Debating Gender Roles: The Contested History of “Biblical Womanhood” in Evangelical Discourse

By Kiara Schmidt (’23)

Introduction

While many scholars have argued that the phrase biblical womanhood has a long history dating to the sixteenth century, I argue it largely emerged as a response to the feminist movement of the 1960s. It was promoted by various influential texts, from Marabel Morgan’s, The Total Woman in 1973 to “The Danvers Statement” in 1988, to the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement on the family in 1998. Then recent bestsellers, from A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans in 2012 to Jesus and John Wayne by Kristen Kobes Du Mez in 2020, contributed to the phrase’s increasing use.

What does tracing the usage of “biblical womanhood” communicate about the division in Evangelical discourse on submission and gender roles? While Evangelicalism dates back to the 18th century, the phrase started gaining traction between 1980 and 1992, decreased slightly between 1995 and 1998, and increased steadily from 1998 to 2016. I argue that American publications’ use of the phrase “biblical womanhood” changed as evangelical women offered diverging responses to the feminist movement of the 1960s. During this time, evangelical feminists rejected the subordination of women, and conservative evangelicals embraced The Total Woman and “The Danvers Statement,” and defending “complementary” gender roles.  

The contested meaning of “biblical womanhood” has divided evangelical women worshipping the same God, pitting evangelical feminists against conservative evangelicals. As the phrase gained popularity in response to women’s liberation, it became a battleground where evangelical women fought over doctrine. The rest of this paper will summarize the history of Evangelicalism, provide background on biblical womanhood and the “submission” of women in the Bible, and trace and evaluate the trends in published texts.

My argument is significant for scholars of Evangelicalism and gender because it analyzes the increased late-twentieth-century use of “biblical womanhood” and identifies some of the texts that may have sparked that use. Earlier scholarship suggested that “biblical womanhood” had deep roots in the sixteenth century, during the Reformation, and increased during the Industrial Revolution. However, my research reveals how the term became prominent in American publications in the late-twentieth century, after the rise of Second Wave Feminism. This finding gives us a more nuanced sense of evangelicals’ diverging views of gender roles and shows how some women led the charge against rising feminist ideologies. 

Evangelical Discourse and the Usage of “Biblical Womanhood”

Evangelical feminists and traditional Evangelical women frame the discourse surrounding “biblical womanhood” and women’s subordination. Allison Murray pushes against the assertion that the Bible is perfect and unambiguous, serving as God’s “instruction manual” for humanity (1). She states, “If the Bible were as clear as book jackets and author’s references make it seem to be, then, surely, there would be no need for such books to exist” (1).

Many perceive Eve as the villain in the Genesis story, but her curse was never a part of God’s original plan. The desire for her husband, and the aches of childbirth, are all consequences of the Fall and sin, resulting in patriarchy, subordination, and pain. Sarah Bessey suggests that we should not define biblical womanhood by a list of chores, a particular schedule, or incomes but instead refers to the daily reality of being a follower of Jesus and following in the footsteps of the biblical woman that come before them. According to Bessey, biblical does not mean a baptized version of any culture, and healthy God-glorifying households appear as diverse as the image-bearers who entered the covenant. Despite the collective evangelical tendency to treat unmarried women and men as a match-making mission field, marriage and motherhood are not the only paths to biblical womanhood, as witnessed in many women of faith in the Bible.

Similarly, Carolyn Custis James warned that in the Evangelical Church today, biblical womanhood is defined “solely in terms of marriage and motherhood [and that simply does not fit] the reality of most of our lives…A message that points to the marriage altar as the starting gate of God’s calling for women leaves us with nothing to tell them except that God’s purpose for them is not here and now, but somewhere down the road” (2). Definitions of biblical womanhood limited to marriage and childbearing isolate women who do not or cannot have children or do not wish to be married. Biblical womanhood should include all women of the faith, regardless of personal convictions and reproductive complications.

Furthermore, many credit Dorothy Patterson for popularizing the phrase “biblical womanhood” among women. Dorothy Patterson was a successful writer and speaker and a Professor of Theology in Women’s Studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where her husband was the former president. Described as one of the leading scholars on biblical womanhood, Patterson stood for the obedience of Christ’s followers in keeping the principles found in His Word. Patterson addressed those dismissing scripture passages on gender roles: “God was not waiting for me to determine what directives were relevant for me as a twentieth-century American woman, but He was making clear throughout Scripture His demand for my absolute obedience, even willing submission in the Spirit of Christ Himself, who said, “I delight to do Thy will, O my God” (Psalm 40:8) (Patterson, 371).

