Last week there was a considerable amount of conversation generated after multiple screenshots of comments posted in a Facebook group began to circulate on the internet. The name of the group is not important, but both the content in question and the makeup of its members is. In the screenshots, very critical comments were captured about Aimee Byrd, the author of Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. And judging only from the handful I looked at, the comments were obviously intended to mock and belittle. Moreover, they were mostly posted by men.
That men would take to social media to openly mock and ridicule a woman is disturbing, but worse still is the reality that a large number of the members of the Facebook group in which it was posted are pastors and ministers. To be fair, many people are members of discussion groups on Facebook and elsewhere that they never even visit. And some of these groups have such active participation that even those who engage more frequently can’t possibly be held responsible for the content or comments featured in every post.
But with those caveats aside, the issue is bigger than a small number of men attacking a woman on the internet. Consider for a moment, why some would object to Byrd’s work. In her books and other writings, Byrd questions a lot of established norms. Though she remains substantially aligned with more conservative positions on the roles of men and women in the church, her work has challenged practices that (she believes) wrongly portray Scripture’s teaching in this area and stifle the ability of women to utilize the gifts God has blessed them with. And in making her case and criticizing the status quo—specifically among conservative Reformed evangelicals—she has also criticized things this group holds in esteem.
Byrd, for instance, has been a vocal critic of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), which is perhaps the main exponent of complementarian theology. But more than criticizing the organization, she has leveled specific criticisms at the theology undergirding portions of CBMW’s approach to gender roles and has at certain points questioned the orthodoxy of theologians like John Piper and Wayne Grudem.
Markers of fear and immaturity
Anytime a person questions an established norm they can expect pushback. And it’s generally true that the more significant the object of one’s criticism is, the more intense the pushback will be. When it comes to Byrd’s work, I have found myself challenged by her criticisms but largely in step with those she criticizes. But honestly, I wasn’t surprised by the kinds of mean and misogynistic comments that were leveled toward her, not because those kinds of things are acceptable, but because they are easily explained. In this case, the personal attacks that were leveled at Byrd can be explained, at least in part, by the same reasons that similar attacks are often wielded against other women in conservative theological circles.
Belittling, demeaning, or in this case, making a public spectacle of one’s ideological opponent is more than some kind of cathartic exercise. The truth is that all of us are more fragile than we like to pretend. And when we feel attacked, the natural response is to seek to protect ourselves. Often, when we turn to insult rather than engage someone who questions our beliefs, it’s about reassuring ourselves that we have taken up the right cause. Mocking an opponent instead of engaging their ideas is a way of saying to ourselves and those we agree with, “Look at them. They couldn’t possibly be right. Right?”
That kind of behavior is a marker of fear and immaturity. It’s a way to stay safe in the retreat position. Besides, if you never actually engage someone you disagree with, you’ll never lose. Not only that, but sometimes we’re threatened by more than a person’s ideas. Sometimes it’s their popularity we find intimidating. We’re concerned too many people are coming under their influence, so we take every opportunity to tear them down in hopes that others would be too ashamed to be associated with such a controversial person or group.
No pass for disobedience
But whether one is surprised or not by this behavior, the point is that none of this conduct is becoming of a Christian. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught those gathered before him to treat others as they desire to be treated (Matt. 7:12). We know those words as the golden rule. And for most of us, they have grown familiar, as though it were Christianity 101. But what is so interesting to me is that many of us tend to act as though the longer we’ve been in the faith, the less important these “elementary” teachings are. In reality, this could not be further from the truth. A believer never gets a pass for disobedience, no matter how many theology books one has read or acts of service one has rendered.
Byrd deserves an apology. And she’s not the only one. No matter how embattled a person or group may feel, if they claim to be followers of Jesus, there is never just cause to treat another person with anything less than the dignity and respect every image-bearer deserves. If anything, this standard is raised even higher when it comes to our brothers and sisters in Christ (1 John 3:14). And certainly this kind of charity and respectful engagement should be modeled by those in Christian leadership, especially if one believes (as I do) that God reserves specific pastoral and leadership functions for men. Believing this means men are called not only to protect women, but to show honor to them as well. And in this case men failed in spectacular fashion.
Aimee Byrd is not my enemy. She is my sister in Christ, and the cruel treatment she’s been subjected to is wicked and inexcusable. Those with the courage to put forward ideas and offer constructive, if critical, feedback will help make the church stronger. Man or woman, those who would speak and act in good faith, even when it dissents from the status quo, deserve to have their voices heard and their words taken seriously. They don’t deserve to become a punchline, and certainly do not deserved to be mocked or ridiculed on the basis of their sex or appearence.
Seeing this play out on the internet ought to give each of us pause. The sinful desire to mock or shame our opponents is not limited to men or to those with certain theological beliefs. It runs through all of us. We are broken, sinful, and fragile people. We want not only to protect ourselves, but for people to think well of us. But if we are a part of the family of God, we are called to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44) and turn the other cheek when we are wronged or mistreated (Matt. 5:39). And if we can do those things, surely we can love and bear with one another even in the midst of disagreement.