would not quarrel with this. A familiar sentiment in PK literature is that one of the  “primary goals” of the ministry is to  “deepen the commitment of men to respect and honor women.”5

Nonetheless, Promise Keepers’ all-inclusive definitions of Christian manhood seem to point toward a view of manhood as representative of and normative for both godliness and humanness. This view appears to be reflected in and reinforced by the PK habit of equivocating between the generic and the gender-specific meanings of terms such as “man,”  “men,” and “sons.” Certain Bible verses, quotations, and common phrases, in which these terms are properly understood in the traditionally generic sense of “human” or “person,” are persistently used to refer specifically to men. This practice pops up repeatedly in PK talk—in their worship songs for men, their various publications, even in the name of the official PK magazine New Man (taken from Eph 4:24, translated  “new man” in the KJV; and “new self” in the NIV).6 PK’s use of “man” and “men” implies that even when intended generically, these terms are still more applicable to men than to women—strongly suggesting that men are more central to both the human agenda and the agenda of God’s kingdom.

A pointed example of the conflation of manliness and godliness in PK rhetoric is found in Tony Evans’ fondness for employing terms such as “sissified” and “feminized” to refer to behavior by men that is immature or irresponsible.7 The logical implication of such talk is that virtue and moral maturity are masculine, and irresponsible and self-indulgent behavior is feminine. It should not be assumed that Evans intends to communicate this; it seems his words are meant to motivate men to change their behavior by means of the time-honored method of challenging their sense of masculinity. However, when godly behavior is depicted as essentially masculine, womanhood is implicitly consigned to a category of spiritual “difference,” if not deficiency.

The notion of a gender requirement for spirituality is by no means alien to popular evangelical perceptions. Christian products—PK or otherwise—that package spirituality along lines of gender (Bible verses for men, devotions for women, worship music for men, and so forth) are saying, in effect, that the spiritual life is substantially different for men than it is for women. Accordingly, the various PK-counterpart women’s groups offer programs quite different from the grandiose goals of PK, which include setting the stage for spiritual revival by means of the prayers and repentance of godly men who will “stand in the gap” for God on behalf of both America and the church (the impetus behind the “Sacred Assembly of Men” planned for Washington, DC, October 1997).

By contrast, it seems the main goal of the Women of Faith Joyful Journey conferences-perhaps the highest-profile female counterpart to PK—is simply to provide women opportunity to get away from their daily woes and cares in order to regain their sense of humor about life, and to commiserate and exchange comfort and consolation with other women. (The conference was described by one attendee as “a giant Christian slumber party.”)8 Other groups, such as Suitable Helpers, aim to encourage women to help their husbands be spiritual leaders. In general, the women appear dutifully to be fitting into the room that remains for them after PK men assume for themselves the crucial tasks of saving the nation and reviving the church.

The activities of both the men’s movement and the assorted women’s movements presuppose that the spiritual needs and responsibilities of women and men are vastly different. Biblically, however, spiritual gifts and qualities do not come in shades of pink and blue! When, for example, the fruit of the Spirit is listed in Galatians 5:22-23, there is not even a hint that some fruit is masculine and some feminine. But just as it is wrong for radical spiritual feminists to insist that there is something spiritually advantageous to being female, so it would also be wrong for Christian men to slip into the assumption that maleness is somehow more spiritually important to the cause of Christ-that manliness is next to godliness, as it were.

To be fair, however, it does not seem that Promise Keepers intends to teach pejorative views of women. Prejudices about the primacy of men usually exist as unexamined, inarticulated, culturally-conditioned assumptions, and are passed on to and received by others in the same way. The confusion and equivocation concerning the place and purpose of women in the PK scheme of things appear to be a result more of thoughtlessness than of ill intent. It seems that Promise Keepers has grown so quickly that comparatively little time has been spent by its leaders and strategists on carefully thinking through the ideology and theology of the movement, although some effort is now being expended in this area. To date, however, much has been assumed and very little discussed or debated when it comes to such questions as the validity and meaning of the concept of masculinity, how (or even if) a godly man’s behavior is distinguishable from a godly woman’s behavior, and how women fit into the “masculine” Christianity being promoted by PK.

