An Email Exchange About the Book

What follows is an exchange between myself and Rev. John Mahaffy, an OPC pastor who had some problems with our book, It’s Good To Be A Man. I’m posting the full exchange here, as it may be helpful to others. I’m happy that he contacted me, and that I got a chance to respond.

The exchange actually started via a contact who relayed the initial criticism to me. This was as follows:

John Mahaffy

I suspect that Michael Foster and I are far enough apart in our views that a conversation won’t resolve our differences. However, if I had the opportunity to communicate, either by phone or email, I’d ask two questions:

In Chapter 4 of IGTBAM I read: “The Westminster Shorter Catechism speaks of the husband as superior to the wife, and of lay people as inferior to their leaders.” Foster, Michael; Tennant, Dominic Bnonn. It’s Good to Be a Man: A Handbook for Godly Masculinity (p. 39). Canon Press. Kindle Edition.

My inquiry: in which Q&A does the WSC speak of “the husband as superior to the wife, and of lay people as inferior to their leaders”? I can’t find it.

As I read through the book and even search for the word “love,” I find no place where husbands are told to love their wives. Am I overlooking something, or is that encouragement missing from a book whose subtitle is “A Handbook for Godly Masculinity”?

Michael's avatar Michael Foster

Dear John,

I highly doubt that two men who subscribe to the Westminster Standards are that far apart. And, even if we are, I’d think we could just respectfully disagree.

I’m happy to answer your questions.

First, the Larger Catechism has proof texts to support its doctrinal summaries. As I recall, the Divines were required by parliament to provide them. You find the same proof texts in the Larger Catechism provided by the OPC here. I encourage everyone when they study the Standards to look at the various proof texts to see how they build their arguments.

Q. 129 asks, “What is required of superiors towards their inferiors?” It cites, among others, these proof texts:

Col 3:19 “Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.”

1 Peter 3:7 “Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.”

They made it clear by citing these marriage relationship texts that they saw husbands as superiors (in rank, not essence) owing their wives loving care. Interestingly enough, none of the proof texts cited to support the duties and sins of equals in Q. 131 and 132 have to do with the marriage relationship. I prefer William Gouge’s (a Westminster Divine himself) view of wives as a “near equal.” It’s closer to the reality of a healthy marriage.

The point we were making in the chapter had to do with rank, not essence. Women aren’t ontologically inferior to men. Headship and submission isn’t due to women being lesser or men being greater. It’s simply part of our God’s created order. The OPC had a helpful article on this here. I see nothing I disagree with in it.

Why do you think the Divines cited husband-wife relationship texts in WLC questions on superior-inferior relationships? Do the proof texts have no relevance to how we interpret their intent?

Second, our book isn’t about marriage. In the introduction, we write:

This is not a book about getting a girl. It is not a book about being a husband. It is not a book about being a father. It is a book about being a man. All of those other things are important to manhood, but if you don’t understand what men are made for, and how God intends you to become great at being a man, none of them will matter.

That’s why we spend 13 chapters on sinful and redeemed manifestations of masculinity. It’s only in Chapter 14 that we begin to directly address marriage relationships and even then it’s cursory. We don’t even touch on headship and submission in that chapter. It really focuses on the motives and expectations of marriage.

We do, however, say this in Chapter 3: “households [are] the total sum of a husband and wife’s fruitful work, bound together by covenant love.” And again in Chapter 14: “The covenant love within marriage certainly does involve romance, but it is the covenant that sanctifies the sex, not the romance.”

The idea, which some put forward, that we believe that women are ontologically inferior sex slaves that merely exist to serve a cold husband’s every want and desire is foreign from our book. It’s fiction that is at odds with what we actually have written. In chapter 14, we champion that rare gift of a godly wife and confront those who “infantilize and vilify” women. We write:

All this is just another application of the principle we have seen before, that the greater and more glorious something is made to be, the more destructive and awful it becomes when perverted by sin. Many so-called patriarchalists, overreacting to real perversions, seem to doubt that good women actually exist—let alone great ones. At best, they will grant feminine virtue on paper; but what they allow in principle they deny in practice, generalizing all women into a negative average. The common AWALT trope—“all women are like that”—infantilizes and vilifies them as a sex, and refuses to endorse marriage because of some assumed probability of a negative outcome. But Scripture affirms that the only reason it is possible for women to be so appalling, so worthy of contempt, the cause of such bitterness, and the bringers of such ill repute upon their sex…is because God made them to be the glory of man—the very pinnacle of creation—and that such glorious women really do exist.

