Shepherds and Male Agency

In my translation and examination of 1 Peter 5:1-4 and Acts 20:28, I employed appropriate word choices to accentuate the prominently and distinctly male character of the agency of church elders who shepherd a whole community. This isn’t mere generically male agency but the highly conspicuous agency of virtuous alpha-males who have the most competence-dominance in the whole community.

No single English word exists to encapsulate this idea of competence-dominance (as I’ve borrowed the term from Jordan Peterson). It’s conceived as the skill to ascend the social hierarchy to the place of greatest influential prominence and to maintain that position through well-functioning relationships with those in the group. It’s the path to being the man which all women desire and all men desire to be and to befriend. He who plays fair and enables others to play. He who takes up the cause of the widow and the fatherless. He who seeks true justice for all. He who embraces responsibility for himself and those with whom he stands by bearing up and carrying his cross and the cross of his whole world. In truth, he is the man who, however imperfectly, most approximates Christlikeness.

Our present circumstances under the cultural sway have brought a radically egalitarian influence to bear upon all sectors of society including the church. Much of the efficacy to this comes not so much from any conscious effort on the part of ideologically possessed individuals or interest groups—though there is that—but from systemically deforming tendencies inherent in our culture for a variety of reasons. These have a propensity to neutralize or obscure the significance of constitutive differences between males and females as demographic groups.

It would be grievous negligence, a failure to faithfully shepherd and oversee the flock, if elders were to refrain from declaring the whole counsel of God. Special attention should be given to this point. The watchmen ought to possess the competence to see the threat unambiguously and the courage to blow the trumpet resoundingly.

The combative connotations of rulership language emphasize the spiritually militaristic character of the office. The heavenly culture of the church collides at her peripheries (the frontlines) with diverse hostile cultures that rise and fall in the present world. The elders must lead the charge on these spiritual battlefronts, and elders must hold the walls and defend the gates from worldly and demonic onslaughts.

It is the tribal imagery of the warrior men encircling the camp with their spears aimed outward at the prowling menace. Women holding the center with children huddled and reassured. The work of shepherding the community by guarding its borders requires a form of militaristic agency for which men are designed and are morally responsible to exert. Our Maker has made it so.

“A woman shall not take up a man’s gear.” In Deuteronomy 22:5, the Hebrew word refers to the tools, implements, or combat gear of a man. The text is not so much a prohibition on cross-dressing as a denunciation of cross-functioning in naturally (creationistically) sex-segregated duties. We do not thrust women into combat in this manner, because it would be an “abomination” to our Lord to do so.

This isn’t to say pious women have no place in warfare, especially the spiritual-liturgical warfare of the church. It is to say women function in a different mode of warfare and have different weapons of war. A substantial argument can be made for a biblical motif where pious women are equipped by God with righteous deception as a powerful tool in the war against tyranny and oppression and receive honor and glory for it.

If the imagery of a tribal encampment facing a predator seems too crude, primitive, or distant from contemporary life, the cold reality of the present teaches the same lesson. The safety, security, comfort, and convenience of modern society was established and is maintained through the harrowing exertions of an overwhelmingly male workforce. In our world, the overwhelming majority of active military combatants, field personnel in law enforcement, firefighters and first-responders, coal miners, oilfield and pipeline workers, electric linesmen, construction and demolition workers, fisherman, farmers, and so on are men. One could dare say it would be an even more exclusively male labor force if not for the technological developments of this civilization that was sheltered by the prior exertions of men. Technologies that grant artificially flattened terrain and increased ability to women in these fields.

These men preserve the metaphorical fortifications that surround and protect us from every threat lurking beyond. They sustain our world by the sweat of their brows, the gashes on their hands, the fractures of their bones, the blood pouring from their open wounds, and the tempered steel of their nerves. And then they return to the dust from whence they came in a tragically swift fashion.

