Steve Carter and Patriarchal Gender Essentialism at Willow Creek

As stated in previous articles in this website, I will be writing extensively on Steve Carter’s patriarchal teachings and modeling. Steve Carter is Willow Creek’s Teaching Pastor and appears to be first in line to take the Senior Pastor position after Bill Hybels retires.

In this article I will address gender essentialism as taught by Steve Carter during weekend messages on September 27 & 28, 2014 titled The God I Wish You Knew Guides Us. I have two reasons for choosing this weekend message for my first article that describes Steve’s patriarchal teachings.

First, Steve has been on staff at Willow Creek since Fall 2012. On numerous occasions he has taught and modeled patriarchalism and even though he has corrected many of his teachings in subsequent messages—under the instruction and correction of his supervisor(s)—he continues to teach and model patriarchalism. Either, he is subvert-ly and continually teaching patriarchalism, or he doesn’t know he is teaching patriarchalism which is why he continues to teach and model it and why he continues to be corrected.

Second, during this weekend’s message Steve taught a clear and obvious form of gender essentialism common among patriarchalists.

What is gender essentialism?

Gender essentialism ascribes differing aspects and traits of God to men and women. That is, men and women reflect the image and character of God differently. In patriarchal doctrine, the character and image traits ascribed respectively to men and women are generally exclusive. Meaning, men reflect certain aspects of God that women do not and women reflect certain aspects of God that men do not.

The aspects of God reflected differently and respectively or exclusively by men and women lead patriarchalists to assign gender roles appropriate for the respective image and character traits for men and women. As an example, patriarchalists ascribe traits of God’s righteousness to men, therefore men are better suited to be leaders since they are better fit to reflect God’s attributes of righteousness. Another example, women reflect the nurturing aspect of God, therefore they are more suitable to raise and nurture children and are the appropriate parent to stay at home and care for the children.

These two examples of patriarchal gender essentialism and gender roles are common among patriarchalists. Many other examples exist and the assigning of character traits and gender roles between men and women varies among patriarchal communities. What is common among all patriarchalists is that they use their own version of gender essentialism to place men in the leader and decision-making role and place women in the subordinate and inferior role. Gender essentialism becomes the tool patriarchalists use to subordinate women. The benevolent patriarchalists—or hierarchical-complementarians who prefer to call themselves ‘complementarians’—make great effort, and in good faith, to value their women in their subordinate and inferior roles. Unfortunately, that effort turns into insulting, degrading, and patronizing of their women—in the near future I plan to write on that subject and how that occurs at Willow Creek.

Other examples of gender essentialism at Willow Creek

Gender essentialism has been taught at Willow Creek before and continues to be promoted by Willow’s marriage ministry. Dan Allender, after speaking on marriage and intimacy at a weekend service on February 6, 2011, was invited to teach a one-day conference also on marriage and intimacy in January of 2012 titled Intimate Mystery Conference (the recording might still be available at Willow’s Seeds bookstore, a similar conference recording is available directly from Dan Allender). Currently, Willow’s marriage ministry promotes two of Allender’s books on marriage.

Allender’s psychology and theology of gender is based on patriarchal gender essentialism. Allender teaches in Intimate Mystery Conference that “men, more than women, reflect the heart of righteousness of God.” He also teaches (in Willow’s weekend message of February 2011 and in Intimate Mystery Conference of January 2012) that women, not men, suffer from the problem of control. Meaning, women—not men—seek to control other people. On several occasions in Intimate Mystery Conference Allender made reference to “controlling mothers” as a problem needing to be addressed. He never mentioned “controlling fathers”; that’s because “controlling fathers” don’t exist in his psychology and theology of patriarchal gender essentialism.

Allender teaches also that women reflect a “gentle strength”, a description of women commonly made among patriarchalists, a description of women I remember hearing often at the Calvary Chapel which is a gender-hierarchical church, a description of women I have heard from members and leaders at Willow Creek, and a description that has even been used in Willow email newsletter announcements to describe women speakers. Patriarchalists commonly use the word “gentle” as a description of women to remind women that they are to be sweet, nice, innocent, pure, soft-spoken, weak, quiet, non-threatening, submissive, subordinate, inferior, and non-authoritative in their demeanor, specifically when addressing men, and most importantly when exercising “strength” before and toward men—this is exactly how Allender made the illustration in his Intimate Mystery Conference. (see my previous article on women and emotiveness which includes links to pertinent research).

