Housewives of God

The New York Times/November 12, 2010

Priscilla Shirer's marriage appears to be just the sort of enlightened partnership that would make feminists cheer. On an average morning in their house in suburban Dallas, Shirer and her husband, Jerry, are up around 6:30, fixing breakfast for their three small boys. While Priscilla, 35, settles in to work at home and care for their 2-year-old, Jerry, 42, shuttles the older two children to school and heads to his office. He spends much of the day negotiating her speaking invitations and her book contracts. In the afternoon it's often Jerry who collects the boys from school. Back home, Priscilla and Jerry divide chores and child care equally. "He will most often jump in and do the dinner dishes," Priscilla says. "We don't have, ‘these are wife tasks and these are husband tasks.' . . . Kids are not a wife-mommy thing."

Yet Shirer avoids using words like "feminist" or "career woman" to describe herself. She is an evangelical Bible teacher who makes her living by guiding thousands of women through the study of Scripture in her books, videos and weekend conferences - in which she stresses that in a biblical home and church, the man is the head and the woman must submit. She steers women away from the "feminist activists" who tell women to "do your own thing, make your own decisions and never let a man slow you down," as she puts it. "Satan will do everything in his power to get us to take the lead in our homes," she wrote in her book "A Jewel in His Crown: Rediscovering Your Value as a Woman of Excellence." "He wants to make us resent our husband's position of authority so that we will begin to usurp it. . . . Women need to pray for God to renew a spirit of submission in their hearts."

Shirer and many conservative Christians believe that the Bible defines gender as a divinely ordained set of desires and duties inherent in each man and woman since the Garden of Eden. Gender is not an act or a choice, but a nonnegotiable gift. To these Christians, the story of Adam and Eve's creation granted man authority over woman, and they understand the New Testament teachings of Paul and his comrades - in particular, that wives should submit to their husbands - not as cultural relics of the first century but as universal teachings that Christians apply today.

In an era when sexual liberation has saturated American culture, when women are climbing the corporate ladder and bearing fewer children, and mainline churches are ordaining women and homosexuals, conservative evangelicals are escalating their counteroffensive. Many call themselves complementarians, signaling their belief that God ordained complementary - not identical or flexible - roles for men and women. To critics, "complementarian" is code for sexist patriarchy, a license to keep women muzzled and homebound. Yet spending even five minutes with Priscilla Shirer and her husband suggests that reality is far more complicated - not only at home but also in the new "separate sphere" that this theology has spawned: a subculture of Bible studies, conferences, ministries, religious retreats and literature ranging from Christian fitness books to Christian romance novels, all produced by and for evangelical women.

Conservative Bible teachers like Shirer have built a new paradigm for feminine preaching, an ingenious blend of traditional revivalism, modern therapeutic culture and the gabby intimacy of Oprah. This is the biblical-womanhood-industrial complex: a self-conscious alternative to secular feminism that preaches wifely submission while co-opting some feminist ideas to nurture women like Shirer to take the lead, within limits. This fusion of confinement and uplift may seem like an empowering veneer on the reality of oppression. Or else, if women like Priscilla really are on equal footing with their husbands, it may seem like hypocrisy. Both appraisals overlook the messy interaction between ancient Scripture and modern life. Christians, like believers of all stripes, interpret their holy book in order to make sense of their lived experience. "Biblical womanhood" is a tightrope walk between the fiats of old-time religion and the facts of modern culture, and evangelicals themselves do not know where it might lead.

Ministry is Priscilla Shirer's birthright. Her father, Tony Evans, founded a nondenominational church in their Dallas living room when she was a year old. The church grew into one of the largest African-American megachurches in the country, with a current membership of 8,500, an empire of related ministries and a syndicated radio show. By the time Shirer was a young adult, her father was speaking at rallies for Promise Keepers, the evangelical ministry that calls men to take charge of their families and fulfill the demands of "biblical manhood."

After college, Shirer flirted with careers in television and Christian music, then earned a master's degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, an early epicenter of the fundamentalist movement. An internship at a Christian radio station led to a gig with the motivational speaker Zig Ziglar. She spent several years boosting morale in corporate audiences around the country, but she says she "longed for the opportunity to ask these people, ‘Do you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior?' " She met Jerry when she addressed the corporate team of Hilton Hotels, where he was an executive. Jerry approached Priscilla's father for permission to date her, and about a year later, he asked him for the green light to propose. Evans made him put his request in writing. They married in 1999, and Jerry quit Hilton to work for his father-in-law's national ministry. After 10 years with Ziglar, Priscilla left to pursue women's ministry full time.

