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  • Writer's pictureSharon Beck-Doran

Brighter Together: Look Back at the Church's Reaction to Feminism and the Reassertion of Patriarchy

Updated: Mar 27, 2023

It was Thursday night and I was at my favorite church youth group. I liked this one because I often felt a sense of God’s presence. Also the worship music was great and I was majorly crushing on Danny, the lead singer.

That night the message was on the story of David and Bathsheba from 2 Samuel 11. Having gone to church 3 times a week since birth, I’d heard at least a couple dozen sermons on this passage. I feel like there was even a flannel graph for it, but probably not. That wouldn’t make sense.

I’m sure I’d heard my dad preach on the evils of stealing another man’s wife and then arranging to have him murdered to cover it up. There was usually something in there about a leader’s abuse of power. It all seemed pretty straightforward to me.

This time the youth leader talked about Bathsheba too. She was bathing on the rooftop. Why would she be outside naked? I know, right? I had never thought of that before.

Not only was David to blame for his part in the sin, but Bathsheba was responsible too. She was outside where she might have known he could see her.

This added insight to the passage made perfect sense. I’d heard plenty of youth group Bible studies about how visual men are. We girls needed to be modest and take care in case we lead our brothers in Christ to commit the sin of lust.

As a side note, I always considered myself very modest. I also assumed for a long time that I was unattractive. No danger that I would cause anyone issues with lust. A few years ago my parents cleared out all my old stuff and sent it to me. I found a couple of dresses that I wore to winter ball. Evidently my parents were more progressive than I thought because I can hardly believe they let me out of the house dressed like that. It barely covered my buns!

It wasn’t until I was in college that I would learn about power dynamics. Same passage, but this time it was framed as a king whose palace sat high above every other building in town. He would have been uniquely positioned to see more than he should have.

When David, the king and conquering warrior, decided to summon Bathsheba, she wouldn’t have had any choice but to come. She had no voice and no power. In fact, when the prophet, Nathan, comes to confront him, he tells a story to illustrate what David had done. He characterizes Bathsheba not as a temptress but as “one little ewe lamb.”

Nathan’s rebuke of David is scathing. Like damn! Nathan speaks on behalf of God saying I gave more than you could ever have imagined and then some. “Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.” (2 Samuel 12.10) If you read the full context there isn’t a whisper of blame for anyone in this passage except David.

Power dynamics are often at play in sexual relationships and we often don’t realize it.

For much of history women have been dependent on men. Not only did they lack the means to earn a living and own property, lack of societal status made them vulnerable to exploitation. They needed protection by men from men. Men held all the power.

The patriarchy has been around for a long time, but the way it has been presented since the 1960s is new-ish. It was a period with a lot of social change. Here are a few things that were going on.

The feminist movement began to gain momentum. More and more, technology allowed most of us to work with our minds rather than our bodies. Slowly but surely this put women on equal footing with men in the workplace. The power differential shifted. Women continued to join the workforce. They began to campaign for equal opportunities and pay parity.

The first oral contraceptive was approved by the FDA in 1960, making it possible for women to decide if and when they wanted to have children for the first time in history. Gosh, that feels like a huge thing that we take for granted. After the baby boom of the 1940s and 50s, women were ready for a break.

Penicillin also became available in the 1940s. Again, world changing stuff we take for granted. Among many benefits, it made sexually transmitted infections like syphilis treatable.

Sexual norms were changing. Actually, a lot of things were changing, and sex just went along with it.

People have been having unmarried and gay sex for most of human history. There had been cultural movements in the western world around sexual behaviors but most only affected men. It wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s that the constraints of children and economics were loosened enough for many to begin to explore the boundaries of acceptable sexual behavior.

At this same time the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union was in full swing. People were legitimately concerned Moscow would send a nuclear bomb our way, the US would retaliate and mutual destruction would ensue. School children had bomb drills. That’s one reason why evangelists like Billy Graham saw so many converts. When he would say, “If you die tonight, do you know where you will go?” People were ready to respond because the threat was real.

From 1955 to 1973 the Vietnam War was happening. Nearly 3 Million Americans served. 150,000 were wounded and at least 21,000 were permanently disabled. Over 58,000 of them didn’t come home. The average age of US troops killed in Vietnam was 23. It’s estimated that nearly a third of Vietnam vets, nearly a million young servicemen, suffered from some degree of PTSD.[1]

In the middle of chaos and fear, I can see how folks would look to for the ideal manly man. What more could anyone want in frightening times than a strong man to protect them? It worked well politically too. If more soldiers were needed to fight, what better way to motivate young men to take up arms than to idealize a stereotype of the masculine warrior. He was commander of his home and champion of liberty.

Meanwhile, expanding opportunities for women in the workplace brought a newfound sense of independence. Economic freedom allowed women to choose to be single. Divorce rates began to rise.

Kristen Kobes Du Mez talks about much of this in her book Jesus and John Wayne. “All of this,” she says, “amounted to a ‘crisis’ of the family, and for evangelicals, gender and authority, not global economic patterns, were at the heart of this crisis.”[2] Evangelicals saw gains in women’s rights as a direct assault on family and traditional gender roles.

One prominent figure who came to fame in the 1970s was James Dobson. His television show, Focus on the Family and subsequent books took his message across the country. A former child psychologist, his response was to illustrate the differences between the two genders. Most were clichés—men like sports and women like to cook. Dobson put a big emphasis on men’s fragile egos, advising that they require a lot of respect. Women on the other hand are delicate and have a deep need to feel loved.

