About a month ago a reader asked why, if evangelicalism was a religious tradition that emphasizes direct divine revelation, any evangelical would hold that God speaks to a woman through her husband or father rather than just speaking to her himself. How could those two ideas go together? This is a very good question, and it deserves an answer, so here we go!
It is absolutely true that evangelicalism has long emphasized direct revelation from God. The idea was always that nothing, nothing should come between humans and God, and for this reason when evangelicalism was on the rise in this country during the First and Second Great Awakenings of the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, more established churches looked askance at it. They saw evangelicals as too emotional, disorderly, and leaderless, each listening to and hearing from God on his or her own.
So how can that ever fit with patriarchy, and especially with spiritual headship?
For many in history, it didn’t. Evangelicalism in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries abounds with female preachers. How did they justify preaching? They explained that God had personally called them to do so. Divine revelation meant that women could hear from God just as men could, and this was likely part of the reason the First and Second Great Awakenings actually involved more women than men.
But just as it has been a religion of divine revelation, evangelicalism has long been a religion of the Bible. In lieu of any sort of church authority structure, evangelicals have long looked to the Bible as their primary source of authority. The trouble is, the Bible is a diverse book full of often contradictory teachings. So even as some women pointed to the Bible as well as divine revelation to justify female preaching, etc., many evangelicals, especially in recent years, pointed to the Bible to justify what is generally called “male headship.”
Ephesians 5: 22-24
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Thus while some evangelicals have used evangelicalism’s emphasis on individual divine revelation to work against patriarchal ideas, others have used certain Bible verses to uphold patriarchy even within evangelicalism. And since there are verses in the Bible that seem to go each way, and since divine revelation goes both ways as well, it’s not surprising that a religious tradition like evangelicalism, based as it is on the Bible and direct divine revelation, should be divided in this way.
When I began to question my parents and their beliefs, the evangelical belief in direct revelation from God came in very handy. Believing that God could speak directly to me, whether through the Bible or my prayer time or what have you, gave me the courage and strength I needed to to step out from under male headship. I had no idea, then, that I was simply following the lead of plenty of feminist evangelicals throughout American history, women who took the evangelical promise of individual conscience and communion with God and ran with it, throwing off male authority and anything that came in the way of their direct link to God. Because of this, while I no longer believe in God I will always be grateful to the emphasis evangelicalism places on divine revelation and direct communication with God.