Promise keepers keeping women in submission

Promise Keepers:

Keeping Women in Submission

The “Promise Keepers” (PK) is a group of religious males, who hold the view that men have a responsibility to run all household affairs and that his partner i.e. wife need to obey the male’s role as head of the household.  It is the author’s contention that although the Promise Keepers may believe to be part of a gendered movement (or Christian or political movement for that matter) they are in fact not a movement group, but instead a type of what Sociologists may consider a Simmelian secret society.  This group is in fact a “backlash” to the positive changes in the women’s movement and is attempting to keep “traditional” (patriarchal) control, of which has dominated American society from its birth.  This group relies heavily on religion for resource mobilization purposes and its “fraternity” type male bonding in the religious sense is at the very least unorthodox and would place this group quite possibly in a counter-culture group rather than a serious part of the other male gendered movements such as the umbrella men’s rights movement and/or father’s rights movement.

In order for there to be a movement

disadvantage or misfortune is transformed into injustice only when appropriate social definitions take place.  The discovery by members of a pre-existing self-conscious group that they share the disadvantage is one of the necessary conditions for the defining the situation as unjust (Turner& Killian. 1987. p.118).

Although the Promise Keepers may believe that the so-called “break-down” of the family is “unjust” social definitions do not allow this change, as of yet, make this a collective and rational movement issue on the macro level beyond their members’ own shared beliefs.  It is true that families have undergone changes, as women have been successful in their attempts in their own gendered movement to slowly shift gender role ideals, which formerly placed them in a submissive position both inside and outside the home.  The changing family, how-ever cannot  metamorphose, (which the Encarta Dictionary defines as

1…change physical form: to undergo or make somebody or something undergo a complete or marked change of physical form, structure, or substance

The water had metamorphosed into ice.

2…change appearance or character: to undergo or make somebody or something undergo a complete or marked change in appearance, character, or condition

3…change supposedly by magic: to undergo or make somebody or something undergo a transformation supposedly by magic,)

into a social problem and then an injustice and then a social movement.  It is interesting that the term “magic” is used above, as the group has a strange dynamic in their bonding and rallying around their self-proclaimed religious group.

Whether or not the group believes its cause to be just is not the issue at hand, but in order to further examine the dynamic of this organization the purpose of the group need to be understood in order to support the thesis of this paper.

Promise Keepers is an international Christian organization for men, based in Denver, Colorado, United States. It describes itself as “a Christ-centered organization dedicated to introducing men to Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord, helping them to grow as Christians”… Promise Keepers promote the view that husbands have a responsibility to be the head of their household in a gentle and loving way, following the example of Jesus Christ, and that a wife should voluntarily submit to her husband’s leadership ([1] Wikipedia, 2007).

The gender roles here are then learned as a continuance of traditional and sacred means. This seems as a step backward instead of a movement, which requires continuity (paradoxically) of slow successions of changes.  The Seven Promises of the PK are, also, listed at the Wikepedia site:

1. A Promise Keeper is committed to honoring Jesus Christ through worship, prayer and obedience to God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit.

2. A Promise Keeper is committed to pursuing vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs brothers to help him keep his promises.

3. A Promise Keeper is committed to practicing spiritual, moral, ethical and sexual purity.

4. A Promise Keeper is committed to building strong marriages and families through love, protection and biblical values.

5. A Promise Keeper is committed to supporting the mission of his church by honoring and praying for his pastor and by actively giving his time and resources.

6. A Promise Keeper is committed to reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity.

7. A Promise Keeper is committed to influencing his world, being obedient to the Great Commandment (Mark 12:30-31) and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20).

It appears that the PK are actively seeking strong marriages, Christian morality, and brotherly camaraderie.  That in itself is more of a “mission” as would be contained in a mission statement and not in a movement category.  Although this “brotherhood” may point to a slight margin of the men’s movement as a religious historian points to in a PBS Newshour Transcript:

men are in trouble in the culture right now. And I think there’s not any question about that. There’s an identity crisis with the American male, especially the white American male. And they are trying to address that, trying to provide that kind of formula for how we as men here in America in the 1990’s are to live our lives, especially our domestic ones.