An excellent wife is a truly great blessing, a truly glorious crown in whom a husband can rejoice and boast before kings…

Our book isn’t a systematic theology of inter-sexual relationships. We were trying to respond to specific issues we saw related to manhood right now. Our aim was to write a timely but not a timeless book. I hope this addresses those questions.

May the Lord bless your work in the Word and Sacraments tomorrow!

Warmly,
Michael

John Mahaffy

Good afternoon, Michael. I hope you had a good Lord’s Day. I know that you and I share a deep concern that our society has moved and continues to move away from God in rebellion. There are elements of the feminist movement that give clear expression to that. Where you and I differ is whether or not patriarchy is the appropriate remedy. Our correspondence is, hopefully, building bridges between us. But from my perspective, patriarchy is a bridge too far!

I know that you told [redacted] that you didn’t want to get into a debate, and I do doubt that we would convince each other. While I have not yet made a final decision, I am working on a draft of what might turn into a blog post. As you might guess, the reference to the Shorter Catechism is one point of concern. I found it helpful that you clearly reject the view that women are ontologically inferior to men. However, we are not yet on the same page.

I would not quote private correspondence in public without asking. Thus, I am requesting your permission, should I post my thoughts on the book, to quote a few sentences from your email to me. So you can see what I am suggesting, the attachment includes my paragraph relating to the Shorter Catechism, and then a (probably too long) excursus dealing with how the catechisms treat superiors, inferiors, and equals. That, as you can see, is were I am asking permission to quote you. I do not expect that you will agree with my conclusions, but I am concerned to represent you fairly.

Thank you for considering my request!

Then he posted a document:

Basic accuracy is lacking at times. On page 39 the authors state: “The Westminster Shorter Catechism speaks of the husband as superior to the wife, and of lay people as inferior to their leaders.” While Q 63 speaks of “preserving the honor, and performing the duties, belonging to every one in their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors, or equals,” neither that answer, nor any other in the catechism describes “the husband as superior to the wife” or “lay people as inferior to their leaders.” The book is appealing to the Shorter Catechism for support of the authors’ patriarchal position, but the Catechism simply does not say what they claim it does.See the “Excursus on the Fifth Commandment” at the end of this post for further treatment of this issue.


Excursus on the Fifth Commandment.

A friend, knowing that I was concerned about the book, put me in touch with one of the authors, Michael Foster, and we exchanged a couple of emails. Mr. Foster responded graciously to my concern about the reference to the Shorter Catechism mentioned above. He suggested that the proof texts cited in support of Q. 129 of the Larger Catechism, which deals with the responsibilities of superiors, include Colossians 3:19 (calling husbands to love their wives) and 1 Peter 3:7 (commanding husbands to honor their wives as the weaker vessel) show that the authors of the catechisms “made it clear by citing these marriage relationship texts that they saw husbands as superiors (in rank, not essence) owing their wives loving care” [personal correspondence, January 29, 2022, quoted with permission {assuming that permission is granted}]. He continues: “The point we were making in the chapter had to do with rank, not essence. Women aren’t ontologically inferior to men. Headship and submission isn’t due to women being lesser or men being greater. It’s simply part of our God’s created order.”

I am thankful that Mr. Foster clearly affirms that women are not ontologically inferior to men. Would that more of those in patriarchal circles would agree. The position he espouses, however, still appears to me to go beyond Scripture’s instruction to husbands and wives. In Ephesians 5:21 all believers are called to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In the verses that follow, the shape of that submission is spelled out for various groups, wives and husbands (but ultimately Paul is speaking of the great mystery of the relationship between Christ and his church), children and parents, and finally slaves and masters. For Mr. Foster, the superiority and inferiority, while not based on essence, has “to do with rank,” and is “simply part of our God’s created order.” In IGTBAM the principle is taken beyond the marriage relationship to males and females in general: “And when God divides the woman from the man, the woman is also over the earth, but the man is over the woman.” (p. 40)