"The messages that I wanted to deliver catered to the feminine heart," she said. "It was intriguing to me to sit in a room full of girls and be able to share with them from my feminine life about motherhood, or marriage, or before being married - being single - and what that looks like as a woman, how we fold that into the context of a life that is pleasing to the Lord." Jerry quit his job to run his wife's ministry. Priscilla calls her vocation Going Beyond Ministries: her goal is to help women go beyond the humdrum experience of "church as usual," and go beyond sectarian divides to focus on the Gospel. All calls go through Jerry.

Priscilla now accepts about 20 out of some 300 speaking invitations each year, and she publishes a stream of Bible studies, workbooks and corresponding DVDs intended for women to read and watch with their girlfriends from church. Jerry does his share of housework and child care so that Priscilla can study and write. He travels with his wife everywhere. Whenever possible, they take their sons along on her speaking trips, but they often deposit the boys with Jerry's mother.

Despite this routine, Priscilla insists that she submits to Jerry - especially in the family's bigger decisions. "If I will follow him as he's following the Lord, then the responsibility for navigating our family well falls on him, not me," she said. "Gratefully, I'm married to a husband that values my opinion and values my ideas. . . . We have lots of discussions, there are times of discontent." She recalled their fierce debate over what to name their youngest son, Jude. When they couldn't agree, Jerry asked the advice of male mentors he calls his "accountability guys," "strong Christian guys who I've put in my life." (Promise Keepers and other "biblical manhood" ministries encourage men to form and submit to "accountability groups" to keep one another on a godly path.) When the men ruled in Jerry's favor, Priscilla relented. "It was a tough pill for me to swallow for a minute," she said. "But when he told me why, and told me he'd talked to several different people about it that we both trust, then I was able to just relinquish and not be upset. . . . What made all the difference in the world is he cared about what I was feeling."

"My husband's hiding in the breezeway," Shirer told several thousand women in June when she took the stage at a women's Bible conference in Denver. "He's always trying to hide." Dressed in a baby-doll tunic, skinny jeans and high heels, she grinned and pointed. It was Jerry's birthday, and she had vowed to embarrass him. The cameras found their way to a tall "handsome hunk of man" (in Priscilla's words), his head shaved bald. He winced as he saw his face appear on the four jumbo television screens suspended above the stage. The women cheered and sang him "Happy Birthday" before turning back to Priscilla, rapt, Bibles open on their laps.

Priscilla then dove into a two-hour sermon about the importance of taking risks for the Gospel and trusting in God's will. In her books she is often vulnerable and intimate, laying bare past struggles with men and her weight. (A failed diet is often "a direct sign that we have not submitted ourselves completely to the Lord," she has written.) When speaking live, she dresses in shimmery blouses and fitted jackets, and melds her femininity with a revivalist's charisma learned from her father, pacing among the audience and preaching with hardly a glance at her notes.

While many evangelical women's conferences involve less Scripture and more girl talk, at this conference (sponsored by LifeWay, an organization affiliated with the conservative Southern Baptist Convention), Shirer and the other speakers joked about makeup and kidded about long-suffering husbands just to break the ice before preaching messages of sovereignty, sin and repentance that would not have sounded much different had the audience been male. If men were present, however, the women would not have felt free to speak openly and have a good cry if they needed to, said Neida Gross, 50, one of the volunteer "encouragers" who stood at the foot of the stage wearing blue vests, ready to pray with anyone who needed it. "Being female, we're emotional beings," she said. As the worship band broke into strains of a mellow hymn, a stream of women approached each of the volunteers ringing the stage, praying in her embrace or sobbing against her shoulder.

Conferencegoers say this instant bond among total strangers springs from their femininity, as well as from their common faith. "In today's culture, men are encouraged to reach their inner feminine self, and they don't have one," Gross said. Yet the iconic image of the all-male Promise Keepers rally is that of two men hugging and crying, vowing to be better husbands and more pious Christians. Evangelicalism's emphasis on climactic spiritual experience and surrender to Jesus Christ, as much as the single-sex audience, accounts for the outpouring of emotion at women's Bible conferences - but the women there often insist it is the fruit of their God-given sex.

Shirer describes her connection with God in ways she says reflect "a feminine heart," and might scandalize a secular reader. "My God reached down from the heavens, dipped his finger into the depths of my being, and began to rouse in me a desire for a real relationship with him," she wrote in her most recent book, "One in a Million: Journey to Your Promised Land." Her account of spiritual stagnation sounds like a marriage on the rocks: "My spiritual disciplines became more of a chore, a duty, an effort. When I did make the time to be quiet before him, I was much more anxious to cut the whole thing short. . . . He just wasn't knocking my socks off anymore, and I wasn't sure why." To Shirer, women are "prone toward words that are surrounding relationships and love and connection and intimacy. Our hearts are wired that way."

