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Evangelicals and the growing gender debate

As society discusses women in the workplace, evangelicals have been having their own gender debates.

A surprising debate on women in the workplace has erupted in America, but it has been raging among evangelicals for some time.
A surprising debate on women in the workplace has erupted in America, but it has been raging among evangelicals for decades.

A surprising debate on women in the workplace has erupted in America, but it has been raging among evangelicals for decades.

Few could have predicted that in the year of Lean In we’d be debating whether working women are harmful to society.

But alas, here we are.

This week, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant (R) ignited controversy during a Washington Post live online event when he said that children are struggling in the classroom, in part, because women are entering the workplace. Last Friday, Editor-in-Chief Erick Erickson commented on “Lou Dobbs Tonight” that society is dissolving as a result of changing cultural perspectives on gender roles. He supported his point by noting that men are typically in the dominant role in the animal kingdom.

Bryant apparently hasn’t read the 2010 study by the American Psychological Association that reviewed 9 studies spanning 59 years of research and concluded that children whose mothers work are no more likely to have behavioral or academic problems than kids whose mothers stay at home. And someone needs to tell Erickson that male dominance among animals isn’t universal. We can only assume the he’s received a few less-than-approving emails from some lionesses and mares.

But politicians and pundits aren’t the only ones debating gender roles; American Evangelicals have been doing it for decades.

Owen Strachan, Executive Director for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, is a leader among Christian “complementarians,” a term used to describe those who believe the Bible prescribes separate roles for men and women in the home, workplace, and church. He incited a backlash in 2011 when he referred to stay-at-home dads as “man-fails.”

“(My wife) does the vast majority of the cooking, cleaning, and managing of the house,” Strachan wrote in his now-controversial article. “She spends the day with the kids while I provide for my family.”

He told me that he agrees broadly with Erickson, though he grounds his perspective in the Christian scriptures, not animal relationships.

“In the Bible, men are not called to be workers at home. Women are,” he said. “And women and even widows are called to marry, as the Lord allows, and then bear children and make a home.”

Lydia Brownback, complementarian author of A Woman’s Wisdom: How the Book of Proverbs Speaks to Everything, says she doesn’t believe women should be be the primary earners of a household, ministers in a local church, or serve in military combat.

“Life isn’t always going to work according to God’s design, so I don’t think you can say that a stay-at-home dad or woman President is sinful,” she says, “but ideally, a woman should be home with her children.”

Mary Kassian, author of Girls Gone Wise in a World Gone Wild, agrees with Brownback and Strachan in principle, but seems to take a softer approach. She doesn’t think it is necessarily wrong for a woman to teach a man in church—she admits that men are often sitting in the audience when she speaks—but she believes only a male should fill the pastorate. When it comes to the home, she thinks adhering to traditional roles just makes sense.

“As a woman who has been a professional and has spoken with lots of working women, I’ve seen how a mom being the full breadwinner puts a strain on them. It effects them in a way that doesn’t affect men,” Kassian says. “Sure, it’s exciting up front but then it wearies them after a time. They feel the heaviness of that burden differently than men.”

While some Americans might cringe at complementarianism, not all evangelicals hold these views. There is also a vibrant population of Christian “egalitarians” who believe that both genders have equal freedom to utilize their gifts and passions.

Scot McKnight is professor of New Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary who, like Strachan, says he grounds his thinking in the Bible. He lists numerous Biblical examples of working women and even some who led while men willingly submitted.

“The Christian academy has been going full throttle studying women in the ancient world,” McKnight says. “There is really good research being done there that is opening our eyes to the role of women in Roman societies in which New Testament authors were writing and to which the Apostle Paul was responding.”

His position is echoed by Mimi Haddad, president of Christians for Biblical Equality.

“There has been a burgeoning of biblical resources exploring how gender is presented in scripture—in terms of leadership, gifting, and otherwise,” she says. “As a result, we’ve seen churches and denominations opening positions of leadership like never before.”

She points to women like Jo Anne Lyon, head of The Wesleyan Church, an evangelical denomination, and a 2009 study by Barna Research showing that 1 in 10 U.S. Protestant churches now employ a woman senior pastor, double the percentage from a decade prior. Another Barna study from 2012 showed that 59% of Christian women now say they have “substantial influence” in their church and 55% expect their influence to increase. Only 16% said they feel limited in their church by their gender.

Rachel Held Evans, egalitarian author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood, adds that while the church should celebrate women in the workplace and church leadership, we must also be careful not to marginalize stay-at-home parents.

“The church should celebrate both women who work and those that stay at home,” Evans says “We don’t want to diminish the dignity or beauty or importance of staying at home to care for one’s family, whether we’re talking about a man or a woman.”

One point of agreement among five of the six Christian leaders interviewed for this article is that while they believe both Christian complementarianism and egalitarianism are holding their own, they expect egalitarian views to increase among Christians over the next 20 or 30 years. Owen Strachan is the one exception, saying he isn’t sure what the future holds.

No matter what happens within the American church, we know that society is changing. Just last week, a Pew Research poll showed that women are now the sole or primary provider in four-in-ten households with children, a number that has risen steadily since at least 1960. Additionally, Pew shows big generational gaps on a handful of questions including whether kids are better off if mothers stay at home and whether working moms jeopardize marriages and family dynamics.

But the future of this debate is not settled and will be shaped to some extent by American evangelicals. With about 40% of all Americans claiming to be “born again” Christians, we can assume that where evangelicals end up on these issues will shape the broader conversation.

Both sides make compelling Biblical and theological cases for their point of views, but according to the most current data on the culture and the church, egalitarian evangelicals seem to have momentum. Those Christians who hold to traditional views on gender must either catch up with the broader culture or learn to communicate their beliefs in ways that feel less outdated and disconnected from modern realities.

If not, the complementarian faithful may become the faithful few.

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