To be sure, nowhere does a PK person proclaim outright that godliness and manliness are essentially equivalent. But these two subjects are repeatedly dealt with in a way that points toward this as a necessary outcome. Our concern is that such a view would seem to be the logical end of the overly-expansive concept of masculinity that PK appears to promote. And, when left to run their course, ideologies do tend to proceed from their premises toward their logical conclusions.

An essential element of the solution to this problem would be for masculinity to be conceptualized with considerably more care and precision, so that it is limited to that which pertains simply to male sexuality-which, by definition, has to do with the ways in which men differ from women. Basic principles of godly character (which do not differentiate men from women) ought not be included in a definition of masculinity (which does differentiate men from women). Certainly, godly character should inform and shape the expression of a man’s masculinity; but the development of godly character should not be addressed in such a way that it can easily be construed as a particularly masculine enterprise.

When godliness is presented as a mark of manliness, it serves to bait the hook, as it were, by persuading men that in behaving virtuously (something men do not always want to do), they thereby will prove themselves to be masculine (something men are normally quite eager to do!). One wonders what would happen if PK men were asked to keep their promises simply because this is the mark of a godly person, without this virtuous behavior being linked to an attribution of masculinity? Where would all the men be then?

The Leadership of Men in the Home

There is little if any argument in PK teaching (aside from the occasional citing of a biblical proof text) for why leadership should be considered a male responsibility, or why a man should be deemed the spiritual leader of his home. Nor is there any acknowledgment that male leadership is a legitimately debatable view; it evidently is just assumed to be the biblical position.

But not only is male leadership assumed rather than defended and delineated (it isn’t even mentioned in the seven promises), it also tends to be described in different ways by different PK men. At one extreme, popular PK speaker Tony Evans declares that “a father is to be the priest of his home,” and that a man who wants to reclaim spiritual purity in his life must sit down with his wife and inform her in no uncertain terms that he is henceforth taking the leadership of the family away from her. He is not to ask her about this; he is to tell her.9 In a recent television news interview Bill McCartney explained the PK phenomenon in terms of his conviction that, “There is a hunger and a thirst among men to assume their rightful role as the spiritual leaders in their homes.”10 At the 1993 conference, McCartney stated that a husband is responsible for his wife’s spiritual life and explained how a man is to pray as the priest of the home.11 At the other end of the spectrum, a man’s leadership is often described simply as servanthood, with no mention of taking charge or assuming a role of authority. “We lead by serving” seems to be a familiar theme. Interestingly, the understanding of male leadership as commander-in-chief is more likely to be brought out in secular presentations of PK, while the servanthood approach is usually the only view presented in Christian discussions of the movement.

Is a man to lead his family by acting as the authoritative representative of God to his wife and children, determining God’s will for them and expecting them to follow his directives? Or does a man lead his family by being willing, able, and available to serve in whatever ways are needed, and by taking the initiative necessary to see to it that the lives of the family members proceed in a generally godly direction? The former understanding describes a position of authority which, by definition, excludes the wife and mother (whom the man “leads” along with the children). The latter is more descriptive of responsibility than of authority, and is just as applicable to the wife and mother as to the husband and father. Moreover, this position describes true servanthood; the former does not. A well-adjusted, adult woman is not “served” when a man exercises over her the authority of traditional male “headship.” Indeed, such unearned, unilateral, final, and irrevocable authority is always incompatible with servanthood. Servant leadership, by definition, is limited, revocable, accountable to those who are governed, and must be earned.12

The gender agenda that traditionalists have inherited from nineteenth-century Victorian society is dearly being modified by Promise Keepers. A helpful corrective is the PK emphasis on the need for men to reverse the social pattern that was established in the last century, whereby men became separated both physically and emotionally from their families. Instead, fathers are exhorted to spend time developing loving relationships with their family members. This is, indeed, a sorely-needed exhortation.

