CHRISTIANITY, MARRIAGE, AND FAMILY.Blankenhorn, D., Browning, D., & Van Leeuwen, M. S. (Eds.). (2004).
Does Christianity teach male headship? The equal-regard marriage and its critics. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Paper, xvi + 141 pp. $15.00. ISBN: 0-8028-2171-5.
Reviewed by JAMES R. BECK, Ph.D.
David Blankenhorn is founder and president of the Institute for American Values, New York City. Don Browning is Alexander Campbell Professor Emeritus of Ethics and the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen is Professor of Psychology and Philosophy at Eastern University, St. Davids, Pennsylvania.
The issue of male headship can spark incendiary reactions in many quarters of the Evangelical world. In other segments of contemporary Christendom, the issue is passe, a leftover from nineteenth-century debates. (One Catholic woman who was asked as part of this project "How do you view male headship?" responded, "What is male headship?") This volume makes an important contribution both to those who are deeply concerned about male headship and to those who do not realize it is a problem.
This volume is part of the Eerdmans Religion, Marriage, and Family series, a set of books emerging directly or indirectly out of a University of Chicago project financed by the Lilly Endowment. In the first phase of this large project (1991-1997), participants in the program produced eleven books on religion and the family. The Eerdmans series reflects the second phase of this massive project designed to probe "the depth of resources in Judaism and Christianity for understanding, renewing, and in some respects redefining current expressions of marriage and family" (p. vii). This volume addresses the thorny issue of male headship, a topic that is at the center of the Evangelical egalitarian vs. complementarian discussion. But this Eerdmans book goes beyond just playing "text poker," a game in which either side attempts to trump the opposing camp with more important texts or a larger volume of supporting passages. This volume expands the debate by involving Roman Catholics and liberal Protestants in the discussion and by examining male headship from ethical and political perspectives in addition to exploring the relevant biblical and theological arguments. "Our purpose is ... to develop a broad ecumenical theological and practical strategy to strengthen families in our time ..." (p. 126).
The contributors to the volume include men and women deeply concerned about the current status of marriage and the family who work as public policy advocates, university professors, seminary faculty members, and/or directors of private foundations. The first half of the book contains essays in support of equal-regard marriage as a Christian alternative to older formulations of male headship, and the second half consists of five essays critical of the proposed change. The book concludes with an essay by Don Browning responding to the five critics of equal-regard marriage.
The social context for this discussion of male headship is the male problematic, "the tendency of males to procreate but often be reluctant to bond with and care for children and wife" (pp. 135-136). Demographic evidence supporting this male problematic is almost overwhelming: "One-third of all children in the United States are presently living apart from their biological fathers; nearly one-half live apart from their father for a period of three years before the age of eighteen" (p. 11). These facts should be deeply troubling to all parties in the discussion irrespective of their considered views on male headship. Somewhat surprisingly, some advocates of male headship in this volume argue that we need to name the male as head of the marriage and family so that, in effect, he will have something important to do and to keep him in the home!
Equal-regard marriage, as proposed and defended by those involved with this University of Chicago project, consists of several important tenets. 1 When dealing with Scripture, we need to identify the "plurality and tension between different scriptural passages" and learn to recognize that "diverse notes and tones are struck in the various texts" (p. 131). 2. Christian mutuality and equal-regard are powerful ethical principles that are the logical outcomes of the Christian ethic of self-sacrifice. 3. The Bible assumed the presence of partriarchy but Christianity subtly undermines it with its revolutionary message of equality in Christ. 4. Equal-regard marriage is not a soft androgyny but an affirmation of gender differences and complementarity. 5. Families need parental authority, not just male authority.
This book is a gem for Evangelicals weary of the egalitarian-complementarian discussion that seems to grind on endlessly without any evident or substantial progress. Classes debating this topic will find challenging ideas here that could open up the discussion so that Evangelicals do not proof-text themselves into irrelevance.
JAMES R. BECK, Ph. D., is a Professor of Counseling at Denver Seminary. He is the author of The Psychology of Paul (2002) and co-author of The Human Person in Theology and Psychology (2006).