Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on ReligionInstitute for Studies of Relgion
IJRR :: 2017 Volume 13 :: Article 8
2017 Volume 13, Article 8
Strict but Not (Gender) Conservative: Refining the Strict Church Thesis in Light of Brazilian Pentecostalism

Author: Kevin Neuhouser (Seattle Pacific University)

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Since the 1972 publication of Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (Kelley), the critical distinction between (theologically) “conservative” and (culturally) “strict” has been obscured. In addition, because the strict church thesis (SCT) has been applied primarily in the U.S., the blurred concept of “conservative-strict” has been understood in American religious terms. Lack of clarity led to SCT’s appropriation by American religious leaders to claim that restrictive gender roles explain the growth of “conservative” churches, while “liberal” gender roles cause membership loss. To clarify the crucial distinction between “conservative” and “strict,” as well as to test the generalizability of the claim that restrictive gender roles promote church growth, I examine the literature on rapidly growing Brazilian Pentecostalism, a movement with “strict” membership requirements yet far more gender egalitarian than “conservative” U.S. churches. I then draw out the implications of this case to refine SCT to be more useful, especially in cross-cultural research. Specifically, I argue that research should focus on the level of “tension,” which is always an interaction between the church and its cultural context and cannot be determined by whether or not its theology is “conservative.”

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