I believe that God’s Word calls wives to submit to their husbands and husbands to love their wives. I do subscribe to the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. But their treatment of relationships under the Fifth Commandment requires far more nuance than IGTBAM displays. To give a hypothetical example, suppose that a woman in the church I serve were a judge in the district court in my county. Were I to visit her courtroom, I, along with others, would rise when she entered the courtroom. In that setting she is my superior. My rising is not just tradition, it is obedience to Paul’s command to submit and give honor to those in authority over us (Romans 13:1, 7). By the way, I would consider myself under no obligation to counsel her to leave her position of leadership as a judge on the grounds that she is a woman. Rather, I would be thankful that a godly Christian has an opportunity to serve in that position. Were I to address her in her courtroom, it would be as “your honor.” In the context of the church, when the same woman worships and receives the ministry of the Word with gladness, I believe that she would be obeying the command of Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.”

After the service we would appropriately address each other by first names. In the different settings the judge and I would at points, be acting as each other’s superior or inferior or as equals. Obedience to God in the particular relationships in which places us, rather than ontology or order of rank determines how our conformity to the Fifth Commandment plays out.

Perhaps, rather than focusing on the Catechisms’ exposition of the Fifth Commandment to defend the supposed superiority (in rank) of men over women, those supporting patriarchy might remember that Q. 130 of the Larger Catechism warns superiors against the sin of “an inordinate seeking of themselves, their own glory, ease, profit, or pleasure…”

Michael's avatar Michael Foster

Dear John,

I missed that we had the Shorter Catechism listed during the editorial process. The reference was supposed to be the Larger Catechism. I’ll have them correct it. It’s an unfortunate mistake. Regardless, the Shorter Catechism was based on the Larger Catechism and it even refers to the marriage-relationship with a proof-text.

There are some things that need correcting in your Excursus on the Fifth Commandment. So I appreciate the opportunity.

You write:

In IGTBAM the principle is taken beyond the marriage relationship to males and females in general: “And when God divides the woman from the man, the woman is also over the earth, but the man is over the woman.” (p. 40)

First, that quote is on p. 47.

Second, the principle here is very much contained within marriage. The pages leading up to this are clearly referring to Genesis 1 and 3. And all you have to do is read your citation in the paragraph:

Hence, when God divides the man from the earth, the man is over the earth—and God is over the man. This is the structure of the relationship between God’s place, man’s place, and the earth’s place. And when God divides the woman from the man, the woman is also over the earth, but the man is over the woman. “Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ…for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake” (1 Corinthians 11:3, 9). Authority flows downward from God, to Christ, to man, to his wife. When you hear that archaic saying that “a man should know his place”—or, heaven forbid, when someone dares suggest the same of a woman—you are hearing a statement of God’s original design. That statement may or may not be correct in assuming what the right place is; but it is entirely correct in assuming that both man and woman have a place—and our fellowship, joy, and productivity are found in knowing and keeping it. The Fall itself can be aptly summarized as woman not knowing her place, and man not keeping his.

What is the context? We are clear: “Authority flows downward from God, to Christ, to man, to his wife.” It says “wife.” So the earlier usage of “man” and “woman” in the paragraph is referring to Adam and Eve. This is how Genesis 1 and the first half of 2 refers to our first parents. I don’t believe or teach that all women are under all men. Never is that stated in this book and I’ve publicly been teaching otherwise for decades.

You finish your Excursus with, “those supporting patriarchy might remember that Q. 130 of the Larger Catechism warns superiors against the sin of “an inordinate seeking of themselves, their own glory, ease, profit, or pleasure….”

That would be a misrepresentation of our book. Here are just a few quotes:

We are against self-glory:

Put simply, if you follow the flesh and work for your own glory, you will reap what you sow, and discover just how inglorious your flesh is.

We are against a life of ease:

We know many men with great skill and talent, who nonetheless achieve little because they will not work. And we know many other men who have achieved great mastery, but over worthless things. What God wants, more than genius, is simple willingness to work hard where he has placed you.

We are against inordinate pleasure seeking:

We are the ones who must refuse to be turned aside to their will by deception and gaslighting, refuse to be numbed by their offers of cheap pleasure, and refuse to be cowed by their intimidation and oppression.