However, another PK modification of the Victorian gender agenda is not so helpful. In Victorian culture, a woman’s responsibility to provide moral instruction and leadership for her family was regarded as an essential element of the “high calling of motherhood.”13 But instead of correcting this misapprehension by granting that the mother and father should share responsibility for moral leadership, much PK teaching seems intent on transferring moral and spiritual leadership in the family to the father exclusively. In this we again hear echoes of early twentieth-century fundamentalist efforts to solidify the moral and spiritual leadership of men in the home. 14 Ironically, much of the writing in a PK newsletter on the “high calling” of fatherhood is reminiscent of the high-flown rhetoric that mystified and glorified Victorian motherhood. 15

Of course, in the Victorian era, woman’s place as a vocational mother served as a counterbalance of sores to the man’s culturally-assigned role of public leadership and influence. Being a “full-time” mother was all that remained for many women (particularly middle and upper-class women) after industrialization took most of the productive work (and the men with it) out of the home and into the factories. In the PK agenda, however, it seems that men not only retain their roles of public leadership, but now are also urged to assume the role of moral and spiritual leadership in their private home life. Gary Rosberg’s description of his job as a father doesn’t seem to leave much for the mother to do:

It’s my job to lead my family spiritually, to prepare my children for living for eternity, for eternal life with God. It’s my job to equip them, edify them, and-when necessary—to admonish them with deep respect and honor. As the leader of my home, my job is to live for eternity and lead my family the same way.16

Rosberg states repeatedly that the moral and spiritual leadership of the family is “my job,” not “our job” (that is, his and his wife’s together). Since this definition of fatherhood does not indicate that it is a full-time job (unlike the Victorian mother, Rosberg has his own full-time career), evidently there does remain a great deal of housework, at least, for the mother to do!

Happily, some briefer descriptions of fatherhood in the same newsletter are not marked by such a sense of self-importance. A short essay by John Maxwell does not even present his role as father as distinct from his wife’s role as mother, but as part of a joint effort between husband and wife to share parenting decisions and responsibilities. For this PK man, father and mother appear to be on the same level, working together and pooling their wisdom and resources, with neither one deemed more crucial to the family’s spiritual health than the other.17

Men’s Leadership in Church and Society

The PK view of male leadership in the church, while still not explicitly delineated, seems to be somewhat less ambiguous than PK references to male leadership in the home. The apparent decrease in ambiguity follows the development of the PK Clergy Conference for Men (first held February 1996). The purpose of these conferences is tied in with the PK vision of a mighty movement of godly men ushering in a time of.revival for the church. Accordingly; the advertising brochure for the 1996 conference stated that “revivals led by pastors have the greatest impact and endure the longest”; therefore, “the Lord is raising up this special clergy conference for men to refresh pastors … that they might lead His Church into full-scale revival.”18

The theme of male pastors leading the charge was reinforced at the conference itself by remarks such as Tony Evans’ that “God’s starting team has taken the field” —which nicely combines the familiar sports motif of PK conferences with the familiar premise that the important movers and shapers, the folks who really get things done for God (“God’s starting team”), are men.19 The upcoming clergy conferences for men are similarly explained in terms of Promise Keepers’ desire “to be a catalyst for revival in the personal life of clergy and their congregations.”20 In these and many other statements promoting the clergy conferences, references to “clergy” and “pastors” are repeatedly made with the implicit understanding that these people are all men.

Given that the clearly stated purpose of these male-only clergy conferences is the spiritual renewal of pastors in preparation for their role of spiritual leadership in the coming revival, it follows that Promise Keepers must believe that the spiritual renewal of female pastors is irrelevant to the accomplishment of this objective. Either women clergy are in no need of spiritual renewal or the church is in no need of their spiritual leadership. There is no way to make sense of the PK rhetoric concerning the clergy conferences other than to presuppose a primary role of spiritual importance and leadership for men in the church.

