Evangelicals, Emergents, & the Gender/Power Issue, Pt. 1

[Part 2 here.]

Earlier this week, I tweeted this:

I was surprised by the response, mostly affirming that this may in fact be the case. I admit that it was kind of a shot in the dark. I also admit that this is not a particular area of academic expertise or extensive experience for me.

Because of that, I want to frame this two-part series as a similar kind of proposal, rather than a definitive word on the subject. I want to make two primary suggestions, and then ask two big questions to those who are more knowledgable and experienced than I in this area.

But in this first post, I’ll focus on giving some background on why I’m venturing into this territory in the first place.

My Patriarchal Past
The fact is, I have past experience with patriarchal understandings of gender in the church and family.
While my parents weren’t particularly vocal about gender roles, in practice there was a rather clear delineation about what a wife/mother should do and how a wife/mother should act. And when I began cutting my young adult teeth on Reformed theology, eventually settling in a VERY Reformed Baptist church with strict complementarian views, I became pretty vocal, in a Mark Driscoll kind of way, about how women/wives should act and think.

Sadly, my Reformed thinking was at its peak about the time that I got married. As my wife and I worked through some challenging compatibility issues during those first few years, it did not help one bit that I had some strong Calvinist complementarian tendencies, expecting Kalen to just fall into line. The molds presented by our Reformed church and by my family of origin were both very hard my wife, who does not fit those molds and found herself in a restricted and – I now realize – oppressed position.

And where our marriage was suffering from this perspective at one level, we witnessed the lives of women in the church suffering to a much greater degree. As Kalen and I slowly began to adjust our thinking, we began to see just how oppressive the complementarianism of that particular church was to the women of the church, with such an intense pressure to conform that I worry for them to this day. The Stepford comparison isn’t far off the mark (and I now realize this is true in many conservative/fundamentalist evangelical churches).


What I have witnessed in myself over the last 8 years or so is a deep change in how I view women, especially my wife, in relation to home, church, and life in general. Accordingly, our marriage has blossomed into something that I am certain would not have been possible had my mind not changed in this area. It is a true equal partnership, where I find myself happy to be wrong because I so value the wisdom of my wife. Earlier tonight was one of those times; where once I would have bristled at her “stubbornness,” instead I found myself reminded of just how much I need her leadership. (This happens often.)

Likewise, I find myself a committed defender of her freedom, and have been put in that position on several occasions in recent years with both church and family. Where I see a threat to her integrity, independence, and full humanity, I can’t help but stand up to it. And she has done the same for me.

I would add here that when I talk about that old patriarchal thinking/environments, I am not talking about overtly abusive behavior. But this is precisely the point: the issue of gender and power in the church is typically more subtle than that. Yet the effects are, in fact, oppressive, and until people in the Christian community are willing to admit that, we will get nowhere in this conversation – of that I’m sure. (And don’t misunderstand – all kinds of abuse can be justified if that subtle veneer remains intact, as this infamous video attests.)

The Beyonce Effect
Another thing to note by way of introduction is the Beyonce effect. Namely, Beyonce performed for the Super Bowl halftime show this past Sunday, and the internet was abuzz with interpretations of her performance on Monday. Some saw it as a defiant display of feminine power in the face of male-driven consumerism; others saw it as nothing more than a sexist, racist abuse of power by those manipulating Beyonce to entertain white men. Wherever you land (and I just can’t help feeling like the performance was kind of awesome), the point is that the church is talking about this issue in the wider culture as well, not just within its four walls.

In other words, it’s pretty clear that in both the church and the culture, male (not to mention white) power and privilege is a thing.

The Emergent Answer
Lastly, framing this conversation requires that we look at the other side, too – not just the conservative complementarian problem, but the progressive emergent answer. The internet has been helpful here as well, showing that similar issues of power and privilege may exist even in a more progressive environment. When emergent leader Tony Jones posted, “Where Are the Women?” he got more than he bargained for – namely, actual women actually speaking their minds about why they don’t care to interact on his blog. Tony made two pretty huge mistakes in this process: 1) he posted from a position of power (confronting female readers on why they don’t comment, as if they ought to), and 2) becoming defensive and dismissive when honest answers were given.

