Is Traditional Masculinity Toxic?

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I’ve been extremely critical of abusive men in my blogs, taking on things like blame-shifting, patriarchal and purity cultures. Men who use their natural strengths or positions of authority to take advantage of others are reprehensible and should be called out for their abuses of power.

That all said, I’ve shied-away from using the term “toxic masculinity” to describe male abuses and my reasons for hesitation were confirmed in the past few weeks when the American Psychological Association (APA) claimed that traditional masculinity is harmful and lumped it together with murder, bullying and other toxic behaviors.

This is not an overgeneralization. No, it seems to be a part of broader misandry campaign and, at very least, is a complete misdiagnosis of the problem. It would be like pulling out crime statistics for a particular racial demographic and applying them as criticism to all within that group. That, of course, is stereotyping and unfair to the many who do not fit the broad brush of statistics.

It is true that men, as a category of gender, do dominate statistics for violent crime. However, what is not true is that all men are equally guilty and should be judged on the basis of the bad examples. The vast majority of men have not murdered, raped or otherwise act violently and would never excuse such behavior. I say this as someone who has been around men his entire life: Most men that I know aim to be protectors, not predators.

The Protector and the Predator…

A few weeks ago, before the APA taking aim at traditional masculinity (and an ill-advised Gillette ad) became a topic of conversation, I had started to write a blog to describe two distinct but related categories of male behavior—the predator vs. the protector—and what makes the difference.

The first category (and the one rightfully called toxic) is that of the predatory male. The predatory man is only concerned about his own wants or needs and will use any power he is given to exploit others for his own gain. This includes men who use religion or other means to manipulate others for their own personal gain and especially those who are coercive in pursuit of sexual gratification.

For example, the boyfriend who pressures his girlfriend into sex. I can understand, with teenage hormones raging, that waiting for sex is not easy for a passionate man and know this from personal experience. But there is simply no excuse for the young man who believes his natural urges entitle him. The young man who makes his commitment to relationship contingent on her compliance with his premarital sexual desires (ie: “If you love me, then you will…”) is a predator.

By contrast, the second category, the protective male, consists of men who use their strengths and abilities to serve others. This is not a man without desires. A protective man is tempted to serve his own needs and wants like anyone else. However, a protector is one who chooses to resist any evil or exploitative impulses and follows an example of self-sacrificial love instead. The protective man is even willing to give his own life for the good of others.

Traditional Masculinity Is Not Toxic…

As long as there have been appetites and differentials in power there have been abuses. Much of human behavior has to do with instincts, it is why we breathe, why we seek food to eat and why we desire companionship. This isn’t something that needs to be trained, we observe similar behavior in animals, and is natural.

There is no concern for morality with animals and in the natural world. When a lion, acting on predatory instincts, stalks, pursues and takes down it’s prey, this is not a cause for consternation. We understand that this and “survival of the fittest” is part of life and even how biological life thrives. If predators were removed, as they have found out in Yellowstone Park after wolves were reintroduced, everything in an ecosystem is thrown out of balance and deteriorates.

A young buck does not need any training to be overcome by hormones, to pursue a doe, fight off the competition, and do his thing whether the female consents or not. His sexual aggression is just part of his natural composition, it is not a choice, he is as controlled by his biological impulses as much as the female is subdued by his physical strength and stamina. We cannot make a moral judgment of a creature incapable of moral reasoning or choice.

However, human society works differently and notions of morality are used to push back against some of our baser instincts. Part of this push back has come in the form of tradition. In fact, our traditional morality, that arose in conjunction with religion, formed to provide protection against predatory behaviors. It is Christian religious tradition that has promoted the idea that behavior is a choice and therefore men, unlike deer, should be held accountable for what they do.

Traditional masculinity is not responsible for the toxic behavior of men who choose to act on their most vile and violent imaginations. Quite the opposite. It was the traditional men in my life who taught me to respect boundaries, to save sex for a marital commitment and to offer my life as a sacrifice to the world. It is traditional masculinity that has stood as a protector against predatory animals and opposed to toxic (or what we would traditionally call immoral) behavior.

With Every Strength There Is Weakness…

I would be remiss to claim that everything the APA says about masculinity is baseless. Men so tend towards certain and some of those behaviors are definitely harmful. However, it is one thing to say that men should not bury their emotions nor ever excuse behavior that is harmful to other people or even themselves. It is quite another thing to declare: “…traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful.”