Promise Keepers does not explicitly set limits on women’s activities, or define with clarity what they mean by the male role of “spiritual leadership.” There does not as yet appear to be one “official” PK position on the place of women in the church. But even if there were an official position, and even if it were different from the conclusions that are logically drawn from PK’s public rhetoric, it would be less important than the message PK actually communicates publicly in terms of words and deeds; for this is what influences people’s thinking, not the beliefs that may be held in theory behind the scenes.

It is inadequate for PK to respond to objections concerning the exclusion of female pastors simply by saying that of course only men are allowed because “Promise Keepers is a men’s movement.”21 The entire purpose of a men’s movement is to address issues that are of particular relevance to men.22 And PK does this with respect to men’s concerns about sexuality and their roles as husbands and fathers. To include among these issues the role of being a pastor is either to be very confused about the meaning of a men’s movement, or to be quite convinced that pastoral ministry is a uniquely male concern because it is a role in which women simply do not belong.23 There are, of course, some issues pertaining to the pastorate that are likely to be of more concern to male pastors than female pastors. But such issues are clearly not the main point of the clergy conferences, which are set up with the expressed generic intent of equipping pastors to lead the whole church into revival.

A related area of ambiguity has to do with the prominent belief within Promise Keepers that the troubles of our country today are due primarily to the fact that men have not been doing what God has called them to do. Most PK statements along these lines seem sufficiently vague as to allow two very different interpretations, each with very different implications for the value placed upon womanhood. Is the moral and social order in the nation falling apart for lack of the spiritual leadership that only men can adequately provide? Or are things degenerating simply because men have not been carrying their share of the burden, but have left family, church, and social responsibilities largely to women (many of whom have been wearing themselves out doing double duty)?

The former view entails a hierarchy of power that is drawn along gender lines; the latter advocates a mutual, cooperative effort in which each person utilizes his or her gifts in service to God and others. The former imputes to men a unique and essential spiritual purpose in which women do not participate. The latter accords men and women equal importance and influence in the kingdom of God, thereby making the moral integrity of our nation and the spiritual vitality of our church dependent not primarily on men, but on everyone pulling his or her weight, regardless of gender.

The oft-quoted statement of James Dobson to the effect that the future of America and even western civilization depends entirely on male leadership—a statement neither unfamiliar or unapproved in PK circles—certainly comes down on the side of leadership as an exclusively male right and responsibility.24

So, it seems, does the upcoming “sacred assembly of men” in Washington, DC that will “stand in the gap” before God in prayerful repentance on behalf of the nation. The event is crucial, explains its director Dale Schlafer, because “the corporate act of contrition is perhaps the only thing left to stay God’s hand of judgment of His people.”25 Schlafer states:

The Bible gives us specific steps by which to appeal to God for spiritual revival. In Joel 2: 15, God tells us to “declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly.” Stand in the Gap is our intentional response to a specific invitation by God, offering to revive His church.26

Blithely ignored in this rationale is the fact that the “specific steps” indicated in the Joel passage clearly refer to a sacred assembly of all the people, young and old, male and female (see verse 16). Why is it, then, that for the first time in thousands of years, ever since God first called a people to himself, the “sacred assembly,” the “corporate act of contrition,” is now an exclusively male event? Repeatedly, Promise Keepers refers to this “sacred assembly of men” as though it were representative of the church as a whole. It is deemed necessary that men of all races and denominations be present; women, however, seem to be superfluous.

The PK brochure explains that the event is limited to men “because Promise Keepers is a men’s ministry, and because it is men who have failed to rake the spiritual leadership role in the family and Church.” This explanation is one of the more pointed statements of the presumed spiritual priority of manhood. Men are to take “the spiritual leadership role.” While this role, as usual, is not defined, it evidently is not a role shared with women.

