Evangelicals and Gender: Culture First

Jennifer McKinney

“I have decided not to go to seminary,” the young woman said. “I was deceived: God does not call women into ministry. I am so thankful to my pastor for showing me this, because if I had gone into ministry, I would have been blaspheming God.” A few weeks later another young woman told me that she had planned “do something huge” with her life, but her church had opened up her eyes to “a different reality. My sole purpose on this earth as a woman is to further God’s kingdom by having children, so they can live out his purposes.” The implication was clear: women are created to be wives and mothers—any other option is unbiblical.

Are these ideas foreign to United Methodism? Think again. Even The United Methodist Church is feeling the effects of these ideas and seeing a move toward “traditional” gender roles. Although it has ordained women since 1956, by 2000 only 20 percent of its clergy were women.

Today, college and seminary attendance by women is eclipsing that of men. Yet in the past when women graduated with seminary degrees, they were overrepresented as directors of more “female” programs like children’s or women’s ministries, rather than as senior or associate pastors.

Where does this push toward “traditional” gender roles come from? Evangelicalism. Evangelicals are teaching men and women that God ordained distinctive roles for the different sexes. This thriving transdenominational tradition has a powerful impact on how we think about men and women in the church, and subsequently, men and women in ministry.

There are sociological reasons why evangelicals talk this way. Sociologist C. Smith, in American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (University of Chicago Press, 1998), noted that American Evangelicalism thrives because evangelicals have successfully created a distinct subculture within both the larger culture and Christianity. One of the most salient ways evangelicals maintain this distinctiveness is through preaching “traditional” gender roles.

As the predominant perspective of evangelicals, traditional gender roles are characterized by the principles of male authority and female subordination. God’s design for men is as providers and for women as nurturers. Evangelicals who promote the idea that men are supposed to earn money and women are supposed to be homemakers think that these roles are traditional. They also think these roles are biblical. But history and sociology show they are neither; they are recent, and they are cultural. In fact, to use “traditional” to describe these gender roles is a misnomer, since they were the shortest-lived gender roles in history. Rather than being traditional (or Christian for that matter), these roles are artifacts of American cultural shifts of the nineteenth century. The evangelical call to return to “traditional” gender roles is also a result of recent cultural shifts.

The gender roles evangelicals champion were first institutionalized in the 1950s. Even at their height, these provider-nurturer roles never comprised the majority of American men and women. They were a new ideal that most Americans could not afford to practice. Instead of being a product of Judeo-Christian religion, these gender roles were a result of the changing cultural conditions of moving from an agricultural-based economy to an industrial one, and are distinctly American.

Prior to industrialization, men and women were joint workers in a family farm or trade, and gender roles were much less specialized. As work began to change, so did gender roles. By the mid-nineteenth century industrialization moved men away from the family enterprise, while women continued to work with it. This brought a move toward more exaggerated, gender differentiated roles. Over time, these roles became the idealized breadwinner/provider role for men and homemaker/nurturer role for women.

It was the post-War economic boom of the late 1940s that first allowed unprecedented numbers of Americans to maintain higher standards of living within single-earner households. This, in turn, allowed for the institutionalization of the breadwinner-homemaker roles.

By the 1970s, however, America’s economic situation had drastically changed from the 1950s. Real wages for men (controlling for inflation) actually declined, while the cost of living increased (by 400 percent). Stagnant wages for men and the high cost of living meant that women were increasingly needed in the labor market to sustain a middle class lifestyle. Although adults who grew up in the 1950s became dual-earner families, they still considered the breadwinner-homemaker ideal to be the historical (and scriptural) norm.

So why and when did evangelicals begin preaching that men were supposed to be providers and women were supposed to be homemakers? Often we assume theology influences culture. Social scientists, however, show how our culture (often unconsciously) influences theology. In the late 1970s we see this in practice.

Because of the cultural and economic shifts of the 1970s, prominent evangelicals began lambasting women entering the work force. They wrote that working women, especially mothers, violated God’s ordained homemaker role. Evangelicals claimed that women leaving the realm of homemaking and childcare for paid work were destroying the American family. Larry Christenson went so far as to demand that men not be caught doing housework or they would confuse their children about what constituted proper Christian gender roles (cf. The Christian Family [Bethany House, 1980] 44-45).

As noted earlier, for Evangelicalism to thrive it must look different from the larger culture. One way to do this is by maintaining “traditional” gender roles. Economic changes in the 1960s and 1970s made it virtually impossible for one-income families to maintain their standard of living. So, more women entered the labor market only to discover fewer opportunities and lower pay than men. To correct this injustice, American society began to move toward equality for women.