First of all, there is the question of what traditional masculinity is and if it is truly defined by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression—I would argue that it is not. Second, those characteristics also are part of a two-sided coin, one side positive and the other negative, where stoicism becomes loving restraint, competitiveness is a drive to provide, dominance is an urge to explore (pursue science, innovation, etc) and aggression is merely assertiveness.

Not just that, but those things listed are not all bad in and of themselves. In an age where we are constantly told to embrace diversity, tolerance, and inclusion, on what basis can we declare something to be “on the whole” harmful?

I mean, what is really wrong with some friendly competition, say a game of basketball or a Poker (Rook, if you’re Mennonite) tournament, where everyone gets the exercise or thrill of the experience—despite there being a winner and a loser?

It is a sad day when we can’t discern the difference between a harmless playful tussle between boys and harmful bullying behavior. It is an even sadder day when the negative expressions of masculinity are used as a basis to bash the very thing that channels natural male qualities in a socially beneficial and positive direction. It is traditional masculinity that has long urged young men to use their physical strength and competitive nature to make the world a better place for all people and we have succeeded.

The inability of the APA to see traditional masculinity in a more nuanced and balanced way will likely do more much more harm than any good it accomplishes. It is, in effect, an attempt to bully young men, through quasi-intellectual means, into compliance with their own prejudiced worldview and expectations. They fail to see the good in their focus on the bad and have done a disservice, and not only to traditionally masculine men but also to their own profession and all people.

Everyone Is Hurt When Good Men Are Destroyed…

My conservative Mennonite father, the embodiment of traditional masculinity, gave me an example of a man who didn’t use his emotions as an excuse to lash out. This ‘stoicism’ was for the benefit of not only my mother, myself and my siblings, it was also for the men who worked with him. There are many men today who do not exercise this kind of restraint, they become screaming tyrants when things do not go their way and have neglected the tradition of my father, his fathers and our Father:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. […] Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:19‭-‬20‭, ‬26‭-‬27 NIV)

The tragedy of this new targeting of traditional masculinity is exactly the opposite of what is needed in the world. It is the lack of traditionally masculine role models that has led to more toxic behavior in young men. It is not a coincidence that mass shooters come from fatherless homes. Indeed, fatherlessness is a more reliable predictor of future poverty than race and is linked to many negative outcomes for both male and female children.

The real crisis in this country is not traditional masculinity, the real crisis is the lack of traditional masculine role models that often leads to harmful and self-destructive behavior. The real truth is that traditional values have been under assault for a long time now and we are reaping a crop of toxic behavior as a result. But those who are responsible for this destruction, rather than admit their mistake, have decided to double-down and continue to punish the wrong people.

Traditional masculinity is to serve as a protector and provider, the man who looks after the widows and orphans, as James implores. It is the man who reads and obeys the instruction of John the Baptist to soldiers, in Luke 3:14—and doesn’t use his physical strength to extort or do violence to others. He is a man who follows after Jesus who treated women (including his mother) with absolute respect and told men to serve others rather than exploit them:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles Lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25‭-‬28 NIV)

To conflate toxic behavior with traditional masculinity is not only frustrating to the men who are least deserving of rebuke—it is also convenient cover for abusers and those truly guilty of toxic behavior. Good men do not need to become the scapegoats for predators, but rather need to be appreciated and encouraged to continue to live a healthy and traditional masculine example.

Toxic Behavior Need Not Be Coupled With Masculinity…

I had never liked the term “toxic masculinity” and long suspected that those behind the wording (not the average users of the term) were targeting masculinity itself as much as anything else. But now the cat is out of the bag, the APA and others are lumping my father in with the wolf-whistlers, womanizer’s and Weinstein’s, and I’ve had enough.

My father is not perfect, but he’s not toxic for his traditional masculinity either…

My father spending some toxically masculine time with his grandchildren…

We can and should distinguish between traditional masculinity and toxic behavior. No, that does not mean we bury our heads in the sand and pretend all problems with men started with the social upheaval of the 1960s nor should we deny the reality that extreme expressions of what could be called traditional masculinity are bad. But the extremes of anything are often unhealthy and yet we are able to delineate one from the other.

Furthermore, women can be predatory and violent too. It is true that men are statistically more likely, as a general category, to be violent, but women also can be self-centered and abusive as well. Women, however, often prey on children or other women, usually in less visible or openly violent ways—like destroying reputations through gossip, cyber-bullying or other passive-aggressive means.

And, ironically enough, while reading the sanctimonious blather about toxic masculinity another article popped up on my news feed, “Video shows group of women allegedly trying to attack food court employees…

What?!?