Steve’s teaching methodology of narrative

Before detailing Steve’s teaching and modeling of patriarchal gender essentialism we must first look at his teaching methodology of narrative. Steve teaches via narrative. He tells stories and gives examples to illustrate points, so when he teaches he doesn’t always articulate specifically and explicitly what his teaching is. Preachers often employ the narrative when teaching. In fact, Jesus often taught via narrative with his use of parables. The narrative format has become a subtle and subvert way for patriarchalists to teach and model patriarchal principles without being explicit. When Steve taught and modeled patriarchal gender essentialism during the weekend message of September 27 & 28 of 2014 he did so without using the term “gender essentialism” and without specifically stating that men and women are essentially different in how they reflect God’s character. Yet, that is exactly what he taught and modeled using the teaching tool of narrative or story-telling.

Steve and gender essentialism

During the weekend message of September 28, 2014, Steve spoke about his daughter and how he sees God thru her. The descriptions Steve verbalized in how his daughter reflects God are: “dancing”, “playing”, “purity”, “freedom”, and “innocence”. All five words are typical associated to women in the patriarchal theology of gender essentialism.

“Dancing”, “playing” and “freedom” are associated with women’s care-free way of life for not being in a place of responsibility and decision-making. While the men are working, leading, and stressing over their responsibilities, the women are care-free and able to enjoy life whether it be at the spa or studio in joyful fellowship with their female friends. In another occasion, during the weekend message of May 26, 2013, Steve’s association of women and “dancing” led him to insult, degrade, and patronize the leadership of Miriam by reducing* Miriam’s leadership to no more than a “dancing” cheerleader type of “girl”—and he actually used the word “girl” to describe Miriam who at the time would have been over 80 years old.

“Purity” is a buzz word for the patriarchal sexual purity movement that emphasizes sexual abstinence for girls before marriage, an emphasis of sexual purity that is not always emphasized for boys in patriarchal circles. As for “innocence” coupled with “purity”, a common fantasy, desire, and/or expectation for patriarchal men is to be sexually involved with the hot and sexy women but then settle down and form a family with the “innocent” and “pure” “girl” who the man can bring home to meet the parents. “Purity” and “innocence” are requirements for women looking to be married in patriarchal circles. Egalitarians don’t oppose women associated with dancing, playing, exercising freedom, purity, and innocence. The degradation occurs when these descriptions are used with the purpose to subjugate and incarcerate women into patriarchal gender roles.

To contrast, in the same weekend message Steve mentioned his son and pointed to his athletic aspect of “running”—as opposed to “dancing” used for his daughter. The most grievous contrast Steve made is when he described his son as reflecting God’s righteousness in the form of unconditional “love”, grace, and mercy. Steve did not mentioned any of these words specifically, except the word “love”, but he taught and modeled this association in narrative form by telling the story of his son expressing “love” for their dog, Bernie. “Love” is a prominent, if not the primary, attribute of God’s righteousness. Grace and mercy are also prominent aspects of God’s righteousness. As mentioned before, the attributes of God’s righteousness are commonly assigned to men in patriarchal gender essentialism and are used to qualify men for leadership while at the same time used to disqualify women for leadership since in their patriarchal understanding of gender essentialism women reflect little to no image of God’s righteousness.

What Steve taught and modeled using narratives about his daughter and son is a patriarchal gender essentialist association of

women with “dancing”, “playing”, “purity”, “freedom”, and “innocence”

and

men with God’s righteousness in the form of unconditional “love”, grace, and mercy

The evil of patriarchal gender essentialism

The attributes of God’s righteousness are considered the primary character traits of God, including but not limited to unconditional love, grace, mercy, compassion, and justice. The evil of patriarchal gender essentialism is to attribute God’s righteousness to primarily or only men and then use that association to acknowledge men as better image bearers of God and therefore elevate men as leaders and make women subordinate to men.

There is nothing inappropriate to associate women with dancing and purity and the like. Just like there is nothing inappropriate to associate men with God’s righteousness. The problem is gender association to the point of exclusivity and then use those associations to decide who is the leader and decision-maker and who is the subordinate. What about emphasizing purity and innocence to the men? Men as much as women need to practice purity and innocence. What about associating women with God’s righteousness and qualifying women for leadership and decision-making roles, inclusive of the area of church doctrine?

Steve mentioned a women’s prayer group, doesn’t that indicate his support of women in leadership?

Toward the end of the same weekend message of September 28, 2014, Steve mentioned the role a group of women part of a prayer ministry played in his decision to accept the invitation to be on staff at Willow Creek. At the time of that incident Steve was pastoring at Rock Harbor, a patriarchal church in Southern California. While considering a decision to move to Willow Creek he was challenged by a member in his small group at Rock Harbor to talk to the women in the prayer ministry. Steve spoke to a woman in the prayer group and received confirmation for him to accept Willow Creek’s invitation to be on staff to teach and oversee evangelism at Willow Creek.

