How do egalitarian and complementarian seminaries differ in how they do gender?
Stained Glass Ceilings by Lisa Weaver Swartz is a fascinating book. She interviewed people at two different seminaries–Asbury Seminary and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary–to see the different ways an egalitarian vs. complementarian denomination did gender.
And while obviously the complementarian one deliberately prioritized men over women in multiple ways, it doesn’t mean women fared well in the egalitarian one either. And the reasons were fascinating!
Or, as always, you can watch on YouTube:
Timeline of the Podcast
3:00 Lisa joins to talk about her study on Complementarianism
11:00 Theology of the ‘gospel’
22:00 Are the genders polar opposites?
28:15 Southern’s take on marriage
36:20 How they make their ‘equality’ case
38:00 Stories of some single women at the seminary
43:00 Women’s ministry and wife groups
47:00 How the views of gender will continue in future
Where do women best thrive?
Lisa Swartz found that there isn’t a clear-cut answer, in her book Stained Glass Ceilings.
What she found was that because at SBTS women were considered the supporters of men, and there weren’t other expectations on them, there were actually a lot of institutional supports for wives of students to get together and study the Bible and support each other.
But in egalitarian institutions, it was assumed, “we’re not sexist.” Yet while the seminary allowed women into all spheres, it didn’t take into account some of the bigger challenges that women face (like unequal childcare, etc.,) and it didn’t have social supports in the same way.
Our conversation focused mostly on how, at SBTS, the gospel and much of their faith was defined in gendered terms–about women submitting and men leading. It was a great conversation, and especially timely given what we know now about how Al Mohler and the SBTS filed an amicus brief in a Kentucky sexual abuse case to argue that sexual abuse victims should not get the right to sue organizations that covered up abuse, if the statute of limitations has passed. So just this month we’ve seen how the SBC, and specifically this seminary, sees sexual abuse victims. So it seemed like a good time to talk about it!
Things Mentioned in the Podcast
- Join our Patreon for as little as $5 a month and help support our research and our work!
- Lisa Weaver Swartz’ book Stained Glass Ceilings
- A write-up of the amicus brief submitted on behalf of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to deny victims the right to sue the organizations that failed to report and failed to protect
- The clip where Matt Chandler says he only teaches men
- Our book She Deserves Better
What do you think? Have you ever been in a group like the SBTS where men being over women was considered a key part of the gospel message? How did that make you feel? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila: Welcome to the Bare Marriage podcast. I’m Sheila Wray Gregoire from baremarriage.com where we like to talk about health, evidence-based, biblical advice for your sex life and your marriage. And today I have an amazing interview that I actually recorded last June with Lisa Swartz, the author of Stained Glass Ceilings. And I was hoping to play this earlier, and then just a bunch of things happened. And I kept delaying it because it got preempted. And I’m actually glad I did because something happened in the last two weeks that actually pertains to this topic. So in this podcast, you’re going to hear us talking about a study that Lisa did at two different seminaries, an egalitarian one, Asbury Seminary, and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which is run by Albert Mohler. Well, two weeks ago it came out in the news that Southern Baptist Theological Seminary along with the Southern Baptist Executive Committee and Lifeway filed an amicus brief, which is like a legal filing, in a case—a legal case that they were not a party to. So this had nothing to do with them. In the state of Kentucky. So a woman named Samantha Killary has been involved in ongoing legal proceedings, and she’s trying to get the right to sue the entity that she disclosed her father’s sexual abuse of her when she was a child to. And the entity did nothing. And the Southern Baptist conglomerate, of which Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is a part, interviewed in that proceeding to argue that the statute of limitations should not be lifted and that this woman should not be entitled to justice because it’s very important that entities be protected. So even though the SBC has been saying that it cares about sexual abuse victims, it is actively behind the scenes making sure that victims cannot get justice. And while there has been a lot of kerfuffle about this once it hit the news, the simple fact is that is what the convention has done. And I think that is the fruit of what Southern Baptist Theological Seminary stands for. And so we’re going to hear about that in today’s podcast. Before we get started, just a bit of a shout out to our patrons who helped me not get too upset when things like this happen and I feel my blood boiling. They provide me with a safe space on Facebook where I can go and vent, and it’s just a wonderful group where we can get support for one another and pray for one another. And their money helps fund the research that we are doing and helps us just keep going every day. So if you want to join our patron for as little as $5 a month or more where you can get discounts on merch and lots of other things, you can find us at pateron.com/baremarriage. And the link is also in the podcast notes. And without further ado, here is my interview with Lisa Swartz. I am so thrilled to welcome onto my podcast Lisa Weaver Swartz, who is a sociologist from Asbury University, and has written an incredible book that I just loved called Stained Glass Ceilings: How Evangelicals Do Gender and Practice Power. Did I get that right, Lisa?
Lisa: You got it, Sheila. Yes.
Sheila: Well, welcome. I’m so glad you’re here.
Lisa: Thank you. It’s such a treat to talk with you.
Sheila: Yeah. I heard about your book on Twitter because Beth Allison Barr was raving about it. And I’m like, “I need to read this.” And so I read it. I got it, and I read it on a plane ride. All in one go. And I was just taking notes furiously, so it was wonderful.
Lisa: Oh, I love it.
Sheila: I really appreciate it. So let me just set this up. So what you—you’re a sociologist. And you do research, and we do research. But we do them in kind of opposite ways, which complement each other so well, and I just love it. Because we’re the let’s get as many people as possible to answer a survey, and you’re like, “I’m going to sit down over coffee, and I’m going to have in depth talks with a bunch of people so we can find themes.” And so tell us what you did for this book.
