Gender Rhetoric: Understanding Gender Norms in Christian Co-Cultures Part I

Understanding Christian Gender Discourse

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting a series based on a rhetorical research study I just completed. To understand how gender norms are formed in Christian society we have to examine the writings of popular Christian writers who influence these norms.

In regards to religious rhetoric, it is important to understand how the manipulation of religious language is used to enforce strict gender roles and a male hierarchy. People tend to gravitate towards Christian writers who already align with their Christian worldview. However when some of those prominent voices, such as John and Staci Eldredge, bridge multiple Christian co-cultural groups then the division between co-cultures becomes blurry.  Prominent writers such as the Eldredges, who market their writings to mainstream Christian society, influence members of moderate evangelical culture. While the voices of extremists, such as anti-feminist writer Mary Pride, have limited mainstream appeal, the Eldredges can reach a larger section of American Christian culture by presenting the same concepts of Mary Pride in a understated, politically correct manner. For the purposes of this study the primary patriarchy movement text will be Mary Pride’s book Beyond Feminism: Back To Reality, a foundational text in the Christian fundamentalist patriarchy movement. To represent a conservative evangelical position on gender ideology, evangelical pastor John Eldredge’s book Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul and his wife Staci Eldredge’s book Captivating: Unveiling the Mysteries of a Woman’s Soul will be analyzed. In addition, James Dobson’s book What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women and B.T. Robert’s pamphlet “On Ordaining Women” will also be used. Dobson represents a more moderate interpretation on Christian gender roles, while B.T. Robert’s writings illustrate the more progressive evangelical interpretation on the subject.

Eve’s Curse

To understand the similarities and differences between various Christian writers and Christian co-cultures it is necessary to begin by exploring the writings of the most extremist writer, Mary Pride, who is considered one of the founders of the Quiverfull movement. Quiverfull supporters subscribe to a literal interpretation of Scripture, citing passages from the New Testament about a woman’s homemaker role and wifely submission to her husband’s opinion (Wilson, 1997). In addition, the group does not believe in any form of family planning, leaving the size of their family up to God.  Thus, homemaking and mothering are seen as the higher calling for women who will devote their lives to raising Godly children. Pride (1985) notes the danger of progressive gender roles in Christian culture:

Feminists have foolishly claimed that woman’s role as a homeworker is the result of male patriarchal bias. The opposite is true. Non Christian male patriarchal societies have always enslaved women outside the home, Christianity has set us free. Who is that out in the fields in the hot sun or carrying heavy loads while the men of the tribe lounge around with their peace pipes? Women. Even our modern cartoon  “Andy Capp” reflects this truth. Andy lies on the couch all day or goes out to the pub while Flo has a “liberated career in the economic-opportunity sphere” as a scrubmaid.  Men may be the basic culprits, pimping their wives out for a few bucks, but evangelical feminism gives the poor victims no sympathy. After all, they are supposed to want to be working wives. This particular aspect of feminism has infected even staunch conservatives. One of the most orthodox and caring Christian women I know, upon hearing that a friend of mine had been divorced by her husband, suggested that I baby-sit the friend’s baby so she could get a job. No suggestion here of charity, of helping a mother stay home. Why should the church help her? It’s the widow’s or divorcee’s job to pay her own way! Thus withers and dies Christian charity. (p. 162)

Pride believes in strict gender roles for both men and women; if those roles are changed to accommodate modern society then the stability of the family is threatened. According to Pride, there is a war going on between secular society and Christian culture. To bend at all, to accommodate, or tolerate any divergence from patriarchy is in direct contradiction to the Bible. Pride’s writings are hate-filled and warlike, urging conformity to tradition through threats and mockery. However, Pride is not the only fundamentalist/conservative evangelical writer to encourage strict conformity to patriarchy.

