Some Further Thoughts on Men, Women, and Shame

The following are some further thoughts, following on from my post on men and shame. The issue of the relationship between women and men’s shame should be addressed more closely, because there is an awful lot going on there.

I noted in passing that the popular feminist narrative of ‘the Patriarchy’ is marked by a blindness to the immense power that women wield in human society. Of course, if you focus narrowly upon power in its more overt and direct forms, as feminists are inclined to do, then clearly men are the far more powerful sex and, in a vision of the sexes that generally ignores natural differences, also clearly oppressors. Men are physically stronger, more agentic, naturally enjoy more autonomy and independence on account of their less demanding part in procreation, and are able directly to impose their will upon the world and society to a degree that women cannot. Practically every dimension of the material, technological, institutional, and political structure of practically every human civilization was primarily established by men and is still dominated by them, even as our societies go to considerable lengths to fight against this. While there has been plenty of male tyranny over history, this difference in the capacity for subduing the world and exercising dominion over it does not ultimately arise from tyranny, even if in certain respects it has often been accentuated by it.[1] However, this is far from the full picture.

The fuller picture is one in which the overwhelming majority of men are deeply concerned about what women think of them. Although they exercise more direct power, men’s power has always been exercised largely in order to attract women’s attention, to please them, and to get their approval. As some have wittily remarked, the man may be the head, but the woman is the neck that turns him.

The immense yet indirect power that women wield is an essentially good power, a power that God designed them to have. It enables women to motivate, direct, and inspire men. Through this power, women can bring out the best or the worst in men. They can inspire men to virtue and noble deeds, they can draw them into sin and error, or they can crush them with shame and judgment. Beauty has the power to tame beasts and overcome dragons. Through their influence over them, women can take the dangerous powers of men and direct them towards that which is good, giving men purpose, motivation, and a focus for their God-given energies.[2]

On the other hand, as Proverbs frequently reminds the young man, there are few fates worse than having to live with a nagging wife. If you marry a contentious woman or you act in a way that is displeasing to your wife, she can and probably will make your life a living hell. If you choose wisely, though, the picture will be very different: a gracious and wise wife who is joyful and thriving will be the glory and crown of her husband. As Paul reminds the Corinthians, the married man is naturally heavily preoccupied with concern about how to please his wife. And, if he isn’t concerned about that, he is a fool who will likely suffer dearly for his folly.

1 Esdras 4:13-32, while apocryphal, expresses a viewpoint that strongly resonates with scriptural teaching and narrative on this matter:

Then the third young man, Zerubbabel, who had spoken of women and truth, began to speak: “Gentlemen, isn’t the king great, aren’t men abundant, and isn’t wine strong? Who is it, though, that masters them or rules over them? Isn’t it women? Women give birth to the king and to all the people who rule over the sea and land. From women they all are born. It was women who brought up those men who plant the vineyards from which wine is produced.

“Women make men’s clothes. They bring men honor. Without women, men aren’t even able to exist. If men gather gold and silver or any valuable thing, and then see a desirable and beautiful woman, they forget everything to gaze at her. With mouths wide open, they stare at her. All choose her over gold, silver, or any other valuable thing. A man leaves his own father, who raised him, and his own country, and clings to his own wife. With his wife he departs this life, with no memory of his father or mother or country. Therefore, surely you must recognize that women rule over you!

“Don’t you work and labor, yet you bring everything and give it to women? A man takes his sword, goes out to travel abroad to raid, steal, and sail the sea and rivers. He faces lions; he walks in darkness; when he steals and robs and plunders, he carries it back to the woman he loves. A man loves his own wife much more than his father or mother. Many men have lost their heads over women, and have become slaves on account of them. Many have perished, stumbled, or sinned because of women.

“Now don’t you believe me? Isn’t the king great in his authority? Don’t all countries fear to touch him? I once saw the king and Apame his mistress, the daughter of the eminent Bartacus, sitting by his right side. She took the crown from the king’s head and put it on her own head, and slapped the king with her left hand. At this the king would stare at her with his mouth wide open. If she smiles at him, he laughs; but if she should get angry with him, he humors her so that she may be reconciled to him. Gentlemen, aren’t women powerful, since they can do such things?”

The woman is the glory of the man. She is the one who captivates his heart. In her commentary on the Song of Songs, Cheryl Exum observes the way in which the man expresses the woman’s power over him: he has been overcome and captured by her. He is awestruck by her, and no longer in control. Of course, none of this is foreign to the experience of twenty-first century men.

The power of women over men is something that we see from very early on in Scripture. Adam unquestioningly follows his wife in eating from the tree and is judged by God for listening to the voice of his wife over the divine command. God also frustrates the woman’s desire for her husband. This desire is not, I believe, necessarily an evil desire to control him—although it can often be used in such a manner—but a desire to possess his heart. This is a good and proper thing in principle—women should exert powerful influence over their husbands—even though Eve used such power for evil.

Throughout the rest of Scripture we see the power that women have to direct the hearts of men. The wives of Solomon draw his heart away from the Lord. The power of Jezebel over Ahab placed all of Israel under tyrannical rule. Esther’s beauty and her captivation of the heart of the king saved her people. The importance of this dynamic is one reason why Wisdom is personified as a woman in Proverbs and opposed to the woman Folly. It is also why the search for Wisdom is treated in close parallel with the quest for a wife, and why the whole book culminates in a declaration of the wise wife, who brings together these two themes. As a man, you are going to give your heart into the hands of your wife, for good or ill. If you want to pursue wisdom, the choice of the woman to whom you give your heart is perhaps the most important one of all. If she is not a wise woman, any pursuit of wisdom you seek to undertake will be immensely difficult.

Men’s need to gain women’s approval makes them extremely vulnerable to their judgment. Consequently, men’s sense of self-worth is generally closely related to how they appear in the eyes of women. The judgment of male peers matters a great deal to men, but women are still the most powerful arbiters of their persons and character. A chronic fear of women is commonly found among young men, because such men seem to feel that the entirety of their being is being placed in the scales of Woman’s judgment whenever they approach an individual woman. They can’t see beyond the archetype of ‘Woman’ or ‘women’ as a group to the particularity of the person in front of them. Overcoming that fear of rejection requires a degree of differentiation of the individual from the group and the archetype, without ever fully separating them.

