Does the Churches of Christ denomination inflict long-term harm on girls by prohibiting women from what many refer to as “leadership roles” in the congregation—by prohibiting women from speaking in the Sunday morning assembly, leading singing or prayer in the assembly, reading scripture for the assembly, etc.?
Yes, suggests a detailed study published earlier this year that surveyed multiple religious traditions.
The study by Dr. Benjamin Knoll of Centre College and Cammie Jo Bolin, a Ph.D. student at Georgetown University, and published in their book She Preached the Word (Oxford University Press) found, for all types of religious congregations (combined):
Of U.S. adults who attended religious congregations growing up, nearly two out of three never had a female congregational leader.
For Women, Having All-Male Congregational Leaders While Growing Up Results in, On Average, …
… Lower Self-Esteem
Women who had a female congregational leader at least “some of the time” while growing up had, as adults, levels of self-esteem “consistently just as high as men’s.”
But women who never had a female congregational leader growing up had lower self-esteem than men as adults.
Low self-esteem is associated with greater levels of depression and anxiety and “lower levels of relationship success, job satisfaction, and motivation for personal improvement.”
… Less Education
Women who had only male congregational leaders growing up had lower levels of education when compared to women who had influential female congregational leaders.
“[W]omen … whose most influential leader was a woman had gained, on average, a full additional year of education compared to those whose most influential leader was a man.”
… Higher Unemployment
“[T]he gap in full-time employment between men and women is present only among those whose most influential youth congregational leader was a man. Women whose most influential leader growing up was a woman are equally likely to be employed full-time as men.”
… Authoritarian/Judgmental View of God: Psychological-Emotional Health
Adult women who had only male congregational leaders growing up are more likely to think about God in “a more authoritarian/judgmental way” rather than in “more graceful/loving terms.”
One’s view of God has been linked to psychological and emotional health.
… Psychological and Economic Gender-Gap
For adult women, “the gender gap in psychological and economic empowerment is present only among those whose religious congregational leaders growing up were exclusively men.”
… Long-Term Comparative Harm
Thus, this study found, having only male congregational leaders comparatively worsens future levels of education, employment, health, and psychological and economic empowerment of young women and girls in the congregation long-term.
(“[T]hese results held true even when controlling for a variety of other potential mitigating factors including demographics and individual/family socioeconomic background.”)
In Church of Christ Congregations
Turning from the 2018 study’s results, which were based on data from multiple religious traditions and were for all types of congregations, to considering their implications for girls in the Churches of Christ denomination—
Even beyond being barred from serving as a preacher, women are barred from reading scripture to the worship assembly, leading the assembly in singing or prayer, making communion remarks, assisting at the communion table, and teaching adult (and even middle school and above) Sunday School in the vast majority of Churches of Christ.
In many Church of Christ congregations, girls and boys under 10 regularly see women in active congregational service as teachers in Sunday School. But those over 10 generally see women (besides those in their family) in such service only as chaperones on infrequent youth trips or projects or in the kitchen or the nursery because women are barred from teaching classes that include baptized boys or men.
Generally, in their church classrooms and worship services: Women become absent for them as religious teachers. Women are absent for them as readers and students of scripture. They do not hear women praying to God. Women are absent as showing joy in leading the congregation in song. They do not see women serving communion. Women are absent in the group assembling up front to lead the service. They do not hear women giving the communion address. Women are absent as being designated servants of the church, aka deacons. Women are absent from leading the congregation. They do not see or hear women as congregational leaders.
Didn’t Need a Survey to Know This
Did we need a survey to realize this prohibition is harmful to girls and young women?
