Behind the Rise of Evangelical Women “Influencers”

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    The Southern Baptist Convention is, like many institutions, facing an abuse crisis. In February 2019, the Houston Chronicle reported that over two decades, nearly 400 SBC church leaders have been accused of sexual misconduct involving more than 700 victims. In response, SBC leaders hosted the Caring Well conference this fall, giving survivors a platform to call for reform in the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.

    But if you took to social media any time in 2019, you might think the real SBC crisis is figuring out whether Beth Moore is “teaching,” “speaking,” or “preaching.” The popular Bible teacher identifies as a complementarian, believing that men are to hold authority in the church and home. When Moore teaches, it’s usually to stadiums full of women. Even so, Moore’s growing voice in the SBC has spurred a backlash among leaders concerned that the SBC is caving to woke #metoo culture. In October, prominent pastor John MacArthur told an all-male audience that Moore should “go home,” that Scripture forbids “a woman preacher.” Once the laughter died down, his co-panelist compared Moore to a saleswoman who hawks jewelry. Hell hath no fury like a man threatened.

    Perhaps more than any other evangelical leader today, Moore embodies the contested power of women evangelists, speakers, writers, and entertainers in male-dominant church cultures. That power—often immense but also easily taken away—is the subject of The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities, by Duke Divinity School historian Kate Bowler. Through a survey of prominent Christian women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as interviews with more than 100 Christian women today, Bowler argues that two forces determine conservative women’s spiritual authority. The first is complementarianism, which has “prescribed a limited set of feminine virtues and capacities.” Within this context, women like Moore frame their spiritual calling as “teaching” or “influence” to uphold the implicit gender hierarchy. The second is capitalism, which turns these women into successful brands when the institutional church rejects them.

    Christian women’s spiritual authority has always been contested. Interpretations of New Testament teachings forbidding women to speak in the early church have been taken to bar women from spiritual leadership. That said, Bowler spotlights women who emerged in the nineteenth century to lead social reform movements (Lucretia Mott, Frances Willard) and arguably spearhead the overseas missionary movement (Amanda Berry Smith). By 1900, there were 40 women’s missionary groups in the U.S. claiming 3 million-plus members. Female missionaries enjoyed a freedom and authority overseas that matched that of their male cohorts back home. But by the early twentieth century, women-led missionary boards were absorbed into organizations led by men, and fundamentalist movements were suspicious of any female spiritual leadership. In the second half of the twentieth century, as mainline churches ordained growing numbers of women, conservative women carved out their own influence in the popular marketplace. Each chapter of The Preacher’s Wife explores a role or “type” that women have adopted within this popular marketplace.

    The Preacher (which includes Moore and popular author Joyce Meyer) teaches theology, but operates outside official church structures. Moore, for instance, headlines conferences and authors best-selling Bible studies, but she is not a pastor. Yet even in mainline circles that ordain women, Bowler notes, women face the “ghettoization of female clergy” that hinders national platforms. Another type Bowler outlines, the Homemaker (Dorothy Patterson, Elisabeth Elliot), is an omnipresent support for her ministry husband, often “resacralizing” home life as a bulwark against feminism. Patterson, the wife of disgraced SBC seminary president Paige Patterson, proudly hosted an Art of Homemaking conference and wore large church hats as a symbol of living under the authority of her husband. Elliot wrote several popular books about Christian womanhood after her husband, Jim, was slain in the mission field. A third type is the Talent, which include gospel singers like CeCe Winans in the black and Pentecostal traditions and CCM artists like Rebecca St. James within white evangelicalism. They offer a chaste response to secular pop stars—but are chastised if a V-neck is an inch too deep. The Counselor (Q Ideas cofounder Rebekah Lyons; Jennie Allenfounder of the popular IF:Gathering) establishes authority via lived experience, confessing to struggles and identifying primarily as a “wife, mother, friend” or some Twitter bio variation thereof. Finally, the Beauty (Proverbs31 Ministries founder Lysa TerKeurst and Victoria Osteenwife of Houston megachurch pastor Joel Osteen) offers a curated personal brand that’s feminine, soft, and almost inevitably white and thin. These women must present as both perfect yet also relatable—the equivalent of a Magnolia Home kitchen with a cute dollop of latte foam spilled on the counter.