Do we call that toxic feminity and blame traditional female expectations?

Sorry Gillette, APA and all others condemning what you do not truly know, but your campaign is picking the wrong target. Traditional masculinity, at least in a Christian cultural context, has Jesus Christ as the ultimate example and not Bruce Willis.

Traditional masculinity is not the problem, immoral behavior is the problem and women are not guiltless when it comes to sin. We all, male or female, need to repent of our selfish instincts and change our bad behavior to good.

So let’s target the bad behavior, not the gender!

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Purity Culture Is Always Bad

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Two people responded to my last blog. One said that I had not said enough about the exploitative nature of the porn industry and the abuses common in purity cultures. Another claimed that I had overstated and generalized about purity cultures and tried to point out the good.

First, there is not enough that can be said about the ugliness of pornography and how it is harmful on both ends. My previous blog had primarily focused on the consumer end because it was about how pornography and purity cultures hurt those under their influence. However, many blogs could be written about how pornography is produced and we should not forget those many who are used (or abused) in this industry—they also need to experience the pure love of Jesus.

Second, the other person responding to my prior blog seems to have assumed that my comments, specific to purity culture, applied to my Christian experience in general. That is incorrect. I have actually had great experiences with those who were able to transcend the cancerous influence of purity culture. I have met many who are more committed to Christian love (and faith) than they are to maintaining an appearance of purity (for sake of religious peers) that comes at the expense of those aforementioned things.

What purity culture is is a misuse of a set of teachings in the same way that pornography represents a misuse of sex. It sees a corrupted version of purity as an end to itself rather than a part of something more comprehensive and complete. It leads to the same kind of dissatisfaction as pornography and that is because it has, in a similar fashion, taken a good thing in the right context and twisted it into something that it was not intended to be. Purity culture, under the pleasant facade, is always about fear, control and shifting blame rather than true Christian love.

Purity culture is, by definition, a misapplication or overemphasis on some teachings at the expense of others. In other words, purity culture is a perversion and, like pornography, not enough can be said in condemnation of this wrongful and abusive use of Biblical teachings. There is a vast difference between purity culture appearances and actual righteousness. There is nothing good about purity cultures, the bad cannot be overstated and that is a generalization we should make.

Jesus Rebuked Purity Culture

The difference between being pure in heart (as is taught in Scripture) and purity culture is as different as Jesus was from his self-righteous critics:

On a Sabbath, Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God. Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing. (Luke 13:10‭-‬17 NIV)

Had you run into this “synagogue leader” he would have appeared to be a very pious man. He was likely there every time the synagogue doors were open, probably spent hours of time devoted to reading Scripture and may have even tithed everything even down to his spices. But under this man’s righteous outward display was a corrupt and unloving heart that placed strict adherence to Sabbath laws above the actual reason for the laws.

Jesus, who had a pattern of healing on the Sabbath as if intentionally trying to antagonize these religious elites and expose their hard hearts, rebukes this leader’s misplaced priorities. Because, while this religious leader was technically correct that this woman could’ve been healed any other day of the week, his thinking was not centered correctly, he should have been rejoicing that this woman was healed and not obsessing on when or how it happened.

A “tell” refers to those unconscious actions that betray a person in a card game. A person can bluff or deceive others with a display of confidence and yet there are often small signs that give them away to an astute observer. Purity culture also has tells. One of the biggest tells of purity cultures is it does like this religious leader Jesus rebukes and puts emphasis on the letter of law or appearances over what is healing and helpful to other people.

Here are some other tells of purity culture…

Purity Cultures Blameshift

Purity cultures always release men from being completely responsible for their own sin. Instead, they use male failure as an excuse to manipulate and control others.

For example, in a purity culture, when a man was caught by his wife viewing pornography, and the matter went before church leaders, he was treated as the victim and his wife (along with every other woman) was made responsible. In this case, they urged his wife to dress plainer and they encouraged her to become pregnant, I kid you not, meanwhile this man goes around condemning those who do not ‘dress right’ or otherwise live to a standard that would keep him from sin.

Women are often blamed for male lusts in purity cultures and this goes completely contrary to anything Jesus taught on the subject. Hyperbole or not, we are told by Jesus to pluck our own eye out if it causes us to sin. But never are we told that it is a woman’s responsibility to keep a man’s thoughts pure. Men who shift blame for their own sinful thoughts and actions have no business calling themselves Christian leaders. A real Christian leader takes full responsibility for their own sin, falls on their knees and repents.

