Always Tension

Jim Henderson, the man with a lien on Hemant Mehta’s soul, has a new book coming out titled The Resignation of Eve. Like some of Henderson’s previous works, this book tries to understand the problems that evangelical Christianity faces from within. In this case, Henderson is interviewing women and finding out where their churches are failing them, and backing his findings with Barna Group surveys.

Lisa Miller talks about the book at the Washington Post:

Between 1991 and 2011, the number of adult women attending church weekly has declined 20 percent. The number of women going to Sunday school has dropped by about a third, as has the number of women who volunteer at church.

And although the Barna data have been disputed by other researchers, Henderson goes further. Even those women who go to church regularly, he says, are really only half there: Their discontent keeps them from engaging fully with the project of being Christian. He calls this malaise among women “a spiritual brain drain.”

This echos a theme we’ve been hearing for several years now. We’ve been told that people are no longer content with their family church. People are leaving in single numbers, and soon they will be leaving in droves.

But Felice Lifshitz at the University of Chicago Divinity School points out that these problems are as old as the Bible itself, and yet the patriarchy still remains.

The current wave of “resignations” fits squarely into a 2000-year-old tradition of tension over gender and spiritual authority; if proponents of patriarchal forms of religious organization do not feel particularly threatened by the alarm bells Henderson has rung for them, it is because historical precedent encourages complacency on their part. After all, their predecessors always managed to hold on to power. “The men of the right” have found, in every generation, a substantial number of Christian women who considered the limited roles and secondary status allotted to them to be quite comfortable. It is certainly easier to execute simple, circumscribed tasks such as meal preparation than to shoulder the responsibility for major policy decisions. But every generation has also witnessed rebellion and discontent.

I’m going to have to side with Lifshitz. Christianity has a history of offering Christian women half a loaf, and finding women who will be satisfied with that.

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  • vasaroti

    Women are “savvy shoppers.” Perhaps they’re just doing a cost/benefit analysis of the relentless demands on their time and money that churches put on them. They have other options for social interaction now, except perhaps in very small towns.

    • The Other Weirdo

      Women are not savvy shoppers. They are experienced shoppers, but that’s not the same thing as savvy.

      • vasaroti

        Savvy: Shrewd and knowledgeable in the realities of life.

        If you don’t think that the women who make countless financial and time management decisions in the course of managing a home, child care, etc., etc are not shrewd and knowledgeable, you really need to get out more.

        I’ve got a lot of respect for “church ladies,” even though I despise the meanness of their religion. They accomplish a hell of a lot with limited resources. That’s why I’m so excited that the “war on women” gives secularists a chance to reconnect with this big pool of energy and talent. Let’s not blow it by being disrespectful.

  • UrsaMinor

    If somebody wants to be a house-spouse, man or woman, I don’t have a problem with that. It’s a personal decision. Life , liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and all that. I’m not qualified to define what you should be happy with.

    It’s when you are not given liberty to pursue happiness, but are expected to conform to a supposedly one-size-fits-all predetermined archetype, that I have a problem.

    Women are probably leaving the church for this reason. Sure, some of them are content to be housewives. It may be their idea of the perfect life. But a lot of them aren’t content with that role, and they shouldn’t feel forced into it if it doesn’t suit them. If the church isn’t flexible enough to accommodate them, then the church is going to lose women.

  • Yoav

    I think Lifshitz ignores a significant difference between the present and the past, sure there will always be women (and men) who will be happy with a secondary position and reduced responsibility. However, unlike the past, where women were reduced to subservient position in all aspects of life so the church was just one more place where all they could do was clean and prepare meals modern women live in a society that in general accepted the fact that men and women are equally capable so in contrast the discrimination in the church stand out for anyone to see.

    • Schaden Freud

      I agree. Women of previous generations simply didn’t have the choices modern women have. I also think modern women’s access to contraceptives is important here. In the past, biology really did dictate people’s roles in life to a significant degree, but these days there’s no reason this has to be the case.

      • kholdom0790

        Can I get a hallelujah for contraception!

