The Conservative, Christian Case for Working Women

An evangelical Christian and avowed feminist argues that God intends every woman to work.

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The final episode of Leave it To Beaver aired in June of 1963, but many conservative Christians still promote a vision of womanhood reminiscent of June Cleaver.  When Tobin Grant, political-science professor at Southern Illinois University, analyzed General Social Survey data from 2006, he found that nearly half of evangelical Christians agreed with this statement: “It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.” Forty-one percent agreed that “a preschool child is likely to suffer if his or her mother works.” For these evangelicals, a woman’s place in the world is to get married, bear children, and support her breadwinning husband.

Katelyn Beaty—the managing editor of Christianity Today, America’s largest evangelical Christian publication—has set out to change this notion of gender. Her new book, A Woman’s Place, claims to reveal “the surprising truth about why God intends every woman to work.” This declaration may surprise many of her magazine’s 80,000 print subscribers and 5 million monthly website visitors. And it may also rouse many of her fellow evangelicals who believe her ideas defy the Bible’s clear teaching, if not qualifying as outright heresy. While Beaty knows criticism may be coming her way, she is making a conservative Christian case for working women.

“I'm wanting to tell wives and mothers that there is so much inherent goodness in the call to work and that we needn't pit certain types of roles against each other,” Beaty said. "There are ways to be a devoted wife and mother and a devoted CEO. In the church, we need to make space for women who feel called to both at the same time.”

The 31-year-old Beaty wasn’t always so outspoken about this idea. Three years ago, she broke off an engagement with her fiancé and was promoted to managing editor on the same day. With her dreams of marriage and motherhood sidelined at least temporarily, she embraced her leadership role. But Beaty said she has experienced some resistance as a result of her gender.

In meetings with Christian men outside of the company, she often feels invisible. Sometimes it is as subtle as the way someone establishes eye contact; other times, she is blatantly ignored by her male peers. Beaty recalls attending a recent gathering with other Christian leaders in Kentucky where she was the only woman representing the evangelical viewpoint. As she and several male leaders stood in a circle chatting, another man entered the room and aggressively shook every attendee’s hand—except hers. The man didn’t even look at her.

“No one's explicitly said to me, ‘I don't want to talk to you because you're a woman,’ or ‘I don't value your insights because you're a woman,’” she said. “It's all in body language and subconscious symbols of who has the power in a room and who doesn't.”

In addition to experiencing the tensions many religious women face, Beaty was transformed by the fulfillment she discovered in her work. Before her promotion, Beaty said she would not have hesitated to quit a job if she got married and had children. She once believed staying at home with children is a mother’s “central call”; she would have happily relegated the task of financial provision to her husband. But her thinking has changed.

“If that were to come to pass now, I’d be more proactive in finding a workplace culture that supports, in actual policy, the perfectly good desire that women have to hold their jobs, take maternity leave, and be a mother,” Beaty said.

As for most evangelicals, the Bible has played an important role in forming her beliefs. After carefully studying the scriptures, she concluded “there is a very strong biblical argument for the notion that women and men are equal in worth and dignity.”

Among the non-religious and those from more progressive faith traditions, the most surprising thing about this statement may be that anyone would consider it radical. But Beaty is making a bold claim, at least in some circles: She argues not just that God permits some women to work, but that God intends every woman to work. Her theology of work is connected to her beliefs about cultural impact.

“All women are called to have influence—cultural influence outside of the private sphere of the home,” Beaty said. “It wouldn't necessarily have to be a career track, but certainly all Christians, including all Christian women, are called to have cultural influence outside the home.”

This begs a question: What about stay-at-home moms? While Beaty said she wants to affirm the value of the labor of motherhood, she considers it a separate category. While she isn’t willing to call full-time mothering “sinful,” she encourages women with children to assess their talents and put those to use outside of their households.

“When you talk about scales of influence or scales of societal influence, a woman who is staying at home with [her] children isn't going to have as much influence on the direction of culture,” Beaty said. “We can talk about motherhood as a specific type of calling, but I'm not ready to professionalize it.”

A professional job involves certain aspects like a title and compensation, she said, and homemaking does not have such benefits. In the focus groups Beaty convened while researching this book, she said she spoke to many full-time mothers who long for this.

