The Hidden Curriculum in Evangelism: Patriarchy by Erin Lord Kunz


Erin kaylaspic12

A good evangelist, especially in college ministries, acts as if there is no agenda to his or her evangelism. It’s very, “Do you want a cup of coffee? How are your classes going?” with a lot of understanding head nodding. The goal is to stay cool and not seem threatening (even though eternal damnation is at stake). A good evangelist then finds the opportunity to advance on whatever personal problem the interlocutor divulges, and the solution from the evangelist remains constant: “You need to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.”

A ‘good evangelist’ does not believe this interaction is an agenda at all, as evidenced by new slogans popping up in evangelist circles. There is “Jesus without Religion,”“I am Second,”“H20,”“Freedom Churches,” etc. All of these evangelist slogans attempt to portray “real” Christianity as something other than doctrine, simply a relationship with God, a freeing experience, a nonthreatening choice. 

There are of course problems with this position. Some are obvious and practical; the printing press was invented in the 15th century, so bible-only, church-free Christianity is only possible on the backs of technology and literacy education, not Jesus. Other problems are theoretical; I argue that the bible is fundamentally a doctrinal set of rules, so doctrine-free religion is an oxymoron. Finally, some problems are ideological; there is complex ideology to evangelism, but one to frequently go unnoticed is its heavily patriarchal agenda.

When I use the term ‘patriarchy’, I do not only mean that men are the ones to take on leadership roles. I also mean that in a patriarchal system, women are subordinated and oppressed both knowingly and unknowingly, through economics, politics, and cultural discourse. I also do not use the term neutrally, as if patriarchy and matriarchy are equal systems that can be implemented either/or, unproblematically. When I use the term ‘patriarchy’, I am referring to a system that advances men’s interests to the detriment of both women and men as individuals, and also nation-states and the environment.

The fashion of today’s evangelism is this low-key, “come as you are” vibe, often with “hipster” inflections in order to appeal to a mainstream demographic while appearing outside of the mainstream. The film God’s Not Dead, and most college ministries, market Christianity in fashionable ways that make it “feel” nonthreatening and fun, with their focus on camping trips, sports, and coffee shop conversations.

This marketing is starkly misleading. The more “religion-free” Christian Evangelists appear to be, the more socially conservative they are. Despite their inclusive rhetoric, they are often against equal rights for gay citizens, non-white citizens, and female citizens. While many anti-women leanings are demonstrated by churches through their use of male-only pastors (which is often the case even when they preach gender equality), rhetoric about nuclear families, and self-imposed gender roles, some of the anti-women leanings are political. The largest evangelist church in Grand Forks, North Dakota, recently came out publicly and inexplicably against equal pay laws for female workers.  

It is difficult to imagine a Christian Evangelist who is not anti-women, even when they’re women; what would that even look like? Most evangelists build their families with the man as the head of the household and teach others to do the same. Many of the women are stay-at-home mothers who do not involve themselves with business outside of the household. While these decisions are not necessarily related only to religion, it is difficult to imagine an alternative. Would a Christian Evangelist be okay with a stay-at-home dad, or a female partner who was ambitious at work? Inevitably a prayer leader or pastor would say priorities were off, and try to reset “priorities” with the woman being at home and the man at work. Or, the family unit would function as usual but they would call the husband the “leader of the house,” even though it doesn’t happen in practice. It’s the “feeling like a [patriarchal] man” syndrome, in which the wife pulls most of the weight domestically and financially but attempts to remain subordinate in order to appease her patriarchal husband.

We can also see the stronghold patriarchy has over Christian Evangelism in the discourse that is used during evangelist interactions. Before the conversation over coffee happens, evangelists typically plan strategies in order to convert unbelievers.

In Francis Chan’s Crazy Love, which for the most part stays apolitical and even criticizes the Christian Republican, the one leftover from conservative America that remains is patriarchy. In the book Chan interprets the bible literally and encourages Christians to not be lukewarm, but to instead do everything that Jesus asks, including selling what they own. But even when Chan admonishes American Christians (Republicans) for their pro-business capitalism in the midst of terrible poverty and wage inequality, he still holds tightly onto the vestiges of patriarchy. Chan uses language like “The Gospel must conquer” when referring to other cultures who are mostly non-Christian. This is colonialism thinly veiled. Evangelists also use terms like “Christian soldiers,” “battleground for Christ,” and “army of God,” as if Jesus were a rifle that can be pointed at those who stand obstinate to the Gospel.

Evangelists use this martial, patriarchal, and nearly phallic language in what was once the innocuous conversation over coffee. This language binds gender roles that have no basis in actual Christianity, and also propagates a militarism and colonialism that has plagued Christianity since the crusades. Speaking of the crusades, which murdered millions of innocent people in the Name of Christ, campus missionaries inexplicably title themselves “Campus Crusade for Christ.” As self-aware Christian Evangelists may be in terms of marketing (videos with hipster skateboarders who love Jesus abound), they are for the most part completely unaware of their deep-seated, insidious patriarchy that is detrimental on personal and political levels.

