When Religion Hurts: How Complementarian Churches Harm Women

by Camden Morgante | May 19, 2021

I attend a complementarian church.

In my defense, it is soft complementarian, and living in the South means traditional gender roles are the accepted norm here even outside of the church. But as a strong proponent of egalitarianism who regularly writes and speaks about the value of gender equality, I experience significant cognitive dissonance between my beliefs and my attendance at my church.

A recent study in American Sociological Review by Homan and Burdette (2021) revealed how structural sexism in religious congregations correlates with women’s and men’s health.

As I read through the study to translate its results for CBE readers, I wondered about the health effects of my own church. Would it be considered a “sexist congregation” by the authors’ definition? And how might that affect my health, my husband’s health, and our fellow church congregants’ health?

Structural Sexism and Religion

The authors build on previous research that shows that structural sexism—defined as systemic inequality in power and resources between genders—is associated with worse physical health for both men and women. Living in a sexist society restricts women’s access to health care and resources, lowers self-esteem, and increases the risk of violence, harassment, discrimination, and stress.

Notably, one of Homan’s previous studies found that while at the institutional level, structural sexism led to worse health for both men and women, within sexist marriages, women experience worse health and men experience better health—what she calls a “zero-sum pattern.”

Homan’s study contrasts with decades of research demonstrating that religious involvement tends to increase health and life expectancy and may have a greater impact on women’s health than men’s. 

The authors hypothesize that attendance at sexist religious congregations will correlate with worse health outcomes for women. They define complementarianism as the belief system that “gender is essential, fundamental, and inherent,” that “men and women are fundamentally different from one another,” and are “therefore suited to different social roles as part of God’s grand plan” (p. 4–5). Specifically, men are suited as leaders and women as helpers.  Furthermore, complementarianism “sanctifies” traditional gender rules—imbuing them with a sacred quality.

Interestingly to me, the authors note that most complementarians believe in certain aspects of gender equality, such as women being paid the same as men for similar work. This contradiction between many complementarians’ ideals of gender fairness and their belief and practice of gender hierarchy creates cognitive dissonance which may undermine women’s mental and physical health. As an egalitarian in a complementarian church, I can relate to this internal discord between my espoused beliefs and the practices of my church.

The authors measure church structural sexism through three questions: 

  • Does the church allow women to serve as full-fledged members of the governing board or committee (such as an elder board)?
  • Does the church allow women to serve as the head clergyperson of the congregation?
  • How much does the church prohibit women from serving in various capacities such as teaching co-ed classes and preaching at a main worship service?

Results 

The results of Homan and Burdette’s research confirm their hypotheses. Consistent with past research, religious attenders as a whole in the study report better health outcomes than non-attenders. But not surprisingly, all three measures of structural sexism had statistically significant negative effects on women’s health. 

When we look closer at the data, what is remarkable is that the positive effects of church attendance on women’s health only apply for those who attend gender-inclusive churches. Women who attend sexist congregations have worse health than women who attend less sexist congregations and worse health than non-attending women. There were no significant effects on men’s health regardless of their church context, despite the authors’ concerns about the “toxic masculinity” that is often perpetuated by complementarianism.

Main Take-Aways

If you are not inclined to read Homan and Burdette’s entire article, here are the main findings Christians can take away from this study:

  • Women only experience the health benefits of church attendance when they attend gender-inclusive churches—those that “allow women to hold meaningful leadership roles within the congregation” (p. 15).
  • The authors posit that structural sexism in churches affects women’s health by decreasing psychosocial resources such as self-esteem and autonomy, increasing stress, and increasing sexism in other domains.
  • Women in gender-inclusive congregations display better health than women in sexist churches and non-attenders.
  • There was no clear evidence that sexism in churches led to either improved or worse health for men.

Limitations and Further Questions

As I read and summarized this research, I can already hear the objections from complementarians. And while we differ philosophically, I agree it is important to recognize the limitations of any empirical research.

This study used a one-question self-report measure of health. I am interested in future research to pinpoint more specific negative health effects—such as self-efficacy, depression or anxiety, and marital distress—for women who attend sexist churches. Of course, correlation does not imply causation—so I am also curious what other factors may impact both women’s attendance at sexist churches and their poorer health. Finally, while the sample included conservative Christian, Catholic, liberal, mainline, and Black Protestant denominations, the research did not parse out the results for each denomination.

Practical Applications

So where does this leave me, a champion of egalitarianism steeped in conservative religious culture? And where does this take us in our mission to “eliminate the power imbalance between men and women resulting from theological patriarchy” in our homes, churches, and the world?

1. Most glaringly, complementarian churches need to rethink their position on women in ministry.

Complementarians often make the argument that women and men flourish in hierarchical, complementary structures in which they live according to “God’s design.” This study suggests they are wrong. 

In light of the evidence, complementarian churches must evaluate how their practice of excluding women from leadership and decision-making authority affects the health and well-being of their congregants. I can’t imagine a non-profit organization or business intentionally excluding women from service on its board of directors (at least publicly). How can we still justify churches prohibiting women from the same, especially when we now know it can correlate with poor health? 

With women comprising over half of the church congregation, our representation in the leadership of churches is sorely lacking. Women’s voices are ignored and overlooked when women are left out of the decision-making process. If complementarians truly believe that men and women are uniquely different and “complement” one another and that we need both genders to accurately represent the image of God, why is one-half of God’s image marginalized in the body of Christ?

2. Both complementarian and egalitarian churches should consider how to promote the physical, emotional, and spiritual health of their church and their congregants. 

Do pastors speak up about mental illness in their sermons? Does the church offer counseling or financial assistance for licensed therapy? Does the church recognize abuses of power and strive to maintain a healthy culture among their leaders? Is the leadership trauma-informed? Are they bringing in experts who can speak to issues their congregation may face, such as child abuse, domestic violence, and addiction? Are they sensitive to issues of intersectionality, so that they are actively combating both racism and sexism?  Are they fighting for racial justice and reconciliation, or are they silent about white supremacy, racial violence, and discrimination in our country? These are some of the questions churches must consider as they serve an increasingly diverse culture.

3. Individuals should evaluate the health benefits and risks of their current congregation. 

How does my church promote health and well-being? How does it affect my other sisters and brothers in Christ? How are marginalized groups treated in my church; do they walk away feeling welcomed, loved, and accepted—or “othered”? Do we consider how that might affect their physical and mental health as well as their spiritual health? And perhaps more importantly, how do I contribute to the health or harm of my church body? What am I doing to bring about shalom in my Christian community? How am I speaking up and speaking out for women and other under-represented groups?

Conclusion

Good research is descriptive, it helps us understand the problem, but it is also prescriptive, it helps us see potential solutions to the problem. Evaluating Homan and Burdette’s research and translating their findings into practical action steps gave me more questions to reflect on than clear answers. But one step I am certain of: I am evaluating my role in the health or harm of my congregation. I am evaluating how women, men, and children like my two-year-old daughter are affected by churches’ gender-exclusionary practices. And I am sending my article and this research to my complementarian church’s leadership for further discussion. 

(Photo by Carolina Heza on Unsplash)


 

Related Reading

The Consequences of Soft Complementarianism 
Is Egalitarian Theology Good For Women's Health?
Muted Group Theory: A Tool for Hearing Marginalized Voices