In patriarchal churches prayer groups are primarily made up by women. It is not a ministry that carries authority; it is a ministry that serves primarily as support to the male leaders. Prayer ministry takes seriously the biblical mandate to pray for our leaders, and in patriarchal churches those leaders are men. When I was in the Calvary Chapel, a patriarchal church, I attended a prayer meeting led by a pastor’s wife and she spoke a prayer that went something like this, “Lord, we ask you to raise the men in our church to be leaders, to lead our ministries, and to lead our church with boldness and godly character.” There was no prayer for the women to be raised as leaders, the prayer for women went something like this, “…and help and guide us women and wives on how we can be of support to the men as they lead our church.” In patriarchal churches, women in prayer groups practice their patriarchal gender role of assistants, helpers, supporters, and cheerleaders to the men who are the leaders.

The illustration made by Steve during the said weekend message regarding the women in the prayer group fits this patriarchal gender role for women. An illustration that would have reflected a more egalitarian and mutual view of women as advisors or as decision-makers would have been an illustration of him and his wife discussing the pending decision to move to Willow Creek and together made the decision to move or not. But he didn’t present that illustration, in fact he never spoke about his wife nor her role, if she had any, regarding his decision to accept Willow’s invitation to be on staff. The absence of a dialogue with his wife in the decision-making process, especially for such a significant event, is reflective of a patriarchal marriage. Maybe that dialogue did take place, if it did, he didn’t mention it. At that time during the message, the point Steve was illustrating was how God guides us thru other people, and he chose to mention the women’s prayer group as a confirmation for his staff position at Willow Creek. Steve’s self-promoting and self-validating illustrations during his weekend messages have been occurring since his arrival 2.5 years ago. That is a subject that requires its own space. I will address it in detail in a future article.

To be clear, I am not devaluating prayer ministry; I have high regard for it. I am simply describing how in patriarchal communities the prayer ministry has been reduced* to a place where women practice their gender roles as assistants, helpers, supporters, and cheerleaders to men in leadership.

What’s next?

In this article I have addressed only Steve Carter’s teaching and modeling of patriarchal gender essentialism as image bearers of God. In future articles I will address Steve’s teaching and modeling of patriarchal gender roles and his insulting, degrading and patronizing view of women in leadership.

The corrective

I am committed to noting any correctives Steve gives to his teachings. During weekend service of May 24, 2015 Steve gave a short corrective to his patriarchal gender essentialism as detailed above for his weekend message of September 28, 2014. In the May 24, 2015 message he described a woman practicing “forgiveness” toward the man who killed her son. Forgiveness is an attribute of God’s righteousness which Steve associated with a woman. This is not the first time Steve has corrected himself. His more obvious corrections are for his patriarchal and patronizing portrayal of Miriam’s leadership, for his patriarchal blaming of Eve for the Fall, and for his reductionist* teaching on the Holy Spirit (this Midweek message is no longer available on the Willow Creek website). In the near future I plan to write on each of these three problematic messages in detail and note the correctives Steve gave for each.

*Reductionism/Reductionist is defined as the practice of simplifying a complex idea, issue, condition, or the like, especially to the point of minimizing, obscuring, or distorting it. – per Dictionary.com

Edited: 6.18.15

Advertisements

The Great Compromise – Is Willow Creek Community Church Still Egalitarian?

Since I will be writing extensively on the patriarchal elements of my church, Willow Creek, here I present a short summary and comparison of egalitarianism and patriarchy as it relates to my church.

“Willow Creeks says it’s egalitarian, but it doesn’t act like it.”

I had no idea at the time what the warning meant, a warning given to me by a fellow Chicagoan and CBEer (Christians for Biblical Equality). I decided to become a member of Willow Creek anyway; I was hoping the warning was misinformed. At the time I was looking for an egalitarian church and I placed my hope in Willow Creek’s egalitarian roots. I was also drawn by Bill Hybels’ teachings, he not only regularly spoke egalitarian principles and invited egalitarian men and women guests to preach, but he also spoke compassionately about immigrants, that is undocumented immigrants—a rarity among evangelicals. Bill and Lynne’s compassion toward the poor and vulnerable—including the undocumented immigrants in our neighborhoods and in our country—gave me comfort to make Willow Creek my home church. But, the warning still lingered in my mind. The year was 2007.

In time, I have come to find out for myself what the warning meant.

