When you grow up an Evangelical Christian, you’re often told the speech of male humans is sacred, as the speech of women is—not.
As a kid in church I never could figure out if all sounds men made, including belches and farts, were considered holy, but when men spoke, it was like God talking! That’s what they thought.
It’s been a problem for Beth Moore, a rare ‘female Evangelical leader’—a category which, for many, doesn’t exist.
The latest round of sex wars got rough.
She updates: “I love Jesus but I’m about to lose my mind.”
You might think Evangelicalism is a religion about gender role? Or fighting about it.
How are men and women to organize, and ‘authority’ to be enforced, is just so damn important.
But the traditional Evangelical view is clearly untenable. It’s that men are to have all ‘authority’ over women. A good Christian woman will want to practice “femininity” by “submission” and silence before men.
It’s all explained by their term “complementarianism.” The sexes complement each other—which is to say, they’re ‘separate but equal’. This means, in practice, that men are in charge, and women obey.
Women aren’t really seen as human—free agents, or capable of spiritual thought. At every stage, they need men to be complete.
Which is, to put it mildly, a strategy that leaves many women never quite getting there.
“Complementarianism” was a liberal view!
In very traditional Christianity, women have little or no value apart from childbearing. “This is the purpose for which they exist,” as Martin Luther says.
And still in its innermost heart, Christian tradition has a view of the woman as a sex beast. To be near them, as Augustine of Hippo wrote, was to be degraded—to experience, as he writes, a “tyranny of lust that makes men ashamed.”
A biographer notes of the great theorist of traditional Christianity:
“No woman might set foot over the threshold of his house. No woman might speak to him except in the presence of some other person.… He did not even make an exception for his own elder sister and his nieces, all three of them nuns.”
Later clerics held the line: women hardly had souls. As John Bunyan wrote, they were “not the Image and Glory of God, as the Men are…”
A truly spiritual life was seen as a male rejection of all female company.
Only recently have women been able to attend seminaries or be leaders on any level. To be among Christian elite was an all-male world. The rare woman who enters Christian “history” is as queen, masochist, or witch.
But Evangelicals over time honed a new approach. Women were equal yes, but only so long as they kept to “gender role.” This ‘complemented’ women to men—still implicitly seen as inferior.
It seemed to be an upgrade? Women could be teachers of women, though not men. Beth Moore, most prominently in all Evangelical history, was this kind of ‘teacher’—barely tolerated, and only as long as she ‘behaved’.
“I beg your forgiveness where I was complicit,” Beth Moore now tweets. “I could not see it for what it was until 2016.”
In a shift that rocked Evangelical social media, she says a “complementarianism” position is not required.
She’s not announcing herself as a dreaded ‘egalitarian’, she said. But she rejects the emerging line that says members who aren’t ‘complementarian’ — aren’t really Christians.
As she Tweets on April 7th:
“Let me be blunt. When you functionally treat complementarianism — a doctrine of MAN — as if it belongs among the matters of 1st importance, yea, as a litmus test for where one stands on inerrancy & authority of Scripture, you are the ones who have misused Scripture. You went too far.”
This continue, for many, her drift to apostasy.
Her famous journey was sparked by Evangelical admiration for Donald Trump. She realized, she’d say, that clerical views on women were not a prompting from God. It was just men hating women.
Or as she puts it in her 2018 “Letter to My Brothers”:
“Scripture was not the reason for the colossal disregard and disrespect of women among many of these men. It was only the excuse. Sin was the reason.”
Any solution, she keeps insisting, will require that male Evangelicals who are not misogynists to engage with traditionalists who are. She tweets:
“Y’all, we cannot be part of constructing a system then sit at our desks oblivious to what multiple people are doing in the name of it. I’m slack jawed. If you helped build something that, for many, turned into a Frankenstein, go get your lasso, Victor, and pull that monster in.”
The threat is that America’s largest religion may not be able enter the modern world.
So attached to their tradition, they wouldn’t be able to see that the long line of traditional Christian clerics were neurotic men with sex problems.
As scholars—and anyone else—can see for themselves that traditional Christianity bears little resemblance to the Bible. The clerics only cited the parts they liked, leaving references they didn’t like discreetly unmentioned.