More generally, healthy groups of men care about how women regard them. They may no longer be teenagers performing tricks on their skateboards to get the attention of a girl they fancy, but they are still profoundly alert to how their stock in female approval is faring. And men’s concern on this front means that they will very frequently side with women against their male peers. If a man challenges a woman, there will often be other men that will come to her aid against him. The desire to be pleasing to women in general and certain women in particular is a powerful force that acts upon men’s behaviour.

This is also one of the reasons why men often find it harder to be weak and vulnerable with women than they do with other men (and a further reason why the loss of deep male community and the dependence of men upon marriage for the overwhelming majority of their close human companionship can be so devastating). A man who shows his weakness to women may often be met with a maternal kindness, but he will generally be less likely to be treated as an attractive partner. In other cases, he may not even be so lucky, and may simply face ridicule, revulsion, and rejection.

Bringing this all back to the subject of shame, the power over men’s shame is disproportionately held by women. Good women know how to use male shame to bring out the best in men. They do this by holding men to a standard of honour, treating them with respect and expecting and enabling men to live up to the high expectations that they have of them. In such an approach, the aversion of shame is merely the shadow cast by a vision of honour that a woman sets before a man. The aversion he feels to shame doesn’t drive him down into abjection, but draws him up into honour. Other women, however, hold men to a standard of shame, using guilt and blame to control men, render them abject, and conform them to their wishes.

This is one of the ways that feminism has gained so much ground in society, while driving men down. Men care deeply about what women think of them. So, if socially influential women advance the myth that the history of our civilization is overwhelmingly one of unrelenting male patriarchal oppression, a great many men will find themselves unable to object. Especially if such an opinion is dominant in women’s circles, few men will dare openly to gainsay it. In such a manner, feminism has advanced less by strength of academic argument than by shaming of men and the marginalization of female critics. Its arguments, while definitely not without some merit, simply aren’t strongly tested. Few would dare to do so.

The power of the narrative of the patriarchy is found in the ways that guilt and shame breed abjection and impotence. The best many men feel that they can do is, like the accused at a communist show trial, completely to assume the blame and responsibility that is directed at them. They cannot question or dispute any of the accusations levelled at their sex, but must unreservedly concur with the prosecution. Men who take upon themselves the shame and blame of their proclaimed status as patriarchal oppressors and start to bemoan the evils of their sex can be accepted by the revolutionaries, rehabilitated in their emasculation.

It will be impossible to understand the power of the social justice movement more generally without appreciating the power of female judgment and men’s vulnerability to being controlled through their shame and need for approval. A great number of men will forfeit any masculinity, rendering them unattractive to women and pitiful to themselves, merely in order to avoid shame. That is how powerful shame can be. Few decent and respectable men dare to argue publicly against viewpoints that are openly held by the most influential women in society. If they do so, they might find themselves thrust out of polite society and many men will, at women’s behest, rise to condemn them.

Gender theory and transgender ideologies, for instance, have not gained cultural cachet through intellectual credibility and philosophical rigour, but principally through men’s susceptibility to shame before female judgment and women’s fear of social ostracization by the most powerful women in society. As Peterson has observed, the herd-like dynamics of critical theorists—the way in which they all employ the same turgid jargon and reference the same few scholars—are driven in large measure by fear of sticking out, as the person who stands out will be eaten. The women who stand at the heart of a culture can be the most powerful people of all: ultimately, they are the ones that everyone will be trying to please.

It is interesting to notice how rapidly a man’s professed values and beliefs can change when he starts trying to please a particular woman. A woman’s power over the heart of her man can be used to lead him into all sorts of specious rationalizations in order to defend her. This is one of the reasons why gender dynamics in the contemporary public square are such a challenge, now that men and women are integrated. Dynamics of discourse in all-male groups are held at arm’s length from the force of female influence. When men interact with other men in such contexts, they tend to do so combatively, forcefully testing the strength of each other’s viewpoints. Such male codes of interaction have tended to set the terms of discourse in academic and public life until recently.

When women are included in such contexts, things become much more complicated, however. The first problem is that women’s typical forms of interaction are much less direct and combative, but are indirect forms of relational antagonism. Rather than directly challenging each other, women are more likely to attempt to leverage peer pressure against opponents, to ostracize their opponents from the group, to attack opponents’ reputations, to get third parties to intervene against them, etc., etc. These are all dynamics that we are currently seeing surrounding the social justice movement, which is itself associated with contexts that have become heavily female. While many, many women can readily adapt to more direct combative styles of discourse, the more women are found in a group, the more likely it is that more typically feminine modes of interaction will start to become prominent.

The second problem is that, when a number of women enter a group of men, the entire discourse of the men tends to change form by virtue of their presence. This effect can often be mitigated by those women functioning as if honorary males, but even in many such cases, men’s need to be pleasing to women will make it much harder for them to speak uncomfortable truths or voice controversial beliefs. An unpleasant minority of men will adopt a different approach, singling out women for particularly vicious attacks. As they feel that the shaming powers of women employed against them (even unintentionally) are a more personal form of attack than male counter-arguments, they can be cruel in their treatment of women.

Our culture likes to pretend as if gender can simply be wished away, as if we could all function as rule-governed neuters. But gender is still the elephant in the room. It is a force that we all act under and which determines so much in our society. Women’s mere presence in public discourse makes it incredibly difficult to challenge the sacred cows of progressivism without finding oneself frozen out. We have yet to discover anything approaching a solution to this problem. The norms surrounding the public square and public speech have been fairly gendered in most societies and they have been so for a reason. This definitely doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aim for a more inclusive yet truthful public discourse, nor that such a form of discourse isn’t possible, but it is deeply naïve to think that it won’t require some pretty ingenious social choreography.