    • vasaroti

      agreed. Men have more freedom, too, including the freedom to leave your family. In my experience, I’ve seen that churches do a lousy job of stepping up to help divorced women and single moms, so that might be one more reason why women are stepping back .

      • Len

        I wonder whether that’s because they still see divorced women and single moms pretty much as an abomination.

  • Bill

    “Christianity has a history of offering Christian women half a loaf, and finding women who will be satisfied with that.”

    I have a hard time seeing modern American women fitting in the same mold as women of 50, 100, or 500 years ago.

    • ftsor

      I don’t know, there seem to be a significant number in groups like the Quiverfull movement, stricter Seventh Day Adventists, evangelical fundamentalists, and even Mormons. I know I was surprised by how (relatively) common it is.

    • Julie42

      Well I think it’s very rare for any church to actually insist that a woman must stay at home. It’s fine for them to have a career and be independent, but there is the strong feeling that she’s not supposed to have too much power, especially in a relationship.

      Typical sermons I heard wouldn’t necessarily say that a man was in charge of his wife, but they would emphasize that he is the head of the household and that’s God’s role for his life, so if you don’t like your husband’s authority, you’re not respecting what God wants for him…

      I just remember that when I got a boyfriend, my youth group leader would ask me who wears the pants in the relationship and he didn’t seem to understand that it was offensive. And I remember hearing from a female youth group leader that she had always wanted a relationship where the male is the “spiritual leader.” It leaves no place for a woman who feels confident in who she is and feels perfectly adequate to make decisions and debate something she disagrees with (you know, masculine stuff).

      No one would ever outright say that men should be in charge; you could just sense it through little comments. And if you disagree, you’re not listening to God and you haven’t found the role he has for you as a woman. Every time I hear my mom’s Christian radio talking about the wonderful things God wants women to do, it basically comes down to us being kind, compassionate, graceful, etc, so we can show God’s love to others in the way we act. There’s no place for a woman who doesn’t have that kind of personality.

  • Ken

    I am always amazed at the disconnect women can sustain in church. Week after week listening to accusations of triggering the fall of humanity (and the whole planet, for that matter) and how they are responsible for their own pain of childbirth — and they keep coming back for more abuse.

    It’s sad, but there are still far too many apparently capable ladies who abdicate their intelligence, their sexuality, their sense of humor, their Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, even their preferences to restaurants in deference to male authoritarian concepts that were never true to begin with. I know there are cultural issues separate from the religious issues, but returning to churches for comfort and affirmation is less and less tenable every day. Hopefully, time will whittle away these antediluvian remnants of patriarchy through death and youthful questioning of authority, but I’m afraid it will never go away completely.
    Too many women, and men, want daddy to take care of them, even if he abandoned them long ago — they are orphans in denial. Fortunately, they are relatively harmless. Annoying, but as unimportant as they want to be.

    • Noelle

      And yet many churches have women pastors and women in real leadership positions. How does that fit in? Are they also blind to abuse?

      • Len

        Perhaps they’re not real pastors ™, or maybe not real churches ™. Maybe not even real women ™.

        I think I need a real ale.

        • kholdom0790


        • Noelle

          cold or saddle temp?

      • Ken

        I’d have to say yes, they are willfully deluding themselves to fit into an antagonistic ideology. They can either skip the troublesome parts or find some esoteric alternate reality excuses to explain what the the Bible “really” meant, as opposed to the simple statements of Paul that women should shut up and sit in the back of the church. I’ve heard plenty of “what the Bible really means, as opposed to what it says” sermons, several of them from women pastors. Same crap excuses to avoid the reality of a hopelessly flawed and biased book.

        Just because women have moved into more prominent church positions over the last 100 years doesn’t mean the Bible has somehow morphed into a more liberal document, or that such feminazi intrusions are in any way consonant with scriptural doctrine. Contemporary concepts are not retroactive to the 2nd century.

        • Noelle

          I’m smiling at the image of my old high school and college friends who are now pastors as feminazi’s. Unfortunately, there are no female pastors on here to argue with you directly. A pity really.

