taking the words of Jesus seriously

Everybody’s talking about this recent Politico article outlining the underbelly of Liberty University President and Trump fanboy Jerry Falwell, Jr., and I figured as the author of a book on Trump-supporting Christians, I should examine this article as well.

It gets a little exhausting detailing the moral downfalls and power-hungry greed of so many prominent male evangelical leaders, and their allegiance to a man that has little to do with the gospel and much to do with money and power. I’m honestly worn out by the theme that plays out no matter what the story is (and usually they rely on a number of anonymous sources, like this one does). Liberals rejoice that another evangelical Trump-supporting leader is proven to be more immoral than advertised, and conservatives yawn: another story from a liberal news outlet written by a liberal author with no named sources.

But hidden within this story is a new truth that I think bears examining. A subplot of the article about Falwell, Jr., is the open disdain the unnamed high-ranking Liberty officials have for Falwell’s wife, Becki.

A little like Serena Joy of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Becki is portrayed as the mastermind and manipulator of power-hungry but dumb Falwell, Jr. It’s a literary trope often employed in American Christian conservative politics and churches — the ironic idea that behind a prominent male evangelical leader is a supposedly subservient wife who’s actually calling all the shots, even when those shots end up diminishing women’s rights and roles in general.

Quoting from the Politico article, a Liberty university official says, “You know, there’s a head of every family, but what turns the head? The neck. She’s the neck that turns the head wherever she wants it.”

This seemingly isolated comment is actually steeped in conservative Christian theology and culture. Many conservative Christians believe in an interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11, a long Pauline discourse that reads, in verse 3: “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of the wife, and God is the head of Christ.”

Complementarian conservative Christians use this verse to understand gender roles in a hierarchical sense, that men are above women as Christ is above men and God is above Christ. They use this gender-based hierarchy to justify denying women the opportunity to preach or teach men in their churches, and they lift up complementarian marriages, where men are supposed to be leaders of the family and have the last say on any family decisions.

Having studied this section of 1 Corinthians in its original Greek during my seminary training and hereafter, I find the complementarian interpretation to be overly simplistic and lacking in context. The rest of this section of the Bible goes on to list Paul’s rules for the Corinthian church about head coverings. Other writings from the time suggest that Paul was seeking to single out an overly loud and disruptive group of women in the Church at Corinth, whose ecstatic outpourings during community gatherings was distracting and disrupting the worship service.

Headship language — and the Greek understanding of head — is also more complex than a simple hierarchical chart. To be the head as Christ is the head is not to rule over, but to manage and lead thoughtfully. The Greeks actually believed that most decision-making power and leadership was based in the gut, not the head. Thus you love the Lord your God, Jesus says, with all your heart, soul, and mind. The soul, for Greeks and likely for the Apostle Paul, was based in the gut — not the head.

But that biblical interpretation and Greek exegesis has not been embraced in the wider American conservative Christian community, and certainly not at Liberty. Thus, Falwell, Jr., is still seen as the head in his marriage, which means he has ultimate power and control.

I have to wonder how that gender-based discrimination and tightly controlled gender role education has impacted Falwell, Jr., his wife Becki, and American conservative Christianity in general. This has much more to do with American Christians than it has to do with Trump, who probably never heard of complementarianism before ascending to the presidency, and perhaps not since.

For a Liberty University official to suggest that Becki is the “neck that turns the head,” reveals a suspicion among American conservative Christians of women’s place in leadership. A powerful woman can only exercise her power secretly in this culture, by attempting to “manipulate” her husband and “turn his head.”

This kind of reasoning is toxic for both men and women. For men, it absolves male Christian leaders who’ve been seduced by power and money away from the gospel of any responsibility for their apostasy. It suggests that Falwell, Jr., a man of great wealth and power, is simply a puppet of his wife’s desire for power and control.

For women, complementarian reasoning reinforces the idea that we must exist in a tightly controlled universe where our options for exercising leadership and power are few. For too long, conservative Christian women with leadership potential have been cast as overly aggressive wives, their only option for control or power being to enrich the riches of their family through enacting the greedy plans of their husbands. Other conservative Christian women with leadership potential become overly domineering homeschool moms or scheming women’s Bible study leaders.

Too often, conservative women like Becki Falwell, who achieve the ends of wealth and power for their family, end up hurting conservative women in general. What if a young Becki Falwell would have been encouraged instead to take her own leadership role in administration at Liberty? Could she have led the campus shrewdly and lifted up other female leaders, rather than exercising her power covertly through a husband who might amass family wealth but otherwise denigrate women and even humiliate Becki through marital infidelity?

The Jesus of the Bible suggests that women are much more than the neck. Women are the messengers and prophets of the resurrection, the first to declare that Jesus is risen. Women are the deacons who support and lead the early church. In the Hebrew Bible, women like Queen Esther save God’s people.

For conservative women to move out of the shadows and work with their conservative Christian husbands, the corrosive effects of complementarian theology must be dismissed and overcome in the churches and universities where men like Falwell, Jr., have perverted the gospel in favor of power, money, and control.

Perhaps that’s the most important lesson that so many are missing in the recent Politico article. But to see it, we have to move past the goal of humiliating Trump to understanding the psychology of his voters, especially conservative Christians.

About The Author


Angela Denker is a Lutheran pastor and veteran journalist. She's written for many publications, including Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Sojourners. She is the author of "Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump" (Fortress Press).

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