Patterson stressed how the lack of submission implied in biblical womanhood would result in anarchy and degrade every other facet of organized society (Romans 13:1-5 and Hebrews 13:17). She argued that societal norms had distorted Scripture, as evangelicals allowed themselves to be squeezed “into its own mold” (Romans 12:2, Philips). Self-effacing submission, humility, and service to others, which the Lord regards highly, have been degraded. 

The Southern Baptist Convention

The Southern Baptist Convention played a significant role in popularizing the term and passed several resolutions on women’s issues and gender roles. Explained by the SBC:

In the Southern Baptist Convention, a resolution is a statement of opinion issued by the Convention in an annual meeting. The resolution does not state an official denominational stance, nor is it binding on any local church, state Baptist convention, or local Baptist association. Resolutions, however, do shape the direction of the Convention’s seminaries, mission boards, publishing houses, and other agencies (4)

Fairly conservative in the 1970s, Southern Baptists passed a resolution affirming “man as the head of the woman,” explaining that man “was not made for the woman, but the woman for the man (4).” However, with the influence of the feminist movement, the denomination’s publishing houses and state newspapers began endorsing equality for women. However, what looked like a stance toward women’s equality was short-lived.  In 1979, fundamentalist pastors and moderates fought for control of the Convention, with fundamentalists controlling every denominational institution by 1993. Their attention then turned to women as they produced resolution after resolution staking traditional positions for women. While Southern Baptist fundamentalists framed these changes as biblical faithfulness, Feminists viewed these changes as circumscribing women’s lives into a tightly controlled ideology. According to Susan Shaw, “while espousing a belief in the equality of women and men, they reinforce patriarchal family structures that disadvantage and control women. These statements attempt to appease women’s sense of fairness and need for self-worth, all the while maintaining them in a subordinate position, completely reliant on the benevolent protection of men” (4). Shaw argues that the loss of control felt by many evangelicals in the 1960s due to the liberation movements in the mid-20th century gave rise to a new wave of Christian fundamentalism that popularized concepts of biblical womanhood.

The Danvers Statement

The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) “exists to equip the church on the meaning of biblical sexuality” (The Danvers Statement). In 1987, the CBMW was co-created by evangelical leaders and scholars, including John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Wayne House, S. Lewis Johnson, James Borland, Susan Foh, and Ken Sarles. Alarmed by the rise of unbiblical teaching, this group, under Piper’s leadership, created a statement at their founding, known as “The Danvers Statement.” It became the definitive theological articulation of “complementarianism.” This view holds that men and women possess equal dignity and worth in God’s image, but each called to different glorifying roles. Complementarianism, however, is a highly disputed idea. Critiques feature alternative biblical interpretations and highlight women’s essential duties both in and outside the home.  

The CBMW’s rationale for the statement was the widespread ambiguity about masculinity and femininity within contemporary culture. With the rise in popularity of hermeneutical strategies that misinterpret seemingly clear biblical passages, they worried, compromised scriptural meaning, and threatened unified doctrine. The relegation of Scripture to elite scholars threatens Biblical authority since its meaning for ordinary people is restricted. Therefore, “The Danvers Statement” stated purpose was to help heal damage among conservative Protestants caused by the misinterpretation of masculinity and femininity and cultivate Biblical wholeness by promoting the spread of the Gospel among everyone. 

After establishing their purposes, the CBMW provided a detailed list of their affirmations regarding the respective roles of man and woman established by divine design. Point number 4 of the statement affirms that “The Fall introduced distortions into the relationship between men and women” and cites verses in Genesis, 3:1-7, 12, 16 as evidence (The Danvers Statement). Husbands have rebelled by moving to either domination or passivity extremes, while wives have abandoned willing submission for usurpation or servility. Point 6 suggests that husbands should care for their wives with selfless leadership, and wives are not to resist their husband’s authority but instead “grow in willing, joyful submission to their husbands’ leadership” (Eph 5:21-33, Col 3:18-19, Tit 2:3-5, 1 Peter 3:1-7) (The Danvers Statement). Ultimately, the failure of either husband or wife to accept these roles causes tension within the marriage as it no longer aligns with God’s intended purpose for the holy union. 

Complementarianism

Most feminists believe that women and men should be considered equals, and women have the right to assume positions of authority, even if that means wielding power over a man. In “Working Mothers,” Ruth A. Tucker, an Evangelical, points out the neglect of biological differences between the sexes and endorses complementarianism, which highlights the unique differences between men and women: “In jobs requiring physical strength they [women] are at a disadvantage to men, while in jobs requiring nurturing care, they may hold the edge” (Christianity Today). However, Tucker and other Evangelicals acknowledge that men and women are not that different in most forms of employment. Women are not less capable of taking on significant roles such as Supreme Court justices, doctors, or lawyers and do not have to be limited in their career options. Women and men have different needs and aspirations, but this does not qualify one as being superior or inferior.

