A study published by Oxford University Press indicates that a Church of Christ practice—having only male congregational leaders—causes long-term harm to the girls in the congregation.
I recently published an article describing the study, which reported that adult women who had only male congregational leaders growing up had, as an effect, (1) lower self-esteem (associated with more depression and anxiety), (2) less education, (3) higher unemployment, and (4) more of an authoritarian and judgmental view of God (associated with negative psychological health), on average, than men and than women who had influential female congregational leaders growing up.
The Churches of Christ denomination is on the extreme end of male congregational leadership—women are generally barred from reading scripture, leading singing or prayer, assisting at the communion table, or preaching in the worship assembly and from teaching adult (and even middle and high school) Sunday School, for example. 90%+ of Christianity is less restrictive.
Some Church of Christ readers objected to the study and others said they experienced what the study reported.
This article briefly describes the seven most frequent reader objections and my thoughts on them, beginning with the most disturbing one.
1. “While the Bible might not prohibit women from speaking in the assembly, some people in our church might get upset and leave if women speak, so let’s keep things as they are.”
One, you will cause harm to and discriminate against girls in your congregation to keep some adults happy?
Please repeat that to yourself a couple of times slowly. You will cause harm to girls in your congregation and discriminate against those girls to keep some adults happy. You will harm girls to keep some adults happy.
Now go let each of your friends in the congregation know you will harm their daughters and discriminate against those girls to not risk attendance going down.
Now go look those girls in the eye and tell them.
Two, you are willing to block what God asks? Not only does God not prohibit women from speaking in the assembly, God asks women to speak and teach, in the assembly and elsewhere. There are 20+ scripture passages set out here that do so.
Also, Jesus said “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ … ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)
Prohibiting women and girls from fully serving in the assembly blocks them from what God asks them to do. Prohibiting her blocks her from loving—worshiping—the Lord her God with all her heart and with all her soul and with all her mind, as Christ asks her to do. And it blocks her from fully loving her neighbors—her congregation—in the assembly as herself.
Prohibiting her is immoral and a sin.
Prohibiting her from speaking to keep happy some adults who might leave is sacrificing the spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being of your daughters and granddaughters and those of people you call friend for the presence of a few adults who should be looking out for those girls. You should be looking out for those girls.
Holding on to such a tradition even one more day cannot be justified.
Recall Jesus calling Pharisees hypocrites for saying they honor God while following human traditions instead. Jesus told them, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! … [Y]ou nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.” (Mark 7:1-13) How is what you are doing any different from what Christ called hypocritical and nullifying the word of God?
Be brave. Lead. Speak up. If those adults you are worried about are people of good-will and place value on scripture, then they will want to do the right thing and you will be able to show them it is appropriate and they should stay.
Don’t wait. There is no better day to right a wrong than today. And silence and delay simply keeps blocking what God asks and causes more harm to the daughters and granddaughters of the congregation every Sunday. This Sunday.
2. “If we allow women to speak, there will be little to distinguish us from the denominations.”
Our distinguishing factor is we discriminate against and harm our daughters and the daughters of our friends?
(“If we stop sacrificing our virgin daughters in the volcano, there will be little to distinguish us from the other tribes.”)
If you want to make our distinguishing factor that we carefully follow scripture, then you ought to demand that we allow women to speak in the assembly as loads of scripture asks women to speak, lead, and teach, in the assembly and elsewhere.
Much better distinguishing factors are that we follow the whole scripture; we are not too proud to acknowledge we were wrong; and we lift up our daughters and granddaughters and our wives and all the women and girls in our church in their service to God and others.
3. “Women in our congregation aren’t asking for change, so we should not change.”
To put a burden on the people who are being discriminated against and to expect a woman in the congregation to come forward and risk being perceived as “demanding” for herself, “wanting the spot-light,” “seeking attention,” or “the one who wants to chase people away for her own wants” is unrealistic, outrageous, and unfair.
4. “I do not feel discriminated against. I don’t want to speak in the assembly anyway.”
You and the girls and women around you, including your daughters and those of your friends, are barred from doing major things while males are not whether you feel for yourself or them or not. It is textbook sex discrimination. Some perceive it as mandated or excused by scripture but it is sex discrimination nevertheless.