The work of shepherding the whole church community is no different. It demands the harsh labors of men to maintain the walls. This is not a matter of muscular physicality, even if that may come to bear on certain occasions. There is an accompanying psychology that is most characteristically prominent in the alpha-male which enables this work. The physicality and the psychology are not flatly and evenly present in all men. And they are not uniformly absent in all women. This is a partially overlapping bimodal distribution, and the extreme male end of the spectrum is in view.

Note carefully how none of these observations reveal men striving to get ahead of women and be the first to lay claim to these brutal forms of servitude. None of these observations argue for men having to strive to attain this role. These observations reveal men to simply possess this sort of agency. To take up the outwardmost positions in the male frontlines of defense is not something that men have to outperform women to achieve. It is simply the way in which men are designed and what they do.

And none of this is a denial of the place and need for women as elders and shepherdesses within the community. In his pastoral Epistle to Titus, the Apostle Paul calls older women (female elders) who possess a pious reputation to lead younger women into similar piety. There is much feeding, tending, and guiding involved in this calling. And it is a duty that men—elders or otherwise—are far less equipped to do for a variety of reasons.

To probe the metaphor of a shepherdess-elder by looking to literal shepherdesses, the Old Testament contains several insightful narratives about women tending to sheep and other livestock. Two highly illustrative cases are Rachel in Genesis 29:1-12 and the daughters of Jethro in Exodus 2:16-20. In both cases, these women led the sheep of their father’s flock to wells and gave them water. To even cite these women and their shepherding is to cite their dependence on men to enable them. In Rachel’s case, she waited each day for a man to remove the heavy cover stone from the mouth of the well. And one fateful day, it was Jacob who removed the cover stone for her. In the case of Jethro’s daughters, they were harassed and driven away from the well by cruel shepherds. But it was Moses who “arose and saved them” and who “delivered [them] out of the hand” of the shepherds. It signified the very same thing in the very same language which Yahweh would accomplish through Moses in delivering his people Israel from Egypt. These women labored faithfully in their particular capacities as those who tended flocks. But their labors depended on men first digging wells, men routinely rolling away heavy cover stones, and men rising up to save and deliver the women from other tyrannical men.

Once more, the point is not to deny the place and the need for godly women as elders and shepherdesses within the community. Nor is it an assertion of comprehensive inferiority in the agency of women. It is a refutation of the place, the propriety, and the plausibility of women as elders over the whole community. They cannot encompass the community as a whole society in a function that is readily interchangeable with men and fundamentally indifferent to gendered agency. Women cannot effectively accomplish the totality of the work of shepherding every segment of the community, because women lack the capacity to shepherd the one critical segment of a comprehensive community that possesses the capacity to shepherd its own: men atop the competence-dominance hierarchy.

The only sort of person that every sort of person in the community of a local church will follow is competent-dominant men. If any other sort of individual is appointed to the most prominent eldership, the compositional breadth of a congregation will assuredly shrink from the slow attrition of such men. They become disinterested and disillusioned. And it’s readily apparent this has, in fact, already occurred in the contemporary Western Church. We can scarcely recognize a virtuous alpha-male as possessing characteristically masculine godliness rather than faulting him for nonconformity to a standard of gender-neutralized or distinctly feminine piety. The lack of strong male leadership is a frequent and growing problem not only in the Western home but in the Western church.

The simple fact that the elders of whole congregations (functioning at the highest levels of prominence in the community) are, must, and will be males is no more coincidental than the simple fact that the Second Person of the Trinity became incarnate as a man. He is the unique Son of God. He is the Head and Savior of the Body. He is the Husband who seeks, saves, and weds the Bride. Jesus Christ is a man. And he is not a man inconsequentially, neither are his representative undershepherds.

Perhaps what this essay has really demonstrated is that the office and function of elder as it is commonly conceived in many local churches and the contemporary Western Church at large is something quite different than what has been envisioned and explained here. And if so, take heed! That is a significant lesson to learn.

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