A Review of The Toxic War on Masculinity by Nancy Pearcey
Nancy Pearcey is known for several Christian books related to apologetics and worldview. I enjoyed her book Total Truth (2004), while many readers are likely familiar with Love Thy Body (2018). Pearcey’s latest book, The Toxic War on Masculinity: How Christianity Reconciles the Sexes (Baker, 2023), also has an apologetic angle, as Pearcey seeks to defend Christian men and Christian teaching on the sexes.
Of course, no Christian will have a problem with Pearcey’s goal. God’s design for men and women, marriage, and sexuality is under attack. The promotion of feminism, effeminacy, promiscuity, homosexuality, and transgenderism are wreaking havoc upon our culture. However, in seeking to defend Christianity, Pearcey has unfortunately redefined traditional Christian teaching. She ends up defending a practical egalitarianism, including “progressive” marriage practices that only give lip service to traditional male headship. In doing so, Pearcey lowers the bar for her defense, for she has removed the thing most offensive to feminism—wifely submission. But worse, in defending her compromised position, Pearcey undermines the very thing she seeks to defend, namely Christian teaching.
Rather than interacting with the entirety of The Toxic War on Masculinity, I will focus my review on “Part One: The Good News About Christian Men.” In my opinion, the book improves in Part Two and Three, but I simply cannot overlook how poorly the book starts off. Regarding the Bible’s language of “headship and submission,” Pearcey argues against interpreting this language “through a secular lens of power and control” (15). Rather, she wants to show “the biblical meaning of those terms” (37, 230). In seeking to do so, Pearcey weaves sociological research together with her own biblical commentary. However, both her Scripture interpretations and her portrayal of sociology reveal an egalitarian bent.
Pearcey cites the statistic that 90 percent of evangelical Christians “accept the idea of male authority in the home,” which she labels as “complementarian” (35). However, as becomes clear, these Christians who accept the “idea” or “language” of male authority do not necessarily embrace its practice. Pearcey quotes such persons as even affirming the egalitarian phrase “mutually submissive” (52) and denying that male headship involves a “power hierarchy” (54). While 53 percent of evangelicals are purported to affirm that the husband has the “tie-breaking vote,” Pearcey notes that even this minimal expression of authority is “rarely” practiced and, “remarkably,” most who held this view “could not recall a single instance when this marital chain of command had to be put into play” (58–59). If a husband and wife cannot recall a single instance of even a “tie-breaking vote,” one must question how this qualifies as any form of male headship.
Pearcey concludes that “committed conservative Christian couples use the traditional rhetoric of male headship, yet in practice these men fit the close, relational model favored by progressives” (59).1 Thus, Pearcey acknowledges that many Christians who use the language of “male headship” are practically egalitarians. That may be unsurprising. But what is concerning is that it is this practical egalitarianism that Pearcey is defending.
In fact, Pearcey seems to be in complete agreement with this practice. After referencing 1 Corinthians 7, she positively quotes the egalitarian scholar Philip Payne regarding “The striking egalitarian dynamics of marriage” (64). Pearcey claims that when it comes to parenting, a father and mother have “equal authority,” referencing Ephesians 6:1-2 but leaving out the specific task given to “fathers” in Ephesians 6:4 (65). Pearcey denies that male headship means “ruler over his own household,” and instead she defines headship as “a unique form of responsibility for the good of the family” (55). So Pearcey wants a male headship of responsibility without authority, never explaining how this works theologically or practically. She wants the husband to “take the lead” and ask his wife to “follow” him (55). But the husband dare not rule. He dare not exercise authority over his wife.
Ironically, Pearcey denies the husband’s “rule” but affirms the wife’s “rule” when she appeals to 1 Timothy 5:14 as teaching women are to be “managers” of their homes, saying this means the wife is “a ruler or master” (65). Pearcey adds, “Clearly, he [Paul] is counseling wives and mothers to wield genuine authority within their household” (66). I fully agree that women hold genuine authority in the home. However, the woman’s authority is still under that of her husband. The wife “manages” the home (1 Tim. 5:14; cf. Titus 2:5), where the Greek verb (oikodespoteo) means to “keep house” (BDAG). The husband also “manages” the home as head (1 Tim. 3:4-5, 12; 5:17), where the different Greek verb (proistemi) means to “rule” (BDAG). We must affirm that husbands and wives both hold authority, but the husband holds authority over his wife. The wife is queen, but the husband is king.
