Here is a taste of Amy Frykholm’s Christian Century interview with Duke Divinity School professor Kate Bowler, the author of The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities:
Evangelicals tend to be skeptical of women in formal positions of authority. Is celebrity a way of circumventing that dynamic?
Exploring that issue was the really fun part of the book. These women were a puzzle hidden in plain sight. These are women who by any logical account should not be as popular as they are. They are not theologically educated, and they are not encouraged to be on stage, so why are they there?
These women had to build their platforms extra-ecclesially. They had to find pulpit-adjacent places. Sometimes that involves parachurch ministries, like one focusing on a specific issue or a women’s ministry—something that is not threatening to the power structures and that is an extension of women’s previous dominance in the missionary movement.
Beth Moore is the most famous face of the Southern Baptist publishing arm. As evangelist and Bible teacher, she is a colossal money maker for her publisher, and she uses Twitter as her pulpit with tremendous success. Social media is very powerful in her world—it’s a way to reach an audience daily and weekly. Many women in this role have managed to skip a lot of the infrastructure and go directly to the crowd.
It is a delicate position because it is outside an institution. These women are not afforded any of the protections of an institution. If an institutional leader makes a mistake, the institution has a vested interest in protecting or rehabilitating them. You see this when there is a sex scandal in evangelical churches; the pastor is pretty quickly put on a rehabilitation tour. A woman without an institution is on her own. If she falls, she falls hard.
Southern Baptists want to adhere to a traditional approach to women in ministry, but they cannot square that demand with the number of women in their own tradition who are leading.
This is a country dominated by megachurches. The concentration of people into these churches is astonishing. That means leadership is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. People want the male leader on stage to be “grounded,” and having a woman by his side confers emotional well-roundedness. It provides a kind of spiritual covering. She is credentialing him. Women in this role can become very powerful in their congregations. They have to figure out how to minister spiritually to all the women in the congregation. That gives women a job and a platform. This aspect of modern congregations makes it very difficult for women to be kept out of the pulpit.
Read the entire piece here.