          I would argue that because god is made up, then so is religion. If the new time religion says to chuck to sexism of the past, then good for them. Absolutely Christianity may be retooled from its beginnings. It’s been adapted all along. The new testament wasn’t even written until the main characters were long dead. It was always a human interpretation based on the politics and belief structure of its time. The various denominations and sects are creations of their own times as well. If women decide to create their own version, who’s to say they can’t? The Bible? Been cherry-picking that thing since before it was even put together. You can pull out some girl-power verses if that’s what you’re looking for.

          You know, church work isn’t the only field once ripe with misogyny that has been transformed in modern times. Psychology was once very horrible in its views toward women. Freud was notoriously sexist. But now there are more women than men psychologists. Somewhere along the line, views changed and so did the field. My own profession was long dominated by men and considered dangerously paternalistic. But that changed. My med school class was 60% women in the late 90s, though we were ahead of the curve. The last numbers I saw nationwide were 50/50. In other countries, such as the UK and Canada, women already outnumber the men. Why would we go into such a misogynistic and paternalistic field unless we had real conviction we were equally part of creating something better? I don’t see women religious leaders as doing anything a whole lot different.

          • Kodie

            Although there seems to be no absolute Christianity, it’s kind of nutso (from my perspective) to keep clinging to it and finding novel ways to force it to agree with whatever you want to be true. Cherry-picking annoys me. I don’t exactly have a problem with women preachers (as some Christians would), but really just the way Christianity manages to persist despite logic, and the ways people are willing to ignore logic in order to uphold it.

            • Noelle

              I’ll agree with that.

    • Julie42

      Well I think the main thing is that a lot of women were raised to believe all this. I was taught this sort of stuff as just the way things are and there was no debate about it since it’s written right there in the bible. If I disagreed with that, I would be disagreeing with God…

      It’s troubling to a lot of women, I think, but they learn that sort of thing when they’re children. When they grow up, it still bothers them but they deal with it by remembering that God knows what he’s doing and that things might seem unfair to them, but God has a plan for your life, blah, blah, blah. If you disagree, you’re not accepting God’s plan for you as a Christian woman.

      It’s all about guilt in the end. And that works much better for women that grew up learning how to feel guilty about who they are all the time. There’s still quite a few of us that realize one day that enough is enough.

      • Kodie

        It’s not like it doesn’t bleed into the culture. Women who are raised as girls in our culture are predominantly bombarded with the ideal of snagging a husband. A wedding is the happiest day of her life. All the customary rituals involved in a wedding regard her as property even if she rationally disagrees with them, it’s still the tradition. Advertisements and tv shows still regard a man’s domestic happiness as the woman’s responsibility – to feed him what he wants, and alternately, put the man down when he tries to enter her sphere of expertise or attempts to share some of those responsibilities (if he does at all). Culture regards a single woman of a certain age as a failure, a reject, needy/spinster/cat lady, unwanted by any man, and not her own person. Religion puts these items in a book, but culture reflects it regardless of the strength or presence or flavor of one’s religious beliefs.

        I’m not saying it’s not different for some people, but it’s just so common a mindset.

        • Ken

          Isn’t our culture essentially structured around religious “traditions?” It’s just the result of 2000 years of domination by church fathers in western society, and it’s not going to go away soon, or without a struggle. I still open doors for my wife — an archaic activity for an archaic institution — so my cultural indoctrination is intact. And she thinks it is immoral for unmarried couples to live together, while I honestly consider kinda smart and none of my goddamn business — so the culture does change, slowly and spasmodically, but always with conflict somewhere.

