The Manliest Church of All? – My Response to Frederica Mathewes-Green

Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green strikes me as a sincere and eloquent writer. I respect her, but I do not always agree with her. This is one of those times. A Facebook friend posted a link to a well-trafficked article in which Mathewes-Green explains why Orthodoxy is especially attractive to men. Rather than speculate about why men might like the Orthodox Church, she asks them, and then arranges their answers topically. But her suggestions for why Orthodoxy might appeal to men are illogical, silly, dangerous to the heart of Orthodoxy, and maybe even a little bit sinful.

No, no discipline needed here.

The Illogical – The author’s post begs the question. When it comes to words and expressions that are most misused in contemporary English, “begging the question” is right up there with “literally” (e.g. “I literally died”). “Begs the question” does not mean “raises the question.” It means that a point of argument presumes the conclusion, such as saying, “God must exist because the Bible says so.” Asking men what they like about Orthodoxy is the right approach, but the point she wants to prove seems to color her analysis of their responses. Mathewes-Green does not consider that many of the men’s answers might be true for women too. She talks at length about how men like challenge, discipline, and the way Orthodoxy stresses doing over feeling, but none of those traits is exclusively masculine. I see little evidence that women prefer lazily watching chick-flicks to fasting, confession, and prayer. (Consider this example or this one.) I mean, my mom is a world class saber fencer. If you want to tell her that women don’t like challenge and discipline, make sure you are standing at least 10 feet away and wearing good running shoes first.

Impressive! (via Wikimedia Commons)
Okay! That is impressive! (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Silly – Why might some men be attracted to Orthodoxy? According to one of her respondents, “Beards!” … Beards? Really? … It is true that our priests tend to have facial hair. I also concede that the tones of the church have fewer highs and lows, which can make them easier for men to sing. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that maybe if you became Orthodox because you like beards and baritones, you are probably in it for the wrong reasons.

The Dangerous – To be fair, I should clarify that I object more to the comments of the author’s respondents than anything she says, but she does have responsibility for the words she quoted. Right after the “Beards!” comment, someone else says of the Orthodox Church, “It’s the last place in the world men aren’t told they’re evil simply for being men.” I think that person should probably go to different places. Or maybe he needs to be nicer to his barista. I’ve been called evil before, but nobody has ever spat in my latte just for being a man. This post may inadvertently give voice to the male persecution complex one finds among some of the shrillest elements of the Christian and political Right. The Orthodox Church must rise above this narrative. Has anyone ever heard of Mark Driscoll? Let’s not be that!

That's not testosterone you smell in the temple. That's incense! (via Wikimedia Commons)
That’s not testosterone you smell in the temple. That’s incense! (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Sinful – Let me be clear that I am not saying the author is a sinner or that her respondents were sinners. I am saying that this post has the potential to promote pride. Implying that ascetic discipline appeals to the kind of challenge men deeply long for contradicts the point of asceticism itself, which is to eradicate egoism to make more room for God. Fasting and staying awake at all night vigils are not macho, and if we can boast about our asceticism, then we are doing it wrong.

I am a researcher, so I am interested in knowing why, or if, men are more involved in the Orthodox Church than in other faith-communities (though in traditionally Orthodox countries the opposite seems to be the case), but I’d prefer the church not repeat the mistakes of the Church Growth Movement. Implying that certain aspects of Orthodoxy appeal to the “male demographic” comes dangerously close to some of the ill-conceived marketing gimmicks that have turned more than a few evangelical churches into spiritual consumer depots, with franchises and everything! Sociological research is not relevant to our theology. It is possible that a man might come into the Orthodox Church because he was captivated by the priest’s glorious beard, but facial hair cannot create faith. Faith is falling in love, and the church is nothing more than the school of love. Everything else is window dressing.

17 thoughts on “The Manliest Church of All? – My Response to Frederica Mathewes-Green”

  1. I was drawn to Orthodoxy for many of its “manly” aspects. I was very tired to feminine protestantism. I liked the beards, the baritone singing, and the toughness of strict ascetic practices. I’m a manly man. So, there.. Frederica wasn’t exaggerating.

  2. David J Dunn Now who's misusing terms as commonly done? A thing is" problematic" when it doesn't make sense in context, not because problems are created.

    BTW, I noted while still protestant that it was common to hear in a sermon or some teaching about the awful men who didn't support their Women's spiritual endeavors and so forth, or were otherwise wickedly mistreating them, when I in fact was suffering the same in my home from my bride.
    I was like "Dude I'm sitting right her in the front pew."

  3. I have one daughter and three sons; she is the most daring and physical out of all of them. Maybe it is because she is the youngest I don't know. I recognize the lines get blurred. She is also the only one who pretends to care for a stuffed animal like an infant even though they all have loads of them.

    I know we are not bound to strict roles based on biology. If there is anything the Church frees us from it is this. But every culture from every period sees a distinction between the sexes and roles follow close behind. I am all for breaking the mold when necessary, but I see no problem in recognizing a distinction especially in polite social conversation. A commenter in this thread said Frederica's article made it seem that male converts "matter more". This is what is frustrating to me. Men are asked questions about what they like (sure unscientifically) and the answers are used to prop up the church in the eyes of men, because generally, men look for the same thing. So somehow this becomes an attack on women, or a slight, or a disregard.

    Maybe it feels that way to some. I grew up in a family with educated, working women going back to my grandmother's generation. I have received a humanities degree in a public university where I was indoctrinated in feminism. My wife has the same degree as I do and we both work. For me personally, hearing that men have common interests, and they can be fulfilled in a place of worship, is refreshing, and in no way casts women to the side. Nor does it trigger some testosterone filled need for domination of the beardless.