But in purity cultures, a man is more concerned with maintaining an image. And, for that reason, he cannot repent or take complete responsibility for fear of being exposed and losing social status. So, rather than admit it was his own weakness that led to failure, he must find some reason outside of himself for the failure.

In other words, a purity culture response is like that of King Saul who pointed a finger at the people when he willfully disobeyed God and not like King David who took full responsibility for his own sin when confronted. Had David been like Saul, and not “a man after [God’s] own heart,” he would have likely blamed Bathsheba rather than actually repent and made a royal decree banning roof bathing in the kingdom of Israel.

Purity Culture Is About Outward Appearances

True purity comes from the inside out and never the other way around. Purity cultures, on the other hand, are centered on maintaining an outward appearance of purity and never leads to an inner change. The Pharisees are a pristine example of purity culture and how those in one respond when corrected:

When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal. Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you. “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. “Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces. “Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.” One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.” (Luke 11:37‭-‬45 NIV)

Catch that?

These guys were so oblivious to their own spiritual deadness that they couldn’t even believe that Jesus was talking about them. But Jesus didn’t slow down when one of the experts said he had insulted them, he stepped on the gas and continued on with his critique. In the verses that follow those above, Jesus decries the burdens these religious elites heap on others (without lifting a finger to help them carry) and compares them to those who killed the prophets. We are told that after this they peppered him with questions and tried, desperately, to catch him saying something wrong.

What should have happened is that they should’ve recognized themselves in his words, then made no more excuses for themselves and repented. Unfortunately, pride is the most difficult sin to confess for a person who is concerned with maintaining appearances, because admitting pride is admitting that their righteousness facade is just that, a show, and means lowering themselves to the level of the more visible sinners—whom the self-righteous hypocrites think that they compare favorably to.

Purity Culture Is Itself Impure

The dirty little secret of purity culture is that it, like the pornography and sexual immorality it decries, is not what it appears to be. Yes, they, like the Apostle Paul before his conversion, may be able to follow the letter of the law and even win the praise of their religious peers. They may present themselves as completely humble and meek if that is the religious cultural expectation. However, beneath this well-manicured appearance of holiness, they are totally faithless and spiritually dead.

Purity culture depends on human effort, conformity of visible behavior, and never a true transformation of heart. It is a culture concerned with outward appearance or physical cleanliness, like the Pharisees with their ritual washing, that neglects what is actually important and totally misses the point. Many in purity cultures have bamboozled themselves with their own act, they become defensive when confronted and refuse to humble themselves when exposed as fakers.

The outward appearance of a purity culture and true holiness is so similar and that is why it is so difficult to address. Those in a purity culture, in most cases, think of themselves as the good people, and while blaming everything but themselves for their own failures, are actually making a sincere effort. But true holiness does not start with human effort, it starts with recognizing that our own effort is nothing compared to the Holiness God and is depending fully on Him.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Peter 5:6 NIV)

Trump: The Man and the Myth

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A fellow Christian (and conservative) friend asked me to list the problems I had with Donald Trump as a Republican candidate.  The hard part is knowing where to start.

Trump claims to be conservative.  He is definitely saying things that resonate with those who are concerned about jobs, border security and immigration.  But, I believe proven character and integrity is far more important than what a person claims about themselves.

Trump supporters are convinced he is genuine simply because he says things they want to hear.  Yet seem to forget that the art of demagoguery is to say what plays well with a particular crowd.  Trump is shrewd enough to make a sale, but is he honest?

Myth #1—Trump ‘says it how it is’ and is honest.

Trump’s claim to fame is not personal integrity or conservativism.  He is known for salesmanship and a bestselling book, “The Art of a Deal,” where he talks about creating a big impression.  In other words, try to create an appearance of success and dazzle. 

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Trump parroting popular prejudice doesn’t make a him honest anymore than me moonwalking makes me Michael Jackson.  There’s a strong possibility he may just be saying what some want to hear in order to make the sale.  Those saying that Trump ‘says it how it is’ might want to consider who they are dealing with. 

Trump, like the used car salesman who sold you that clunker, is trying to make a deal with you. 

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Sure, he might not be saying what ‘they’ want to hear, just as a used car salesman might also act like he’s at odds with the management because the deal he is making with you is going to cost ‘them’ too much.  But that doesn’t mean you take the salesman at their word on it!

From a Christian perspective, there is even more need to be discerning and skeptical of claims that sound good to us:

“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”  (2 Timothy 4:3-5)

Trump has claimed a mythological net worth of near nine billion dollars, but Trump’s actual net worth is half of what he claims according to Forbes.  So is Trump clueless about his own business holdings?  Or does he know that the attention span of the average person is short and that he can dazzle people with a huge number that they’ll never check?

