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Promise Keepers and the Third Wall

Atlanta changed my life! There, I’ve said it, OK? To be a part of the world’s largest-ever collection of clergy ( 42,000) in one building at one time; to hear the thunderous, earsplitting applause, the four-part harmony, and that eerie, haunting, inspiring chant of “Je-e-e-s-u-s” as this handholding, mid-sized city of men affirmed their common faith—what can one say? It will never be forgotten. The highlight for me had to be somewhere around the time of Steve Green’s emotional presentation of “Let the Walls Come Down,” leaving thousands of male pastors of every race and denomination tearfully hugging while offering and receiving apologies for centuries of injustice and blindness to each other’s plight. Hats off to Coach Bill McCartney and the team for bringing vision to fruition as they launched the much-needed Promise Keepers’ theme for 1996, “Break Down the Walls.”

I’ll even add a second admission: Atlanta was good for our home city. Oh, not the whole city, perhaps. But one can never underestimate the impact of this convention on the seven clergy from four denominations in our Canadian town who flew down together and were warmly billeted in caring Atlanta homes. Unforgettable! Of course, residents of this ice-bound Northern Ontario city of Thunder Bay would see any visit to the South as unforgettable. Still, I commend the organizers of this history-breaking convention for impacting men, like nothing in this century has been able to do.

Right about now, my mind is searching for softer, more compassionate words that the blunt and abrupt “but” or “however.” Would “on the other hand” be less offensive? You see, I’m procrastinating again. I just don’t want to say what my conscience says needs to be said. It’s so much easier to preach it to others; to remind them to “speak the truth in love.” Scripture is replete with references to transparent truthfulness and not letting the sun go down with unresolved conflict. Well, the sun has gone down for too many nights, and I’ve avoided the hard realities for long enough. Come to think of it, my procrastination even seems to be dominating this article—as long as I keep talking, I won’t have to say anything....

Enough! Enough rationalizing, enough seeking advice from others, enough praying and searching Scripture. It’s time I took floppy disk in hand and shared with you some genuine concerns that I have about this potentially phenomenal movement—concerns which, if addressed, would only improve and enhance what is already a unique interdenominational ministry that is obviously being blessed by God. Bear with me as I observe and suggest.

1. Gender Sensitivity: Although everything in me prefers to say gender equality, I remind myself that slavery wasn’t abolished in a day. The longer the ship the slower the turning time, and making unnecessary waves can only slow down the process. But even a couple of minor corrections to the metaphorical compass would be welcome. Have you read the PK statement of faith? Actually, it’s quite impressive. Obviously, some careful thought went into including a section on the Trinity, verbal inspiration, deity, pneumatology and creation—and I’m sure it’s not accidental that items like ordinances and eschatology are omitted. I contend that they’ve struck a reasonable compromise for an interdenominational movement.

No, it’s the gender use (or misuse) that concerns me. Did they have to say that “the Bible is God’s revelation to man”? And why do they write that “man was created in the image of God”? You’re right—most of our denominational statements of faith are worded that way too; but most of them are generations old. Recognizing the legal encumbrances in changing them, one can (almost) accept their outdated continuance. But surely a cutting-edge group of church leaders who carefully chose to formulate a statement of faith in the late 1990s must have considered how feminist activists would view such needless gender insensitivity. If anything, they would have helped their cause greatly by purposely affirming the truth that “God’s revelation is written for people, regardless of race, color or gender.”

Such thoughtlessness surfaces verbally at PK conferences, too (as it unfortunately does in many of our pulpits). I’m sure it didn’t cross the well-meaning speaker’s mind when he closed his prayer with “ ... and let all the church of God say ‘Amen!”‘ Was I the only pastor present who noticed that half the church of God was missing? We don’t let our politicians talk this way any more. Why should we offer our congregations less?

2. Sports Motif: Oh, some things were missing—the beer, the cigarettes (for the most part) and the gutter language. But the similarities to professional football were all too noticeable—the incredible hype, the “wave,” the close-to- hypnotic chanting for your team (now here’s a difference—everyone cheered for the same team!), the frenzied buying of souvenirs, the loud singing on the go-train after. After all, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, right? And now it’s time for that big annual cup game. So it’s expected that you leave the wife and kids at home to take off and do the male-bonding thing for a few days. Too bad it’s over Valentine’s Day; but she’ll understand—I’ll send her a card....

OK, I agree; I’m not being totally fair. In fact, I’m being downright facetious. But now that I have your attention, please consider the two points I am trying to make.

First, every football game I’ve ever gone to had a lot of women present, as well as children. Given the right circumstances, football can be a family sport. What a beautiful Valentine’s Day weekend for husbands and wives, men and women, to go to a huge Christian convention.

Secondly; does PK want to even give the slightest hint that they see nothing wrong with Christian men (in this case, professional Christian men) leaving their family because yet another religious function “needs” them? Coach McCartney; your idea of a stadium-sized Christian rally is absolutely brilliant—I genuinely mean that—and God is using it powerfully. But please, don’t become blind to the damaging subliminal messages that some will read into your best intentions.

Personally, I must admit that there were at least ten times during this life-changing conference that I found myself saying, “Oh, how I wish Eleanor were here with me!” I hope that the reason for this was not just that I am also a professional Marriage and Family Therapist. I’d like to think most men agreed with me.

