Michael Horton, Gender Stereotypes, and Me

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Michael Horton recently offered up a critique of something he called “muscular Christianity,” and because I was (I think) referenced in his article as being among the bad guys, I thought I should say something about it.

My first point has to do with the (I think) in the previous sentence. Throughout the article, Horton makes a number of telling points, depending on who he is talking about, and yet one is never quite sure. There are lots of quotes and “quote marks,” but one can only hover on the threshold of knowing who he is talking about, and it appears that he is addressing quite a wide range of addressees. The main named practioners of this muscular Christianity he is fending off were D.L. Moody and Billy Sunday, and they have been dead, lo, this long time.

I think Driscoll was in there somewhere, and John Piper was the one who said that God gave Christianity a “masculine feel,” and I only know that because I was there when he said it. I was obliquely referenced in the “‘federal husband’ syndrome that goes beyond the legitimate spiritual leadership of the heads of households found in Scripture.” But actually, the model for federal headship is Christ and His love for the church, and so I am not quite sure how someone might “go beyond” that. Masculinity, as I define it, is the glad assumption of sacrificial responsibility, and I have never in my life met a man who overdid it.

Some of the things said in the citations were pretty bad, but why were there perfectly reasonable points lumped in with them? Maybe the bad quotes are only bad taken out of context, and we are not given a context to look up. Looking things up might ruin the party. Maybe citing your opponents would look too masculine, and Horton didn’t want to undercut his central point.

Horton is wearied by “countless exercises in ‘applied Christianity’ . . . without much ‘Christianity’ to apply.” Oh, I don’t know. The apostle Paul tells us that the first three chapters of Ephesians pointed to the heighth, breadth, and depth of the grace of God, and that is plenty of Christianity to apply, at least for me. And then he tells husbands, a page or two later, to love their wives in just that way. Love your wives, as Christ loved the church, and gave Himself up for her. Not much to apply? Golly!

So here is my first critique. Tell us who you are talking about so we can tell if you are representing them fairly or accurately. There is a lot of territory between Billy Sunday and John Piper, and so if your combine is covering that wide a swath then maybe you are getting into half of your neighbor’s crop.


My second problem is that the whole critique appears to rest on a confusion about the role of “gender stereotypes from our culture.” He tells us that “a lot of gender differences are cultural.” Okay. Of course they are. This particular zombie appears in every last one of our discussions of this topic, and it always wants to eat our brains. Let us arise therefore, with the machete of truth, and decapitate this one for good and all.

So here it is. There are certain creational differences between the sexes, which God intended to be operative from the begining of the world to the end of it. Women bearing and nurturing children would be something in that category. Men protecting and providing for their families would be another one. But these creational differences have a deep need to find, discover, and apply a wider vocabulary. They want to express themselves further. That is why there are other differences that do not fall into this category of creational difference, but which are roles assigned to the two sexes by societal expectation. And (cue the zombie) it is facilely assumed in discussions like this one that if it is not a creational given, scripturally assigned, with black ink on white paper, we need not pay any attention to it. It is only “a gender stereotype,” and what a relief to us all!

The problem is that the Bible tells us that we need to honor the standards assigned by our culture in situations just like this one. There is no other way to show honor to our neighbor individually than by knowing and honoring the standards established by our neighbor collectively.

“Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man, and fear thy God: I am the Lord”(Lev. 19:32). But who in their right mind would suppose that our cultural vocabulary for honoring the elderly is identical with that shown 3,500 years ago? But we still have to do it, right? And when we do it, it should be with our vocabulary, not theirs, even though our vocabulary is not in the Bible. Honor all men (1 Pet. 2:17). But how? I don’t know how to do this without resorting to all these darn cultural stereotypes. Only language I know, more’s the pity, and wouldn’t it be nice if we could just honor all men in a more pristine location, like Platoburg? And husbands are called to honor their wives as the weaker vessel (1 Pet. 3:17), but if we listen to Horton and set aside our knowledge of gender roles as culturally assigned, the dutiful husband would then be left with donning grease paint on his face, and doing a little mime in the evenings. If she doesn’t get it, maybe its because she’s the weaker vessel. Or the smarter vessel. Or something.

Suppose you overheard one of the kids from your church telling one of the sweet little church ladies to “eff off.” Suppose you confronted him about it, and he defended himself by saying that the meaning assigned to those particular sounds were assigned by our culture, and not by the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture. Suppose further that he scoffs and says that the whole thing is “linguistically arbitrary.” And, you know, he’s right, and I suppose you also know that he is entirely and completely in the wrong. It is linguistically arbitrary, and he still doesn’t get to speak that way.

The Bible never tells us that men should take out the garbage, or that a gentleman holds a seat for the lady, or that opening a car door for your wife is a class act, and so on. Never. But that is irrelevant. Our culture gives us the vocabulary of honor, but the Bible tells us how we must do something with that vocabulary.

When I am told in the Scriptures to love my wife, I am told nothing about what I must do on our anniversary. But the anniversary gives me an opportunity to do what the Holy Spirit commanded me to do. And recovering male sinners should never waste such opportunities. I am told that I must do something, and a great deal of the raw material for obeying Scripture is given to me by my culture. That’s the way it is supposed to work.

And last, Horton makes the standard mistake of confusing an attack on effeminacy (inappropriate softness) with an attack on femininity (glorified responsiveness). When a man acts girly, to object to this is not to attack the girls. “But you used the word ‘girly’ in that previous sentence, did you not? Why would you use the word girly in a pejorative way if you didn’t have a deep misogynistic streak, a thing about girls, hmmm?” The answer is that words derive their meaning and intent from an old-fashioned thing that our ancestors used to call “context.” If you tell your teen-aged son, who is driving you all to church, that you “need a little less Dale Earnhardt Jr., son,” this is not a slam on NASCAR. Dale Jr. is just fine in his place, in context. Just not turning down Maple Ave. Sunday morning on two wheels.

Horton assumes that if we object to feminine traits in the wrong place, then we must somehow be bothered with then in the right place too. “Are we really ready to identify shallow sentimentalism with ‘feminization’ of the church? Do godly women want this any more than men?” I quite agree. Of course they don’t. Godly women don’t want girly preachers any more than the men do. Godly women don’t like femmy worship any more than the men do. Godly women don’t want the worship of the evangelical and Reformed church to get any gayer. I mean to say . . .

I know this because I write as a man surrounded by really competent women with high views of the feminine calling. They know their stuff, and they embrace their calling. They have razor sharp minds, and know how to dissect the pretensions of the theological bloviators, whose tribe appears to be in the ascendant. They don’t do these dissections in public because they don’t think it would be fitting, and prefer that the menfolk do that stuff. But it is not a matter of ability. I mean, you ought to hear them go. In our extended clan, the men are the diplomats. So whenever I take on effeminacy in public Christian life, do the girls think I am criticizing them? Are you kidding? I think sometimes they suspect I am going liberal.

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