Even Trump’s business prowless seems as grossly exaggerated.  Yes, he’s extremely wealthy, but he also had a huge head start and his daddy’s fortune to build from.  It is said that the first million is the hardest and there’s some truth to that.  You are far ahead when you can reinvest rather than spend your income on necessities.   Trump had that advantage.

The real way to measure Trump is to put his accomplishments in perspective of his own peers:

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Reality check: Trump’s success really is not as impressive when put in proper context.  Trump is trying to make a sale, he is out to make a big impression with his target audience and willing to deceive.

Myth #2—Trump is rich and therefore he cannot be bought.

John D. Rockefeller, the world’s wealthiest man, was once asked: “How much money is enough money?”. His reply: “Just a little bit more.”

Rockefeller’s answer should be the end of this myth that the rich man cannot be bought or bribed.  G.K. Chesterton took it a step further and said:

“You will hear everlastingly that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is a rich man.”

I could understand how a secular person could be fooled into believing that wealth is a virtue.  But a Christian has absolutely no excuse, Jesus makes mention of the “deceitfulness of riches” (Mark 4:19) and may well have been paraphrasing the book of Habakkuk:

“Wealth is deceitful. Greedy people are proud and restless—like death itself they are never satisfied.”

Could it be that Trump is rich because he has already been bought?

The wealth of a man does not prove anything positive about his character or integrity.  There are good wealthy people, but there are also many wealthy people who would steal from their own grandmother and wouldn’t think twice about scamming you.

Is every wealthy person a crook?  No, certainly not!  I disagree with those who automatically equate wealth and greed.  However, in many case great wealth can be a sign of moral bankruptcy. 

One of Trump’s holdings could say a bit about his philosophy in business and in life. That is that he’s in the Casino business. Sure, this is a perfectly legal enterprise, gambling is an activity many people enjoy, but it is also a game stacked against the participant, the house always wins, and the people who can least afford it are often the losers.

Reality check: Trump’s wealth may be legally acquired, but that doesn’t mean it was acquired through morally upright and non-exploitative means.

Myth #3—Trump is a political outsider and not an ‘establishment’ candidate.

During the debate Trump was asked:

“You’ve also supported a host of other liberal policies, you’ve also donated to several Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton included, Nancy Pelosi. You explained away those donations saying you did that to get business related favors. And you said recently, quote, “when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.”

Trump answered:

“You better believe it… I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people. Before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. And that’s a broken system.”

Now some may say such a brazen admission is a ‘breath of fresh air’ and refreshing honesty.  I suppose a serial killer bragging about how he outwitted investigators could also be considered the same.  But I’m not sure a shameless corruption is an improvement over the run of the mill variety. 

If Trump were a poor person gaming the welfare system to his own advantage and bragging about it, would we applaud his shameless corruption or condemn it?

If Trump were a politician, would an ‘everyone else is doing it’ rationale and a witty response about the Clinton’s attending his wedding absolve him of guilt for being complicit in corruption?

Then there’s the matter of Trump’s attempts to use eminent domain for personal gain.  As a National Review editorial puts it:

“Donald Trump’s covetous nature is not in dispute, but what many may forget is that he’s no great respecter of the admonition not to steal, either: The man has a track record of using the government as a hired thug to take other people’s property.”

Trump tried to use government power to force a widow from her property and was struck down in court.  That is the modern day equivalent of king Ahab seizing Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21) and is the kind of crony capitalism that is the problem.

There’s two sides of the political establishment.  One side is the politicians and the other side is men like Trump who work tirelessly to corrupt politicians.  Men with money, like Trump, who exploit the system for personal gain, are just as much the problem as a crooked politicians who take their money.

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Trump is as much a part of the political establishment as a Bush or a Clinton.  He is not an ‘outsider’ by any stretch of the imagination.  So, it is time to see past the sales pitch, do not be dazzled by a man who has never proven himself loyal to anything besides his own self-interest.

Reality check: Trump shows no sign of having embraced Christian ethics.  Trump’s confessions of his own corruption come without any sign of remorse and repentance.

Myth #4—Trump will govern differently than he does business.

If we have not learned by now maybe we will never learn.  But every manipulator on the planet claims that they will change if only you give them what they want. 

Trump shows no sign of remorse or repentance for exploiting the system for personal gain, yet we are supposed to believe he would never abuse government power for personal gain if he secures the White House?