The whole debacle prompted Christian culture satirist Stephanie Drury to get dead serious in her post, “Covert Misogyny”, which went rather viral. She begins:

For as inclusive and LGBTQ-friendly the progressive Church likes to imagine itself, there are still deep, linty pockets of gender bias and old habits that haven’t been broken. And how could they be, if no one has pointed them out? Actually, I take that back. How could the Church realize its biases if if the people in positions of power won’t entertain the possibility that they have them? The tragic truth is that the people in power do not need to realize their biases if they don’t elect to, and there’s the rub.

In other words, the progressive church’s value of “inclusion” may be just as blinding as conservative exclusion, in that it is an ideology within an institution that is built upon deeply ingrained male power and privilege. In this way, the institution may pride itself on “including” or “letting” women lead, while it does so from a position of male privilege (and without even knowing it).

Stephanie’s suspicions seemed confirmed a couple weeks later when female emergent pioneer Phyllis Tickle delivered a plenary at the Emergence Christianity conference that devastated feminist attenders. There has been trouble on the emergent homefront since then.

Going back to my initial tweet, the question is whether missional anabaptist (radical) evangelicals might have an answer to this problem that the other two camps can’t seem to grasp. I’m not sure if we do, or if we really know that we do; but I suspect there is something in the DNA of this third, radical way that may be a powerful force for moving the church forward in confirming the freedom and full humanity of the sisters in her midst.

More on that tomorrow…but what are your thoughts today?

[Part 2 posted here.]

Sermon in Honor of MLK: "The Voice of Vocation" - With Audio [Brandon Wrencher]
Why Christians Should be INSATIABLE Trick-or-Treaters [Andrew Arndt]
John Piper's Divine Wife-Beating & Three Things God's Wrath Cannot Be
An Amazing Genealogy of Jesus Infographic (and What It Means for XMas)
About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. He blogs here at Patheos and HuffPost Religion. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter, released in 2012. Most importantly he binge-watches TV dramas and plays in the snow with his family.

Find him on Twitter & Facebook!

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.a.demers.3 Mark A Demers

    Great post! My thoughts today are simply this – the “culture” is way, way, WAY out ahead of the church – “Traditional”, “Progressive”, “Emergent”, or “Missional” – on this. Your post is the proof of it. For some reason, Christianity seems to be playing “catch-up” on almost every ‘social issue’. (There are pockets of Christian expression that are exceptions to this.) I don’t mean that the “culture” has it right, yet. But within the culture, the issues get raised, debated, ‘protested’. And so often by the time we Christians get around to it, the train has left the station.

    One other thought as I eagerly await your second post: I am increasingly of the opinion that ‘categories’ are a huge part of our problem! I wonder if spiritual growth isn’t defined at least in part by coming to grips with the existential truth (from a spiritual point of view!) of Galatians 3:28 (Romans 10:12; and perhaps even John 10:16 – and that marvelous little vignette recorded in Luke 9:49-50!). While there are obvious differences, there are no longer any meaningful distinctions among us. Power, position, privilege – those who hold them in the church relinquish them to the body. And I completely agree with you – especially for those who ARE privileged – it can be most difficult for the likes of us to even recognize the ‘preferred status’ we have become so accustomed to! (I blogged about this a few weeks ago – a reflection on a piece by David Brooks and an acknowledgement that, while the culture might be ahead of the church, the patterns of privilege continue on their way.) But what I mean to say is this: The persistent, stubborn ‘speed bump’ that has to be overcome is the category – “anabaptist”. If there is “no more Jew or Gentile …”, when are we going to understand that there isn’t actually any “Traditional” or “Contemporary” or “Emergent”, “Reformed” or “Evangelical”, “Antinomian” or “Legalistic”? Life is not a folder with a label on it into which my experience neatly fits. The culture knows this, I think; but the church – in all its forms – continues to perpetuate our ‘preferred categories’. The brightest light in the “Kingdom Vision” is the prayer: “That all may be one …” – but it’s the light that seems to be furthest back in the cave that “religion” cuts into the rock of our spirituality! Is it possible to live faithfully absent the categories?
    Looking forward to Post #2 on this issue!