But she grants that the Bible is shot through with romantic language describing the relationship between God and his people (the church, after all, is the bride of Christ). Throughout Christian history, men as well as women have written erotically about their relationship with God - especially medieval monks, who wrote more commentaries on the Song of Solomon than almost any other book of the Bible. Yet the idea that men and women have different spiritual dispositions is crucial to the logic of "biblical womanhood."

Liberal critics of Shirer's theology don't mind the weeping or the titillating language. What troubles them is the suggestion that women are intrinsically different from men and therefore destined to live a different - and subordinate - Christian life. "There is a sense in which their identity as a Christian is tied to first not who they are in Jesus as a human being, but their gender," says Mimi Haddad, president of Christians for Biblical Equality, an organization that takes an egalitarian stance toward men and women. In Haddad's view, "In Scripture, it's your humanity" that matters.

In centuries past, evangelical women were not meek about their role in church. Early Baptists allowed women to preach during the Great Awakening, and women were among the most influential revivalists during the rise of Pentecostalism at the turn of the 20th century (though gender roles usually remained in force in the home). But many women lost their voice as these sects solidified into male-run denominations. Outside the pulpit, women took the lead in the great Victorian moral crusades and volunteered in droves for foreign missions. During the battles between fundamentalists and liberal-minded modernists in the early 20th century, however, conservative mission boards cracked down on the freedom of female missionaries. Denominations took control of service societies that women had run for decades. Evangelical women could teach children's Sunday school - as unpaid volunteers - but not adult co-educational classes. They might run bake sales, but men usually decided how the church spent the money they earned.

In the 1970s, liberal organizations like the Evangelical Women's Caucus embraced much of women's and gay liberation, but most evangelicals joined a rear-guard action in defense of traditional sexual mores. They argued that "women's liberation" was a myth: on the contrary, secular feminism enslaves. Women learn to worship the false idols of careerism and independence, brainwashed by propaganda techniques that the Christian author Mary Kassian, in her book "The Feminist Mistake," compares with those used by Chairman Mao. Submission alone brings true freedom and empowerment. A "submitted woman" can quit struggling to do things God never intended her to do and focus on her feminine gifts. Her gifts might mean a career, as long as she has her husband's blessing: evangelicals often cite the "Wife of Noble Character" mentioned in Proverbs 31, who "considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard."

In reality, conservative evangelicals turn a blind eye to "submitted wives" who split household duties with their husbands and hire baby sitters, as long as they recite the slogans of biblical womanhood. This tactic has brought some notable victories over the past few decades. The mobilization of conservative evangelical women in the 1970s and early '80s - led by women like Phyllis Schlafly, a Catholic whose round-the-clock activism made her look an awful lot like the feminist career women she was trying to stop - helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment.

The only way to defeat secular feminism was to assimilate it. Conservative evangelicals stressed women's equal merit and urged men to lead by servanthood and sacrifice, like Christ himself.Liberals and conservatives note that this theology is more enlightened than the opinion of women expressed by the ancient fathers of the church. For most of Christian history, theologians held to Aristotle's view that a woman is essentially a defective man, inferior by nature - an argument that mortifies today's complementarians. The modern conservative position "is soft patriarchalism," says Alan Johnson, an emeritus professor at Wheaton College in Illinois and an egalitarian. "They still believe in male rule, but they have softened, compromised with contemporary culture by putting women on par with men."

This view - that women have unique gifts separate but equal to those of men, and that the Christian community should nurture those gifts - echoes the Victorian ideal of "true womanhood" and the 19th-century profusion of women's Bible studies, benevolent societies and educational programs that laid the groundwork for early feminism. But in many evangelical churches, where a politicized fundamentalism had erased much of women's history from institutional memory, pastors began to notice a new zeal in the 1970s. "When a pastor came out and there were 500 cars, 500 women coming into his church who spent the morning studying the Scriptures . . . they said, ‘Oh, my goodness, these women are hungry for God's word, and they can organize,' " says Sue Edwards, who got her start leading Bible studies and now teaches at Dallas Theological Seminary. Churches had to respond to the subculture of Bible study that women had built on their own.

Conservative seminaries and Bible schools often welcomed women before the 1930s, but many had closed programs to women since then. After a fraught debate, in 1975 the faculty of Dallas Theological Seminary, Shirer's alma mater, created a degree program for women that would prepare them for church service but not the pastorate. Nowadays, growing numbers of conservative churches are hiring women to fill nearly every slot except that of senior pastor. Seminaries have expanded their programs for women and even hire them to teach. "I've had to wrestle with that, when women were brought onto the faculty," said Dwight Pentecost, 95, a professor who voted against admitting women in the first place. "We're violating Scripture. I think it's a violation of the scriptural plan to have a woman as a boss in an office."

