I’ve been in my share of ecclesiastical controversies over the years, so I am very reluctant to get involved in a controversy that does not – and need not – involve me. But I cannot help from making a few comments on the “Aimee Byrd vs. Genevan Commons” saga that is unfolding.
I have not looked at all the screenshots that capture comments made by men on the Genevan Commons Facebook page. But for the most part, I do not see the men involved as sinning. It is not a sin to tell a joke. Some of the comments were juvenile and some definitely crossed the line of propriety, but for the most part, the comments I have examined are not particularly problematic, given that they were made in private among friends. There is evidence that the screenshots have been doctored or decontextualized to make them look worse than they were. It's not my point here to go into the details of who said what and who is at fault -- more than enough people are already discussing that! I want to make some broader points about male/female interaction that this ordeal illustrates.
While there should be a consistency in how one speaks in public and private, these are different domains. The fact that there are many things one might say in private that one would not say in public (at least not in the same way) does not necessarily indicate hypocrisy. For example, several Genevan Commons members said rough things about Byrd’s work, given her feminist tendencies, behind the scenes. But when one-time Genevan Commons member Mark Jones dismantled her book in a public review he was, if anything, far too genteel. That does not mean Jones is a hypocrite; rather it indicates that he knows different contexts call for different forms of speech. Those who did not actually sin in their Geneva Commons comments should be careful to not apologize since that will only grant the moral high ground to Byrd and other feminists creeping into the Reformed world. Strategies of appeasement do not work; indeed, they virtually always backfire. Of course, those who did sin should be quick to confess and seek forgiveness.
The problem with the internet is that even those things that are supposed to be private rarely stay that way, at least on social media. As much as anything else, this is a good reminder of the way the internet actually works. None of that is to excuse those who broke the confidence of the Genevan Commons group by sharing publicly what was supposed to be kept private. And nothing excuses fellow Christians doxing one another in a way calculated to bring harm. But all of these issues, intriguing as they might be to explore from an ethical standpoint, are not my main interest here.
Some might argue I am just letting “boys be boys” by saying that not all the screenshotted comments are sinful. But there are good and bad ways for “boys to be boys.” The problem is that when boys, or men, are held to feminine expectations and norms, any show of healthy masculinity is going to be castigated. If male chauvinism regarded women as defective men (e.g., Aristotle), feminism regards men as defective women – and tries to fix them accordingly. In our increasingly androgynous culture, it is especially manhood that is disappearing. Even legitimate expressions of masculinity are now considered toxic.
What I find most interesting in this episode is the way it puts to the test, and ultimately refutes, a thesis Byrd has been pushing for quite some time. Byrd has argued that men and women can “just be friends” because we are brothers and sisters in Christ. Given her feminist leanings, this is not surprising. The heart of feminism is a push towards androgyny, a minimizing of the differences between the sexes. Thus, Byrd has argued against the “Mike Pence Rule,” a rule that prudently suggests men should not play with fire, lest they get burned. Under the “Pence Rule,” married men avoid alone time with women who are not their wives or some other familial relation. The logic of the “Pence Rule” is about much more than just avoiding sexual temptation for one or both parties – it is also about avoiding the appearance of evil, and in the age of #metoo, a way for a man to sensibly protect himself from false accusation. For Byrd, this is an insult to men and women both. Byrd believes men and women should be able to get along, socialize, befriend one another, etc., without any problems. But are male/female peer friendships really that simple?
No. And this whole ordeal proves it. In other words, the way Byrd has handled the Genevan Commons situation disproves the thesis she has argued for elsewhere. She wants Christian men and women to function as friends – but she is not being very friendly towards the men who have hurt her feelings. Where is the sisterly love towards her brothers she is doxing? (Note: The Genevan Commons was not an exclusively male group, though most members are men.)
