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Q&A: The case against women in combat

Read our overview story, “Women in combat move a ‘tragic mistake,’ Baptist leaders say,” here

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) — Even before U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the military was lifting its ban on women in combat, professor and theologian Owen Strachan was speaking out against such a possibility, saying it not only went against Scripture but also defied common sense.

The new executive director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Strachan penned a column for Christianity Today late last year outlining the biblical case against placing women on the front lines of combat.

Following the Pentagon’s announcement, Baptist Press conducted an email interview with Strachan, who also serves as assistant professor of theology and church history at Boyce College in Louisville, Ky. What follows is the transcript:

BAPTIST PRESS: What are the biblical and theological reasons you oppose placing women in combat?

STRACHAN: My theology of war — and women in combat — is directly related to my theology of sex and gender. When it comes to making mankind in His image, God creates Adam first. He makes Eve from Adam. Her body is literally made from his, which signals both Adam’s leadership and his duty to protect Eve. In other words, Adam gives his body so that Eve may exist. He is called for the rest of his life to give his body so that Eve may thrive. This is the starting place for distinctions between the sexes. God doesn’t make Blob A (Adam) and Blob B (Eve). He doesn’t make gender-neutral people. We don’t believe in a divine creation of Teletubby-esque nature as Christians. The Bible shows as a matter of first principles that men and women are different, distinct and complementary. When Eve is brought to Adam with her distinctive shape and form, Adam rejoices. He cries out, “This at last is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Adam delights in Eve, the one “taken from man.”

All this shows that sexual distinction is not incidental, as our culture says today. Biology to a large extent is destiny. Eve is created with a womb and a bodily system to nurture children (oxytocin is God’s biological call to this duty). Adam is not. He and his male descendants are made stronger, larger, faster and with 11 times as much testosterone as Eve, as secular research has shown. This is why, on average, boys are much more naturally drawn to play-fighting, wrestling, and rough sports than girls. They have over 1,000 percent more testosterone than girls. We’re not talking about slight differences here; we’re talking about foundational realities. It’s just common sense to affirm that men and women are physically different.

What does all of this mean for our conversation? It means that men are made for war. Women are not. Women are far better suited to nurture, though of course this does not mean that women aren’t courageous. Men are made for battle. They are made to protect, and they are called by Scripture to protect women and children. Adam’s sin is first the failure to protect — to physically and spiritually come between the serpent and Eve. When God visits the earth to bring justice following this disobedience, He addresses Adam: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). The pronoun is singular. The meaning is unmistakable. This duty of men persists after the fall.

BP: Those who disagree with you point to Deborah, one of the judges in Israel’s history. Why doesn’t her example lead to the allowance of women in combat?

STRACHAN: One of the sorriest men in Israel’s history is Barak, whose unwillingness to lead God’s people into battle leaves Deborah to do it. Deborah is not happy with Barak, though; she doesn’t roar with delight at the chance to be a warrior-woman. She tells Barak that his failure “will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9). Clearly, this is a shameful reality. Barak has not owned his God-given role as protector of Israel’s women and children.

This pattern is upheld all throughout the Old Testament. The men of Israel make war, protecting the women. You think, for example, of David’s “mighty men” (1 Chronicles 11:10-47). The teeming majority of military leaders of God’s people are men; Joshua, Samson, Gideon, and many others lead the men of Israel into battle, putting their bodies in harm’s way to protect the weaker among them.

Jesus Christ is the ultimate example of the protector. He makes war against Satan in order to save His bride from hell (Ephesians 5:25). There is no greater example of what a man is to do with regard to his wife and children than this.

It is gloriously true that in Christ, there is neither slave nor free, male nor female (Galatians 3:28). But this means that there is no hierarchy, no division of equality, between God’s people. Coming to faith does not make us gender-neutral blobs, to use our prior language. It in fact gives us eyes to see the glory of God’s creative design. Men are called to be elders of God’s church, and that means caring for both one’s home and one’s church, which means being a protector.

