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Published Date: June 5, 2023

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Not Neutral: How Gender Hierarchy Harms Women in the Church

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Many female ministers say they feel like second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. Some women lay leaders say they are underutilized, limited by their gender, underappreciated, and taken for granted.1 Other female pastors note that they become overly self-conscious about their bodies when they’re leading service and when they are among their congregants.2 Many women venturing into church work are subjected to debilitating intersectional discrimination that often leaves them discouraged.3 I find myself voiceless and helpless in my church. Voiceless because, week after week, sermons are preached that have no regard for me, or any of the problems and prejudices that women face in the church. I can only assume this is because we have next to no representation in leadership positions. Helpless because of experiences like what happened one day in Sunday school as I was teaching: The head of the Sunday school teachers held his hand up to my face to silence me like a child in front of the students and my peers, just to make an announcement. Though the other teachers witnessed it, nobody spoke up for me, and no one seemed to think that I had been wronged.

Experiences like this demonstrate that hierarchy within the church is not a neutral or secondary issue. Hierarchy within the church actively harms both women and men. Not only does it stop women from following their God-given calling, but it arguably contributes towards women leaving the church altogether.  

The Redshift

While statistics show that there are consistently more women than men in the church, only 20.7 percent of clergy were reported to be women as of 2016.4 This percentage decreases further up the ranks in the many churches that default to a “moderate” position regarding the ordination of women: that is, they allow it, but limited to certain positions within the church.5 This reality, in the face of greater feminist advances in secular institutions, coupled with the discrimination against women in the church, is part of the reason regular church attendance of women dropped significantly from 36 percent in 1972 to 28 percent in 2012 in the US, while regular attendance of men fell from 26 percent to a mere 22 percent.6 The percentage of religiously affiliated women has also decreased from 37 percent to 33 percent, whereas that of men has fluctuated but remains consistent over time.7 This trend is expected to worsen based on a recent survey of millennials and Generation Z. This survey showed that of people born after 1999, women are more likely to be atheist or agnostic (“nones” in the survey). For those ages 18 to 25, 49 percent of women self-identified as “nones”, while 46 percent of men were “nones”. This is a significant dissonance from the data of older generations: of those born around 1950, just 20 percent of women thought of themselves as atheist or agnostic, compared to 25 percent of men born in that same period.8

Endemic Repulsion

This change is not surprising because instead of women feeling at home in the church, they are left feeling like tolerated helpers. The church continues to be a place where the powerful keep the best pastures for themselves and trample down the rest (Ezek. 34:18).  For many, it is a place where pain, sorrow, and tears continue to dwell (Rev. 21:4). Instead of being heirs, many women feel like second-class citizens. We may have come a long way from the time when the venerated Saint Thomas Aquinas said that “woman is defective and misbegotten,”9 but with every sneer and roll of the eye when a woman speaks her mind or tries to claim her birthright in Christ, we are taken right back to those dark ages. Aside from overt acts of sexism and misogyny, and the deprivation of certain rights, little things like insensitive comments and unfair expectations are enough to reinforce this kind of demeaning attitude that throughout church history took precedence over weightier issues like biblical truth, justice, and equity. It also reinforces the curse of hierarchy that arose out of sin, instead of recognizing that Jesus takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).

Breaking up the Fallow Ground

Jesus raises humanity up to the stature of the fullness of himself, enabling us to sit, not beside, but on his throne with him (Rev. 3:21). In the same way, all members of the body of Christ should strive to build one another up and work to attain biblical equality, not only in our communities, but in the home with our families as well. To begin the process of healing and bringing women back, churches must be intentional in how they treat and equip women. They should create and integrate programs that sponsor women to attend Bible college and seminary to become trained teachers and preachers. This step alone would go a long way toward improving the representation of women at all levels within the church and would provide mentors for younger women. Encouraging education would also ensure that women are less susceptible to believing false information.10 They should also work toward limiting excessive male-centric  anthropomorphism in sermons and teachings. This constant representation of God as a male figure leads to the exclusion of women in the church and can distance them from God. Instead, the analogies we use to understand God should include women to provide a sense of kinship with God. One example of this is the inclusion of women in Jesus’s parables. Beyond changes made in sermons and teaching,  deliberate steps should also be taken to integrate women into the structure of the church at every level, from boards of directors to committees that oversee programs, to ensure women have a voice in the church. There are many types of assistance which could be provided for women and others according to each of their needs. The members of a church can contribute through the provision of aid and counseling for people subjected to domestic abuse. They can work to organize discussions to educate the church on the negative consequences of patriarchy so members might work together to battle psychological manifestations of oppression such as internalized oppression11 and learned helplessness,12 among others. While the task is large, not every change needs to be; small-scale changes, like the provision of special chairs such as recliners or rockers for new mothers, also go a long way to creating a hospitable environment for this demographic in the church.

To make women feel welcome, the church must change. Even small changes can help transform how a church views women.

Gender hierarchy within the church is not neutral. Discrimination against women and the damaging male domination that accompanies it tear women down and the church apart. We must consciously wage war against these forces in our churches and beyond  to fully enjoy the liberation granted us in Jesus Christ, and to no longer be subjected to the heavy yoke of sexism (Gal. 5:1).

Notes

  1. M. B. Linguli, “Women, Empowerment and Societal Transformation: The Voice of Women in Pastoral Ministry and Church Leadership of the Methodist Church in Kenya” (Thesis, VID Specialized University, 2017), 43.
  2. K. Steeves, “The Lived Experiences of Women in Ministry,” (PhD Diss., McMaster University, 2017), 26, 106-144.
  3. W. C. Foster, “Born to Serve: Christian Attitudes Towards Women Pastors” (Thesis), Wichita State University (May 2018), 24-27.
  4. A. Oakes, “Amid Growth in Leadership, One-Fifth of U.S. Clergy are Female,” Watauga Democrat, March 1, 2020.
  5. S. J. Grenz and D. M. Kjesbo, Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry (Westmont: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 33.
  6. K. Gaddini, “A Large Number of Single Women are Leaving the Church. Why?,” RELEVANT, January 10, 2023.
  7. A. Earls, “Church Attendance Gender Gap Shrinks, But It’s Not All Good News,” Lifeway Research, September 5, 2017.
  8. R. P. Burge, “‘With Gen Z, Women Are No Longer More Religious Than Men,” Christianity Today, July 26, 2022.
  9. Thomas Aquinas, “Question 92. The Production of the Woman,” New Advent.
  10. M.-I. Pop and I. Ene, 2019, “Influence of the Educational Level on the Spreading of Fake News Regarding the Energy Field in the Online Environment,” presented at 13th International Conference on Business Excellence 2019, doi.
  11. E. J. R. David, Internalized Oppression: The Psychology of Marginalized Groups (New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2013).
  12. M. E. P. Seligman, “Learned Helplessness,” Annu. Rev. Med. vol. 23, no. 1, (1972): 407-412, 972.