As objectively as I could, I listened and searched for any shred of speech, song or practice that I felt was more effective because we were all male. For me, much of the deep, self-exploring moments would have been even deeper ifl could have hugged my wife right then and asked for her forgiveness. I guess I’ve spent too many years teaching and leading coed therapy groups (not to mention the effectiveness of 12-step programs) to be convinced that the men in that stadium had to be quarantined from women to accomplish what they did. Indeed, if men or women need some gender-particular “alone time,” that can easily be structured into such a weekend. And one can only imagine the healing and reconciliation times between spouses back in the hotel room after!

3. The Seven (Male) Promises: The outstanding article by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis and Douglas Groothuis, “Women Keep Promises, Too!” (Perspectives, Aug/Sept 1995, amplified in this issue of Priscilla Papers) has ably articulated the dangerous tendency of Promise Keepers to inadvertently (or intentionally?) define “manliness” in terms of godliness. Their observation is starkly correct: “... there is nothing that Christ did or said, and nothing in the 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.” Yet, the rapid multiplication of male cell groups, encouraging allegiance to such promises, and the frequent confidential male sharing about spousal issues may easily be misunderstood in our gender-cautious world, and seen as a platform for male spiritual supremacy. Frankly; as a Pastor and Marriage Therapist, I’d love to see every Christian honor such promises, and feel that a wife and husband making confidential pledges together (or couples to each other) might be longer-lasting and more meaningful than some PK groups I’ve seen.

4. 1997 and Beyond: When reading the booklet announcing the 1997 PK theme (“The Making of a Godly Man”), some may wonder how godly men should differ from godly women, and why any differences in women would disqualify them from attending such conventions. In a short page titled “Stand in the Gap” (author unknown) we are reminded of the mass gathering of men planned for Washington, DC on Saturday; October 4, 1997. Here they are referred to as “Christians of all denominations, races and socioeconomic groups.” Again, if you really mean “Christian,” multiply by two. Ironically; the author uses Joel 2:15 as scriptural justification for this all-male extravaganza: “Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a sacred assembly.” I wish the organizers would have truly based this gathering on Joel’s account, and gone on to quote the next verses (2: 16-17, 28): “Gather the people together ... gather the children... let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber... let them say; ‘Spare your people, O Lord ... ‘ Your sons and daughters will prophesy” (emphasis added).

I can’t imagine how exciting it would be to join this huge gathering at Washington, DC (if it were in February; the Canadian contingent would have another reason to get warm—well, warmer). But I already fear some of the bad national and international press that will almost certainly accompany this well-meaning venture. Somehow I’m convinced that the presence of twice as many men and women or perhaps three or four times as many people in families would make a much stronger and more acceptable statement. Why can’t my wife, the Reverend Eleanor Stouffer, be at my side? For that matter, why can’t she go alone? What would the organizers do if a band of women did what a group of Native American men did at Atlanta—walk 168 miles to bring their message to the convention: “We have come to forgive you for your centuries of injustice!” Would there be weeping, hugging and apologies?

For generations, people of color have not been welcome in our white churches, let alone our white pulpits. For generations, certain denominations have not been welcome in some “interdenominational” gatherings. Promise Keepers, you have effectively shown us how to tear down those walls. You deserve our deepest gratitude for doing more to demolish denominationalism and racism than all of our church creeds combined. Never again will a man be unwelcome because he joined a certain church or was born a certain color.

In light of these observations, I solemnly appeal to the strategists and organizers of Promise Keepers: You have effectively proven to the world that you can mobilize men within all churches and races. You have challenged us to reach for higher, purer goals at home, at church, and at work. You have called us to a new measure of accountability. God has used you remarkably to reshape the male identity in the Christian community. We couldn’t (or wouldn’t) have done it without you. Now, are you ready for your greatest challenge?

Having dealt a significant blow to the age-old walls of denominationalism and racism, there remains before our shared nations and our world a third wall of staggering proportions, the destruction of which could do even more for the cause of Christianity than the abolition of slavery and the overcoming of church differences. For until the day arrives when our theologians and denominational leaders recognize the overwhelming abundance of Scripture that at least can be legitimately interpreted in favor of gender-equal ministry opportunity (and indeed is, by scores of reputable scholars); until the day that every service club, symphony, profession or pulpit is equally available to the most gifted applicant; until women are at least offered the same ministry privileges as we now joyfully offer past slaves and minority races, then I gravely fear that our hurting world will reject our definition of Christian grace.

I sadly fear that the ongoing, tenacious, intentional practice of gender inequality in home, profession or ministry and the justification of this with supposed scriptural absolutes, may yet prove to be the single most serious error in evangelistic and ministry strategy for the Christian church entering the third millennium.

Promise Keepers, I beg of you: Seriously, biblically, prayerfully, consider the unprecedented impact your organization could have in tearing down this remaining wall. I can imagine no single project that would more favorably impress the hundreds of millions of women in our continent, and offer hope to billions of oppressed women around the world, than to “let the women prophesy,” educate and ordain them to do it, and finally propel this new Christian church into the third millennium, free from all walls, with a message of hope and equality for the other half of its population.

You have the structure, the experience, and the momentum. May God lead you to find the motivation!

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