We are against the love of money:

Masculinity, because it was created as a powerful force for good, can be twisted by sin into a powerful force for evil. The drive to subdue and rule can be twisted into tyranny, into needless violence, and into a love of money. And that is shameful.

Moreover, we actually cited WLC 124 and apply it to disrespectful young men:

As the Westminster Larger Catechism observes, “By father and mother, in the fifth commandment, are meant, not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.” (Question 124)

We have argued at length that the modern world hates hierarchy. Many of the men we speak to are highly receptive to hearing this—as long as we only speak of how wicked and Satanic it is to blur the hierarchy between man and woman. They are much less eager to hear the same thing about flattening the hierarchies between old and young. But the principle is identical, and so the question is simple: do you flatten out age-status in order to treat your elders as equals? Do you speak to them like they’re your buddies or your bros? Or are you even a straight-up punk, treating them as inferiors? Do you presume to mock them or rebuke them (cf. 2 Kings 2:23–24), or do you show them honor?

Even Timothy, directly commissioned by the apostle Paul to straighten out the false teaching in Ephesus, was told, “Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father” (1 Timothy 5:1). God represents his fatherhood through the created order, and how a younger man speaks to the older men in his life reflects how he treats God in his heart.

Again, thank you for the opportunity to correct the errors.

One last thing. I’m a little baffled by you saying, “the supposed superiority (in rank) of men over women.” Neither men nor women are ontologically superior or inferior. In essence, they are equal. The WLC exposition of the Fifth Commandment has to refer to economic relationships. So superiors, inferiors, and equals have to be about rank and not ontology. Obviously, a husband as a head is only economically superior to his economically inferior wife. We would not, however, say a man is economically superior to just any woman. Quite the opposite, many men and many women have an economically equal relationship. So I can only conclude that you aren’t denying “rank” (I doubt you took that exception to the WLC) but rather the mistaken conclusion that we believe all men are over all women. Am I wrong?

If you post your review somewhere that is ecclesiastical in nature, I would rather you refer to me as Rev. or Pastor Foster than Mr. Foster.

Thank you!

John Mahaffy

Dear Michael,

Thank you for your message of January 31. Like you, I have a church to serve, and this correspondence takes a back seat to that for both of us. Several points:

1) Thank you for clarifying that the intended reference was to the Larger Catechism, not the Shorter. I’ll make that clear if I post anything mentioning that passage.

2) You are correct that the reference on p. 40 (or 47, depending on the edition) refers to the created order in the first marriage. I am taking note of that emphasis. And I am very glad to hear that you specifically reject the notion that all women are under all men. Yet I still see a strong tension between that and the claim in the book that all leadership is exclusively male. Similarly, I find myself struggling to see that your emphasis on subordinate rank for women gives much room for exercising the dominion that God gave to both Adam and Eve. But I doubt we’ll persuade each other.

3) I have removed from my draft the final paragraph of the excursus to which you take exception. I still believe what I wrote, but was thinking not so much of the book but of various supporters of patriarchy, including some in my own denomination and even your co-author. But including the paragraph in this context would look like I was targeting the book with that concern, so I have removed it.

4) In terms of how I refer to you (and if I publish it would likely be on my personal webpage, which is not an ecclesiastical one), I have modified the document, and the first time your name is mentioned I identify you as “one of the authors, the Rev. Michael Foster, pastor of East River Church (CREC) in Batavia, Ohio.” Thereafter it is Mr. Foster. Is that correct, and is that satisfactory to you?

5) Finally, do I have your permission to quote from your emails in the way I indicated? Without your permission I believe I would be free to state that we had exchanged emails, and I could try to summarize the points you made that I thought were relevant to the discussion. Quoting is more accurate and leaves less room for misunderstanding. I do not believe that my quoting you implies that you agree with me!

Thank you, Michael, for these interchanges (and [redacted], for facilitating them).

Michael's avatar Michael Foster

Dear John,

1) I appreciate that.

2 & 3) You said, “Similarly, I find myself struggling to see that your emphasis on subordinate rank for women gives much room for exercising the dominion that God gave to both Adam and Eve.”

