Liberal activistTwo mainline denominations wrapped up their general assemblies in the past month. The Presbyterian Church (USA) came within a handful of votes of authorizing same-sex marriages, but backed away from the cliff at the last moment. Meanwhile, the Episcopalians went completely over the edge at their summer gathering. They authorized a special rite for homosexual marriages, and lifted the ban on transgender priests. For good measure, they gave transsexuals and cross-dressers a special protected status within the church.

Both denominations also reported dwindling attendance, budget and staff cuts, and the defection of several large congregations. The Episcopalians (who have lost 23% of their membership in the past decade) are so strapped for cash they decided to sell their headquarters in New York City.

Liberal activists refuse to connect the dots between their doctrinal adventurism and the decline of their churches. For years this merry band of reformers has predicted an influx of younger, open-minded members once all that old-fashioned dogma was scrapped. That influx has yet to materialize.

So what’s really going on in the mainline? Why did these churches liberalize in the first place? How has their definition of mission and their understanding of Scripture changed so radically in the past fifty years? Why do some churches become liberal while others do not?

To get some perspective, let’s step back to the heyday of the mainline. In the 1950s and ’60s, these churches were bursting at the seams. Nurseries and Sunday schools were packed. Your local Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian or Church of Christ was the place to be. Believe it or not, mainliners were younger than the U.S. population as a whole during the late ‘50s.

Mainline churches were also brimming with laymen. Lyle Schaller’s 1952 survey found them to be an exact replica of the wider population of postwar America: 52 percent women, 48 percent men. The governing boards of 1950s mainline churches were boys’ clubs, composed of prominent businessmen, doctors, lawyers, bankers, and professionals.

But with women’s liberation washing over America in the late 1960s, both men and women in the mainline began to ask, “Why aren’t women allowed to lead in the church?” After all, women comprised the majority of church attendees, volunteers and employees (other than senior pastors). Why shouldn’t they lead the institution they dominated at every other level?

So, based on this logic, the mainline denominations began ordaining women – first as elders and deacons, but eventually as pastors, and even bishops. Initially it was just a few. But as more women stepped forward, more men withdrew.

Here’s a frustrating truth about men: when women step up to lead, men step back. As women become the majority in a group it’s harder to get men interested in participating.

So with men departing, women came to dominate many church governing boards and the thicket of committees that drive denominational work. These women tended to be empty nesters age 50+ who had time to attend the flurry of meetings that mainline governance requires. Once these golden-hearted grandmothers became the leaders of the church, the slide into liberalism was inevitable. Here are two reasons why.

First, women tend to be more politically liberal than men. They are more likely to vote Democratic and to support government programs to help the poor. Women also support gay rights, environmentalism, gun control and abortion in greater numbers than men.

But there’s a second more subtle reason female-led churches will always move to the left. It has to do with a fundamental difference in the way the sexes see the world. Men tend to put rules first; women tend to put relationships first.

When a group of men is grappling with a dilemma, their first question is, “What do the rules say?” But a group of women will ask, “How will this decision affect our relationships?”

Sandlot argumentYou can see this dynamic at work on any playground. Boys organize themselves into competitive, hierarchical games such as baseball or soccer. They carefully lay out the rules before they play. If there’s a close call they argue over the rules. Obeying the rules is so important that one team will “take their ball and go home” if they think the rules were violated. Boys will sacrifice relationships on the altar of rules.

Girls seem much less concerned with rules. They often play cooperative games like skip-rope or hopscotch. They also like to play fantasy games that revolve around relationships – Let’s pretend I’m the mommy and you’re the daddy. Girl games are less about winners and losers and more about building relationships. Girls will sacrifice rules on the altar of relationships.

Men retain their deep concern for the rules and fair play their entire lives. They’ll argue an umpire’s call for years. Instant replay in football was inevitable. Was his toe on the line? Did he have possession as he fell out of bounds? Men don’t care if someone wins and someone else loses, as long as everything was done according to the rules.

Meanwhile, women spend their lives obsessed with relationships. As teens they read books, watch movies and devour magazines about relationships. They marry earlier and often manage the family’s relational network. They are more likely to plan social events and keep up with extended family and friends.

Now, back to the church. When a male-governed congregation grapples with a moral dilemma, its leaders will consult the rulebook first. “What does the Bible say about this?” they ask. Once the rule is established, the debate is closed. And if a rule hurts someone’s feelings? “We’re sorry,” the men say. “That’s the rule.” In a man-governed organization relationships are important, but rules trump.

