You may not know who Russell Moore is, but you should. He is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is also an outspoken cultural critic who recently gained even greater prominence as committed member of the NeverTrump movement.
Moore is squarely in the mainstream of “conservative” evangelicalism. For many in the movement what he says matters. I have long attended to his public statements and appreciated much of his work, particularly his unwavering defense of the unborn.
Dr. Moore’s broad influence, however, makes an exchange on a recent episode of his podcast even more troubling. His guest for this episode was author Jen Wilkin, another “conservative” evangelical who is very concerned with expanding women’s role in the church.
As I have written before, evangelical churches are feminist strongholds. This is not always easy to see, so I bring to your attention this interchange between Moore and Wilkin:
Moore: You know sometimes I feel guilty because I feel I’m the only one in ministry who hasn’t used the phrase “I really married up.” And I haven’t used the phrase, not because it’s not true, but because it’s always felt to me kind of condescending. I’ve never heard a woman say this about her husband, but have heard husbands say this about their wives. I can think of all kinds of times where there’s been a panel at a conference, with one woman and a group of men, and somebody will make a comment about “the rose among the thorns.” Do you think that it’s the case that often in our churches there are some subtly condescending ways of talking about women?
Wilkin: I think it’s well-intentioned. When I hear something like that, I never think that person woke up that morning and said, “How can I keep the woman down?” I do think that we can sometimes speak in ways that intend to honor but end up sounding like overcompensating, but I do always assume it’s well intended.
Moore is correct in noting this tendency among evangelical men. I have heard such things said many times in evangelical circles. Hearing them makes my skin crawl, but I understand why men say them.
Many evangelical men have internalized the feminist notion that holding and exercising their natural authority is shameful. Yet, they hold a theology that tells them men are supposed to lead in the church and at home. Thus, they are left in a painful bind. They must look for a way to escape the pressure of these conflicting beliefs and saying things like this is a means to do it.
Saying things like “I married up” eases the tension because it implies that, even if God has made him the leader in the church and home, he recognizes her as his moral superior. It is a way of saying, “Isn’t it funny that God would make the dumber, more sinful one of us the leader! That’s not the way I would have it, but God said I’m the leader, so I guess I have to be.”
Moreover, using phrases like these is intended to show that the speaker is really a “nice guy” who desires the approval of the women listening. “I married up,” is a way of saying, “I recognize that I am not fit to be a leader for my wife, or for any woman for that matter, but God has forced me into this role. Please don’t be mad at me.”
Men denigrate themselves in this way to appear humble. In these circles, recognizing women’s innate moral superiority is often a defining mark of a kind of humility. But this humility, of course, is a false humility.
True humility means being open to hearing about one’s faults and sins. True humility leads to a life or repentance and struggling to improve. What true humility does not require is denigrating oneself before a gaggle of church ladies in order to gain their approval.
Obviously, a man could find ways to praise his wife publicly without disparaging himself. Any Christian man could say, for example, “My wife is a beautiful woman of great character who has been a real gift to me.” But, saying that kind of thing does not achieve the same goal as saying, “I married up”, because the point of saying “I married up” is not really to raise others’ opinions of his wife, but to raise their opinions of him by demonstrating his “humility.” And, of course, secretly working to raise others opinions of you through verbal trickery is the opposite of true humility.
If Moore had stopped there, he could have been helpful. He could drawn attention to this negative habit among evangelical men and suggested better alternatives. But, in the next few sentences, Moore leads the discussion in a direction that makes clear how hostile much of the evangelical subculture is to men.
After describing one way evangelical men have been shamed into routinely maligning themselves, Moore then casts the phrases they use to insult themselves as actually being insults to women. The point is clear: in the evangelical world, if a man speaks and acts unapologetically as if he believes God has invested in him the authority to lead, he is a malicious tyrant; if he verbally prostrates himself before women he is a well-intentioned, though condescending, tyrant. Either way, men lose.
And people wonder why men aren’t interested in church.