Beliefs Culture Ethics Institutions Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

Evangelicals and the growing gender debate

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.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


Click here to post a comment

  • Wrote a post today that explains my position a bit more:

    I think one of the most overlooked aspects of this debate is the fact that the option of having a single “breadwinner” in the home is available only the relatively privileged.

    Current minimum wage in the U.S. is just $7.25. Not many families can live on the income produced by a single minimum-wage earner. In many developing countries, wages are much less, and as journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have noted in their widely-acclaimed book Half the Sky, the empowerment and employment of women can have a direct and profound effect in curbing poverty, infant mortality, maternal mortality, and violence. So why on earth would we discourage women in those situations from working?

    It seems to me that if our theology doesn’t work on the ground, among the poor and the marginalized to whom Jesus first brought the gospel (Luke 4), then it doesn’t work. It is inexcusable for pastors to take to their pulpits to demean families who are sharing the workload, sometimes barely making ends meet, and label them “failures.” This is exactly what Jesus was talking about when he criticized the religious leaders for “tying up heavy burdens” and placing them on people’s backs. For a large percentage of the world’s population, turning their families into the Cleavers is simply not an option, so we would be doing harm to the Kingdom to require it.

  • I’ve wondered how preachers and others would line their doctrine of women iin the home against those families where that just isn’t possible, Rachel. The single mom, the woman married to a disabled husband, the family where two incomes barely keeps food on the table (if at all): how do these families live within a doctrine that says it is God’s will for the man to provide and the woman stay at home?

    They don’t, by necessity. And to say that they are somehow falling short of God’s pleasure is a legalistic trap that Christ never placed before them. It is for freedom he set us free, and that includes all of his children exercising that freedom by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If that includes work, whether for women or men, then that is within God’s will. And likewise if under the Spirit’s guidance it includes a man or woman staying at home.


  • Jonathan, in addition to the 2010 APA study, Pew Research recently came out with some interesting data on families and work:

    Regardless of how loudly comps or egals shout out that the Bible is clear on the subject, there is plenty of room for discussion. I come out egalitarian based on my reading of Scripture (which includes that where there is room for debate I tend toward the reading that embraces the freedom we have in Christ), and that the passages must be understood not only in light of their original writers and readers, but also inlight of the word of God as a whole.


  • Great article! And now the single woman response…

    The only financial advice my mother gave me growing up is, “Don’t marry a pastor.” I graduated high school at the top of my class, and hold a degree from a prestigious university, but in making career choices I never considered I might be the sole financial provider for me for the rest of my life. Had I known I’d be single at 35, I would have gone for my MBA or a law degree, rather than accumulate student loan debt from Fuller Seminary.

    From my observation of having lived in LA and NYC, the ratio of church going singles is roughly 1 guy to every 3 women. And most Christian colleges are around 65% female and 35% male. This means there’s a good possibility many women who are honoring God with their lives may never find a Christian man to marry. They could, of course, always go to China, where the church is growing, and there is a woman shortage. But, in the US, the numbers suggest, there WILL be a growing number of Christian women who will never marry. There may never be a Boaz worth seducing, let alone fields to glean to get some free food.

    Regardless of the stay at home or go to work debate, women in today’s world must be prepared to bring in an income. Youth pastors who promise marriage with each sex talk they give, are doing a disservice to young women. Some of these girls may never find a breadwinning, sperm donor to marry. And even if they do, he could suddenly lose his job, his health, or end up dead.

    As I recently wrote on my blog:
    Some time ago I read this book that concludes baby making is no longer a viable tent making skill (i.e. trade) for women. The book didn’t quite state it as such, but that’s what I took from it.

    The book explained how in the agricultural world, the more children a woman birthed, the greater FREE work force for the family farm or business. Children had the potential to increase a family’s wealth. Unlike today, children back then were considered an economic benefit to families. But today, the cost of a college education alone often scares couples away from having more babies.

  • A notable component of the Pew poll you cited is that the majority of those women breadwinners are single Mothers that make less than $23K/year who are mostly minorities living below the poverty line. That’s not a fact to be championed, in my opinion.

    While I celebrate women in the workplace (My Mom is a UMC Minister & I am a thirty-something unmarried professional without children) I’m still a traditionalist at heart. I still believe children are best raised in a two-parent household. Whomever is the breadwinner (husband or wife) doesn’t matter, as studies have proved.

    The real issue, however, is something I don’t think evangelicals discuss enough: why are men and women not marrying before having children, and why are men failing to raise their children.

  • Should have clarified that the Pew study I link is an earlier report than the one you refer to in this post, Jonathan.

  • One thing that doesn’t come up in these conversations as often as I think it should is fathers increasing interaction with their children–not just stay-at-home dads, but all dads. There was some sort of study that came out in the last few years saying that men are spending more two to three times more time with their children than their fathers’ or grandfathers’ generations did, and are much more involved in caring directly for their children. I think there was an article in Newsweek about it, quite a while back.