Lisa: Yes. I had coffee with a bunch of people. That’s my MO. Yeah. So I started out wanting to do a deep dive into Christian institutions and community life. And so what I did was I identified two influential seminaries within the evangelical world. One of them is straight forwardly complementarian. It’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. So fairly well known and fairly straight forward in terms of their complementarian theology. Male headship in marriage and church life is very much celebrated and front and center there. So that was my first case study. And then the second community that I worked with was Asbury Theological Seminary, which I—I’ll pause and clarify—is a different institution than the one I work at. They share a name and some tradition in the past, but they’re separate. So Asbury Theological Seminary is straight forwardly and very publically egalitarian in the sense that they have, for a very long time as Wesleyans tend to do, welcomed women into ministerial leadership, encourage women to come and pursue MDivs, pursue ordination. Their campus pastor is a woman, who is a phenomenal preacher. And so they’re doing very intentional work of being and living out their egalitarian theology. So that’s the contrast. And so I did exactly what you said. Had coffee with a number of students at each place. I interviewed not only students but faculty and some administrators to get a sense for really the cultural construction of this theology because so much work has gone into the theologies, right? In both Christian egalitarian and Christian complementarian groups. But I really wanted to understand kind of the consequences for the cultural processes of the community, how it works itself out in the lives of these people who are preparing to be the next generation of leaders for the evangelical church.
Sheila: Right. So interesting. Now before we get started, I know a question that all the listeners are going to be wondering is where was the revival.
Lisa: Of course. Of course. That was at the university where I teach. It started just about 20 feet from my classroom. And so I heard it go down. My office is right down the hall, and we can have a whole other conversation about that one.
Sheila: Okay. So it wasn’t at the place that you interviewed people. It was where you work. So just want that clarified right off the bat. Okay. Let me just state what I think is your thesis from the book. And then what I really want to focus on is the Southern Baptist one because I pulled a bunch of quotes that I think are super interesting, and I want to get your reaction to them. But here is what you said. “While women in both communities find creative ways to thrive, they often find it necessary to participate in their community’s male centering if they wish to succeed in church spaces.” And honestly, I found this so interesting. You would expect that at the SBC seminary.
Sheila: I wouldn’t have expected it at Asbury, and I thought that your analysis of that was really interesting. I’ll try to leave some time to focus on that at the end. But I really do want to focus on Southern. But what you were basically saying is just because it’s egalitarian doesn’t mean that women are going to thrive and are going to succeed in those spaces.
Lisa: Yeah. That was a bit of a surprise for me too, I guess. Going into something like this as a social scientist, you don’t quite know what you’re going to find. I mean I have to confess. I think a naïve part of me thought I was going to go in and see how bad complementarianism was for these Southern Baptist women and then be able to celebrate how important egalitarian theology was. And to some extent, that is true. But as I really sat with what I was seeing the patterns in how the women at Asbury were talking and describing their lives, their vocational trajectories, they just had this struggle that they, themselves, struggled to put a name to. They had trouble identifying why they were insecure, why they were struggling. And so I really had to sit with what was really going on below the surface because they had this very empowering theology, which I think is the thing that surprised me the most is that—I thought I was writing a book about how important theology and religious ideas are. But in the end, I think the thesis statement that you summarized so well just sort of demonstrates that there is more that we need to identify than just the theology. The practices of community life, of a cultural reality, are really making a difference in how men and women, but especially women, are experiencing their callings in their spiritual lives.
Sheila: Mm-hmm. And a lot of this actually picks up on a podcast I did at the end of the last season with Todd Korpi which is just because you’re egalitarian doesn’t mean that there aren’t still barriers for women. Maybe I’ll just get to it now because we’ve already brought it up. But what you’re basically saying is that as Asbury they celebrated the way that Jesus and Paul treated individual women, and they celebrated the equality of women as individuals. But they didn’t look at the bigger picture things, which were still keeping many women from succeeding and were making it much harder for women to succeed. So things like housework. Who is going to look after the kids if they’re sick? And just the way that systems tend to value male voices over women. So yeah. That was really interesting.
Lisa: Yeah. That’s exactly right. And I think another way of saying that is that this egalitarian theology that I think extends well beyond—Asbury is the case study. But I think it is indicative of how a lot of American evangelicals as we’re moving in a lot of spaces toward more egalitarian practice what we tend to do is sort of free women for ministry, right? This was the big controversy in the SBC which we may talk about a bit later. The Southern Baptist Convention just had this big conversation about should women be allowed to be preaching and in ministry. And in egalitarian groups, they say yes which frees women to pursue these roles, these offices, but it does not free women, in other words, the constraints and expectations of culture like the godly womanhood expectations that sort of code successful womanhood in terms of being a wife and a mother and all of that. Yes. The housework. The sociological language is the second shift, right? All this extra labor that the theology just doesn’t attend to.
Sheila: Yeah. Yeah. So interesting. Okay. But I do want to talk about Southern because I found some of your insights on Southern so interesting. So here. Let me just jump right in to some theology.
Sheila: Which is the work gospel. And I thought this was fascinating. And so here’s something that you wrote. “In historic Christian tradition, ‘gospel’ is most often employed as a reference to the ministry, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—or to the four New Testament books that outline this biography. Southern’s usage, however, extends much further. More than the good news proclaimed two thousand years ago, Southern’s gospel dictates right living in the contemporary world.” I thought that was fascinating, and I’ve seen this phenomenon too. When they talk about they don’t believe the gospel or they’re a gospel believing church, they don’t mean anything about Jesus’ death or resurrection. They mean gender roles.
