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

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