Moreover, the failure of men to assume spiritual leadership cannot be understood to pertain merely to pastoral leadership. At this point in history, female pastors are something of a novelty in evangelical churches; men certainly have not failed to assume this role for themselves. The special role of spiritual leadership that is men’s alone evidently also pertains to lay leadership in the church, as well as spiritual leadership in the home. Yet it is somewhat unclear whether the job of preparing the church and the nation for revival is essentially a masculine enterprise, or whether men have been given this task at this time simply because they have more sin for which to repent than women (specifically, their “failure” to exercise spiritual leadership). The implication, however, seems to be that men’s special leadership role lends a special potency to men’s prayers for revival.

Promise Keepers insists that it is following historical precedent in believing that men’s prayers of repentance will set the spiritual stage for revival. They cite the pattern of revival formation in the Old Testament and in American history. However, they overlook the fact that never has revival come only—or even primarily—in response to the prayers of men. Nor have the sacred assemblies in the revivals of either Old Testament or American history been only of men. Historically and biblically, revival is a matter of equal concern to believers of both genders; typically, periods of revival lead to more involvement of women in public ministry.

The apparent assumption that the upcoming “Sacred Assembly of Men” is representative of the church as a whole is somewhat evocative of ancient Judaism, which permitted women but required men to attend the annual feasts or festivals; for the men served as representatives of their families,27 (Of course, PK is not even permitting women to attend their Sacred Assembly.) It probably should not be assumed that PK men understand that this Jewish custom has been superseded in the new covenant, by which all believers have become one in Christ and priests unto God without respect to race, class, or gender. 28

The ambiguity concerning the meaning and extent of men’s leadership responsibilities seems almost to be intentional; it does, after all, benefit the movement in terms of numerical growth. Talk of men’s spiritual leadership seems to be carefully worded so as to appeal to hierarchically-minded men without overtly offending egalitarian men. Although PK teachers stop short of illustrating male leadership with specific instructions and diagrams of chains of command (for this would surely draw fire from those who hold to gender equality), they exert no effort to unseat the chain of command that most likely resides as an archetype of sorts in the minds of many Christian men. Talk of male “leadership” —however ill-defined—is bound to attract men who have inextricably associated masculinity with authority. Indeed, PK’s implicit message that men are the ones upon whose leadership the family, the church and even the society depend for their spiritual and moral vitality seems to constitute a significant part of the PK response to the “crisis of masculinity” that is apparently afflicting American men at this time.

Although PK leaders evidently do not consider it necessary to make their agenda explicit on the issue of male leadership, that agenda does need to be clarified. To allow PK teaching on the subject to appear to point at once in opposite directions is to leave the matter up to the assumptions and prejudices that come naturally to each man’s mind. These antithetical understandings of men’s leadership responsibilities should at least be presented as options to be discussed and explored in light of biblical principles. Unfortunately, however (and this has been typical of mass evangelical movements), the overall tenor of PK has not, thus far, been conducive to thoughtful reflection. Promise Keepers typically offers men answers, not questions; catchy slogans, not difficult alternatives to study and evaluate.

The ambiguities in this movement lead us to ask: As PK men learn to live lives of virtue, integrity, and responsibility in their homes, churches, and communities, will they be doing these good things with the primary motive of building up the kingdom of God in ;a united effort with other believers (both male and female)? Or will their primary motive be their desire to shore up their own beleaguered sense of manhood-perhaps even at the expense of women’s sense of personhood?

Racism is Evil, but Sexism Doesn’t Exist

Although many of the men involved in Promise Keepers are evidently greatly troubled over the pain that minorities (especially African Americans) experience from racism, they typically do not demonstrate comparable concern over the pain women experience from sexism. While even traditionalist women acknowledge the existence of an unbiblical and hurtful prejudice against women in many evangelical churches, awareness of this problem seems to be missing from the PK agenda. The movement does show concern for the suffering that many women have experienced as a result of absent, irresponsible, and even abusive husbands; this concern is commendable. However, men cannot truly honor and respect women—as PK urges them to do—until they first recognize and repent of the ways in which they may habitually dishonor and disrespect women through thoughtless and even unintentional acts and attitudes of sexist prejudice.

