Little solid research exists on evangelicals' varying attitudes, behavior, and theological beliefs when it comes to gender roles. As a partial answer to that need, Christianity Today conducted a major survey o f 1,250 subscribers. Close to 750 subscribers and/or their spouses, divided almost evenly among the sexes, responded o the mailed, random-selection questionnaires, giving a fascinating picture of reader's views on male and female roles in home, church, and society. This article originally appeared in the July 16, 1990 issue.

If the Christianity Today gender roles survey demonstrates anything, it is that CT readers have not insulated themselves from the contemporary debate on what it means to be male or female. In the face of challenges to traditional role definitions, CT's predominantly evangelical readers have coped with the changes in ways both predictable and surprising.

The challenges, of course, have come from several quarters. The social sciences have demonstrated that many of the characteristics of masculinity and femininity are the result of cultural conditioning. The explosion of electronic and computer technology has rendered men and women equally qualified for most of the work that needs to be done in modern society. And new contraceptives have allowed women the freedom not to give birth to a large number of children, making it possible for them to pursue employment more easily outside the home.

Not only has the church not escaped the influence of such changes, it has also often been at the center of controversy itself. The publicity surrounding organizations such as the Evangelical Women's Caucus, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (formulators of the Danvers Statement), and Christians for Biblical Equality is but one example of the keen interest—and heated opinions—gender-role issues arouse.

The domestic side of gender

When asked to identify the issues of greatest concern, a large majority singled out items related to women who have children and who work outside the home. Many were especially concerned about how effective working women with young children were as mothers and as employees. With trends showing a steady rise in the number of wives working outside of the home, it is hardly surprising that dividing household duties between working spouses also emerged as a key issue for respondents.

In response to the statement, "When both husband and wife work full-time they should share equally in parenting and household tasks," a substantial 94 percent of females and 91 percent of males marked either "strongly agree" or "agree." More than nine out of ten males and females, in other words, accept in principle that spouses should equally shoulder parenting and household tasks when both work. Only 1 percent of females and 5 percent of males disagreed.

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Those numbers do not tell the whole story, however. When we compare the views of CT respondents with their answers to specific statements about actual practice, we notice an intriguing difference: Only moderate shifting of household responsibility occurs when the wife works full-time.

The data behind that conclusion offer interesting glimpses of domestic life. Females and males report that when the wife works, husbands do participate more in household tasks such as vacuuming, washing dishes, and cooking meals. A majority of male and female respondents, not surprisingly, identify doing the yard work and maintaining the car as mainly the husband's responsibilities. It is significant, however, that men and women differ in the amount of household work they do even when the wife works. This is consistent with a recent study that found that husbands of working wives spend an average of only 20 minutes more per day working in the home than husbands of non-working wives. Since parenting and housework entails considerably more than 40 minutes per day, working wives frequently do double duty.

This is the thesis sociologist Arlie Hochschild argues in her noted book, The Second Shift. From her study of 50 mostly middle-class couples, Hochschild concluded that instead of having it all, most working wives are merely doing it all, coming home after a day of work to a "second shift" of housework and childcare.

When it comes to parenting, responsibilities seem a bit more evenly distributed among CT readers. Female and male respondents report that they "shared equally" in administering discipline (74 percent and 81 percent respectively), giving attention to children's spiritual growth and development (72 percent and 86 percent), listening to children's problems when they are hurting (65 percent and 78 percent), and playing with the children (75 percent and 86 percent). In each of these areas of parent-child involvement, fathers more than mothers believe that the male contributes an equal share to child care.

It is interesting that while there are no parenting tasks that are reported to be done mainly by husbands, the vast majority of parents report that it is mainly the mother who changes diapers, coordinates children's schedules, cares for children (dresses, feeds, bathes), and takes care of other parenting duties.