          • Kodie

            I feel like the church came after the culture, but not our culture. I mean a long time ago, religions tried to determine our observable roles as by a god and not from ourselves, like they do morality, etc. They tend to object to modern cultural changes like birth control, feminism, and anything that conflicts with their rigid morality (like homosexuality). It’s weird to me that this rigidity attempts to overcome our animal-ness (fallen-ness), while also settling our culture in a time more primitive than now. Getting married young and treating women like property to ensure lineage acknowledges the biological sexual urge to procreate ourselves in a time when childbirth was a more inevitable consequence. You know, like animals. Put a blessing on it, and it transforms into something holy. Fast-forward to a time when we can prevent pregnancies (if people use it, and to use it, have to be informed of it), in an environment where it is optimal to at least finish high school before “mating for life,” if not a lot later (emotionally), and it tries to deny biological sexuality.

            • Itarion

              Yeah, it seems like it’s a different thing, but it’s not really. “Blessing” one form of procreation doesn’t by necessity acknowledge the inherent biological drive involved, because there was the same sense of disdain for people who “succumbed to” the drive without the blessing of marriage. That is exactly what is going on now with anti-contraceptive, abstinence or similar movements. Those movements serve as a form of condemnation for people who “give in” to the drive.
              The fact that the rigid morality originated to overcome base animalism has been – or appears to have been – lost. In fact, I think it’s possible that the rigidity is even very animalish itself, bringing a herd (or perhaps a flock) mentality. Personal rigidity is perhaps the best method to rise above the baser impulses, but these impulses do not need to be repressed, and really need to remain unrepressed. Basic impulses should embraced when they are the best response, but at the same time should not be the first response to a given situation.

            • Kodie

              I was speaking more to normality of marrying very young, and being prepared to take on that role as there were no other roles to take, vs. now, the cultural persuasion toward that role even outside of religious beliefs. Within religious beliefs, rather than have sex at the age when it becomes interesting, limit the education of such (birth control, etc.), as if the education is where the knowledge of sex comes from. It forces a delay in nature which coincides with modern culture, marrying at a more mature emotional age, with less preparation for the responsibility of it. Although in a “quiverful” sort of family, the older children are prepared on the younger children, and the younger children are probably prepared on their nieces and nephews. That’s not the worst way, but it does preclude the other options in life.

            • Itarion

              So it is about the fact that there was no other way to go in prior times, but now that there is, there is still a definite push towards marrying young?
              And rather than trying to have people gain knowledge by experience – which can now be done with (arguably) fewer negative or long duration aftereffects – religious institutions attempt to limit knowledge to a dry, textbook-y, and boring education?

  • Ken

    We live with a lot of mutually contrary ideals, and the church certainly contributes to the insanity. Things like contemporary marriage bear no resemblance to the earliest Christian version, which involved early-teen brides, dowries, family arrangements for financial or political gain, and bloody sheets. I don’t think it mentions anywhere that Joseph loved Mary — it wasn’t relevant. Today, many parents want to postpone their children’s marriage until after college, expecting their kids to just say no to sex for a decade or more, just when their hormones are raging hottest — talk about a spiritual disconnect with reality.

    We also live in a child-centric society, where a lot of ecclesiastic pontificating is done “to protect the children.” Really, who could find fault with invoking God’s love for such a noble purpose? Yet if you look at many living quarters before 1900, they are small with very few rooms and no running water. Some before 1800 are so tiny that it is apparent many families with 7 and 8 kids were conceived in just one communal sleeping room — but you won’t hear grandma talking about that. Nor about the much higher incidence of God-inflicted abortions through miscarriages, which heathen science has intervened to subvert/fulfill God’s plans. Teen pregnancy only became a problem in the 20th century: before that, it was the norm. I recall Nova did a report on the Puritans that showed over 50% of the marriages resulted in children delivered significantly less than 9 months later. The church, and our culture, would prefer to keep the door to the past safely closed, for demons lurk there, and they don’t want questions, just obedience, and education is to be carefully circumscribed (or circumcised). “But what the Bible really means” is a convenient mantra to excuse, deflect and dismiss any number of inconvenient cultural practices that have changed in 2000 years, while still claiming immutability, infallibility and inerrancy.

  • Rachel

    FYI: Though her piece was published on the U of C Div. School site, Lifshitz is not from there. She is a professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where I know her.