Monday, May 28, 2012

Is Mike Bickle a Feminist?

On Mother's Day earlier this month, IHOP's Mike Bickle gave a talk entitled "The Incredible Worth of a Woman." As I listened to his talk online, I was startled by how progressive his message sounded. Having observed the Religious Right for some time, I'd come to expect sexism from male voices, but Bickle's message of respect for women was unexpected. As I listened to the rest of his talk, however, I found that Bickle's attitudes toward women were a mixed bag.

Bickle began the talk by describing a prophesy he'd had one night while sleeping. In the story, he woke from a sound sleep and prophesied to himself about the "worth of a woman." Bickle explained to the audience that the Lord will establish honor for women before his return, which will be connected to the glory of the church as a whole. Men are to honor their wives, lest they discover obstacles to their prayers.

As he talked, Bickle showed surprising sensitivity toward women's oppression. Throughout history, women have been a dedicated workforce in the church, but their contributions have been largely ignored by male historians, he said. Satan tries to undermine women's honor through the sexual objectification of women, the abuse of women's labor, and the proliferation of sexist stereotypes. Unfortunately, both sexes believe Satan's lies about women, Bickle told listeners.

I nearly fell out of my chair. A New Apostolic Reformation leader? Calling sexism evil? Acknowledging the unfair treatment that women have endured over history? WHAT IS GOING ON!? I didn't know whether to applaud or faint.

Bickle urged listeners to treat women with honor. Honoring women involved "purity," meaning no inappropriate touching, innuendos, or jokes at women's expense, he explained. It also entailed respect for the "full function" of women, including women's service in spirit-informed leadership positions. The global prayer movement must honor women, he stressed, adding that machismo is not Biblical.

Although he did not use the term "emotional abuse," Bickle condemned what we would call emotional abuse in the home. Satan wants to create a "culture of accusation" in the home, he explained, in which home life is poisoned by bitterness, belittling, and anger. Satan tries to exaggerate a woman's faults and convince her that she is hopelessly flawed so that she loses sight of her strengths. God, he told listeners, wants husbands to give their wives courage and affirm their virtues instead.

So far, so good, I thought. While Bickle's message was couched in religious language, its essence was that women are deserving of honor, kind treatment, and acknowledgement. Unfortunately, the other shoe dropped toward the halfway mark of the talk.

At the 48:17 mark, Bickle discusses Ephesians 5:22-27, which commands wives to submit to their husbands and husbands to love their wives. Bickle admonished husbands never to command their wives to submit, but rather to ask how their love has been deficient.
I've had guys tell me, 'You know, I tell my wife ... wife, submit' ... A guy comes to me and says, 'You know, I pointed out to her she's supposed to submit. She doesn't' And I've said this, and it's shocked a few guys, and it needs to. I go, 'Any time you use the word submit ... if you call your wife to submit to you, you are already operating in a wrong spirit.' I go, 'When you go to your wife and she's not cooperating with you, go to verse 25. Tell me how I'm not loving you the way Jesus loves the church.' That's the verse you use when she's not submitting to you. I've been married 35 years. I have never once, nor would I dare use the word 'submit' to my wife and look at verse 22 ... I would go to my wife and say, 'Verse 25. What am I not doing? Where's the blind spots that makes you not respond to my leadership?'
While this message softens the patriarchal "male headship" paradigm, it does not jettison it. Husbands are still considered leaders of their wives in this paradigm, thus reinforcing patriarchy. Make no mistake: Bickle is not advocating equal power between spouses.

Bickle supported patriarchal marriages again at the 54:04 mark, exploring what it means for women to be "weaker vessels." Bickle stressed that women are not intellectually or emotionally weaker than men. Rather, he posited that women are weaker in the power hierarchy of the home.
The wives ... are weaker vessels positionally, meaning in the authority structure of the home. Now I'm not saying this as a joke, but every women is under an imperfect male leader, that's married. In fifty years he's going to make many wrong decisions. I don't care how wise you are. Every one of us are going to make a bunch of wrong decisions, and she is vulnerable to the consequences ... And what the Lord's saying, 'She's in a weaker position here. I want to make up for it. You give her double honor. You go overboard in understanding her, because she is subject to what you're saying and doing in a way that's more than you are subject to her.'
I was stunned. Bickle recognized that patriarchal marriages make women vulnerable to their husbands, and yet failed to recognize the harm of patriarchy itself. Male dominance over a family can easily spawn resentment at best and abuse at worst, and yet Bickle couldn't admit that patriarchy was the problem. "Double honor" for a wife is no substitute for real sovereignty and an equal voice in the home. The vulnerability that Bickle described could easily be remedied by promoting equal power between spouses, but this never occurred to him.

