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 The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities by Kate Bowler, Princeton University Press (Oct. 2019)

* Longer than your typical book review.
About a 5 – 7 minute read.*

I heard about this book when it was released, and recently stumbled upon it at my local library. I commend The Preacher’s Wife to you if you are interested in the history of evangelical women going back to the mid-1800’s but with more focus on the last 50 years.

I think the book may have benefited from a different title and subtitle, because I think it can give the wrong idea. I am terrible at coming up with titles, so I hate to criticize when I don’t have a better one! The Preacher’s Wife could make one think it is fiction or make one think it is exclusively about preacher’s wives – but it is broader than that in focus.

The subtitle does bring clarity, yet I don’t really care for it either. It is not so much about power in my opinion but how evangelical women, historically and in more recent times, have had to find ways to simply…utilize their God-given spiritual gifts or to find “their place” in a male dominated faith. The “celebrity culture” sadly took over in the mid to late 20th century.

Sometimes it has been a struggle for the wives of celebrity megachurch pastors to meet the unfair expectations placed upon them. Women, often pastor’s wives but not necessarily, must build a platform – writing books or through speaking, traveling to women’s events. They have ended up with influence and power, but outside of the church, and this has created its own problems or issues. Within the church, they were often in the shadow of their husband, lacking opportunity. (Although the idea of husband and wife co-pastors is discussed, mainly found in prosperity gospel churches.)

On that note, the book offers a fascinating history into how “women’s ministry” developed and changed, sadly for the worse. Historically women in the church gathered to do mission work, with specific tasks related to international or perhaps local missions. This began to change in the 1970’s and women’s ministry shifted to being more about: being a wife and mom, and concern for moral virtue in society (think Concerned Women for America, Beverly LaHaye). There was a pronounced inward turn as well, with women’s ministry focusing on socialization for women in the church. Consider women’s ministries with names like “Sisterhood” or “Girl-friends.” Instead of socialization taking place as a by-product of gathering for missionary work, socialization become front and center.

The book has depth, written by Kate Bowler, and she skillfully brings in how trends in secular culture (such as second wave feminism) or how the development of the electronic church (televangelism) in the 1980’s intersected with women in the church – whether in a reactionary way or coming under the influence.

Bowler clarifies her use of terms throughout the book. The front even has a glossary of terms such as: evangelical, conservative, liberal, charismatic, mainline, megachurch, complementarian, prosperity gospel. The book has pictures scattered through it, some of magazine covers (remember “Today’s Christian Woman”?) or event posters – reminding us of women like Joyce Meyer, Victoria Osteen, Beth Moore – and also demonstrating some of the points in the book.

While I knew many of the names, particularly from years ago, there were recent celebrity women names I had little familiarity with, mainly because I avoid women’s ministries, women’s conferences, and books written specifically for women…like the plague! They disturb me and turn me off, for so many reasons, such as shallowness and imbalanced focus on the therapeutic. I was glad to gain a better understanding of certain recent women’s speakers or conferences.

The book has charts, lists, and appendixes that share the demographics related to megachurches in the USA, megachurch pastors wives, women in conservative seminaries, women on staff at megachurches, and info related to the ordination of women. Bowler not only analyzed statistical info, but personally interviewed dozens of evangelical women in positions of ministry or married to such men.

Core chapter titles are: The Homemaker, The Talent, The Counselor, and The Beauty. Because women in evangelicalism have been limited or boxed in, they focused on other areas. I don’t think this was necessarily by a purposeful plan, but where some of these women ended up by default. She became the talent, perhaps singing, as the helpful sidekick on the televangelist show. Or because it was deemed okay for women to give a “testimony” they end up in counseling type ministries, sharing experience and advice on a speaking circuit. Likewise for a focus on homemaking or beauty. While at times I thought these chapters rambled around a bit, a conclusion chapter skillfully pulled things together and offered helpful analysis.

Several paragraphs above I used the words influence and power interchangeably, but the conclusion noted a distinction. Evangelical women can be influential but must be very cautious about power. (Of course, everyone should be cautious with power, especially Christians, but don’t miss the point.) Influence is a slippery word for women in the evangelical world, and they must be careful with it. Yes, they should want to influence their world, but…how far beyond her home can her reach extend? Being a wife and mom is paramount. From where does her authority come? A woman’s place is under the authority of a man, or at least at the side of a man. An evangelical woman’s ability to succeed in ministry depends on her ability to master the rules of complementarianism. She must know her place.

Bowler shared about a well-known ministry that equips women for ministry and leadership, and to sign up you check a box that describes you, with these options: senior pastor’s wife, church planter’s wife, executive pastor’s wife, associate pastors wife, campus pastor’s wife.  – SCREAM!!