You struggle to see it because it’s barely dealt with in this book. In these emails, I observed you mostly dealing with what this book isn’t saying as opposed to what it is saying. We’ve clearly stated this isn’t a book on dating or marriage. Moreover, we say this when we finally get to marriage in Chapter 14:

Together, they supply what the other lacks, and perfect the other’s natural virtues, duties, and abilities, to bring right order to every sphere of life. The picture is of two facing parts which, while functional and complete in themselves, also fit together in such a way that they become a greater whole. Alone, neither one of them can carry God’s dominion into the world. Together, they can—by filling out what the other lacks. So it is not a question of finding a missing half—it is a question of finding a complementary help. There is nothing missing or incomplete in the man as a person; rather, there is something missing and incomplete in what he can achieve alone. The same is true of the woman.

Dominion, rightly understood, is for mankind. It’s not just males but it’s for both sexes. That’s what we teach in the book and elsewhere. It shouldn’t be hard to understand how members within a hierarchy express and accomplish the overall mission together.

This is the third time you’ve said something like, “But I doubt we’ll persuade each other.” I’m involved in this conversation as a matter of good faith. I’m hoping we can close the distance and, while still disagreeing, move towards one another. Your repeated refrain strikes me as a tell. It seems that you aren’t interested in reciprocity.

You said, “I have removed from my draft the final paragraph of the excursus to which you take exception. I still believe what I wrote, but was thinking not so much of the book but of various supporters of patriarchy, including some in my own denomination and even your co-author.”

This is a refreshingly honest admission and another tell. You’re reading this book through a lens. You aren’t judging it on its own merits and you’re assuming nefarious subtext.

This would explain your egregious error in claiming that the quote on p. 40 (Kindle) is us taking the principle of hierarchy “beyond the marriage relationship to males and females in general.” It is in a chapter focused on Genesis 1–3. It specifically and obviously says that it is in the context of marriage. I assume you have training in the original languages, hermeneutics, and exegesis. Your calling requires that you read and interpret texts. As I understand it, you are much my senior and an experienced expositor.

So how could a man of your ability and station miss something that is so clear?

You did say in the original email that “as I read through the book and even search for the word ‘love,’ I find no place where husbands are told to love their wives.” If you had read the introduction carefully, that wouldn’t have surprised you. Again, this comes back to your admission, “[I] was thinking not so much of the book but of various supporters of patriarchy, including some in my own denomination and even your co-author.”

The small amount of your scholarship I’ve seen is sloppy to say the least. I don’t think you’ve read this book closely. It seems likely that you searched for key phrases and words as you said you did with “submission.” And then from this you’ve attempted to construct an argument against the “various supporters of patriarchy, including some in my own denomination and even your co-author” that you had in mind.

I hope this isn’t the case.

I’m not part of some “patriarchy movement” with set tenets. We call our view gendered piety. I’m a critic of egalitarianism, complementarianism, and something you might call hyper-patriarchy. I’m trying to move the larger conversation in a different and more productive direction. Yet I fear your review will be more of the same.

4) That is fine. Thank you.

5) You have my permission.

Sincerely,

Michael

Michael's avatar Michael Foster

Dear John,

I just finished reading it. It was a dishonest and lazy review. Here is just one example:

IGTBAM tends to paint with a broad brush, using emotive, pejorative terms with some frequency, such as “white knights” and “loud woman.”

The “loud woman” is a category we take directly from Scripture. That’s was very clear:

Immodesty characterized not through dress, but through words and deeds: “She is loud and stubborn; her feet do not stay at home” (Proverbs 7:11). (IGTBAM p. 63 Kindle)

Our further comments on the “loud woman” depend heavily on Matthew Henry and Keil and Delitzsch’s commentary. I get why you want this to be pejorative and not a Scriptural category. You want to depict us as misogynist and you’re willing to massage the truth towards the end.

Our full email communication will be posted later today on our website. It won’t be edited in any way with the exception of any direct reference to our mutual friend or telephone/email address info. I want people to see that I have been willing to engage with you and how obvious your narrative spinning was from the get-go. If time permits, I will preface the communication with a link to your review and a few comments in response.

It’s very disappointing, brother. I do pray that the Lord blesses and those He has allotted to your charge.

Warmly,
Michael S. Foster