Sheep Need Shepherds, Not Critics

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Want to say “does not respond well to authority” without saying it?  Just post a meme proclaiming yourself as a lion and decrying others as sheeple.  Of course, the popular origin of this lion meme was a Trump retweet of the quote, “It is better to live a day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.”  The irony being that these ‘lions’ who have used the phrase since are still following someone’s lead.

The reality is, even in this current age of individualism, we are social creatures and are more often responding to the pressure of the crowd than thinking for ourselves.  The ideas that motivate us, the narratives and interpretive overlays that we embrace, these aren’t things that we created in our own minds.  But rather we have inherited many base assumptions from our homes or communities and will continue to be influenced our entire life.

And, speaking of influence, there was a review of Downfall, a movie about the last days of Adolf Hitler, that got me thinking about leadership.  For obvious reasons, this is viewed from a negative light in regard to the Nazi dictator.  The faith of the German people in their government is what enabled the atrocities of the regime.  Viewing a flawed human being (or any collection of human authorities) as God is something very dangerous.

I’ve written frequently warning against the mob spirit and peer pressure.  We should learn how to think for ourselves, make our own decisions, or we may be swept up in the latest propaganda campaign and used for immoral ends.

However, I also had to think that this unique ability of humans to organize around one charismatic personality is also the strength of our species and has given us a great competitive advantage over the strongest individuals.  Our hunter-gather ancestors were only able to take down larger animals for food or to protect the themselves from deadly predators by working together.  This took leadership, it required someone to be the point man of the group or coordinator of the collective effort.

So, sure, as the video says, “those full of doubts are desperate to follow those who are sure of themselves,” and “view them as shortcuts to prosperity,” yet this urge to fall in behind the Alpha is not always such a bad thing and is actually key to our success in building civilizations.  A great leader can empower and get more from the group than the sum of the individual parts.  I see this in John, the co-owner and true boss man at my company, without his infectious ambition and decisive confidence I can’t see us being near where we are.

The truth is that there are extraordinary men, there are those who do better embody the collective hopes of their people and thus are granted a right to rule.  One only needs to consider the story of David, a lowly shepherd boy, who faced down the giant Goliath and through his courage inspired the armies of Israel to defeat the Philistines.  Of course, this is not only a role for men either, the confidence of Deborah (Judges 4) or faithful example of Joan of Arc is what led to the decisive victories of their people over occupiers and oppressors.

People Need Leadership, Not Lords

We can talk about the ideal and imagine a world where everyone is completely able to take initiative, where order is always 100% voluntary and there is no need of authority or a leadership position.  That is the design of the Israelite tribes before they demanded a king to rule over them.  But even then, in that sort of anarchist system, there were judges that were appointed by Moses to arbitrate disputes and Moses, for his Divine call and standing up to Pharaoh, was the defacto leader of his people.

Every human is flawed.  Moses fled into the wilderness after killing an Egyptian and, despite hearing from God, needed Aaron to speak for him.  King David, the great warrior leader he was, had a loyal companion, Uriah sent to die in battle in order to cover for his adultery with Bathsheba.  The temptation of every person given power over other people is to use it to their own personal advantage rather than for the good of the group.  That is why the children of Israel were given this stern warning before appointing a ruler:

Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

(1 Samuel 8:10‭-‬20 NIV)

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

We don’t have kings today, but we do have an all-powerful political class, that is mostly exempted from the laws they apply to us, who never met a new tax they do not like, and always willing to send our children to die to defend their own bloated ego or for the financial gain of the ruling class.  Sure, call it ‘democracy’ as you vote for Tweedledee or Tweedledumb, but neither team red nor team blue actually represent you.  We’re ruled not even by these visibly elected, but by special interests and those behind the scenes who pull the purse strings.

And therein lies the difference between the good leaders and the bad.  The shepherd leader fills the role for the good of the flock, even willing to sacrifice themselves for the life of their sheep.  The corrupt leader uses their power and authority as a means to dominate those who are under them.  A good leader serves as an example, they encourage and try to get the best out of those looking to them for guidance.  The evil politician, on the other hand, delights in creating dependency and keeping others subject to their whims.

In the end, no man is actually worthy to lead of their own authority and it is only through understanding our own place before God, that we ourselves are not God, that we can ever fill the role.  Self-belief and narcissism, with a little psychopathy, is often what will get a person to the top spot.  But humility and faith, valuing all individuals enough to go find the one lost sheep, that is the mark of a Godly leader.  The only person fit to lead is one who is willing to submit to those who have authority over them.