Lisa: Yeah. Yeah. I thought it was so interesting too just the amount of times I heard the word gospel in so many different contexts. And it’s not just gender roles. They’re using for this holistic story that they tell about how humans should live. And gender is, of course, an important part of that, but it’s become this word gospel. It’s just so interesting that they’re using it sort of as a tool to separate those who are in—living inside this cultural framework that’s very western, very American, very 21st century. To separate that from everyone outside, which includes a lot of Christian groups, right? Egalitarians, Catholics, a lot of global Christians wouldn’t really fit into the way that they’re using gospel language for this pattern of human social life. That you’re right. It’s very much about this gendered hierarchy and the separation of men and women. So yeah. The use of that word is really interesting and especially because once you’ve got gospel associated with a pattern it’s really hard to argue with, right? Because it’s gospel. It’s got the force of God’s own authority behind it, and so it just sort of solidifies it as a part of the imperative of Christian life.
Sheila: I just find this so ironic though because it’s actually an anti gospel. Because the whole point of the gospel is grace, and it’s that we’re freed of legalism. And we have this relationship with Christ that is based on what Christ did for us. And they have turned gospel into the way of telling who is in and who is out based on what they do.
Lisa: Yeah. So I would agree with you. But to explain their framework, that’s not how they see it. Right? And they think that there is this understanding that life is hard. And I heard this multiple times too. We live in a Genesis 3 world, right? The world is fallen. And, again, we’re still talking theology, right? According to their theology, the original intention in the creation account is that there is this hierarchy, but it’s intended that everyone flourish. And that you don’t have to be legalistic. And so the whole point of this complementarian gospel, in quotes, is to revert to—return to that and recover the hierarchy that is good for everyone which I know sounds like a lot of semantics. And, again, this is another reason why I think more than theology is necessary here because just saying something, just having a framework, doesn’t actually make it true. But this is the framework—and it is a logically consistent framework that they have. And this is what motivates them.
Sheila: Right. I thought when you were talking about faith—to explain their faith and explain gospel and you had a number of different interviews with both people from Asbury and people from Southern and you mentioned how often Southern would go back to Genesis and how Asbury tended to start in the Gospels.
Lisa: Yeah. Yeah.
Sheila: And I found that fascinating that the life of Jesus—and you actually say—here wait. I actually have another quote about this. When you asked the students at Southern about Jesus, you said this. “Pervasive use of the word gospel’ notwithstanding, Jesus’ life and ministry are much less relevant than the creation account to Southern’s gendered narrative. Nor did students often cite his death and resurrection. Instead, they described Jesus’ primary contribution to the story in terms of his relationship with the Church, illustrated metaphorically by New Testament authors as Christ’s ‘bride’.”
Lisa: Yes. Yes. The bride of Christ imagery actually at both of the seminaries was pretty dominant. And in fact, you said a minute ago that Asbury starts with the Gospels. I actually would amend that to say they really start with Acts. No one was really talking a whole lot about Jesus in their narrative of gender outside this metaphor of Christ and the church which I think is really interesting.
Sheila: Wow. All right. Okay. I have two other paragraphs that I found so insightful. You said this. “For the men—and women—of Southern Seminary, male headship and gender polarization have become virtually indistinguishable from the good news of God’s love for the world. Gender complementarianism stands on a high theological plane alongside God’s sovereign authority and the incarnation of Jesus, and it is every bit as salient in the twenty-first century as it was in the book of Genesis. This is Southern’s gendered gospel. These emphases—the centrality of Jesus, his interactions with women, and the cultural barriers he lifted—are noticeably absent from the Gospel Story that Southern students now narrate. In Jesus’ place, Paul and creational order take de facto primacy.” I find that really scary.
Lisa: Well, we all choose to prioritize, right? Parts of the Scripture. And it is really interesting to see the convergences of the systematic theologies with the more narrative story telling that Southern is using. And for me, I think that—you say you find it scary. Why is that?
Sheila: I just that when people make Jesus a lower priority I find—then I don’t even recognize the faith sometimes because to me, we have to interpret all of Scripture through the lens of Jesus. He is the ultimate word of God. And yet, when we put all of this other stuff in His place, I don’t even understand how we got there.
Lisa: Yeah. And I think that is really important because you have to have something at the center of our understanding. Of the Bible and of the Christian faith, right? Because the Bible, itself, it’s an ancient text. It’s full of complexities and even apparent contradictions because it’s not a cohesive whole. And so that’s the work of a lot of these religious leaders in seminaries is to make sense of this ancient text. And what you’re saying is that—and in many traditions, Christ is the center, and everything must be interpreted through Him which, actually, is historically part of—at least portions—of the Southern Baptist history and tradition too. But I do think we are seeing some of that pivot and other notions—and maybe it’s notion of gospel in its new form is perhaps becoming that pivot point even more than the story of Christ. I don’t think that anyone would acknowledge that because the atoning work is—of Jesus is still so central to Southern Baptist and to Southern Seminary. But I think if we would do a historical look over time at the emphasis that goes into just the amount of discourse and energy that goes into talking about complementarianism versus the energy and discourse that goes into looking at the work of Jesus—it would be really interesting if we could see some shifts there. I suspect that we could. We need some historians to look into that maybe.
Sheila: Yes. Hey, Beth. As we’re talking about Southern Seminary, you talked about this quite a bit. You gave the history of the seminary and how they used to actually have female professors, who were egalitarian.
