Nice Churchy Patriarchy: Reclaiming Women’s Humanity from Evangelicalism

By Liz Cooledge Jenkins
The Apocryphile Press, 2023
Paperback, 336 pages

Reviewed by J. F. Alexander

The cover of the book, Nice Churchy Patriarchy, by Liz Cooledge Jenkins. Shows an orange background grapic of a church with a woman figure standing in front of it with her back to us.I did not expect to become a fan of Liz Cooledge Jenkins. For one thing, I assumed her book, Nice Churchy Patriarchy: Reclaiming Women’s Humanity from Evangelicalism, was not written for people like me; I am neither a woman nor an evangelical. For another thing, I feared that 336 pages on patriarchy in the church might get, well, boring. I was dead wrong on both counts.

Engaging, learned, and deeply personal, Nice Churchy Patriarchy is both memoir and manifesto. This book, Jenkins’s first, exposes how patriarchy and misogyny may saturate even a church or seminary that considers itself essentially egalitarian. I wish this book could be placed into the hands of every American Christian, particularly those involved in so-called “complementarian” churches. For evangelical women and nonbinary persons (and men!) who have begun to question gender subordination, it will come as a potentially life-changing gift.

The book comprises two thoughtfully organized parts, titled “Naming Misogyny’s Faces” and “Dismantling Misogyny’s Power.” Much of the first part reads as an ethnographic study, like the observations of a Jane Goodall emerging from the jungle of evangelical misogyny to report her findings, though Jenkins is personally engaged rather than scientifically detached. She relates her experiences as a millennial woman raised in a mainline Presbyterian church but drawn to a large evangelical church while a freshman at Stanford. For eleven years, she attends this church, eventually serving as the lay leader of its campus ministry. (As one familiar with the area, I have an educated guess as to the identity of the church; here, as elsewhere, Jenkins diplomatically declines to name names.) The church elders (all males) describe their approach as “soft complementarian,” which is to say affirming a belief “that there should be some gendered differences between men’s and women’s roles in the home and church.” Unlike “hard complementarianism,” the “soft” variety sees female pastors as legitimate—as long as they do not preach regularly to the whole congregation, “because women should absolutely not be determining the theological views of the church” (p. 32).

Jenkins, devoutly Christian but experiencing misgivings about her church’s conservative views on gender and LGBTQ issues, moves to southern California to study at a well-known evangelical seminary, one that nominally espouses gender egalitarianism. While there, Jenkins joins another evangelical church. Her experiences in these settings give her further opportunities to observe and catalogue myriad behaviors arising from the culture’s subtle and not-so-subtle misogynist tendencies. At one point, she tries to have a discussion with her pastor about her evolving views on LGBTQ affirmation and he responds, “Have you considered therapy?” (p. 125). At seminary, she cannot help but notice how many accolades her husband receives for—oh my!—doing his own laundry (p. 135 ff). Her fellow students feel that a husband absolving his wife from laundry duty constitutes an act of tremendous charity and forbearance. Though such encounters may sound trivial in isolation, they occur with a telling frequency. It must be noted that Jenkins does not write to bring down judgment upon those whom she has experienced as propping up unbiblical systems of patriarchy. For the most part, she experienced them as nice people. Yet nice can still be wrong.

In the second part of Nice Churchy Patriarchy, Jenkins sets out a program for dismantling misogyny in the church comprising five major steps: demasculinizing scripture; expanding theology; unerasing history; reclaiming agency; and reimagining authority. Among other gems, the section on “unerasing history” offers a tour of a few key contributions of Christian women over the past two millennia. It substantiates the important truth that “feminism” is not new. Christian feminism, in the sense of a longing and calling of women to preach and teach the gospel on equal footing with men, spans the centuries, from the self-baptized Thecla in ancient times through medieval saints such as Hildegard of Bingen to Jarena Lee, an early nineteenth-century female African American preacher, continuing into the present. This sort of feminism cannot be dismissed as an evanescent fad of “political correctness” or “wokeness”; it reaches back to the very beginnings of the Jesus movement.

In narrating her observations about “nice” contemporary patriarchy, Jenkins demonstrates a keen awareness of her own social location—she is a woman, yes, but a white, educated, economically secure, American woman. Her experiences of patriarchy, she repeatedly acknowledges, do not compare with experiences of severe oppression and sexual abuse encountered in various settings by many women of color and women in poverty. But that is precisely what makes Nice Churchy Patriarchy significant. Even in politically progressive twenty-first-century California, the struggle for women’s equality, even for educated and privileged women, is not yet won—at least not in church.

In the process of unpacking this hard truth, the book offers much wisdom—about partnership in marriage, gender roles, biblical hermeneutics, spiritual experience, and the nature of ambition, among other things. I was particularly struck by Jenkins’s perceptive analysis of the connection between sexism and opposition to gay marriage. She writes at page 88: “Conservative Christians, when they argue that the Bible prohibits same-sex relationships, often find themselves going back to Genesis 2 and claiming that Adam and Eve were given different gendered roles in their relationship. They then contend that same-sex marriages aren’t valid because they don’t have these different roles.” I think this is the first time I have seen this important point in print. Opposition to LGBTQ marriage is rooted, at least in part, in opposition to gender equality within heterosexual marriage. Jenkins does a great service by teasing out this relationship.

I also especially appreciated the chapter on “bookshelf math” (p. 205 ff) in which Jenkins elucidates a troubling pattern in current religious scholarship and theology—namely, that women and people of color disproportionately write in identity-specific modes, while the generic “textbook” and systematic kinds of texts remain dominated by white men. One can debate the causes underlying this phenomenon; I do not think Jenkins fully considers the degree to which liberation perspectives have tended unnecessarily to bind themselves to “postmodern” academic approaches pathologically suspicious of “meta-narratives,” systematic theologies, and even rationality itself. In any event, the pattern is clear, and Jenkins persuasively demonstrates that true diversity remains elusive on the bookshelves of even very liberal Christians.

The book ends with a long, lovely prayer in the name of “our Creator who made a very good world, and of our mother Christ who sustains our lives, and of the Holy Spirit who is still cooking up justice” (pp. 331–336). Each stanza pairs with a chapter, creating a helpful summary.

A critic of Nice Churchy Patriarchy might complain that some of Jenkins’s narratives feel motivated primarily by the author’s need for catharsis. She relates various situations in which she was challenged to articulate a response to patriarchal comments or actions and found herself unable to do so on the spot (e.g., pp. 115–116). Where her voice once failed her, she is now making up for it with her pen. In my view, the cathartic edge to the writing adds to its power. Many readers of this book will need catharsis, because they, too, have lived through gender-based subordination and dismissal by pastors, professors, or fellow parishioners.

As a reader affiliated with a mainline church, I would have liked to have learned more about why Jenkins, raised in an egalitarian PCUSA church, found herself so strongly drawn to evangelical churches for so many years. The church of her youth sounds like my Episcopal parish—an environment in which women’s leadership is entirely (well, almost entirely) taken for granted. (Our bishop, pastor, and lay board chair are all strong, talented women.) What was it about those evangelical environments that drew Jenkins to them for so long, despite the entrenched patriarchy? Can mainline churches learn something from her experience and that of other millennials drawn to evangelicalism? Perhaps we will learn more in a subsequent book?

In any event, it is to be hoped that this talented young author will continue to serve her Lord via the written word.

 

 

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J.F. (Jim) Alexander
J. F. (Jim) Alexander is theologian-in-residence at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in downtown San Jose, California, and a licensed attorney. He is the author of I Am Sophia, a theologically significant work of future fiction.