If you weren’t getting the point, maybe now you do? A woman must always be linked to a man. (That is patriarchy!)  And back to the book title: The Preacher’s Wife. Perhaps the title and subtitle is a better fit than I thought? It is very difficult for an evangelical woman to be a leader by herself alone. If she arrives in such a place, it is indeed a precarious position. Think of all the support Beth Moore has lost since she began speaking out.

In the personal note from Bowler at the start of the book, a story she shared jumped out at me. Growing up, she attended a Mennonite evangelical summer camp. Years later, after getting her Phd, she returned to this camp to revise their Bible studies. THIS: “In a calculus that only evangelicals can understand, I would never be allowed to preach from their wooden pulpit in the chapel – but I could speak directly to the entire camp daily on theological matters, as long as I wrote down what I said.” (page x)

To bring this to a close, the book has more history and makes more helpful connections than I can possibly cover in a review. I’ll mention that the book brings in LGBTQ issues a little, and I found this mostly unnecessary, and to be a different issue altogether. What follows are extra thoughts if you want to keep reading:

———

First, I want to summarize some content from early in the book. When I first became familiar with it, in the last 5-10 years, it initially surprised me:

  • Did you know that the initial women’s suffrage women that began in the mid/late 1800s developed as a result of women getting involved in advocacy against slavery? Yes! As women, Christian women, started to speak out against slavery, they met obstacle after obstacle from men in the church. Women getting involved in such an issue were seen as stepping out of their place! Exasperated by this, white women began to see their situation with that of those they were trying to liberate! This led to the fight for woman’s suffrage. Another book I read brought out how Frederick Douglas became involved with woman’s rights, himself feeling a connection and seeing similarity between the mistreatment of his people and the limitations placed on white women.
  • Women’s participation in the tremendous missionary movement of the 1800s and early 1900s cannot be overstated. By 1900, 2/3 of the 6,000 Protestant missionaries were women! 1 in 10 of them were doctors at a time when women could not be employed as doctors in the US. Likewise, they were leading in the church overseas in ways forbidden to them at home. Many women missionaries discovered they could take on all the roles of male clergy at home. In mission work, both in mission auxiliaries at home and serving abroad, women were leading: responsible for large sums of money, directing schools and colleges, teaching, and holding positions of authority denied them otherwise.

MANY OF THESE women clearly did not “know their place” but stepped out of it, and look at all they accomplished! Women are largely responsible for the worldwide spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the 1800’s.

Shame on them? How dare they?

[Do you wonder what happened? In the 20th century, a constellation of forces resulted in men taking over the missionary empire, and by mid-20th century women’s power had evaporated. Where could women now look for opportunities of meaningful service and leading roles in the church? Well, read the book to see how history unfolded.]

Second, what follows is also info that shocked me when I first read it in a book a few years ago, and Bowler discusses it. Did you know that in the early 20th century, churches that we now call the Protestant Mainline resisted female ordination while many churches from the part of the religious spectrum we’d today term conservative were open to women in the pulpit? Yes! (from page 38)

This changed in the mid-20th century, and in the later 20th century it created an odd situation of conservative women with unlikely power (what The Preacher’s Wife is about) and liberal women with unlikely weakness. As Bowler states: “Conservative women gained considerable influence without institutional power, while liberal woman gained institutional power without considerable influence.” (pages 26-27)

[conservative: church tradition that restricts female leadership. liberal: church tradition that affirms female leadership.]

Even though liberal women were ordained and in formal church leadership, it did not transfer over into influence in the broader Christian community. Why not? The book offered analysis, which I found interesting – particularly as someone who identifies as evangelical but I’ve been in a mainline denomination for about 6 years. In the mid 20th century, mainline pastors became known as highly learned and rational sources of authority and not known for charisma and talent. Marketing them self to the Christian public would have been viewed as crude and celebrity as garish. The benefits of female ordination were also a burden. They were busy pastoring and tending their institutions, with no time for travel, writing, and platform building. In addition, the mainline has had less interest in proselytism. Why bother with building a platform without an evangelistic purpose?

The book brought in some exceptions such as infamous (ahem) Nadia Bolz-Weber and Barbara Brown Taylor.  Taylor has been a reluctant celebrity whose writing took off. But she is quoted:

“Christian celebrity is an especially troublesome oxymoron since being a Christian calls for a certain self-forgetfulness that celebrity makes difficult to achieve.” (Page 64)

So, how come the mainline gets this (the people who supposedly don’t know their Bibles like us evangelicals or don’t have the same relationship with Jesus like we do either) but so many evangelicals fail to see the troublesome oxymoron of Christian celebrity and have fallen for a self-entered faith??!! (My own book addresses this is part.)