When the sexes are heavily integrated, what tends to happen is that the minority of men who have the will to resist the narrative of blame sustained by key influential women in the culture tend to gather around the few brave women who are prepared openly to dissent from the opinions that are most influential or established in female groups. Such women tend to come from the margins as dissenters in core cultural institutions would be unlikely to be able to speak up without being cast out. Consequently, most women just keep their heads down. The few women who stand up provide a measure of cover for men, which they would not enjoy if they openly spoke out themselves. Unless they had a few brave women by their side, their reputations would be savaged by the more influential women and most other women, even if they had sympathy for their opinions, wouldn’t dare approach them, lest they be ostracized. Other men would either attack them or carefully keep their distance.

Due to deeply instilled gender etiquette, honourable men aren’t permitted forcefully and combatively to confront a woman. If a woman advances unreasonable or irrational positions, honourable men really can’t act against them in the ways that they can act against other men, at least not without losing their honour in the process. Other women have much more power here, but, as Peterson observes, sensible and grounded women probably have better things to do with their lives than arguing with psychologically unbalanced gender theorists and the like.

All of this discussion, however, raises the issue of dishonourable and shameless men, of whom there is no shortage. There are a couple of things to note about such persons. First, there are some men who can get what they want from women easily, or who want little from women in the first place (I doubt that it is accidental that someone like Milo Yiannopoulos is gay). As Mark Regnerus argues, when sex is ‘cheap’, men will feel much less pressure to be of marriageable quality. They will still care about what women think of them to some extent, but if there are women who are prepared to hook up with them, that may well be enough. And there is no shortage of women to whom men of poor character can enjoy at least short term sexual access. Indeed, as many of these men’s male peers may lament, when many decent men are emasculated by shame and expected to be meekly compliant, shameless bad boys may enjoy the benefits of the natural attractiveness of manly traits, despite the fact that they are exercising them in a toxic form. Other men simply adopt misogynistic attitudes and turn their backs on women altogether, preferring to enjoy the sorry freedom of an isolated autonomy and authenticity than risk the prison of shame.

Second, when shame has been weaponized to gain power over men, shamelessness will be favoured as a sort of resistance. Without the weaponization of shame by the progressive left, it is highly unlikely that we would have President Trump in the White House. The appeal of Trump was, in no small measure, a result of the fact that he was the only candidate shameless enough to break the power of those shaming Americans into their oppressive vision for society.

When shame is so weaponized, people—and men in particular—need to develop the power to resist shame if they are to speak the truth. However, it is imperative that men don’t reject shame altogether. We must learn to be open to truthful shame—the shame that moves us in the direction of honour—and to be immune to the sort of shame that will bring us into bondage. Once again, this depends in no small measure upon listening to and caring about what women say, yet being exceedingly carefully and critically selective in determining which women’s opinions one should particularly concern oneself with. We must learn to be little concerned—though not entirely unconcerned—with the opinion of most women in society, while caring very much about the judgment of wise and godly women who know us well and watch us closely.

Women have a huge part to play here. They are the ones who are best situated to attack the error advanced by other women. If men do so, they risk being shamed as misogynists and being socially marginalized or attacked by other men who come to women’s aid. Women’s encouragement and support mean an immense amount to decent men, who care about women, but who also care about speaking truths that may alienate many. Especially in many online contexts, where boundaries between realms of formerly gendered discourse have collapsed, women who will openly speak out against popular and influential women who use the power of shame to twist conversations in their favour are tremendous sources of strength to men.

On other occasions, however, women’s recognition of their power in such regards should involve their standing back and giving space to men, withdrawing their power, or using it to encourage candour so that the rigorous testing of truth should not be undermined by the God-given strength of their influence over men. Sometimes this may be a matter of carefully refraining from exercising their power of shame even when they could employ it to gain an advantage. It generally should involve honouring men who are committed to speaking truthfully, even when they may disagree with them or say things that they don’t want to hear, while holding flatterers in low esteem.

Still other times it may mean abstaining from certain conversations altogether. This is one of the reasons, I believe, why Paul was concerned that the ‘glory’ of women be ‘veiled’ in some manner in worship, and why he challenged the participation of women in such things as the act of judging prophecy. This will be a hard word for many, especially in a society that champions unfettered individual opportunity and hates the notion of our genders placing unchosen limits upon us. However, these are limits imposed so that the power that women have been given can be used for the benefit and building up of all, rather than, in a drive for the maximization of personal influence and power, harming the community and its commitment to truth.

[1] Indeed, exercising such tyranny would have been nigh impossible were it not for the existence of such a natural difference in the capacity for the exertion and development of direct power in the first place (not just in the form of physical strength).

[2] This, incidentally, is one reason why a society with many unmarried men can be a very volatile place.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Culture, Ethics, Sex and Sexuality, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

48 Responses to Some Further Thoughts on Men, Women, and Shame

  1. Eric says:

    Last night, as I was reading Something Fresh by Wodehouse, I came across this quote, echoing your comments in the previous article:

    “If girls realized their responsibilities they would be so careful when they smiled that they would probably abandon the practice altogether. There are moments in a man’s life when a girl’s smile can have as important results as an explosion of dynamite.”

  2. RStarke says:

    Do you really center the source of a woman’s power in her appearance/beauty? That might be a kind of power informed/enforced by the Fall, but I don’t think Scripture bears out that it’s a *valid* source of power.

    • No, I don’t. Physical beauty is an exceedingly important aspect of women’s power and Scripture has rather a lot to say about it. Beauty isn’t just about physical appearance, though, and Scripture teaches us how to discern what is truly attractive in women and calls women to cultivate that. Women are expected to pursue beauty, and this is emphasized for women in ways that it isn’t for men (although note the emphasis on the attractive appearance of Israel’s kings). However, this beauty must primarily be the true inner beauty of the heart, not merely the fleeting and vain beauty of outward appearance (although Scripture says lots to emphasize the power of the outward appearance, while warning us against focusing on that alone).

      My first reference to beauty was a purposeful play on the Beauty and the Beast theme and the reference to beauty there was a broader one. The second was in the quotation from 1 Esdras which made specific reference to physical beauty, without being narrowly constrained to beauty alone. The third was in reference to Esther’s physical beauty, which gave her such power with the king.

