Gender Norms in Christian Co-Cultures Part III

This series was first published in 2010

Cultural Influences on Gender Norms

Communication scholars Pearce and Cronen (1980) note in their theory Coordinated Management of Meaning that culture influences the individual actions of its members. There is a pronounced relationship between the writings of the Eldredges, Pride and Dobson and how members of various co-culture groups take those writings and apply them to their own relationships. The structure and influence of the Christian publishing market allows the writings of authors from various Christian co-cultures to exert great influence over Biblical interpretation, family life, and the self-worth of the Christian individual. The financial motivations of the Christian publishers mean that more progressive views, like Roberts, are not considered marketable and therefore not published; whereas more regressive ones, like the Eldredges are put in print because there is a market for it and these types of reductive rhetoric sell big time.

The regulative rules of what the accepted Christian relationship should encompass often relies on decades old stereotypes of gender differences. The regulative rules are reinforced by the constitutive rules of Biblical interpretation.  For instance, if B.T. Robert’s name was removed from his writing his interpretation of the Bible would be considered heretical by many mainstream evangelicals because his egalitarian views stand in such stark contrast to current Christian writings on gender norms. Yet, with his name still associated with his work the criticism of his viewpoint is subdued due to his position as a revered founder in the Wesleyan tradition. Instead of denouncing Robert’s writings as contrary to social norms, they are largely ignored and forgotten.

Because the Robert’s writings do not fit into rhetorical framework devised by the much louder and more current conservative evangelical Christian writers, the average Christian reader does not know how to engage with Robert’s text because it is so contrary to the culturally accepted discourse. These patriarchal action chains can be perhaps better understood as socially constructed speech acts used to promote the dominate narrative in conservative Christian co-cultures. All communication involves some form of speech acts. These speech acts are performed culturally to continue dominate social narratives (Pearce, 2007). In the case of the Christian patriarchy movement the stories and books of Christian authors are performed narratives that reinforce the established gender roles in fundamentalist Christian culture. To overturn an established speech act you must return to the ante-narrative – the time before the cultural narrative of patriarchy took hold in Christian co-cultures. However, as the writings of Dobson, Pride and the Eldredges point out, the narrative of male-headship is a deeply entrenched regulative rule.  To overturn such a culturally prevalent discourse it is necessary for members of Christian co-cultures to take a step back and view the issue of gender ideology from a third-person perspective. If alternatives to patriarchy are presented, such as Robert’s perspective, which do not challenge the core Christian values of the co-cultures, then it is possible to beginning changing the hierarchy by viewing the perspective from outside of one’s own experience (using a third-person perspective) and by understanding social change should not come from complete alienation of the individual’s original beliefs, but by a subtle shift in perspective.


The divisions between various Christian co-cultures are pronounced on political and doctrinal issues, in all matters regarding gender roles and family life the lines are dangerously blurred. However before any constructive solutions to Christian patriarchy can be established, scholars need to more fully understand the complexity of Christian gender ideology. Previous

research into Christian gender ideology has grouped all fundamentalists and evangelical Christians together as one cultural unit. Any study of gender ideology differences has only compared Christian culture to the culture of other religious groups (Gonsoulin & LeBoeuf, 2010). Communication researchers must take into account that gender ideology is socially constructed during interactions between various Christian co-cultural groups. Prominent Christian writers use ambiguous Christian co-culture affiliations as a tool to increase book sales, which only causes further dispersion of fundamentalist views of gender roles. In addition, the manipulation of religious language in Christian self-help books about family communication only furthers the confusion of individual’s gender ideology. For the individual to push back against mainstream fundamentalist gender rhetoric they would have to push back against the very structure that supports their faith. Thus, the relationship between individual faith and salvation is intrinsically connected to Biblical gender roles.

The moderate voices in evangelical Christianity have lost their persuasive power and are being stifled by fundamentalist fanatics on the far right.  The individual and corporate identity of Christians is confused as radical beliefs are beginning to gain mainstream acceptance. For the health of the egalitarian movement in evangelical culture, the cultural divisions between fundamentalist and evangelical culture need to be protected. The blurred line between the two groups does nothing to further the cause of gender equality.

