The Toxic Nature of Evangelical Masculinity

Image for post
Image for post

Many years ago, back when I was an evangelical pastor in the Portland, OR area in the United States, we used to attend a “Great Commission” conference every year at a large church near Salem, OR. What I recall about that conference the most was how the pastor shared insights of how he had successfully built such a large church, even though it was located in the midst of a fairly small, rural town. The church had over 1,000 people attending — where did they all come from? What mysterious church growth formula accounted for these incredible numbers?

As pastors all desperate to grow our churches numerically, we hung on his every word. Clearly, the man was a success, and was willing to let us in on what had worked for him. As pastors, our hope was to take his secrets for successful church growth back to our home churches and institute them there — and experience huge numbers, just like he had.

If you want to grow your churches, the pastor advised us, this was his top tip: get the men involved. Too many churches, he maintained, had a predominance of women in attendance. He would hastily add that this was not a bad thing, of course, but one of the major crises facing American churches today was a dearth of men — not just in terms of general church attendance, but especially in the paucity of key leadership positions.

Holding to what is termed the “complementarian model,” he argued that each gender had their God-ordained roles. It was set up by God, in the Bible, that men should be preachers; men should be elders; and men should be pastors of churches. He explained that in both the church and in the home, women had their roles, of course, as assigned by God and explained by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament. Men are to exercise “male headship” over their wives, according to Ephesians 5, while the wives are to “submit to their husbands, as unto the Lord.”

Oh, sure, women could perform valuable ministries — such as teaching women’s Bible studies, or children in Sunday School. But they were not “designed” by God to carry the incredible demands of leadership, either in the home or the church. The pastor taught that in churches, they certainly weren’t allowed to teach or have authority over men, as Paul makes clear in 1 Timothy 2:12. All the biblical warrant we could ever ask for to justify the entire philosophy of ministry was all laid out for us in the conference.

Teachings like these are the hallmark of biblical patriarchy, or evangelical masculinity.

Win the Men, Win the Family Too!

So what was the pastor’s advice on how to get men involved? Too much of Christianity had become a turn-off for most non-Christian men, he taught us. It was too weak, too effeminate, too touchy-feely. Churches needed to offer up tough, manly activities to attract that non-believing husband or single guy out there. Well, single men were OK, but what we really were after were family men. Embracing a “muscular Christianity” model, he sagely intoned: “Get the men, and then you’ll get the entire family.”

But how were we to accomplish this aim?

He advocated that we go back to our home churches and start up men’s ministries for men — tough, rugged adventure-laden ministries that would appeal specifically to men and their sons. He advised us to get them involved in outdoor sports like hunting and fishing ministries; host Super Bowl parties for men only; have outdoor barbecues; go paintballing, hiking or rock climbing; have men’s retreats for men and their sons, where they’d eat thick steaks and talk about masculine issues and their feelings in breakout sessions. He cautioned, though, that we watch out for becoming too “touchy-feely” at those men’s retreats. While it was OK to talk about your feelings for a while, we also needed to engage in “manly activities” like American football (touch only), baseball, fishing, mountain biking or other such rugged pursuits that would appeal to the guys.

Make sure your retreats have recognized male speakers who talk about “men’s issues” also, he would say. You needed some rockin’ worship music and a worship band, too — electric guitars, drums and bass up onstage would appeal to the younger generations who didn’t like stodgy old hymns. And it couldn’t hurt if your speaker had a beard and sported a few tats.

The bottom line was this: if we toughened things up, in this way our churches stood a good chance of attracting the unbelieving men out there. Why? Because they’d see our ministries as relevant, cool and tough; not like a sissified church event like old-fashioned ice-cream socials or choir concerts nobody wanted to attend. After checking out our kickass ministries, these non-believing men would in turn come to our church-sponsored male events, hear the Gospel and get saved; and then, when they started attending church, they’d…bring along their entire family, too. It was kind of a bonus thing, a win-win for all involved.

The Tender Warrior Model

Essentially, what he and so many other evangelical leaders were advocating a “tough, but sensitive man” model laid out in books aimed at evangelical men, like Stu Webber’s Tender Warrior and John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart. Nationwide ministries like Promise Keepers pushed a similar message, too. There was a pressing need out there, it seemed, for evangelical men to recover their lost manhood and masculinity, and specifically as it related to their expressions of Christianity. Somehow, it had been lost; but how, and what could be done about it?

In this telling of it, the basic narrative goes something like this: deep down, men are wild at heart; they’re testosterone-filled, driven, tough, aggressive, rough-and-tumble. Boys grow up role-playing cowboys, soldiers and warriors armed with guns. Men prefer action and adventure movies over “chick flicks.” They desire adventure and have a deeply-driven desire to win at sports, to conquer, vanquish and lead.

