Women’s Liberation Through Submission: An Evangelical Anti-Feminism Is Born

This October, more than 6,000 women gathered in Chicago for the True Woman Conference ’08: a stadium-style event to promote what its proponents call “biblical womanhood,” “complementarianism,” or—most bluntly—“the patriarchy movement.”

Women gathering to support the patriarchy movement? It’s evangelical counterculture at its most contrarian.

The Associated Baptist Press explains the relationship of biblical womanhood to feminism, highlighting an ambitious initiative that arose from the meeting: a signature drive seeking 100,000 women to endorse its “True Woman Manifesto,” which, the ABP writes, aims “at sparking a counterrevolution to the feminist movement of the 1960s.”

To outside observers of the patriarchy movement, the starkness of the calls for gender hierarchy often seem amusingly outdated (not to mention historically misleading: feminist blogs Feministing and Pandagon have deftly dismantled some of the speakers’ Leave it to Beaver idealizations of the 1950s as a time when women were universally protected).

Though only just under 3,000 women have actually signed the document since its unveiling on October 11, the fact that it exists, and the campaign to gather such a large showing of public support, reveals something important about this movement: that its followers don’t view themselves simply as a remnant of polite, churchy women, holding out against a crass culture, but rather as a revolutionary body waging “countercultural” rebellion against what they see as the feminist status quo.

“We are believing God for a movement of reformation and revival in the hearts and homes of Christian women all around this world,” one organizer, Nancy Leigh DeMoss, said at the close of the conference. “I just believe there is a massive women’s movement of true women in those millions of women who are able to capture all kinds of battlefronts for Christ.”

The terms of the manifesto (downloadable here) serve as a good shorthand description of the aims and principles of the submission and patriarchy movement. Signers affirm their belief that women and men were designed to reflect God in “complementary and distinct ways”; that today’s culture has gone astray distinctly because of its egalitarian approach to gender (and that it’s “experiencing the consequences of abandoning God’s design for men and women”); and that while men and women are equally valuable in the eyes of God, here on earth they are relegated to separate spheres at home and in the church.

The “countercultural” attitudes that signers support include the idea that women are called to affirm and encourage godly masculinity, and honor the God-ordained male headship of their husbands and pastors; that wifely submission to male leadership in the home and church reflects Christ’s submission to God, His Father; that “selfish insistence on personal rights is contrary to the spirit of Christ”; and, in a pronatalist turn of phrase that recalls the rhetoric of the Quiverfull conviction, their willingness to “receive children as a blessing from the Lord.”

Finally, in a reference to the importance of woman-to-woman mentoring within the conservative church, they affirmed that “mature Christian women” are obliged to disciple the next generation of Christian wives, training them in matters of submission and headship, in order to provide a legacy of “fruitful femininity.”

The speakers at the conference were the A-list of complementarian celebrities: Pastor John Piper, Christian radio personality Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor and antifeminist author Mary Kassian, J. Ligon Duncan III, chairman of the board for the Council for Biblical Manhood & Womanhood (CBMW), Susan Hunt, an author and consultant to the Presbyterian Church in America’s Women in the Church Ministry, and others. The conference was organized by DeMoss’ St. Louis-based ministry (and eponymous twice-daily radio program), Revive Our Hearts, a women’s ministry that stresses submission as a militant discipline that will alter the culture.

DeMoss’ fellow speakers shared her faith. Striding to the stage to the soundtrack of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” Mary Kassian riffed on a common biblical womanhood theme: that the queasy unhealthiness of the vintage Virginia Slims slogan, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby,” was representative of feminism’s unhealthy promises to women: appealing to women’s desire for independence, but selling a dangerous product. Kassian’s premise—that feminism took women a “long way” in the wrong direction—echoed that of Mary Pride, submission and headship advocate and author of the homeschooling mother’s cult classic book, The Way Home: Away from Feminism, Back to Reality, published some twenty years earlier.

Pride made the case in the late ’80s for submission as a revolutionary calling, and Kassian’s evocation of Reddy’s old feminist fight song was as deliberate a declaration that the “True Woman” movement was as revolutionary as feminism had been. “I’m praying that God is going to raise up a counterrevolution of women,” she told the crowd, “women who hold the knowledge of our times in one hand and the truth and the clarity and the charity of the Word of God the other; women whose hearts are broken over the gender confusion and the spiritual and emotional and relational carnage of our day and who, like those men of old, know what to do.”

