The next few posts will be based on an article by Philip Jenkins “12 Trends That Shaped U.S. Religion Since the ’70s.”
Jenkins is the Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and Co-Director for Baylor’s Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion. He’s the author of several significant books on church history, including one of my favorites, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died.
Jenkins lists 12 trends that have impacted American Christianity since the 1970s. You should read his article and then come back here for my own thoughts in more Church of Christ terms and to discuss.
1. Gender revolutions.
Most see this as beginning around the early 1970s, concurrently with the push for the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution and numerous state and federal law changes that banned gender discrimination. And the idea that women might have equal rights in the family and the church — egalitarianism — did take on a lot of momentum at that time.
But there was an even bigger revolution that I’d date to around World War II. Pre-WWII, most conservative churches considered the biblical passages thought to prohibit women from having authority over men (primarily 1 Tim 2) to apply universally — in the secular workplace as well as church and family.
However, by the early 1960s at least, the commentators were limiting their arguments to the church and the family, largely conceding that women may have authority over men in the secular workplace — but more by omission. They just dropped the secular workplace side of the question. Why?
Well, first, women were busily proving their competence as principals of schools and administrators in other fields. And they were bringing home much larger pay checks because of it. And so the old argument of female gullibility was disproved by experience, and few men were willing to give up a 50% raise in their wife’s pay just to make a theological point. Money talks. (I know it’s cynical to speak in these terms, but it’s easier to change preachers or churches than to ask your wife to give up a genuinely deserved promotion and pay raise.)
Of course, the changes came incrementally. At first, women were allowed to be principals of elementary schools, even though the janitors and one or two faculty members might be men. Soon they were principals of junior high schools (now “middle schools” for some reason). Then high schools. And now universities.
My law firm was likely the first predominantly male firm to have a female managing partner in Alabama — in the 1980s. Law is a conservative business, but today’s generation of female lawyers can’t even imagine a time when it was rare for a woman to be a lawyer.
So the theology changed to silently limit Paul’s command in 1 Tim 2 to church leadership and families. This was also driven, I believe, by a tendency for Americans to compartmentalize their religion. Religion became private — just between me and God — and so God’s commands could be properly limited to the private realms of church and family, whereas the workplace was public and not part of Paul’s concern.
And in bowing to that assumption, the church actually adopted a very liberal, very unbiblical worldview that we would immediately reject in any other context. I mean, tell me that I may lie or steal in the workplace because God’s law doesn’t apply there, and my preacher will easily preach a 20-part series on why that’s wrongheaded — and be right every week.
Now, I’m not keen on re-arguing the case for women to have authority over men in church or the family yet again. The point is to be aware of the underlying history and to see how things are changing even in churches that claim to stand for the Old Paths, unchanged from the First Century.
I mean, even the most conservative of churches will allow a woman to run the nursery even if there are occasional male volunteers. Most churches have no problem with a children’s minister being female, even though many of her volunteers are men.
Indeed, in the last couple of decades, the “conservative” position has been further eroded to be limited largely to require elders and the pulpit minister to be men. A woman might not qualify for the title “deacon” in a given church, but she’ll be happily given a job with authority that would make her a deacon if she were a man.
Lately, when I speak to Millennials, they point out — correctly — that many of the mistakes made by their church leaders would never have happened if women were allowed in the decision-making process. And this is, in my experience, often true. I mean, I guaranty you we’d have fewer problems with sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and such like if women were more involved in hiring decisions and in making and enforcing the rules designed to prevent these things.
The near future trend is that the complementarian (hierarchical) position will continue to erode as experience shows the competence of women as supervisors and as a generation that has never known the discrimination that I grew up with become church leaders and elders.
Now, for non-Christians, anything short of full equality for women is considered grossly immoral. Millennials consider the notion that women shouldn’t be full partners in a marriage or church laughable and deeply wrong. This is going to become less of an internal debate within the church and more a question of our ability to evangelize the lost, because few unchurched people will be willing to accept imposing a subordinate role on women.
2. Revolutions in sexual identity.
Obviously, the gay marriage question is already having an impact on the church similar to placing women in leadership roles. I think the scriptural analyses are very different and see no way for the church to accept homosexual sexual activity as acceptable in God’s eyes. However, the Millennial generation is being raised to consider homosexual sex as just as normal as heterosexual sex. And the American cultural leaders are pushing this agenda hard, not just through the courts but also through TV and music.
While some congregations are choosing to accept gay couples or else to take an agnostic position (same difference), most churches consider homosexual sexual activity to be sinful. And, indeed, I think this is what the Bible teaches (as we’ve covered here many times). But there will be a price to be paid as homosexuals push for legislation that punishes those who refuse to adopt their agenda. I’m sure that at some point the tax exempt status of churches will be challenged if they don’t submit to the gay agenda. And some churches and related institutions (universities, publishing houses) will capitulate rather than close their doors with the loss of tax-deductible contributions.