It is good that PK men are learning to hear, without criticism or judgment, the hurt that their minority brothers have felt in a white-dominant society. It is a shame that PK men are not also learning to hear, uncritically and nonjudgmentally, the pain that women of all races have experienced in a male-dominant church and society.

The PK practice of downplaying the presence and problems of women is perplexing in light of the movement’s strong concern for unity among believers. It is also perplexing in view of PK’s ever-widening areas of spiritual emphasis-most of which are as equally applicable to women as to men, yet are nonetheless limited to men. Bill McCartney states that “the building of bridges across the divisions that currently separate believers is an important part of why God called us into being as an organization,” and he expresses understandable distress over the presence of hostility between black and white believers.29 But where is the concern about the divisions and hostilities that exist between men and women in the church? Or is the reality of such problems simply denied? If the 1996 PK Clergy Conference truly was “birthed on the biblical premise that walls of division in the church will only fall as its shepherds lead the way,” then it is indeed ironic that such a conference would exclude the church’s female shepherds, thus reinforcing the divisive prejudice against women in pastoral ministry.30

Perhaps these perplexities are simply a result of rampant but unreflective growth. Like any huge organization, Promise Keepers must justify and perpetuate its existence by continually adding to its “product line.” Because there is only so much that can be done with issues specific to men, PK projects have spilled over into the generic concerns of all Christians-yet without being opened up to all Christians because, as the refrain goes, “Promise Keepers is a men’s movement.” This simplistic rationale, however, begs some important questions: Ought a men’s movement offer events and activities that are not specifically relevant to men’s issues? Does this approach, in the end, exclude and minimize women as much as it encourages and builds up men? If so, is this what Promise Keepers really wants to do?

The demeaning and minimizing of women is by no means a natural or necessary consequence of a men’s movement. A truly Christian men’s ministry would seem to be an ideal setting in which to instill in men a genuine empathy and respect for women as fellow believers and as equally valuable leaders and ministers in God’s kingdom. Perhaps, by God’s grace, the PK advocacy of emotional expressiveness, relational intimacy, selfless service to others, and hands-on fathering (even if referred to by some PK men as “babysitting”!) will eventually undermine notions of male centrality and authority-which traditionally have been legitimated and perpetuated in large part by the stereotypically masculine traits of emotional distance, invulnerability, insensitivity, and disinterest in child care.

Where is Promise Keepers Going?

It was, perhaps, inevitable that after two decades of evangelical obsessing over roles for women, there should emerge an evangelical movement designed to respond to men’s uncertainty as to their special place in the spiritual order. Historian Margaret Lamberts Bendroth suggests that, following a period of belabored and unresolved debate concerning women’s roles in the church, the question of the meaning of masculinity “is perhaps the place where fresh social dialogue among evangelicals might begin. Indeed, if healing is to occur, this is where it must happen.”31

Whether or not this is the case, until men are able to feel securely masculine without having to exercise authority over women or carve out for themselves some special spiritual ministry that is closed to women, women will never enjoy equal status and respect. Despite the rhetoric about PK events being used by God to usher in revival, genuine spiritual renewal cannot occur apart from a Spirit-led appreciation and affirmation of every believer’s spiritual gifts and callings—regardless of distinctions not only of race and denomination, but also of gender.

In view of the power and prominence of Promise Keepers, much will be determined for both women and men in the church by the way in which this movement responds (or fails to respond) to issues such as those raised in this article.

It is impossible to predict the direction in which Promise Keepers will head from here. Much PK talk to date seems to imply that men have a certain primacy in God’s agenda, and that this place of special importance is tied in with an exclusively male role of spiritual leadership (however benevolently or imperiously that role may be conceived) in both the home and the church. The danger here is that women will not be honored but marginalized, that they will not be seen as equal partners with men in the Christian enterprise, and that the church will end up looking to “godly manhood” to save the day, make the difference, and bring about spiritual revival.