There are a couple problems here that must be identified in order to be addressed. First, by writing on theological topics in a public way, Byrd has entered traditional male space (since pastors are the primary teachers of the church and must be men). Not surprisingly, when some men on Genevan Commons disagreed with her, they treated her work much like they would treat a man they disagreed with – at least in private. The kind of treatment Byrd got on Genevan Commons would be just another day at the office for a man. It’s how we treat one another. Male spaces tend to be rough. Men can sharply criticize and directly challenge one another, without it getting personal. Men are more objective and less empathetic that women in general; men tend to be more disagreeable and confrontational than women on average. Proverbs describes male friendship and communication in terms of iron sharpening iron; when men get together, sparks often fly. Men know that criticizing one another is the pathway to improvement, and men are not always delicate about it. In such cases, men are expected to take their lumps from one another, learn their lessons, and move forward. Such is the way of men. But no man would be allowed to play the victim card for experiencing the kind of (mostly benign) humorous teasing that was directed towards Byrd. Or if he did, he would be thought less of as a man. But because Byrd is a woman, she can claim to be a victim – and to underscore the problem, a swath of white-knight, feminist-leaning pastors will swoop in to aid her cause against those cruel, misogynist pastors in the Genevan Commons discussion. Women, literally and metaphorically, have thinner skin than men. They are more likely to get their feelings hurt, take things personally, and emote about perceived victimhood. This does not make women intrinsically inferior to men – but it does mean they are different and those differences drive the distinct roles and domains God assigns us as men and women. Byrd has to decide what she wants: Does she want to be a lady and aim her teaching primarily towards other women (cf. Titus 2:2ff)? Or does she want to enter male space, presume to teach the Bible to men, and thus be treated like “one of the guys”? She cannot have it both ways, entering male space (and criticizing a lot of male church leaders in the process!) but then demanding that she get treated in a delicate way by those who have the gall to disagree. Byrd wants to be able to write a book with a provocative title and a controversial thesis that breaks with tradition, but be protected from harsh criticism. It just doesn’t work that way. If you take a swing, don’t be surprised if those you are gunning for swing back. And that brings us back to the real issue, which is not the jokes themselves on Genevan Commons, but the substantive issue. The heart of the matter here is not so much that Byrd was the butt of jokes on Genevan Commons; the real issue is that there is a pastoral and theological disagreement over the role of women in the church, with the traditional Reformed approach on one side and Byrd’s quasi-feminist approach on the other side.
In general, it is very hard for men to correct women in a public setting, which means women who do not teach faithfully to Scripture can all too easily become gateways to error in the church. One could easily get the impression from a lot of public preaching and teaching that women do not really sin – or if they do so, it is only in vague, generic ways. It is rare today for a pastor to addresses those sins that especially afflict women in the Scriptures (e.g., 1 Tim. 5:13). In today’s world, men’s strength actually puts them at a disadvantage when disagreeing with the “weaker vessel” in public. Everyone intuitively knows men were made to fight for women, not against them. When put in a position where they must oppose a woman, men all too easily look abusive or arrogant in the eyes of a feminized culture. If a man is too harsh in correcting the error of the woman – or God forbid, if he uses some humor to expose her error -- then he is going to be viewed as a misogynist. But if he is too soft, too chivalrous, too genteel, then he will actually fail to deal with the error and it will go on unchecked. The temptation for men to indulge women in their errors instead of correct them is very real. When women enter into traditional male space to peddle error (as Byrd, with her latent feminism, is doing), the tendency on the part of men is to let it slide for this very reason. I commend those from the Genevan Commons group who have been willing to take on Byrd (and others like her), push back against their errors publicly, and re-assert the biblical, creational, and traditional view of sex roles in the church. Alastair Roberts makes the case against women in positions of church leadership for reasons along these lines developed here:
One of the things you do see is that when women get involved within these positions of leadership, the agonistic dimension of them tends to close down—people tend to become more agreeable—or women become hardened. And so either what we have is the loss of the sensitivity of the heart of society or we have non-combatants, as it were, on the frontline of these social antagonisms protecting the community with the result that people do not fight error. And so the niceness of the church—the niceness that is designed to be welcoming, affirming, empowering and inclusive of women—ends up with a church that will not fight error. And so much of what we have in this emphasis upon inclusivity within pastoral roles is a loss of that duty.
A further thing that we notice is that the rise of women in pastoral ministry goes along with what I mentioned earlier—the rise of the corporate organisation, the corporate organisation that is detached from the normal structures of life (and I mentioned this yesterday in the context of elders). When we lose a sense of the natural, organic structure of human society, we will end up just thinking in corporate terms: of offices to be filled with individuals who have certain skill sets, not recognising the differences that exist between people. Because the corporate model is designed to flatten out individuals—to see individuals as fundamentally detached, as lacking symbolic meaning, as lacking rootedness in particular place within society, within culture and history and all these sorts of things—and ordering them within the community according to certain skill sets.