It seems like an issue here is raised of a cultural movement, but an almost racist tone to this cultural “mission” just solidifies the sexist nature of the organization as historically both institutionalized sexism and racism was the norm, therefore making the possibility of this being a gendered movement null and void, as well.

This organization/brotherhood does fit the Simmelian model of a “secret society”, which is quite different from a conspiracy theorist view.  Members may feel collectively moral or share knowledge, but such things as motive and intention are the “secret”.

That purely general objective knowledge of a person, beyond which everything that is strictly individual in his personality may remain a secret to his associates, must be considerably reinforced in the knowledge of the latter, whenever the organization for a specific purpose to which they belong possesses an essential significance for the total existence of its members. The merchant who sells grain or oil to another needs to know only whether the latter is good for the price. The moment, however, that he associates another with himself as a partner, he must not merely know his standing as to financial assets, and certain quite general qualities of his make-up, but he must see through him very thoroughly as a personality; he must know his moral standards, his degree of companionability, his daring or prudent temperament; and upon reciprocal knowledge of that sort must depend not merely the formation of the relationship, but its entire continuance, the daily associated actions, the division of functions between the partners,

etc. The secret of personality is in such a case sociologically more restricted. On account of the extent to which the common interest is dependent upon the personal quality of the associates. no extensive self-existence is in these circumstances permitted to the personality of the individual. (Simmel, 1906, 451-452.)

Members of this society are diverse and the demographic points to contradictory evidence in that 57% have wives that work (, 1995).  In the Simmelian view raised previously, it would seem that the contradictions of PK member character outweigh a unified cause, again to place this group in a counter-culture group rather than a movement organization.  Although 57% of PK wives work

 Furthermore, a num­ber of women who are married to Promise Keepers say their marriages have improved since their husbands joined the movement (Cose, 1997; Griffith, 1997; Whitehead, 1997; Shimron, 2002).

Yet, others voice reservations about the Promise Keepers. They ask why women can’t attend Promise Keepers’ meetings. The Promise Keepers’ answer is to quote Proverbs: 27:17: “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” This reflects Promise Keepers’ belief that men should lean on each other, not on women, in their quest to be good men—men can hold each other accountable in ways women can’t (Shimron, 2002).

Another question asked by people who have reservations about the Promise Keepers is, Why can’t husbands and wives be equals (Ingraham, 1997)? McCart­ney responds, “When there is a final decision that needs to be made and they can’t arrive at one, the man needs to take responsibility” (“Promise Keepers,” 1997, p. 14A). Critics charge that “taking responsibility” is a code term for deny­ing women’s equality, voices, and rights. ([1]Wood, 2007).

This raises questions of the possibility of domestic violence in the Promise Keepers organization as the traditional views held in patriarchal societies allow men to view their wives as property.  As quoted previously the so-called cultural movement that the PK claims is needed for “especially the white American Male”.  In addition to the theoretically  high probability of domestic violence in this traditional family model, it seems that racism is an inevitable, dangerous element to this group, although PK has taken steps to alter their racist image.

Another frequently expressed criticism has been that Promise Keepers are elitist. The great majority of Promise Keepers are white and middle- or upper-class economically. In response to criticism, Promise Keepers has made efforts to broaden its membership to include men of different races and to soften its rhetoric about husbands leading wives. In a move to symbolize the group’s racial diversity, in 2003 when McCartney retired from the presidency, the group chose Thomas Fortson, an African American, to head Promise Keepers…([2] Wood, 2007).

The fact that many of the Promise Keeper members are in a dominant SES group (white, male, and middle or upper-class) allows for another theoretical possibility that members are in a position to hinder positive social change and equality and instead either further promote or introduce institutionalized sexism and racism.