Willow Creek was founded as an egalitarian church—meaning both men and women are full participants in community and in all levels of church leadership. No leadership position was denied to a woman on the sole basis that she is a woman. We’ve had many women as Teaching Pastors, the most recent was Nancy Beach. Nancy is no longer Teaching Pastor nor member of Willow Creek.

Today, Willow still has egalitarian founding members leading the church. Our church has women in all levels of leadership, we have women elders and women in senior positions such as Executive Pastor. Women are always on stage, we have women speak and we have women participate and lead worship. We have women teachers and pastors. We have a strong ministry for local and international dis-empowered women that runs under the umbrella of our Compassion & Justice ministry. All of which communicate to our audience our strong pro-women value.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is the patriarchal core.

Patriarchalists differ in the role of women at home and in the church. Some patriarchalists have a more restrictive view, they don’t let women on stage at all nor allow women to hold any type of teaching position. Other patriarchalists have a more expansive view on women in leadership, the women are allowed to teach, lead worship, and hold senior leadership roles alongside the men—as long as the women are not ordained nor hold positions of authority; Tim Keller’s church falls under this type of patriarchal church.

The one restriction that all patriarchalists adhere to is that women cannot have any position of authority over men regarding doctrine. This translates to women denied positions of Senior Pastor, Elder, Teaching Pastor, or any other position that carries with it authority and decision-making responsibly of doctrine over the whole church. This core belief is non-negotiable for patriarchalists, this core belief is what defines modern day patriarchy, this core belief puts men over women in defining and settling disputes regarding scripture—in many cases, it puts men over women in settling any dispute what so ever. Defining and settling what scripture states and ultimately what God says and who God is on behalf of the community of believers, and respective biological families, becomes a decision made only by men.

The patriarchal core within Willow Creek

Despite our pro-women advocacy, Willow Creek has a patriarchal core in its leadership. We have no women Teaching Pastors. The women teachers are in children, women, care or financial ministries—all ministries which are acceptable to the patriarchalists who adhere to the expansive view. We have one woman in one of the satellite churches who teaches bible and doctrine to adult women and men, she has a master’s degree in biblical studies. However, she has no title and is a volunteer, she is not a paid staff member. At another satellite, and in the last year or so, a woman has been hired to oversee discipleship. However, her title is not “teacher” nor “pastor”. Her title is “director”, which is an acceptable title for expansive patriarchalists. The women who speak from the South Barrington stage speak only to give administrative announcements and to participate in drama and music ministries—all ministries acceptable to expansive patriarchalists. We have one or two women each year give a weekend message. For the last three years that Midweek bible teachings have been under the supervision of our new Teaching Pastor, Steve Carter who replaced Nancy Beach, and under his leadership we’ve had no women teachers at Midweek. However, he has brought to Midweek patriarchal guest teachers who lead patriarchal churches, some of which are his friends and one of them is scheduled to speak at the Global Leadership Summit in 2015.

Our Executive Pastor is a woman, but her responsibilities are administrative, not doctrinal—an acceptable role for expansive patriarchalists. We have women pastors in the Compassion & Justice ministry—also another ministry expansive patriarchalists are accepting of women in leadership since they categorize this ministry as a care ministry with no authority or decision-making responsibilities over the church’s doctrine.

The only women in our church who have doctrinal oversight are our women elders. However, their role is limited and weakened when “ensuring the church’s teachings and practices reflect accurate biblical theology“. The elder board runs as a governance/policy board and they “delegate to qualified others” many of their responsibilities, including doctrinal responsibility, to paid staff members. Expansive patriarchalists are accepting of women as advisors but not as decision-makers when it comes to doctrine; so, moving to a governance board appeals to expansive patriarchalists because it removes decision-making responsibilities from the elders, specifically women elders, and places those responsibilities on the paid senior staff members who currently are all men who address church doctrine. Even if the board were to not delegate it’s doctrinal responsibilities, the only woman elder who has the gift of teaching is someone whose experience in teaching is financial stewardship, not church doctrine. Based on the brief biographical portraits made public for each elder, it’s impossible to recognize which, if any, elder has the capability to address heresy, specifically heresy propagated by [some] patriarchalists such as the Heresy of [Christological] Subordinationism.

Patriarchalists infiltrating Willow Creek

For years we’ve had patriarchalists infiltrate our church in staff and even in senior leadership positions. I will be writing extensively on those senior leaders I know who teach and advocate patriarchalism and will provide public information by referencing sermons or documents on Willow Creek’s website. I will not disclose information given to me in confidence, which means I will not be writing about all the patriarchalists I am aware of, only of the ones I am able to publicly speak or write about. I have plenty of public information and personal experiences which I will write about that point to patriarchal aspects in our church’s leadership.