As the story goes, however, the problem is that within the secularized and pluralized Western culture, with all the talk about “getting in touch with your feelings,” masculinity itself had become too weak. Christian men in particular had become “pussified,” along with American men in general, according to guys like Mark Driscoll. They’d lost their tough warrior edge, and had instead become weak and feminized, talking about their emotional problems instead of going out into the world and kicking ass. The ideal man works with his hands — a construction worker or farmer, not some limp-wristed, effeminate dude who wears loafers and a polo shirt. For a job, he never gets his hands dirty — he works in a cubicle answering phones, tapping out emails on a computer all day. That version of manhood was no good, it seemed.

The reality seemed to be inescapable: men, and specifically Christian men, had become emasculated. Something had to be done.

Jesus the Wimp

Christianity itself seemed to be part of the problem. In this telling of the loss of evangelical masculinity, Jesus himself, it turns out, had also become a weak, wimpy milquetoast character too. Going back to Mark Driscoll, when asked about what he believed were the major challenges facing Christians in the next decade, he famously gave the following answer in a 2007 Relevant Magazine article.

Driscoll emphatically stated:

“There is a strong drift toward the hard theological left. Some emergent types [want] to recast Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in His hair, who drank decaf and made pithy Zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes. In Revelation, Jesus is a pride fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.”

The Role of Wives in All of This

If evangelical men needed to recover their lost masculinity, what would be the role of their wives in helping them to accomplish this? According to the biblical patriarchy model, wives need to submit to their husbands, both sexually and socially, as his “helpmeet” designed by God to fulfill that role. They’d be happiest doing that, too, they are taught. Their job is to prop up their husband’s battered ego, because if they don’t, he’ll likely be emotionally crushed.

Wives also need to take care of themselves physically, because if they didn’t look good to their husbands, or demeaned him in any way, he would inevitably stray into the arms of another woman who met all of his needs, unlike his wife. And it would be his wife’s fault if he strayed. It certainly wouldn’t be his fault, because hey — that’s what tough, uncompromising warriors do.

The Bill Gothard Connection

Think I’m kidding? Everything I just described was taught to generations of men and women by Bill Gothard in his “Institutes in Basic Youth Conflicts” seminars (now “Institutes in Basic Life Principles” or IBLP). Gothard, ironically, was never married, but that didn’t stop him from dispensing advice from the Bible to husbands and wives on marriage and child-rearing.

Despite Gothard being ousted in disgrace over numerous sexual abuse scandals in 2014, IBLP is still going strong nationwide. They still hold seminars using his materials, and their Advanced Training Institute (ATI) produces homeschooling curriculum for thousands of Christian families. In addition, IBLP runs the ALERT Academy in Texas, which is a military-styled ministry aimed at toughening up teenage boys.

IBLP and Bill Gothard have some words of “biblical wisdom” to offer both men and women in the connection between biblical patriarchy and toxic male masculinity.

Advice for “Godly Husbands”

Under the heading of “How Can I Meet My Wife’s Basic Needs,” Gothard has 7 distinct sets of principles aimed at that godly husband who truly desires to meet his wife’s needs. Gothard’s entire theological construct is all about “Godly authority.” His reasoning for this is as follows: God has ordained order and a “chain of command” both within society, and also in the home. The husband’s role is to fulfill his God-given destiny by acting as the “spiritual leader” in the home. In fact, the first point in the article is this: “A wife needs a husband who demonstrates spiritual leadership.” Not just desires, but needs.

In other words, in God’s economy of the principle of authority, the husband’s spiritual leadership will set an example to his wife, and encourage her to pursue her own spiritual disciplines. As a result of his example, she in turn will be more willing to submit to his leadership. God will also bless the marriage if everybody within it lives out their God-ordained roles.

In Gothard’s understanding of it, the husband is to “cherish” his needy wife, because she needs his protection and nurturing. Gothard advises husbands that “Your wife needs to know that your delight in her goes beyond the things she can do for you. If she does not feel cherished, she becomes insecure.”

The husband is also to protect his wife: spiritually, emotionally, and physically, because as Scripture reminds us, she is “the weaker vessel.” Women, Gothard argues, are filled with various fears and insecurities; it is the task of the husband gently to coax her to share those fears so he can allay them — as he goes to the Lord on her behalf for help.

One can see, then, that in the Gothard scheme of authority and chain of command, it is only the husband who can go to God on the wife’s behalf, as her “spiritual leader” in God’s economy for the marriage and family. If the husband fails to fulfill his role as the spiritual leader, and abdicates his responsibility, then both he and his wife are in serious trouble.

But even then, somehow Gothard manages to tie the responsibility for the husband’s leadership to that of the wife’s role, too. If she foolishly refuses to submit to his authority, then he’ll quickly get discouraged and want to give up trying. Gothard advises wives: “If you lack confidence in your husband and resist his spiritual leadership, he can quickly become discouraged and frustrated. A man in this position often gives up on being a spiritual leader in the home and shifts these responsibilities to his wife by default.”

And of course, given that this would subvert the godly order of things, this role reversal is a recipe for disaster.