Whereas in Scripture what we see is the organisation of the Church built upon the organic structure of society: the organic structure of society with the relationship of husband to wife and the relationship of husband to children and these sorts of dynamics. And when that natural relationship has been lost, what we end up with is abstract organisations that do not develop the natural life of the culture, the natural organic structure of the culture. And so I think these are key problems.
While Byrd (thankfully) does not believe in women pastors, she has entered into public theological discourse, which is generally a function of pastoral ministry, and is therefore generally a masculine endeavor. (This does not mean women should not pursue Biblical and theological knowledge; they should. At issue is the way in which women use that knowledge, the contexts in which it is appropriate for them to teach, etc.) The presence of a woman in this space changes the nature of the space: concerns about empathy and sensitivity come to the forefront, which make the rigorous examination of positions more difficult; men tend to tip-toe around any error made by a woman, lest they be accused of misogyny in confronting her; when men do criticize a woman forthrightly, others (including other men) with protective instincts tend to come to her “rescue” to shield her from harsh criticism; and so on. When a male space becomes a mixed with men and women, women do not defer to masculine communication norms and preferences; rather the reverse happens. Men typically soften their discourse out of respect for the woman. If the discourse is found to be too harsh – as has happened now that the Genevan Commons discussion has been made public – the focus of discussion shifts from the content of the issue, to the tone in which the men have expressed their views. No one is discussing the deep flaws in Byrd’s book anymore – instead everyone is fixated on how insensitive and cruel these men in the group were behind closed doors. This is why it is so important for men (and women) to have spaces of their own. Of course, we also need intersexual social space where men and women interact. But those intersexual spaces have markedly different dynamics. For example, when a woman enters a previously all male military unit, the changes that take place are well documented. The same happens when women enter male ecclesiastical space. The whole mode of discourse typically changes.
A good example of this, again, is Jones’ review of Byrd’s book. Jones criticisms of the book are devastating, but Jones can barely bring himself to say what needs to be said in his public review. He is walking on egg shells as he exposes the the errors of Byrd's book. Had the same book been written by a man, he would have shredded it. Instead, he pulled some punches precisely because every good man knows you should never hit a woman -- even verbally.
The second issue builds on the first. Why can’t men and women “just be friends” as Byrd has argued elsewhere? Certainly men and women can and should be friendly towards one another, but the kind of cross-sexual friendship Byrd envisions are problematic. This latest controversy is the perfect case in point. Is Byrd interested in being friends with the men of Genevan Commons? It appears not. Why not? Again, as a man, I did not find much about the Genevan Commons screenshots surprising (though admittedly, I have not looked at all of them). I have (obviously) been behind closed doors with men. In male space, a peculiarly masculine form of communication and humor takes over. Men are disagreeable. Men are direct. Men know how to mock and ridicule in humorous ways. But this is just the issue: Men and women really are different. For the feminist, these differences are a SERIOUS PROBLEM because they threaten the androgynous project that feminists are pushing. Feminists cannot find the differences between the sexes amusing, humorous, or intriguing. They are a threat to their entire worldview. All women, but feminists in particular, can be upset by things men find funny – and our differing senses of humor can create all kinds of misunderstanding. This is the perfect example of that phenomenon. Again, Byrd has a choice: If she is going to rebuke men, she has to be willing to be rebuked in turn. And she should not be surprised if a masculine rebuke is quite different from the way women interact with and seek to correct one another.
Here is the bottom line: Perhaps unwittingly, Byrd is using what has become a typical feminist strategy. She wants equal treatment with men when it suits her and she wants special treatment from men when it suits her. She wants to enter the same space as pastors, as a public teacher of the whole church, but she wants to do so without being subjected to the same scrutiny or criticism as pastors. And when the criticisms do come, as they have, she wants to be able to play the victim, and then leverage her victimhood into a victory she could not win through straight forward argument. Byrd's approach not only suggests that she is a feminist (denials not withstanding), it also subverts her thesis that men and women can have androgynous friendships.