  • http://www.facebook.com/gavin.johnston Gavin Johnston

    Thank you so much for entering such an important and gut-wrenching debate! Brave soul you are! Here is my poetical and philosophical response to form the foundation of specific answers if I can get to them. The good news (lower case “g” & “n”) is that we even have the freedom to debate this in a whole-hearted way. It means in one way, shape, or form political progress has occurred. Politics (governance), society, faith are all supposed to be built on timeless principles, but they always seem to descend into some combination of timelessness, but very much shaped by the current culture. At the core of the Christian Faith, in the Garden, man found himself lonely and so God created him another being so that they could complete each other together. In our confused understanding, ever since the Fall, we seem to have forgotten that we were just plain and simply lonely. In man’s post-fall desire to keep naming things, declaring things his, dividing and conquering, our companion has been absorbed into our masculine perspectives. We’re still reeling from our original disconnect with God. The Son of Man incarnated only 2000 years ago and we’re still trying to make sense of the Event! We keep looking to our culture, society, government, laws, politics to provide us something and give an answer that can only be found in the love that salvation provides. I think history is showing us that us men have accomplished a lot, but we’re very lonely. We don’t need women in the corporate board rooms acting like men dividing and conquering – we need women in the corporate board rooms who heal humanity taking the best from the feminine nature and balancing the excess of masculine dominance. At the heart of the Good News (capital “G” and “N”) is sacrifice. Men have sacrificed on the battlefields, the factories, and in the often hallow public-sphere for a long time. Now we have drawn women into the fray too and make them act like men or cater to our masculine desires. I think we’re lonely, desperately lonely. We need our helpmates more than ever, this world needs them more than ever. The Whore of Babylon is eating our children up, drawing men and women away from their families, and creating an unsustainable society in the last desperate attempts to wield her power. During this inadvertent age, both men and women can exercise their freedoms, but when true Freedom reigns, we’ll discover how East of Eden we are indeed.

  • Sue Burkett

    Thanks for taking the time to share a piece of your own journey. I’m convinced that until we are able to recognize our own blind spots, as you did, there will not be significant progress in this area. Even in the egalitarian church where I am a staff pastor, I still hear language from our senior leadership team that reflects their male power/privilege. I go unheard unless I express myself “like a man” and then I am chastised for being unfeminine. Inclusion is not sufficient. Valuing women as women for what they bring to the table as women is the next hurdle I see in this issue. I look forward to your next post.

  • http://zhoag.com Zach

    Sue, I really appreciate your perspective – it helps. Would love to hear your thoughts after the next post as well.

  • http://zhoag.com Zach

    Gavin, thanks for this. I’m interested to know more about how you extract that gender distinction/definition from Adam’s loneliness in the creation narrative. Are you imagining fixed roles for each gender based on creation?

  • http://www.somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.com/ suzannah | the smitten word

    nodding my head so far and interested to read part two. also, i confess that i don’t really know what a radical anabaptist is exactly, but if y’all are down with enthroning the kingdom of God versus the kingdom/power structures of empire, i’m all ears.

  • http://zhoag.com Zach

    cool. and you pretty much described the radical way better than I could. nailed it.

  • http://amydmartin.wordpress.com adm

    I was one of your twitter banterers on this one. I’d been thinking along the same lines having had a vague growing unease about the emergent response to gender/power issues over the last bit. Although admittedly, I hadn’t put the anabaptists in particular in the role of the ones who may have more say in the matter. My thoughts were simply that something is hostile about emergent conversation in regard to power/gender, T Jones’ whole shenanigans being an example of this vague hostility. Like you said, he, in a position of power, asks where the women are, and then gets a might bit defensive at the answers, which implies he may have been hostile to any answers to the question that were outside of his paradigm to begin with. Which, of course, alienates people, when they were the ones giving answers. So why ask the question?

    However, as a counter to bringing P Tickle into this as an example of more gender/power issues in the emergent scene, I might say that the reaction of the emergents TO Tickles kerfluffle actual example the very hostility that I’m talking about; men and women. All around there just seems to be a whole lot of turf being protected, and witches to hunt. It’s weird. It’s a lack of hospitality. To bring back my twitter tree/forest metaphor, how can we talk about the radical hospitality of the forest when we’ve got some major hostility issues with the actual trees?

    Enter a core ideas of the Anabaptist – nonviolence. No power issues will be solved without a fundamental position of non-violence and a radical commitment to a radical hospitality towards each other as human beings. I’m not sure this is so much an issue of gender/power, as it is just power. It just happens to be viewed through gender issues right now because its one of the most obvious places to see it. No matter what reproductive organs you have, this is a heart issue.

    -Amy, A recovering evangelical, (I’ve been sober for 3 years!) and now an orthodox Quaker according to the belief-o-matic

  • http://zhoag.com Zach

    Mark, great stuff, as usual. Let me know your thoughts after the next post! See you tomorrow.