Not only does scripture (like 1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:12) not require prohibiting women from doing so, scripture asks women to speak and actively serve, in the assembly and elsewhere. Women in the Bible (for a start):
- prophets (Luke 2:25-38; Acts 21:8-9; Acts 2:17-18; Judges 4-5)
- the first evangelist (John 4:1-42)
- deacon (Romans 16:1)
- speaking before men and women, in the assembly and elsewhere (Luke 2:25-38; 1 Cor 11:5, 16; 1 Cor 14:5, 23-25, 26, 27-33, 39; Acts 21:8-9; Acts 2:17-18)
- spoke and prayed before the whole church (1 Cor 14:5, 12-17, 26, 27-33; 1 Cor 11:5, 16)
- taught assembled men about scripture and God’s message (2 Kings 22:11-20)
- told by Christ to speak to and tell assembled men about the risen Christ and to tell the assembled disciples what Christ wants them to do next (Matt 28:8-10; John 20:17-18)
- taught men about the way of God (Acts 18:24-26)
- told to teach what is good to all, both men and women (Titus 2:3), especially to younger women (2:4-5)
- given other authority over men (Judges 4-5; Ephesians 5:21)
- risked their lives to help spread the Gospel (Romans 16:3-4)
Growing Number Ask Women to Speak in the Assembly
A growing number of Church of Christ congregations—after studying scripture—ask women to speak in the assembly, teach adult Sunday School, etc. A (incomplete) list of them, as well as links to scripture-study materials from some, are at the end of the Sources and Notes below.
Most colleges affiliated with Churches of Christ, recognizing scripture does not bar it, also no longer prohibit women from speaking in worship chapel.
Conclusion: See the Mirror
These are probably the most important points—
Women are gifted by God, and God asks them to serve. And we block them.
And, this study suggests, we inflict long-term harm on girls—we inflict long-term harm on our daughters and granddaughters, and we inflict long-term harm on the daughters and granddaughters of others in our church—by our inaction and silence on this issue and by our going along with the exclusion.
What, exactly, is worth harming these girls even one more day?
You Can Do Something About It Now
You can ask your elders and congregation to reconsider, and you can visibly support them as they do.
Or inaction, silence, and going along with it will continue, as will the harm to the people around you.
Sources and Notes
Benjamin R. Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin, She Preached the Word, New York: Oxford University Press (2018). Pages 119 – 194 report the results of the study. Pages 195-218 provide Dr. Knoll and Ms. Bolin’s conclusions. Pages 219-235 describe further details of the study. The book is well done and dense with information, much more than is reported here and also on other, related topics.
The quotes in this article come from two articles by Dr. Knoll and Ms. Bolin based on their book and study: Benjamin R. Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin, “It’s good for girls to have women in the pulpit,” Religion News (July 17, 2018), visited November 24, 2018; Benjamin R. Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin, “Ten things to know about women’s ordination in the United States,” Oxford University Press Blog (June 2018), visited November 23, 2018.
For a discussion about relevant scripture, see Steve Gardner, “20 Scripture Passages Telling Women to Speak, Teach, Lead, and Have Authority Over Men in the Assembly and Elsewhere,”AuthenticTheology.com (September 3, 2018).
A discussion regarding the Church of Christ college chapels is here: Most colleges affiliated with Churches of Christ, recognizing that scripture does not bar it, no longer prohibit women from speaking in worship chapel.
A (incomplete) list of some of the Churches asking women to speak in the assembly is here. Links to scripture-study materials from some of the Churches of Christ explaining why scripture does not prohibit women from actively serving in the assembly, etc.:
- Glenwood Church
- Providence Road Church of Christ
- Sycamore View Church of Christ
- Springfield Church of Christ
- Oak Hills Church
- Fourth Avenue Church of Christ
- Southern Hills Church of Christ
- Meadowbrook Church of Christ
- “The Inclusion of Women in Worship: The Highland Church of Christ, Abilene, Texas”
Quotes and information from the “2018 Study” section, “Lower Self Esteem,” “Less Education,” “Higher Unemployment,” “Psychological …” and the “Long-Term Harm” sections: Benjamin R. Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin, “It’s good for girls to have women in the pulpit,” Religion News (July 17, 2018), visited November 24, 2018; except the two out of three (60.7%) statistic came from page 127 of She Preached the Word; and “Men … receive the same level …” came from page 135 of She Preached the Word.
