While my more recent blog posts have been about historic examples of women in ministry, I want to take a few posts to connect why the study of historic gender concerns in American Christian culture is relevant to issues Protestant American culture still faces today.
Over ten years ago, I began exploring the history of gender in evangelical culture because it’s an intensely personal topic for me. I grew up in evangelical culture, and from third through twelfth grade, I attended a very conservative Christian school that used the aBeka curriculum.
The curriculum is associated with Pensacola Christian College, and similar to materials from Bob Jones University or the Institute for Basic Life Principles, it is decadently conservative. The science curriculum teaches creationism and educates students on how to “debunk” evolution. The history curriculum promotes manifest destiny and a historical narrative that is far from accurate (which I realized when I went to college and my ancient history class was NOT based solely on the book of Genesis!)
In addition to a decidedly conservative, revisionist take on academic topics aBeka curriculum seeks to educate students holistically. So, topics about Christian living, marriage, family, politics, and entertainment are also touched on in various classes. By my senior year of high school, I was largely rejecting the primary Christian living messaging of aBeka as I’d come to realize I had nothing in common with people who were not part of my religious subculture. However, it’s taken me years to realize the impact of the curriculum on my thought process and self-esteem. In many ways, I’m still wrestling with feelings of inadequacy that I picked up through aBeka and other Christian pop culture sources.
This is why history matters. This is why media studies matter. As today’s media landscape extends into every area of life, we are more connected through technology than ever before. The pseudo-community created through social media, television, radio, and print recreates an experience like what Christians encounter when attending church. Decades ago, media ecologist Neil Postman warned us of the immense power of visual media, cautioning that when religion and visual media combine, a potentially dangerous relationship develops where religion is stripped of everything that makes it “historic, profound and sacred.” There is no longer “ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all no sense of spiritual transcendence.”[i]
Even in the Progressive Era, religious periodicals perpetuated very specific theological interpretations on gender. We’ve just replaced those periodicals with television, movies, music, and a prolific Christian publishing industry that skews heavily towards conservative, complementarian theology.
This prolific complementarian media industry began in the 1980s, with the formation in 1987 of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the publication of John Piper’s best-selling book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical feminism, and the rise of Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles there has been a concerted effort in Christian media to discount egalitarian theology and downplay the history of women’s leadership in many denominations.[ii] Believing that men and women are functionally different and – thus, have different roles to play in the church and the home— has become a cornerstone of evangelical culture. As Julie Ingersoll’s research into Christian bookstores illustrates, Christian popular culture is intrinsically gendered:
By looking at the material culture that evangelicals produce, we can discern a much-overlooked dimension of who these people are. The culture they have produced is profoundly gendered, suggesting that evangelicalism, as a religious movement, is itself essentially gendered.[iii]
Ingersoll goes on to note the challenges Christian egalitarians face in overcoming the functional difference argument popularized by complementarian theologians:
While there is evidence that evangelical feminists have gained significant ground on the institutional and theological fronts, the fact remains that gendered dualism is perpetuated on a popular level by virtue of the fact that the material culture that gives shape to everyday life reproduces it.[iv]
This gendered dualism is present in church life as well. Gender-specific retreats and speakers help entrench already established beliefs that men and women are inherently different. Evangelical girls grow up believing that a career and motherhood are not compatible, and if forced to choose between a career and family, young women are likely to choose motherhood, in part due to complementarian views that men are the financial and spiritual leaders in the home.[v]
The immense power of Christian publishing and evangelical organizations such as Focus on the Family, which promotes functional complementarianism, should not be discounted. [vi] Because this theology is so entrenched in the day-to-day lives of many evangelical Christians, denominations should evaluate every avenue of messaging – Sunday School curriculum, visual representations of church participation, social media messaging, and the structure of gender-specific ministries are just a few areas that should be interrogated.
[i] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Penguin Books, 2005) 116-117.
[ii] Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) taught attendees tenants of Christian living (according to Gothard’s interpretation.) Emphasizing a separation from the world, IBLP encouraged attendees to shy away from non-Christian forms of media, public schools, and dating. Additionally, Gothard’s IBLP curriculum emphasized “God-Given” authority—a strict hierarchy that placed God at the top, followed by church leaders, employers, and, for women, their husbands. The concepts taught in IBLP extended beyond just those who took the course. Both my spouse and I grew up in the late 1980s and 1990s which was the height of Christian music and television programming as well as anti-dating books that, instead, emphasized courtship, such as Joshua Harris’ bestselling book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. We both grew up attending Free Methodists Churches. My local church heavily emphasized living separate from the rest of society out of concern that we would be “tempted” and lose our faith. My husband’s home church went even further and had members who had attended IBLP and firmly followed Gotthard’s teachings. Church leadership did not insist that members believe the egalitarian theology espoused in the Free Methodist Church, almost resulting in a church split when in the 1990s, the congregation elected a woman to the pastor’s cabinet. IBLP views were still popular in the early 2000s and gained national attention. TLC shows 17 Kids and Counting, 18 Kids and Counting, 19 Kids and Counting and Counting On as the Duggar family; the show’s stars regularly shared their complementarian views and modeled this lifestyle to their audience. Today, IBLP says over 2.5 million people have completed its course. Bill Gothard is no longer associated with the organization, stepping down in 2014 after allegations that he harassed and molested women. Christy Mesaros-Winckles, “Christian Patriarchy Lite: TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting,” in Media Depictions of Brides, Wives, and Mothers, ed.,Alena Rugerio (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2012 ), 63-76; Carolina Radnofsky, “Ministry that Once Nourished the Duggar’s Family Faith Falls from Grace,” NBC News, February 6, 2022, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/ministry-nourished-duggar-familys-faith-falls-grace-rcna14024; & Mark Ward, Sr. “‘Men’ and ‘Ladies’: An Archeology of Gendering in the Evangelical Church,” Journal of Communication and Religion, 41, no.4 (2018): 127.
[iii] Julie Ingersoll, Evangelical Christian Women: War Stories in the Gender Battles (New York: NYU Press, 2003), 106.
[iv] Ibid, 107.
[v] Colleen Warner Colaner & Steven Giles, “The Baby Blanket or the Briefcase: The Impact of Evangelical Gender Role Ideology on Career and Mothering Aspirations of Female Evangelical College Students,” Sex Roles 58 (2008): 526-534.
[vi] Christy Mesaros-Winckles & Andrew Winckles, “Focus on the (Changing) Family: A Hot Message Encounters a Cool Medium,” in The Electronic Church in the Digital Age, ed. Mark Ward Sr. (Santa Barbara, California: Praeger, 2016), 31-37.