  • http://zhoag.com Zach

    “No matter what reproductive organs you have, this is a heart issue.” Amy, spot on. I’ll probably be quoting you in part 2 :).

  • http://zhoag.com Zach

    Also, thanks for some of that added perspective on the Phyllis Tickle situation. That is super helpful.

  • http://amydmartin.wordpress.com adm

    Yeah, I actually find P Tickle to be very hospitable person in the sense that she’s open to the new, engages people and ideas. I’m kind of impressed by anyone that ages and chooses to continue to open up, because so many close in. That doesn’t mean we all don’t show hints of narratives of cultures in which we existed in, and imo, that issue w/her was nothing more than that. I think she’s very approachable, and I wonder if any one of her critics in that actually walked up to her, with genuine concern, and said, “Hey Phyllis, can we talk about what you said? I want to understand where you’re coming from.” I just wonder. Anyway, ramblings. It all made me uncomfortable.

  • http://gravatar.com/newlyanointed newlyanointed

    Genesis 2:18 “And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make a helper comaprable to him”. So I’m using a little poetic license to say that man was “lonely”, but I believe that can be drawn form that and in the face of our lived reality we see it. I don’t believe that there are fixed roles, but I think there is an essence to male and female. The mystics and those who explore deeply into the nature of reality discover that even the essence of male and female is overcome and reconciled within the higher realms (heaven). Even Jesus says in Mark 12:25 that there will be no marriage bonds in heaven. A very intriguing thought! The fall of humankind has made us forget our deeper essences and so East of Eden we deal in our lesser essences. Hey, Eve wasn’t even going to have childbirth pains in the Garden!

    Essences like make and female aren’t fixed to the physical and in their relation to each other as we find in homosexuality and androgynous people are fluid. What we’re always dealing with when we discuss religion is mainstream. Reactions are always made in reaction to what is considered the mainstream. Even when we get a movement like the Emergent Church that is supposed to be ‘hip’, ‘progressive’, ‘forward-thinking’ the movement is screwed because it got a label. One the label is had then all the mainstream issues get crystallized within it.

    On a practical level, I think very few Christians are so countercultural that they really ever even move beyond what the culture is feeding them. The great examples that do are the SAINTS! It is ironic that an incredibly mainstream movement like Catholicism has Saints like Francis of Assisi, John of the Cross, and Theresa of Avila because if they were living right now they would excommunicate them! No -ism can tackle the gender issue. Even this blog post is looking at Beyonce which is a mega-production of our culture! Oozing sexuality and rich beyond imagination which according to scripture would be giving her a one way ticket to Hell! Right?

    I’ve wanted my wife to be a wage earner, a porn-star, a mother, a best buddy, a girlie-girl, and so many more. If she could have been all the things I wanted her to be then I would need to return to polygamy. Until we finally became COUNTER-CULTURAL and landed in brutal simplicity with a vow of poverty where she stays home with kids, she knits, and teaches the kids the Bible throughout the day. Suddenly I had this amazing partner, helper, sans the makeup glowing in beauty nursing a baby while singing hymns to the older kids. So, for me (because the culture is still relative) the closest denomination that has the answers is Primitive Anabaptistism and Quakerism. But most importantly for myself – mysticism because then the scripture is a launching pad, not a holding cell.

    So Beyonce is pretty foreign to a primitive Anabaptist, Quaker, Mystic and that is why the television has been turned off for over 2 years. So the gender debate is more cultural than Biblical because people are making cultural decisions that they then try to back with scripture. Scripture is an inconvenient truth though! If women want to behave like men and compete in the corporations and leave the raising of their children to Caesar, then so be it, it is a cultural and societal right. But like Phyllis Trickle warns in the words of Voddie Bauchum “If you send your kids of to Caesar, then don’t be surprised when he sends you back Romans!”

  • http://anthonybsusan.wordpress.com sarahejones

    It’s interesting that you quote Voddie Baucham, who is easily one of the most sexist ministers I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter. But not surprising, given the content of the rest of your post, which is all about what you want from your wife, and nothing at all about what your wife might want for herself.

  • http://zhoag.com Zach
  • http://zhoag.com Zach

    Gavin, I think you are perhaps bringing out an aspect of anabaptist thought that I think could be a barrier to equality; namely, a “primitive” demand on the role of a wife in the home. Sarah, agreed about Reformed folks like Voddie – this is the conservative complementarian school of thought I’m reacting to, in part.