The delusion of the Protestant independent spirit is that every man (or woman) and their Bible becomes their own king.  This “you’re not the boss of me” attitude, in response to flawed leadership or simply as rebellion, is precisely why the church is becoming increasingly impotent.  The Church, at least the one that Christ founded, had those given the authority to bind and loose, a council to decide important matters and those who acted as fathers.  This hierarchy was never comprised of those faultless.  No, what made them worthy, and the only thing that makes any of us worthy, is being clothed in the righteousness of the one Great Shepherd.

We need sheep who know they are sheep and shepherds, appointed to feed the flocks, like Peter:

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.

(John 21:15‭-‬17 NIV)

In my own spiritual journey, after my own Bible-based authority failed me, God provided me with a man who would end his emails with the phrase “your unworthy priest” and is truly that.  Fr Anthony is a very well-educated man, a college professor, and one who could easily flaunt his credentials as a means to humiliate some like me.  But what has given him true authority, in my eyes, is how he humbly serves as a true example of Christian leadership. 

He is a shepherd and the Church really needs more who are like him.

Godly Men Should Honor (Not Patronize) Women

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I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head and wept. ‘All right,’ I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool–that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’

That quote of Daisy, from The Great Gatsby, about the birth of her daughter, sardonically expresses her resignation to the male-dominated society of her time. She is saying that it is better for a girl to be a fool—because for a girl to be anything other than that would be to live a frustrated and repressed life, like her own life.

It shows that Daisy, though always acting flighty and fake, a rich ‘privileged’ woman in the roaring 20’s, has far more depth to her character and real intelligence than she is allowed to openly display.

One might assume that someone in her position, all of her material needs met and sheltered from any responsibility, would be content. I mean, the wealth of her husband, the brutal Tom Buchanan, walled her off from the toils and freed her from work or consequences.

But, beneath the veneer of playfulness, she seems miserable. She was powerless beyond what her husband provided for her and merely acting out the role carved out for her by society, the part of a fool, rather than truly free.

There is only the slightest difference between walls intended to protect and walls that imprison, the smallest gap between guarding someone’s child-like faith and enabling their childish behavior, and a person can claim to be protecting others yet really only be protecting their position. There are many people, men in particular, who like to keep others around them weak so they can feel strong or needed.

A fundamental misunderstanding of the weaker vessel…

The idea that women can’t be expected to handle certain circumstances or rise to the same level of behavior as a man is not something new to me. I know in fundamentalist circles many men regard women to be wholly inferior to them (besides in child-bearing) and thus a comment to that effect was not completely unexpected. However, it was still a bit jarring, in the context it was given, to hear a woman being excused for her unsociable behavior because she, as the “weaker vessel” and thus somehow incapable of doing any better.

I had to wonder what women (conservative Mennonite women in particular) would think of that comment.

Is that what they really want?

Do they truly want to always be regarded as helpless, the perpetual damsel in distress, rather than be treated as an equal and emotionally/intellectually capable?

I have a feeling that is not the kind of male protection that most women want.

But then, I could be wrong, my lack of success in the realm of conservative Mennonite courtship could indicate that my treatment of women as an intellectual equal was a grave error. Perhaps this is why I’ve been described as “intimidating” by a couple intelligent Mennonite women? Could it be that women really do feel better being coddled and patronized?

I will say that many women, especially attractive women, expect to be catered to and this is because men (including yours truly) are generally nicer to them for a variety of reasons—some of those reasons less noble than those more often expressed.

Anyhow, these hidden wants, openly expressed opinions and general tendencies aside, the real question is whether or not this is what the “weaker vessel” of Scripture truly means. Yes, obviously, women are, on average, weaker than men in terms of some measures of physical strength. But does this make women more feeble and less capable in all regards? Are women generally inferior to men?

Here’s the text:

Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered. (1 Peter 3:7 KJV)

I used the King James version because other translations replace “vessel” (σκεῦος) with “partner” or “sex” and potentially muddy the waters as far as this question more than they make things clearer. Again, I’m not an expert on the Greek language, but judging by how this word is translated elsewhere (John 19:29, Romans 9:21, Acts 9:15,10:11, etc), the word “vessel” seems to be a more literal, direct and appropriate translation.

That word “vessel” is an important qualifier to the word “weaker” (ἀσθενής) that precedes it. It is used in reference to objects or physical things and, in context of 1 Peter 3:7, would be reasonably understood to be a reference to a woman’s physical body rather than her person in general.

But more important is the rest of what is said. First, this passage is specifically about the relationship between husbands and wives. Second, the answer to a woman being the “weaker vessel” is for husbands to give “honour” (τιμή) to her, which means to value her, as one “being heirs together” with him, and it never suggests treating her like an inferior. If anything, this is an instruction not to use a woman’s lack of physical strength as means to diminish her other abilities or as a reason to otherwise patronize to her.

