Saturday, November 5, 2011

Can Progressive Evangelicals Be Egalitarian?

By Becky Garrison
An earlier draft of this article was posted at The Ooze

The ongoing fracas over LGBT rights and evangelical theology points to the overall struggle within US evangelicals over the issue of gender inequality. Despite the appointment of female religious leaders to President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the face of progressive evangelicalism remains predominately white males who self-identify as straight. They continue to operate in structures that remain male dominated in terms of leading ministries, organizing conferences, and publishing books.

This inability for even progressive evangelicals to treat women as equal partners in ministry can be illustrated in the story of Annika, a divorced thirtysomething women living in Marin County. According to Annika, evangelical pressure to refrain from premarital sex led her to get married at the age of 19 to a 28-year old former drug addict who was baptized at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. Upon graduation from a bible college, they joined the worship team at Imago Dei, an alternative worship church in Portland, Oregon. Later, they formed their own group where they performed at churches and festivals such as Cornerstone and Purple Door, as well as traveling with the Psalters and connecting with the New Monastic movement.

While she prepared all their seminars and talks, whenever she offered a theological reflection, people often looked to her husband to validate her views. Also, unless she was speaking to a women’s only event, the couple needed to perform together at co-ed gatherings because the event organizers would not book her as a solo speaker. The evangelical teaching that “a wife’s body does not belong to her but it belongs to her husband when she’s married,” gave her husband permission to abuse her emotionally, physically and sexually. Over time, she began to have all the classic post-traumatic stress disorders one finds in rape victims but was unable to find any support from her evangelical friends. After he filed for divorce in 2009 after nine years of marriage, some evangelicals still questioned if she tried hard enough to save her marriage. Others gave her condolences for her divorce and at times would acknowledge her abuse but they felt that the divorce was more of an issue than the abuse.

Mimi Haddad, President of Christians for Biblical Equality, an evangelical organization that strives for heterosexual gender equality, notes that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, theologically conservative but very socially progressive evangelical women served as key leaders for the abolition and suffrage movements. She references British historian David Bebbington’s observations that early evangelicals were pressed to engage all converted souls in the task of evangelism, even if it meant challenging cultural taboos such as giving women and slaves new positions of leadership and freedom According to Haddad, the fears of the higher critical thought and its secularizing impact on culture and theological education led a more literalist interpretation of scripture. This shift included viewing the teachings of Paul as a word-for-word guidebook for proper Christian behavior instead of analyzing his letters in their proper socio-political contexts. Fundamentalist interpretive methods led to an absolutizinig of the patriarchy of bible-culture while overlooking the moral teachings in Scripture which undermine patriarchy.

Thus began a Victorian era revolt against women-led church that made men soft by embracing a more manly form of muscular Christianity. These forces led to the adoption of complementarian theology, the belief that “God has created men and women equal in their essential dignity and human personhood, but different and complementary in function with male headship in the home and in the Church.” Kathy Escobar, one of the founders of the Refuge, a community of people on the fringes of the faith, shares why she had to leave her position as the only female pastor on staff at a Denver based megachurch:
Complementarian theology remains so deeply embedded into all of their practices it's nearly impossible to get out. Then power begets power so the same models just keep getting replicated. I have yet to see even the most supposedly progressive religious leaders consider having a woman as an equal partner in their ministries. Even though they talk about equality, their actions reflect a hierarchical model that says, “One person is on top.” This sells because people are attracted to power and charisma. Until male leaders at the top stop perpetuating this cycle, nothing will change. It’s just too easy and attractive. And it still sells. So why mess with a good thing?
In Sex, Mom, and God, Frank Schaeffer draws upon his personal experiences growing up in a complementarian household to explore how this mindset informed the rightward lurch of American politics since the 1970s:
What is happening in America is an expression of mass sexual dysfunction “inspired” by the allegiance of millions of individuals to the Bible. That is all the culture war really is. I wanted to write a book about this but told as a personal story too and told as a novelist tells stories—i.e., in a way that breaks down the door between fact and emotion.
Jeff Sharlet’s research on The Family documented how this shift toward muscular Christianity as illustrated by Escobar and Schaeffer informs The Family’s promotion of a warrior Christ that leads to aggressive American foreign policy that benefits those in power while curtailing the rights of women and LGBT people. The embrace of The National Prayer Breakfast by even some progressive evangelical leaders gives at the very least a tacit endorsement of this version of a Capitalist Christ that bears scant resemblance to the Beatitudes (Matthew 5-7) that informs much of the-anti-poverty endeavors advanced by groups like Sojourners.

Schaeffer reflects on this dichotomy between preaching on issues of social justice without embracing all as equals in the kingdom. “As a former evangelical leader myself I found that it is impossible to be in both the evangelical's good books and be honest. I explore this theme in my book Sex, Mom and God, my deceleration of total independence from the so called Bible-believing fold.” In choosing to embrace women as equals, Schaeffer said he had to walk away from the US evangelical marketing machine, a move that the vast majority of progressive evangelical/emergents like Rob Bell do not appear willing to do at this juncture. However, Schaeffer remains connected to the evangelical world via gatherings like the Wild Goose Festival, an event whose largely successful efforts to create a welcoming space was marred by the inclusion of non-affirming contributors. John Shore, a blogger described by sex columnist Dan Savage as a “truly progressive Christian,” sums up why he doesn't belong at this progressive evangelical/emergent fete, “I’d fit in at the Wild Goose Festival like Bernie Madoff at an Occupy Wall Street protest.”

These self-proclaimed religious progressive leaders may market a new kind of Christianity which purports to bring about an insurrection that will that will advance the simple way and usher in a great awakening where love wins. They may call themselves progressive, but Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches reminds us that evangelicals like Jim Wallis retreat when it comes to issues relating to human sexuality such as LGBT rights and access to abortion and family planning services. So despite their efforts championing civil rights and anti-war campaigns, these leaders seem to have taken a right turn in the battle to ensure equal rights and rites for women and LGBT people.

Becky Garrison is a panelist for The Washington Post's On Faith column and contributes to a range of outlets including The Guardian, The Revealer, American Atheist magazine and Religion Dispatches.. Her books include Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ, Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church, and Ancient Future Disciples: Meeting Jesus in Mission-Shaped Ministries.


  1. They sure should be able to. it was certain evangelical denominations that were the first to condemn slavery and to ordain women after all. They just need to reclaim their historical roots and values. ; )

    (says this progressive mainline Protestant[(United Methodist] pastor and author of "Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don't like christianity." )

    May God bless us all as we stumble toward the fully realized Kingdom of God.

    Roger Wolsey, Boulder, CO

  2. I really appreciate that you don't write off the possibility that evangelicals could be egalitarian from the start. I consider myself to be an evangelical, and I think a lot of people bring their own very negative assumptions when they hear that word. Thanks for taking these evangelical leaders (who are mostly male!) to task without condemning evangelicals as a whole.