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Do men actually involve themselves more in these parenting activities when the wife works outside the home? In comparing homes in which mothers do and do not work outside of the home, we find that husbands report helping out more in coordinating children's schedules and caring for them, though wives' reports would tend to dispute that perception. The sharing of the remaining six parenting tasks (administering discipline, listening to problems, playing with the children, changing diapers, giving attention to spiritual development, and managing needs such as clothes shopping) changes little even if the mother works outside the home. In the vast majority of cases, then, women have the same child-rearing responsibilities, whether they work outside the home or not. A recent article in Newsweek on the "reluctant father" reported similar findings. While 74 percent of dads in the Newsweek survey said they "should share child-care chores equally with the mother," only 13 percent do so.

How do CT readers feel about women who have young children and who work outside of the home? An equal number approve and disapprove of this involvement. While a near-equal number of females agree (40 percent) and disagree (39 percent) with the statement, "Working women with young children are less effective as mothers," males are much more likely to agree (52 percent) than disagree (31 percent) with this statement.

The interest in this issue only confirms the seriousness of the question of who will be available to and responsible for our children. Since the industrial revolution, most children living in urban areas have been deprived of daytime contact with their fathers. With an increasing number of mothers now working outside the home, the problem is accentuated.

Demographic data also suggest that nearly half of all children in the United States spend part of their growing-up years with just one parent in the home.

Has the Christian community contributed to this problem? Have Christians subtly devalued fathering in their efforts to honor and elevate mothering? To shed light on such issues, the survey sought responses to two statements: "Many Christians today do not think highly enough of the values of fatherhood and active involvement by fathers in raising their children," and "Many Christians today do not think highly enough of the values of motherhood and vocational homemaking." An overwhelming majority (nearly 80 percent) of the respondents agreed that both fatherhood and motherhood have been devalued.

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We believe that the answer will not be found in a retreat to traditional patriarchal family forms in which female and male gender roles are sharply separated. Fathers as well as mothers will need to invest themselves in making the necessary sacrifices to ensure that their children are adequately cared for.

Confusion in the church

Although only approximately 20 percent of women and men agree that "the issue of gender roles has caused strife in the church I attend," 86 percent of female and 90 percent of male respondents agree that "there is a lot of confusion about male and female roles in the Christian world today." Much of the confusion seems to center on the role of women in the church.

Historically, leadership within the church has been reserved mostly for males. While some traditions have sought to silence women in the church, 90 percent of females and 88 percent of males in our sample disagree or disagree strongly with the statement, "Women should be silent in the church and not speak." Less than 20 percent would prohibit women from teaching adult men and women, and about four out of ten would restrict women from being elders or being ordained. Well over a third of men and women believe the position of deacon should be held only by men. The most debated issue seems to center on the role of women in top leadership positions in the church. There is not a great deal of difference between male and female respondents to each statement on women's roles in the church.

The strength of opposition to women's participation in the church does, however, differ significantly by theological persuasion. Persons who identify themselves as "fundamentalist" are as likely as "evangelicals" to strongly that women should not the positions of deacon, deaconess, elder, or receive ordination.

Interestingly, a respondent's theological orientation was likely to have a bigger effect on men than women. The difference between fundamentalist and evangelical men is greater than the difference between fundamentalist and evangelical women. Whereas 25 percent of both evangelical women and men believe that "only men should be ordained," 55 percent of fundamental women and an even larger 71 percent of fundamentalist men strongly agree with this statement.

Who works and why
Equal opportunity and treatment in the work place has been a major goal of the women's movement in the past 20 years. It is therefore noteworthy that 98 percent of female and 96 percent of male CT respondents "agree" that women should receive equal pay for work that is equal to that of men." It should also be noted, however, that ,while 74 percent of women "strongly agree" with this statement, only 58 percent of males do so. Although attitudes towards gender equality in work have changed, women still earn less than men for the same work.