      Beauty is just one element of the much broader sense in which Scripture speaks of women as the glory of men and of women’s power over men’s hearts. However, it is dealt with on many occasions in the text. More generally in reality physical beauty is a hugely important part of women’s attractiveness and power relative to men. This is just an empirical fact. It is certainly far from the sum total of women’s power relative to men, but attractive feminine features are a crucial dimension of their glory (e.g. women’s long hair is part of their divinely given glory/beauty).

      I disagree that Scripture denies the validity of this form of power. It references the physical attractiveness of a number of godly women. The whole story of Esther is premised upon Esther’s shrewd employment of the power of her beauty. Proverbs tells men to delight in the attractive physical features of their wives, while being wary of the danger of the power of beauty. Ephesians speaks about Christ’s bride in ways that makes much metaphorical play upon the significance of beauty in that context. And then we have the entire book of Song of Songs.

      Besides, if beauty were not a valid source of power, why did God create women and men so that women’s physical appearance would be so extremely powerful in attracting men? We could get more specific and ask about particular features such as women’s permanent breasts—no other primate species has them—as sexual ornaments, universally attractive to men. If beauty isn’t a valid form of power, why would God create men with such an attraction to such functionally unnecessary physical features in women? Sure, beauty is a volatile and ambivalent power that can be used for much evil, but it is fundamentally good and valid. A man is supposed to find his wife beautiful and she is supposed to have power relative to him on account of that. Again, physical beauty is far from the only or even the primary dimension of the power of women relative to men I am discussing here, but it is an essential and the most immediately apparent dimension. It generally tends to be that which grabs men’s attention first, before they discover the rest.

      • And, to be clearer, the power of women that was foremost in my mind in writing this post was women’s social power in tightly networked societies. This power isn’t usually possessed by the most beautiful women, but by the best networked women. Likewise, the most powerful men are very seldom the physically strongest men, but those who the best placed in male networks of competence, status, wealth, reputation, etc., generally guys in their fifties and sixties.

        While an attractive girlfriend has changed many a young man’s mind on matters, the greater power tends to lie elsewhere. Indeed, in most societies attractive young women have their sexuality and appearance policed primarily by older women (not by men, as many people presume, although men clearly police them too, albeit often on the women’s behalf), much as physically powerful young men are sent to die in war by their fathers’ generation. The greater power that women have is the power of social connection and union. Women are the ones who stand at the heart of communities. If you offend such a woman, you will be frozen out of the community. Men need to please women because, if they don’t, they may be cut loose from society and left out in the cold.

  3. bethyada says:

    This is all very helpful. I found this comment a little confusing. God also frustrates the woman’s desire for her husband. This desire is not, I believe, necessarily an evil desire to control him—although it can often be used in such a manner—but a desire to possess his heart. This is a good and proper thing in principle—women should exert powerful influence over their husbands—even though Eve used such power for evil.

    God frustrates the desire in the curse, yet you say that the desire is a good thing. Can you clarify? Do you mean that God gave a woman a desire to possess her husband’s heart [good] and because the Fall, God cursed this desire so that it is misdirected? What exactly do you see as the curse here?

    • The desire is fundamentally good: women’s desire for the hearts of their husbands is entirely appropriate. However, since the woman used that good desire for evil, to lead her husband astray, God frustrates the desire, preventing the woman from so easily achieving her desire again. This is both a judgment and a form of grace. On the one hand, it means that the woman may often suffer under a domineering husband. On the other hand, it means that a man has a greater chance of resisting a sinful wife.

      The placement of enmity between the woman and the serpent was another form of gracious judgment. Had God not put enmity between the two of them, the woman could easily have followed the serpent to her doom, leading the man after her. The enmity protects her, much as the frustration of the woman’s desire protects the man. Both of their tempters are weakened relative to them.

      • And I should add that the judgment of death upon Adam and the frustration of his labour serves graciously to protect the earth from the evil rule of an unrestrained fallen humanity.

      • p duggie says:

        alternatively a woman may suffer under a negligent and self-regarding husband. She desires him to do the things he ought to be doing for her, but he is master of his own self. and while not domineering toward her, will leave her as a “golf-widow” or equivalent. I’m thinking of this in ways that don’t let the non-domineering husbands off the hook

      • Yes, that would be another example of the frustration of the woman’s desire. There are a great many women who want their men to step up and take action, but find themselves with the power to overcome their inertia. The hearts of their husbands are either hardened to them, or otherwise weak in their response.

  4. Hermonta M Godwin says:

    I think this blog post is in many ways helpful, but I disagree with the form of headship given to women in your position. Attempting to narrow it to Godly/mature women doesn’t go far enough. No woman no matter how godly will be fully sanctified this side of heaven. So one will have to evaluate their objections to you by Special Revelation/natural law etc and then either accept the objection and implement changes or reject the objection and keep going. But one should treat the almost completely unhinged women in a similar fashion.

    In your system, is there a unique position of godly older women over men in a society that godly older men cannot fulfill?

    • This isn’t a ‘system’, or some assignment of authority resting upon argument. It isn’t ‘headship’ either. My point is that this is simply the way that things are, and how God created them to be. To a large extent we don’t have a choice in the matter. The choice, to the extent that it exists, is mostly about ‘how’ women are to use their power, not ‘whether’.

      • This point really is crucial. Most of what the Bible has to say about men and women is not primarily about how they should relate, but about how they do relate. The man simply is the head, whether we like it or not. We can fight against this fact, but it won’t change the ultimate reality. Likewise, the woman is the glory of the man, whether we want her to be or not.

        There are many ways in which we can fight against these facts. Normalization of contraception and porn are one example of the many ways in which we can destabilize this relationship between men and women, as women seek power on men’s terms and men seek to reduce the power that women have over them. The radicalization and automation of the male libido dominandi in the modern maximization of power and autonomy in government and economy, cut loose from the power of the woman (and enabling women to cut themselves loose from men in turn), is another way that we can try to escape this order. However, reality will always return to bite us. The male-female relationship established by God is also a relationship established between humanity and the earth. When it is destabilized, everything starts to become disordered in different ways.

      • Hermonta M Godwin says:

        If this is not an example of headship, then how would advocating headship for women look /work out differently?