If you believe that, I have a bridge I am selling…

Gothard: Messenger or Manipulator?

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I was walking across the mall with no time to waste.  Up ahead was one of those Dead Sea salt kiosks staffed by Israelis trained to intercept passing Gentiles. 

My intentions were to stride on by, keep my eyes focused ahead and totally avoid the high pressure sales tactics that make men of less mental fortitude into suckers.  I am not a sucker.

But as I passed I failed.  She spoke sweetly with an irresistible accent.  I was too nice to not answer a friendly greeting.  Sales people are human after all.  I let a reply slip.  “Thank you,” I said, “but, I’m in a hurry…” 

She was ready with an answer before I had even opened my mouth, my forward progress had somehow stopped, and she was rubbing lotion on my hand before I could think to protest.  My higher cognitive functions suddenly neutralized by the sensory input filling that primal need of physical touch.

I still was determined to resist.  I refused to make a purchase.  I am a consummate saver, a responsible spender, only buy things I need, and have no need of lotion, deep cleansers or any of that overpriced slime.  And, no, not for my mother, nor my sister, and what girlfriend, right?

“You’re really good at your job.”  I said, as I as I paid penance to the wiles of a soothing seductress, and contemplated male stupidity, and wondered what I would do with all the clutter she left in my hands, as if I had an obligation to spare her embarrassment of failure to sell. 

She never gave me the satisfaction of being right about her insincerity. 

What is manipulation?

To manipulate is to bend, form or move something and make it conform to your will.  We use a hammer as a persuasion device to manipulate steel or to pound a nail into a block of wood.  We try to manipulate our environment to make it more suitable to our own desired ends.

There are also people who manipulate other people, like my temporary friend at the mall kiosk, and try to control people through false means or fear.  This goes beyond simple persuasion.  Psychological manipulation, according to Wikipedia,“is a type of social influence that aims to change the perception or behavior of others through underhanded, deceptive, or abusive tactics.”

In the political sphere there is fear-mongering, demagoguery and pandering as manipulative tactics.  The manipulator plays on the emotions of the target audience.  He set himself up as an authority or in the know and trustworthy.  She poses as a concerned friend, a common person standing up against the bad people, or a heroic altruist.  But beneath the rhetoric is often a cynical calculated effort to buy votes and control people.

This is also an unfortunate aspect of religion.  Jesus warned of those who “tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders,” and yet, “they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23) These people, he goes on to say, are “hypocrites,” who “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”  He’s speaking of the religious experts, the “teachers of the law” and Pharisees.

The Pharisees were outwardly righteous, they followed many rules trying to please God, they would continually ask, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  But, despite their “diligent” study of the Scripture, we are told, “the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent.” (John 5)  They missed the answer standing literally (literally) in front of them.

They were deceived, self-decieved, and destroyed the very people they ‘won’ over by their dedicated missional efforts, making them “twice as much a child of hell” as they are according to Matthew’s account.  They posed as gate keepers to the “kingdom of heaven” and, unfortunately, did not enter themselves.  They are “blind guides” who neglected more important matters of actual spiritual weight.  These were men full of themselves and not the Spirit of God. 

Who is Bill Gothard?

Bill Gothard, PhD is a teacher popular in some Biblical fundamentalist communities.  He is known for his seminars which give “principles” loosely based on the Bible.  He is an elderly man now, he was never married (although he does give marriage and child rearing advice) and founder of Institute in Basic Life Principles.  He recently resigned from his organization amid sexual harassment allegations.

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(Read the “about me” on his website: http://billgothard.com/about )

I was asked for my thoughts about Gothard after my last blog post.  I had made a passing mention of him as one who rationalizes sexual abuse as a product of female immodesty or rebellion (kind of like earthquakes in Nepal) and I was also criticized for jumping on the bandwagon against him.  The link I provided was written from a “victim’s perspective” and apparently (in the critic’s opinion) the only right response for those who suffer abuse is forgiveness.

Well, I am not a victim of Mr. Gothard.  I have never met him in person.  I will leave it for God and others to judge Gothard’s personal life.  But, as one committed to “rightly dividing the word of truth,” (2 Timothy 2:15) I feel I must examine his teachings against Scripture.  I am familiar with his teachings. My church has hosted his seminars. I have had questions about his ideas and long before the Duggar family sexual molestation controversy put Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute in the spotlight.

My primary concern in this essay is with Gothard’s Scriptural hermeneutic and his theology, not his person.  There is some obvious overlap between the influence of his teachings, his behavior as a person and what he believes.  However, I prefer to stick as much to what is verifiable.  I do, as always, recommend looking for yourself rather than just take my word for it.  So I will give my perspective as an invitation to study for yourself and find the truth.