Many conservatives hope that, at least in their own circles, the right biblical training will dissuade women from challenging the bar against women as senior pastors. "Today women recognize the difference between the pastoral role and other ministries," Pentecost said. Those other ministries have blossomed into a subculture that is separate and definitely not equal, but still thrills many women who want empowerment without upsetting what they see as the biblical order.A taste of education and leadership, however, has left some wanting more.

Jackie Roese, 45, is an outspoken Catskills native with a mane of curly brown hair. Like Shirer, she is an alumna of Dallas Theological Seminary. But while Shirer has appeared in the seminary's promotional videos, its president recently cut official ties with Roese's church - because Roese herself took the pulpit to preach. Her first sermon "sent fire through the community," she said. The church hired a bodyguard to stand by.

While leading a thriving women's Bible study a few years ago at Irving Bible Church, an evangelical congregation just west of Dallas, Roese decided to pursue a doctorate in ministry, prompting her church's elders to begin a review of Scripture's teachings on the role of women. In 2008 they issued a 24-page report that reserved the role of senior pastor for men but concluded that the story of creation and fall in Genesis revealed "a fundamental equality between men and women"; that women "exercised significant ministry roles" throughout the Bible; and - most radically - that key New Testament passages were "culturally and historically specific, not universal principles."

The document echoed the arguments that many egalitarians make - primarily, that Scripture must be used to interpret Scripture, and that some verses provide guiding principles that Christians should use to clarify the knottier corners of biblical teaching. "What is unclear is interpreted by what is entirely clear," says Mimi Haddad, the president of Christians for Biblical Equality. "We try to develop a holistic hermeneutic. Paul's culture was patriarchal, but the moral teachings of Scripture do not advance patriarchy." Egalitarians emphasize the third chapter of Paul's letter to the Galatians as one master key of the Bible: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

Roese's critics fear that her church has misread Scripture in order to ease its accommodation to 21st-century social mores. Allowing women to preach is only the thin end of the wedge. "If the Bible is not true and authoritative on the roles of men and women, then maybe the Bible will not be finally true on premarital sex, the homosexual issue, adultery or any other moral issue," Tom Nelson, the pastor of a neighboring church, told The Dallas Morning News. "I believe this issue is the carrier of a virus by which liberalism will enter the evangelical church." Egalitarians argue, however, that conservatives are inconsistent, defending some biblical teachings while dismissing others as culturally relative, like Paul's admonitions that women cover their heads in church and wear no gold jewelry.

This endless effort to divine from first-century documents a clear map for modern life, to interpret Jesus' and Paul's words "literally," may seem quixotic to outsiders. It is impossible, however, to overstate how much time evangelicals devote to memorizing, reciting and ruminating on each "God-breathed" syllable of Scripture. Shirer jots Bible verses onto 3-by-5 cards and posts them around her house where she can meditate on them throughout the day, and finds quiet time to study Scripture away from her three sons by occasionally locking herself in the bathroom. Without a central source of tradition and power like the Vatican, or even, in many cases, a strong denominational structure, conservative evangelicals have no other basis of authority beyond their claims to the single, true interpretation of the Bible. (By contrast, when Catholics struggle over the role of women, they also turn to church tradition.) "I don't see myself over the Scriptures. I see the Scriptures over me," says Sue Edwards of Dallas Theological Seminary, who calls herself a "pro-women" complementarian. "And so, if I could just get around it, I would love to. But there is enough there that I am still wrestling and cannot move to the egalitarian position."

MOST EVANGELICAL WOMEN, even those who say they believe in wifely submission and clear gender roles, live as Priscilla Shirer does - in a balanced partnership that doesn't look all that different from a healthy secular marriage. A 1999 survey by the sociologists Christian Smith and Sally Gallagher revealed that in 90 percent of evangelical marriages, the husband and wife make decisions jointly. "My husband tends to have a more traditional view of male headship in marriage and the church, and I have a more egalitarian view, that we should submit to one another," says Brenda Quinn, 44, a mother of three who attended the conference in Denver. "But in practice, in day-to-day living, there is no problem. Just because, intellectually, we disagree about how to read that part of Scripture, in practice, one is weak where the other is strong, and we need each other in our decisions. We seek each other's counsel."