But many mothers—Christian and non—will likely take issue with her contention that raising children is not as culturally impactful as, say, selling automobiles. After all, which is more significant: a family sedan that lasts seven years or a human being who lives for 70? Nearly twice as many Americans say their mothers were the dominant influence in their lives compared to their fathers. Moms shape everything from whether children have body-image issues to how much education kids pursue to when children first have sex to whether their children use illegal drugs. I know many moms—mine included—who are glad they chose raising children over having a job. They may have a difficult time taking advice on how to steward their skills and passions from a single woman barely in her 30s.

Beaty’s views of gender equality do not stop with the home or job market; they extend to the church as well. She supports the ordination of women as church pastors. When it comes to the many female ministers in her life, she said that “God has placed them and that their gifts are needed in the life of the local church.”

While the number of female pastors in America has steadily increased in recent years, only one-in-five Protestant seminary students are women. Only 12 percent of American congregations have a female as their sole or senior leader, and male pastors receive 27 percent more in compensation and benefits than females. Fifty-five percent of churches prohibit women from serving as senior pastors, and 33 percent will not allow females to preach.

Though most of her magazine’s readers may not know it, Beaty considers herself a “feminist”—a term that causes many conservative Christians to recoil. She noted that first-wave feminism was partly driven by Christian ideals of social reform. Feminism and Christianity are “not inherently oppositional,” she said, and can be “integrated in a strong, biblical way.”

Much of Beaty’s thinking might sound uncontroversial to those outside of her religious community, but her ideas may rankle many insiders. While most Americans support equality of rights and opportunities for women in every social sphere, many conservative Christians have resisted this view.

One such Christian group is the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), which was founded in 1987 to combat feminism and promote the idea that God has assigned men and women have “distinct and complementary roles.” Part of the rationale for their work is what they perceive as a “widespread ambivalence regarding the values of motherhood [and] vocational homemaking” within American culture. CBMW believes husbands are to be the primary providers for their families and offer leadership as the heads of their homes and churches. Wives are called to be submissive to their husband’s leadership and “forsake resistance to their husbands’ authority.”

Owen Strachan, the president of CBMW and co-author of The Grand Design: Male and Female He Made Them, agreed with Beaty that God intends both men and women to work. But he said the work they are called to do is distinct. Men are to be the primary breadwinners—Strachan once controversially called stay-at-home dads “man fails”—who should not be “working at home” like women. He said the Bible teaches that a woman’s “intended sphere of labor” is the home. Deviation from this model is sinful, in his view.

Strachan also challenges the idea that motherhood should be considered a separate category of work because it lacks cultural influence. As he said to me:

What shapes culture? People shape culture. How are people themselves shaped? They are shaped at least in part by mothers. If you want to influence culture in a very serious way in the future, one of the best things you can do is build the world's first institution, the natural family, and launch children, who love God and neighbor.

“Egalitarian” views like Beaty’s have been labeled heresy by some prominent Christian leaders. Many conservative Christians are suspicious of anyone who calls him or herself a feminist. Wayne Grudem, an influential evangelical theologian, has even warned that feminism is a “slippery slope” that leads to denying “the complete truthfulness of the Bible as the Word of God.”

These Christians are not just marginal, fundamentalist ideologues. They are powerful, and perhaps increasing in number. CBMW had nearly 1100 attendees at its annual gathering, and its website boasts one of the most popular Christian blogs on the internet. Another group that promotes traditional notions of gender, The Gospel Coalition, has 7,800 member congregations in its network and reports an estimated 65 million pageviews on its website.

The doctrinal confession of the Southern Baptist Convention, or SBC—America’s largest Protestant denomination, which claims 15.5 million members—states that a husband has “the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family.” By contrast, the confession says, a woman must “submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband,” “respect her husband,” and “serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.”

Tens of millions of Americans hold these views. Evangelicals may be one of the last pockets of resistance to gender equality in America, and they remain one of the country’s most influential and politically active groups.

Beaty does not seem discouraged by the possibility of opposition. “For every stereotype of the Christian who is patriarchal in a negative way, or who wants to hold women back, I've encountered more Christians, even conservative Christian men, who have woken up to the weird gender dynamics in the church and the ways that women are quietly sidelined,” she said. “There's a greater desire among those Christians to empower the women in their lives. They just don’t quite know how to do it yet.”

For Christians who wish to lift up the women in their communities, Beaty’s work offers some guidance as to how. But even though her book uses the language and logic of the Bible, those who do not share her wish to empower women may not be willing or able to hear her message.