Comparing Men and Women

One of the more commonly observed statistics about American church attendance is that church is more for women than men. That is, more women attend than do men. Some draw the conclusion that the church is too oriented toward women, though I find this an odd argument. Others draw the conclusion that women are more religious than men, which strikes me as sexism. Still, comparisons will be made between men and women when it comes to religion.

We find it already in the Gospel of Luke, and Michael Chung has an exceptionally-clear sketch of how Luke compares Zechariah and Simeon to Mary and Anna. The piece is in Priscilla Papers (27/3, summer 2013, pp. 24-27). [At least one in Michael’s family wears appropriate gear.]

Luke opens his Gospel (remember, big “G” means a book and little “g” means the message) by sketching the piety of Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-25), proud parents of John Baptist. What comes off though is a story of Zechariah’s splendid status as priest and wonderful opportunity to serve in the temple all messed up by his lack of faith when the angel declares the plan of God. Then we get Mary, whose status is low (young, woman, non-priestly) who responds with amazing and glorious faith to the angel’s words about God’s plans. Zechariah and Elizabeth, as Chung observes, are like Abraham and Sarah — Abraham acts in faith, Sarah laughs. Zechariah should have been “favored” but it was Mary who was favored (Luke 1:26-38).

Yes, perhaps Chung is seeing too much. But once we factor in all the passages in Luke that highlight the faith and piety of women we are led to conclude what he does with confidence: Luke wants to dramatize the faith of Mary over against the lack of faith of Zechariah. Cf. Luke 2:21-40; 7:11-17; 7:36-50; 8:1-3; 10:38-42; 13:10-17; 18:1-10; 23:50–24:53.

Then comes Simeon and Anna in Luke 2:22-40, a narrative rich in beauty and evocative of character. Anna reminds of Hannah and evokes the marginalized who has faith. The stories of Simeon and Anna are told together as were the stories of Zechariah and Mary … they are meant to be read as comparisons.

Anna is a prophet (I don’t like added “ess” since it will work against the powerful claim of being endowed with words from God) but Simeon is not called that, though he is described in similar terms to a prophet. Here we have a woman in the temple doing the work of God.

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  • Westcoastlife

    Wow, good insight. I also just realized that John the Baptist, son of a high priest, would have been the leader the crowds would have anticipated as the future Messiah, yet God chose to send Jesus to Mary’s womb, so he did not have a priestly lineage.

  • Amanda B.

    I wonder if, in some ways, the gender gap in church may be a manifestation of “it is hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom” (Matt 19:23). U.S. culture still has a residue of ingrained misogyny, and we have roughly a 60-40 split of women to men in the church. In nations which have a strongly expressed “macho” culture, such as many South American countries, the gender split is much more pronounced.

    So in cultures where men are more honored, more respected, and more powerful than women (which includes most, if not all of them, to varying degrees), I wonder if men run into the same issue faced by the rich young ruler. They have more at stake. There is more to lose in becoming a bondservant. It is easier to rely on your own power, smarts, wealth, etc.

    The fact that this is a struggle, then, has nothing to do with men’s inherent capacity for virtue, but everything to do with their humanity. It’s always hard to lose status. It’s always hard to lay down things that you have been raised to believe are yours by right. If a true matriarchy were to exist, it wouldn’t surprise me to see women being more reluctant than men about the gospel there.

    This would then tie in to the point in this article about contrasting Zechariah and Mary–Zechariah was an elder, a male, honored priest, and Mary seems to be a young, female nobody.

    Of course, this would have zero bearing on any given individual man or woman coming into the faith. But I wonder if it might explain some of the gender-wide trends that people try to explain by a stretched idea of intrinsic, gendered “hard-wiring”.

  • scotmcknight

    Amanda, this is thoughtful … and worthy of more reflection.

  • danaames

    Well, Elizabeth is described both as Mary’s kinswoman (Luke 1.36) and as of the Aaronic line (Luke 1.5). So it seems some intermarriage between the Davidic and the Aaronic lines had taken place. It would make sense that Mary was descended from both, so that Jesus would be descended from both. There was probably enough intermarrying going on that Mary would not necessarily have been exceptional in this, but living in Galilee when the angel came to her, she would not have been in the thick of the priestly society, either. She was hidden…


  • Tim Atwater

    Good points.
    Though — Technically Abe laughed first (Gen 17:17)

  • Marshall

    Reading Luke 2 today I was struck by Simeon: “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many … and for a sign that is spoken against [anti-lego]”. Which led me a chase through my concordance (Luke 20:27; John 19:12; Acts 13:45; Rom 10:21). Maybe the ‘masculine’ side of this opposition is “cast down and lifted up”, which is distinctly different from the ‘feminine’ passive acceptance. Guys/people these days generally don’t have a clue what it means to fight and loose gracefully, so could be that’s the problem in church? … not at all the same as pacifism/non-resistance … made lame (Gen 32:25) vs. “a sword through the heart”. Just different paths, a choice? Feathers or lead? I want to think more about the role of opposition in God’s Plan.