This gap between rhetoric and reality may be particularly true for African-American women - a segment of the population that LifeWay hopes Shirer, the first black woman on its national platform, will help them reach. "We have a long history of not being able to rely on black men to be the primary wage earners in our families," says Shirley Hill, a professor of sociology at the University of Kansas. "There are women who've made concessions to patriarchy - we're a very churched people, a very religious people - and most women would give some nod of assent, some groan to the idea that men have authority and women are obedient, but in terms of how that plays out in real life, it has practically no significance whatsoever. It's something women joke about." At the same time, "a lot of women would like a sort of benign patriarchy," Hill said. "Women are tired of having to make a living for themselves, doing everything for themselves."

Jerry Shirer's childhood exemplified many African-American women's reasons for skepticism about male headship. His father moved out when he was in fourth grade, forcing his brother and sister to find work at a grocery store, while his mother carried bags at her tips-only job there. Jerry was the youngest, but it was his job to have the house clean and dinner on the table when everyone got home in the evening. By the time he met Priscilla, he had been self-sufficient in the kitchen for two decades.

As a young bride, Priscilla was at a loss. "He was making beds with hospital corners, and I didn't even know what a hospital corner was," she said. "He could do all this stuff better than me, and that was disheartening for me. Because my dad needs my mom - if my mom doesn't cook, Daddy doesn't eat - so I thought that was the way marriage worked." Jerry refolded the clean laundry to meet his specifications and put out the kitchen fires Priscilla started. The Shirers realized that traditional notions about gender roles might be a poor fit. At the same time, Jerry considers himself a leader and breadwinner. Jerry has sold stocks he held with Hilton Hotels, and he also founded a valuable speakers' bureau. "I'm old-fashioned - I want to provide for my family," he said.

Jerry is also Priscilla's "head-covering," in evangelical parlance. Whenever she addresses an especially conservative or mixed-sex crowd, she makes sure to tell the audience "that I'm here under the leadership of my husband and the leadership of the church," she said. "You say that to set everyone at ease. . . . This is just like there are some places where I just won't wear pants. Not because I think it's wrong to wear pants. I just don't want to do anything that would deter someone from hearing what I'm about to say."To the Shirers, there are no contradictions between her message and her marriage - on the contrary, they say they live by the principles Priscilla teaches. She is well aware that these issues provoke strong feelings, and she avoids controversial questions whenever possible. "I don't find it our goal to make an issue of who does what and has what title in what church," she said. Yet by the simple fact of her celebrity as a strong female Bible teacher, Shirer has stepped into the fray.

Because so few women take on leading preaching roles in conservative circles, evangelical women who feel called to preach often don't know how to do so, says Roese - and evangelical audiences are not used to listening to them. She teaches a course on preaching for women, and has been struck by how her students unconsciously try to imitate men. "In my research I've found that men don't tell personal stories, but women relate differently," Roese said. "What's interesting to me - this is why these women aren't doing it - they don't have female models modeling this. So whether they realize this or not, they're trying to be male in how they present themselves."

The great paradox of conservative Bible teachers like Shirer is that, while they accept a subordinate role for women in church and in marriage, they are the ones teaching young evangelical women how to blend preaching with femininity and how to balance motherhood with a career. They would say that their success is the natural reward to women content to remain within their ordained sphere. Yet as Shirer and others demonstrate to a younger generation of women that female preachers can be just as authoritative and sell just as many books as men, it is hard to guarantee that those young, evangelical women will embrace the submitted life. Roese says she "fell in love with Jesus" - and began her journey toward her own, more controversial calling - at the feet of a female Bible teacher.

The long-term ramifications of evangelical women in the pulpit are far from clear, even at Roese's church - which, although it is part of the conservative Bible Church tradition, is led by a relatively progressive team of pastors. When asked about marriage roles or homosexuality, Roese hesitated. "Our decision has raised up people in the evangelical community to re-evaluate the role of women, and who, in the future, will push those doors even further," she says. "What that will look like, I don't know." Although egalitarians say that God intended humankind's understanding of the Gospel to improve over time, many stress that such enlightenment stops short of sanctioning homosexuality. Christians for Biblical Equality, for example, supports women's ordination but endorses only "faithful heterosexual marriage."

Perhaps the vitality of conservative women's ministries proves that the complementarian compromise works just fine for many evangelical women - women who believe that there is sufficient room for worship and study outside the male-led church. Priscilla Shirer shares her given name with one of the great female heroines of the New Testament - a beloved missionary partner of Paul. Some feminists use her namesake to make the case for expanding women's roles in church further, but to Shirer, these arguments are not her calling. "Our goal," she said, "is just to go in and minister to folks."

Molly Worthen is the author of "The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost." She last wrote for the magazine about the megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll.

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