The Alpha-Male Style in American Evangelicalism

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A historian asks whether a warped view of masculine authority has corrupted our faith and political witness.

As a recent college graduate in 1983, I sat spellbound with thousands in my southern city civic center, mesmerized by a mousy man projected on a big screen who taught us we must submit to authority in every domain of life. Authority is God-given, Bill Gothard taught, and in his moral universe, any diversion from obedience disturbed the force and ignited interpersonal conflict, along with personal anger and resentment. Gothard’s principles for life’s dilemmas included specific practices based on the Bible. Obedience begets blessings, peace of mind, and confidence in one’s relationship with God.

Specifically, Gothard directed us to seek out those we’d offended and ask forgiveness. Past conflict clogged up one’s conscience. To be released from former transgressions freed us for future treasure, or something like that.

My mind immediately went to a high-school girlfriend I’d heartlessly dumped as I made my way to college four years prior. Gothard offered a script of contrition, so I looked up her phone number, dialed, and read my repentance. Needless to say, she was nonplussed and wondered why in the world I was calling. I told her about the seminar, about obedience and the blessings that awaited us both if she’d obey and forgive me. Moreover, God structured things such that she actually had to forgive me since she was a woman and I was a man. It was how authority in the universe supposedly worked.

Fast forward 20 years to a congregation I served as a minister in Boston. We hosted a special event featuring the popular Reformed evangelical pastor John Piper, who like Gothard stressed the importance of obedience in a hierarchical chain of command starting with God and descending to men over …

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