Last July, Mark Driscoll, another purveyor of what I will call from now on “Esau Christianity,” tweeted this offensive message: “So, what story do you have about the most effeminate anatomically male worship leader you’ve ever personally witnessed?” prompting Rachel Held Evans to call him out as a bully. She had her readers initiate a letter campaign to Mars Hill so that people could voice their objections to his tasteless and insulting remarks.
Douglas Wilson must have read Driscoll’s tweet and decided to collect examples over the past ten months, because now he has come out with a post of his own, listing eleven reasons your church worship service might be effeminate.
This is one of the more misguided and mean-spirited pieces I’ve read in awhile. This whole idea of “masculine Christianity” that some among the neo-Reformed and others are promoting these days is so off-base I can’t believe anyone falls for it. Most of our concepts of “masculinity” and “femininity” are time-bound social and cultural constructs and have nothing to do with being “biblical” (there is that terribly misused word again) or representing a vital and rigorous faith.
Its purveyors may be as clueless as Esau was.
Wilson objects, for example, to the church staff member who is “wearing a clerical collar and a powder pink shirt,” and the minister who wears “a robe, but the effect is not that of being robed for battle.” This, of course, is manifestly silly. I’ve never seen any minister wear a robe for the effect of being “robed for battle” — even the most severe Calvinist looks like a professor at a graduation ceremony to me. But one of the whole points of a robe is to hide the personality of the wearer, not accentuate masculinity or any other trait.
In addition, one of the liturgical traditions Wilson is poking fun at here, the Anglican Church, wears apparel that bespeaks traditions of royal protocol — kings and courts and castles and such. The Anglican liturgy itself is a study in British courtly manners. Likewise in that culture, British attorneys and judges wear powdered wigs and ruffled shirts (as, by the way, did our own Founding Fathers) out of the same traditions. Royal decorum may seem overly fancy to the Esaus of the world, but it is certainly not effeminate. It testifies to authority and regality as well as the pageantry, color, and festivity that is worthy of honoring a King.
Wilson is also critical of what he perceives to be wimpy worship music and bemoans the lack of militant music, songs that contain “references to judgment, wrath, battles, enemies, Hell, the devil, or apostasy.” He condemns musicians who are “more concerned that the choir trills their r’s correctly than that they fill the sanctuary with loud sounds of battle,” and berates worship teams who present “‘Jesus is my girlfriend’ songs, and their facial expressions while up front are those of guys in the backseats of their cars, having just gotten to second base with their actual girlfriends.” Once again, he completely misses the point.
The problem with today’s worship music has nothing to do with it being effeminate. In fact, there are plenty of contemporary songs, especially growing out of pentecostal, charismatic, and third-wave groups, that use divine warfare and battle imagery. And, on the other hand, if Wilson really knew the music of Bach (which he commends in this list), he would realize that many of the texts Bach set to music for his cantatas reflect a mystical piety that is filled with extremely intimate expressions of feeling, bordering on the erotic and “feminine.”
No, the problem is not that today’s worship music is effeminate. Much of it is shallow and sentimental, that I will grant. Many songs are marked by horrid poetry, for sure. A great deal of it is virtually unsingable and musically vacuous, yes. I too miss singing robust, content-rich hymns, but not because they reflect a “masculine” element that is missing in today’s church. Rather, it is because they express profound thoughtfulness about the meaning of the Biblical story, rich musical textures and excellent poetry that engage my mind and inspire me to think better and feel more deeply about Christ and what he has done in inaugurating God’s Kingdom through his saving work. Masculinity? No. Depth. Yes.
I also have no idea what Douglas Wilson is talking about when he includes the following in his list of “effeminate” worship: “The sermons rarely deal with sin or, if they do, they deal with sins found outside the sanctuary…” and “The church does not practice church discipline, and not because everybody in the church is behaving. They won’t practice it because the elders are misbehaving.” What does this have to do with effeminacy in worship? Dealing with sin and practicing discipline are “masculine” characteristics? Don’t tell my mom, or the nuns I know.