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)
A scholarly look at the same narratives tends to be radically different than the traditional take. “I think Paul’s rule aimed toward an outrageous equality,” says classicist Sarah Ruden in Paul Among the People.
They concealed key narratives about female leaders.
There are so many! The Samaritan Woman of John 4 is clearly a spiritual leader of her people—and a woman who recognized Jesus as divine, when his own disciples never really could.
The first convert in Europe, in Acts 16, is Lydia of Thyatira—a woman evidently seeing what men couldn’t. And Paul’s letters are full of greetings to women leaders of the early church. In Romans 16:1, Paul notes Phoebe is a ‘minister’, and, in 16:7, Junia is an ‘apostle’.
Paul works alongside Priscilla and often greets her. Her name is listed ahead of the man, Aquila, she is often paired with. The suggestion is always, as the Bible scholar Wayne A. Meeks notes, “that in the Pauline school women could enjoy a functional equality in leadership roles . . .”
In Romans 15:14, “brothers and sisters” are to “instruct one another.” In Colossians 3:16, Christians are “teaching and admonishing” each other.
Jesus, of course, has key female helpers.
As in Luke 8:1–3, women like Joanna, Susanna and “many others” were “helping to support them out of their own means.” No male disciple contributed any money. The Jesus project was female funded.
When the disciples flee in fear, women attend his crucifixion.
“Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs.” (Mt 27:55; cf. Mk 15:41)
If any conclusion is to be had, it’s that women see more, do more, and are more faithful servants of the divine. Jesus is so often vexed with his male disciples. Why don’t they understand? Why are they so focused on their personal positions and power?
Which is what men tend to do.
When Jesus is in peril, the men abandon him.
What I’d get from reading the gospel narratives is that women understood him better, listen better, see better, behave better. The ‘serving’ the women do, diakonousai, is the activity of angels (Mt 4:11).
The word “pastor” is just the word for “shepherd.” Women are often shepherds in the Bible. There is Rachael (Gen 29:9), Zipporah (Exo 2:16–21), the Shulamite in the Song of Songs (1:5–8).
Moses is working as a shepherd when he meets God (Exo 3:1), evidently a role he has learned from his wife.
The Bible is a text that often features women talking directly to God.
In Genesis 25:22, Rebekah “went to inquire of the Lord.” There are many female prophets, from Miriam (Exo 15:20) to Isaiah’s wife (Isa 8:1–4, 18), from Deborah (Judges 4–5) to Huldah (2 Chron 34:22 & 2 Kings 22:14).
Women sing songs that are deeply theologically informed, scriptures themselves, as with Hannah (1 Sam 2:1–10), and Mary (Luke 1:46–55).
Finally, all Jesus followers are understood as a female — the ‘Bride of Christ’.
To say women shouldn’t speak is then to silence all Christians.
What we learn from Christianity is that men couldn’t read very well.
As modern Bible scholars have been documenting, the male clerics of Christian tradition had been, in translation and “interpretation,” mostly just writing their preferred text.
“Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.” (1 Cor 14:34–35)
The famous words were never saying that female speech, or leadership, were prohibited. It was a dialogue Paul was having with a traditional Jew. There are speaking parts. It was a text which was performed.
The traditional Jew is not suggesting women are inferior. The Talmud says that female silence is compelled because of menstruation purity codes—on the hazy logic that ritual impurity can be communicated aurally.
As many scholars have documented, like David W. Odell-Scott in “Let the Women Speak in Church,” Paul in contrast approves of female speech. As he’d written just a few lines earlier, in 14:26:
“What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.”
Far from calling for female silence, he had quoted a passage, and then comes his reply—a sharp disagreement. “What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only?” (v.36; KJV)
The New Testament describes a spiritual community that has little idea of gender, or clerical hierarchy.
In the teachings of Jesus, any leader is a ‘servant’ (Matt. 20:25–28), and the opportunities given to this figure include washing feet (Jn. 13:14–15), and feeding people (Jn. 21:17).
But how to convince Christian men to give up a set of interpretations that benefit them outrageously? Just by having penises, God had seemed to love them above all other beings.
Now, instead of submissives and sex slaves as wives, they might have to have partners.
Instead of subordinates, they might have make friends.
Instead of relying on a tradition to read the Bible for them, they might have to learn to read. 🔶