Staff Review

The Preacher's Wife

Kate Bowler (Princeton University Press)
The Preacher's Wife
This "struggle of the sexes" continues into modern times and in The Preacher's Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities, historian Kate Bowler explores how evangelical women navigated and negotiated their influence in Protestant Christian America.

From the early days of Christianity to the present, women have been instrumental in the life of the Church. St. Paul writes to his protege Timothy “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you” (2 Tim. 1:5); Timothy’s faith was dependent upon his female family members instructing him in the ways of Jesus. From Timothy’s time to our present, women have served faithfully as mentors, "prayer warriors," missionaries, evangelists, and inspiring performers, even as they have had to contend with patriarchs who seek to limit and even silence women from speaking and teaching authoritatively. 

This "struggle of the sexes" continues into modern times and in The Preacher's Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities, historian Kate Bowler explores how evangelical women navigated and negotiated their influence in Protestant Christian America. Each chapter relates to a particular role that evangelical women are known for - the preacher, the homemaker, the talent, the counselor, and the beauty - and features a charming array of images, many from the cover of leading evangelical magazines such as "Today's Christian Woman." Bowler aptly describes how these evangelical women were idealized:

"As icons of the middle class, these women were expected to embody its trials and triumphs. They must be hard-working but not competitive, polished but not fussy, wholesome but not perfect. And as famous women, they must do what all famous women do and pretend to be average, subject to the acid test of ‘relatability.’ Their stories should be peppered with mishaps—they broke the eggs bagging their own groceries, put their shirts on inside-out, and ruined their children’s Halloween costumes” (p. 13)

In the first chapter, Bowler dives into the pulpit, which may be the most contentious space for Protestant women in the Church. Although Protestant mainline denominations feature well-known female ministers, including the tattooed Lutheran “pastrix” Nadia Bolz-Weber and the revered Episcopalian priest and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor, the Protestant mainline did not initially welcome female ministers; in a curious historical reversal, the liberal denominations that balked at female ordination in the early twentieth century have come to overwhelmingly embrace female ministers while some of the conservative, revivalist denominations that had once been home to renowned female evangelists such as Phoebe Palmer and Aimee Semple McPherson gradually saw a decline in the number of female ministers (p. 38). The conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention in the late twentieth century is further proof of women with pastoral gifts being denied the pulpit. This has often resulted in women who grew up evangelical becoming disillusioned with conservative Protestantism; in order to fully exercise their gifts, they are forced to depart their childhood denomination and move into the Protestant mainline, embracing liberal theology and social views and empathizing with other downtrodden groups (though there are evangelical denominations which support women’s ordination, particularly pentecostal and charismatic churches). Bowler states that “Female clergy, perhaps because of a sense of marginalization, have reported a greater sense of identification with African Americans and immigrants in their ministry than male clergy and have expressed a level of support for liberation theology, inclusive language, marriage equality, and abortion rights that was higher than that of men clergy (p. 42-43). 

Additionally, Bowler explains how liberal and conservative Protestants divided in the mid-twentieth century, writing “postwar mainline Protestantism was united in its vision of the clergy as a highly learned figure with a ‘rational authority,’ rather than a person with charismatic authority centered on special gifts and personal talents. These priorities were echoed in mainline seminary coursework, which typically emphasized the study of scripture, theology, history, and pastoral care of the laity rather than the kinds of skills that engendered the entrepreneurship that was second nature to evangelicalism’s culture of Christian celebrity” (p. 49). Conservative evangelicals were populists, attracting a wider segment of the American public while liberal Protestants embraced scholarship and opted for influence among cultural elites (what has Billy Graham to do with William Sloane Coffin?), but theological liberals were also quicker to accept changes to gender roles, including opening up space for female clergy..

Women face other barriers to work in the Church. In many conservative denominations, women cannot teach or have authority over men; they cannot be an elder or deacon, let alone the lead pastor. Given that the average church congregation has roughly eighty people, many congregations are too small to have more than one church employee and thus by default, the sole staff member is typically male because he (supposedly) needs no oversight from the opposite sex (p. 58-59). Some women in egalitarian churches have “pastor” in their job title but many complementarian churches list female employees as “associate” or “director” of family or children’s ministry; these women are functionally pastors but complementarian legalism prevents them from receiving the title of pastor. Women on church staff are also often assigned to gendered work; it is much more common to see a female pastor of children’s ministry than a female executive or lead pastor (p. 60).

