Ignoring that Pentecostal 'gender paradox'

African family Picture © Allan McKinnon

For much of the twentieth century most social scientists have been blind to the reality of the incredible expansion of evangelical/Pentecostal Christianity. They have also ignored the social transformation that has accompanied that expansion.

Bernice Martin in The Pentecostal Gender Paradox explains. . .

When the existence of this vast global mass movement did finally impress itself upon the scholarly community it was greeted with an extraordinary mixture of denial and hostility.

Firstly, modernity was supposed to deliver an increasingly secular world. Secondly, Pentecostalism was not a revolutionary religion of the oppressed but to all appearances a conservative throw-back. It should not have happened.

Not only have academics ignored the rise of evangelicalism/Pentecostalism, they have also been blind to its impact in social transformation. Specifically the “Gender Paradox” of Pentecostalism—that it reinforces a traditional view of the relationship between the sexes and yet, radically transforms them at the same time.

Martin explains that from Elizabeth Brusco's pioneering study onwards research on evangelicals/Pentecostals in the developing world has repeatedly found that women and younger people are advantaged in new and crucial ways by the movement.

It is true that women are seldom allowed to become pastors and there are usually restrictions on their participation in the leadership of the ministry of the Word, but women are especially favored with spiritual gifts in a movement which is, after all, expressly constituted around the gifts of the Spirit.

In societies characterized by a tradition of male dominance they have been enabled to institute a family discipline, sanctioned and effectively policed by the church community, which puts the collective needs of the household unit above the freedom and pleasures of men and which has called an end to the long-tolerated double standard of sexual morality.

In an entirely literal sense, Pentecostal men have been “domesticated,” returned to the home.

The practical effect has been to give a new start to gender and family relationships through a transformation of the moral order which legitimates and sustains them. This moral order seems backward-looking, but what it achieves is an effective limitation on the older forms of male dominance which are not family-friendly.

This moral order both reaffirms old principles that have been routinely ignored (sexual faithfulness in marriage, above all), and insists on the moral primacy of what in the unregenerate world outside Pentecostalism would be denigrated as merely women's concerns. It establishes an experience of greater gender equality without destroying what Cucchiari has felicitously called “gender integrity,” that is, the possibility of experiencing the gendered self as a “good woman” or a “good man”. In this way Pentecostalism acts as a “transformative” mechanism, nudging a whole sector of the poor in the direction of modernity.

Within the movement men acquire the dignity of an authority based on the model of Jesus himself, which requires them to consult those on whose behalf they exercise responsibility. In exchange for this new dignity — and poor men have very little hope of dignity or authority in the secular economic or political sphere — Pentecostal men must put themselves under novel restraint.

Much of what the church expects of them would stigmatize them as unmanly among their unconverted peers: giving up alcohol, drugs, gambling, sexual adventures, and the opportunity to sire children in many households, putting the family and fellow believers before themselves, and so on.

According to Martin, all of this suggests that, if there is a “women's movement” among the poor of the developing world, Pentecostalism has a good claim to the title.

Despite the existence of a discourse of strict gender equality promoted internationally by Western aid agencies, mainstream church organizations, development agencies and the like, it is not Western feminism, even in its Christian variant, which has transformed for the better the lives of millions of poor women in developing societies.

They have been “empowered” by a “regressive,” “fundamentalist” Christian movement whose theological rawness and lack of intellectual sophistication causes problems and embarrassment to enlightened Western observers, including those in the mainline denominations of the developing world whose young are defecting in droves to this do-it-yourself movement of the vibrant margins or are “Pentecostalizing” parts of those established institutions themselves.

Thus we have a series of problems to address: the long failure of social scientists in general to identify the phenomenal growth of evangelicalism in the developing world as a fact; the hostility it inspired when it could no longer be ignored; the failure of precisely those scholars most concerned with religion to recognize the movement as a significant social development; and the failure of those scholars most concerned with gender and family, including feminists, to address the Pentecostal gender paradox.

What caused dismay when the Pentecostal upsurge forced itself upon the attention of social scientists was not the unoriginality of the repetition of familiar processes but a sense that the proper time had passed for such processes of subterfuge and manipulation in the gender order and for a pre- Enlightenment approach to theology. Pentecostalism was not a revolutionary religion of the oppressed but to all appearances a conservative throw-back. It should not have happened.

“The Blackwell Companion to Sociology of Religion (Blackwell Companions to Religion)” (Wiley-Blackwell)