Four years ago, I was invited to contribute an article to the women’s health section of a South African magazine. The editor asked me to keep it light and practical, so I wrote about self-esteem. As a therapist who specializes in helping women who have been abused, cultivating self-esteem in women is close to my heart.
The editor asked if she could share my email address, and I hesitantly agreed. But I was still unprepared for the emails I received. Women from all walks of life reached out and their emails weren’t surface-level. They were raw and broken.
Although the issue of low self-esteem in women often headlines glossy magazines, we the church, and complementarian and egalitarian alike, are responsible for addressing it. We need to address it in our schools, our homes, and our workplaces certainly. But women’s low self-esteem is directly related to the church’s theology of gender as well as how we read Scripture.
Self-esteem refers to how we perceive ourselves or our attitude toward ourselves. It guides our interactions with others; it impacts our careers, communities, our daily tasks, our social and home lives, and even our relationship with God.
Social psychology studies indicate that there is a self-esteem gap between men and women. In 1990, two social psychologists, William and Best, conducted a fourteen-nation study to find out how men and women differ in their self-concepts. In nations such as India and Malaysia where women are expected to remain in the home as wives and mothers, women have the most negative self-concepts. In contrast, they discovered that in places like England and Finland where women are most active in the workplace and are valued participants outside the home, men and women were found to have equal levels of self-esteem.
Based on their findings, the researchers concluded that when women are excluded from spheres outside the home, they have a lower self-concept. Similar studies conducted in the US found that women working in career fields where gender discrimination is frequent experience poorer emotional and physical health over time. Psychological and sociological studies are proving what many already know to be true—an anti-female agenda and bias affects women’s emotional health.
What does this have to do with theology?
Complementarian theology claims to be pro-women, but it exclusively empowers men to serve at all levels of leadership in the church and encourages women to serve primarily as wives and mothers. Women are, either with intention or by implication, excluded from church and family leadership. They’re assured that Jesus was pro-woman in life, yet they’re simultaneously told that he excluded them.
This theology produces a worldview incongruence. As Eugene Peterson puts it: congruence is essential to the Christian life; it is the wholeness and oneness between what a thing is and what it does. Jesus was for women, and his life and ministry were congruous with that position. He uplifted women. He included them in his ministry, taught them at his feet, and certainly didn’t encourage them to focus more on their roles as wives and mothers.
My conviction that women shouldn’t be excluded from leadership is supported by my observations as a therapist: gender limitations have a negative impact on women’s self-esteem.
Though complementarian theology claims to be for women, it often leads to disproportionate emphasis on obedience and submission. It can even undermine women’s ownership of their own bodies, or their bank cards, or even their dreams. Over time, this leads to loss of self-esteem which produces co-dependence in relationships as well as emotional stress.
Complementarian theology has many different strains and degrees, but it can stretch far beyond just restricting women from the office of pastor, or encouraging them to focus on the domestic sphere. Some go as far as limiting women from counselling with authority, from leading mixed-group public prayer, or from heading a Bible study.
When strict gender roles limit women outside the home or restrict their influence to the home, evidence suggests that their self-esteem suffers. And in my experience, they’re also more vulnerable to abusive relationships.
Interestingly enough, psychology is not the only discipline that illustrates how gender equality causes communities and nations to thrive. Demographic researchers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain have investigated areas of the world where people live the longest and healthiest. These areas, blue zones, have six things in common. Of course, sunshine, diet, and physical exercise were among the commonalities. But notably, all six communities have empowered women.
Expert analysts consistently find that nations that thrive intentionally empower females. In a study, Vickie Mays, a UCLA Fielding School of Public Health professor, found that experiencing significant discrimination over time changes the way the brain processes information, disrupting, for example, the regions involved in planning and decision-making. Discrimination actually changes women’s brains (as well as the brains of other marginalized people).
It’s critical to understand the social and theological factors that cause women to have a lower self-esteem. But it’s also important to understand the relationship between men’s social location and high self-esteem. Research indicates that white men generally experience a higher sense of self then other people groups. Professors Schwalbe and Staples found that: men not only tend to stake their self-esteem on location in a status hierarchy, but also may be more likely to create such hierarchies in order to satisfy their needs for self-esteem.
Egalitarian theology promotes inclusion at all levels of leadership in the church, home, and world. It is deeply for women. Its claim of being pro-woman and how it actually treats women are congruous. I believe that when women are treated as valued contributors outside the domestic sphere, they have higher self-esteem. Research suggests that the full inclusion of women as leaders and equal participants in all spheres causes them to view themselves as valuable and competent.
Our savior did not teach a gospel of hierarchy and social order that made women, or anyone, feel less than, nor did he desire it among his followers (Matt 20:20-28). Instead, the gospel outlines a new social ethic rooted in servant love for others. Jesus preached and practiced the kind of love that builds up, nurtures, and empowers all believers.
 Schwalbe and Staples, “Gender Differences in Sources of Self-Esteem.”