        Next, I think you are going beyond simply describing things as God made them. God cursed Adam for listening to his wife. Now we know that it was not simply that Adam listened to the words that came out of Eve’s mouth. The problem is that he went along with the evil that she was advocating. It was within Adam’s ability to tell her no, but he did not do so.

        Now I am not saying that women are not influential, but I am saying that men have the ability to evaluate what is being advocated and say no or yes as the circumstances dictate. Such is a part of being a mature man.

        Lastly, how do you understand Trump’s shamelessness? Is he a mutant who is genetically different than other men? Can other men mirror him (with perhaps more noble goals?)

      • Yes, we do have the power to evaluate and resist. However, women also have the ability to evaluate and resist the headship of men without denying the fact that such headship exists. Sometimes both men and women have to say no to each other in order to obey God.

        I think Trump’s shamelessness is partly his natural personality, but much of it is the fact that he has never struggled that much to get what he wants from women and is surrounded by many fawning sycophants. As a result, good women don’t have much power to tame him.

      • Hermonta M Godwin says:

        “This point really is crucial. Most of what the Bible has to say about men and women is not primarily about how they should relate, but about how they do relate. The man simply is the head, whether we like it or not. We can fight against this fact, but it won’t change the ultimate reality. Likewise, the woman is the glory of the man, whether we want her to be or not.”

        I agree that man is the head and not simply allowed or should be the head. My point is that I think the relationship between younger men and older women that you are advocating is a headship type relationship. That is one of the reasons that I asked is there something that more mature women can give younger men that older men cant?

        I agree that the problems of porn and contraception are vast and insidious in the ways that you describe.

        Next, why do you think the Bible talks explicitly about women training younger women while it says nothing about women mentoring younger men? In my understanding, immature women will look to older more mature women in a different way than men even if they both said the same thing and women have an insight into the struggles of women that men don’t.

      • One of the problems that we have when speaking about headship is that people tend to think in terms of a two dimensional hierarchy. If the man is the head of the woman, then there is no sense in which she can come to the foreground relative to him. However, the biblical vision is one in which men and women occupy different positions relative to each other.

        The man may be the head of the woman, but the woman has the heart of the man. The woman is the one who stands at the heart of society; the man is the one who stands at its head. Society gathers around the woman; society gathers behind the man.

        These two positions both have different forms of influence relative to each other. They are akin to fundamental forces in nature: together they order reality, but they are incommensurable in many respects.

        Younger men are called to honour older women like mothers. And there is definitely a sort of authority there, even though it is different from the authority of fathers. However, headship is much more than merely ‘authority’.

        The normal situation is one in which older women primarily teach younger women. However, there are plenty of settings in which older women can instruct younger men too. It isn’t the same kind of authoritative teaching as that which can be exercised by men, but it definitely can, does, and should take place.

        Such an older woman would counsel someone like Timothy and he would approach her as a mother, showing her honour and taking her counsel seriously. This isn’t the same thing as headship, but it is a very real thing that we should be doing. We’ve tended to abstract all of this from the familial context of the Church community in ways that can flatten out the differences between treating people as mothers and fathers in the Church (the issue merely being who is speaking at the front). We really need a more careful way of handling these issues, that gives women the honour and influence they are supposed to have, without confusion.

  5. Patrick M says:


    Do you find writing on the Jordan Peterson phenomenon helps you sort through your thoughts on the matter as much as it helps your readers? In other words, are you working through this yourself as you type?

    Also- have you done extended work on the Genesis 3 judgments? I, too, was left confused by the small bit in your article and wondered if there is a link to another post you had written? I know the ESV recently changed its translation of ‘desire’ much to the chagrin of many.

    Thanks for the post and keep writing!!

    • Thanks, Patrick!

      Good to hear that you are finding the posts helpful! I have worked through most of these issues at length myself already. However, the blogging helps thoughts that exist in a sort of suspension in my mind to be crystallized.

      I have done extended work on the Genesis 3 judgment. That will be found in my forthcoming book, although I have done a lot more work on it that may not be published.

  6. Esther says:

    You mention men find it more difficult to be vulnerable in front of women rather than other men. Do you think that men who have close male friendships where they can be vulnerable without shame then find it easier to be vulnerable with women without feeling emasculated? I had previously thought the men I know who seem to cope with vulnerability well were just like that due to their personalities, now I think it may be due to the confidence given them by other positive male relationships.

    • Thanks for the comment, Esther.

      I think there are different sorts of vulnerability. Any healthy marital relationship, for instance, needs to involve genuine emotional openness and vulnerability to one’s spouse. However, it is one thing to be emotionally open and communicative to someone and quite another to be emotionally abject and impotent to them, laying emotional burdens on them they are unable to bear. Most men know that women want the former, but tend to be put off by the latter.

      Ideally, we want a situation where men can be emotionally accessible and communicative to their wives and not closed off to the women in their lives. However, if men feel that they are in danger of collapse if they open up, letting anyone behind the façade will be exceedingly difficult for them. Partly this depends on the man. Some men have little desire to identify as masculine, and are emotionally vulnerable with women in ways that tend to leave them unable to relate easily with other men. They function as if ‘one of the girls’, but can struggle to be the man in a relationship. This may be great in a guy friend, but it is unlikely to provide a sense of security in a marriage.

      However, a better situation is where people are able to deal with their vulnerabilities in healthy and differentiated ways. As male friends and groups help a man deal with those aspects of his weakness and vulnerability that they are best equipped to help him work through (or, perhaps more often, to prevent issues from arising in the first place), he is much less likely either to close himself off from his wife emotionally in order to keep it all together, or to swamp her with emotional weight that she can’t bear and be unable to be a source of emotional stability and security to her.

    • Random Angeleno says:

      This topic is a minefield for men. A certain amount of vulnerability is not a bad thing, but there is such a thing as too much for men. It is good to show something to his wife, a good wife will appreciate seeing that and not respect him less for it. But it is not good to show too much to her, to burden her with it, that will overshadow the masculinity that attracted her to him in the first place. Nor is it good to show much when courting a potential wife. Many men know instinctively that vulnerability isn’t attractive in courtship; it is actually one of the fastest paths to the friendzone. I showed too much to my ex-wife and that issue added to others to destroy my marriage beyond redemption.