Shane Farmer, our former Director of Discipleship, was one of those who deceptively subverted our church’s egalitarian position and taught patriarchalism. Fortunately, he is no longer at Willow Creek; unfortunately, he is senior pastor of a church in Denver, Colorado. I will write a few observations of his subversive methodologies which he employed to teach and model patriarchalism; his methodologies are important to observe because they are actually common among patriarchalists who try to subvert-ly and deceptively infiltrate egalitarian institutions. I am aware of a few egalitarians who raised concerns over Shane’s patriarchal teachings and coupled with his disregard of corrective measures and lack of submission to his superior(s) no doubt played a role in his departure.

Starting with the departure of Shane Farmer and more so in recent months, I have observed that Willow Creek’s senior leadership is increasing its efforts to recognize and correct patriarchalism in our midst, starting from the top. Currently, patriarchalism and even forms of scriptural inaccuracies are traced to our current Teaching Pastor, Steve Carter. As stated previously, in the three years Steve has been at Willow Creek and overseeing Midweek teachings, he has not invited any women teachers but has invited several male patriarchalists to teach. And even though Steve has corrected many of his own patriarchal and inaccurate teachings—no doubt under instruction and correction of his supervisor(s)—he manages to continue to promote forms of patriarchalism in his messages. As Teaching Pastor he plays a significant role in the teaching of doctrine and appears to be first in line to take the senior pastorate after Bill Hybels retires. His position as Teaching Pastor, patriarchal tendencies and deficiencies in understanding scripture have made Steve Carter the primary person I will be writing about in this website.

If Willow Creek were perceived as a patriarchal church, then I would not be writing about Steve Carter nor any other patriarchal aspects at Willow. I would not even be a member of this church. It is because Willow Creek is perceived as an egalitarian church and because I became a member with the understanding that it still is an egalitarian church, despite the warning, that I will be writing extensively about Steve Carter and other patriarchal elements at Willow Creek.

We as egalitarians must come to terms that a church that is egalitarian in perception and on its cover but is patriarchal at its core, is a church that is not egalitarian, but patriarchal. It is a pro-woman and benevolent patriarchal church, at best; but not an egalitarian church.

By accident or by Choice?

Did the current patriarchal core at Willow Creek come about by accident or by choice? Both.

By accident, the lack of discernment and training among staff to distinguish between egalitarian and patriarchal, specifically hierarchical-complementarian, teachings and practices has allowed patriarchalism to infiltrate Willow Creek and even be accepted as ‘egalitarian’. Such is the deceptive aspect of benevolent patriarchy known as hierarchical-complementarianism as advocated by gender-hierarchicalists among the New Calvinists and also most recently among the emergent.

By choice, Willow Creek believes in the fellowship of egalitarians and patriarchalists to worship together as one church. However, to patriarchalists women in senior leadership who have authority and decision-making responsibilities regarding doctrine that affects adult males is a serious offence to their patriarchal doctrine. It’s an offense they are not willing to bend on. Having a patriarchal core at Willow Creek’s leadership is an appeal to patriarchalists as a way to avoid offending their patriarchal doctrine. But as stated earlier, an egalitarian church on the outside with a patriarchal core is not an egalitarian church, but a pro-woman and benevolent patriarchal church at best—and that is an ambiguous and deceptive concept.

Composing a patriarchal core in an egalitarian church in order to appeal to patriarchalists is what I refer to as “The Great Compromise” at Willow Creek.

This is the message, in my own words, that Willow Creek is sending to the women by us having a pro-women and benevolent look with a patriarchal core:

Girls, ladies, women,

We at Willow Creek love you. We love our wives, mothers, sisters, daughters. We know the pain and suffering you are going thru. The world has been violently cruel to you. You can find safety and encouragement in our church from the harsh reality of your everyday life. We seek to empower you and release you to do good works God has prepared for you in advance, here and abroad, for his kingdom and for his glory. And, we will do everything we can to teach the men to cover you and protect you.

However, none of you, not a single one of you, will ever be good enough, mature enough, righteous enough, knowledgeable enough, worthy enough to stand next to our men in a position of authority and decision-making over church doctrine. When it comes time to decide what the bible says, who God is, what God wants us to do as a body of believers, and to disseminate that information to the whole church, and your respective biological families, that decision will be made by only men. You women, not a single one of you, will be part of that decision-making process.

Edited: 6.17.15