The Common Good
September-October 1997

Danger or Opportunity?

by Duane Shank | September-October 1997

Promise Keepers draws mixed response.

On Saturday, October 4, a mass gathering of Christian men will assemble on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Their theme, "Stand in the Gap," is taken from Ezekiel 22:30: "I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land." The organizers hope it will be a day of prayer, repentance, and reconciliation on behalf of the church and the country.

This assembly is being organized by Promise Keepers. Founded by former Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, the movement has grown from a small gathering in Colorado Springs in 1990 to one capable of filling stadiums around the country. Its focus on men-only gatherings has drawn heavy criticism.

The National Organization of Women recently called Promise Keepers "the greatest danger to women’s rights." An article in The Nation magazine called them "one of the most sophisticated creations of the Religious Right." Other critics have claimed that the organization is simply an attempt to assert male dominance over women, that its talk of racial reconciliation is a cynical ploy to win minorities for the Republican Party, and that the organization is a stalking horse for the political Far Right who dream of a theocratic, Christian nation.

In a society where male irresponsibility, absent fathers, and abused women have reached epidemic proportions, why does an organization committed to honoring Jesus, building strong marriages and families, overcoming racial prejudice, and following the gospel draw such suspicion? Hundreds of thousands of men who have attended Promise Keepers rallies have testified to their changed lives—in new commitments to Christ, new relationships with their wives and families, and new dedication to racial reconciliation. Wives have testified to changed husbands. African-American and white men have formed friendships. Pastors have spoken of renewed participation in congregations and communities. The Promise Keepers rallies have inspired men to take more responsibility for their behavior and their families.

While some of the suspicion comes from mistrust of political motives, a large part is rooted in a secular inability to understand—and at times an active hostility to—the language and style of evangelical Christian ministry. The first of Promise Keepers’ "Seven Promises" is a commitment "to honoring Jesus Christ through worship, prayer, and obedience to His Word, through the power of the Holy Spirit." Promise Keepers, like many other ministries, emphasizes the role of changed individuals as a vital component of social transformation. Our society does not understand that belief.

FOR THOSE OF US who share this commitment, legitimate questions can still be raised in the areas of gender roles, racial issues, and politics. The fourth promise is a commitment to "building strong marriages and families through love, protection, and biblical values" and to "honoring women." Rally speeches and publications put forth an equivocal message regarding male-female relationships. Some speakers talk of men "taking back" a leadership role, referring to Ephesians 5:22 ("Wives, be subject to your husbands"); while others preach on Ephesians 5:21 ("Be subject to one another") and urge men to recognize an "equality of leadership." McCartney speaks of leadership as servanthood. His sendoff at rallies is reported to be, "Men, go home and out-serve your wives."

Reconciliation and healed relationships between men and women are important first steps, but the more fundamental issues of sexism and gender equality in the church and in society must be addressed as well. The advances women have made in the past 30 years cannot and should not be rolled back.

Another key promise is a commitment to "reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity." It is in this area that Promise Keepers has had perhaps its greatest impact. The message that "God’s love breaks down the walls of separation...regardless of race or denomination" has been a powerful catalyst. The prayers and tears among men of all races as they confess the sin of racial prejudice and ask God’s help to overcome it is a significant part of the rallies.

Personal racial reconciliation is a significant first step, but institutional and structural racism that continues to permeate society must be addressed. As McCartney said, "Racism is an insidious monster." McCartney also observed that the major obstacle to racial reconciliation in the church is a spirit of white racial superiority fostered by white churches. How will he and the organization move to address that spirit?

So far Promise Keepers has remained emphatically apolitical. But their stated concern for those who are poor and for transforming the community has obvious political implications. If and when Promise Keepers decides to enter the political arena, will it become an arm of the Religious Right or will it contribute to a new Christian political vision? Even if some questions remain unanswered and future direction remains unclear, a Christian organization dedicated to revival, responsibility, and service should be recognized for its successes and encouraged on its next steps.

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