      Alastair’s comment about male friends and male groups is very, very spot on. I have experienced vulnerability and emotional support with other men in ways that women cannot give; there is strong masculinity involved in that process: “as iron sharpens iron, so one man may sharpen another”. That sharpening process often seems very harsh and foreign to women, but when properly done, that is how men build each other up for the good of society and send them back to their families with their emotional needs mostly handled, then they can show their wives a bit of vulnerability without burdening her with it. When women invade this space, the sharpening process can no longer continue uninhibited because men *must* temper their speech around them. Hence men are diminished by this as the space is no longer an accepted aspect of their masculinity.

      I have been lucky, I have not one but two male best friends whose greatest gift to me has been their brutal honesty to tell me the truth about myself, that they cared enough about me to risk the relationship when needed, so to speak. Women are usually not wired for this, women have their own formidable strengths, but let us be honest with ourselves and each other, participation in male only spaces is definitely not one of those strengths. Along these lines then, it should not be difficult to see the crucial role that fathers play in their sons’ lives for statistics have consistently shown us that sons (and daughters too but that’s another topic) usually do better with fathers in the home than with single mothers.

  7. Stephen Crawford+ says:


    I appreciate your reflections so much. They’re incredibly helpful. I also appreciate the eye you keep on the needs of the Church and offer your work in ways that it can be received by the Church–especially her pastors. Just wanted to say that I appreciate that, and your writing has come through in my own work as a pastor quite a bit.

    And a question: is there anyone you know of that represents a feminist perspective that’s particularly worthwhile or interesting–whether a blog, a book, a podcast, etc.? I gravitate towards more traditional views on gender, but I don’t have much exposure to more compelling feminist accounts.



    • Thanks, Stephen!

      There are definitely some interesting, thoughtful, and provocative feminist viewpoints out there. I enjoy reading people who I disagree with, as you can often learn important things from them, so I can appreciate someone like Judith Butler. However, some of the more interesting people to read are those who come at issues from a slightly unusual angle. A feminist you might enjoy on this front is Luce Irigaray (Roland DeVries’ book, Becoming Two in Love is a stimulating Christian engagement with her work). People with more traditional views on gender tend to like Camille Paglia, who is a bit of a troll, but often extremely insightful and entertaining to read.

      • Stephen Crawford+ says:

        I printed out your articles to read (screen time is bad for me), so I didn’t see the reference in your post to Camille Paglia until after leaving that question for you. Thanks for the suggestions!

  8. James says:


    I wanted to send a note of thanks. I come from a broken home which best can be described as the failure of, what Wendell Berry calls, two independent careerists enjoying the same leisure activities. In coming to Christ at age 18, largely through reading The Abolition of Man combined with the love of a neighborhood father figure who took me to church and patiently walked with me through doubts and skepticism, I latched onto conservative modes of gender with relative ease. Yet I was alone in my convictions. I grew up in a northern, liberal city in the states and attended mostly egalitarian churches as there was little around to commend me to do otherwise.

    My life was wrought with the shame of which you write, particularly in this last post. I felt like an ogre, a monster, an Enneagram 8 (that’s a joke) for even questioning fundamental realities of the status quo. I regularly reread The Abolition of Man just to maintain some sanity and camaraderie, even if it was a camaraderie with the dead. I slowly started to capitulate to certain pressures around me to avoid shame and I became, in many ways, a shell of a man- overly sensitive, emasculated, and deferential to a fault. I am by nature more sensitive, so this was a Molotov cocktail of shame that spilled over into work, my personal life, and my service to the church.

    I started to consume egalitarian literature and assumed I needed to change. A few years ago, I was dating a women on a career trajectory- young, brilliant and beautiful. Her academic life was to take up the next eight years of her life and she was to graduate with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, which meant more work. As we discussed marriage, I slowly started to entertain staying at home, taking the role of a caregiver, job sharing, doing anything I could to be that supportive man who gave his life for his soon to be bride so she could flourish. But I was anxious. It felt, well, unnatural. I had regular meetings with my pastors- who by now were narrow complementarians. They could offer me little help. Yes, the Bible restricts the office of overseer to men, but after that who is to say how to order a family in contemporary society? I was left with more shame that while my actions were supported my heart was atrophying. I was, to quote that great work mentioned earlier, a man without a chest- expected to be a man of virtue and honor without the moral and natural formations to guide me in how to become one. I rejected a promotion at work to be more supportive to my future wife and thought that godliness was this type of genderless co-parenting where true virtue is dying to self- to strengths, to gifts, to callings so that others can live.

    Somewhere on this timeline, your work was recommended to me somewhere on the blogosphere. I can’t remember who or what or how it came to my attention. For the first time, I found someone taking the mantle of both nature and biblical truth seriously, and it was someone who I could trust and not a papist (joke #2).

    Tough decisions lie before me as I was reading your work. I read, not as an indifferent observer of nature and society, but as someone whose life would be radically altered by the conclusions in your works and in the works of others I read. The kind of man I wanted to become, the moral formation I needed to undergo was deep and structurally altering. It meant retraining weak muscles, gaining courage, and drawing boundaries based on wisdom and conviction that would have felt sinful only a few years earlier.

    In sum, your work has helped reinstall the chest that society has removed and of which I had been complicit. I am currently taking men under my wing at church to read works about virtue formation and responsible agency. Slowly and patiently, I’ve been changing and people have noticed and I’m excited for the next chapter.

    As someone who used to think my strength was a weapon that needed to be discarded if God was to be glorified, I thank you for all your work.

    I regularly post here so I’ve chose a different name for this post. Not out of shame, but out of protection for the people (a woman and pastors) mentioned in this post. I’ve no axe to grind, but a heart of gratitude for the work you’ve done and I wanted you to see, first hand, the type of impact your work has had.

  9. T. J. Lash says:

    Stephen, my recommendation to every man I know is the book titled The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. Its author, bell hooks (she spells the name lower-case), is a pioneering American feminist and intersectional theorist who sees men and masculinity in profoundly insightful, non-shaming, critical, and loving ways.

    But don’t take my word for it! Get a copy and see for yourself.