Lisa: And male professors who were egalitarian. Yeah. Yeah.
Sheila: Yes. And there was a big purge.
Lisa: Yeah. The story of Southern—yes. The story of Southern Seminary is a very complicated one. And as recently as the 90s, it was a very different place where egalitarian theology was actually dominant. It was known for its stand on civil rights and for—yes. For empowering women to ministry. And it intertwines with the story of the Southern Baptist Convention, itself, as it has experience a real right word turn with increased emphasis on religious leadership, the authority of the preachers instead of congregational autonomy and the priesthood of the believer. So there is a whole set of historical patterns and trajectories that are at work here that Southern Seminary itself is a part of. But it was really interesting for me to learn that history and learn about some of the women that had been a part of the community. One of them, Diana Garland, was a wonderful president. She was a part of the school of social work, which is a field that has been historically dominated by women, and done some wonderful things. And those stories are, unfortunately, kind of lost on the student body that I spoke with. So yeah. These things are all rooted in history.
Sheila: Yeah. It’s so interesting. I think, as you were talking about how this gender polarization became part of the gospel, you then looked at how students, themselves, interpreted this and lived it out. And you were talking about how you were interviewing one young man named Marcus. And you said, “He might value women. He might even admire women’s abilities and spiritual maturity, but he also see women as so different from himself that to minister to them might be next to ‘impossible’. The Gospel Story narrates this polarization as God’s own design, a legacy of the differences between men and women initiated at creation.” And so this really means that men feel like they can’t minister to women or that we’re just such different creatures. Did you see this a lot in your interviews? Or can you comment on that?
Lisa: I did. I did. That was one of the most explicit quotes that I have which is why I used it in the book. But the idea and this assumption that men and women are just opposite are categorically different. I saw it all over the place. And I think that it emerges both as a cause and a consequence of this separation of men being funneled toward the pastorate, toward preaching, and women then being funneled toward women’s ministry and family life, right? It’s all part of the same package. But then yeah. As a consequence, I think both men and women start thinking of the other as unintelligible even. And so women will get together and talk about how to understand their husbands which can be helpful certainly. But because there is not a lot of spaces for women and men to interact and understand each other, I think it sort of exacerbates the differences—the perceived differences in their experiences, in their lives. And because there also is such a caution, I think out of concern for sexual impropriety, that men—especially men preparing for the pastor—with the Billy Graham rule. Don’t be alone with a woman, who is not your wife. I think there is fear of even trying to understand—for men—of trying to understand women. And perhaps for women too of trying to understand men. Women’s fear is more that they will be maybe perceived as seductresses, right? There is this fear. And I have a couple of personal stories in the book too of how men were just very cautious about making sure the door was open when I was in their offices. One of them was kind of panicked. He didn’t know if he should close the door or not when I was standing in the doorway. They just don’t have—it’s just not in their practice. It’s not in their communities’ habits to interact with each other relationally which I found kind of concerning because of the implications for what it means for working together and living together as men and women in church spaces and community life.
Sheila: Yeah. Also if these men are preparing to pastor, how are they going to pastor half their congregation if they don’t understand them?
Lisa: Yeah. And that’s where the women’s minister comes in, right? In this framework, men will do the preaching and the teaching, and that’s a performative act. But I think that in some ways the gifted women are—they don’t expect to preach and teach and pastor, but they do expect to carry a lot of authority and a lot of responsibility in women’s ministry ministering to each other, creating women’s Bible study groups, play groups for parents, for mothers, and families. And so I think, in some ways—I didn’t study how this works itself out in congregational life. I’m guessing based on what I saw in the community itself. But it seems like they are preparing sort of two different ministry, right? The performative preaching ministry that is for everyone done by men. And then separate ministries men and women but more for women, right? There’s more need for nurture. And there are some gifts in that that I found actually. I was kind of surprised by how much the women of the community did benefit from having women centered spaces, but it does continue that polarization and has, for sure, implications for congregational life.
Sheila: Yeah. And you make this point too that Southern celebrates androcentrism. So men being at the center. They don’t try to hide it. Everywhere else in society they’re trying to deny that it exists. They’re saying, “No. We don’t center men. Or no. We don’t think men are the main deal.” But Southern actually celebrates that.
Lisa: Right. Right.
Sheila: Which I find so weird. And you said, “In an androcentric context, to be Man is to be human. To be Woman is to be other.” And so I understand what you’re saying how women are in women’s ministry so that ministry is to women. And men are doing the performative. But if they’re doing the performative and they don’t feel like women are their main people they’re preaching to—like Matt Chandler once said that he preaches to the men. It’s not to the women. He preaches to the men. The women can learn at home. And I’ll find the clip, and I’ll put it in the podcast notes. But that he feels called to preach to the men. And, again, that’s saying that half your congregation, who is listening to you—they’re not the center. In fact, more than half because more than half of people in churches are female. So yeah. I find that really strange.
Lisa: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And that does open the door for ministries like Beth Moore, right? Who has made quite a career and quite a space facilitating ministry to women. But yes. Yeah. It is so surprised that, like you said, how we try so hard in other aspects of society not to center men, but they’re embracing it in some ways. And the argument is that this is the best way for both men and women to flourish, and I think they really believe that. Many of them.
