The Common Good
January-February 1998

Promise Keepers: Proof-text Poker

by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen | January-February 1998

Where some have found headship, others see equal promise for women and men.

Three days before their October 1997 "Stand in the Gap" gathering on the Washington Mall, I heard Promise Keepers’ CEO Bill McCartney interviewed on National Public Radio. Among other things, he was asked his position on the issue of male headship vs. spousal equality in marriage. With no equivocation or hesitation, McCartney stated, "Almighty God has mandated that the man take the spiritual lead in the home. Isaiah 38:19 says ‘A father to the children shall make known the truth.’" His emphasis made it clear that he saw this text as authorizing fathers to be responsible for mediating God’s teaching to their children in a way that mothers are not.

I recalled that I had heard him appeal to this same text, with precisely the same emphasis, in an August 1995 interview with Time religion editor Richard Ostling. This aired on the (then) MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, and I had taped it for use in my Psychology of Gender class. Since Isaiah 38:19 is not among the texts normally used by gender traditionalists to justify male headship (these come largely from the Pauline and other New Testament epistles), I decided it was time to look up the context of this verse. What I found made me uncertain whether I should laugh or cry.

The book of Isaiah is divided between what are sometimes called "The Book of Judgments" and "The Book of Comforts," and McCartney’s verse (which turns out to be only half a verse) comes near the end of the first of these. In the 39 chapters comprising the Book of Judgments, the prophet Isaiah alternates warnings of judgment and imminent exile to apostate Judah with reassurances that the kingdom will later be restored and blessed. Woven through this, and paralleled in the second books of Kings and Chronicles, is an account of Judah’s King Hezekiah, who has worked against heavy odds to restore true worship patterns among his people, but who is now threatened by attack from the Assyrians without and deadly boils from within his own body.

At the beginning of chapter 38, Isaiah tells Hezekiah to "put [his] house in order," since he is going to die of his sickness. But after Hezekiah pleads with God to remember his obedience, Isaiah revises his prophecy and announces that God will not only add 15 years to Hezekiah’s life, but will also defend Jerusalem from the impending attack of the Assyrians. After his illness abates, Hezekiah launches into a song of praise to God’s faithfulness, among other things reminding God that it is good he remains alive because "the grave cannot praise you; death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness" (Isaiah 38:18).

Then comes Isaiah 38:19, the second half of which is McCartney’s proof-text for husbandly headship, albeit not quoted quite accurately: "The living, the living—they praise you, as I am doing today; fathers tell their children about your faithfulness." Five other translations, both Catholic and Protestant, are largely comparable to the New International Version, although the Revised English Bible connects the two halves of the verse more explicitly by rendering it: "The living, only the living can confess you as I do this day my God, just as a father makes your faithfulness known to his sons."

Either way the message is clear: Hezekiah is grateful to God because while alive he can continue to praise God and teach God’s ways to his children. In no way is this intended as a commentary on male spousal priority regarding the teaching of children, especially when we recall that the Pentateuch speaks consistently of the respect due to fathers and mothers alike, that both the gospels and epistles reaffirm this teaching, and that the book of Proverbs exhorts its listeners at least half a dozen times to heed the specific teachings of mothers.

But Hezekiah’s reprieve, we find out in chapter 39, is only temporary because after his recovery he begins to rub shoulders with Godless foreigners from Babylon. Isaiah’s Book of Judgments ends here, with the prophet announcing that God will continue to spare the kingdom from destruction and exile during Hezekiah’s life, but that some of his own sons will be taken into exile. They will become eunuchs in the palace of the very rulers of Babylon whom Hezekiah has foolishly courted.

But does Hezekiah repent of his apostate flirtation with Babylon and grieve about his sons’ terrible fate? On the contrary, he replies to Isaiah, "The word of the Lord you have spoken is good," and the text adds, "For he thought, ‘There will be peace and security in my lifetime’" (Isaiah 39:8). Biblical scholars tell us that the Hebrew here is somewhat obscure, but the various translations suggest that Hezekiah is simply relieved that he himself will continue to be safe, whatever happens to the next generation.

McCartney’s use of Isaiah 38:19 is thus doubly inappropriate: First, it is not a commentary on fatherly teaching priority in families; and second, even if it were, Hezekiah would be a dubious role model since his final recorded words seem to indicate an indifference to the fate of his children. There is an old evangelical saying to the effect that a text without a context becomes a pretext, and the saying certainly applies to McCartney’s use of this half-verse fragment.

To use the Bible in such a fragmented way—to play a decontextualized game of "proof-text poker" in order to score points for a certain agenda—does not indicate a high view of scripture, notwithstanding PK’s stated adherence to an inerrantist view of the Bible. It is instead a case of using scripture with great disrespect.

