What led you to start writing about how social science data broadly support traditional understandings of marriage and family?

I had a baby right out of college. This was at the height of the happy talk about how the retreat from marriage represented only change, not decline. I got personally interested in this set of issues because I found, like most single mothers, that well before the time my son could be responding to social stigma, he started asking, "Where is Daddy?"

About the same time, I began to see the beginnings of what has become a mountain of social science data on both the rise of fatherlessness and family fragmentation and the negative consequences of these things. My background is as a journalist. So I have had the pleasure of working with a number of extremely intelligent and prominent scholars who have, over the past two decades, grown increasingly concerned about what our high rate of family fragmentation is doing to our children and our community.

You seem to argue for re-establishing fatherhood in our society through the idea of male headship.

I don't know that I would see male headship as the primary strategy. But I firmly believe that mothers and fathers both matter a great deal to their children, and that marriage is the way that you get that for children. You cannot raise a generation of men to be good family men unless you tell them that husbands and fathers matter a great deal.

One of the things sociologist Brad Wilcox shows is that conservative Protestants, who are the only group of people actively advocating for male headship in our society and for a strong vision of gender difference, oddly enough turn out to produce husbands and fathers who are more like the "new man," that is, a warm, engaged, attentive father. And their wives report that these men are also more appreciative, and the wives are happier than the average wife or the wives of religiously unaffiliated men. This is true only for conservative Protestants who go to church. If you're a nominal conservative Protestant and you just pick up on the headship ideology and you don't have the idea of love and sacrifice for the sake of your family, it turns out badly.

Does Christianity Teach Male Headship? is unusual for its cross-pollination between Protestant and Catholic thinkers on this topic.

Right—and also between conservative Protestants and mainline Protestants. It's a really four-way conversation.

What do you think is the essential difference between the conservative Protestant and the Catholic voices in this discussion?

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One difference is that the conservative Protestants argue quite strongly that the Bible teaches male headship. The mainline Protestants contest this, grounding their views in other biblical affirmations of the general equality of all human persons, male and female.

The Catholic thinkers have a hard time wrapping their heads around the whole question of headship because they keep focusing on the issue of indissolubility: What does it mean to become one flesh in a way that can't be broken? When that's your basic framework it becomes hard to think about headship in a deep way, because if you are really one flesh, can you really talk about your shoulders being subordinate to your stomach, or can you talk about treating your liver the way you would like it to be treated? The principal intellectual distinctions come from that framing. 

What do you think each side can learn from the other?

Let me say this about the mainline Protestants: Don Browning at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a number of other theologians have worked hard to revise a mainline Protestant understanding of marriage. The phrase they came up with is "equal regard." I think it is a great advance because it implies that men and women don't have to do exactly the same thing. Nor do you have to describe what each gender should do. What Mother is doing is not subordinate in the sense of being less important than what Father does or vice versa. So a woman doesn't have to understand what she does the way some people did in the '50s. The whole point of being a woman then was to free your husband to go and do the "really important" things of achieving in the workplace. Instead, equal regard points to what I think is the reality of marital love: It has got to involve an equal regard between husband and wife for what each is called to do in family life.

As somebody whose principal concern is fatherlessness and family fragmentation, I think the chief question not addressed by equal-regard thinking is how we develop the male role in the family. How do we affirm, recognize, support, teach, and transmit a male role in the family?

I have come to believe that if you have only a unisex role, if you just talk about "parents" rather than "mothers," women aren't that affected by it. The tie between mother and child is the most difficult tie to break in all of nature. The tie between fathers and their children is extremely important also, but it is more fragile and more dependent on what image and vision of fatherhood and husbandhood we create, sustain, and transmit.

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I think the equal-regard advocates of the mainline Protestants are struggling within their own framework. They haven't yet succeeded in coming up with an answer to what some people call "the male problematic."

You refer to some people who mistake headship for "bossdom." Is this a particular problem for evangelical Protestants, and if so, what can we do about it?

Well, I think it is a problem for fallen human nature. I think maybe it is particular phenomenon of people whose religious life doesn't run very deep.

In the passages talking about headship, it's important to recognize that the admonition to obey and respect your husband is directed toward women. But there is no corollary admonition that men are supposed to work hard to keep their wives in line. In fact, it is exactly the contrary. The whole context of the paragraph is about how we are not supposed to stand on our rights, and that in these loving relationships we are supposed to do what Christ did for all of us: We are supposed to give of ourselves and serve other people.

When you mistake the advice about family relationships for "I'm a man if I boss my wife around," you've missed the whole point, and you're unlikely to be able to create the kind of loving family life that is supposed to mirror the inner life of God. That's the ideal. The evidence is that for men who are going to church and are active in their Christianity, evangelicals are doing a pretty good job of teaching them what it means to be a good family man. Every religious group, at this point, needs to do a better job of supporting the marriage vow and seeing that more of our children are born and raised by their own two married parents.