Sheila: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Well, I don’t doubt that they do. Yeah. I think that they do. Yeah. They’re just missing a lot. Okay. I want to move on to what they say about marriage. You talked about Southern’s take on marriage. So here is what you said about a female student at Southern. “Katherine, a student in the biblical counseling program, similarly relied on the language of sin and the Fall to interpret her own inadequacies as a submissive wife.” And she says this, “I think that ultimately the conflict and the separation between humans’ relationship with God is a separation between man and woman and all human relationships. There’s conflict and there’s difficulty and there’s sin and there’s wrongdoing. The Curse talks about how Eve will have pain in childbearing and the wife will want to overrule the husband and to conflict against the husband. There will be conflict in that relationship. I totally know from personal experience. It is within me to want to say, ‘No, you’re doing it wrong,’ all the time. But I think that I have to respect what the Lord has set. There’s going to be sin. My husband is going to fail as a leader. He’s going to fail because of sin. He’s going to do things that are not right, and he’s going to offend me. And there’s going to be conflict. And I’m going to offend him, and I’m not going to follow him in the way that I should. So there’s tension and it’s not just an easy relationship.”
Lisa: Yeah. And that’s a great example of how I think that could have come from an egalitarian to that story, that experience, and the interpretation would have been the opposite in some ways, right?
Sheila: What do you mean by that?
Lisa: So the struggle, right? There’s a struggle for everyone. All of these women know that life is a struggle and know that Christian marriage is a struggle. But this woman, Katherine—she’s interpreting it in terms of the Fall makes me want the power, right? And so that’s why it’s hard. And an egalitarian would say, “Yes. Of course, marriage is a struggle because we’re both struggling against patriarchy.” Whatever the language you want to use. But it’s these different frameworks identify the brokenness in a different place, right? The complementarians, like Katherine, are saying, “The brokenness is me not fitting into the role, the script that the gospel story has for me.” And the egalitarian would say, “The world is broken. Of course, we’re struggling because our own God-given instincts are not fitting into this broken world,” right? And so these two stories are contradictory, but they’re both derivative of the Genesis account of creation.
Sheila: Right. Yeah. Yeah. I just found that really sad. And here is how a man—this is a man that you interviewed at Southern talked about his headship even though his wife was working and supporting him while he was in school. So this was a big theme that you had in your book is that men—men and women would both navigate how he is the head even when they’re not acting out traditional gender roles. So when she is supporting him, when she is the one who is going out working to earn the income so that he can go to school, they’re still taking pains to make sure that he is the head and that he feels like the head. And so here is what he said. “I have the burden of knowing what’s going on with the household. I’ll give you a story to illustrate. My wife was in the elevator with some of her coworkers, and they were talking about paychecks and stuff. She said, ‘I don’t even know how much I make.’ And they’re like, ‘What?!’ And she said, ‘My husband takes care of all that.’ And then they got closer to the bottom and they asked, ‘Didn’t you bring an umbrella today?’ And she’s like, ‘No, my husband didn’t tell me I needed it.’ So even though she’s going to work, there was still a headship there.”
Lisa: Yeah. I heard variations on—I think this is the only umbrella story I heard but variations on this from others. And the creativity and the work that goes into interpreting these things in a way that just reassures the couples that they are within the boundaries of male headship just astonishes me. And I think it shows how symbolic this is. It’s not really about who is doing what as much as it is about maintaining the symbolism of the male headship, right?
Sheila: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Sally Gallagher wrote a really interesting work on that, I think, back in 2003 that we’ve been working with a lot as we’re writing some academic papers. And she was looking at how couples navigate this idea of headship. Yeah. She basically said, “It doesn’t actually mean anything.” In practical terms, it’s like a signaling for, “Hey, we are doing things the Christian way because we’re using this language. And we’re trying to prove that we’re within this language,” but they don’t actually practice it in a lot of ways. Yeah. Very interesting.
Lisa: Yeah. And it’s all part of the story, right? That they’re telling. And this is one thing that really surprised me that this is seminary. They’re all into theology especially Southern. Systematic theology is a big deal in that—in those networks. And the students knew systematic theology, and they could give me all of the nuances of it. But what really compelled them was this overall story that they could fit themselves into and find themselves aligning with—and they called it the gospel story, which we’ve already talked about. And so little details of their life like carrying the umbrella, like eating different kinds of food or little sandwich shop had a sandwich called the He-Man Sandwich because it was full of meat that had the implication that they can identify with Adam, working the ground, as they’re writing their papers in this suburban setting, right? So these little details are really—in some ways, it’s kind of easy to laugh off the umbrella and things like that. All of these things put together is allowing these religious actors to put themselves into the story of the gospel, the story of the Bible that is really what is codifying all of this belief. So those little symbolisms, and they are just symbolic. But they’re incredibly important.
Sheila: Yeah. Although I have to say not knowing how much you make and not knowing anything about the finances, I just need to throw this in there. That is not a safe thing. What if you are in a car accident? What if your husband is in a car accident tomorrow, and you don’t know where the finances are? Everybody needs to know how much money you make, where the money is, how much you owe. You need to be able to find your bank statements. Even if the other spouse does the finances, it is not okay for you not to know about it. Okay. Just had to throw that in there. And by the way, you can decide for yourself if it’s going to rain and bring an umbrella. You’re a big girl. Okay. Then you showed the hoops that they jump through to make a very strong case—or they think they’re making a very strong case that they still believe women are equal. It’s just different roles. So equal value, different roles. “And this formula allows men to denounce misogyny, and even claim the language of equality and human flourishing, while still owning headship authority in both marriage and church life.” I’ve always found that fascinating how people can argue we’re equal, but I make the decisions. I have the authority. I get the final say, and you’re not allowed to teach me. How is that equal? How do they navigate that?
