Does a lack of men lead to liberalism?

  • 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.

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    July 24th, 2012 | David Murrow | 72 Comments |

About The Author

David Murrow

David Murrow is the director of Church for Men, an organization that helps congregations reach more men and boys. In his day job, David works as a television producer and writer. He's the author of four books. He lives in Alaska with his wife, three children, three grandchildren and a dachshund named Pepper.

  • S J

     I think that it is sad that there are some men who are unable to grow spritually under the leadership of women.

  • David Murrow

    You miss my point. Most men can grow under good teaching whether it’s delivered by a man or a woman. The problem comes when a group of women make all the decisions.

  • Jfieri

    The point is also that no one truly grows spiritually under feminine, liberal leadership. 

  • danny


  • danny

    Hahaha, a good read Jamie. I see that you are generalising but get your drift. One thing we have not considered from a pastors/churchy guy’s perspective is his ideal of being a romantic hero. This sticks out like a sore thumb and if you cant see it you are blind. 
    Most churchy men usually have a harem of support ladies who they regularly swoon with. They seek approval from such because these ladies hold power and influence. It also feeds their inner childhood fantasy of being the ladies man/saviour. These guys really step up when it comes to the tougher parts of doing church like, brow beating someone with clever words who disagrees or like offering to help out when nobody else would in the patchwork quilt drive.

    The churchy man is never far away watching over his brood of admiring women and creating an environment for himself that self feeds his ultimate goal – to be rewarded emotionally by these women.

  • danny

    No we have a majority male pastorate and there is no world agreement on the ordination of women despite many protest actions about it.

    Some women pastors are out there however and have done the theology degree and have entered church employment. An I gotta say that I really dont care if its a man or woman preaching, as long as they challenge me and the church to get moving. The sad reality is however because of womens’ default modus operandi there are none like this that I know of and I suppose they just preach “nice” stuff so as not to upset anybody.

  • Mark Munsey

    Great stuff, David! Thanks for a well thought out and presented piece. Not addressed, as in given its own subsection, but very evident is that men & women are different. Those differences need to be accounted for in ministry philosophy to each. Some things admittedly are common (i.e., salvation by grace via Christ’s substitutionary death), but much is different – and the differences matter. For example, there are ways in which “Love one another” should look different when expressed by a man than by a woman. But it gets taught too often as all the same – as if we’re all just people instead of men & women. The big problem here is that this teaching tends toward the feminine expressions, and this is disaffecting men as well.

  • David Murrow
  • Matthew Sullivan

    Great Article David. Thanks for your insight. For years there have been books asking why are these denominations failing. Why are they losing members? This really seems to hit at the crux of the matter. I would also say that a faulty view of who Christ is also contributes. Most of the churches mentioned no longer have a biblical view of Christ.

  • Douglas R Burrell

    Of course it does. Women are nurturers and they respond when their heart strings are pulled. Which is the way God made them. Look at the sate of California and the court system too. Men that are liberals have never had a strong father figure and were probably raised in a matriarchal system. This system is being rammed down our necks. 

  • Will_the_man123

    1 Timothy 2:11-15

    11 A woman[a] should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to
    assume authority over a man;[b] she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women[c] will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.


  • Bob

    Dropped the Church like a hot potato when they started supporting Marxist ideals based in heresy. The collapse of the gospel according to Karl Marx is well on the way and I love every minute of it.

    You can’t say the Bible didn’t warn us on the liability of women in leadership…

    America and Europe and much of Asia is in full Matriarchy mode so expect other religions to start crumbling as well. It’s the rot within, turning away from praising God and Jesus to fulfilling the carnal desires of the physical world. It would actually be rather illuminating as to the ways of women if the Bible didn’t make this patently clear already.

    David, you should also take a look at fifty shades of grey as it takes over the popularity of the Bible itself. Women lap up that crap as if it were from Jesus himself. No man on Earth can win against Mr Grey, he’s the ultimate personal Jesus for the average Jane and a billionaire to boot.   

  • Des Williamson

    I got a problem here – Jesus broke the rules, he touched unclean women, partyed with sinners, called tax-collectors to follow him and forgive the unforgiveable. Was that liberal or conservative? The equivalent people today could be gay folk – so Jesus would welcome such people – and before you go gettin’ on your high horse – If Jesus and the early church didn’t break the rules by accepting Gentiles then you wouldn’t be a christian! Aren’t liberals – those who accepts gays the real people with balls here! The real men ar man enough to stand up to the crowd for the the sake of the persecuted and weak and down-trodden – Isn’t that what Jesus was like?

  • David Murrow

    You’re falling into a trap that theological liberalism sets. Because Jesus was seen as “rebellious” and “countercultural” in his day, we assume that any action that we take today that fits those descriptors would automatically receive his blessing. This is the danger of allowing logic to replace faith in scripture.

  • big kherm

    It was really hard to read your post because I have a super orater personality except I don’t pull away from ”
    physical-testosterone type activities”

  • danny

    You dont need a survey to know that men and boys are walking out the doors of churches – there already exist plenty of these. It has less to do with theology and more to do with the application of such. There is a hard and soft side to God in all the Bible – women choose to focus on the softer virtues and men identify with the more masculine sides of scripture – you dont need to go theologising that. Everything that goes towards placing men back on the agenda is not necessarily caveman stuff.

  • David Murrow


  • Teresa Rincon

    To what factors would you attribute the prevalence of homosexuality among the Catholic clergy?

  • Pingback: Does a lack of men lead to liberalism? (part 1)

  • JoFro

    The Roman Catholic Church may have men on top – but there are pretty much none anywhere beyond that!

    It’s the same with Orthodox Churches as well – notice all the old grandmas that pretty much run those churches.

  • JoFro

    Most likely the celibacy issue I would say – while the call to celibacy itself is not the issue, it has led to mostly homosexual men joining the priesthood as they get the chance to hang out with other men who are like them in a safe environment where no one questions their sexuality – of course this is changing. Today homosexuality is a lot more acceptable. So there has been an overall drop in priest numbers as those men are far unlikely today to join.

  • Wesley Hanson

    Insightful. Well-written. Thank you.