  10. john says:

    Patriarchy is civilization
    the feminists can try all they want but all this gender neutral stuff, no unique callings to men and women, not unique reason as to why God made male and female at different times, gave them different curses and no explanation as to why Adam is always held responsible.

    eliminate Patriarchy ( male headship- provision and protection)
    you will end civilization
    Men were created to work and commanded to work long before woman came around

    oh and when men are weak- women don’t rule, Evil men take over and treat women terribly, this has been observed for 1000’s of years
    (Sweden is already seeing it….)
    we will pay the price for weakening them and thinking that they need to be feminine, helpmeets and house husbands to show genuine love….

  11. Harriet Connor says:

    Thanks so much for sharing these insights. I can’t wait for the book.

    I wonder how these social changes are also altering our ideas about fatherhood. Have we begun to devalue the positive role that masculine traits play in the raising of children? Is modern parenting becoming ‘feminised’ or genderless? And what impact will this have on both fathers and their children?

    Do you cover this in the book? Or could you recommend any books or articles?

    As a mother of three boys, I want to use my influence to help them (and my husband) flourish as godly men.

    • Thanks, Harriet!

      I think these social changes are definitely altering ideas about fatherhood. Such ideas are developing under a number of different influences. For instance, for a while, there was a growing trend to recognize the importance of both fathers and mothers. However, with the advent of the movement for same-sex marriage, the conversation fundamentally shifted, with that emphasis being abandoned, or shifted in the direction of the need for two—essentially genderless—parents. The cultural emphasis now seems to be far more genderless than it was in the early 2000s.

      The impact upon fathers and children is considerable. Without a healthy relationship to a father figure, both boys and girls can develop unhealthy issues, not least in the realm of sexuality. For girls, fatherlessness leads to higher levels of sexual promiscuity. For boys, it can lead to unhealthy relationships with women and with their own sexed identity. When there is a more general cultural loss of the meaning of fatherhood, I don’t believe it is surprising that we end up with the moral and cultural disorientation and the tensions between the sexes that we are currently experiencing.

      I will deal with these issues a little within the book.

  12. Jennifer Mugrage says:

    This post is even better than the previous one. You describe these dynamics so clearly that as soon as I read your description I find myself thinking something like, “Yes, that’s obvious. I have seen it in action many times!” This is basic human psychology. And yes, I have seen it described elsewhere … but not in any academic or sociological articles. Nope, rather in the work of authors such as Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Agatha Christie, and Dick Francis. In other words, in “fiction.”

    Why do we forget this stuff as soon as we start talking about gender relations in the abstract?

    We need to read more good fiction, people!

    That said … obvious as men’s desire to impress and please women may be to the shrewd observer, I certainly knew nothing of it as a young woman. Instead, I felt I was locked in a fruitless battle to impress and please THEM. I did NOT realize that I had anything to offer, certainly not that my mere smile could have such power.

    It’s a bit much to expect men to tell women directly, “I really really care what you think of me.” But someone, SOMEONE, ought to be taking teen or tween girls aside and explaining this dynamic to them. Mom? Dad? Grandma? Somebody?

    • Thanks, Jennifer!

      Fiction written by shrewd and observant writers really is one of the best places to find such insight into human nature. Such writers understand humanity from the inside, not as abstract conceptual constructs (which is so often what we are dealing with when talking about men and women), or as if they were presenting theories developed from lab specimens. And, as human nature is consistent across cultures and times, the characters in an Austen novel, for instance, are recognizable to us two hundred years later. So much of our conversation about the sexes occurs at such a level of abstraction that we become oblivious to those realities that every observant and wise person has long known.

      I suspect that for girls, as for boys, the other sex is largely a dark mystery in teenage years, with each sex finding it difficulty to perceive the individuality of persons of the other sex behind their powerful focus upon the other sex as such. Furthermore, our relationship to the other sex is refracted through our relationship to our own sex. For girls this may be the emotional intensity of their female friendship groups and contexts, with an intense competitive focus on appearance and reputation. For guys this can be a fixation upon jockeying for positions in the male hierarchy that might get you noticed by a girl to whom you are attracted. Both boys and girls struggle to imagine how they might appear to someone of the other sex and fail to understand themselves accordingly.

      I think that this is the sort of area where the well-chosen words of a father could make a big difference, for instance, alerting a teenage girl to her power and also to the dangers to which it can expose her from evil men. A father’s non-sexual delight in his daughter can provide a healthy context in which to ground and orient her relationship to men more generally.

  13. Jennifer Mugrage says:

    You are right. Of course it is not as simple as “taking a tween girl aside” and “explaining.” It all has to do with with their own experiences, the dynamics in their own family, and how they view themselves as a woman, which though it is not set in stone by that time, is definitely set.

    I forgot to say, the photograph is great too. So beautiful and so well-chosen for the theme.

  14. Laura says:

    I know this relates to a very tiny part of your article – but where you say men find it easier to be vulnerable with other men – I wonder if this has changed somewhat in our society because of the elevation of homosexuality and the fear of heterosexual men not wishing to be perceived as gay? I have read a number of articles which are talking about the loneliness of many men and the lack of male friends.

    • Thanks for the comment, Laura.

      The sexualization of physical contact between men in the popular imagination, not least by those wanting to appeal to all such interactions as incipiently homosexual, or evidence of closeted homosexuality, is a problem for some men. Unfortunately, sometimes it seems as though the same people who complain about men’s homophobia preventing them from enjoying physical touch from other men are those who want to suggest that any physical tenderness between men is vaguely homosexual. No, it really isn’t.

      While that is a problem, it is far from the main problem. In fact, it may be a symptom of the deeper problem. Part of the reason why male sociality has become so sexualized may be because so many traditional realms of male sociality have been lost in past decades. Physical tenderness and emotional openness between men isn’t something that is just going to happen. It needs a world in which to arise, a world where the lives of men are intensely intertwined. But now that the workplace and society more generally have been gender neutralized, that is much less likely to occur. So things like physical touch between men become much rarer (men can still have such friendly physical contact in the context provided by sport) and those contexts where it does exist are increasingly those where physical touch is sought directly and is more sexualized.