Lisa: Yeah. This part was so frustrating for me just because it is—it’s such a mantra. This equal in value, different in roles. I heard that over and over and over. And it’s, I think, where I started to begin wondering if the story is not about theology. If there’s more to it than that which, of course, I ultimately ended up concluding that it’s about far more than that because you can’t just say something and make it be true. This is what they want to be true, right? It’s an aspirational statement that women are equal in value but different in roles. It’s what they want. But as soon as you start looking at the processes and the practices, as you said, the women are not teaching. They are not preaching. They’re not leading. They’re not speaking in authoritative ways. So clearly, it’s not working itself out. So part of your question, I think, is how did they make sense of all of those discontinuities. And I think part of it is what we were talking about earlier with the Genesis creation account and the Fall. When they come up against something that’s not working well or discontinuity or a tension, there’s actually a very obvious reason why. It’s because you’re not doing it right, right? The Fall makes it hard for us to live up to our manly expectations as men, and it makes it hard for women to submit as we’re called to. And so we just need to do it better, right? So the blaming of the Fall for the inadequacies. And so, again, it’s a logically coherent and consistent framework in its theological, discursive forms. Yes. Again, there’s so much discontinuity with how the social life and practical realities of culture are working themselves out.
Sheila: Yeah. And I find the whole thing so strange too. If you say we’re equal in value but we have different roles, the thing about the roles that I always think—okay. So in complementarianism, there are things that men can do that women can’t. But there are not things that women can do that men can’t unless you count having babies, but that’s not a role that’s a function. That’s a biological function. And so it’s like no. It’s not actually different roles. It’s just restricting women, but they won’t say that.
Lisa: They would say, I think, that ministering to other women is the role that women can play that men can’t, right? Again because of the polarization. But yes. Because headship is a role for them, right? Yeah.
Sheila: Yeah. I find the whole—yeah. Except that men can write books to women, but women can’t write books to men. I was told that when I started writing marriage books is that you can write a book. How many men have written marriage books to couples? But women aren’t allowed to write marriage books to couples. In fact, now we’re doing it. Now people are buying them, and I’m so happy that men are buying our books. But when I started out, that’s what publishers told me.
Lisa: Wow. Yeah. Yeah. That’s part of the package.
Sheila: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Okay. So tell me about some of the women that you interviewed who were students at Southern who were single and their experience because they really didn’t fit in anywhere.
Lisa: Yeah. These were some impressive women, I think, to get to that point of enrolling at Southern Seminary as a woman they had stories. And they had some life experiences that made them just really impressive people. So there were two different kinds of women that I interviewed there. One was enrolled in the biblical counseling program. And this is interesting because it is not an accredited counseling program. You can’t go out and be in private practice. The only thing that these women were going to be able to do would be to work on a church staff, again of course, under pastoral authority, which means under male headship. So that was the one category of academic program that was really encourage for women specifically. You can learn to mentor and counsel other women. The other students, the women—and I had to work hard to find these because there were not many of them. But there were some, who were enrolled in biblical studies or MDivs, Masters of Divinity programs. They would not seek ordination, but they could be and were welcomed, at least, in some of the materials to do that. And so the ones that were in the MDiv programs were the ones that were the most interesting to me. They were so impressive, Sheila. It was just amazing to meet some of them. And I’m thinking of one, in particular, that was probably the most impressive student that I met at Southern, and I met a lot of students. And she was really navigating a lot because she was just so clearly built to be a leader and—I mean she could have run institutions. But she, of course, was also within this system that told her that biblical womanhood means you get married. You have a family. You serve women through those mechanisms. You do the women’s ministry where you paint the pumpkins and things like that. And it just did not fit her. And the one quote that I’ll always remember for her is she was talking about her personality and her drive, and she said, “I’ve always wondered if maybe just God messed up, or if it’s my fault that I have this personality because I just have this drive to want to lead things, to make things happen, to do things.” And she was starting to make sense of it and starting to—I think she was the one that was—talked quite a bit about how she was praying for a husband, praying for someone to lead her, and someone who—because, again, in this world, you really need to be married to have the opportunities even to lead in women’s ministry. It just gives you a bit of credibility that is necessary. So really, there’s not—there weren’t a lot of opportunities open to her. And she knew it. But she was really invested. She loved the Bible. She loved the New Testament. She’s telling me about some of the research that she was doing and just so committed to the message of the Christian gospel and was finding out some really interesting things about women in the New Testament from her own research. And she’s one that I wish that I had kept up with. I don’t know what has happened to her in the years since. Where she has landed. But there were a few others like her who were single who just couldn’t—they were just so clearly meant for the work of the church and the ministry that they, by force of gravitational pull I think, landed in these programs. And they were trying to find ways to fit in. They also described some frustrations of dealing with their male classmates, who were—many of them were desperately looking for wives. Others were already married and wouldn’t talk with them, wouldn’t beside them in class, out of fear of impropriety or perceptions. And so they were just—these single women at Southern were just struggling so much.
Sheila: Yeah. In our focus groups for our book, She Deserves Better, when we looked at women’s experiences as teenagers and messages they heard growing up, one of the subgroups that we identified that we were really surprised about was women just like this woman that you mentioned were actually quite likely to marry abusers because they had been told their whole life, “You need to marry someone who is your leader.” And when you’re already a really big personality, the only way to find someone who is a leader is someone who is bigger than you which often means marrying a narcissist.