    Looking back to Zechariah, the angel did literally oppose his speech, which actually was a strong testimony that I imagine was very convincing to himself and his peers. It doesn’t seem right to say that his “opportunity to serve … was all messed up.” After all as with Sara, the promise of a child was fulfilled.

    (… I see Larry Hurtado calls MML&J “Jesus books”, in particular the canonical Jesus books: probably more descriptive but sadly will never be popular.)

  • Mark Pixley

    Love this perspective Scott, thanks for it. I find it odd that a lot of evangelical groups that espouse women in power see very little long term influence after the fact (Four Square/Aimee Semple McPherson comes to mind, why have they never elected a woman President since she started it almost 90 years ago?). Also love dropping the “ess” idea…

  • Tom F.

    I think the general principle of “having more” and “rich young ruler” is likely true.

    There may also be other trends too. For example, you could test this theory by seeing if low-status (socially, economically, however) men are more likely to come to church than high status men. I think low-status men are probably least likely to come to church.

    For example, this study suggests that attendance patterns seem to be moving in the direction of *higher* status, not lower status.

    It may be that both your observation and this data here are consistent. It could simply be that churches are increasingly not low-status but high-status places, where social comparison and an emphasis on middle-class respectability and value push out those of lower status.

  • If that were true you would expect to see a re-balancing of church attendance in more gender equal societies, but in Scandinavia (the most gender equal of them all) the same split remains…even as church attendance has a whole has reduced dramatically

  • Kent Anderson

    Okay, may be I am tired or just naturally fuzzy headed, but I am not sure your intentions are for this post? Maybe it is that the first paragraph and the remainder of the post don’t connect for me. Personally I believe the biblical record is clear that all people are valued in the kingdom and its work. Women and men. But I am still a little unsure what it is you are trying to get across. Thanks.

  • scotmcknight

    One thing is for sure, brother, and that is the fuzzy headed confession… Kent, it’s about valuing women by the Gospel of Luke — Luke values women in subtle ways, seen here in the comparisons at the literary level.

  • Thursday1

    which strikes me as sexism.

    Who cares? The question to ask is “Is it true?”

  • Dianne P

    Definitely agree that Amanda’s post deserves more reflection. I have a few random thoughts….
    Religion is more male dominated where religion follows power.
    To the extent that social/political power equates to or derives from religious power, those cultures demonstrate higher male involvement in religion/church. I’m thinking of Muslim and orthodox Jewish cultures.
    Where religion plays little or no role in public power and life, you would not see the gender effect. That would explain the lack of increased religious participation by men in Scandinavian cultures where religion has no influence in political/public life.

    Conversely, those with less political and economic power are more drawn to the topside-down message of Jesus. I think of women, Latin churches, and African-American churches.
    Just anecdotally, fwiw, I see more high powered male attendance in evangelical non-denom churches, where church involvement equates to the religious right and political influence. And where the church is run by males (pastors, elders, deacons, committees), and women are marginalized to women’s groups and children. Contrast this to Catholic churches, where there is less of a political component intertwined with the church, and proportionally higher female attendance. Yes, they’re headed by male priests, but generally little or no prohibition in women in any other roles. Again, just my own very limited personal observation.

    Religious instruction is often thought to be important for a child’s development, and child development more often falls to the woman.
    Families often want to indoctrinate their children into the faith, sometimes regardless of whether or not the adults closely adhere to that faith. I’m thinking of the adults who drop off their children for Sunday school or CCD while not attending services themselves. In the case of educating or nurturing children, it’s more commonly the woman’s responsibility. As she involves herself in the children’s faith development, she becomes more drawn into the church herself.

    I’ll end with another personal observation…as a woman, I just think that the message of Jesus is very appealing to women.

  • Amanda B.

    I don’t think this is the only factor, not by a long way. There are a couple thousand years of history that weigh into this as well. But it seems to me like it still might factor into an overall explanation of the gender imbalance. And the reason I favor it is because it neither casts men as being innately unspiritual, nor women as making the church too “feminized”, but considers societal factors in light of Jesus’ actual words about who will find it hardest to enter the Kingdom.