When scholar Kate Bowler went to an evangelical bible camp at the age of 14, she was confronted with a new take on what it means to be a Christian: girls should submit and focus their energy on becoming good wives and mothers. Bowler pushed back against this philosophy.
She demanded definitions of principles like “submission” and “male headship.” Decades later, Bowler still grapples with the paradoxical role of women in the evangelical church. While they are discouraged from becoming ordained ministers, they play numerous other roles, including the bible teacher/preacher, the homemaker, the talent, the counselor and the beauty. In her book, “The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities” (Princeton University Press/2019), Bowler examines the unofficial positions of power occupied by preacher’s wives throughout history. She profiles women from Tammy Faye Bakker to Victoria Osteen.
While Bakker became iconic for her heavy makeup, tear-jerking stories and singing alongside her husband, contemporary evangelists like Joyce Meyer have their own ministries, speak to sold-out conferences, and host their own shows. Yet both women were very careful to never call themselves preachers. Bowler joins host Frank Stasio to take listeners inside a world where women balance their religious power and influence with the expectations of evangelical Christians.
On her early relationship with the church:
I was a very stressed out evangelical teenager. I remember the first time someone told me there were jobs I couldn’t have … I can lead a bible study. I can lead women and children, but why can’t I talk behind the pulpit? … I remember being very disappointed that there were more boundaries around what I thought my gifts might be able to be.
On her study of the rise of televangelism:
I started digging into the history and realized that so many of these attempts at broader evangelism started with a charismatic man and his wife who very quickly realized that they had all sorts of content to fill … Frankly, once they went to satellite television, they just had too many hours to fill. They’d find themselves at 2 a.m. on accordion saying: Is anyone watching?
On the power of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker:
Tammy Faye [Bakker] was one of the great Christian celebrities. We might forget that at the time they started a huge church as well as a television studio in South Carolina. Praise the Lord Ministries started Heritage Park USA, which after the first two Disneylands — Disneyland and Disney World — was the most visited attraction in the country for some time.
On the title female church leaders use:
[Women] could be an author and a speaker. If you were a man you would just be a pastor: Pastor Bob. [Women] called themselves bible teachers instead of preachers. Later on, when [women] were the charismatic co-founders of a massive megachurch, they could call themselves co-founders.
On the difference between the white and black preacher’s wife:
As you can tell in the titles like “first lady,” so much of the pageantry around respectability was important. While later on white women would advertise themselves as being broken and messy and “just a girl trying to get by,” black women were never afforded the privilege of having so many chips to play. They had to stay on the pedestal that they were given.
On the success of Joyce Meyer, one of the few stand-alone female leaders:
She is likely more popular than Joel Osteen … She’s unbelievably popular in saturating the Christian market, and yet she does not have the popular man by her side ... One of the solutions to that is to make [her husband] the CFO of the organization and to find other ways in which he can provide spiritual oversight.
Kate Bowler is a bestselling author and Professor of the History of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School. She also hosts the podcast "Everything Happens."