Sheila: And so many of these women, who you think are so capable and so strong, end up in really destructive marriages because they have to find someone who is bigger than them because that’s what they’ve been told being a woman is. And yeah. We heard some heartbreaking stories about that. So I hope she’s okay. I hope she’s okay.
Lisa: Me too. Me too.
Sheila: Now the other fascinating thing at Southern which I really gravitated to was your description of the women’s events for wives, for students’ wives. Can you tell us about that?
Lisa: Yeah. Yes. So, again, in keeping with the polarization, the celebration of women in separate spaces from men, Southern has this really well developed program called the Seminary Wives Institute. It’s offered at very low cost to the wives of male seminarians. It’s to make it accessible. It only happens on Thursday evenings, which is a time when women, hopefully, would have some childcare. Maybe there husbands are home to be with the children. And so there are sessions that are intended to, essentially, prepare these women to be Southern Baptist pastors’ wives. And that includes some of the sessions are taught by Southern Seminary faculty members, who teach some Baptist history. Maybe some New Testament. I can’t remember exactly what those classes are all about. But then there’s also this set of classes taught by the wives of seminary professors on things like hospitality, and parenting, marriage, evangelism for women, how to host baby showers, how to run a women’s ministry, things like that. And these spaces were so interesting. I got to visit several of them. And, again, so this is a space where women’s voices were centered. Absolutely centered and celebrated. The women, who were teaching, were wives of seminary professors. They were very, very impressive. Mary Mohler, the wife of Al Mohler, is an incredibly impressive woman, who easily matches her husband. And she is the one that has developed this program. So students will go. They take notes. They learn. But what I found out just in watching is that the real value in these spaces is the solidarity that the get from each other, right? This is the space where they can ask questions that they’re uncomfortable—things they are uncomfortable with, things they’re concerned about. I heard some of them—so prayer time is often when this comes out, right? There’s the prayer request time that can extend for a long time. And then those conversations continue through the classroom spaces. Some of the women struggled with being connected to their husbands during seminary which is a really demanding time in life. One time a woman talked about how she had to be a stay-at-home mom for the first time in her life. I get the sense that she gave up a career because her husband came to seminary. I just watched the flood of empathy and care giving and nurture that happened in those spaces was incredibly valuable, I think, and important to these women. So there’s a lot going on in those spaces. There’s not just this preparation for the domesticity which, I think—I’m sure is valuable, right? Some of them are very, very young women, who may or may not know what is expected of pastors’ wives. And so I think it’s a valuable space in that sense too. But I was really struck by the nurture that happens. This is something that I didn’t see a lot of in the egalitarian context. Those women were missing connections with other women, were missing the nurture that they were not getting in their classroom spaces. So it’s really a mixed bag. But the Seminary Wives Institute was—yeah. Was really fascinating.
Sheila: Yeah. And I really related to that. When I was a young mom and we moved to a small town where I live now—where I still live, the first way that I got plugged in was going to a women’s Bible study. And it was incredible. There were older women there. I got mentored. People realized I was a good speaker, and so even when I was in my late 20s, early 30s, they were having me lead stuff. It was very empowering. I made some great relationships even though it was in a complementarian space as well. And that is something that is really valuable. Women getting together and talking and having a place where you do have community especially with older, more experience women which we don’t always have in some of these spaces which really brings me to, I think, one of the conclusions that you made in the book. And I know we haven’t had time to go into—we’ve talked all about what you said about Southern. You said just as much about Asbury, but we don’t have time in this podcast to go into it. But I highly recommend that you pick up Stained Glass Ceilings. Your description of so many of your interviews is so—just really, really interesting. And many of you will recognize yourself in a lot of these interviews. But one of the things you were saying about whose view of gender is going to keep going is—how are these seminaries going to perpetuate their view of gender? What’s going to happen in the future? And you said Southern—what Southern has that Asbury doesn’t is they’re getting their women together in community. So that they’re in this really strong place so that they can continue what they’re doing. But that also has a weakness for complementarians because you’ve raised this generation of women who know their Bible and who are getting together regularly to study their Bible and who care about each other. And all you need is one or two women in each of those groups to go, “Wait a minute. This isn’t okay.” And you have all of these spaces where women hang out that can now become the force for change. And so while Southern has this real strength in how they’ve codified everything, everything is internally consistent, they also have this big weakness in that women are getting together where men aren’t. And they’re studying the Bible together. And that could actually end up being what brings down their view of gender.
Lisa: Mm-hmm. Yes. They have the tools. They have the tools. Yeah. Yeah.
Sheila: And isn’t that kind of what happened to Beth Moore?
Lisa: Oh, for sure. Yes.
Sheila: She was trying to stay in her lane. She was trying to stay in her space. But the bigger they got the more of a threat she became and the more she spoke out against sexism in the church and in politics the more that she became seen as a threat. And she was largely pushed out. She didn’t leave. She was pushed out. But she brought a lot of those women with her because there was this group that talked. And it was separate from the church service. It was separate from what men control. And yeah. I thought that was really interesting.
Lisa: Mm-hmm. Yeah. The one barrier though is that these women are going to have to convince their husbands, right? Because of the way this world works, they’re going to have to be able to convince their husbands. And that is going to be really interesting to see if we start seeing any of that occurring because there is—organizationally, it’s going to be tough. They don’t have—they have the tools, but they don’t have the resources of the big institutions. And yeah. It’s not a given that there will be change through that mechanism. But I certainly see the possibility for it.
Sheila: Yeah. And I don’t know that there will be widespread change. There will always be a Southern Seminary. I’m sure it will always be complementarian. But that doesn’t mean that every person that grows up in it is going to stay there. And I think that’s what we’re going to see.