    It seems to me that that is one of the beautiful upsides of where things are at now. As mothers move into the workforce, childcare has to become more collaborative, and fathers are rising to the challenge. Dad is no longer the awe-inspiring guy who’s around for a few hours in the evening, and maybe on the weekend–he’s also the guy who can pack your lunch, and braid your hair, and kissed scraped knees, and teach you how to do laundry. Kids are getting a much more robust view of both of their parents, and that has to be good for them.

  • Great post as usual Jonathan. I have to tell you I was expecting something else given the title of this article, more on gender identification. It amazes me that Christians still consider this a debate. Scriptures have both a cultural and transcultural component to them. (see William J. Webb’s work) I recently heard there are now more blended families in the US than traditional. There are also more multi-generational families than 50yrs ago. These trends are our culture. We must learn how to help these changing family structures live according to the heart of what Jesus taught, rather than the social structures relevant for success in a specific context.

  • Good article. I think one of the problems with this entire debate is the legalistic approach we tend to take. Everything, it seems, has to be “either or.” As a soft complementarian, I think the Bible gives general guidelines about the differing gender roles. I do think the husband should at least bear some responsibility to make sure the home is well provided for. But we err and promote disunity when we impose our construct on every home. I’m with Rachel in saying we should affirm the choices other people make. Working women who are breadwinners shouldn’t look, with disdain, on those who stay at home. Stay at home woman should not look with horror at woman working. And economic realities remind us that every family may have a differing situation that works for them .

  • I wonder how much the “knowledge economy,” in which men and women are on a much more level playing field, has influenced many evangelicals to long for the “good old days.” And wasn’t the Proverbs 31 woman out “buying a field” or something?
    And, um, how old is Owen Strachan, anyway? A little more life needs to happen to him, I think. .

  • I think that God’s original design in all of “creation” is to have an “Order” that is optimal for living an abundant life. In the institution of the “family” that order is Husband–>Wife–>child. Each participant has a certain role and those roles aren’t meant to “demean” the worth of anyone, but to complement each other in the smooth running of the household (family). Husband is to be the Leader, the one to turn to turn to for security and stability in all areas with Financial responsiblity being the primary resource. The Wife complements the Husband’s duties in security and stability mainly in the nurturing resources. This is how God “wired”us originally. We can deny that all we want, to our own detriment. We need to work in harmony with how God naturally wired us, so we can all have harmony in living. No one has to feel demeaned, both have genders have incredible worth when working within God’s design. However, sin entered the picture and selfishness became the rule of the day and we all want to compete with each other. Sadly, this leads to disharmony. Satan wants us to feel like we need to have importance and we start competing. The thing is, in God’s design we already have the ULTIMATE IMPORTANCE in the roles He already created us for. But we are so busy competing that we lose out on the benefits of those roles. That being said, I do believe the ultimate benefit is in Husband’s providing outside the home and women providing inside the home for a mutually fulfilling family experience. It is not a matter of Salvation or anything like that, and sometimes this arrangement is not viable in our society. Although, I do believe people tend to make excuses too often of why the woman needs to work. We worry more about our external finances and the material things we want and don’t focus enough on the internal emotional security of our families. If more women stayed at home and embraced their importance in that role they would find they need less financially and would have the awesome importance of building a fulfilling family life for themselves, their husbands, and their children. I have decided to do this, and it is difficult at first, but I know my worth is in who I am in Christ and nothing gives me more pleasure than to be the Administrative Home Assistant to my husband and make our home be the refuge so badly needed for his sanity when he is not in the trenches at his daily work. My worth is in the teamwork aspect of keeping harmony in the home.

  • Melissa- your post is out of chronological order. Men didn’t become the ruler over women until “sin entered the picture”as you said above. Gen 3:16 is the first mention of that.

    It’s not at all the way God “wired us.” You can’t point to anything prior to Gen 3 that describes anything other than equality. Both genders were created in the image of God. Both were told to fill the earth and rule over it.

    Gen 3:16 isn’t part of a blessing, it’s part of a curse. Why would you want to perpetuate that?

  • The other side would ask, “If God hard wired us to work well that way, why do those who choose otherwise work equally well?” It’s a fair question, I think.

  • EXACTLY! For most families, it takes 2 incomes just to make ends meet… forget about vacations or extras! And you’re right — it is an unfair heavy burden (in addition to the already existing heavy financial burden) to to heap additional guilt onto moms who work outside the home.

  • Watched Dr. Daniel Amen on the Dr. Oz show today and his conclusion, after studying >40,000 brain scans, is that women’s brains function in a way that would naturally lead to better leadership capability. This seems to me to help explain why the economic empowerment of poor women lifts up the whole community. Excellent discussion, all. After struggling many years to try to fit in the complementarian mold, I realized that it is not one of the Lord’s commandments. However, it is a challenge to the Christian community to continue to value children when their economic value has been minimized. Hard work ahead of us.

  • But are women more equal then men?
    Are married couples more equal then singles?
    And what about Outsourcing American jobs to foreign lands?

