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Religion Library: Holiness and Pentecostal

Gender and Sexuality

Written by: Arlene Sanchez Walsh

Pentecostals, like most other conservative Christians, have very traditional views on both gender and sexuality, taking their cues from particular views of certain biblical passages.  Regarding gender, Pentecostals try to mirror what they view as traditional family values.  As such, women's roles in Pentecostalism are tightly conscripted to the home and church.  Nontraditional roles for women, in the professions or as entrepreneurs, are not discouraged, but they are secondary to a woman's primary role as helpmates to men.  Of course this view has its dissenters; women have leadership roles, for example as superintendents in the Foursquare church, and there are prominent women educators in Pentecostal colleges, seminaries, and universities.  Male gender roles are also tightly conscripted; men are viewed as leaders, providers, and spiritual heads of the household.

Pentecostal men and women generally have certain assumptions about their respective roles in the home; both understand what is expected of them, and as such, things once considered taboo, such as divorce, are still discouraged. Marriage then is extremely important for shoring up these gender roles.  Taking much of their ethos about marriage, and the church's role in securing good marriages, Pentecostals regularly offer counseling, invite speakers, and hold conferences around the subject of marriage.  Not only is marriage viewed as the most desired outcome of any courtship between men and women, but children are an expectation of any union.  

Intertwined in this thinking about gender, and particularly gender roles, is the idea that gender is a physical attribute that is God-given.  Sexuality is a gift from God to be enjoyed within the confines of marriage, chiefly for the purpose of procreation.  Though such strictures may appear quaint in the contemporary world, great care has been taken to ensure that these same theologically inspired notions do not, like many other traditional mores, become lost in the relativism many Pentecostals believe rules the day.

Pentecostal women have a number of conflicting issues to navigate.  Traditionalists view their roles as helpmates-typically as housewives-as a standard that is biblical.  They also have much at stake in maintaining their position as complementing men.  As such, when traditionalist women, such as noted televangelist Joyce Meyer, decides to become an evangelist and overshadows the ministerial work of her husband, it is Meyer that has to explain this break with tradition. Meyer explains that her husband has blessed her work and allows her to do her ministry work despite the fact that it keeps her away from the traditional role within the household.  Without the explicit approval of her husband, Meyer's validity as a Christian role model for women would not be as strong.  As such, Meyer has spoken about many incidents in her life that authenticate her ability to speak to women; she has spoken about her abusive past and her difficulties with men stemming from that abuse.  Other Pentecostal women have not had husbands who supported their work, and they have had to take the serious step of divorce to continue their ministries.

Probably the most well-known woman in Pentecostal history is Aimee Semple McPherson.  She was widowed once and twice divorced (both divorces, in 1921 and 1931,were at times when divorce was not generally accepted in the general population, and certainly not accepted in the Pentecostal church).  What made McPherson different and in many ways a role model for women in ministry today was her non-traditional gender role buried deeply within a very traditional theological outlook.  McPherson's personal issues with men (divorcing two of them because they would not support her ministry), and her purported affair with a Foursquare employee, made for messy tabloid fare, but significantly these "scandals"  did not affect her pursuit of ministry.  This may be because McPherson did not take her personal difficulties with her into the pulpit; she did not, for instance, make a case that divorce was acceptable, but instead she supported very popular causes such as being against evolution and speaking out against communism.  Added to the mix is the fact that McPherson was an exceptional popularizer of Pentecostalism, with a gift for healing that overcame whatever misgivings her congregation at Angelus Temple may have had about her personal life.  Such an example illustrates the way that scandal can be overcome if the participant in it remains steadfast to popular political stances, particularly if the church community believes that the Holy Spirit had not abandoned the person despite perceived transgressions.

Sexuality and Pentecostalism, particularly homosexuality, has proved to be an intractable issue that has divided churches and families, and has been the underlying cause of some of the more pronounced splits in Pentecostalism.  As in many segments of society, in Pentecostal circles homosexuality is not discussed unless it needs to be.  Pentecostalism, though, has had its share of "scandals" stemming from this issue. The most notable from the formative years of the movement was the suggestion that Charles F. Parham had been "detained" on morals charges in 1907 in Texas.  While this is event is sketchy, the story had some resonance beyond 1907, with further explanation that this was probably a case of homosexual behavior.  For this and other reasons Parham's influence waned in the Pentecostal movement.  That Pentecostals today still do not agree on this historical event, and many historians feel constrained in even mentioning that the charge was most probably sodomy, says much about the difficult climate homosexuals have in Pentecostal circles.
 
Because of the strong condemnation of homosexuality within most Pentecostal circles, gay and lesbian leaders within the movement have nearly always had to hide their sexual orientation. Such is the case of one of the better-known figures of the Jesus Movement. Lonnie Frisbee, a hippie evangelist with the Jesus Movement during the 1960s, was one of the most effective in the new movement's attempts to reach into the 60s counterculture.  Frisbee was an evangelist on staff at Calvary Chapel (a Jesus Movement church founded by Chuck Smith in 1965), and eventually left to join the Vineyard movement in the 1970s.  He traveled with Vineyard founder John Wimber around the world, and experiences of healing, Spirit baptism, and other supernatural occurrences were trumpeted as part of Frisbee's unique mix of evangelical preaching and Pentecostal experience.  Frisbee was fired from Wimber's staff when he admitted his homosexuality and eventually left the church entirely. He was eulogized by Chuck Smith as a "Samson" like figure who unfortunately gave in to too many temptations in his life. Not only did these comments not help matters, they signaled to many that the only way Frisbee would ever be allowed to be a minister was to hide his sexuality.

 
     
     
     
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