Lisa: Oh, for sure. And I’m confident that that is already the story at Southern Seminary. I mean I know even some that I have interacted with through my fieldwork have deviated at least in some way from what they learned there and have become activists in some ways against it. Anytime you have an institution that’s got such a small circle around its identity you’re going to have dissenters.
Sheila: Yeah. Interesting. Now, of course, you have a lot of lessons for Asbury as well like how they need to support women a lot more. Southern is supporting women, at least in the roles they’re allowed to have, but Asbury really isn’t. And that’s the problem in so many egalitarian spaces is you claim that you’re gender blind but then you end up not helping women who actually have a lot of systemic barriers to success in all kinds of ways even just, “I’m tired, and I need a break from the kids.” And we don’t necessarily have those spaces. So there’s a lot to learn for Asbury as well. So yes. Please take a look at Stained Glass Ceilings. Is there anything else that you really want—that you really learned from this experience or something that you’re still mulling over that you want to share with people?
Lisa: Hmm. Well, I am still mulling over a lot, Sheila, coming out of this. I think I am just really sitting with the importance of understanding communities not only through their theological frameworks. There’s just so much more to us as humans and as religious actors than our beliefs and the ways that we think the work should work out. And I think it’s just been really humbling for me both a sociologist and as a person of faith to try to separate those and also try to figure out how they come back together. And you mentioned the revival that took place at my—the college where I work. I think we, as a community, are grappling with those differences too. The social realities are separate from, but also connected to, the spiritual realities and theological realities. So I think as a western church, I think, we have a lot of work to do to understand ourselves, to understand our ethics, and understand just how constrained we are by the cultures that are around us especially when it comes to some of the gender hierarchies that we’ve been talking about. But I’m also incredibly hopeful. For me—and maybe this is just the sociologist in me. But once I see the patterns and see where things are going wrong, it’s an opportunity to repent and fix and to do better. And so I think identifying some of these patterns, hopefully, can—conversations will continue along these lines, and we can all work together collaboratively to imagine a better future for the church.
Sheila: Yeah. Amen. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Well, thank you. What is next for you? What project are you working on now?
Lisa: Yeah. That’s a great question. Several things actually. But the biggest one is I’m working on a transnational project that looks at human trafficking in southeast Asia especially the American religious response to it. And there’s some really fascinating gender stuff in there too. There’s also a lot of just looking at our ideas as western Christians about how to help others and how some of our social justice activism has taken shape over time. (cross talk)
Sheila: Oh my goodness. That’s so fascinating.
Lisa: It’s a great project.
Sheila: I need to come to wherever you—where are you? Are you in—
Lisa: I’m in Kentucky.
Sheila: Kentucky. I need to come to Kentucky and have a coffee with you sometime.
Lisa: Oh, I would love that. You are welcome any time, Sheila.
Sheila: Well, thank you so much for spending time with us today. Where can people find you?
Lisa: So I am on social media. Limited presence on Instagram and Facebook and a little bit on Twitter as just Lisa Weaver Swartz. Pretty easy to find there. Website is lisaweaverswartz.com. So you can find me there too.
Sheila: Okay. And I will put links to that and to Stained Glass Ceilings. Thank you so much.
Lisa: Thank you so much, Sheila. This has been great.
Sheila: I so appreciated our conversation. And I invite you to check out the book. Again, there is a link in our podcast notes. And thank you to Lisa for coming on. Before we go, I just wanted to read some of the more recent reviews that have come in on Amazon for She Deserves Better. So I just pulled it up on my computer. And I will read this one. “Spot on and it couldn’t have come at a better time. If you’ve ever struggled in a church environment and wondered why it’s okay for male and female leadership to treat you like trash for speaking up against abuse, this is the book for you. I was shunned. I was treated like repeatedly being assaulted was my fault for not meeting biblical dress code and behavior standards for women because I spoke my mind and wore crew neck T-shirts and loose fitting Carhartt pants. After all, if I would just shut up, submit, and wear ankle length cumbersome skirts like every woman in the congregation seemed to enjoy doing, it wouldn’t have happened. I’m still in the thick of it. If you’re reading this, please pray for me as I try to navigate this mess and present my case and build on the foundation I learned in She Deserves Better. If you’re tired of wondering if you really are somehow less than everyone else and that maybe Jesus sees you this way too, it’s time to break free. I would recommend this book to anyone who is questioning the toxic teachings that have been shoved down their throats by the church. You’re not radical for thinking there is something wrong. You’re not crazy, and you’re not the only one who has noticed there is a problem.” I love that because that’s really what we’re trying to do in this movement is we’re trying to help people see you are not alone. There are so many people who feel this way. And even though you may feel alone in your church, there is actually a huge army of us out there who are realizing the stuff the church is teaching looks nothing like Jesus right now. And we need to do better. We need to do better. The church needs to do better. And I believe the church can. I’ve landed in a really healthy church. Rebecca has landed in a really healthy church. We’re in good places. As Naghmeh Panahi said on a recent Bare Marriage podcast, “God is building the church on broken women.” And a lot of us have been broken. Some of us went to seminaries like the ones that Lisa was talking about. That broke us down and made us feel like we weren’t enough because we were women. But that’s not the voice of Jesus. And I think Jesus’ voice is coming through loud and clear in this culture because this is a time of change when God is shaking the church. And I’m excited to see where the church is going to end up. So thank you for joining us. And we’ll see you again next time on the Bare Marriage podcast. Bye-bye.