Redefining Headship and Submission
In order to defend her “relational model favored by progressives” (i.e., practical egalitarianism), Pearcey seeks to redefine the words “head” and “submit” in the New Testament. She even makes an appeal to the church fathers:
In the early church, several prominent theologians—including Irenaeus, Tertullian, Athanasius, and Cyril of Alexandria—even interpreted the word head to mean source.” (57)
Pearcey’s endnote only quotes one of these church fathers, Athanasius, as stating in De Synodis Anathema, “For the head (which is the source) of all things is the Son, but God is the head (which is the source) of Christ” (298, n25). With this claim, Pearcey touches on a scholarly debate between complementarians (mostly Wayne Grudem) and egalitarians regarding the meaning of “head” (Gk., kephale), which is used in two important passages on marriage (Eph. 5:22-23; Col. 3:18-19). However, Pearcey appears to be siding with the egalitarian camp by claiming “head” means “source.” Yet her evidence is weak, as she provides only one Athanasius quote, and it doesn’t even necessarily exclude the meaning of “rule” from headship. While I think the evidence shows the word “head” connotes authority in the New Testament, I find this debate largely irrelevant because most passages commanding wifely submission do not use the word (Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:1-6).
So then, what does “submission” in marriage mean? Pearcey begins by appealing to the “priesthood of believers” and the Bible’s “one another” commands (Col. 3:16; Gal. 5:13; Rom. 15:7; Gal. 6:2; Heb. 10:24), including the command for Christians to teach “one another” (Col. 3:16). She says, “Whatever interpretation we give to headship and submission, it cannot contradict these fundamental commands given to all Christians” (60). I would also note that whatever interpretation we give to these “one another” commands, it cannot contradict the Bible’s fundamental commands to submit given to all wives.
This brings us to one of those commands found in Ephesians 5:22-24—“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church… Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands” (ESV). Pearcey argues the command for wives to “submit” to husbands in Ephesians 5:22, 24 does not mean “obey,” for the reason that Paul uses the latter word for children and slaves in Ephesians 6:1, 5 (60). While Paul does use different verbs in his commands for wives and children/slaves in Ephesians 5–6, these verbs are used interchangeably elsewhere. In Titus 2, Paul uses the same Greek word for “submit” (hupotasso) for both wives and slaves (Titus 2:5, 9; cf. 1 Pet. 2:18). Peter commands wives to “submit” (hupotasso) to their husbands, followed by an appeal to Sarah’s example when she “obeyed” (hupakouo) Abraham (1 Pet. 3:1, 6). Further, the standard dictionary for the Greek New Testament defines the word for “submit” (hupotasso) as “to cause to be in a submissive relationship, to subject, to subordinate” (BDAG). That same dictionary defines the word for “obey” (hupakouo) as “to follow instructions, obey, follow, be subject to.” Thus, Pearcey makes a distinction without a difference.
Regarding Sarah “obeying” Abraham in 1 Peter 3:6, Pearcey says:
Bear in mind that Peter wrote that statement fully aware that Abraham also obeyed Sarah. For example, God instructed Abraham, “Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you” (Genesis 21:12 ESV). (299, n37)
While buried in an endnote, one would be hard-pressed to find clearer advocacy for the egalitarian doctrine of “mutual submission.” Never mind that Peter never says anything about husbands obeying wives—Pearcey has found egalitarian marriage for us in Genesis 21, where God commanded Abraham to follow Sarah’s specific request to drive away Hagar the slave woman because of the threat of her son Ishmael (Gen. 21:10, 12). However, contrast God’s specific command for Abraham to follow Sarah’s request with Peter’s general command for wives to submit to their husbands (1 Pet. 3:1). Women in particular are to adorn themselves with the “imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit,” which was exemplified by Sarah when she “obeyed” Abraham by “calling him lord” (1 Pet. 3:4-6). Peter teaches us there is a way wives are to act toward husbands that is different from the way husbands are to act toward wives. Husbands must show understanding toward the “weaker vessel” (1 Pet. 3:7), and wives are to submit to and obey their husbands. (Pearcey understands “weaker vessel” to only mean there is a “power disparity” between men and women, denying women are “weaker in character or intelligence” though acknowledging they are “physically weaker” (83–84).)