Further research is needed to better define fundamentalist and evangelical gender ideology and to understand the rhetorical appeals used to define the two co-cultural positions. Communication scholars must be willing to consider Christian society as a complex body of many different co-cultures. However, to fully understand the complexities of gender ideology in Christianity, new approaches to rhetorical analysis must be taken. Past rhetorical scholarship has been too hegemonic, denying the lived experience of women and minorities. As Raymie McKerrow notes in his essay “Opening the Future: Postmodern Rhetoric in a Multicultural World:

We need to conceptualize a rhetoric that does not privilege, at the outset, any one singular means of achieving goals. Until and unless we are successful in reworking our theoretical assumptions, we will forever be mired in a narrow, provincial perspective that automatically consigns some rhetoric to the world of the irrational, regardless of how its practitioners perceive its utility.” (p.41)

Using new rhetorical approaches can provide the means to analyze issues such as gender oppression from a new perspective which does not grant power to the Christian patriarchy which has manipulated and controlled Biblical interpretation for centuries (Setel, 1985). Therefore, until scholars begin to recognize the complexity of Christian communication practices and the need to explore new frameworks of analysis, the ability to provide alternatives to oppressive gender ideology will be ignored to the detriment of women’s rights.

4 thoughts on “Gender Norms in Christian Co-Cultures Part III

  1. For me I see the problem is one of balancing equality with non-homogeneity. Based on the fact that Gods creation was not complete until eve was created; it seems to me that, by design, men and women are different and have different strengths and weaknesses. A good marriage partnership should analyze the strength and weaknesses of the other and delegate the various responsibilities in accordance with those things.

  2. As you know, I definitely don’t think most women respect the Marty Milquetoast stereotype –one who has them barking like a shrew because he’s passive –or passive-aggressive–or just plain inept in her view. I watched Jon & Kate Plus 8 –and thought she was too dominant in their relationship –too strong, colorful, personable, opinionated, sure of herself –in comparison to him –too much the leader in the family–never deferring to him (but I watched it seldom) and it never “looks” good–seems to me IMHO. However, it was all about the parenting role –and women have so much to do with that when the children are little –in different ways than men. They do tend to be the experts on protection, comfort, dressing, keeping clean, scheduling of little tykes–trouble-shooting. Not that men can’t be more expert than they are traditionally inclined to be.

    We wives in the R. family always were nervous if the dads were in charge of playing with the kids when all the cousins got together–they just weren’t as clued in by nature to be “trouble-shooters” as we were –not as watchful. (HOwever, I think my father WAS a cautious type –a little less macho-neanderthal than the R. boys –with whom a wagon would be sure to tip over, etc.) We were sure to have to deal with skinned knees, etc. Some would say that’s how the little dickens get toughened up and won’t be so wimpy but able to compete in life –to stand up for themselves, male and female.

    Interestingly, Christy, you come across as a soft-spoken, non-temperamental woman, one who would contribute to her egalitarian marriage by respectful means, “in honor submitting to one another” –we all know how to dig our heels in, of course. And there are times for that.

    but I’ve seen the bad marriages of bossy women –and abusive husbands. Egalitarian is mutual respect and recognition that “helpmeet” means a contributor of wisdom for decisions and leadership in the family –but I find that a male leader will stand stronger and taller when leaned on a bit –and surprise the young wife. He is the hunter-gatherer, the warrior-defender, the physically stronger (stereotype? or different roles because mothers are mothers) when it comes to moving furniture and carrying the groceries and the baby and the diaper bag, the Pack N Go –now I’ve even got him carrying my purse at times!! (It weighs a ton!)

    I like that we are different.

  3. I might add that Dr. Dobson does think some gender role differentiation in child-rearing helps those children with gender identity. I was always glad to be ignorant and helpless in changing tires (if there’s a man around) –and men seem to remain happily ignorant about which drawer holds the kids’ socks –but there are times when we benefit from cross-knowledge of each other’s gender domains.

    I have certainly felt the discrimination of men toward women in ministry through the years —-formerly –i.e. the automatic disregard for my input that I believed was mostly because I was female. I also have known what it is to feel disapproval from chauvinists in the church who thought I was overstepping my proper feminine place. However, I grew up in a church, the UB in Christ, where women were regarded as equals in ministry –as daughters –as smart people. It was a shock to step into a church that practiced a rather extreme chauvinism –and it was not the FM denomination but an individual church influenced by the Gothard philosophy of umbrella protection of men.

  4. Christy –you wrote, The divisions between various Christian co-cultures are pronounced on political and doctrinal issues, in all matters regarding gender roles and family life the lines are dangerously blurred.

    I wonder what an example of “dangerously blurred” would be –in these differences between co-cultures.

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