Debating Biblical Gender Roles Then and Now

It’s easy to believe that the debates about gender roles in evangelical culture are a recent development. Yet, looking through Free Methodist Magazine archives from over a hundred years ago, it’s clear that the debate on Biblical gender roles goes back centuries. Perhaps, I can justify the tension regarding women’s roles the nineteenth and early twentieth century Free Methodist Church somewhat, but I cannot justify nor understand why this debate still continues. As is always the case we too often forget history and do not learn from the past.

In the early twentieth century America was in the midst of the Progressive Era. The quickly industrializing nation was facing new social roles for both men and women. Women were beginning to have careers in the factories and professional occupations such as law and medicine. In addition, this was the era of great social reform. Temperance, suffrage, worker’s rights, and educational reform were all becoming pressing social concerns, and leading the way in many of these reform movements were women. Thus, through involvement in various reform movements women began to have a role outside the domestic sphere. It was something new and threw American culture into a tizzy. What was women’s place in society, and specifically within Christian culture how do we Biblically deal with the changing roles for women in American society?

This tension and debate is clearly evident in the early twentieth century Free Methodist.  Feb. 20, 1900, a J.S. published an article entitled “Woman’s Work.” I can only assume this was written by a man because of the tone of the article. As the author notes women have been very successful in reform work, singing, missions, teaching and caring for others. It is as a result of “certain inherent qualities such as tact, sympathy, love, tenderness and patient endurance” that women are able to succeed in these various ministries (according to the author). Towards the end of the article the author observes that some women also have the gift of exhortation and because of their gift the most unrepentant person will turn to Christ. Yet, as the author explains because preaching is a relatively new woman’s ministry it can be somewhat shocking to people:

“Woman in the pulpit! We have all her there before. Sometimes we think she belongs there, and sometimes we think she would be better in the pews; nevertheless, we can but admire her for trying to do what she believes to be her duty.” (p.10)

An R.B.S. published a reply to this article a few weeks later and noted that there are also a great number of men who try to preach but only are good exhorters, and that women as well as men can fulfill all the roles of a senior pastor if they are gifted. Yet, even this critique slides back into the accepted Christian and social norms of the time period by concluding that women are still ultimately called to a higher sphere of motherhood, wifehood and sisterhood. Thus, while challenging the first speaker for limiting women’s ability to serve as a pastor the critique also falls into the same cultural trap that they are trying to refute.

Sometimes we can assume that only men are writing these articles opposing women in ministry or limiting their roles. Yet, women as well as men wrote oppositional articles. Oct. 15, 1901, a Mrs. John Howard wrote “ Woman in Her Natural God-Given Relation to Man.” Howard explains that women’s “nature is weakened as a result of the first sin” and that women should attempt to follow Paul’s guidance by not taking authority in the church and remaining silent. Howard questions her audience, “Dear sisters, are we living to-day in strict compliance with these most reasonable instructions?” (p.3)

These articles come out about ten years after B.T. Roberts published his pamphlet “On Ordaining Women,” which set a clear standard for how to interpret the Bible and understand Biblical gender equality. So, why are there articles continually published in The Free Methodist that oppose women in ministry? The answer is complex. However, simply stated there were cultural and social factors that influenced the writers of these articles. Free Methodism has never existed in a bubble. It has always been part of the larger evangelical culture and as such will have members influenced by theological perceptions that do not align with Free Methodism’s belief in gender equality.

Yet, we cannot brush off these articles as only reflecting the opinion of Free Methodists a century ago.  Evangelicals are just as confused about gender roles now as they were then. I can’t tell you how many times I hear the arguments against women in ministry that were presented in 1890 or early twentieth century still being used today.  This continuing confusion over gender roles is shown in a Pew Forum study released this week. The Pew Forum conducted a global survey of evangelical protestant leaders who attended the Third Lausanne Congress of World Evangelization in Cape Town, South Africa in 2010. The survey divided the participants into two groups the Global South (North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and most of Asia) and the Global North (North America, Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand). While the participants at the conference represented numerous evangelical denominations, the study’s finding on gender illustrate the tensions I have been exploring in early Free Methodism and evangelical cultural today.

The majority of both Global South (77 percent) and North leaders (73 percent) felt women should be allowed to serve as pastors -75 percent. Yet, when asked if men should be the spiritual leaders of the home and marriage 78 percent thought men should take the lead. When divided by region Global South leaders agreed with male spiritual leadership in the home by 61 percent and only 43 percent in the Global North. Additionally, leaders in the Global North still strongly supported the idea that “women should stay home and raise the children in the family.” In the U.S., where economic prosperity makes this luxury something more families can afford to do, the issue was almost split down the middle. Forty-four percent agreed that women should stay home, while 53 percent disagreed. Globally only 33 percent of evangelical leaders at the conference thought women should stay at home. In most areas of the world women not working isn’t an economically feasible idea.

So, what does this survey mean? In short, we are still confused about Biblical gender roles. We could not come to clear consensus a hundred year ago and we still can’t come to one today. If most evangelical leaders (which over a 1,000 were surveyed for this study) think women are capable of being spiritual leaders in the church, why not the home, too? Better yet why not have both spouses serving as spiritual leaders? We have some deeply entrenched and illogical ideas about Biblical gender roles that we must reexamine. This is why understanding the historic debates on gender are so important. If we can’t learn from the debates of the past we will continue to struggle to define and understand Biblical equality today.

Pew Forum Global Survey of Evangelical Protestant Leaders

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