Yes, certainly we should protect what is valuable and Paul warns (similar to Malachi 2:13-15) about a man’s prayers being hindered if he mistreats his wife. However, that’s not the same thing as saying that we should be an enabler of weakness or should create unhealthy dependencies in our marriages. It is certainly not an excuse to allow a woman to act in an unChrist-like, inappropriate or otherwise unsisterly manner in the church.

The sexism of lower expectations is not honoring or Scriptural…

For the same reason we tell a bully “pick on someone your own size” we also say “don’t hit a woman” and should always take a clear stand against those who would exploit weaker people. Scripture always sides with the protection of the poor and against the oppression of the weak.

However, protection is not the same thing as pandering and nor does having Christian compassion mean we should coddle. No, a man should use his strength to encourage, empower and strengthen the weak. His role should be to give a space for his family to flourish. I believe that is the goal of our protection. Men protect the weak, in essence, by lending them our physical strength against external threats and that allows their abilities to shine rather than be crushed.

It is well-established that countries that protect the property and freedoms of their citizens prosper economically compared to those that exploit and/or do not. This is because people who know their work will likely be stolen have no reason to innovate or be ambitious. Likewise, a man who is a controlling tyrant, who sees his wife or children as wholly inferior, even if he does prevent their being exploited by others, will stifle and destroy the abilities of those entrusted to him.

Sure, maybe some women do employ their weakness as a means to get what they want in a relationship. I also know a couple cases of wives who can’t make their own decisions and depend on their husbands for everything besides picking the color of the drapes. But that level of dependency is not a good thing nor is it something we find in Scripture as an example of exemplary womanhood either:

A good wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from afar. She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and tasks for her maidens. She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She girds her loins with strength and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy. She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet. She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple. Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land. She makes linen garments and sells them; she delivers girdles to the merchant. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates. (Proverbs 31:10‭-‬31 RSV)

That is not a limp-wristed wimp of a woman who follows two paces behind her man to keep in her place. No, that is a human dynamo, a force to be reckoned with and not that extremely anxious woman waiting for her husband’s input before doing anything on her own. No, the ideal woman, according to Proverbs, is the one who “makes her arms strong” and engages in commerce, a manager of a wide variety of affairs, and a wise teacher to boot.

Paul didn’t write so that men would lower their expectations for women. No, Paul has many expectations for women. Including in the verse prior (1 Peter 3:6) where he tells women not to be fearful. Telling a woman not to be fearful (φοβούμεναι) is the same as telling her to be emotionally strong and mentally capable.

It is not honoring of women to treat them as generally inferior or incapable.

How should men honor women?

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, fear not!” (Isaiah 35:3‭-‬5a RSV)

Honoring means to protect and protect means to strengthen.

A wise man knows that he might not always be able to provide for his wife and children. For that reason, he will protect them by making them strong and not only shelter them with his own strength.

Yes, there is a kind of man who likes to keep others around him permanently disabled so that he can feel strong and useful. There are also women who enjoy being fearful and hanging on the arms of any man who will give them attention. But there is nothing in Scripture that suggests we should encourage this kind of codependent behavior and plenty that indicates we should strengthen and bring out the best in each other.

Men and women may serve different roles in the church and home. After all, people are different, regardless of gender, with different strengths and weaknesses. However, acknowledging that the reality of our differences in strength and honoring the “weaker vessel” does not mean treating anyone as our intellectual, emotional, or spiritual lesser. What Paul is really teaching, in a fuller context of Scripture, is that we not use our own physical strength as a means to diminish the abilities of our wife and rather we should honor her as someone capable.

In the end, nothing good comes from pandering to the women. Instead, we should respect them as capable, despite their lack of physical strength, and should encourage them (as Paul does) to be free rather than fearful. Fundamentalist purity cultures do the opposite, they seek to subjugate the weak and twist Scriptures (sometimes ever so slightly) to justify their dishonoring treatment of women. It is very subtle in some cases, it can be as small as lowering expectations based on gender alone, yet it is pervasive and perverse.

Maybe these men need a reminder? The word “helpmeet” used in Genesis 2:19-20 denotes a “suitable helper” and uses the same Hebrew words used to describe God’s help in battle. It does not imply subordination. It implies capability and strength. So, if we do not honor God through our doubt, then we do we honor women by lowering our expectations for women. Instead, we use our own unique strengths to encourage and strengthen each other.

A woman can be so much more than “a beautiful little fool” and we should not deprive them of the opportunity to rise up to the challenge of meeting the standards of competency that we would expect from a man—so do not dishonor her with sexism of low expectations.