Gothard‘s teaching manipulates Scripture.

There are many different perspectives on Scripture and many opportunities to be wrong about what the Bible says.  I’ve made my share of mistakes when it comes to correctly understanding written texts.  I cannot fault a person for an occasional error in their interpretation and application of the Bible.  The Bible is a complex book and difficult to understand according to what is written in it:

“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:15-16 NIV)

Gothard’s teaching goes beyond just a simple misinterpretation of Scripture.  He makes fundamental and systematic errors in his Biblical exegesis.  He reads his own presuppositions into the text of the Bible and in ways that go directly against the actual explanations supplied within the text itself.  His understanding of Scripture seems to revolve around his own established ‘principles’ rather than go the other way around.  He neglects important concepts of faith while emphasizing his own prescriptions at the expense of whole truth.

This is not a perspective of Gothard’s work unique to me.  In a paper, “Issues of Concern—Bill Gothard and the Bible: A Report,” published May 30, 1984, Ronald B. Allen, ThD expressed the following evaluation:

“Gothard’s approach is not that of the careful exegete who wishes to determine the meaning of the text, but of the engineer who wishes to use the material in his own programmatic approach which is mechanical and not personal, mechanistic and not dynamic. Gothard does not really teach the Scripture; he really uses the Scripture to fit into his own categories.”

Gothard seemingly throws out the baby (what the Bible explains) to keep the bathwater of his own preconceived notions and prescriptive formulas.  His analysis of the book of Job is a glaring example of his editorial manipulation of a text.  Gothard actually comes out on the side of those who are rebuked by God for their false attribution of reasons for Job’s suffering, as Allen explains:

“The clear teaching of the Book of Job is that a mechanistic, cause-and-effect, approach to life may be way off base! Is it any wonder that Gothard tries to evade the clear teaching of the Bible that Job was a righteous man (the only reading on which the book works!), and finds many sins and character flaws in him (overwork in Christian causes, neglect of his family, embittered sons, estranged from family, wrong attitudes toward the workers). In this way the book is turned inside out and by this strange alchemy Job supports Gothard’s lists.

There is nothing in the Biblical text to suggest Job brought his suffering upon himself for something wrong he did.  In fact it was the righteousness of Job that was the theme of the book. At the end of the book God vindicated Job and rebuked his persecuting comforters:

“After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has… My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.”  (Job 42:7-8)

Gothard is repeating the folly of Job’s falsely accusing friends and does so despite having the end of the book where God sets them straight.  So, why would Gothard take the Job story and turn it upside down?  Well, perhaps it is because he over-applies an idea of sowing and reaping (or cause and effect) to every circumstance?  It becomes quite evident in Gothard’s teaching that every bad thing that happens to a person is a result of their own sin.

This erroneous idea is nothing new or unique to Job’s friends or Bill Gothard, the disciples of Jesus made the same mistake when they encountered a blind man in this Biblical account:

“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”  (John 9:1-3)

Sometimes bad things are the result of nobody’s sin.  Jesus made a similar point as why we should show grace to all people when he reminded that God“causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  (Matthew 5:45)  In other words, sometimes (or even most times) a rainstorm is just a rainstorm and not judgment or a reward for behavior from God.  Not every good thing that happens to a person is a reward, not every bad thing that happens is a punishment.

Gothard’s teaching manipulates people.

One of the responses to my last blog came from a woman molested by her own father at age nine.  She did not invite that upon herself by something she did.  Sexual abuse victims often feel a sense of guilt or shame and need to be freed from that to be able to move on.  But, if she goes to Gothard, this may be the tenor of the advice she gets:

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Note the fourth point, “Why did God let it happen?”  In that there is “Result of defrauding by” and that followed by a list of four subpoints: Immodest dress; Indecent exposure; Being out from the protection of our parents; Being with evil friends?

I spoke at greater length about what the Bible actually says about modesty in my last post and there is absolutely nothing in the Bible that says sexual molestation or rape is a result of female immodesty.  That woman molested at nine years old did not dress to draw her own father’s attention, she was in her own home, she was molested by a parent and, again, in her own home!  So that is quite the exception to the logic of “defrauding” laid out by Gothard’s counseling literature.  There should be a big exception clause at very least.