It was at this point that evangelicals started preaching that men and women should have different social roles. In saying that gender equality violated God’s plan, evangelicals shaped their idealized memories of the 1950s into a way of distinguishing themselves from the rest of American culture.

By the 1980s we could see the impact of this rhetoric. In the larger society, voices for equality were muted as other social issues took precedence. And within Evangelicalism, voices for equality were pushed to the far margins. Today, books like J. Piper and W. Grudem’s edited volume Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Crossway, 1991) and J. Eldredge’s Wild at Heart (Nelson, 2001) are standards for this evangelical perspective.

How does this impact men and women in the church? In her book, Men and Women in the Church: Building Consensus on Christian Leadership (InterVarsity, 2003), theologian S. Sumner relates the story of taking an informal poll at a conference, asking women if they felt inferior to men. Of the seven women at her table, two middle-aged women hastily replied “no.” Three others replied that they were not sure if they were inferior to men. Strikingly, the two women younger than thirty “insisted” they were inferior to men. This illustrates the effect of gender traditionalism on today’s young evangelicals. It is assumed that there are things women cannot do or be because they are inferior to men—by God’s design.

Churches and pastors that advocate strict traditional roles are not backwater fundamentalist churches. They are robust, growing, evangelical churches (many urban mega-churches) that draw on an increasingly well-educated, young, and professional membership. In many ways these churches are on the cutting edge of new ministries (particularly with music and arts). Yet they firmly preach a return to “traditional” gender roles.

Ironically, the post-1980s generation believe themselves to be the epitome of American individualism. Yet they are desperate to have clear rules that apply to the sexes, rather than seeing individuals as unique images or expressions of God. In fact, in a recent national survey evangelical Christians were significantly more likely to hold stricter gender beliefs than even fundamentalist Christians.

This indelibly impacts women in ministry, who face a double-edged sword of both lower and higher expectations. These often unconscious assumptions are cultural, not Christian. And they create two primary forces that work against women in ministry. The first prevents women from going into ministry at all. For many evangelicals it is simply understood that God does not call women into ministry.

The second is how women are treated when they choose to go into ministry, and even how they are placed (in directorships, for example, rather than pastorates). Women in ministry are sometimes perceived as bitter or angry. But this is often a response to the fact that they are not accepted in their vocations. Or they are allowed to lead, but not too much. Women in the secular world have free reign to pursue their callings. So are we saying that women in the church are inferior to those from without?

Today the debate is not whether women can be full-fledged Christians, but how or if women can use their callings and gifts in the presence of the full congregation. Sumner relates another story of how at a conference of mostly male pastors women were consistently made the butt of jokes. In a setting that would not make jokes about a person’s ethnic or racial traits, how telling is it that women were fair game?

How much of what we understand about women in the church comes from culture, rather than Scripture? How many of us are guilty of giving partiality to men? The Great Commission gives a command to all believers to go and make disciples of all nations. Paul tells us that some are to be apostles, prophets, and teachers. Are these directives only for men? For many evangelicals, the answer is yes.

There is, however, good news to report in the evangelical gender battles. First, in the 1990s, many evangelical writers started to back off their previous stances against working mothers and women. Had their biblical precepts changed? No. Had their theology on gender roles changed? No. As S.K. Gallagher points out in Evangelical Identity and Gendered Family Life (Rutgers, 2003), theological truth did not precede this shift. Rather, with more than three-quarters of all mothers participating in the labor force, evangelicals changed their language. Their rhetoric changed from focusing on men as sole economic providers to men as the “spiritual” heads of the household.

Another encouraging sign is that although many evangelicals believe in male authority and female subordination, they practice more equal relationships. Gallagher refers to this practice as “she submits, he defers,” and reports that this describes much of evangelical decision-making.

Finally, there have always been some evangelical voices espousing gender equality, and they may be getting stronger. For older folks, this will be no surprise. But for younger generations, gender equality has been tainted as liberal theology, and is thus discredited as not being scriptural. So there is still a long way to go.

Evangelicalism thrives because it is distinctive. If evangelicals embrace gender equality, how will they resist blending into the larger culture? Gallagher suggests we try to do gender equality better than the larger culture. Women in America still lag behind men, earning only 75 percent of what men earn (even when we control for occupation). Should evangelicals seriously practice gender equality, we would definitely be distinctive.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do to advance gender equality is to encourage more women to become pastors. Social scientists have demonstrated that people are drawn toward what is familiar. As more women become pastors, laity become more familiar with them. This will increase our comfort with and appreciation for women in the pulpit. And it will put us in line with God’s purposes when he calls women to become ministers in the Church.

Posted Nov 01, 2005