    The women profiled by Bowler are, by most measures, very financially successful, and arguably more powerful than your standard evangelical male pastor. But Bowler makes clear that there are many tradeoffs. The Preacher’s Wife underscore the shrewdness and care that women must exercise in order to gain influence without overstepping gender norms; platforms and personal empires fall at the hint of “rebellion.” For example, many female pop singers learned that “their careers were perpetually brokered by those with their own theological and financial agendas.” Every evangelical child of the 90s remembers the backlash Amy Grant faced over her crossover hits (“Baby, Baby” was not about Baby Jesus) and divorce. Likewise, the women featured here have found that “managing beauty and sexuality in public life created tremendous market advantages but as many pitfalls, for women in conservative culture never fully managed to escape the suspicions reserved for the heirs of Eve.”

    Suspicions have only grown in a “new era of protest,” Bowler notes, when many women couldn’t “maintain a polite silence about political issues that directly related to their brand.” The ire in SBC circles over Moore, an abuse survivor, arguably started in 2016, when she “got political” and spoke out against Donald Trump’s sexual assault comments. That year, Jen Hatmaker lost her support from Lifeway Christian Resources, the publishing arm of the SBC, for affirming same-sex relationships. Yet any Christian woman with a measure of public influence threatens prevailing gender norms in much of evangelicalism. When MacArthur told Moore to “go home,” he was not only going for cheap laughs. He was also implying that pious women will stay quietly behind closed doors, out of the affairs of church and public life. By contrast, male leaders embroiled in scandal easily reassume positions of spiritual authority. It’s almost a cliché that a megachurch pastor who loses the pulpit over misconduct or toxic leadership will, in due time, set up a new church down the road. (Mark Driscoll, Tullian Tchvidjian, and Andy Savage are some recent examples.) Such is the durability of male Christian leadership.

    From my limited vantage point, there are significant counterexamples to Bowler’s profile of evangelical women celebrities that could have been developed in her book. First, it sounds obvious, but there do exist evangelical women pastors. (Tara Beth Leach, Gail Song Bantum, Sharon Hodde Miller, and Christine Caine come to mind.) Theologically evangelical, they maintain followings through conferences, books, and social media, and are formally credentialed by churches. Complementarians do not speak for the evangelical movement; many evangelical denominations formally ordain women. Bowler writes, “Conservative women gained considerable influence without institutional power, while liberal women gained institutional power without considerable influence.” But many theologically conservative women have found institutional power—and many liberal women have found considerable influence. Women who do not fit the binary would make for an interesting sidebar.

    Second, while I tend to run in egalitarian circles, I have met a few women in my life who are complementarian. They seem to come to their convictions in good faith; they do not wear Handmaid’s Tale robes. One implied theme of The Preacher’s Wife is that gifted evangelical women wanted to be pastors—wanted a church to credential them for the “lead” role. Then, being locked out, they creatively found softer forms of power. In a section on women’s online profiles, Bowler notes, “women in evangelical and Pentecostal circles who could not claim ‘pastor’ reached for other titles.” Such titles include “wife and mom,” “friend,” “life coach,” and so on. Bowler’s point here is that Christian women are market-friendly insofar as they identify with family and home. That is patently true. But when evangelical women identify as wives and moms, it’s also because a lot of them genuinely believe family is more important than professional accomplishments. Throughout the book, complementarianism is described as a stricture imposed from without, an external hindrance, rather than a belief affirmed from within, a nuanced understanding of gender and Scripture. I wanted to know a bit more about the women who affirm it from within.

    Nonetheless, The Preacher’s Wife powerfully attests to the creativity and shrewdness of Christian women operating in both evangelical and mainline circles. It also demonstrates what many churches have forfeited by relegating women’s gifts to the marketplace. One wonders if the SBC’s abuse crisis might have been mitigated had women more directly shaped the denomination’s bylaws and accountability structures over the years. Recently, John MacArthur rehashed his warnings about female preachers, referring to Moore in a sermon as “that woman.” “Let me tell you something, if children are in charge, we’re in trouble,” he said. “If women are in charge, we’re in trouble.” The reality is, women are already in charge. They dominate the bestseller lists, sell out stadiums, livestream to millions of followers worldwide, and manage to look great doing it. With the SBC abuse crisis and more #churchtoo stories emerging, it’s men who have led the church into plenty of trouble. Maybe it’s finally time that the women step to the front and see what happens.

    Katelyn Beaty is author of A Woman’s Place and has written for The New York TimesThe New YorkerThe Washington Post, and Christianity Today, where she previously served as the magazine’s first female and youngest managing editor. She currently serves as acquisitions editor for Brazos Press and lives in Brooklyn.