But Gothardism doesn’t allow for exceptions to his own rules.  In Gothard’s view, as with his mistreatment of Job’s suffering as somehow self-inflicted, if a young woman is raped then she must’ve done something to deserve it.  In his “character sketches” he twists the Biblical account of Dinah by attributing wrongful attitudes to her that cannot be found anywhere in the text.  Gothard makes Dinah out to be a rebellious daughter and thus responsible for what happened to her.  Then he turns the opposite direction and is critical of Tamar for actually obeying her father’s request.  Gothard’s logic is self-contradictory and contradicts the Bible.  Worse, it shames sexual assault victims by implicating them and it adds a weight of guilt undeserved.

The Bible doesn’t support the false dichotomies and overly simplistic principles of Gothard’s teachings.  But, rather than admit his thinking is flawed and repent, Gothard attempts to manipulate the Bible to fit his own preconceived ideas.  That is to elevate his own opinions above the very explanations given in Scripture.  Gothard manipulates Biblical evidence in the same way Satan twisted God’s words to deceive Eve and in the same way Satan later misused Scripture to tempt Jesus.

Gothardism attempts to manipulate God

It also appears Gothard thinks of God like a vending machine: You insert devotion to a list of basic principles, you turn a few levers, pull a few knobs and out pops a blessing.  This is a mechanical view of God.  Another blogger critiquing Gothard put it this way:

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Gothard’s heterodoxy is what it does to God. Not only does God plays little or no part in a believer’s life through omission, but Gothard actually teaches that God’s grace is bound to the limitations of our own abilities. It is not simply that God helps those who help themselves, but that God will not and cannot help anyone who is not already practicing the right principles.”

It is an underestimate of God that essentially makes us our own savior and that is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Sure, I see many good things in what Gothard teaches, his textbook contains many interesting anecdotes and observations about human nature, but it is missing something.  It reminds me of when Jesus said to the Pharisees, “go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:13)

The quote Jesus used was from the sixth chapter of the book of Hosea.  At the time there was a complex ritual of sacrificial devotion to God and in that chapter the people, treating God like a vending machine, give a superficial repentance.   But God is not impressed.  God answers with “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” and doesn’t accept their religious devotion.

Gothard seems intent on trying to please God by his devotion to a set of life principles.  Unfortunately, in that he seems to have gotten off track and is so concerned about tithing spices of his own system that he neglects the weightier matters of spiritual life (Matthew 23) and that being genuine relationship with God.  God is not a machine.  Faith is not mere religious devotion to a set of principles.

What is missing from Gothard’s teaching?

Grace is the wild card in a black and white world of determinism’s cause-and-effect dictates.  The Gospel without grace is like a car without wheels.  Over and over again in the critique of Gothard’s work is mention of a lack of his proper understanding of grace.  Yes, there is mention of grace in Gothard’s work, but there seems to be a difference between what he means by grace and what is spelled out in Scripture.  Grace is not a mechanical process of our careful application of correct principles, it is a mysterious paradox of God’s love:

“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  (Ephesians 2:4-10)

This is the work of religion…

“Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you.  Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind.  They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.  Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.  (Colosians 2:18-20)

This is the work of faith…

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.  But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good!  Even the demons believe that—and shudder.  You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?”  (James 2:14-20)

Christianity, authentic Christian faith, is about love and not manipulation.  Jesus told his disciples:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

Is Gothard a false teacher?

I wish matters like this were as simple as the Dead Sea salt kiosk where it was quite obvious I was being manipulated.  My initial reaction is that Bill Gothard is a false teacher.  It is not because he does not have some good insights or points either.  I was reminded of the time when Jesus rebuked Peter, saying “get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23)  Peter went on to be a powerful example of God’s grace.

I worry about the tendency of fundamentalist’s to ‘circle the wagons’ when it comes to someone who claims to uphold ‘Biblical principles’ and conservative values.  The same people who repost scary internet memes about “Charlie Charlie” will welcome a man like Gothard into their church or home without stopping to consider that he could be a false teacher and potential traitor to the Gospel.

“For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men.”

That above is part of the warning Marcus Tullius Cicero gave in Roman times.  He was speaking about threats to nations or governments from within them, but his words could also easily apply to the church today.  We need to be aware of the enemy within the gates.  Satan was described as subtle, are we looking for the subtle deception or only the obvious threat?

As far as Gothard, I have stepped back from my initial reaction.  I am content to let God judge him and his teachings.  However, for myself I will go to another source of authority rather than him, I believe there is a primary source greater than even the best of commentators and it is that wisdom I seek.  For you who teach, I leave this:

“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”  (James 3:1)

Be careful teachers what you teach!