Dobson taught that not only are Biblical gender roles important for marriages, but they are also important for the very survival of our nation. He wasn’t the first to promote the idea of god-ordained gender roles, but thanks to TV, he had a huge audience.

Dobson was right about there being a problem. Men and women needed to figure out how to navigate their relationships in this new context. With financial dependency removed, women didn’t have to stay in bad marriages. Men too were less obligated and I imagine that added an element of freedom for them as well.

I think people needed a little time to figure it out. Couples needed to learn how to navigate relationships that were built on choice rather than obligation and dependency. And it was a really tough time!

In this new context, instead of examining how changes might affect relationships, conservative evangelical culture decided to double down on the way things were. If traditional gender roles worked before, they should work now.

Men and women were no doubt looking for guidance. No one wanted an unhappy home or a divorce. Unfortunately, this was uncharted territory for pretty much everyone. Christians went looking for books to read, TV shows to watch and conferences to attend. Anything at all that would help them navigate shifting power dynamics and changing culture. Relationship and parenting advice suddenly became big business.

Another influencer that would emerge in response to the crisis of family was Bill Gothard. Although he wasn’t widely known outside of Christian circles, his seminars drew tens of thousands. According to Du Mez he was big on militaristic chain of command. Wives submit to husbands. Children submit to parents. Everyone submits to the church.

The hierarchy of God-given power applied to pastors and church leaders. They were seen as extensions of God’s authority and church members, like wives to husbands, were required to be unquestioningly obedient. Sound extreme? Well, if you believed the family was in crisis, the world might blow up at any moment and hell was just one breath away, I imagine fear would compel you to do almost anything.

You may have heard of author Tim LaHaye because of his best-selling fiction series, Left Behind. Some years before he was a Baptist pastor and wrote several books on marriage.

Unmarried women were taught to be chaste, taking care with their appearance and behavior. High necklines and low hemlines were important measures of modesty. Any kind of sexually provocative behavior was seen as shameful. In contrast, men were encouraged to be strong leaders, which usually implied an element of aggressive sexual behavior.

When the two came together in marriage, sex became problematic. The premise was that men needed sex and it was a wife’s role to fulfill that need. Except, women were conditioned to deny any hint of sexuality. The problem, it was thought, was that women needed better education on how to perform in the bedroom.

Tim LaHaye and his wife Beverly responded to this challenge by coauthoring The Act of Marriage: The Beauty of Sexual Love in 1976. They wanted to offer sexual liberation in the confines of heterosexual marriage and the patriarchy. They attempted to answer every question that a couple could have about sex in detail. Their book would be widely influential and according to the internet there are 2.5 million copies in print.[3]

Not every faith community embraced patriarchal or complementarian teaching. What’s unique about LaHaye, Dobson, Gothard and others is their wide influence on Christian culture. All had access to mass media and marketing that took the messaging way beyond the local church.

My dad is often proud that in the early days of the Church of the Nazarene around the turn of the twentieth century, 20-30% of their pastors were women. By the time I graduated college in 2003, that number shrank significantly. I heard from women like me who were accumulating student loan debt along with seminary degrees, only to graduate unable to find a placement.

There was never a change in church policy. But the folks who sat in the pew on Sunday morning were reading books from Lifeway Christian Stores, listening to Chuck Swindoll on the radio and going to men’s and women’s conferences. We shouldn’t be surprised that in a congregational model where members vote on pastoral candidates, women had a hard time getting hired.

If mass media created this phenomena of a somewhat uniform white evangelical culture, I have a theory that social media is pushing religion toward diversity. Christian bookstores are shutting down, which means the curated selection of religious CDs and books that align with a specific set of values has disappeared. Authors and artists don’t have to worry about being pulled from the shelves or pleasing publishers. Self-publishing and online marketing are easier than ever.

Social media, for better or worse, means that anyone with a message can have a platform. Find a hashtag and you can find your people. We are being exposed to new ideas and information that we would have never had access to before.

I think that’s some of the reason a lot of folks who grew up in white evangelical spaces are questioning their faith. They are hearing different voices and connecting with ideas that they hadn’t been exposed to before. Certainly it’s not all for the good. Many are bitter and angry at the church. There’s an audience for that too. Those who would hold tightly to tradition, even if that tradition is only a few decades old, find the deconstruction movement unsettling at best. They also have an audience.

Here's my hope: that we can learn and grow from our history. Fear is a powerful force, but love is powerful too. Fear has won the day for a long time. It’s gripped our faith, our sexuality and our relationships. I think it’s time to let love have the day.

What does that look like? Well, it means I’m going to choose to follow God because I think it’s the very best way to be, not because I’m afraid of going to hell. It means I’m going to teach my step-daughter to honor her body, not because she could be ruined for having sex, but because I want her to have the agency to make good choices. I’m going to be thoughtful and considerate of my husband, and work toward being a better wife. Not because I have to or because God ordained him to rule over me, but because I love him. I want to be my best self and show up for the people I love as a reflection of God’s grace.

It's time to let go of fear. We can do this. We can wrestle with big ideas and ask hard questions. We can learn to be better in our relationships. We can grow stronger in our faith.

Let love win the day.

Next time I’ll talk more about the evolution of purity culture and together, we will look for a way forward.

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[1] Wikipedia: Vietnam War—The Aftermath. [2] Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. (June 2020) Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Chapter 4, page 82. [3] Du Mez, page 91.

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