Do evangelicals hate women? I don’t think they do, but is evangelical teaching often harmful to women? You bet!
“I’ve Done Something Wrong”
When I was a youth pastor, my wife had a conversation with a teenage girl in which she said, “I think the Bible is sexist and God hates women.” Immediately I thought, “I’ve done something wrong.” What was it in my teaching that was making her think that?
I’m an egalitarian—in other words, I believe men and women should be mutually submissive to one another with no hierarchy in marriage or church. I fully support women pastors. Many evangelicals do. I couldn’t think of anything in my teaching that would make this young woman think that God hates women.
Then I connected a few dots. The conversation happened on the way to a youth group event where swimming would be involved. There was a dress code—no bikinis allowed. It was standard youth group policy, standard in most evangelical youth groups. We expected our young women to wear modest swimsuits.
Why? Because we wanted to protect the boys from temptation to lust. And at this point, I started doing some deconstruction. Why was I making girls responsible for a boy’s wandering eyes? Why were we sexualizing young women’s bodies like this? What messages were we sending to our girls?
I think the message was pretty clear: it’s your fault if a boy has impure thoughts. You have to take responsibility for boys’ thought life.
Purity Culture and Women
Then I asked the question, what other sin do we do this with? Make someone else responsible for the sin of another? Why aren’t we doing more to hold boys accountable and responsible for their attitudes toward female bodies?
My teaching on modesty was making girls responsible for the sins of boys. No matter how I tried to nuance it, that was what I was teaching. And it was wrong. It definitely set up double standards—boys had no similar restriction. And I could start seeing how that young woman arrived at the conclusion that God is sexist.
I grew up in purity culture. I Kissed Dating Goodbye was published when I was in high school. I never read it, because at this point, I had never kissed dating hello. Unfortunately for my dating life, a lot of the girls in my youth group read it. Adult leaders championed it. It was a big deal.
We did the True Love Waits thing. I carried the pledge card in my wallet for years. I had vowed to not have sex until I was married. We were made afraid of sex. Girls were made afraid of their bodies. There was always a sex talk at our summer conference. Having sex before marriage seemed like the worst thing a person could do.
This messed up a lot of people. When the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Joshua Harris–who wrote the book when he was 19–deconstructed his faith, he apologized for the role he played in developing purity culture. As a youth pastor, I was trying to not fully endorse purity culture but I still managed to make sex scary and young women afraid of their bodies. I still believe that sex is reserved for marriage, but there are healthier ways of communicating that.
So despite that fact that, theologically, I am an egalitarian, I was still teaching things and modeling things that created double standards for boys and girls. But that’s not the only double standard we see in evangelicalism.
The Case of the Southern Baptists
In February 2019, the Houston Chronicle published a report detailing rampant sexual abuse happening within Southern Baptist churches and institutions. They documented that over a 20-year span there were 700 instances of sexual abuse that occurred in SBC churches. Most—it not all—the victims were women. There were attempts to cover up almost all of these cases. It was a bombshell report that is still shaping current conversations within the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant and evangelical denomination in the United States.
Yet many prominent Southern Baptists either ignored the issue entirely in public or pushed back at the claims of abuse victims. Many SBC leaders and pastors argued that because of the SBC’s congregational polity (every SBC church is autonomous), there was nothing the convention itself could do. And while the SBC’s messengers (delegates) voted to have an outside investigation into the matter, some leaders within the convention have slowed down the process and have tried to undo it.
Complementarian Theology Can Be Bad for Women
The Southern Baptist Convention is complementarian. This means that they believe women should submit to men, who have been appointed by God to be the leaders in the home and in the church. Taught poorly or to the wrong people, this theology can lead to an environment in which sexual abuse or other kinds of abuse can flourish, and women can’t say anything because they need to submit to their husband. John Piper, who is not SBC but has buddies who are and a major proponent of complementarianism, is on the record saying that a woman should endure being smacked around for a night in order to submit to their husband so that he may be won to the Gospel. Seriously.
Now, I am not blaming complementarian theology for spousal abuse or sexual abuse of minors. But it does create an environment in which the men’s word is weighed more heavily than a woman’s. In case of reports of sexual or spousal abuse to pastors or elders, it is assumed in many cases that the woman is making it up and is sent back to submit to her husband.
I can’t imagine being a woman in this environment. Shoot, I can’t imagine being a man in this environment. But this seems to be a major part of evangelical culture. No wonder people deconstruct because of misogyny, perceived or otherwise.
What Happened to Congregationalism?
Compounding this issue, at least in my mind, is when the SBC is faced with hundreds of abused women they dragged their feet, saying, “there’s nothing we can do because congregationalism.” Yet, when Rick Warren ordains a woman pastor, they can’t kick Saddleback out fast enough. What happened to congregationalism and local church autonomy? Why so much concern for a woman talking about God behind a pulpit and not nearly as much concern over abused women?
Women living in this or viewing it from the outside can’t be blamed if they think evangelicalism is misogynistic. Not all evangelicals are misogynists or complementarians, but a lot of patriarchal thinking is baked into the culture of evangelicalism.
From a historical perspective, Kristen Du Mez, in her book Jesus and John Wayne, does a great job of showing and explaining how evangelicalism got to this point. From a more on-the-ground perspective, Sheila Gregorie does great work showing the negative impact of complementarian teaching.
A Bag We Can Leave Behind
As people deconstruct their faith, this sort of misogyny is cited as a reason why. I think evangelicals can join the deconstructionists in losing this theology. As one person I spoke to recently said, deconstructing for him is more like a journey in which one is carrying many bags and occasionally you realize you don’t need this bag anymore so you leave it behind. Complementarianism is a teaching that we can leave behind.
I believe this for several reasons. One, the roles of men and women is really not a prominent theme in Scripture. There are only a handful of Scriptures that even come close to discussing male and female roles and none of them are clear. Two, much of Scriptural discussion on male and female roles are very culturally conditioned and most likely meant just for the church or pastor to whom the author is writing. And three, there are people in this world starving for truth; does it really matter what gender the person delivering that truth is?
These are just cursory arguments I am making for the sake of space. There are many others who make compelling arguments about how the Bible doesn’t teach the things complementarians say it does. And no, losing complementarian teaching isn’t going to stem the tide of deconstruction. As women pastors in evangelical spaces will tell you, there is still plenty of misogyny. Furthermore, it is but one issue among many that people are leaving behind. But it can’t hurt to leave it behind. Evangelicals, like Jesus and the early church, should be elevating women, not putting them in their place.