Female Submission in the “Family Values Movement”:
Since the release of my book, How Would Jesus Raise a Child? (Baker Books, 2003), many evangelical women have told me how deeply they value its message of Christlike childrearing, an approach quite different from the harsh and often violent discipline urged by their pastors and other conservative leaders.
While heartened to hear their appreciation, I noticed that whenever the conversation touched on their lives as women—their marriages, their dreams, and the degree to which they felt connected with and important to God—their voices became halting and unsure. As they spoke about their increasingly limited roles in their families, their churches, and even their relationships with God, it became clear: Something very troubling is happening in conservative Christianity.
* * *
Having grown up in an evangelical church, I’ve witnessed first hand the shock, the shame, the tears, and the conflicts that inevitably follow sermons on the commands of male writers such as Paul, Peter, and the various authors of Proverbs, for women to submit to their husbands in the Middle-Eastern style, to be silent in church, to focus only on their family, and to relinquish their God-given minds and reasoning skills. In these sermons, women are instructed to rely henceforth on their new “head”. That head (or headship, as some call it) is in the person of their husband—however mature or immature, wise or foolish, kind or brutal he may be—who, occupying a quite different status, is to relate directly to God.
The only saving grace in those days was pragmatism: Female-submission sermons were few and far between, primarily when some traveling evangelist dropped in for a week at a time to incite all manner of conflict and misery in the name of “revival”. While those revival-specialists could quickly scoot away to the next congregation, our pastors-in-residence had no such luxury. If they preached Paul instead of Jesus with respect to women and their role in the home, the church, and the community, they would have to suffer with the consequences—husbands and wives at odds, younger women leaving the church, and older men visibly annoyed because of the domestic price they’d be paying after the closing hymn.
Saddest of all, however, were the unseen and unheard effects: Little girls, their older sisters, and newlywed brides would suddenly wake up and smell the coffee, realizing for the first time that they were not valued as highly by God as were their inattentive, roughhousing, and decidedly less spiritual brothers, not to mention the bored, can’t-wait-to-get-out-of-here teenage boys in the back pew.
Women, the Backbone of the Church
But most threatening of all, and likely the primary reason for the rarity with which our pastors preached female submission, was the possibility that women might actually go along with it! Women were, in our congregation as in most, the backbone of the church. Had these ladies asked their husbands for permission to attend, they’d never have gotten as far as the vestibule because their men, like some at our church, were worn out on Sundays, closet alcoholics, late sleepers, or all three.
And what if the women actually agreed to be silent in church? Well the whole thing would have fallen apart.
Women didn’t just baby-sit in the nursery during services and “keep silent” the rest of the time. Far from it. Grandma and Mrs. Carpenter taught Sunday School. My mother led the choir and engineered the Easter Cantata. Mrs. Hughes directed Vacation Bible School, doing outreach and inviting poor kids from the neighborhood. Mrs. Stevens, when she wasn’t giving guilt-trips and fervent speeches to raise money for the preacher’s salary and the building fund, was in charge of children’s programming, and personally trained every little Mary, Joseph, shepherd and wise man for every Christmas play. And when Mrs. Neal got the Spirit, well nobody had better get in her way, husband or preacher, male or female!
All the women dragged their husbands to church on cold winter nights during football season, and on lazy Sunday mornings in the summertime. Women ministered to the sick, the old, and the despondent, taking meals to talkative invalids when the preacher didn’t have the time or, perhaps, the inclination. Oh sure, there were male deacons and such, but men couldn’t be counted on to offer the emotional and practical support that holds a congregation together and keeps a pastor going. In a nutshell, if women had been silent and submissive, there would have been no church. And so it is in thousands and thousands of churches today.
Fundamentalist Men, Silenced Women
Yet something has changed: Today it isn’t just the traveling evangelist who preaches female submissiveness and silence. In many churches, particularly those in the South, it’s the pastor himself, backed up by all manner of lesser men-in-charge, whether deacons or assistant pastors or disgruntled husbands, who preaches that unless women are submissive and obedient to men and silent in the church, they cannot be “pure”, “virtuous” or “godly”.
These men are preaching that a woman like Mrs. Stevens or Mrs. Carpenter can never see her children “arise up and call her blessed”. Because she teaches Sunday school and speaks up for issues that are important to her, these men claim, her husband will not praise her, these men say, nor will she “have a price far above rubies”. She will forfeit “God’s delight” in her, and can’t be truly saved or even call herself a real Christian.
Women can avoid this kind of social and spiritual censure only if they dedicate their lives to obeying and serving men in the home, and reject their grandmothers’ and great-grandmothers’ legacies of leadership in the church. Reinforced by a plethora of bestsellers touting “the power of submission” and that “true liberation = true submission”, extremist preachers and speakers are warning women that the only way they can come to God is through—Jesus?—no, their husbands.
Single women, on the other hand, are being told that until and unless they have a husband, they must submit to all men in order to qualify as Christian women! Like priests, men have become the barrier through which women must pass their prayers. Women are not to pray for anything that goes against their husbands’ desires, but rather for God to help them relinquish (“surrender”) even their most basic needs for respect, decent treatment, nonviolent discipline of the children, and so forth.
Yet in these “submissive women” books, readers are given pre-worded prayers to repeat verbatim, prayers that reveal the female writers’ understandable (and not-so-hidden) desire to regain some sense of power over their own lives, without the risk of appearing to want it. It’s not surprising that many of these books have the word “power” in their titles.
Sermons around Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day no longer honor the strength and spiritual devotion of the church’s faithful women, young and old. No longer do today’s so-called “literalist” pastors make note of the fact that Jesus consistently treated women with respect for their hearts and their minds. Gone are the sermons that emphasize Jesus’ approach to women in the beloved story, “the woman at the well”, wherein the disciples were “amazed” (and perhaps dismayed) that Jesus was talking with a woman—yet Jesus was determined not only to talk with her, but to engage her in serious theological discussion.
Instead, on those special days when, in times past, women were honored—not for their obedience and service to men, but for their faithful discipleship to God—women are now chided. Chided for making their own decisions, for working outside the home, for expecting fairness within the home…and for imagining that Jesus would have them use, not bury, their talents in fields such as education, business, humanitarian relief, journalism, medicine, policymaking, and the arts.
The Dark Side of "Family Values"
Largely a middle-class white phenomenon, the submissive-woman movement (often referred to as innocent-sounding “family values movement”) condemns women who, regardless of wealth or financial need, (1) work outside the home, (2) don’t home-school or enroll their children in parochial schools, and (3) expect their husbands to do their fair share of the childcare and housework. Christian women are being placed in an impossible double-bind, and to top it off, they’re being frightened away from a direct relationship with Jesus!
These women haven’t any idea how to respond to these pressures, emanating as they do from a highly organized and well-funded movement promoting a remarkably male-centric version of Christianity. This movement parallels the current movement in Islam towards a more radical, male-centric version requiring “literal” adherence to ancient traditions.
While Muslim women in authoritarian countries are being forced to wear the veil, obey men and focus solely on their family, evangelical women are being pressured along the same lines here in America’s fundamentalist churches; the primary difference is the veil itself. The results are devastating.
Yet there is hope. Where Jesus is concerned, there is always hope. We must use our heads and our hearts to discern the difference between human cultural traditions such as slavery and female submission, and Christ’s teachings that apply to all our lives, yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Dr Whitehurst is currently writing a book on this growing problem in our churches today.