What is clear is that Wilson exudes a deep distrust and contempt for women in this post. What he says sounds nothing like the way Jesus or Paul related to their sisters and partners in the Gospel. For instance, he throws out the old canard about women conspiring to form a “shadow government” behind the scenes in order to function as illicit leaders in the congregation. Believe me, after serving as a pastor for more than 25 years, I’ve had as much trouble with masculine guys as with scheming women. But Wilson would have us believe that, if only the church’s male members would “man up” and take control over the vexatious vixens among us, we would see the church functioning as it should. You might want to ask the leadership at Mars Hill or Sovereign Grace Ministries how that’s working. Better yet, ask the women in those groups.
Furthermore, he suggests that restoring “masculinity” to worship will reach men and by doing so, we will “reach the women.” Indeed, by making worship more masculine we will “include them, bring them along, and make them feel safe.” In other words, women are not worthy of our direct attention. They are followers and meant to be followers. They must be attached to a man and “brought along” by men in the church. They are vulnerable and must be made to “feel safe” because they cannot (should not) stand on their own as full and free citizens in the Kingdom of heaven. Every Eve needs an Esau to protect her.
I’m thinking that what Douglas Wilson needs is a Bible study.
And won’t he be hacked off to discover that when God wanted to found a nation, he chose Jacob, the effeminate, namby-pamby mama’s boy over Esau, his manly, rugged, outdoorsy brother? It goes against everything he apparently believes about the masculine flavor of the faith.
Think of it, at the time God had two possible choices for who would become “Israel,” the founder of his First Testament people: Esau, or Jacob. “When the boys grew up, Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob” (Gen. 25:27-28). In Wilson’s categories, Esau was “masculine,” Jacob “effeminate.”
- Jacob stayed inside and cooked, while Esau went out to the field and hunted.
- Jacob was a mama’s boy who participated in his mother’s schemes, while Esau was doing manly things on behalf of his father.
- Jacob had to be protected from Esau by his mother and he ran away from home in fear when his older brother got mad at him.
- Jacob went to his uncle’s house and worked for him. He was so weak and clueless that his uncle Laban took constant advantage of him and made him into his virtual slave for years.
- Jacob was so much of a wimp that he didn’t even recognize Laban had switched women on him on his wedding night!
- Jacob was hen-pecked by his wives Rachel and Leah and did whatever they said when they wanted children.
- Jacob tricked his uncle to get back at him and then had to run away in fear again. Laban chased him and would have whupped up on him, but God warned him against that.
- When Jacob returned to the land, he was shaking in his boots in fear that Esau was going to get his revenge and kill him.
- Jacob became “Israel” when he lost a wrestling match with a stranger. Clinging and crippled, he prevailed!
- Jacob was a weak father. He showed favoritism to one of his sons, Joseph, made him his own special robe (that really sounds effeminate, doesn’t it?), and protected him at home while his brothers were out doing the men’s work of tending flocks.
- Jacob’s own sons knew their father was weak, and so they tricked him into thinking Joseph had been killed, driving Jacob into grief and depression.
- In place of Joseph, Jacob then became overly protective of his youngest son, Benjamin, clinging to the boy lest he lose him too.
- At the end of his life, Jacob blessed Joseph’s sons, crossing his hands and pronouncing the blessing on the younger son, to signify that God does not favor the firstborn or the strong, but chooses the unlikely.
Jacob the wimp, the mama’s boy, the effeminate one, the scaredy-cat, weak and insecure and ineffective — that’s who God chose to become Israel, the father of his old covenant people. Esau, the man’s man, the outdoorsman, the man of strength and muscle, the warrior who was unafraid of hard work or a fight didn’t make the cut. The very name of God’s chosen community is bound up with the story of an effeminate weakling!
