Can men be pastors?
Can Christian men be teachers, preachers, elders, seminary professors, Sunday school teachers, worship leaders, small group leaders, police officers, elected officials, church treasurers, and so on and so forth?
How does that line of questioning make you feel? Why does it sound so off, even offensive?
Yes, Jesus agreed, to love your neighbor as yourself is the correct ethical conclusion to draw from the Hebrew Bible (Mk. 12:28-34). Alongside loving God it functioned as the foundation and summary of the entire Law, the basic moral thrust of Israelite religion. Jesus broadened and universalized the ethical framework by expanding the definition of neighbor to include even outsiders and enemies (Mt. 5:43-48, Lk. 10:25-37). While the New Covenant made the Law itself obsolete, this “Golden Rule” was passed forward as the basis for Christian ethics.
Indeed Jesus clarified, rather than nullified, the human responsibility to love one’s neighbor as oneself. He focused the Golden Rule on power, drawing attention specifically to becoming a servant and washing one another’s feet as the seminal demonstration of Christian social ethics (Jn. 13:1-17).
Jesus illustrated what most poor and marginalized people intrinsically feel: That to truly love and treat someone as you’d have them love and treat you requires laying down your status and power over them. Power, status and privilege are obstacles to neighborly love.
There is subjectivity in any ethical system: Who defines what is good? How is utility measured, and so forth? Ethical frameworks typically fail to inspire morality in part because each of us inserts our selfish desires wherever the subjectivity is placed, deciding for ourselves what the greatest good is.
The genius of the Golden Rule as an ethical framework is that it admits the problems of selfishness and subjectivity, and fights fire with fire per se. It demands we acknowledge and admit our selfish desires rather than suppress them, but then refuse to do anything that we wouldn’t want done to us. It uses self-serving desire to constrain destructive selfishness. The result is that every adherent gains access to a built-in internal ethical compass: Just pay attention to what you want for yourself, and then do that for others.
We can thank the author of Leviticus (19:18) for the Golden Rule’s place in history. But we should thank Jesus for incorporating status, power, and privilege into any earnest practice of the Golden Rule, and for passing it on as an authoritative ethical command for Christians, especially for those with power, especially for men.
Let’s start here:
You don’t want to be a lowly servant tasked with washing other people’s feet; you have to train yourself in this, if at all. Deep down you want to be healthy, happy, empowered, respected, admired, free, comfortable, and so forth. We all do. We also don’t desire to be prohibited by others from experiencing any of those things.
The Golden Rule doesn’t demand we treat others as our ideological system claims they are intended to function, but as you desire to be treated, as you love your own quality of life. Following Jesus then means admitting all these needs and desires and then treating others as if they too shared them, and it means sacrificing privilege and relinquishing power in order to service those needs and desires.
To choose to hold onto one’s power instead is to directly disobey the teaching and example of Jesus.
It would be unchristian. The Lord became a servant, so God forbid we servants take it upon ourselves to act as lords “lording over” others (Mk. 10:41-45 et al). To enslave another as a lesser being is to break this rule. To exclude non-Jews and ethnic outsiders from full participation in the community was to break the rule. And to refuse women full inclusion and equal standing, even if their empowerment requires your sacrifice, is to break the rule.
For Philemon to reinforce Onesimus’ status of slave rather than brother would’ve proven him ineffective in his faith (Philem. 6). When Peter acquiesced to racist Christians in ostracizing Gentiles, he stood condemned (Gal. 2:11).
So then, can men be pastors?
Why would men be offended at the question? For one, it threatens to undermine the male privilege and patriarchal power that men have monopolized throughout history. It also implies that similar questions about what women can do are equally absurd. And, it’s offensive because men, like women, naturally intuit that a prohibition from power is functionally equivalent to an assertion of inferior status, no matter how much some espouse otherwise.
Unequal opportunity means unequal status.
If women can’t be pastors, only men can. If men can’t be pastors, it’s presumably because only someone else is qualified. In contradiction to one of the foundational arguments of modern complementarian ideology, status and power are inherently connected. Jesus and Paul thought so too.
Beyond offensiveness, the question may provoke feelings of discomfort, fear, and entitlement. Christians are responsible to acknowledge these feelings because they testify to one’s desires and perceived needs, and therefore to one’s ethical responsibilities under the Golden Rule.
If Christian men, and particularly leaders, feel a longing or even defensiveness toward a perceived right to such leadership, this constrains them to treat others as worthy of fulfilling similar desires. Indeed, it obligates them to realize the very authority they feel attached to is precisely what the basics of Christianity call them to lay down in love. The first will be last, the greatest among you must be a servant, and so forth. Therefore, we must grant our neighbor the same power we wish for ourselves. Basically, male offense to such a question reveals that male privilege and the preservation of patriarchal power, rather than Christian discipleship, are guiding one’s relationship to Christian leadership.
I also raise the question in order to inform men – and women – of the foolishness of separating opportunity and power from identity and equality. They’ve always been co-dependent notions and always will be. Offense at the question proves this to be true.
This unnatural compartmentalization between intuited truths and forced ideological suppositions drives people crazy, literally, as their emotional selves fragment from their cognitive framework. Wrestling with doubt and faith is one thing, but convincing yourself you believe things that your heart and body tell you are untrue leads to psychological disintegration. This disintegration kills people, and it leads to the kind of nonsensical moral and emotional dissonance we’ve recently seen so much of in American Evangelicalism.
Can men be pastors?
Additionally, I pose the question to challenge male church leaders who espouse this idea that women are equal, just made for less authority. This hurts women, and it corrupts basic Christian ethics. For women – and there are lots of them – who’ve been convinced this is the only Biblical way, some level of psychological disintegration often occurs.
For the many other women who admit their doubts and acknowledge the dissonance, however quietly, another kind of hurt occurs. This is the hurt that continues to send people fleeing from the church, and the faith, in order to escape antiquated, toxic ideology and the community it supports. All too often, complementarian teaching begets not “good submissive Christian women” but abuse victims and spiritual survivors.
Pastors are stewards of significant religious and spiritual power.
Complementarian male pastors are, intrinsically, holding onto power that they refuse to share with women, preserving it instead for themselves and their gender. This breaks the Golden Rule.
Therefore, I ask again, can men be pastors, according to basic Christian ethics, while excluding women from doing likewise? Or, is one’s willingness to share power with other people and other genders a pre-requisite for Christian leadership?
Is “complementarian pastor” an ethical oxymoron wherein one’s preservation of power at the expense of others intrinsically precludes their ability to lead by example in following Jesus?