Why Are More Women Active in the
Christian Church Than Men?
Here in the UK we recently put together a fun little free book to promote the Very Short Introductions called Very Short Answers to Very Big Questions. In it, we asked some weighty questions like How modern is China? Is euthanasia murder? Is privacy a fundamental human right? Is globalization slowing down?
In the post below, I’ve reprinted the answer to the question ‘Why are more women active in the Christian Church than men?’. The answer comes from Linda Woodhead and her book Christianity: A Very Short Introduction.
Christianity has much to offer women. Women benefit in two ways: first, by the restraint that appeal to Christian values may place on the unbridled exercise of male power; and second, by the recognition and affirmation of the value of typically feminine roles, virtues, and dispositions.
Even though the New Testament contains no unambiguous endorsement of female equality, and certainly offers no support to female dominance, there are hints and glimmers of a ‘kingdom’ in which things could be different. Jesus not only ministers amongst and with women, he teaches that humility, poverty of spirit, and sincere devotion are more important than worldly power or priestly status. He speaks of a love whose exercise knows no limits or distinctions, a love which, as Paul puts it, ‘is patient and kind . . . not jealous or boastful . . . not arrogant or rude . . . does not insist on its own way . . . ’. Such a message could inspire and empower those whose daily work and care were often ascribed little economic or cultural, let alone spiritual, value.
Christianity could also offer women congenial social space. In theory at least, the church community is bound only by ties of love – love for one another and for the God whose Son gives His life for His church. The resonance with the ethos of the family is striking, and it is no coincidence that the image of the family should be so central to ecclesiastical self-understanding (the church as the ‘family of God’). Though this image could be used to reinforce the rule of fathers, it could also have profound significance for those whose daily lives were taken up with the unrewarded tasks of loving, caring, and sacrificing for others. Women with children have much to gain from an institution like the church that supports the family, exalts the domestic role, offers support and companionship in the task of rearing and educating children, and, once children have left home, can find other caring roles for women to perform. In any case, women seem more inclined than men to join a community for the good of community and relationship alone, irrespective of any other roles or privileges that membership might bring.
What is more, for much of Christian history the church has been the only public space that women have been allowed to occupy besides the home – certainly the only one that wives and daughters might be allowed to attend independent of husbands and fathers. The later medieval period saw a flourishing of female piety, still evident in the rich flowering of feminized art and sculpture that occurred at that time, in which images of female saints abound. Despite Protestantism’s hostility to such images, some post-Reformation churches offered women new opportunities for education, literacy, and even public ministry. In the 19th century, missionary work and charitable activities offered women an outlet for energies and ambitions that would otherwise have been frustrated. Though the avowed aim of (for example) female-led temperance movements might be to curb the consumption of alcohol, the deeper concern was often to bridle men and machismo – male spending, male sexuality, and male violence. Even though it could not be made explicit, such organizations sometimes harboured elements of a feminist agenda. Churchmen might have become worried about such activities, but it was hard to control women who claimed to be carrying out the injunctions of Christ. Though the scriptures had more often been used to justify male control of women, it was possible for the tables to be turned.
But even if Christianity can attract women by affirming feminine virtue and providing congenial social space and tools of resistance to masculine domination, does not its close association of masculinity and divinity have the opposite effect? Not necessarily. In fact, women may be more attracted to the worship of a male God and saviour than men, and the reason is not hard to see. If society encourages women to love, serve, obey, and even worship men, then it is not difficult to transfer such attitudes to a male God – or for devotion to a male God to reinforce such behaviours. Indeed, in so far as society reinforces heterosexuality, it is much more natural for a woman to offer intense, emotional devotion to a male deity than for a man to do the same. Whilst men may have no difficulty in bowing down before the power, majesty, and fatherly authority of God, they are less likely than women to ‘give their hearts to Jesus’ or enter into an intense, emotional relationship with him. ‘Brides of Christ’ would surrender to Christ the heavenly bridegroom and feel themselves melting into him. Such imagery is not confined to the past. In many Biblical and Charismatic Christian circles today women still engage in romance with Christ, and still affirm – to quote one Evangelical ‘bride’ – that ‘Jesus alone understands me, forgives me and loves me’.
Such erotic piety may have different social and personal implications. It may reinforce patriarchal norms and encourage women to accept forms of male domination to which they would not otherwise be willing to submit. It may offer women a means of coping with such domination, but prevent them from questioning the social order of which it is a part. Or it may equip them with an effective means of resisting male domination and constructing different social arrangements. In Catholicism, for example, ‘brides of Christ’ could – and still can – escape earthly marriage altogether by entering a convent where they gather with like-minded women and may attain considerable independence from men.
In the context of patriarchal societies, Christianity may therefore appeal to women because of its masculine bias, rather than in spite of it. Christianity may have much to offer women who wish to turn their backs on power and embrace the virtues of love, humility, powerlessness, and self-sacrifice. But it also has a considerable amount to offer those who want some share in such power. For if power is concentrated in a male God and His church, there is much more to be gained by joining it than by rejecting it. Not only could Christian women claim the protection of the Almighty Father God, they could also enter into a relationship with Him that was every bit as close and intense as that enjoyed by a man. By such means a handful of women in Christian history have claimed the right to do theology, to speak for themselves, even to command kings and popes; in the societies in which they lived it is hard to imagine any other route by which they could have done so.