Scripture encourages women to work within, and outside their homes, Tucker suggests, but their highest calling and responsibility remain as “keepers of the home” (Titus 2:5, NIV). Women were created to be naturally nurturing as only they can give birth and nurse babies. Tucker provides examples from the Bible, such as Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth, who were “despondent because their wombs were barren” (Christianity Today). However, she does not neglect scriptures that portray entrepreneurial-minded women as well. The woman described in Proverbs 31 is one that “sees that her trading is profitable” (Proverbs 31:18, NIV) and “She makes linen garments and sells them and supplies the merchants with sashes (Proverbs 31:24, NIV). In contrast to John Piper’s sentiments about the distortions of femininity due to feminism, Tucker believes that “To blame feminism alone for the plight of working mothers is far too simplistic.” She suggests that “The causes of their problems are many and varied. Nevertheless, the failure of some feminists to acknowledge sexual differences has only hampered efforts to alleviate the problems” (Christianity Today, 21). She does not wish to blame the feminist movement yet suggests that their diverging views have not contributed to sound biblical understandings of complementarianism. 

Aimee Byrd, an Evangelical author, rethinks the “Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” movement and criticizes other Evangelicals like John Piper for their definition of femininity. Labeling herself as “confessional,” Byrd agrees that qualified, ordained men should assume the pastoral role, but not because men are naturally better leaders. Byrd claims, “I see pastors as representatives of Christ, the best man” (Christianity Today). 

However, Byrd still values female agency and feminine contributions, which Piper’s analysis neglects. She recognizes the doctrinal error with the complementarianism movement and rejects the claim that Eve came from Adam and, therefore, that women are subordinate to men. Byrd emphasizes that man is also inadequate without woman. “So when man sees woman, he sees something of his ultimate identity as Christ’s bride (Christianity Today). While men and women are different and qualified, men should assume pastoral roles; for Byrd, this should not discredit women’s agency and unique contributions. She believes that the ultimate purpose is “eternal communion with the triune God,” and womanhood is not defined by the nurturing and tending of male leadership (Christianity Today, 74-75). Womanhood and femininity can be defined as distinct from manhood based on how women were created, what they can do, all they can offer, and their essence alone. Simply stated, we do not have to rely on our understanding of men to understand and appreciate the uniqueness of women. 

The complementarian theology espoused by the CBMW and later tied into the Southern Baptist Convention helped ensure that gender would remain firmly embedded at the center of evangelical identity. Together, the SBC and the CBMW, functioning as theological think tanks, provided resources for denominations, organizations, and local churches and built a strong network of evangelicals committed to the adherence to biblical gender roles.

Historical Roots of Submission

In our current social context, the term submission tends to evoke anger and images of slaves under the authority of masters or women bowing down to their husbands. Southern Baptist Dorothy Patterson emphasized that women’s submission resulted from the created order, not the Fall in Eden. Like John Piper and Debi Pearl, Evangelicals take the Bible’s teachings on biblical submission literally and hold them as truth. According to John Piper, the spirit of submission means “a disposition to yield,” while biblical femininity is defined as “a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men” (Piper and Grudem, 203). Women are to yield to their husbands financially, as it relates to making family decisions, look to men as the spiritual leaders of the home, and relinquish all authority over men, including within the church. If the husband is unemployed and the wife works, Pearl argues this is misaligned with divine order. She says the husband should be the primary provider for the family, unless there are unique circumstances where he has a disability or is too sick to labor. 

Pearl’s Created to Be His Help Meet expresses similar sentiments: “As wives, our life’s work should be to perfect how we may please our husbands” (Pearl). However, other Evangelical women have expressed their discontent with Piper’s and Pearl’s views. Rachel Evans, an Evangelical author, pushed back against patriarchal and over-literal interpretations of Scripture. Growing up in a religious household, Evans described how her parents loved the Bible, but “they seemed to know instinctively that rules that left people guilt-ridden, exhausted, and confused were not really from God” (Evans, XVIII). While some Christians may feel liberated staying at home, raising their children, and serving their household, others feel shackled as servants working under a master. Evan struggled to understand how the ancient texts of the Bible could still be applied in our current society, where women have more rights, enter corporate positions once assumed primarily by men, and are not inclined to be keepers of the home.