Advice for “Godly Wives”

Under the heading of “How Can I Meet My Husband’s Basic Needs?” IBLP instructs wives to do so in 7 specific ways. As mentioned, in God’s order of authority, the husband is the “spiritual head of the family.” The wife’s role is to submit to his leadership and support him without question, deferring to his leadership and judgement. Although she may rightfully give her input on decisions, the final decision is for her husband to make, and whatever he decides is always best, because he has “prayerfully considered it” with the help of God.

By joyfully submitting to her husband, this will result in God’s blessing on the wife, and subsequently on the marriage and family, too. Failure to submit brings about God’s judgement, and removes the woman from her husband’s “umbrella of authority” over her life. “Foolish wives,” in Gothard’s view, make the terrible choice to subvert their husband’s authority, which has a devastating impact on…him: “A foolish wife can — either unknowingly or deliberately — crush her husband’s spirit by making foolish choices.” Foolish choices would be, for example, her attempts to become financially independent apart from her husband.

In her submissive role, at the same time the wife needs to build up her husband’s fragile ego. Gothard recommends, “A wife should continually be expressing sincere gratitude for the loving provision of her husband rather than continually reminding him of his shortcomings and failures. To develop a grateful spirit, you should expect nothing and learn to be appreciative of each little expression of your husband’s love.”

The submission prescribed by Gothard includes not just the wife submitting in social terms, but also sexually: they claim that in the case of the wife refusing sexual intimacy to her husband, “Resistance or indifference to your husband’s need for physical intimacy is the unspoken crushing of his spirit.” The wife should always strive to “stay beautiful” so that her husband will not lose interest in her, which could potentially drive him into the arms of another woman who does take care of herself physically, and seeks to meet his needs like she is foolishly not doing.

This teaching is reinforced in another IBLP article about how the wife can help preserve her marriage by building up her husband’s frail ego. If she doesn’t do this, then potential disaster lurks just around the corner — and it will be her fault. Gothard teaches wives that “A man needs his wife’s admiration. If you show a lack of respect for your husband’s decisions or if you resist his affection, he will doubt his ability to meet your needs. He may then be drawn to other women who demonstrate more respect and appreciation for him.”

But what happens if he is doing things that are unwise or unbiblical? At that point, the wife’s only recourse is to “make an appeal” to him; but what happens if he rejects her appeal? Gothard states that when wives make an appeal, they must do so in a respectful way: “Do not threaten your husband or make demands. If your attitudes are not respectful, your appeal will probably have little effect. Prepare yourself to graciously receive your husband’s response to your appeal — whether it is favorable or not.”

In other words: if your husband is being abusive, or engaging in “unbiblical” activities, if you as a wife fail to make your appeal in a properly submissive and respectful way, he may reject it. In that case, you’re out of luck, and have to accept his authority and decision.

That teaching is a recipe for abuses of all sorts.


Although Gothard’s position may seem extreme, unbelievably it’s actually pretty mainstream — at least the basic construct of biblical patriarchy, anyway. For example, on The Gospel Coalition website (a known complementarian evangelical organization associated with such leading figures as John Piper and Tim Keller) their statement on marriage is as follows (emphasis mine):

“Marriage was first instituted by God in the order of creation, given by God as an unchangeable foundation for human life. Marriage exists so that through it humanity can serve God through children, through faithful intimacy, and through properly ordered sexual relationships. This union is patterned upon the union of God with his people who are his bride, Christ with his church. Within marriage, husbands are to exercise a role of self-sacrificial headship and wives a posture of godly submission to their husbands. This institution points us to our hope of Christ returning to claim his bride, making marriage a living picture of the gospel of grace.”

Thus, in TGC’s understanding of biblical patriarchy and gender roles, “properly ordered sexual relationships” also disbars the homosexual community and same-sex marriages too. “Godly marriage” is set up as strictly being between a man and a woman, in a monogamous heterosexual union. And within that marriage, the wife is to submit to her husband, as the Scripture teaches.

But as the last few decades have revealed, churches and marriages alike that have run along the model of biblical patriarchy have resulted in numerous cases of abuse. One of the more prominent ones was the case of Mark Driscoll, as cited above, when he was the pastor of the Mars Hill Church empire in Seattle. Yeah, he was the hip, tough and cool “manly man” sort of pastor, who told it like it was, who wasn’t afraid to swear in sermons and talk tough. But in the end, the bullying culture he created at Mars Hill was rife with abuses of all sorts, and he was finally ousted — and the entire empire he built is gone.

While obviously not every marriage, church or Christian organization that runs along the lines of biblical patriarchy and complementarian theology is abusive, this type of teaching can certainly create a culture whereby abuses of all types can occur. In the search for “recovering evangelical masculinity,” unfortunately the fallout has left a trail of many broken, hurting and damaged people in its wake.

Written by

I’m an ex-evangelical speaking out about the dangers posed by the Christian Right, dominion theology, and Christian nationalism. Host of the MindShift podcast.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store