The next chapter, “The Homemaker,” focuses on women as the centre of the domestic sphere and family life. These women were content to remain at home, attending to household duties, raising their children, and instilling “family values” in both their loved ones and in the wider public at large, just as the culture was beset by divorce, abortion, and the liberalization of social mores. Bowler remarks that many women of this period “were one of two kinds of wives— women like Phyllis Schlafly, who billed themselves as mothers and housewives at the same time as they led causes outside the home, and women like Beverly LaHaye, the spouses of famous pastors who parlayed their fame into a new kind of career: the professional wife. The most formidable conservative female opponents of the feminist cause would say that they were nothing special, only a wife and a mother. But this language had taken on extraordinary power, particularly when it applied to a woman who knew how to stand by her man” (p. 79). One of the most contested teachings in the Bible is on women and “submission.” Bowler recounts how leading conservative evangelical women “Each...had her own brand of submission: Beverly LaHaye’s was political; Anita Bryant’s was bubbly; and Elisabeth Elliot’s was poetic as ever, even in the way she called the sexes ‘gloriously and radically unequal’” (p.81). Feminists objected to conservative notions of “submission” and implored women to take up careers in the public sphere in order to escape the domestic drudgery of the housewife.

Women once played a leading role in missions, both at home and overseas (one need only think of the likes of Amy Carmichael and Sophia Blackmore). At home, women administered the missionary organizations while overseas, female (often single) missionaries enjoyed remarkable independence from male overseers (women often have greater access to potential converts than men do, especially in cultures with sharply gendered spaces such as in the Middle East). Female missionary work was once regarded as a commendable position for Christian women. However, as women in the West moved into the public sphere to work, this led to the decline of women volunteering in ministry; with a 9-5 job at the office, they no longer had the time or the energy to serve in churches the same way their foremothers had done in the immediate postwar period and the reins of missions organizations were picked up by men who enacted policies aimed at curbing the freedom female missionaries had. Fundamentalists and conservative Protestants were often concerned that female missionaries, evangelizing in exotic lands and under harsh conditions, were doing work more suitable for men. Meanwhile, megachurch wives, who publicly epitomized femininity, began creating “women’s ministries” for their female church members, which also siphoned off resources from female mission work by focusing attention on the local congregation. (p. 84-90). Bowler remarks that Elisabeth Ellliot herself symbolized this shift; early in life she served as a missionary among the Quichua (the same indigenous people that killed her first husband) but as she grew older, she became more renowned for books on womanhood and dating such as Passion and Purity: Learning to Bring Your Love Life Under God’s Control (p. 89-90).

The third chapter deals with women as “the talent.” By this, Bowler refers to women who became influential due to their presence in front of the camera and on stage. This chapter reads as a series of profiles of interesting female televangelists and entertainers, including the famous and entrepreneurial founder of Eternal Word Television Network Mother Angelica, gospel star CeCe Winans, and contemporary Christian music stars such as Amy Grant, Rebecca St. James, and Jennifer Knapp. Many of these female performers became household names in evangelical homes, but they faced patronizing chaperoning from conservative church leaders and had their affairs arranged by male managers.

Women are often perceived as being more intuitive, nurturing, and gracious than men (which is probably true!). This makes them ideal as “counselors” or the even vaguer “life coach” (p.173-74). Women adopted this role less through professionalization and more through experience. Bowler explains that conservative Protestantism embraced the same psychological jargon that had filtered into popular culture and that this created an opening for women “to justify their authority on the grounds that they stood on the ultimate foundation of psychological insight - experience. Female celebrities billed themselves as veterans of life itself” (p. 154-55). Bowler continues “Very few women in Christian megaministry were credentialed counselors or therapists. But almost all acted as if they were. They gave advice on a wide range of topics, from self-esteem, healthy relationships, emotional management, and marital bliss to overcoming anxiety and depression. They boldly ventured into the dark recesses of the mind, crafting solutions for even the most severe mental illnesses that in fact required professional, medical intervention. More than this, they stood in front of thousands of listeners and unburdened their souls. And despite their posture as the counselor not the counseled, they whispered their deepest shames into the microphone” (p. 155). 