Pearcey attempts to explain her view of wifely submission via an analogy: “We speak of a consultant who submits a report to a client, or a lawyer who submits arguments in a court case, or an academic paper where a scholar presents a theory by writing, ‘I submit to you that…’” Pearcey concludes, “In all these usages, the word means to offer your best insights for another person’s consideration and judgment.” She adds, “A person who thinks submission means to be quiet and go along is actually holding back and not contributing to the good of the other person” (61). Now, it is not that Pearcey is wrong to say wives should speak to their husbands and even give their opinions at times. Rather, it is that Pearcey does not actually explain how the wife is to act differently from her husband. Her entire explanation of wifely submission leaves no room for male rule in the home.
If someone studies 20th-century liberal theology, he or she will soon realize one of the problems was liberal proponents affirmed traditional Christian language while redefining it. I fear we are seeing the same thing today with the Bible’s language of male “headship” and wifely “submission.” Pearcey may call herself a “complementarian,” but she has redefined biblical language with egalitarian concepts.
To drive home this point, contrast Pearcey’s comments with those of Reformed theologians of old, such as Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575), who said in his Decades, “Let the husband be the head of the wife… her ruler and guide,” and, “Let the wife… yield herself to her husband to be ruled and governed; let her not despise his honest counsels and indifferent commandments.”2 Or consider John Calvin (1509–1564), who explained that woman is not a “slave” but a “partner” for her husband joined “by holy friendship,”3 yet also taught marital authority and submission—“Let the husband rule, so as to be the head, and not the tyrant, of his wife; and let the woman, on the other hand, yield modestly to his commands.”4
Ironically, Pearcey quotes William Perkins and William Gouge regarding the goodness of sex and marriage (78–79). Yet Perkins (1558–1602) taught that the husband “bears rule” and that the wife’s duties are to “reverence him [her husband] as her head in all things,” as well as “to be obedient unto her husband in all things; that is, wholly to depend upon him, both in judgment and will.”5 Gouge (1575–1653), the author of the now politically-incorrect Of Domesticall Duties (1622), recognized some women have a “proud spirit” and “must rule or else they think themselves slaves.” However, Gouge says such women “oppose God’s ordinance, pervert the order of nature, deface the image of Christ, overthrow the ground of all duty, hinder the good of the family, become a bad example to children and servants, lay themselves open to Satan, and bring much other trouble which cannot but follow upon the violating of this main duty of obedience.”6
Male Rule Rooted in the Fall?
In addition to filling “headship” and “submission” with egalitarian meaning, there is also reason to think Pearcey denies that male headship existed prior to the fall. She claims the Hebrew word “helper” (ezer) for Eve in Genesis 2:18 does not “imply an inferior or subordinate position.” Her reasoning is that the term elsewhere is used for God (who is clearly not subordinate) and is used in military contexts for other humans (though I will note these are always men). Pearcey thinks the word is best rendered “ally,” even claiming the “term has been totally mangled into helpmeet or even helpmate” (82). Yet while “helpmeet” is old language combined from the translation “help meet for him” (KJV), the concept is entirely correct. The context of Genesis, as well as the rest of Scripture, explains how woman is a “helper,” as she was created for man (Gen. 2:18; 1 Cor. 11:9) with her work directed toward children and the home (Gen. 3:16, 20; Titus 2:5; 1 Tim. 5:14). God created woman as a helper for her husband and placed her under his authority (i.e., subordinate). That is why the husband is to provide for and protect his wife, and why the wife is to submit to her husband.
Pearcey even takes up the difficult passage of Genesis 3:16: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (LSB). She calls Genesis 3:16 a “key verse” for understanding the fall’s effect on the relationship between men and women, saying it teaches that “a husband will seek to have dominion over his wife as though she were part of the created order that both were originally given dominion over” (29). This sentence reveals that Pearcey pits man’s post-fall rule over woman in Genesis 3:16 against God’s pre-fall command for both man and woman to “rule” over creation in Genesis 1:28 (28). However, in addition to there being different Hebrew words translated “rule” in these two passages, we need not assume an egalitarian Cultural Mandate. If male headship existed pre-fall (as I contend), then man and woman were to rule over creation together, with the husband as king and his wife as queen.