You use the word strategy and several other practical-sounding terms when you talk about male headship. Is there something about the essence of maleness and femaleness that relates to headship, or is it primarily a matter of strategy?

You have to understand I am not a theologian, so I speak primarily as an amateur sociologist of the family. And I also speak as a woman. It's not just a strategy, but I do think that men see the world in more hierarchical terms than women typically do. They are typically concerned with whether they are one up or one down. The reality of family life is that men have to really give quite a lot to women and to children in order to make things work. They have to give up a lot of autonomy, give up a lot of the power to do whatever they want whenever they want. They have to give up lots of income and their mission in life.

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Both men and women are happier and more effective if men see this as a manly role. Most commonly, it's a ceremonial title—it's an indication that this man has agreed to take responsibility for this family. And I think men need to be honored and supported in that. But if you use the idea of headship as a reason to believe you should get your way in family life, you've missed the whole point.

How have economic changes in the developed world contracted what it means to be the head of the family?

We're debating about whether or not men should be heads. The position seems to be not that women should be heads, but that there shouldn't be a head—that men and women should be equal heads of the family, which is to say that the family doesn't need a head.

This is a new thought. For thousand of years everyone assumed that the family needed a head. I think it really is because, until quite recently, the family was the place where everyone gathered to work to produce the food the family needed to survive. So you couldn't just sit around and talk—the phrase equal-regard advocates use is "intersubjective dialogue"—you couldn't just sit around and "intersubjectively dialogue" about things forever.

We now depend upon market institutions to coordinate workers and create goods. Before, somebody had to make decisions for the same reason a corporation needs a head. The fields had to be planted, the cow had to be sold, you had to figure out how to survive. A lot of the change we face is not so much that we suddenly discovered that women are good people too, but that the family no longer serves the same functions to the same extent that it once did.

Both men and women who work outside the home find themselves subordinated to someone else in the workplace. We take that for granted. Why do we find ourselves uncomfortable with subordination in the home but not in the workplace?

Women need to appreciate that dialogue about the family has until recently been somewhat one sided, in that a lot of women miss what men give and what they give up in order to be good husbands in families. In a lot of ways some women have been encouraged to think of the female role as somehow uniquely degrading or sacrificial. We women have an automatic relationship to our children. Women make life. We know who our children are, and a lot of strategies, like marriage itself, including the idea of recognizing (we're not making it up) the uniquely important role that fathers have for their children, but that it needs to be publicly and physically created and affirmed through outside means. Women need to see their own power in the family, and they need to use that power to affirm their husbands and their husbands' relationship with the children.

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Related Elsewhere:

This month's Editor's Bookshelf selection is Does Christianity Teach Male Headship? Elsewhere on our site, you can:

Read an extended review of Does Christianity Teach Male Headship?
Order Does Christianity Teach Male Headship? from Christiabook.com and other book retailers.
Read other Editor's Bookshelf reviews and interviews

Earlier Christianity Today articles on gender roles include:

Headship with a Heart | How biblical patriarchy actually prevents abuse. (Feb. 10, 2003)
Nuptial Agreements | Two models of marriage claim biblical warrant and vie for evangelicals' allegiance. Advocates of both claim good results. But do we have to choose? (March 15, 2003)
Adam and Eve in the 21st Century | When it comes to gender roles, CT readers oscillate between complementarian and egalitarian ideas. (March 15, 2003)
CT Classic: Adam and Eve in America | In 1990, readers first revealed what they thought it means to be created male and female. (March 15, 2003)
Can We Talk? | We may never resolve all our differences about women in leadership, but we can help each other toward better understanding. (March 15, 2003)
A Different Kind of Women's Lib | A dispatch from the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood conference. (October 12, 2001)
Seahorses, Egalitarians, and Traditional Sex-Role Reversal | A dispatch from the Christians for Biblical Equality conference. (July 11, 2001)
The Next Christian Men's Movement | Just because Promise Keepers no longer fills stadiums doesn't mean men's ministry is dead. Far from it. (Sept. 15, 2000)
What Has Gender Got to Do with It? | Wesleyan-Holiness churches were led by women long before the rise of the modern women's movement. (Sept. 12, 2000)
A Woman's Place | Women reaching women is key to the future of missions. (Aug. 4, 2000)
Integrating Mars and Venus | Gender-based ministries may be effective, but are they biblical? (July 12, 1999)
Finding Power in Submission | Two feminist scholars write about women you'll recognize. (Apr. 27,1998)
Will Episcopalians Step into the 'Radical Center'? | Homosexual ordination discussed, women's ordination mandated. (Sept. 1, 1997)
Presbyterian Groups Sever CRC Ties | Women's ordination splits two denominations. (Aug. 11, 1997)

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Editor's Bookshelf
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
Previous Editor's Bookshelf Columns:

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