Gender Norms in Christian Culture Part II

This series was first published in 2010

Middle of the Road Beliefs

Gender stereotyping is prevalent in both Christian and non-Christian pop psychology books, however when these stereotypes are viewed in relation to the dominant Christian discourse favoring the patriarchy, then the stereotypes can become tools to reinforce the dominant ideology. Perhaps one of the most influential Christian writers who bridges evangelical and fundamentalist cultures is Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family ministries, whose numerous books on parenting, marriage and family life have sold millions of copies (Focus on the Family, 2010). Dobson, like the Eldredge’s, uses subtle rhetorical devices to reinforce male-headship. In his book What Wives Wish their Husband Knew About Women (1981), Dobson encourages husbands to praise their wives domestic accomplishments and understand the differences between men and women. As Dobson notes, “Women are often less successful in finding outside interests and activities than are their masculine counterparts. Men typically love sporting events, and draw great enthusiasm from following the (televised) games of the home team. Women do not” (p.62). These fundamental differences in recreational activities and occupations are what Dobson describes as intrinsic parts of the personalities of men and women and what sets them apart to follow completely different family roles.

Dobson notes the need for men to lead their family by describing how men care more about goals and achievement, while women are more nurturing and desire companionship and love. As Dobson states:

There is still no substitute for the biblical perspective of marriage, nor will its wisdom ever be replaced. A successful husband and wife relationship begins with the attitude of the man; he has been ordained by God as the head of the family, and the responsibility for its welfare rests upon his shoulders. This charge can be found in the early writings of Moses in the Old Testament, returning at least 5000 years into Jewish history. Derek Prince has expressed this viewpoint even more strongly. He feels that the troubles America is facing, particularly with reference to the family, can be traced to what he calls “renegade males.” The word renegade actually means “one who has reneged.” We men have ignored our God-given responsibility to care for the welfare of our families, to discipline our children, to supervise the expenditure of the financial resources, to assume spiritual leadership to love and to cherish and protect. (pp. 67-69)

This is what Dobson calls the “5,000 year-old solution.”  What makes the writings of the Eldredges and Dobson so powerful and so able to transfer their rhetoric across Christian co-cultural groups is how they avoid using language that is accepted by only one co-culture.  Nowhere on the Elredge’s website will you find reference to their denominational background, only a generic statement of faith (Ransomed Heart Ministries, 2010). Dobson’s writing and his organization, Focus on the Family, promote themselves only as a Christian organization (Focus on the Family, 2010). Therefore, the typical reader would be unlikely to question whether what these writers’ are presenting actually aligns with their own culture’s Biblical interpretation. Instead, through eloquent cultural examples and Scripture citations their writing is taken at face value as uplifting advice for Christians for all co-cultural groups.

A Differing Perspective

While it may seem the majority of evangelical and fundamentalist writers advocate for male-headship, within the more moderate evangelical tradition there are dissenting voices, such as the founder of the Free Methodist denomination, B.T. Roberts. Roberts lived in the late 1800s and his writings were revolutionary, especially during a time before women even had the right to vote. In 1891, over a 100 years before his published his pamphlet “On Ordaining Women” influenced lead the Free Methodist Church to vote in 1974 to ordain women. While the Free Methodist denomination is only one of many moderate evangelical denominations, the writings of B.T. Roberts reflect the vision of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, and various Wesleyan denominations around the country hold similar views on women in ministry (Metcalf, n.d.).

Unlike Pride, the Eldreges and Dobson, who believe that the curse of Eve requires women to be dominated by men, Roberts takes an egalitarian perspective on gender. As Roberts noted, the belief that women are less capable of leadership than men was a result of continuing to follow the law established after the sin of Eve and Adam. Yet Roberts argues that Christ came to redeem us from the law, taking on the curse of the law for us (Galatians 3:13). Thus, the primitive law that God originally intended for the world is restored – man and woman leaving their parents and becoming one flesh, a team. As Roberts notes in “On Ordaining Women”:

The greatest domestic happiness always exists where husband and wife live together on terms of equality. Two men, having individual interests, united only by business ties, daily associate as partners for years, without either of them being in subjection to the other. They consider each other as equals; and treat each other as equals. Then, cannot a man and woman, united by conjugal love, the strongest tie that can unite two human beings, having the same interests, live together in the same manner? Christ came to repair the ruin wrought by the fall. In Him, and in Him only, is Paradise restored. (p.36)

This idea is a radical contradiction to the writings of prominent evangelical writers’ today. Roberts and his wife Ellen both worked in ministry side-by-side and practiced egalitarian principles in their marriage (Snyder, 2006). Thus, providing a living example of how a Biblical egalitarian interpretation can be put into practice. Within the Wesleyan tradition today writers such as Eldredges and Dobson are widely read, as their books are available at local Christian bookstores across the country. The contradiction between the cultural beliefs of the Wesleyan tradition and the cultural beliefs of the fundamentalist/conservative evangelical tradition are overlooked, resulting in oppressive ideology from one co-cultural group infiltrating the more moderate-progressive co-culture.

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