In recent decades, parts of American religion have been transformed by feminism, from women serving as rabbis to Catholic girls becoming altar servers. Now the heart of U.S. evangelicalism may be heading for a gender showdown.
Mark Driscoll, a Seattle mega-pastor and author known for his raw, macho take — “Sixty percent of Christians are chicks, and the 40 percent that are dudes are still sort of chicks,” is among his well-known quotes — said on Aug. 24 that he would step down temporarily from his multi-state 14,000-member ministry amid charges of abusive behavior toward subordinates and inappropriate use of money, among other things. And last week, conservative Christian figure Mike Farris wrote that it is time to push back on an “un-Biblical view” of gender roles. “Subservience,” wrote the Virginia-based leader of the national home-school movement, “can never be justified by Scripture.”
There are complicated reasons for both of these events, but what’s notable is that they come at a time when tension is soaring among evangelicals over just what it means to say God gave men and women different roles.
Some evangelicals, particularly young ones, have already moved into what’s called egalitarian gender theology, and view men and women as equal in the office, church and home. But perhaps more might see themselves as “complementarian” — meaning they think men and women have different roles. But what does that mean, practically speaking, in 2014? Some see the Driscoll and Farris news as evidence that evangelicals, who make up one quarter of the U.S. population, are agitating on the topic of gender.
“The two poles of this conversation have grown increasingly vocal,” said Jonathan Merritt, an author focused on U.S. evangelicalism. “There are fewer and fewer agnostics when it comes to gender roles.”
Driscoll was known for his books on gender and masculinity, and his were among a recent slew on those topics. This month’s cover of Christianity Today, a major magazine focused on U.S. evangelicalism, features a story about male friendships. Some close to Driscoll have noted that former pastors describe an abuse of power that stretched to male and female subordinates. However, in his community power can’t be totally divorced from the topic of gender because in the vast majority of U.S. evangelicalism, women don’t lead churches.
Merritt says the debate is unavoidable today because a contradiction seems present.
“I think the majority of people in mainstream evangelicalism are theologically complementarian and pragmatically egalitarian,” said Merritt, the son of a former Southern Baptist Convention president who writes about contemporary evangelical culture in his new memoir, “Jesus is Better Than You Imagined.”
“It’s almost a running joke that some of the strongest [complementarian] leaders are, within their marriages, led by their wives,” he said.
Farris’s article in the Home School Court Report followed two scandals in the homeschooling movement involving longtime leaders Bill Gothard and Doug Phillips. Farris said he had been criticized for not speaking out. In his piece, he said he should have done so sooner, but didn’t want to judge the different Christian conservative views on gender. He changed his mind, he wrote, after paying more attention to the stories of people claiming abuse by the two men. Gothard is accused of sexual harassment and not reporting child abuse; Phillips is accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a woman. Both were prominent advocates for strict complementarianism, or what Farris called “patriarchy.”
“In sum, ‘patriarchy’ teaches that women in general should be subject to men in general. The Bible teaches no such thing,” he wrote.
In an interview Tuesday, Farris said dramatic social change has left more Americans pushing for explicit answers to the questions: How do I run my marriage? How do I raise my children so they turn out well? The more conservative part of evangelicalism has pushed to the right, he said.
“The patriarchal view has moved dramatically such that men in general should be dominant over women in general,” he said. “That’s neither Biblical nor wise. What the Bible says about gender roles is more modest.”