But there is more. McCartney’s pronouncement on God’s mandate about male headship is inappropriate for the third reason that PK as an organization claims not even to have an official position on male headship. This is a little-broadcast fact, but it is available to any journalist who has been able to attend a PK press conference (as I have) in conjunction with one of PK’s summer stadium rallies.

I asked PK’s media representatives at the 1996 Pittsburgh rally why it was that some writers in official PK publications read from scripture a view of full gender equality, while others endorsed male headship (albeit of the benign "servant-leadership" variety), and still others quite literally endorsed both positions in different parts of the same article or book chapter. Their response, after what appeared to be a pained pause, was to say that PK has no official stance on the issue of male headship, and that it is not part of their statement of faith. This is the reason why we are getting mixed messages from PK speakers and writers: Because evangelicals with equally high views of scripture differ on this issue, PK does not require them to choose one side or the other.

THAT MALE HEADSHIP is not a confessional issue among evangelicals is certainly true. Even the older and highly gender-traditionalist Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (which publicly claims kinship with Promise Keepers) makes clear in its 1989 manifesto, The Danvers Statement, that its views on male headship in church and family are "affirmations," not doctrines or beliefs that are litmus tests of true Christianity. Indeed, The Danvers Statement is careful to recognize "the genuine evangelical standing of many who do not agree with all of our convictions."

But if this is so, and if PK does not have an official view of male headship in family and/or church, then why is Bill McCartney, as the organization’s CEO, being allowed to speak as if it does? It will not do to reply that McCartney is speaking merely for himself (a dodge he has used when confronted about previous pronouncements on homosexuality). One cannot that glibly separate the pronouncements of a person from the organization he runs, especially when he is being interviewed specifically in that capacity and when, moreover, he does not make a point of distinguishing his personal from his organizational stance during the interview.

The bottom line is that evangelicals are much more divided on this issue than most of the press and the general public realizes. In fact, that division has been the subject of a recent article in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (September 1997), in which sociologist Jon Bartkowski reports on a detailed analysis of more than 30 popular evangelical marriage manuals.

On the one hand, there is the still-hegemonic position that reads male headship back into the creation accounts, finds it magnified in the fall of humankind, sees it affirmed in the Pauline epistles, and concludes that it is an absolute rule for all times and places. On the other hand, there is the approach of the biblical egalitarians, most cogently outlined in the 1989 statement of the organization known as Christians for Biblical Equality. This group emphasizes male-female solidarity and equality in all acts of the biblical drama: creation, fall, redemption, Pentecost, the present church, and the future new heaven and new earth.

LIKE THE PERENNIAL debates on pacifism vs. "just war" participation, strict vs. flexible Sabbath observance, and Christians’ cultural involvement vs. cultural separatism, the debate about gender roles continues to be fraught with ambiguity simply because the Bible itself speaks ambiguously on these issues. It even speaks ambiguously about slavery, an institution whose demise contemporary Christians never question on biblical grounds.

Still, the Bible is neither silent nor hopelessly ambiguous on this matter, but rather is an unfolding drama in which God’s salvation is made available to more and more groups previously considered marginal. Salvation and equality of access to its privileges and responsibilities is not just for Jews, but for non-Jews; not just for free persons, but for slaves; not just for men, but for women—and so on, in keeping with the principle Paul enunciated in his original letter to the Galatians (3:28).

Moreover, the inclusiveness of God’s salvation is not meant to result in an anxious competition for progressively scarcer resources, as if kingdom-building were like a static business with only so many slots available for executives, managers, and lower-level workers. True kingdom-building, according to Jesus, works like yeast. Rather than shrinking the lump of dough, it expands it. It is not a "zero-sum game" in which no one can win without someone else losing. At its best it is a cooperative, or "non-zero-sum," endeavor: The growth of God’s kingdom enhances the growth of each imager of God within it, at the same time as the latter make their individual contributions and sacrifices for the kingdom.

But if I have already acknowledged the Bible’s ambiguity on the headship issue, how can I justify my own confidence that its main thrust is toward the leveling, not the maintenance, of birth-based status differences? Hermeneutics (principles of textual interpretation), not scripture’s infallibility per se, is where subordinationists (those who believe in male headship) and liberationists (those who believe in gender equality) really differ.

For hermeneutical questions include: How is the authority of Jesus related to all of scripture? What is the relationship between divine revelation and the culture in which revelation is given and received? Does scripture mandate, regulate, or challenge certain practices, such as those associated with slavery, war, and the subordination of women?