Though questionable, these evangelical women were simply following in the footsteps of earlier female advice columnists such as Dorothy Dix who regularly fielded questions about a variety of different issues. For this pioneering generation of advice columnists, “Their ability to relate to their listeners or readers was deemed more important than esoteric knowledge...The everywoman was an expert” (p. 160). As well, there were some women serving in churches who did have professional counseling degrees and this offered them “a large measure of freedom. These degrees, or corresponding degrees in social work, qualified them for work in a variety of roles, from religious schools, private practice, children and family services, hospitals, and funeral homes to homeless shelters. In a congregational setting, the work of counseling did not seem to trigger the same concerns around authority and oversight. After all, in the sacred walls of the church, the titles like ‘pastor’ and ‘counselor’ did not compete with one another” (p. 171).

The well-publicized failures of televangelism’s male stars generated distrust towards many pastoral figures. Viewers had invited Jim Bakker and Robert Tilton into their homes only to see these spiritual authorities fall into scandal and sin. As Bowler writes, “In a world grown cynical from the hypocrisy of evangelical preachers, the answer was ministries that would highlight the failings of the speaker, rather than polish the tarnished brass covering of the feet of clay. The new saints of megaministry would prosper by confessing that they were never saints at all” (165). Female evangelical speakers wrote books and hosted conferences aimed at relieving their fellow sisters in the faith of feelings of shame, powerlessness, insufficiency, using their own struggles and triumphs as vulnerable, inspirational narratives. Many of these speakers had experienced heartbreak, divorce, severe illness, abrupt career change, or serious loss. In a remarkably telling anonymous confession “A popular pentecostal evangelist, who asked not to be named, offered the most helpful analysis: ‘Well, the first book can talk about a wild life before conversion. Then there is the initial crisis book where something has gone terribly wrong. Then there is a deepening in faith book where the problem is pretty small by comparison, but it serves as a teaching tool. And then, if you are still in ministry by mid-life, there is always a curveball that you can write about. Like an illness or a marital problem. That amounts to a crisis in your 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s’” (p. 190).

The last chapter is on woman as “the beauty” in which Bowler navigates the tricky terrain of physical attractiveness among evangelical women. Bowler’s exploration ranges from the crassness of Christian reality TV (“First Lady Ivy Couch of The Sisterhood was first introduced to audiences when her husband gave her a pair of handcuffs for some marital recreation; and Pastor Ben Tankard, whose prosperity-preaching family ministry was featured on the reality show Thicker Than Water, loved to joke about his sexy wife, Jewel, swinging from the chandeliers”), to entrepreneurial women such as Jen Hatmaker and Joanna Gaines who created their own brands, to female Christian fitness gurus who wanted to ensure that their bodies were worthy temples for the Lord. Conservative Christian women often found themselves in conflict with mainstream feminism; the former preached the comfort of domesticity and family values while the latter lauded women’s entrance into the public workforce and urged women to throw off traditional restraints. Yet Bowler explains that “The most powerful symbol of the culture wars against feminism was the satisfied housewife, the woman who knew her place in the kitchen and the bedroom. And no one advertised that contentment better than Marabel Morgan in The Total Woman, a runaway hit that earned national press coverage and a spot on the New York Times bestsellers list. Her famous advice to spice a marriage up by wearing nothing but Saran Wrap was echoed by a generation of other conservative women who, by innuendo or proclamation, communicated that they practiced what they preached. ‘Jim never knows if I’m going to be a redhead, a blonde, or a brunette,’ said Tammy Faye Bakker brazenly” (p. 220).

The Preacher’s Wife is a stimulating study of the various roles evangelical women play in their subculture. Bowler writes sympathetically about her subjects, relying on many interviews and providing copious endnotes. It’s hard to include everything in a single book but I wish Bowler had mentioned the Junia Project in her chapter on the preacher. Some of the women in the most precarious positions are those who champion women’s ordination on the one hand (viewed as progressive by conservative Christians) while remaining committed to biblical orthodoxy when it comes to issues of sexual morality (viewed as conservative by theological liberals). All in all, this book is a well written history of women’s roles in Protestant churches over the last four-five decades.