John Piper and Wayne Grudem disagree. They argue that the false sense of freedom, expressed in the departure from God’s intended will for men and women, is bondage:

Two women may jump from an airplane and experience the thrilling freedom of free falling. But there is a difference: one is encumbered by a parachute on her back, and the other is free from this burden… The one without the parachute feels free-even freer, since she does not feel the constraints of the parachute straps. But she is not truly free. She is in bondage to the force of the gravity and to the deception that all is well because she feels unencumbered. This false sense of freedom is in fact bondage to calamity which is sure to happen after a fleeting moment of pleasure (Piper and Grudem, 47) 

John Piper claimed that movements like the women’s liberation movement and second-wave feminism, which sought to “liberate” women and break patriarchal chains, are antithetical to true freedom. Obedience to the roles assigned to them by God and His Word is the only source of freedom for both men and women. 

Conservative Southern Baptists contributed to the rising sentiments on submission by revising their Baptist Faith and Message in 1998. They added a section, calling “to provide for, to protect, and to lead” their families, and wives to submit themselves “graciously to servant leadership of her husband” (Shaw, 169). Dorothy Patterson helped author this amendment closely based on the Danvers Statement. Similar to the Danvers Statement, this new position has rooted the submission of women in the pre-Fall creation, not as a result of the Fall. When moderates proposed a motion to replace “women’s submission” with “mutual submission,” it was defeated swiftly.

Evan’s Year of Biblical Womanhood

Rachel Held Evans was an evangelical author and blogger who decided in 2010 to embark on a yearlong journey of covering her head, calling her husband ‘master,’ and sitting on her roof in adherence to specific passages regarding the role of women. She recounted her experience and main takeaways in her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, where she wrestled with the true meaning of the Bible, not its literal face value. 

Her “Biblical Woman’s Commandments” entailed submitting to her husband’s will, keeping the home in order, and eight other rules derived from the Bible that guided her along her journey to biblical womanhood. Evans took scriptural references about women for one year and practiced virtues such as gentleness, domesticity, obedience, and submission. A Year of Biblical Womanhood included interviews with other evangelicals, people of different faiths, and those who practice Jewish tradition, like Rabbis. 

In her conclusion, Evans made it clear that while she held the Bible as an important historical artifact, Christians should be cautious in applying it to modern-day living: “Despite what some may claim, the Bible’s not the best place to look for traditional family values as we understand them today” (Evans, 48). She also cautions against literal interpretations: “For those who count the Bible as sacred, the question when interpreting and applying the Bible to our lives is not, will we pick and choose? But rather how we pick and choose? We are all selective in our reading of Scripture…” and later, “This is why there are times when the most intrusive question to bring to the text is not, what does it say? But what am I looking for?” (Evans, 295).

A Year of Biblical Womanhood became a New York Times bestseller, and many Evangelical women found solidarity with her experiment in scriptural exploration and contemplation. After the publication of Evan’s book in 2012, American usage of the phrase biblical womanhood peaked and continued to grow into 2014. Evans concluded that conservative evangelical culture has inconsistencies, and her year-long experiment reassured those who find the Bible contradictory and open to interpretation. Christian women are held to so-called “biblical” standards, but these prescribed ways of living are limited and ungodly. 

Ultimately, Evan’s book brought the issue of practicality to light, adding to evangelical discourse about gender roles and submission. Through her year-long journey and reflection, Evans challenged traditional evangelical assertions that the Bible is not up for personal interpretations but is inerrant and infallible. Her bold claims and radical undertaking of women’s biblical virtues have reframed the evangelical discourse on biblical womanhood. Evans, an evangelical, rejected complementarianism and challenged conservative evangelicals: thus, her 2012 book may have been one reason that more American publications mentioned “biblical womanhood” more frequently.

Conclusion

As I conclude my research, I return to the question: What does tracing the usage of “biblical womanhood” tell us about the divisions among Evangelicals on submission and gender roles? Overall, the trends in the usage of “biblical womanhood” suggest the hyper-reactivity of opposing groups, in this case, the differences between traditional and feminist evangelicals and the male leadership of some leading evangelical denominations, including the Southern Baptists. The research suggests that circulated texts and bold figures can rally the like-minded and ignite a fire among those who otherwise agree on religious matters. The 1989 “Danvers Statement,” the 1998 SBC statement about the family, and the 2012 book A Year of Biblical Womanhood contributed to the rise in usage of the phrase, as evangelicals presented conflicting interpretations of biblical gender roles. 

