Re-evaluating spiritual leadership: what does it really mean?

By February 7, 2018 No Comments

man leading woman

I consider myself complementarian and affirm what Scripture says about male leadership in the home and church. But sometimes I question a common understanding of what spiritual leadership really means in terms of the man leading. A few years back, I came across this article in Christianity Today Her.meneutics, ‘He’s Just Not a Spiritual Leader’, and Other Christian Dating Myths. The author tells of the criteria being applied in dating relationships of male leadership that may lead some women to discard great relationships. The criteria asserts that if men don’t take initiative (translated leadership) on all spiritual matters and demonstrate a capacity to lead women in God’s truth, then they are not suitable leaders, ergo not good marriage material.

The author rightly challenges this definition;

“It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the complaint: “He’s not a spiritual leader.” It seems that initiating prayer, Bible study, and other similar devotional activities is a litmus test for male spiritual leadership in some branches of the American church. And the common complaint by women on our campus is that men are failing in spiritual leadership; they aren’t passing the litmus test. They aren’t initiating.

But after Shawn’s comment that day, I started wondering about all the godly men who may have other spiritual gifts—just not the ones traditionally considered “male” spiritual gifts. For example, what about men who have the gift of mercy or hospitality or service or encouragement, and who are full of the fruits of the Spirit? Do we devalue them simply because they’re not at the helm or out in front but rather operating alongside their partner? Is initiating devotional activities within a relationship really what it means to lead?

I wonder whether part of the disappointment and tension among Christian women stems from the fact that they have teaching or pastoral gifts, while their boyfriends or husbands possess other gifts wrongly considered “feminine.” Is it really contradicting God’s will when a woman initiates prayer and Bible study with her significant other? What if her partner models a life characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control? Is this not the Jesus life? Is such a man being derelict in his spiritual duties to wife and family?

I’ve heard plenty of stories about men who dutifully initiate family devotions—men who appear to be spiritual leaders (if initiation in these contexts counts as leadership)—but lack the fruits of the Spirit. I’ve heard their wives and children use words and phrases like “hypocrite” and “he has anger issues” to describe them. I also know plenty of men who patiently lay down their lives for their families and friends and sometimes even their enemies—even if they don’t initiate family devotions. These men are concretely others-referenced—men who, based on the testimony of their wives, far surpass them when it comes to patience, kindness, and selflessness etc. These men embody love.”

The author strikes at something that has bothered me for some time. That is, the spiritual influence and knowledge must be primarily possessed and overseen by the man, implying that women have nothing to contribute spiritually into the relationship equation unless they are ‘led’ by the man. But where in scripture does it say this? That man is called the head (1 Cor 11:3; Eph 5:23) simply means that he is responsible to God for the marriage relationship.  Where do we get the impression that women cannot be influential or contributing to the spiritual direction and/or knowledge of the relationship?

I also like that the author pointed out that assuming traditional “leadership” roles does not automatically mean that a man is contributing to the spiritual health of the marriage or family.  Also, what does this tell single ladies about their own quest for knowledge and growth while they are single? I think it’s actually a bit contradictory to encourage singles to leverage their unattached status for kingdom pursuits and greater focus on the Lord, then tell them to take a back seat once they get married. Surely, they have something to bring to the table.

It’s why this song bothers me.

But perhaps the author of this article is right; we need a fresh perspective on male leadership. I think this about sums it up;

“A spiritual leader is someone who is full of the Holy Spirit—someone who evidences the fruits of the Spirit in increasing measure. Some women prefer that their partners initiate prayer and Bible study. Of course, they’re free to have such preferences, and even to believe that such initiation is a “male” spiritual gift. But we, as the larger Christian community, should find ways to recognize the men who don’t initiate devotional activities and yet model Christlike leadership because they display the fruits of the Spirit. And likewise, we need to consider whether men who display the more visible pastoral and teaching gifts are truly leading in Christlike ways.”

Amen! A spiritual leader loves, When Paul writes in Ephesians 5 regarding the husband/wife relationship, he doesn’t say ‘Men lead your wives as Christ led the church’. Rather, he puts the dynamic in the relationship of mutual submission as I wrote about here. I have long been of the opinion that a good complementarian marriage operates as a functional egalitarian one with both parties contributing to the good of the marriage.


This article initially appeared at July 2013 with some slight modifications

Photo courtesy of Altanta Black Star


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