That some do not want to speak is not surprising since speaking in front of people is one of life’s top fears—and since women were discriminated against as children in such churches, many were never encouraged or trained to speak, unlike their youth-group male friends. Many women were trained as a child that God forbids them from speaking, whether they remember the specific training or not.
And a common coping mechanism is to tell yourself that you do not want or need what is kept from you and to avoid thinking about what could have been.
5. “I know Churches of Christ women and neither they nor I were negatively impacted.”
First, how do you know that neither they nor you were negatively impacted? Just because one attained a level of success does not mean one was not negatively impacted. It seems obvious that having women congregational leaders during a girl’s youth might have shown her some possibilities and inspired her in ways you cannot know.
Second, selfishness permeates this kind of “I wasn’t” comment. A focus on “my” self-esteem and the impact on “me” and “I do not feel” and “there are other things for women to do,” display a lack of care for other women and girls. Can you see that others have been and are negatively impacted?
6. “Scripture bars women from speaking in church.”
When did you study those passages in-depth, including closely considering reasons why they do not bar women from a source besides someone trying to justify barring women? When did you ask someone who views the scripture as not barring women about the reasons you think scripture does bar women?
The answer from 99%+ of Church of Christ members has been either they never have or silence. You are comfortable doing this to your daughters and other girls and women on that basis?
When one studies these passages and the rest of the Bible in context, it is clear that not only does scripture not bar women from speaking, but God asks women to speak and teach, in the assembly and elsewhere. This is why Churches of Christ who have actually studied the scripture on the issue, rather than simply relying on tradition or trying to justify what they do, have changed to not bar women from speaking in the assembly (see below).
And if such a practice harms young girls for the long-term, doesn’t that suggest your interpretation of the scripture is wrong? Doesn’t that suggest you and your congregation ought to take a hard look at this immediately?
7. “Girls spend only a few hours a week at church, so this practice would not have that much impact on their self-esteem or life. Her home life and what her parents teach her are what really matters.”
What would you say to a girl whose trusted coach abuses her for an hour a week but others in her life treat her well?
What if he abuses her every single Sunday?
For years and years and years and years?
What if her assistant coach, her coach’s wife, her assistant coach’s wife, the scorekeeper, the trainer, the other assistant coaches, their wives, the parents and grandparents of her teammates, …
… all know about it but go along with it, not speaking up or doing anything about it, even though they know it was wrong, should know, or have that nagging feeling …. ?
What if those folks, by their actions and failure to say anything different for all those years, indicate the abuse is the way God wants it to be?
You would say to the girl whose trusted coach abuses her weekly—and whose trusted extended family goes along with it and implicitly teaches her it is right and God-ordained—that the one hour of abuse a week should not have much of an impact on her life and self-esteem?
What, exactly, is worth harming these girls even one more day?
It is way past time for this prohibition to end.
You can ask your elders and congregation to reconsider today, and you can visibly support them as they do. Your inaction, silence, and going along with it harms people around you, in many cases the people closest to you, and blocks people from what God asks them to do.
For a discussion of 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).
If you have any question about scripture on this issue, message me and I will respond.
Links to scripture-study materials from some Churches of Christ explaining why scripture does not prohibit women from speaking in the assembly, etc.:
- Sycamore View Church of Christ
- Springfield Church of Christ
- Providence Road Church of Christ
- Southern Hills Church of Christ
- Glenwood Church
- Oak Hills Church
- Fourth Avenue Church of Christ
- Meadowbrook Church of Christ
- Highland Church of Christ
Way past time.
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Part 1 and notes on sources: Steve Gardner, “Church of Christ Practice Harms Girls Long-Term, Suggests 2018 Study,” AuthenticTheology.com (November 28, 2018).
Part 1 noted the Churches of Christ denomination is on the extreme end of male congregational leadership—women are generally barred from reading scripture, leading singing or prayer, assisting at the communion table, or preaching in the worship assembly and from teaching adult (and even middle and high school) Sunday School. (Update: Included this in the main text and moved the 90%+ indicate to accompany it for clarity.)
The study: Benjamin R. Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin, She Preached the Word, New York: Oxford University Press (2018).
Quotes 1-7 are paraphrases and combinations of multiple, similar comments.
Again, if you are wrestling with any question at all on this issue, you can contact me with it via comments here or via my contact information, anonymously if you want, and I will respond.
Picture by Greyer Baby. https://pixabay.com/en/users/greyerbaby-2323/