For all these reasons, both scripturally and physically, men are called to protect women. If you carefully put different texts and ideas together, you see overwhelming proof of this. So what does this mean for combat? It means that in society, just as in the home and church, men are called to protect women. Men go to war. Women do not, unless men are incapable or dead. Feminism, egalitarianism, the juvenilization of culture, and sexual “liberationism” have all deeply affected American men. We have become weak. We are ignoble. We prey on women. We ask them to do our work, to break their backs; we ask them to fight our wars, while we play “Call of Duty” on the couch.

We are in a shameful time in America, when men would be weak and women would be men. God’s wisdom and design is so much better than this.

BP: Do you also have practical, military-type concerns with the proposed change? In other words, it’s not just seminary professors and theologians who are opposing this change.

STRACHAN: I definitely do. Before I detail those concerns, I should point out to readers that if they want some really good secular references on the differences between men and women, which relate directly to the risks involved with women in combat, there are two that come to mind: Anne and Bill Moir, “Why Men Don’t Iron,” and Steven Rhoads, “Taking Sex Differences Seriously.” Anne Moir is a scientist with a doctorate from Oxford, while Rhoads is a professor of public policy at the University of Virginia.

I have not served in war. But Katie Petronio has. She’s a captain in the Marine Corps who sparked a firestorm with a piece in the Marine Corps Gazette that detailed her own combat experience. Petronio related that she was a top-notch athlete, registering a near-perfect score in the branch’s official physical fitness test. She was uncommonly strong; when she entered the Corps, she could bench-press almost 150 pounds. This made sense for Petronio, a former college hockey team captain. She was an excellent athlete, strong, capable and ready for war.

Or so she thought. Petronio went to Afghanistan and had an awful time. It’s hard to read her piece in the Gazette, because her decline — due to the pressures of front-line action — was so alarming. She developed polycystic ovarian cancer. Her leg muscles atrophied. She couldn’t sleep due to stress, which made her more exhausted and therefore weaker. Her legs would “buckle with the slightest grade change” when simply walking. Other women under her care suffered with similar severity. Petronio shared in a radio interview with Leatherneck magazine that she allowed a woman soldier in her company to not wear the heavy protective gear required for combat because the woman simply could not sustain herself physically.

Petronio’s experience isn’t monolithic. But neither is it unusual. The Marine Corps has drawn major attention over its decision to relax standards of physical fitness so that women can enter active duty. This spells potential disaster for our military. War is not good in itself; it breaks down even the strongest of men. It’s not really made for anyone, ideally. But women of average strength stand to suffer far more than men of average strength. For this reason, many generals and military leaders have followed the consensus of virtually every civilization in human history and prohibited women — for their good — from fighting on the front lines unless absolutely necessary (as in the biblical case of Deborah and Jael).

BP: Even if it’s a minority of women who could pass the physical exam, why not allow them into combat roles?

STRACHAN: Everything I’ve said already applies here. Women will suffer greatly if placed in combat roles. On average, they’re less suited for war than men. They will therefore be less able to defend themselves, cover for fellow soldiers, and harm the enemy. The example of Jessica Lynch, captured a few years ago in Iraq, serves as a warning to us. One woman cited by The Atlantic spoke frankly to the difficulties of such situations: “Few of us could make it in the infantry.”

Beyond this, it’s long been considered unseemly for men and women to serve together in the kind of close quarters that many combat situations require. According to many soldiers, there is little opportunity for normal hygiene and personal health on the front lines. I’ve talked with a veteran of Afghanistan who recalled huddling body-to-body with a fellow soldier for hours at a time in order to make it through cold nights. War is not normal; it is by nature far less pleasant than the rhythms of ordinary life. By all accounts it requires uncommon sacrifices and places soldiers in difficult positions. American military efforts for just causes will not be advanced by the kind of compromises and awkward situations that mixed-sex combat will inevitably produce.

These are important things to consider — and again, virtually every civilization on earth agrees on these matters, including those that go to war against one another! Out of love for women, out of a desire to protect them, and because complementarian Christians are the most pro-women people on earth, we can’t help but advocate for a return to biblical wisdom and common sense.
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Michael Foust