52% of the World’s Evangelical Leaders Believe a Wife Must Always Obey Her Husband. The Unfinished Gender Debate

In 2010 the US based Pew Forum surveyed over 2000 Evangelical leaders present at the Lausanne Conference, seeking their views on issues of faith, church and ethics.

When asked whether “a wife should always obey her husband” fifty-two percent said “yes”, either fully agreeing or mostly agreeing. Think carefully about that. Not only do half the world’s evangelical leaders believe a wife should obey her husband, which is shocking enough, but they believe that she should always obey.

Does this suggest a fifty/fifty split on the idea of the husband as “head” of the home? No. Seventy-nine percent of leaders agreed that “men have a duty to serve as the religious leaders in marriage and the family”. This means eight in ten evangelical leaders have a view of marriage that is either a hard version of patriarchy – ie wives must obey their husbands – or a softened patriarchy – ie husbands should be the spiritual leaders. These beliefs were particularly strong among leaders from more traditional nations, but even in industrialised countries were still significant.  In the Global North (Europe, North America, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) thirty-nine percent agreed a wife should always obey her husband.

Surprisingly, these attitudes don’t flow through to roles in the church,  with seventy-five percent of leaders agreeing women should be able to serve as pastors. Attitudes here were similar between the Global North (77% agreeing) and Global South (73% agreeing). The caveat is that the survey didn’t ask about types of pastoring. Many who would be happy to see a woman serving as a children’s pastor may not be happy to see a woman as the lead pastor.

The survey results suggest that:

1. Evangelicals have, in part at least, liberated themselves from patriarchal views of ministry but remain firmly wedded to patriarchy in the home.

2. Patriarchal views are strongest in the “Global South”, the very area Christianity is growing fastest.

I respect those who believe honouring God in the home and church requires male leadership. They include some of the most godly people I know. But I think they have got it wrong. And I believe it matters. This is not an ivory tower theological debate. At its best patriarchy robs women of significant opportunities to flourish. At its worst it leaves women exposed to abuse. A theology of sin and power should remind us that it’s all very well to teach men to love their wives, but when social structures give one group power over others that power will frequently be exercised to the detriment of the less powerful.

Gender debates raged in the churches of the Global North in the 1980s and 1990s. The focus was predominantly the role of women and men in the life of the church. The statistics suggest that for those of us committed to the full equality of women and men the ideological battle was largely won. But perhaps we naively assumed this would translate to gender relations in the home. It hasn’t.  It’s time we addressed this.

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