My argument for literature regarding Evangelicalism and biblical womanhood points to some of the texts and key figures that may have popularized this phrase. Earlier scholarship, especially by Allison Barr and Betty DeBerg, suggested that biblical womanhood had deep roots in the Reformation, Enlightenment, and Industrial Revolution. However, my research suggests that the term first rose to prominence in the late twentieth century in response to the feminist movement. This finding is important because it gives us a more accurate sense of evangelical views on gender roles and shows how a prominent group led the charge in opposing feminist ideologies. Popular perceptions of evangelicals assume that they are all the same, but through conducting research, this assumption has been proven to be misleading. Thus, my historical argument provides new insight, showing the internal divisions among evangelical women. This insight is significant as it reveals how even tight-knit religious groups with little room for deconstruction or different thinking have subsets of people pushing against dominant narratives. These internal divisions are caused by the intersectionality of sex and religion, and illuminates the complex and often conflicting ideologies of evangelicals and feminists. 

This research illuminates the hyper-reactivity of groups within religious and political communities. As rising feminist ideologies in the 1960s and 1970s challenged traditional gender roles and biblical inerrancy, emboldened evangelicals fought back by producing influential texts and rallying together the like-minded. Following conservative evangelicals and their attempt to promote the return to biblical gender roles, feminist and evangelical feminists responded with their own form of opposition through contemporary texts pushing back against literal interpretations of Scripture and the origins of biblical womanhood. 

References

  1. Murray, Allison. “Building Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: White American Evangelical Complementarian Theology, 1970-2010,” Ph.D. diss., University of Toronto, 2021.
  2. James, Carolyn Custis. Half the Church. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2015.
  3. Patterson, Dorothy Kelley. Where’s Mom?: The High Calling of Wife and Mother in Biblical Perspective. Fort Worth, Texas: Seminary Hill Press, 2013. 
  4. Shaw, Susan M. “Gracious Submission: Southern Baptist Fundamentalists and Women.” NWSA 20, no. 1 (2008): 184–222. https://doi.org/10.5810/kentucky/9780813124766.003.0007. 
  5. “The Danvers Statement.” CBMW, January 3, 2020. https://cbmw.org/about/danvers-statement
  6. Tucker, Ruth A. “Working Mothers.” Christianity Today 32, no. 10, 1988. 
  7. Piper, John, and Wayne Grudem, eds. Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1991.
  8. Pearl, Debi. Created to Be His Help Meet: Discover How God Can Make Your Marriage Glorious. Lobelville, Tennessee: No Greater Joy Ministries, 2014.
  9. Evans, Rachel Held. A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master.” Nashville, Tennessee: Nelson Books, 2012. 
  10. Barr, Beth Allison. The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2021. 
  11. Bebbington, David W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. London: Routledge, 1989. 
  12. Bessey, Sarah. Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women: Exploring the Radical Notion That Women Are People, Too. Nashville, Tennessee: Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2013. 
  13. Dilley, Andrea Palpant. The Cure for Complementarianism Gone Wrong. Author Aimee Byrd rethinks the “Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” movement. Other. Christianity Today, April 20, 2020. 
  14. DeBerg, Betty A. Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism . Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fotress, 1990. 
  15. Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. New York, New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2020. 
  16. Flowers, Elizabeth H. Into the Pulpit Southern Baptist Women and Power since World War II. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014. 
  17. Hitchcock, William I. “How Dwight Eisenhower Found God in the White House.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, March 20, 2018. https://www.history.com/news/eisenhower-billy-graham-religion-in-god-we-trust
  18. Holy Bible. New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 2011.
  19. Jones, Will. “A Brief History of Evangelicalism.” A brief history of Evangelicalism. Christian Today, April 6, 2020. https://www.christiantoday.com/article/a-brief-history-of-evangelicalism/134452.htm.
  20. Morgan, Marabel. The Total Woman / Marabel Morgan. Old Tappan, NJ: F. H. Revell, 1973. 
  21. “Our History.” CBMW, April 6, 2021. https://cbmw.org/about/history/. 
  22. “Resolution on Honor for Full-Time Homemakers.” SBC.net, 1987. https://www.sbc.net/resource-library/resolutions/resolution-on-honor-for-full-time-homemakers/. 
  23. Snyder-Hall, R. Claire. “The Ideology of Wifely Submission: A Challenge for Feminism?” Politics & Gender 4, no. 04 (2008): 563. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1743923x08000482. 
  24. “What Is an Evangelical?” National Association of Evangelicals, January 27, 2022. https://www.nae.org/what-is-an-evangelical/‘.

Kiara Schmidt is an American Studies major with an Education, Schooling, and Society supplementary major. Her essay was originally written for Professor Thomas Tweed’s American Studies course ‘Religion and Irreligion.’

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