“unemployment”: As it appears that the study’s survey sought employment information in this manner, this term is used in this article in the non-technical sense and is not limited to just those who meet the Department of Labor definition (seeking work recently, etc.). Here it includes those who are not employed whether or not they are seeking employment. Note on “Higher Unemployment” with this assumption: The study revealed 74% of men are employed full-time while 61% of women are employed full-time. She Preached the Word, page 135. This includes women of all ages, from young adult to elderly. See ibid., Data Appendix. This gap closes completely for women whose most influential religious leader growing up was female. Ibid., page 135. My observation is that given that women with children below school age make up only a small percentage of total U.S. adult women (of all ages) included in these numbers, it seems unlikely that any difference in the number of women with young children who decide not to work full-time while their children are below school-age (the study does not reveal if there is a difference in this between women who had all-male religious leaders and who had an influential female religious leader) accounts for a material part of the difference and that it is much more likely that the close of this gap is due to empowerment of the women via education, greater self-esteem, etc., since the “gap-close” data is for women of all ages and demographics, as a whole.
Note: “Women who said they never had a female religious leader growing up are … 30% less likely to ‘strongly’ agree” that they “‘have high self-esteem’” now as adults when “compared to women who had female clergy at least ‘some of the time.’ (In contrast, the same is not true for men. Men who had female congregational leaders frequently growing up have levels of self-esteem that are just as high as those who never had a female pastor or priest.)” Benjamin R. Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin, “It’s good for girls to have women in the pulpit,” Religion News (July 17, 2018), visited November 24, 2018.
“Men … receive the same level of education regardless of the gender of their most influential religious leader.” Ibid.
Quotes and Information from “Authoritarian …” sections: Benjamin R. Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin, “Ten things to know about women’s ordination in the United States,” Oxford University Press Blog (June 2018), visited November 23, 2018.
“U.S. Adults”: The study explains that its results are generalizable to 87% of the U.S. population, U.S. adults who attend religious services with some degree of frequency, even very low, excluding only those who said they “never” attend. She Preached, at 227.
Causation: The study authors explain: “[T]hese results held true even when controlling for a variety of other potential mitigating factors including demographics and individual/family socioeconomic background.” Benjamin R. Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin, “It’s good for girls to have women in the pulpit,” Religion News (July 17, 2018), visited November 24, 2018. How did the study control for self-selection in the form of a parent’s influence on their daughters’ self-esteem and the other factors noted (e.g., the affluence of and choices made by the parent), such that this is not simply correlation but not causation? The authors explain, “To perfectly assess this possibility would require running experiments in which we randomly assign children to parents and randomly assign families to congregations and then observe the levels of personal and economic empowerment that these children attain later as adults. While this is obviously impractical, we do our best to account for these alternative possibilities with the statistical controls described in the Data Appendix, which is a common approach in social science research. For example, we control for standard demographic indicators such as education and income. … [T]he two variables are highly correlated in contemporary American society …. The analyses of personal educational attainment and employment include controls for the level of education and employment status of the respondent’s mother during the respondent’s childhood, which correlates highly with gender ideology …. We can thus control to some extent for childhood socioeconomic context and parental gender ideology by using these proxy variables. … [We further control for the gender of the individual’s current religious congregational leader and whether the individual’s congregation allows for female congregational leaders. All in all, our various statistical controls significantly increase the likelihood that the relationships we describe here are due to the role model effect that we discuss and not simply a spurious case of correlation but not causation.” She Preached the Word, page 146, note 7.
“Long-Term Comparative Harm”: Note that the study is not asserting that the sex of a girl’s congregatinal leader is the sole cause of her future level of education, employment, etc., but is expressesing an observation that having only male congregational leaders comparatively worsens those future levels.
While the reported number of U.S. Churst of Christ congregations in which women actively serve in the assembly (speak, read scripture, serve communion, etc.) is growing, it is tiny, probably less than 90 and less than 1%.
