The Failure of Complementarian Manhood

“There is no togetherness for the gospel when the victim stands alone.”

—James Kessler

The recent 2016 Together for the Gospel (T4G) conference in Louisville, Kentucky put on public display one of the biggest complementarian manhood failures in recent history. Not only did the leaders of this all-male organization refuse to stand by their masculinity manifesto—that “real men” are the protectors of women and children—these men circled the wagons and protected a man.

Despite many protests and appeals, T4G leaders spotlighted CJ Mahaney as a plenary speaker before an audience of 10,000. Mahaney, one of T4G’s founding members, has been living under a cloud ever since he was implicated in lawsuits alleging systemic leadership cover-ups of sexual abuse in Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM). The lawsuit never made it to court—not because the charges from eleven plaintiffs were dropped or proven invalid, but because the statute of limitations for the sexual abuse of children in the state of Maryland ran out.

The scandal implicating Mahaney for knowing and neglecting to act on behalf of sexually abused children within his ministry (there have been convictions and prison sentences) remains an active issue in the judicial system. Mahaney (founder and former president of SGM) denies any knowledge of abuses or participation in cover-ups, although he’s still named in pending court cases. His denials—even if true—don’t change the fact that the abuses and the cover-ups took place under his watch. Besides, denials fall woefully short of the urgent, uncompromising response such a profoundly serious matter demands.

If it wasn’t bad enough for a pastor—still embroiled in an unresolved sexual abuse and cover-up scandal—to be a featured plenary speaker at T4G 2016, the cavalier way Al Mohler, Mahaney’s close friend and one of his prominent male defenders, chose to introduce him went beyond the pale.

Mohler, President of Southern Seminary in Louisville, offered a glowing tribute of his friend. He followed that endorsement by insensitively brushing up dismissively against the sexual abuse/cover-up scandal. He even evoked laughter from a predominantly male audience of 10,000 by saying “I told CJ that in getting ready to introduce him I decided I would Google to see if there was anything on the Internet about him.” He then yielded the podium to Mahaney who preached on the sufferings of Job.

One might think the topic of Job’s innocent suffering provided Mahaney with a perfect opportunity to address the innocent suffering of abuse victims both inside and outside the church and to reach out with remorse and compassion.

Instead, he focused on the suffering of pastors.

Ignoring the Complementarian Call to Protect

In their classic complementarian tome, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, no less than John Piper and Wayne Grudem (the formulators of complementarianism) establish with absolute certainty that the protection of women and children is a non-negotiable criteria for true manhood.

Their illustrations are a bit odd, but their point is unmistakable. They imagine an approaching assailant with a lead pipe or a home intruder that a real man will be first to confront, even if his wife has a black belt in karate.

“Mature masculinity senses a natural, God-given responsibility to step forward and put himself between the assailant and the woman. . . . His inner sense is one of responsibility to protect her because he is a man and she is a woman. . . . Women and children are put into the lifeboats first, not because the men are necessarily better swimmers, but because of a deep sense of honorable fitness. It belongs to masculinity to accept danger to protect women.” (emphasis added)

In his sermon, “Lionhearted and Lamblike: The Christian Husband as Head” (starting at 40:10), Piper rails with damning words against the hapless overpowered husband who refuses his manly role as protector of his black belt wife, insisting, “She’s following you. . . . You’re dealing with this guy, and when you’re unconscious on the floor, she takes him out. But if you’re not unconscious on the floor, you’re no man!”

Complementarians preach this in sermons, in print, and in doctrinal statements on their websites. But based on what happened at T4G, they don’t practice what they preach.

So does this call to protect apply only to occasional episodes that statistically for most will never happen and not also even more urgently to the epidemic levels of abuse that fester unchecked and untended in the church? Is it okay for men talk in theory about imagined lead pipes and home intruders while making light of the all too real sexual abuses that currently devastate the young and vulnerable in the very churches they pastor?

Do any of them sense the disconnect in this?

