The New York Times’ profile of evangelical women’s speaker Priscilla Shirer by writer Molly Worthen (Housewives of God) raises some interesting points about the complementarian view of leadership in church and family, intimating that a functional egalitarianism may more accurately describe the life structure of some popular women leaders in the women’s ministry subculture. An unpopular assessment, but not a new insight. However, what Worthen does accomplish with this piece, unbeknownst to her I suspect, is the uncovering of a related issue for evangelical women—a problem this piece intends to address with Worthen’s help because there is so much more to this story. Worthen writes,
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.
What Worthen has observed about the essence of the women’s ministry paradigm is precisely what many women in the evangelical community are resisting, both complementarian and egalitarian. I’m not so sure, however, that contemporary teachers like Priscilla Shirer have “built” anything as Worthen suggests, but are simply expanding on what was passed down to them from the existing women’s ministry culture. What use to be the church women’s ministry brunch or tea party with an inspirational speaker has evolved into conferences of a much larger scale, but little has really changed. They are so noticeably an amalgamation of an immediate emotional experience (revivalism), pop psychology (modern therapeutic culture) and girl-talk (gabby intimacy). Worthen continues,
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.
Here is where we need to firmly disagree with Worthen. Nothing about a woman taking the lead to teach and mentor other women is a co-opting of “feminist ideas” but rather a fulfillment of the Titus 2 mandate and the Great Commission. There is nothing unbiblical or even extra-biblical in this context. As well, there is no claim to the office of pastor and—I’ll go out on a limb here—women speakers who identify as complementarians are also willingly submitting the content of their teaching to the authority of their own pastoral leadership.
But while Shirer’s brand of women’s ministry may be an alternative to secular feminism, it certainly is not—even for complementarian women—the only alternative to secular feminism. The women’s ministry paradigm has been undergoing a subtle but important shift over the last few years. Many evangelical women are now discussing and operating according to an alternative to the emotional, therapeutic, and pretty-in-pink cliché that has dominated for so long, encouraging women to think beyond the contours of the current paradigm and develop a vision for women’s ministry that more actively and intentionally involves the life of the mind. They are identifying and rejecting the experience-driven model as insufficient because without theological substance any impact is merely temporary.
While many evangelical women’s conferences involve less Scripture and more girl talk, at this conference…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.
It’s not so much that evangelical women’s conferences offer little or no scriptural content—I tend to think Worthen is exaggerating this claim—but often what is offered targets the lowest-common denominator or is consistently limited in scope. It is difficult to speak of women’s conferences across the board because I have attended some that have offered excellent theological content for women in different places on her spiritual journey. No two conferences are exactly the same. But a speaker will generally reflect the content of her writing, and there is much to be desired in the what publishers are marketing to women—and the conference circuit is inextricably tied to book promotions. To put it simply, when personal experience or self-esteem is elevated above a proper biblical hermeneutic, or when theological rigor is abandoned because it lacks an entertainment component or is perceived to be the domain of men, then we need to reconsider the conference opportunities we are making available to women.
There is more to the story of women in ministry to women, much more. In the evangelical community, there is a segment of women who desire to know God beyond the emotional encounter. They are seeking theological understanding, desiring to develop a Christian worldview that will permeate every nook and cranny of their life. Some of these women are college or seminary students, some are stay-at-home moms who are reading theologians of the past and teaching their children to understand the doctrines of the church. Some of these women are in a range of professions that aren’t directly connected to church ministry, but they want to know what they believe and why they believe it. They want to be in an active process of developing a Christian worldview and filter their entire life through it. For many of these women, they could care less about the gender debate or they are simply ready to discuss other areas of theology. While cherishing that God has made her woman, she is also asking the questions about her humanity as an image bearer. She isn’t interested in reading Scripture as a woman—an error also made feminist theologians—she wants to read it as a child of God. Many of these women will never attend a women’s conference because the theological conferences generally attended by men primarily offer the depth of content they desire. While Worthen’s article picks up on some truths of the women’s ministry conference circuit, she also misses the issue being raised by evangelical women between the pulpit and the kitchen. There’s more to the story.