Writing from a more mainstream evangelical perspective, best-selling Christian authors John and Staci Eldredge advocate similar ideas, but instead of using warlike rhetoric, they take a fairy-tale approach to traditional roles by advocating that if men and women follow the path God has created for them, then they will be content with God’s design and will be blessed. As John Eldredge notes in his book for men, Wild at Heart: “The book of Ruth is devoted to one question. How does a good woman help her man to play the man? The answer: She seduces him. She uses all she has as a woman to arouse him to be a man” (p. 182). According to Eldredge, women were created as the help-mate to Adam, who through feminine charm can meet the needs of their spouse.

Wild at Heart (2001) and the book Eldredge co-wrote with his wife, Staci, for women entitled Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul (2005), note that the identities of men and women were determined at the beginning of time. When Eve was created, she was created after Adam, as his companion because he was lonely. It was Eve who first fell for the serpent’s temptation and ate the forbidden fruit, leading her husband to sin. Thus, man was given dominion over woman. Woman was weak and in need of guidance by the less sinful man whose only fault was allowing his wife to lead him. Staci and John Eldredge talk about “Eve’s Wound” repeatedly throughout their two books. In Captivating Staci Eldredge (2005) notes, “Complicating matters is the curse upon Eve. “Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16) (p.153). Staci Eldredge continues to describe how, because of this curse, a woman’s ultimate desire is for companionship and love. They need to be loved by their leader, their husband. They need to know that both their husband and God (who in the Eldredge’s books is always portrayed as a strong masculine figure) will love and protect them.

Yet, Staci Eldredge notes that Eve’s curse goes beyond desiring attention and love, it encompasses every aspect of women’s lives:

In just the same way, the curse of Eve and all her daughters cannot be limited only to babies and marriage, for if that were true then every single woman without children get to escape the curse. Not so. The meaning is deeper and the implications are for every daughter of Eve. Woman is cursed with loneliness (relational heartache), with the urge to control (especially her man), and with the dominance of men (which is not how things were meant to be, and we are not saying it is a good thing – it is the fault of the Fall and a sad fact of history) (p.50)

According to Eldredge, women who try to dominate their relationships and take control of their lives will experience heartache and spiritual chaos. While Eldredge never specifically identifies dominant women as feminists, she alludes to this at the beginning of her book when she notes that before she became a Christian she worked for a women’s rights organization after college.[1] For Eldredge, to be a Christian means to denounce her feminist lifestyle as a “before conversion experience.” Pride (1985), too, notes that she struggled with a desire to work outside the home before brushing it off as a worldly, “feminist” notion. Thus, to be a Christian woman means to believe in the patriarchy movement. To believe otherwise would be to denounce the Genesis account of Eve’s curse and to deny Biblical mandates for gender identity.

The rhetoric of these mainstream evangelical books, like the Eldredge’s, bears out the research that has been done on evangelical gender ideology.  Though these evangelicals pay lip-service to rigid gender roles, with the rising necessity of dual income families this ideal has become increasingly difficult for many families to follow. Gallagher and Smith (1999) conducted a series of extensive interviews over a two-year period with a variety of evangelicals from both moderate and conservative Christian traditions on interpretations of Biblical gender roles. Their results indicate that a majority of evangelicals and fundamentalists still believe traditional rhetoric about male headship. However, the moderate evangelical Christians were more willing to interpret the concept in modern terms such as the husband as “CEO” or “family warrior,” allowing the woman to also work to provide for the family, but still deferring to her husband for final say. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, were more likely to remain entrenched in the belief of male-headship.  This illustrates that not only has the fundamentalist rhetoric of gender ideology creeped into mainstream evangelicalism, but that mainstream evangelicals largely use this rhetoric to mask practical reality.


[1] Staci Eldredge alludes to her time in the feminist movement of the 1970s and her search for a sense of self. During this time she was a director of the Women’s Resource Center at a “liberal state university in California. But no matter how much I asserted my strength and dependence as a woman (“hear me roar”), my heart as a woman remained empty” (p.4)

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