Until Christian Evangelists legitimately let go of all the privileges white, middle-class patriarchy has granted them for so many years, Christianity is going to be massively unappealing to anyone who isn’t white, middle-class, and male.

Erin is a PhD student in Educational Foundations and Research at the University of North Dakota and the Director of Writing Center Services at Mayville State University. She is interested in liberation theology, feminism, educational foundations, and composition pedagogy. 

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Categories: Christianity, Ethics, Feminism, Patriarchy

Tags: , , , , , , ,

23 replies

  1. Love that you see that patriarchy and militarism go hand in hand.

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  2. Thank you for writing this and sharing it here. Well said.

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  3. Brava! I am filled with questions and comments, partly because my childhood was Calvinist, not Evangelical, so what I know about Evangelicalism is pretty limited. I can’t help but wonder what you think of Tammy Faye Bakker and her so-called ministry, which seems to have mostly been makeup (those eyelashes!). Also I’m wondering if you think it’s possible all those nasty Old Testament prophets invented their god to uphold their patriarchal beliefs. Can anyone picture the Great Mother saying, “Here’s Canaan. Take it and make it your home. All you have to do is kill everyone who already lives there”? Excellent, thought-provoking blog. I hope we’ll hear from you again.

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  4. Excellent blog! And it makes me wonder how Christianity can ever divest itself from its patriarchal, colonialist roots.

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  5. To help keep even the lowliest of the low on their Dominionist pecking-order in line, they have the “every man a king in his own castle” line, where the low-ranker expects he can lord it over any wife and/or children he manages to keep under his thumb.

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  6. It does not help to fight the system because then you get bonded by your anger. Many feminists I know have set up alternate and very private spiritual paths. It’s the healthiest of alternatives!

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  7. This is an excellent analysis of a shallowly hidden gender bias in evangelical thought, and the PR that masks it. I am particularly impressed by the ways you talk about the connections among rhetoric, employment/cultural practices and technology. Thanks for this clear exploration. It is disturbing that faith so quickly chains the wo/men who embrace it, in limitation. Often I wonder, is the “certainty” and joy enough to compensate the loss of possibility? Evangelicals would say yes, because they don’t see it as a loss, but as a comfort. Ironic…

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  8. Hi Erin! I just wanted to say that I definitely don’t agree with everything in here, but as an Evangelical seminarian I certainly appreciate your input and look forward to reading more. Thanks!

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  9. It is difficult to imagine a Christian Evangelist who is not anti-women, even when they’re women; what would that even look like? ” — a very good quote from the article Erin.

    I don’t agree that men are hurt by patriarchy. Men thrive on it, it gives all men energy, it steals and destroys energy of women. Nope, men love patriarchy, it is perfect for them. I don’t go along with the poor menz suffer too. No they don’t.

    But evangelism is a big bait and switch game out there, with all the campus crusades and camping trips and hipster cool services…. all male serving to the core. All hetero women serving to the core in terms of bolstering women propping up patriarchy—handmaidens of the patriarchy is what they call them.

    It is false pretenses and some of it qualifies as cult indoctrination— first you have the love bombing, then the occasional indulgenses and cool stuff before they rope the victims, I mean converts in for the cult kill. Whether it is hipster or not, it is deadly for lesbians who hate everything it stands for. This is what my enemy looks like.

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  10. They also believe that only they can get to heaven, yet feign inclusive and non-threatening attitude. The detachment strikes me as almost sociopathic. I prefer in-your-face Pat Robertson any day.

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  11. I enjoyed this very much. Since ‘evangelist’ derives from an ancient Greek word referring not just to what was said (the substance of the message-good news) but how it was said (‘well said’), your piece can ironically be characterized as exemplifying what ‘evangelism’ should be. It is also a word that can be traced back to the tradition of oral culture in which women participated on an equal level with men (as was the case in the early decades of Christianity)–a culture that in a very unexpected way modern technology is replicating.

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  12. To what tradition(s) does this term “Christian Evangelism/Evangelists” apply? Is this particularly the Evangelical tradition?

    I’m with you on the importance of the printing press, but this
    I argue that the bible is fundamentally a doctrinal set of rules
    struck me as extremely odd. On what grounds do you argue this, given the wide variety of genres in the bible?

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  13. I am writing this in 2018 so your piece was written 4 years ago. With trump in power the country has a lot to deal with the strife between conservatives and liberals. I have found it impossible to fathom how the evangelicals have been able to support trump with his atrocious behavior particularly his treatment of women. Then I read an article this week that made the point that evangelism is based on patriarchy. Because of this men are given license to do what they want sexually among other things,and that trump’s behavior is not out of bounds. Growing up in the church I was taught to follow Christ ‘s teachings-they do not.

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