Those interested in social problems usually attribute them to inequality and to the use and abuse of power.  Power is the ability to influence the social structure.  Those with power-the elite-influence the social structure in ways that will enhance their power.  Generally, the elite tend to use their power to prevent change and to maintain the status quo.  It is, after all, contemporary social arrangements-the present social structure, the status quo-that allow them their power.  (Heiner, 2006).

It is interesting that, too, wives of PK members take on a submissive position outside their homes, as well.  Their husbands may be in a sense “brainwashing” these women, as staunch opponents contend is a make-up of this group.

Promise Keepers has also been accused of incorporating the so-called “New Age” approach to male bonding. This is in reference to the fact that PK rallies tend to be highly emotional, and in some ways, not unlike brainwashing. It is not uncommon for men to break out in tears and cry on each other’s shoulders at PK events ([2] Wikipedia, 2007).

The National Organization for Women (NOW) “keeps tabs” on this group and documents what they perceive to be threats to women’s rights and the ways in which the PK members threaten those rights.  NOW does see this as a political movement, again though the only case for a movement is a cause or an unjust situation.  This seems instead as an abuse of power as Heiner describes it with PK members in ideal political situations to allow the status quo to continue.  NOW describes the “brainwashing”, if you will, of the wives of PK members and its dangerous reach into the workplace and institutions of higher learning.

MYTH: “The Promise Keepers are good for women”

FACT: As feminists, we have long urged men to take responsibility in the home, as the Promise Keepers claim to do. However, when they say “taking responsibility” they mean taking control. Promise Keepers openly call for wives to “submit” to their husbands.

Promise Keepers do not encourage a relationship of equals in a marriage. Rather, they call for men to “take” their role as the leader in the family. Promise Keeper Tony Evans stated “I am not suggesting that you ask for your role back, I am urging you to take it back. There can be no compromise here.”

A young woman at a recent “Chosen Women” Rally, a female counterpart to the all-male Promise Keepers, stated “Our job is to submit to our teachers and our Professors…even if we know they are wrong. It is then in God’s hands.” PK expects women to submit not only in our homes but also in the secular world of the classroom and workplace.

This sets up a social learning process where PK children learn and model this behavior.  It seems girls will be resigned to traditional gender roles and that boys can learn to use and abuse their power as men when they are older.

The Promise Keepers are not a gendered movement, although, they claim this and instead are a part of the “power elite” and wish to maintain the gender status quo, instead of to improve and build upon something like other Men’s Rights groups may do.  From the first institution of the home up to the highest public position, Promise Keepers pose a threat to positive change, as research suggests.  This group deserves more research to come to an absolute conclusion from a sociological prospective that this group is as the thesis states.  But, from the literature available this group seems to reflect all the previous labels.


Encarta ® World English Dictionary © & (P) 1998-2004 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

Heiner, R.  (2006).  Social Problems: An Introduction to Critical Constructionism.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press

PBS. (October 3, 1997).  NEWSHOUR TRANSCRIPT.  “Sermons on the Mall”.  Available Online  (last accessed 28 Feb 2007).

NOW. (2007).  “Myths and Facts About the Promise Keepers”. Available online: (last accessed 28 Feb 2007).

“Personal Communication”.  M. Johnson, Bachelor of Liberal Studies.  (1 March 2007).  “Promise Keepers (PK), Pro and Con: PART 1”; A survey in 1995 by the National Center for Fathering .  Available online: (last accessed 28 Feb 2007).

Simmel, Georg. (1906).  “The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies” in American Journal of Sociology 11: 441-498. Available online:  (last accessed 28 Feb 2007).

Turner& Killian. (1987).  “Toward a Theory of Social Movements” in Buechler, S.T.& Cylke Jr., F. K.  (1997).  Social Movements: Perspectives and Issues.  Mountain View, CA:  Mayfield Publishing Company.

Wikepedia.  “Promise Keepers”  Available online: (last accessed 28 Feb 2007).

Wood, Julia T.  (2007).  Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture, Seventh Edition.  USA:  Thomson Wadsworth.


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