In an endnote, Pearcey criticizes the common view of Genesis 3:16 (advanced by Susan Foh and followed by the ESV) that wives seek to undermine their husband’s authority. Pearcey’s criticism is that this interpretation means the judgment was on the man, when the context is judgment directed at the woman (294, n44). While I agree with Pearcey’s point here, the problem is she seems to take the position that man’s “rule” in marriage is a result of the fall rather than being rooted in creation. This is a position advanced by egalitarians (e.g., Craig Keener, Richard Davidson), as they in turn argue that Christ’s redemption overcomes the male headship rooted in the fall and restores the egalitarian creational ideal.
My position, following most of the Reformers and Reformed orthodox, is that male rule is rooted in creation and that Genesis 3:16 teaches such male rule in marriage is often harsher as a result of sin and the fall (see Masculine Christianity, pp. 119–137). Similarly, Calvin said that apart from the fall, women would still have been “subordinate” to men, but now it is a rule that can at times feel like “bondage.”7 Pearcey is out of her wheelhouse here, and whether she realizes it or not, she is advancing egalitarian theology.
Pearcey’s feminism rears its head in other areas beyond male headship. She rightly bewails that men are “falling behind in higher education,” with women more likely to earn a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree, as well as enter professional fields. However, Pearcey adds a qualification when she says, “Of course, it’s wonderful that girls and young women are racing forward academically” (24). This brief statement suggests Pearcey is oblivious to the connection between women “racing forward” and men “falling behind.” She wants equality in academic programs, but it is this very equality that has created an effeminate academic environment that pushes men away (not to mention affirmative action favoring women). Pearcey here assumes feminist premises without acknowledging their consequences.
Notice she is not praising women’s education but women’s academic advancement, leaving out the fact that the latter is highly correlated with decreasing birth rates. Pearcey recognizes that women devote “a great deal of their time and energy” to childcare because they “get pregnant” (31), but she fails to mention that women tend to not get pregnant when they focus their time and energy on degrees and career pursuits. Women’s academic advancement delays marriage and drives women away from the home. So no, women “racing forward academically” is not wonderful—not if one cares about the future of the world (birth rates) and women carrying out God’s design for them to be mothers.
At the end of the day, The Toxic War on Masculinity is a confused book. It seeks to defend Christian men and Christianity’s teaching by appealing to sociological research and Pearcey’s own biblical interpretations. However, she advocates egalitarian theology under the guise of the biblical language of male headship. Pearcey’s desire to defend Christianity is admirable. Unfortunately, what she defends is something other than traditional Christian theology and practice.
Image Credit: Unsplash
- Rich Lusk has pointed out that Pearcey appears to contradict herself regarding happiness in marriage. She says “a husband’s view of gender roles does not really make much difference in how happy his marriage is” (39), but then she later says, “When a marriage is unhappy, the empirical research is putting the primary responsibility right where God puts it—on the head of the household” (234). ↩
- Heinrich Bullinger, The Decades of Henry Bullinger, ed. Thomas Harding (Cambridge University Press, 1849–1852; repr. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2004), 1:406–407. ↩
- John Calvin, Sermons on Titus, trans. Robert White (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2015), 179. ↩
- John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. William Pringle (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 2:380. Calvin was commenting on Matthew 19:5. ↩
- William Perkins, Christian Oeconomie, or A Short Survey of the Right Manner of Erecting and Ordering a Family, According to the Scriptures, trans. T. Pickering (London: Felix Kyngston, 1609), in The Works of William Perkins, eds. Joseph Pipa and J. Stephen Yuille (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2020), 10:123, 174–175. ↩
- William Gouge, Building a Godly Home: Volum 2: A Holy Vision for a Happy Marriage, eds. Scott Brown and Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013), 119. This second volume is a modernization of the 1622 original, Of Domesticall Duties (treatise 3). ↩
- John Calvin, Sermons on 1 Timothy, trans. Robert White (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2018), 273. ↩