SUCH "QUESTIONS BEHIND the question" of male headship vs. gender equality are what really divide subordinationists from liberationists. It is not enough for either side to say "I believe the Bible" or "the Bible says." The Bible is a collection of 66 separate books compiled over a period of thousands of years and finalized in its present, canonical form many centuries ago. And it is an incarnate revelation in the sense that it takes seriously the audience, time, and place to which each of its books is addressed.

Certainly its writers are trying to portray the radical "otherness" of God, and of the people whom God calls. This is what one missiologist has called the "pilgrim principle" in scripture: the constant reminder that God’s people, no matter what culture or era they live in, are a "peculiar people" who will always be at odds with the world around them. They will always be judging it by the standards of the new heaven and earth toward which they are traveling.

But this "pilgrim principle" of scripture is in constant, creative tension with what theologian Willard Swartley calls its "missionary principle"—namely the Bible’s constant tailoring of its message to real people in real, culturally diverse situations. Such diversity is a strength of biblical revelation, not a weakness. It is consistent with the nature of God as One who is encountered in the nitty-gritty of human history, both individual and corporate.

Because of the Bible’s strategic diversity (the missionary principle) as well as its movement forward to God’s final kingdom of perfect peace and justice (the pilgrim principle), we may not simply treat it as a "flat book," whose every pronouncement on a given topic is equally authoritative at all times. Indeed, even subordinationists who do try to reduce scripture to a set of timeless, equally authoritative "propositions" do not, in the end, treat all parts of it equally. For if they did, they would have to be no less concerned about the demise of slavery than they are about the demise of male headship.

The early church, even while tolerating slavery for the sake of the missionary principle, pointed to a vision of Christian justice and community that would eventually leave slavery behind. So too, Christian feminists argue, does the Bible point beyond the patriarchy tolerated, yet progressively modulated, throughout salvation history to a vision of mutuality between brothers and sisters in Christ in marriage, church, and society.

I SINCERELY DESIRE dialogue between Christian feminists and those in the PK organization and elsewhere committed to a more "traditional" reading of gender relations. For either side to dismiss or caricature the concerns of the other is not only a breach of essential Christian unity but also a poor witness to the world at large.

However, "traditional" religious interpretations of gender roles are often marked by contradictions in practice. Christians past and present have disagreed about the actual qualities that should characterize male headship, even when they have agreed that it is normative. Unless we reject the "flat book" approach to scripture, who is to say that present views of male headship as loving "servant-leadership" are more biblical than the older view that women must be punitively controlled because it was through them that sin entered the world?

This is an important point, because Christians who do endorse male headship tend to agree that even if it remains operative nowhere else in the world, it is operative in marriage. But when surveys of the prevalence of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse are done among Christian groups, the rate of abuse is no different than that of the general population. We would expect, at the very least, a lower rate of wife abuse among Christian men, who presumably know more clearly than non-Christians just how fallen they are and how much they need God’s help to keep their violence in check. But this is not the case. It would seem that for some Christian men punitive headship is the normative doctrine.

Hence the doctrine of husbandly headship, whether defined as part of the creation order or merely a necessity in the wake of the Fall, seems to many Christian feminists to be a case of putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop. For even those interpreters who make husbandly headship a temporary way of maintaining order in a fallen world leave unexplained why the greater authority should be given to the more violence-prone member of the human pair.

What this points to is a guiding principle for all Christians (including Promise Keepers and Christian feminists): We need to test the degree to which our ideologies warp our readings of scripture. That test, suggested by theologian Willard Swartley, is our willingness to be changed by what we read, to let the Bible function as a "window" through which we see beyond self-interested ideologies, rather than a "mirror" that simply reflects back to us what we want it to show.

When all is said and done, the struggle for Christian freedom is not between men and women, nor even between feminists and traditionalists. The struggle is within each one of us, male or female, between the old person and the new person, between the flesh and the Spirit, between the impulse to be first among all and the call to become the servant of many.

Debates about sex and gender will be around for a long time to come, with or without the Promise Keepers, both in the community of the church and the community of social science. And long after our current questions have been settled or forgotten, the radical words of Jesus to his followers, both women and men, will ring down through history from the gospel of John: "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it cannot bear fruit." This is a saying that will rightly continue to offend us all.

MARY STEWART VAN LEEUWEN is professor of psychology and philosophy and resident scholar at the Center for Christian Women in Leadership at Eastern College in St. David’s, Pennsylvania. With Anne Carr, she is the editor of

Religion, Feminism, and the Family (Westminster/John Knox, 1996). Portions of this article are adapted from the author’s earlier work, Gender and Grace (InterVarsity Press, 1990).
Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)