The positive possibility, on the other hand, is that Christians will engage in earnest prayer and biblically-informed dialogue concerning these unresolved issues within Promise Keepers, in order that this powerful and influential movement might be shaped by the will of God and not merely by the minds of men.


  1. Men of Action, Summer 1996, 3.
  2. See Margaret Lamberts Bendroth, Fundamentalism and Gender: 1875 to the Present (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), chapter 1.
  3. Stu Weber, “The Ultimate Tender Warrior,” New Man, July/August 1994, 77-80.
  4. See Robert Hicks, “The Masculine Journey,” Men of Action, Spring/Summer 1993, 4.
  5. See The Making of a Godly Man: Promise Keepers 1997 Men’s Conferences, 25.
  6. The Men of Action newsletter, Spring 1994, quotes this verse (in the NKJV) and states that PK has “chosen that verse as a cornerstone for our new men’s magazine, published with Strang Communications.” As of April1997, however, New Man ceased being the official publication of PK; see Christianity Today, 28 April 1997, 85.
  7. See Tony Evans, “Spiritual Purity,” in Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, ed. AI Janssen and Larry K. Weeden (Colorado Springs: Focus on the Family, 1994), 73, 74, 80, 81.
  8. Joannie M. Schrof, ‘“A giant Christian slumber party,”’ U.S. News & World Report, 17 February 1997, 19.
  9. Evans, 76, 79-80.
  10. “9 News,”10 pm, 6/20/96, Denver, CO.
  11. Presentation by journalist Doug LeBlanc, Denver area CBE meeting, August 1995.
  12. For more on this, see Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality (Grand Rapids, Ml: Baker Books, 1997), 78-83.
  13. For an overview of Victorian gender roles, see Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Women Caught in the Conflict: The Culture War Between Traditionalism and Feminism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), chapter 1.
  14. See Bendroth, 102-104.
  15. Men of Action, Summer 1996. See especially the “Letter from the Editor,” 2.
  16. Gary Rosberg, “A Father’s Legacy,” in ibid., 5.
  17. “Four Thoughts on Fathering,” in ibid., 11.
  18. Fan Into Flame: 1996 Clergy Conference for Men, 1.
  19. “All Things Considered,” PBS radio, 2/23/96.
  20. The Making of a Godly Man: Promise Keepers 1997 Men’s Conference, 5.
  21. Stated by Wes Roberts, director of the 1996 clergy conference; reported by Gayle White, “Clergy Conference Stirs Historic Show of Unity,” Christianity Today, 8 April1996, 88.
  22. It is sometimes noted in PK’s explanations for why the conferences are limited to men that “the conferences are designed for specific men’s issues.” See Seize the Moment; PK ’94.
  23. For discussion of why there is no compelling reason, either biblically or theologically, to deny women pastoral ministry, see Groothuis, Good News, especially chapters 4, 8 & 9.
  24. See Jim and Lynne Marian, “Greg Laurie Touches His Generation,” New Man, January/February 1995, 50.
  25. “Stand in the Gap: A Sacred Assembly of Men,” The Making of a Godly Man: Promise Keepers 1997 Men’s Conferences, 6.
  26. “Stand in the Gap: A Sacred Assembly of Men,” Men of Action, Spring 1997, 8.
  27. See “Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts,” in HarperCollins Bible Dictionary rev. ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 333; also Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Time& of Jesus the Messiah, third edition, (McLean, VA: MacDonald Publishing Co., n.d.; orig. pub. 1886), 1:235-36.
  28. For a development of this theme, see Groothuis, Good News, chapter 1.
  29. Bill McCartney, “Call to Unity,” in Seven Promises, 160, 166.
  30. “Highlights of 1996,” The Making of a Godly Man, 9.
  31. Bendroth, 127.