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Respondents believe women are likely to experience discrimination in the work place, as six out of ten respondents disagree with the statement, "Women on the job have the same chance of being promoted to executive positions as men do." Only one out of twenty respondents agree that "promotion of women of child-bearing age should be limited because they may get pregnant."

Why do couples choose to have both spouses work outside the home? The major reason seems to be economics, as approximately half of all respondents report that they both work in order to provide for basic needs such as housing, food, and clothing. Approximately 25 percent say they are both employed because they "want a higher standard of living than just one income could provide." About six out of ten of the respondents indicate that they work because of the enjoyment and fulfillment received, and over a third work because the second income allows them to save for things such as future education for the kids and their own retirement.

Couples who have both spouses working full-time only make 23 percent more than when one person works. Obviously, the investment of 100 percent more time is returning a relatively low economic dividend. It may very well be that the decision not to work for some wives is a luxury derived from the fact that their husbands have jobs that pay about one-third more than those of men whose wives also work full-time. If given the choice, six out of ten of the wives who are working would prefer to be part of a marriage in which only one partner worked.

Male and female in Christ

Although many of our attitudes toward gender roles are shaped by society at large and our familial background in particular, Christians seek to base their thinking and behavior about gender roles on a solid biblical and theological foundation. Two central theological beliefs held by almost all respondents (at least 98 percent) are that: (1) "redemption in Christ gives men and women an equal share in the blessings of salvation," and (2) "both Adam and Eve were created equal in God's image, equal before God as persons and distinct in their manhood and womanhood." More than nine out of ten (91 percent females and 93percent males) agree with a third statement: "God made men and women to be equal in personhood and in value, but different in roles."

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In response to the statement, "Adam's headship in marriage was established by God before the Fall, and was not a result of sin," 62 percent of females and 65 percent of males agree, even though only 25 percent strongly agree and nearly 20 percent strongly disagree with this statement. Husbands from traditional marriages (where he works full-time and the wife is a homemaker) are twice as likely to agree strongly with this statement than are husbands who are married to a woman who works outside the home. Seventeen percent of men and women are "not sure" how to respond to this statement.

When it comes to the question of male headship, approximately half of females (47 percent) and males (51 percent) strongly agree with the statement, "the Bible affirms the principle of male headship in the family." An additional 44 percent of females and 37 percent of males agree with this statement. This leaves only 9 percent of females and 12 percent of males in the sample who either are not sure or disagree with the statement. Fundamentalists are much more likely to agree strongly with this statement.

It is interesting to speculate about what "headship" means to the respondents. A variety of views can be found among Christians, ranging from a position that holds that the husband has ultimate responsibility for all major decisions in the family, to a view that considers the husband as a suffering servant to his family. Fortunately, our questionnaire contained a statement that defined headship in specific terms: "The husband holds ultimate responsibility for all major decisions in the family and the home." In response to this statement, 59 percent of females "strongly agree" or "agree," and 62 percent of males "strongly agree" or "agree." Thirty-six percent of females and 34 percent of males either "disagree" or "strongly disagree." Although the majority adhere to this definition of headship, slightly more than one-third of both female and male respondents seem to disagree with this definition.

The American backdrop

How do views of CT readers compare to Americans as a whole? A partial answer is given by comparing responses to several of the questionnaire statements that were also a part of a Roper national opinion poll. Respondents in the CT and national poll are in general agreement that women's roles in society will continue to change, that there are more advantages in being a man than a woman, that the women's movement has helped more than hurt the working woman, and that men find a self-sufficient woman more appealing than a dependent woman.

