A week ago, I had a chance to return to Spring Arbor University (SAU), my alma mater with my sixteen-year-old son, who is beginning his college search. As much as I love SAU, I am deeply worried about the university’s lack of connection to its Free Methodist history and even its own mission. A key part of that mission is the SAU Concept, which is intended to help students, faculty, and staff visualize what a Wesleyan/Methodist worldview looks like in practice. As it states:
“Spring Arbor University is a community of learners distinguished by our lifelong involvement in the study and application of the liberal arts, total commitment to Jesus Christ as the perspective for learning, and critical participation in the contemporary world.”
The last sentence, “critical participation in the contemporary world” is what fuels my research on gender in Christian culture. When I was a student, that phrase was interpreted as “critique what you know, push for social justice, and work to make the world a better place.” Critical = critique, including a critique of problematic theology in Christian culture. Unfortunately, now that portion of the Concept seems to be much more generic.
The undergrad who gave us a campus tour noted the phrase meant faculty and staff worked to prepare students for their post-graduation employment, teaching them from a “Christian” perspective to critically engage in their careers and to be successful. What does that even mean?
Part of A Larger Trend in Evangelical Culture
The generic interpretation is just a reflection of larger trends in American evangelical culture where Christians have little understanding of their denomination’s history and theology and instead buy into a very literal interpretation of the Bible, leading to extreme political views pushing complementarian theology.
My first book on the history of gender In the Free Methodist Church of North America came out at the end of September. My hope is researchers and readers will see that it is not just a history of what happened in the Free Methodist Church but is a case study as to why so many denominations in the Methodist tradition are struggling with their members believing complementarian theology.
In my concluding chapter, I draw parallels between the hurdles women evangelists faced in the Progressive Era to current issues egalitarian churches still face today. One of the many reasons so few women are currently senior pastors can be traced to the prolific complementarian media industry still present in Protestant American culture.
The Rise of Complementarian Pop Culture
Mainly since 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.[i]
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, including institutions and churches that are part of the egalitarian theological tradition.
As religious studies scholar, 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.”[ii]
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.”[iii]
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.
Pushing Back Against “Biblical Womanhood”
The day I was visiting at SAU, the chapel speaker was a Fox News host who had written several books on “Biblical womanhood” (aka complementarian leaning Biblical interpretation). The chapel speaker was brought to campus as part of a new series by the Wagner Center for Faith and Freedom.
The Center is a new initiative begun by SAU President Brett Ellis and is dedicate to “preserving and promoting freedom of thought, conscious and religion.” The center is actively funding lawsuits against school districts and other organizations that “threaten” parental choice and “Christian values.” To understand the gender norms, the center pushes you only need to read their recent review of The Barbie movie to see that complementarian theology is alive and well at Spring Arbor.
I recognize that by writing this post I am never going to be a guest speaker at my alma mater, but my research is more than just something I pursue for professional advancement. I passionately believe that only Egalitarian theology can truly allow everyone to participate in church life and represent the loving example of Jesus Christ. As Free Methodist founder Benjamin Titus Roberts so eloquently stated iv:
I’m under no allusion that my book is going to be read by a great number of people, and my alma matter probably doesn’t even think about me. However, I do hope my research inspires more people to stand up and speak out when they see institutions straying from their theology and history. We need to have the courage and conviction to push for egalitarian theology in both doctrine and practice.
i Julie Ingersoll, Evangelical Christian Women: War Stories in the Gender Battles (New York: NYU Press, 2003), 106.
ii 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.
iii Mark Ward, Sr. “‘Men’ and ‘Ladies’: An Archeology of Gendering in the Evangelical Church,” Journal of Communication and Religion, 41, no.4 (2018): 127.
iv B.T. Roberts, Ordaining Women, (1891) p.159