    The world looks a bit different to older, but not yet seniors who are single and unemployed!

  • Please don’t call guys “sperm donors”:(
    I mean , really that term is really pretty disgusting and I’m sure that you truly did not mean it in that way.

    Otherwise, I agree with you.

    Fight for the right of ALL Americans to earn a livable wage!

  • Women have always been stronger then men just because it takes a lot to bring a child to term and as far as I am concerned it’s women who always have had the upper hand here and probably for good reason.

    But things have changed…

    And there are still a heck of a lot of singles here in America! And just because a guy may not be church going at the moment that doesn’t mean he hasn’t or won’t get back to it in the future!
    So many women get into a rut figuring the guy must be taller or whatever!
    Go to the places guys are and get involved in some hobby like for example , Astronomy where there are a heck of a lot more guys than girls…buy a small telescope and stargaze, join an Astronomy club and go to star parties more than likely you will be able to meet guys or maybe you will encourage someone to get involved and that guy might turn out to be the right one!

    Don’t forget to pray!

    Good luck and God Bless!

  • Sorry about that! I intended my comment to be playful, not derogatory. 🙂 A conversation with a guy friend who had been asked to be a sperm donor for another single girl prompted my word usage. He was honored to be asked, but not certain he wanted to go through with it. In NYC conversations about artificial insemination are as normal for single women as expecting mothers might discuss the possibility of going with cloth diapers.

    As far as your meeting more men tip goes, believe me, I meet men all the time in the city – I just haven’t met the right one yet. And I would be extremely hesitant to pursue anything significant with anyone who isn’t already following Jesus. In today’s world, NonC men are looking to get you in bed by date 3, if not the same night you meet.

    I’ve literally turned away millionaires with ivy league degrees – not because they aren’t attractive, but rather because they don’t share the same faith as me. Last March I went on a date with a man that my friend called “Christianity’s greatest catch.” When I’m already dating at that caliber, I can’t settle for someone who isn’t already passionately grounded in their faith. Make sense? 🙂

  • I appreciate the way in which you lead this conversation, Jonathan.

    This has become such a divisive topic, and it’s important {to me} that we converse about it in ways that respect each other, even while we disagree.

    I grew up strictly comp in an NAB church, and didn’t think anything of the role of women until a decade ago when a family member was working at our church and was being paid less than her male counterparts, even though she had a master’s degree from Talbot. They would not call her pastor or pay her the equivalent salary for pastor, yet they empowered and entrusted her to have all sorts of duties, including preaching in the high school group (but not college, YA, or main service). Considering her qualifications and skill set, I found it appalling.

    Then I worked for an international NGO that helps persecuted Christians in 64 countries, and I learned how many WOMEN in these countries were leading house churches, underground house movements, smuggling bibles, etc. I saw that when there are so few believers in the country, you don’t disqualify ANYONE from leading. The attitude is very much ALL HANDS ON DECK!

    Later I worked for another international NGO and they too, when it came to discipleship training, their rule was, if you knew something your brother didn’t know, you were responsible to teach him. And if he knew something you didn’t know, he was responsible to teach you, as is caring for the Body. “Parts” or “gender” didn’t get in the way … only being sure to equip and spur on the body toward love and good deeds.

    In the last few years we joined a new church plant here in our city and over HALF of the congregation were new believers. It was invigorating, but there was so much discipleship to be made, and while many people divided who discipled them based on gender, (I think some women were more comfortable with women and men more comfortable with men), this was never suggested from the church leader. The point was: people need to be discipled — who’s up for the task?!

    ANYWAY, my view generally is, let’s keep our eye on what’s most important here — that is, people need Jesus, and we, His Church, have Him. If you’re breathing and love Him, you’re on the prayer team. If you’re alive and a follower, you’re commanded to disciple. We need not limit what the Holy Spirit can do in and through and despite one other — there’s just no time for it.

  • Karen, your experience points out that much of what the American comp community calls normative is completely unknown in churches in other countries. Thanks for that really helpful perspective.


  • One overlooked aspect of the “working women” debate: Some women work all day and come home to husbands who have been acculturated to not do housework or parenting chores and the work at home becomes Mom’s second full shift of the day. That is what wearies women, not having leadership roles as professionals. Two full-time jobs, requiring 16 to 20 hours per day would weary Superman.

  • I’d have loved to be a career housewife if I could have gotten it on traditional terms, i.e.

    (1) job security–divorce hard to get and in case of divorce life-long unconditional alimony.

    (2) guarantee of no work outside the home–ever. No going back to work when the kids are grown.

    MEN broke this contract. Currently the lucky few who can get housewifing jobs, they don’t have any job security–they can be dumped whenever their husbands find fresher meat, without alimony. And even if marriages hold firm, once the kids are of a certain age, women get shoved back into the workforce–to pink collar jobs.

    This is the worst of both worlds for most women–stuck with boring, dead-end drudge jobs without the option for satisfying careers either outside the home or as career housewives.