From evidence that played out in public, it seems that complementarian convictions go by the wayside when one of their inner circle comes under fire. Instead of protecting women and children and sacrificially enduring harm for their sakes (as they profess in theory) their actions prove that, when it comes to a real crisis, real men protect each other. Is it ok to talk in theory when real abuses devastate the vulnerable in the churches they pastor? Click To Tweet

Needless to say, the Internet exploded with outranged protests over Mohler’s hurtful words and Mahaney’s prominence—none more fiercely than what came from one of their own—PCA pastor, James Kessler:

“Look no one really wants to hear this, certainly not the 10,000 dutifully nodding through CJ Mahaney’s sermon . . . not the men standing on the stage with CJ, who have chosen an unconscionable loyalty to a friend and encouraged him to take the horns of the pulpit to preach and to rip apart the wounds of so many abused under his watch. . . . No one wants to hear about it, and I suppose that is their luxury because they are not the wounded, they are not the abused who were told to forgive and not to call the police. They are not plagued by nightmares, they are more fully functional if not more fully human. That hardness is their luxury, but it is privilege taxed from the bent backs of the humiliated, it is an arrogance woven from bruised reeds. . . . This is of course, nothing new. This abuse is decades old, but the new thing is the whitewash.”

That whitewash smacks of a whole new layer of cover-up and comes with devastating consequences—especially, but not only, for those who have suffered abuse.

How likely will it be for abuse victims to come forward, tell their stories, and seek help from the church when their ordeal is a matter of levity among the very men who (according to their own standard) should be the first to protect them?

How likely is it that the men who follow T4G’s lead will educate themselves about issues of abuse and avoid the impulse to cover-up?

How likely are they to report alleged offenders to law enforcement and seek professional help in ministering to abuse victims?

How, before a watching world, have T4G leaders cast yet another shadow over Christians who don’t share their views, but who care passionately for those who suffer and are actively engaged in acts of compassion and justice?

T4G’s featuring of Mahaney and their failure to raise an alarm about abuse of any kind has catastrophic consequences in the church. It opens the door for more innocents to suffer abuse and for more cover-ups to occur. It trivializes this unspeakable crisis. Victims are already reluctant to come forward with their stories. That becomes even harder now because the message is clear that the very leaders they might turn to for help won’t believe them or come to their defense. Furthermore, it legitimizes leaders who default to backing their cronies and, as often happens, even the perpetrators.

The Failure of Complimentarian Manhood

I do not mourn the fall of complementarian masculinity and I don’t pray for its recovery. It is a fallen brand of masculinity that dangles by the slender thread of a man’s ability to bring home the bacon, fight off a theoretical pipe wielding assailant, and take charge at home and in the church. It punishes and diminishes men who don’t measure up for reasons as commonplace and unavoidable as a job loss, a medical crisis, a divorce, a foreclosure, or simply the realities of old age. For some men, it remains perpetually out of reach. It emasculates men who receive the strength, help, and wisdom God intends for his daughters to give them.

God offers his sons something far more secure that Michael Jordan and the Malestromwill guide them to act differently when one of their brothers comes under suspicion. Surely this recent failure reveals the need for a whole new conversation about God’s calling on his sons. Surely this failure reveals the need for a whole new conversation about God’s calling on his sons. Click To Tweet

T4G failed miserably to live up to their own definition of manhood. What is infinitely worse, they missed a golden opportunity to put a gospel brand of manhood on display. That brand of masculinity doesn’t come from shoring up some brotherhood unity to the exclusion of everyone outside their little circle; it won’t protect the powerful and expose the weak; it doesn’t belittle those who have suffered the egregious abuse of power and the violent exploitation of their dignity as God’s image bearers, those who will bear the scars of what they’ve suffered to their graves; it will never stoop to levity that conveys to a crowd of 10,000 mostly men that this is all no big deal.

The manhood that went missing at the T4G 2016 was the manhood Jesus embodies. He shielded the vulnerable, spoke truth to power, opposed abusers and their allies, valued and benefitted from the minds and ministries of women, and rejected the muscular power that the world admires and cherishes. Although Jesus was always a sufferer, his focus was on alleviating the suffering of others. This is the gospel—the call to put the interests of others ahead of ourselves. It reflects the fact that Jesus’ kingdom, according to his own definition, is not of this world.

Ironically, by protecting their friend, T4G leaders are failing to protect anyone. Certainly not any who have suffered sexual abuse (and some of them were present among the 10,000) and certainly not those who will experience abuse in the future. They didn’t even protect themselves, for they drew legitimate criticism and disapproval from many who have benefitted from and supported their ministries. Nor did they really protect Mahaney who the very next day went on to preach a sermon reminding church members of their “biblical mandate to stand by ‘God’s man’” and their responsibility to have “a joyful disposition to trust and protect the pastoral team.”

Complementarian men of all people should be first in line to defend the vulnerable, if they truly believe what they say. If their complementarian ideals don’t drive them to this, then surely the gospel they profess compels them to rethink what it means to be men who follow Jesus in defending the weak, shielding the vulnerable, and speaking up for those who have no voice.

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