  4. Thank you, Mr. Dunn. Now please don't get me wrong I have a great deal of respect for Presbytera Frederica, but I read that article and was put off. It seems to send the messsage that in the Orthodox Church only the men matter and women do not. I realize that's not true, but that article seems to get interpreted that way when others get ahold of it. Recently, I questioned this at a website that claims to be 'welcoming' people to the Orthodox Church and the preist got very, very nasty and hateful to me and accused me of being a troll and banned me from his group…and all because I asked one simple question. "Do the women not matter?" Sorry, but all this overemphasis on bringing hypermasculinity or hyperfemininity into the Church I just don't understand. We are at Divine Liturgy our focus should be upon worshipping the One true God who made us, "male and female created he them" as it says in Genesis. Also in the New Testament it says we are "neither male nor female in Christ Jesus" so to me any individual or group trying to push one gender at the expense of the other in church? Well, that's just not right. All should feel welcome regardless of what's between their legs.

  5. Hi David. I'm not so sure "beards" is silly. We are lving in a society that loves androgeny. A society that is all mixed up when it comes to gender roles. Women dress like men every day – the crew cut, the business suit. Sometimes I don't know if someone I meet is man or women. When I was studying feminism in college, the one surprising thing the hardline feminists hated me for was my beard. I got repeated demands to shave it off. From 100 meters away, you see me and you know I'm a dude.

  6. Andrew Durand I do not think there is anything wrong with challenge. I think saying, "I will be Orthodox because I like challenge," is problematic because it makes the church into a commodity that conforms to my preferences. I can honestly say that the church's demands upon me, and her grace in accepting my failures to fulfill those demands, is one of the things that made me fall in love with her.

    I am not a strict constructivist in that I am willing to allow biology a role to play in gender roles we end up fulfilling, but confirmation bias is tricky. There may be some evidence that boys have an early object-orientedness whereas girls tend to be subject-oriented from a young age, but it is hard to separate culture from those studies. Consider the fact that before my daughter was even born, she was getting samples of diapers with princesses on them and people were buying her lots of pink outfits and dolls. With my boys, it was trucks and dirt. In other words, I am not saying you are wrong as much as I am saying that I try to be pretty cautious about assigning cultural differences biological (let alone divine!) origins.

    Besides, like I said, women like challenge too. I have no problem with saying the Orthodox Church is challenging. It is! I have a problem with saying that the challenge of the church is what makes it especially attractive to men, both because saying that can promote pride, and also because I know lots of women who relish challenge. (My sister is a retired roller girl who now does aerial gymnastics and obstacle course races.)

    As for it being a jab, my liberal friends say I was being too nice. I came across FMG's article a few years ago. Had I wanted to jab at her, I could have done so then. But…I have also learned there is no way to convince someone else of one's motives, at least not on the Internet.

  7. I agree that competition in the church can be dangerous though a healthy competitive spirit within ourselves can be edifying. And what is wrong with a challenge? I am a convert and before I eagerly sought for a challenge in my church life. Honestly how can we grow if we are not challenged?

    Gender roles may be changing but I believe it is folly to ignore the fundamental differences between men and women. It is good we are moving past the misogynist western culture of recent times but there is a balance to be struck. Frederica, in my opinion, has done an excellent job of seeking this balance. To be honest I felt this article was an unnecessary jab.

  8. Maybe. I think a lot of that is cultural, and a lot of it is changing. Whatever the case may be, though, being Orthodox because one likes challenge and competition is a bit messed up.

  9. Perhaps the strength in Frederica's article is found in her willingness to ask actual men about what they like and not rely on parroting utopian modern feminist ideas about how gender should look. She also did not say men are the only ones who should feel this way. What I have appreciated about Frederica is she is not afraid to point out the very real differences between men and women as a whole. The fact is, generally men like challenging competitive activity on a level different than women generally do. Of course in a world of billions there are millions of exemptions which should be accounted for, but I have always felt comfortable with Frederica because she has told me these "manly" traits are to be admired. And if you do not believe there are those who would say otherwise, well…

  10. As I said on another blog a couple of years ago, I became Orthodox because it is true, not because it is macho. But it's stuff like this that would really make me want to run a mile! However, as an American commentator said in that same discussion, this seems to be a particularly American issue which says more about the issues of some American converts to Orthodoxy than it does about anything else. Which is not to say that such issues are not being exported elsewhere – apparently Mark Driscoll has been to South Africa – but I just hope that we do not see them brought here in the name of Orthodoxy!

  11. And I think the end of her post is most appropriate in clarifying the importance of things:

    "But no secondary thing, no matter how good, can supplant first place.
    'A dangerous life is not the goal. Christ is the goal. A free spirit is not the goal. Christ is the goal. He is the towering figure of history around whom all men and women will eventually gather, to whom every knee will bow, and whom every tongue will confess.'".

  12. As an Orthodox Christian man, I can say that I feel at home in a Church where asceticism, hard work, physical experience, and -yes- beards are the norm. It's beautiful, and I love it. Does that mean that women can't enjoy the same thing? No, of course not, but Kh. Frederica Matthewes-Green did a great thing by explaining some aspects of the attraction to Orthodoxy many men have, in contrast to many Western traditions. She surveyed a group of 100 men and wrote about their responses, she didn't come up with all of this randomly.

    Naturally, if men joined Orthodoxy just to be manly with out the proper focus on Christ, that would be a problem. But I don't think that's what she's advocating here.