      • laura says:

        Thanks for your reply Alistair. Enjoying your articles so much as I’ve mostly understood complementarianism from a two dimensional perspective – so your writing is broadening and deepening my understanding. May I ask what you think more male sociality would look like in our society and what areas used to exist that dont now?
        Personally I find that as a Christian in an evangelical church that finding intergenerational friendships with other women is difficult. It seems as if it’s only expected that I would only want to socialise with women in a similar stage of life which isn’t the case! But so many activities are separated into age groups!

      • Thanks, Laura!

        The loss of male sociality is particularly keenly felt in areas such as labour. Most men used to enjoy male community in their labour, which connected shared masculinity with grown-up values of responsibility, dutifulness, providence, loyalty, reliability, diligence, etc. However, shared masculinity is increasingly immature in an age where it is often mostly ordered around shared forms of consumption, especially of sports and entertainment. To be mature, men need male contexts that push them to grow up. Intergenerational community is a huge part of this too.

        A lot of modern male groups, feeling the loss of male society, seek to establish groups focused on getting men in touch with their masculinity. However, manhood is something that grows in the soil of reality, as men engaged in common weighty activity in the world develop masculinity together. Men talking about masculinity together is not generally a great way to develop mature and healthy manhood. Doing something tough together as a team really can be.

        So what we really need are ways to put weight upon men’s common labour again.

      • laura says:

        Sorry I also meant for my last comment to lead into that I can see it’s difficult for men to have intergenerational friendships.

      • Stephen Crawford+ says:

        Alastair: “Manhood … grows in the soil of reality.” That’s a really interesting observation.

        Also, “the Back Page” of First Things had a short article reflecting on Jordan Peterson. The author described Jordan Peterson as a “modern day Norman Vincent Peale.” Maybe I don’t know enough about Norman Vincent Peale or maybe I don’t know enough about Jordan Peterson. If you think that’s not right, though, you should consider writing the editor in disagreement. When I read that, I thought of you pointing out that Peterson commonly warns people that there’s an Auschwitz guard lurking in their hearts.

  15. Pingback: My Writing on Jordan Peterson | Alastair's Adversaria

  16. Orja says:

    Hi Alastair,

    I just wanted to share with you the story of how I came to engage your blog and let you know that I’m exceedingly grateful for your life and ministry.

    I was brought up in a Pentecostal church and later I Began to move within the prosperity gospel stream. Sometime around 2013-2014, I was amazingly captured by God’s grace and came to relish the doctrines of grace and became a Five-Point Calvinist. John Piper was demonstrably instrumental in this and I can’t exaggerate his influence in my life. But then my close friend (just last year) started to read Barth and then my love for theology (or should I say love for adventure) just made me feel anxious about settling with a system.

    I went through a period of restlessness. It wasn’t about just wanting something new. It was almost something akin Kierkegaard’s struggle for Truth that is personal and applicable and a longing to be awakened to new tensions. To realize that ideas aren’t just easily resolved by acrostics. I was skeptical of Barth because everyone misread him and everyone read him right simultaneously. My friend hates it when I say that without reading him. But I would someday.

    At that point I remember praying; ‘Lord, Send me someone to teach me, to really call me to see you and the Scriptures with fresh eyes in such a way that I just somehow would have a timely message for my world’. I am not able to attend a healthy Biblical church because I still live with my parents, so I was really drained. I think two weeks after praying that prayer around November 2017, I stumbled on your answer to a Curious Cat question on tongues or on Cessationism and Continuationism. It was shared by Justin Taylor. I quickly went to read more answers of yours. The first thing that struck me was that you said profound things without trying to be profound.
    You always wrote in such a way as if you were saying; ‘If you really gave it some serious thought you wouldn’t be in so in awe of my saying that’. And slowly I began to see typologies and figures. I also began to learn how to question without being skeptical, how to critique without feeling at ease even with my critiques. I learnt how to be firm in doctrine and even within the Reformed stream but still have ‘open’ conclusions.

    The fact that you had interests not just in theology but in politics, social media, culture, art. Sometimes I badly want to be a theologian, most times a Biblical counselor, sometimes just a social critic. But you have in some ways modeled each. Half of the posts I have read on your blog so far (and to think you have been blogging for years!) are simultaneously about; ‘This is where we live’ and ‘How then should we live’ and ‘we still need to wrestle about how we should live’.
    I am still wrestling with things; classical Calvinistic understanding of election, the atonement, the right approach to apologetics. I still love Piper and I am even hoping to attend Piper’s Seminary someday or at least experience a weekend at a DesiringGod event but I already feel a strong indebtedness to you. Some of your free e-books are hard to get into (maybe it’s just me) and I am still trying to forgive you for not having more than one book (really? I was so heartbroken to find out then that I even had to at that time wait for the Echoes of Exodus). Waiting in Nigeria, Africa is another story.

    But I am just excited about the new connections and typologies I find as I read Scripture. I don’t know so much how to connect all these to pray better and richer but I am sure it’s happening subtly and I am seeing the world clearer these days.

    Thanks a lot Alastair! I am really praying that I get to see you someday this side of Heaven. Keep writing and keep the videos up. I hope you’ll get to some of my curious cat questions eventually but Its not about me.
    For His Glory,
    Orja J. Bawa
    P.S: Orja and Bawa are not my real names but I use them often online to remind myself of some things and of Christ.

    • Thank you for the encouraging comment, and for sharing your story! It is wonderful to hear how God has blessed you and the way that he has made use of my work in doing so.

      Lord-willing, our paths will cross someday. My mother was born and spent the first several years of her life in Nigeria, so I’ve always wanted to visit your country. Perhaps an opportunity to do so will arise at some point in the future. Alternatively, if you end up at Piper’s Seminary, I am sure there will be opportunities to cross paths.

  17. Pingback: 2018 Retrospective | Alastair's Adversaria

  18. This entire article is an incredibly insightful one. And I thank you for the practical nuggets that are woven throughout. As one whose strength is (if I might be so bold as to say so) in being one of those relative few who “prepared openly to dissent from the opinions that are most influential or established in female groups,” this is the first time I’ve ever been offered any practical direction in how to direct that in a way that’s most helpful/edifying. I really appreciate that.

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