Gendered Gospel, Ungendered Mission: Identity Formation at Two Evangelical Seminaries

This project considers gender practices at two seminaries located in central Kentucky. Asbury Theological Seminary serves an evangelical Wesleyan constituency and welcomes women into all levels of leadership and ministry. By contrast, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which serves the Southern Baptist Convention, celebrates principles of male headship and reserves positions of institutional, ecclesiastical, and familial authority for men. Drawing from oral interviews and ethnographic fieldwork including visual methods, this project explores how cultural processes form students’ gender ideologies and practices.

A display case at Southern reminds passersby of the institution’s colorful history

I find that student formation is most effective when processes of discourse and physicality are tightly coupled. This tight coupling is particularly effective at Southern  Seminary where students construct beliefs about gender polarization and male headship around convergent stories narrating biblical history and the legacy of the seminary itself. They also follow gendered scripts which allow them to articulate these beliefs through vocational choices, consumption habits, and styles of dress. Students become enthusiastic practitioners of their institution’s gendered ideologies despite the disempowering effects these ideologies have on men and women for whom they are unnatural fits.

A life-size statue of John Wesley welcomes students who attend services in Asbury’s Estes Chapel

Asbury, in contrast, challenges gender-based hierarchy on theological grounds. Students learn to frame gender egalitarianism rhetorically in terms of biblical chronology. This chronology narrates the genesis of gender difference in the biblical creation account and emphasizes the empowerment of women in the New Testament as normative for the contemporary Church. This Equality Story, however, features deep tensions and gaps. For example, it confines the value of gender difference to the marriage relationship, precluding public celebrations of women’s standpoint. The story also relies on heavily individualistic logics, buttressing students’ anti-structural sentiments and making it difficult for them to acknowledge systemic inequalities. I argue that Asbury’s construction of gender equality is, therefore, best understood as a form of gender-blindness. It allows the community to invest in individual women while diminishing the visibility and salience of the structural and cultural inequalities all women face

This project makes three basic arguments. First, it contends that gender ideologies are more than symbolic statements signaling institutional fit with or against external groups. Gender is also an important ingredient in internal group identity and cohesion. Second, it finds the use of narrative to be particularly salient in the formation of identity. Stories told in both discursive and embodied forms contribute much to the creation of people, particularly when these articulations are tightly coupled with each other and with the driving principles of the group. Finally, it argues that these seminaries’ most powerful cultural processes are essentially supra-rational, and calls for increased sociological attention to role of human emotions, passions, and embodied experience in considerations of human social behavior.

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