Why are women absent from the roles mentioned? Sometimes, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, a passage referring to women being in submission and stating it is “disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” is cited, virtually always without explanation. (for an explanation why this passage does not have its plain meaning in many of the common English translations and does not prohibit women from speaking in the assembly, see here.)
Sometimes, 1 Timothy 2:11-15, a passage that also refers to women being in submission and referring to Eve, and not Adam, as the one who was deceived and became a sinner at the beginning of time, is cited, virtually always without explanation. (for an explanation why this passage does not have its plain meaning in many of the common English translations and does not prohibit women from speaking in the assembly, see here.)
Since the 2018 Study reports data across a wide range of U.S. religious traditions and the Churches of Christ are more restrictive than probably around 90% of U.S. Christianity relative to women’s participation in what many refer to as leadership roles—leading in the worship service (e.g., leading prayer, leading singing), being a deacon, etc.—it would be reasonable to hypothesize that the relative effect on girls’ self-esteem, view of God, full-time employment, education, etc., as an adult, is worse than the average reported by the study.
In other words, I suspect that many of the nearly two out of three U.S. adults who reported never having a female congregational leader (i.e., all male) growing up probably had preachers in mind and probably had more female congregational leadership before them (e.g., at least a song leader on occasion) than those growing up in Churches of Christ had and thus that the negative effect would be more pronounced. Again, this is a hypothesis on what the study’s data would have shown if these more detailed questions would have been asked. It would be interesting to see a study asking more detailed questions on this front.
The report asked “how often women served as the principal leader of their religious congregation” and whether the “most influential pastor, priest, rabbi, or other spiritual leader you had when you were growing up” was male or female. She Preached the Word, at 127-128. I also suspect that the hearers of the questions interpreted principal leader question as not including Sunday School or religious education teachers when they were young. In other words, a congregational leader is one of the leaders of the whole congregation—depending on the religious tradition, the preacher, a song leader, a Sunday morning worship leader, an elder, a rabbi, etc.—whereas a teacher leads their classroom, not the whole congregation. I suspect that such a thought sustained into the second question about “most influential spiritual leader.” I think back about which school teachers I think influenced me most growing up and none of them are elementary school teachers. In fact, they are all high-school teachers. I am sure experience on this differs. My understanding is that the vast majority of Churches of Christ do not allow women to teach middle school age or above.
This study by Dr. Knoll and Ms. Bolin appears to be the first of its kind.
Did We Need … ? For some discussion on the importance of role models for girls, see She Preached the Word, pages 123-129.
1 Tim 3:11 may refer to female deacons or deacons’ wives, it is ambigious, per Everett Ferguson and many others.
(re probably around 90% …. See, e.g., Steve Gardner, “David Lipscomb, Church of Christ Foundational Leader: ‘All the Teaching of the Bible is Against Women Speaking in Public’ (It Gets Worse),” AuthenticTheology.com (April 12, 2018) (discussing evangelical denominations in the main body and in the notes); Pew Research’s religious landscape study, http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/(includes percentages reflected by various denominations). It appears that, of the sizeable evangelical denominations, only three others (the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (1.1%), Presbyterian Church in America (0.4%), and Independent Baptist (2.5%)) are generally as restrictive as the general Church of Christ (1.5%) approach. Notes and sources regarding the larger evangelical denominations are in the David Lipscomb article cited above.).
Picture: By dotigabrielf, from Pixabay.
Updated: Changed “2018 study, which included data” to “2018 study’s results, which were based on data … and were for all types of congregations” to make it clearer that the study addressed religious congregations as a whole, not one particular denomination; fixed some typos and formatting; added end; clarifications; added some notes.
Also see Jennifer Hale Christy, “From Theology to Praxis: The Quest for the Full Inclusion of Women in Churches of Christ,” D. Min. Project (April 2015) (including descriptions of results from a survey and interviews of those involved with gender-inclusive Churches of Christ).