DeMoss has collaborated with a number of her fellow speakers before. In 2002, she edited a compilation of essays on submission and headship entitled Biblical Womanhood in the Home, which drew contributions from Kassian, Hunt, and other complementarian matriarchs, such as Dorothy Kelley Patterson, who with her husband, Paige Patterson, created the homemaking degree and curriculum introduced at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2007 and P. Bunny Wilson, author of anti-feminist Christian books such as Liberated Through Submission. In her introduction to the collection, DeMoss wrote of her culture-transforming ambitions:

I began to wonder what might happen in our day if even a small number of devoted, intentional women would begin to pray and believe God for a revolution of a different kind—a counterrevolution—within the evangelical world… Unlike most revolutions, this counterrevolution does not require that we march in the streets or send letters to Congress or join yet another organization. It does not require us to leave our homes; in fact, for many women, it calls them back into their homes. It requires only that we humble ourselves, that we learn, affirm, and live out the biblical pattern of womanhood, and that we teach the ways of God to the next generation.

To that end, DeMoss has worked with the CBMW, Campus Crusade for Christ’s Family Life, the Moody media empire, Moms In Touch International, and other organizations—pushing not just the familiar list of Christian right demands, but a more subtle, and more thorough, transformation of Christian family life and structure, from which to wage a more effective culture war.

The imperative of such a return to “biblical” gender roles is even farther- reaching though, as Kassian explained. Feminism, she argued, in a paraphrase of the argument in her book The Feminist Mistake: The Radical Impact of Feminism on Church and Culture, is a multistage process that begins with feminism’s insistence on self-definition and self-determination, and ends with feminism’s declaration that women can interpret and decide for themselves who or what God is: a statement of theological relativity that threatens to undermine biblical literalism completely. In The Feminist Mistake, Kassian explained this slide more thoroughly:

Feminism begins with a deconstruction of a Judeo-Christian view of womanhood (the right to name self); progressed to the deconstruction of manhood, gender relationships, family/societal structures, and a Judeo-Christian worldview (the right to name the world); and concluded with the concept of a metaphysical pluralism, self-deification, and the rejection of the Judeo-Christian deity (the right to name God).

To the age-old question of “who is God,” Kassian complained, feminism answers, it’s up to you. And this, to Kassian, is a blasphemous statement of authority in and of itself, and even a sign of self-worship. “According to feminism, women decide, and ultimately, that means that they themselves are God.”

This is the charge of complementarian’s biggest advocates. The Southern Baptist seminary where Kassian teaches is also the location of the SBC-affiliated CBMW, the preeminent institution of complementarianism and publisher of the most authoritative book on the subject, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, co-edited by theologians John Piper and Wayne Grudem.

“Wimpy theology makes wimpy women,” Piper told the audience. Reinforcing a common message that biblical womanhood, true womanhood, may look meek, but is actually fierce, Piper, who spreads the complementarian message not just through his writing and affiliation with the CBMW, but also through his church-planting Desiring God ministry, explained, “Wimpy theology does not give a woman a God big enough, strong enough, wise enough, good enough to handle the realities of life in a way that enables her to magnify Him and His Son all the time… Wimpy theology doesn’t have a granite foundation of God’s sovereignty underneath.” Non-wimpy theology gives women both a God strong enough to see them through the worst of life, Piper continued, and also a set of non-negotiable mandates for life. Namely that submission is a wife’s divine calling, and truest form of power. “I distinguish between authority and influence,” he said. “A woman on her knees sways more in this nation than a thousand three-piece suited Wall Street jerks. There is massive power in this room, so I do not take lightly this moment.”

Neither should observers, however laughably retrograde the True Woman prescriptions and manifesto might seem. What a conference of this size means—along with the publicly-declared ambition to gather exponentially more women—is that the biblical womanhood movement is getting organized.

kathrynajoyce@gmail.com'

Kathryn Joyce is the author of The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption and Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. Her articles have appeared in The Nation, Mother Jones, The Atlantic, and many other publications.