But when a church is led mostly by women (or feminized men), its leaders will see a moral dilemma through the lens of relationships. They will ignore or re-interpret the rulebook so that no one needs to lose. In a woman-governed universe rules are important, but relationships trump.

This is what we’re seeing in the mainline churches today. The rules have taken a backseat to relationships, because women are in charge. Episcopalians appeal to relationships rather than rules when explaining their positions. “God is love. Here are two women who love each other. Why should we not bless their relationship? Jesus never excluded anyone. He commands us to stand with the marginalized and the oppressed.”

It’s easy to see where this kind of thinking comes from. Jesus fiercely opposed first century Judaism because it was obsessed with silly rules. Many times Christ rebuked the Pharisees for putting the rules ahead of the welfare of people (Luke 14:5, Mark 2:27, Matt 23:23). Meanwhile, Christ always showed compassion toward society’s outcasts. He was all about loving the weak.

Therefore, liberals assume that Jesus’ mission was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” By their logic, if Jesus were to walk among us today, he’d rebuke the powerful while giving the “marginalized and oppressed” license to live as they please.

Yes, Jesus opposed a crushing legalism that drove a wedge between God and His people. But he did not oppose the law. He clearly said that he had not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. He refused to abandon even “the smallest letter of the least stroke of the pen” of the law until everything is accomplished (Matt 5:18). Jesus never ignored or bent the rules simply because someone felt offended or excluded – no matter how marginalized or oppressed they were.

It is no coincidence that liberalism has flourished in those denominations that have opened their doors widest to female leadership. This is what happens when you put grandmothers in charge of a church – you get comforting, safe decisions that preserve relationships. The rules get bent – or go out the window. A woman’s top priority is keeping the family together, no matter the cost.

Of course, this drives men nuts. An institution with shifting rules is frustrating. We’re back to the playground again. When the rules are violated, men take their ball and go home.

Now, before I go any further, let me make a few things clear:

  1. I’m not blaming women for the decline of the mainline. The men withdrew. The women stepped up.
  2. I’m not saying that women are more prone to heresy than men.
  3. I’m not saying that rules don’t matter to women. They just matter less than relationships do.
  4. I’m not saying that women should never lead in churches. Since the beginning women have played a vital role in the local church (Luke 8:1-3). The contributions of female leaders such as Henrietta Mears and Mother Teresa are legendary. And today there are a number of very effective female leaders in mainline churches (Watch a video about one here).

Here’s my key point: liberalism rises not when individual women assume leadership posts, but when groups of women come to dominate church leadership, without the moderating presence of men. This is the situation in the mainline. It’s dominated by leaders (both male and female) with a “relationships first” view of the gospel. Mainline churches are no longer able to think like men because they don’t have enough of them left.

And where are those men? They’re in the fast-growing non-denominational churches. They’re in traditional churches that have stuck to male-elder governance. These bodies aren’t even debating gay issues. Why? The men who govern these churches simply looked at the rulebook and made the call. Case closed. And frankly, they didn’t much care if their decisions made someone feel excluded.

Now, if female-dominated leadership leads to liberalism, does male-dominated leadership lead to legalism? Sometimes it does. But in most cases it doesn’t – because in many churches the women hold a “velvet veto” over the decisions the men make.  Every church has powerful women who manage various ministry programs. If the men make a decision the women disagree with, female lay leaders have ways of making their displeasure known to the men. Women may not hold office, but they still have plenty of power. The healthy tension between male elders and female ministry leaders keeps the church balanced.

But female-led churches have no countervailing “iron veto.” I’ve never heard of the men of the church rising up en masse to oppose the decisions of a female-dominated elder board. No, men usually fall in line behind the women – or they quit. And this is what’s driving the fall of the mainline.

The liberal churches may yet experience their renaissance – but I doubt it. Yes, young people share their progressive outlook, but twentysomethings also have very low rates of church attendance. Once these young adults have kids and feel the need to return to church, will they accept a congregation with an “anything goes” policy on sexuality? Even the most open-minded parents will think twice about leaving their infants with a cross-dressing nursery worker. And young men are unlikely to invest themselves in an institution with squishy rules – led by a cohort of middle-aged and elderly females.

The answer for the mainline is to rediscover the rules and repent (See 2 Kings 22). But that seems unlikely in a denomination that’s hemorrhaging 10,000 men a year.

A healthy church needs the influence of both men and women. It needs rule people and relationship people. When one cohort dominates you end up with crushing legalism or limp liberalism. Jesus clearly despised the former – and judging by the decline of the mainline, he doesn’t seem too excited about the latter.