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In a number of areas, however, the views of CT readers differ from the national sample. In general, CT readers:

  • Are less in favor of, and more opposed to or undecided about, the efforts to strengthen women's status in society today;

  • Are more likely to believe that over the past 20 years, the women's movement has hurt homemakers;

  • Are less likely to be satisfied in a marriage where both husband and wife work and share household tasks and child care;

  • Are more likely to be satisfied in a marriage in which the husband provides for the family and the wife manages the house and children;

  • Are more likely to believe that in a marriage, the one who usually sacrifices the most freedom is the woman;

  • Are more likely to believe that if a woman has children under 18, her working outside the home should hinge more on the ages of her children than personal choice;

  • Are more likely to feel uncomfortable in a marriage in which the wife earns more than the husband;

  • Are less likely to respect a man if he decides to stay home and take care of the children while his wife works;

  • Are less likely to believe a woman should call a man for a date.

If given the choice, CT females more than national opinion poll females would prefer to stay home and take care of family and house rather than have a job outside the home. CT respondents are more traditional than the national opinion poll respondents on every gender role issue.

Where the changes may take us

The women's movement, which found its roots in the turbulent 1960s and grew as a separate movement in the 1970s, has significantly affected attitudes and behaviors in North America. Evangelical Christians have also changed, but not to the degree that persons in the wider society have. Sociologically, a case can be made that some of the resistance of conservative Christians to changes in gender roles grows out of the generally conservative context that constitutes the subcultures of conservative churches. This includes a more conservative political orientation, a greater representation in suburban and rural areas, residence in smaller, non-mainline denominations, and persons who can trace their family background to the working class.

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This resistance to change can have obvious negative effects when the institutional church simply accepts a cultural form of social structure and works to interpret Scripture in a way that finds support for these views. It is not easy, if not impossible, to read Scripture free from cultural bias. For example, in hindsight most evangelicals would now wish that the conservative church in the United States had taken a more active role in the 1950s and 1960s in standing up for blacks in their struggle for justice and civil rights.

But resistance to change can also sometimes play a positive role. Christians who hold to a high view of biblical authority will question societal changes in light of their interpretation of scriptural principles and directives. There are times when current social trends seem to sweep people off their feet and everyone clamors to get on the bandwagon. Without being convinced through careful consideration of and reflection on scriptural implications, it is possible to end up with unbiblical positions.

Christian womanhood and manhood must not be defined by a simple adherence to traditional definition or an uncritical embracing of current cultural trends in society. The current redefinition of gender roles provides an opportunity to re-examine gender roles and concerns in the light of Scripture. God has indeed created us male and female, equal before God and distinct. Christians should continue to seek to understand the interconnectedness as well as the unique contributions we can all make to one another's journey toward wholeness in relationship with others and with God. As Christian men and women interact with one another and others in love, forgiveness, servanthood, and with caring attitudes and actions, perhaps a living image of an even truer womanhood and manhood will emerge.

This article originally appeared in the July 16, 1990 issue of Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

Also appearing on our site today:

Nuptial Agreements | Two models of marriage claim biblical warrant and vie for evangelicals' allegiance. Advocates of both claim good results. But do we have to choose?
Adam and Eve in the 21st Century | When it comes to gender roles, CT readers oscillate between complementarian and egalitarian ideas.
CT CLassic: Can We Talk? | We may never resolve all our differences about women in leadership, but we can help each other toward better understanding.
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Earlier Christianity Today articles on gender roles include:

The Next Christian Men's Movement | Just because Promise Keepers no longer fills stadiums doesn't mean men's ministry is dead. Far from it. (Sept. 15, 2000)
What Has Gender Got to Do with It? | Wesleyan-Holiness churches were led by women long before the rise of the modern women's movement. (Sept. 12, 2000)
A Woman's Place | Women reaching women is key to the future of missions. (Aug. 4, 2000)
Integrating Mars and Venus | Gender-based ministries may be effective, but are they biblical? (July 12, 1999)
Finding Power in Submission | Two feminist scholars write about women you'll recognize. (Apr. 27,1998)
Will Episcopalians Step into the 'Radical Center'? | Homosexual ordination discussed, women's ordination mandated. (Sept. 1, 1997)
Presbyterian Groups Sever CRC Ties | Women's ordination splits two denominations. (Aug. 11, 1997)