I once visited a Protestant church on the Sunday of their congregational business meeting. After the service, all the women filed dutifully into the kitchen to prepare the pot luck, while the men, who were few in number, stayed in the sanctuary to vote. In other words, while the scarce men undertook church “business,” the copious women actually got stuff done. I couldn’t help remembering this incident while reading Jim Henderson’s The Resignation of Eve.
Though Jesus called twelve men into his inner circle, he spent far more time around women than the Hebrews around him. He gave secrets to Mary Magdalene and the Samaritan woman at the well which he never entrusted to men. Though the world he lived in openly favored men, Jesus showed women a level of favor that, in his day, must have seemed downright scandalous. Henderson thinks this sets a standard for Christian gifts being distributed regardless of gender.
We run aground, however, in Paul’s epistles. 1 Timothy 2:12 says: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” This contradicts Paul’s own ordination of Priscilla and Aquila, but never mind; churches have used this scripture for centuries to keep women out of pulpits. This despite the fact that women outnumber men in pews, classrooms, liturgical programs, and—by a ratio of two to one—volunteer church jobs.
Backed by researcher George Barna, Henderson exposes a remarkable split among church women. While stats indicate that most women feel they have adequate influence in their congregations, the organized church is bleeding those most eager to teach and lead for Christ. This creates a two-tiered culture for women: those who accept their lot, to a greater or lesser degree, and those who bolt for more egalitarian denominations, or leave church altogether.
Even denominations like mine, which has ordained women for decades, don’t distribute authority equally. Most women pastors get relegated to subordinate positions or small rural congregations. My congregation has two women pastors, both under a male “senior” pastor. At various times in my life, I’ve been a member of three denominations that ordain women, yet never seen a woman holding the senior pulpit in a large urban congregation.
Henderson compiles fifteen interviews with women who react to the church’s power dynamic in different ways. Some agree with the idea that women should take a back seat; others balk at restrictions. Some choose to stick with their churches regardless of their quandaries; others rebel in overt or subtle ways. Some leave church, or even the Christian faith, altogether.
Henderson highlights that Evangelical Christian voters who propelled Sarah Palin to national prominence overwhelmingly attend congregations that don’t ordain women. Why would a woman make an acceptable President, but not a pastor? In fairness, one woman Henderson interviews wouldn’t vote for a woman. But overall, these congregations support a woman’s bid for secular authority, but not her more important bid to save souls and transfigure the world for Christ.
I have some problems with this book. Most stem from unbilled coauthor George Barna, whom I've questioned before. His stats and Henderson’s anecdotes clash, suggesting that one or the other is wrong—or, more likely, they conceal an unexamined subtext. This book could sustain more thorough, nuanced analysis. It makes a good introduction, and stakes out good territory, but I hope Henderson or another author has more work in the pipeline.
In my experience, unlike Henderson, I doubt American Christianity faces a mass female exodus. In my church, women overwhelmingly dominate positions of authority, although the pastor dubbed “senior” is a dude. If women are leaving the church, as Henderson (via Barna) asserts, it’s because people are leaving the church. Christians have failed to provide a viable counter-narrative for our fraught and tumultuous world.
Reading this book, I recalled David Murrow’s Why Men Hate Going to Church, which I have reviewed previously. Henderson and Murrow consider the same problem with the American church today, that while men occupy a thin veneer of nominal leadership, women actually make the place run. But by viewing this reality from different gendered standpoints, they draw very different conclusions.
I strongly recommend Henderson’s and Murrow’s books side by side. Gender in today’s church, like race and wealth, define how we relate to one another, and how we communicate Christ to the unchurched world. While these two books alone don’t resolve every difference, they stake out a debate I hope Christians consider well worth having.