At the 55:03 mark, Bickle claimed that God installed men as the heads of households so that families can have focus and direction.
"Now God didn't call men to be the heads of their families ... because they're better leaders. Many times the woman's actually a better leader. Many times the man is ... He did it because he puts leadership so the family has one direction. He does it so the family can be unified. Not because one's smarter."
This made no sense to me. Plenty of egalitarian relationships demonstrate unity and direction, so Bickle is wrong to correlate patriarchy with family order. Far more complex entities, such as nonprofit organizations, maintain unity and direction while being lead by a group of equals (i.e., a board of directors) rather than one person. Surely a much smaller entity, such as a family, can be successful with two equals partners at the helm. For argument's sake, even if patriarchal relationships are more focused, should the sovereignty and voice of one partner be sacrificed on the altar of unity? No.

In conclusion, Bickle's talk excited me prematurely. While Bickle had many noble (and necessary) things to say about the treatment of women, his talk fell short of true affirmation of women. As long as men are taught to wield authority over women solely because they are male, and as long as women are denied equal footing with men, true "honor" will remain out of reach.

To watch "The Incredible Worth of a Woman," click here.


  1. This is often the message in some pretty fundamentalist churches. The thing is I really think that though the abuse that is propagated by the patriarchal movement is deeply offensive to a lot of men they don't see the inherent abuse in being obedient to their God by requiring their wives to submit. No matter how much lipstick you put on that pig that's what it is. Usually when I hear a sermon of this sort it's because the patriarchs are attempting to coax the women into 'voluntary' submission.

    They don't realize the manipulation involved in the statements Bickle made. It sounds nice and flowery, but at heart it's loose translation is this:

    "I've loved you like Christ loved the church, so you should submit to me like God said." or "If I love you more, why don't you do what I say?"

    No matter how much you tell a woman how great she is if you remove her autonomy she still will feel less-than.

    1. D'Ma -- Agreed! No matter how much fundamentalists sugar-coat it, "male headship" is still incredibly misogynist.

      I have two theories about what is going on here. The first is that Bickle may genuinely want to respect and affirm women, but he is shackled by an inerrant belief in a scipture that says men are in charge. Unable to jettison his patriarchal scripture, he tries to soften its command.

      Another theory is that Bickle realizes that his 21st century audience has heard messages about women's equality, so he blends woman-affirming messages into a traditional patriarchal framework.

  2. Shocking isn't it how insideous this paternalism can be. He sounds so pro woman until you get to the bare bones, and what he really tells us is that he is very conservative, since Ephesians is not thought to be a letter actually written by Paul at all, but some unknown person who writes as he "thinks" Paul would think or as a disciple of Paul's. Progressive theology negates these passages as authentic and those who are still referring to them as "gospel" are showing their conservative credentials. You want to know how many times that I've been told that Mary is our model of womanhood? Geesh my church is crazy sometimes, and it's conservative wing is no better than the rest of the bible thumpin' literalists.

    1. Sherry -- Insidious indeed. He softened some of the rougher edges of male dominance without questioning patriarchy itself.

      It helps to have a nuanced interpretation of scripture when confronted with these passages. I don't know how much impact the Paul-versus-DeuteroPaul argument would have on people who see all of scripture as inerrant, though.

  3. Ahab-

    "D'Ma -- Agreed! No matter how much fundamentalists sugar-coat it, "male headship" is still incredibly misogynist."

    Yes and Amen! I can't tell you how many years I tried to quell the cognitive dissonance of believing the Bible to be "the Word of God" and reconciling it's horrific teaching on male headship.

    You can't make the Bible a haven of safety for women-even in a "gentle" headship. It's still a one man show, with women having to hang up their brains and rights at the wedding chapel door.

    Nice blog, by the way....

    1. Christianagnostic -- Thanks! I'm glad you stopped by. I think the cognitive dissonance you described is fairly common among conservative Christian women, even if they won't admit it out loud. And you're right -- such a structure can't provide safe haven to women in ugly home situations.

  4. It seems like his heart was in the right place, but then he believes the Bible. So it's not in the right place anymore.

    1. Grundy -- Sadly, you're right. Fundamentalism does that to good intentions.

  5. Well, you know the Christian church only moves forward when the pews start looking empty. Then, all of a sudden, they find in the Bible stuff that supports the new ideas.

    I wrote a few years ago ( that when the church realizes how many gays and lesbians are out there, they will find a way to accept them into the church, less they miss out on all those tithes.

    Right now, they've started to realize that (1) women can no longer stomach the traditional teaching, and (2) Lots of them work and can give money.

    1. Lorena -- I just read the 2007 post, and it was very insightful. Thanks for sharing!

      I theorized that Bickle was softening Biblical patriarchy to sound more modern, but I'd never considered the financial angle.

    2.'s all fun and games until somebody loses a tithe!

  6. It is part of a broader trend of Benevolent Sexism. It allows the perpetrators to sincerely believe they are honoring women (and many use that exact term) while subtly belittling them. This is a quick article on that, but Glick and Fiske's study is worth the read.

    1. Prairie Nymph -- Thanks! That article was spot-on. So-called benevolent sexism and hostility toward nonconformist women are two sides of the same coin.

  7. Boy!
    I am glad someone out there is teaching us what it means to honor a woman from a biblical viewpoint.


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