In fact, when I think about it, I can’t think of too many men who are held up before us as “masculine” heroes in the First Testament. Abraham fought when his idiot nephew Lot needed to be rescued, but he was man of peace who had woman and family problems, including being willing to give up his own wife to another man twice rather than protect her. Caleb and Joshua led the conquest of Canaan, but it’s hard for me to think God was glorifying their manliness or military skills when the whole point of the Book of Joshua is that the Lord fought for them and they only did the clean up. The Book of Judges, of course, is filled with adventure stories of “sheriffs” who ruled Israel in their “Wild West” days. But the big message of the book is that every single one of them was deeply flawed and therefore unqualified to lead all Israel. I’d hate to think those promoting “masculine Christianity” would look to the days of Judges as exemplary! Of those who lived back then, who would you want as a male role model, Samson who was known for his strength or Boaz who was known for his hesed (kindness and love)?
Probably the one character who might be held up as a “masculine” model is David. However, the Samuel narratives (especially in light of the Psalms) encourage us to think of him on balance more as the suffering king than the conquering king. And even David’s conquering — his participation in “judgment, wrath, battles, enemies;” his conflicts with “Hell, the devil, [and] apostasy,” to use Wilson’s terms, disqualified him from building the Lord’s Temple in Jerusalem. God said that was to be done by a man of peace, not a warrior.
Let’s turn to the New Testament and discuss the Founder of the Church, the new covenant community whose worship Wilson writes about. You know Who I’m talking about:
- The One who was also a “Mama’s boy.” Scripture tells us he had an honorable, strong earthly father, but it gives little indication that Joseph was in Jesus’ life after age twelve.
- The One who never married or raised a family, countering the overwhelming expectations about masculinity in his culture and religion.
- The One who found his identity in being “meek and humble of heart.”
- The One who would “not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick” to win the victory.
- The One who shattered all the expectations of his culture regarding women by speaking to them, including them among his followers, deeming them learners and disciples on an equal level with men, and treating them as individuals not merely as appendages attached to males. Indeed, he let women provide for him during his ministry.
- The One who taught his followers not to fight or even resist their enemies, but instead to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile, to return love for enmity, prayer for unjust treatment.
- The One who said leadership in God’s Kingdom does not mirror the “masculine,” militant character of leadership in the world, where power over others is the operative method.
- The One who wept over those who rejected him and likened himself to a mother hen lamenting that she could not gather her chicks under her wings.
- The One who himself did not resist his opponents, but “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly…”
- The One who served to save us, who died to deliver us, who laid down his life as our model of leadership.
Proponents of “masculine” Christianity like to counter these points by evoking images of Jesus’ Second Coming in Revelation and elsewhere. Jesus may have shown humility and forbearance in his earthly ministry, they say, but he will come again with a sword to wreak wrath and vengeance on his enemies as a great Warrior King.
These are powerful images, and there is a place for them in our Christian imagination and worship. However, it seems to me that Wilson and those like him miss the whole issue of genre when it comes to reading these texts. Much of this holy war and spiritual conflict imagery appears in apocalyptic literature, which uses mythological and symbolic representations that are highly dramatized and sensationalistic. Or, it may show up in Psalms or prophetic oracles that use heightened poetic language for dramatic effect.
When we read these texts, we are being called to participate imaginatively in fantastic, mind-blowing visions of transformative events that have not yet come to pass and which no one can begin to comprehend. But when we study the stories of Jacob or Jesus, we are reading historical narratives and can be sure the authors intend us to learn at ground level from the characters that inhabit them. If we take these stories seriously, we find no indication that God has some “masculine” standard for men or “feminine” standard for women. The Story of the Bible is not about that! Whatever clues we get about the historical periods and cultures behind these narratives, Scripture never prescribes their ancient expectations for “masculinity” or “femininity” as norms for our lives. In fact, as I’ve attempted to show in my brief overview from the lives of a few prominent characters, the Bible often highlights those who shattered the cultural expectations of identity and behavior in their own places and times.
So, I’m sorry Douglas Wilson, but “Esau Christianity” simply will not fly.
There is room for all types of men and women in the Body of Christ, its worship and its mission. No standard of “masculinity” or “femininity” needs to be upheld or promoted.
Each person may have his or her own preferences and likes and dislikes, of course, and that’s where we should learn to appreciate our differences on these manifestly non-essential matters, and not act like bullies or snobs toward one another.