  • http://newlyanointed.wordpress.com newlyanointed

    Thank you Sarah. I’m not practicing one thing I highly respect about some Anabaptist sects and that is “plain or simple speech”. It is hard for me to resist debates. Actually, my wife and I have a very unique opportunity to live on a small farm, produce our own food, homestead, homeschool, and not work outside the the home or farm very much. SO it is absolutely unfair of me to apply my unique living arrangment and the choices that we are able to make because of it. It is the horse before the cart dynamic. As we entered simplicity almost by accident our values kept changing. Actually, my wife led the charge in simplicity and it has taken me a few years to catch up. I had the typical and more cultural demands placed on my wife and she has taught me to let those go and find a different kind of happiness. Because of our lifestyle we are able to enjoy a 1800′s kind of life that takes things back to the basics, much like some Plain-Anabaptist. I still can’t give up Facebook and good Blogs like this one, unlike my wife who would rather be knitting. Believe me, I had to do a lot of unwinding of myself. So actually, I’ve learned to let go of so many of the demands that our culture and society place on women and be pleased with simplicity. As I struggled with my wife’s desire to homeschool, I just happened to come across that Voddie Baucum quote and my fear is less non-bliblical schools as oppossed to out of control consumerism and poor teaching in public schools. But thank you for bringing me back down to earth.

  • http://zhoag.com Zach

    Helpful clarity Gavin, thanks.

  • http://newlyanointed.wordpress.com newlyanointed

    The “primitive” demands are either positive, negative, or nuetral based on what you are seeking in life. There is a small sub-set of women who chose that primitive lifestyle and embrace it. I hand-milk cows, which based on a urban lifestyle is a very primitive demand placed on a man. I broke one of my personal rules when I declared that simple-living is the right way to live and I apologize. I have a very unique living arrangment basically because of a very supportive family. Being within that unique situation allows certain insights, emotions, values to open up and they happen to accord with Plain-Anabaptist/Quakers. But anytime there is an external look, lifestyle, or kind of living in place then we are right back to legalism which is actually a huge problem in the Amish sect right now.

  • http://www.beckygarrison.com Becky Garrison

    Amy makes some very key points in these exchanges …those who made the loudest noises via blogs and social media are those whose identity on the author/speaker circuit is tied up with their being identified as an emergent church figurehead (I deliberately avoid the use of the word “leader” as the counter becomes this is a leaderless organization, a claim that becomes null when one attends any emergent event and notices the same players ply their wares). In particular, those who defended Phyllis uncritically are those for whom her endorsement of their books and elevation of their ministries in her work continues to keep them “relevant” in emergent circles. So obviously, they have theological turf they need to defend even when this spiritual soil has gotten overrun with commercial kudzu so to speak.

    I agree that Phyllis is one of the most approachable and open minded people I have ever encountered. That’s why it’s so frustrating that there isn’t a means for people who don’t know her personally to engage with her via her blog or other tools.

    Hoever, the bigger issue for me isn’t what Phyllis said or didn’t say – we’ve all had moments where we weren’t up to par but the vicious attacks by those felt called to defend the “brand.”

  • http://amydmartin.wordpress.com adm

    Nice articulation, that’s very good clarity on the things I’ve been sensing as well.

  • http://amydmartin.wordpress.com adm

    Nice articulation. That totally puts words to the very same things I’m sensing in the emergent brand.

  • http://amydmartin.wordpress.com adm

    No problem! And I only meant for one of those responses to Becky below, I just didn’t think the first one went through. Can’t wait to read your next post! I

  • http://zhoag.com Zach

    Thanks Becky. I think you are doing a good job pulling back the curtain of ideology in emergent. And thanks for adding more perspective on the PT situation.

  • Josh

    One thing that will always be elusive in the whole power debate is that the submission of Jesus was not prescriptive or demanded but joyful and voluntary. If we want to follow in those footsteps our mutual submission to one another independent of gender can never truly be demanded or even fought over. And you’re absolutely right – as soon as we subscribe to an ideology (emergent, modernist, neoreformed or whatever) we easily become blind to the limitations of that particular lense.

  • http://Www.beckygarrison.com Becky Garrison

    Amy It happens given the wonky nature of computers. Only wonder when you start to repeat yourself out loud. Also, look at their funding streams because that’s informing some of the players who will risk speaking gigs, etc. if they are seen as going too far.

  • http://zhoag.com Zach

    Great point Josh. Power moves can just as easily come from below as above.