“They may be misplaced, forgotten, or misdirected, but in the heart of every man is a desperate desire for a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue.” – John Eldredge,
In recent times, contemporary evangelicalism has witnessed serious tensions within its ranks on the gender front. These tensions are numerous and complex, but usually have to do with whether women can serve in positions of leadership as pastors, ministers, elders, or executive board members. The issue of women in leadership is fiercely debated by progressives and fundamentalists, and often hinges on academic disputes about the “correct” way to interpret scripture. Others have suggested that the desire for gender parity at the leadership level is simply a manifestation of a larger “problem” in which the advent of feminism is responsible for Christianity’s “feminization,” and some writers have accused the church of becoming effeminate. There have been a number of books published that lament the apparent effeminacy of contemporary evangelicalism, such as Dave Murrow’s Why Men Hate Going to Church. According to Murrow’s logic, the increased number of women in congregations produces an effeminate church culture that ultimately leads to the marginalization of male members, and, in the end, it is men who become the victim of their own neglect and disinterest. Murrow provides a visual of this process, so as to maximize his reader’s rage as they consider his argument:
Though this text does not represent every evangelical’s views on women, men, and church culture, it has attracted significant recognition: Murrow’s book is especially popular among men according to a recent Biola article, and it has received attention in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Perhaps most concerning is that these simplistic views of gender have not been subjected to sustained scrutiny by the evangelical community, and one wonders if the reluctance of moderates and progressives to seriously confront this backlash masculinity movement—which relies on overtly anti-feminist language—betrays some underlying sympathy for its claims.
A survey of the books, blog posts, and news articles that tackle this topic usually do so from two different angles: attention is paid to actual statistics which show that women generally outnumber male churchgoers within evangelical and mainline Protestant denominations. These statistics are then used to argue that the greater proportion of women in churches is the root cause of effeminate styles of worship and preaching. Too often, Christian writers and commentators assume (or do not question) an equivalency between femininity and the female; therefore, the mere presence of female bodies within a church’s congregation is believed to engender an effeminate style of Christianity. Evangelicalism’s enduring phobia of “liberal” feminism is largely to blame, and has made its members ignorant of even the most innocuous principles of basic gender theory: namely, that there is a distinction between biological sex and gender identity, that humans are responsible for creating culturally contingent gender roles (not God), and that both men and women hardly ever conform completely to their prescribed roles. It was Darlene Zschech who wrote the classic contemporary worship song “Jesus Lover of my Soul”—a type of “intimate relationship” song that hyper-masculine pastoral figures like Mark Driscoll would consider emblematic of effeminate Christianity. But Zschech also wrote “Shout to the Lord,” a powerful spiritual anthem that triumphantly declares the “power and majesty” of God, and in a language reminiscent of St. Francis’s The Canticle of the Creatures, she sings about mountains that bow and seas that roar in worship of their Creator.
Frankly, these men are deluded if they think that love, emotion, and a relational expression of spirituality is only appealing to women and “dudes that are still sort of chicks,” as Driscoll puts it. And it is noteworthy that men themselves have expressed their dissatisfaction with this caricatured version of masculinity. After all, it was none other than the apostle Paul himself who laid the theological groundwork for understanding Christ’s crucifixion as an act of divine love for humanity. The fact is, most people exist in the space between the binary of hyper-femininity and hyper-masculinity, hyperbolic and artificial as each is. An attack on so-called effeminate expressions of worship and conduct is a personal attack on men who do not conform to the stereotypical ideals of the aggressive alpha male, men who are emotional, sensitive, intuitive, artistic or any other characteristic deemed less-than-masculine. And it is an insult to women who possess dominant personalities or rigorous intellects or entrepreneurial instincts to automatically associate them with a narrowly defined version of femininity, simply on the basis of their anatomy. The problem with feminization rhetoric is therefore twofold: so-called feminine attributes are not always reflective of the real personalities of women, and once we interrogate the stereotypical ideas of what we deem feminine and masculine, we see there is no justifiable reason to assume that the human qualities we unthinkingly associate with “effeminacy” are exclusive to women in the first place. And placing the blame, however gently or indirectly, on women for the perceived apathy and lifelessness within church communities is especially shameful.
The notion that a strong female presence in a church culture threatens or suppresses Christian men’s masculinity is not a new one. David Setran has written of a similar crisis at the turn of the 20th century in which young Protestant boys were perceived as effeminate. But while Setran rightly qualifies this phenomenon as a perception among certain Protestant clergy members, popular works like Murrow’s buy right into it, and claim that the feminization of Christianity is not only real but dangerous to the spiritual equilibrium of a congregation. Indeed, he states that the very health of a congregation as a whole is compromised by the presence of too many women. This would, bizarrely, imply that the spirituality of women themselves is negatively affected by a surplus women in church. Murrow’s sweeping assertions hinge on the real gender gap that exists within many denominations, both mainline and evangelical, but it is his failure to distinguish between the female / feminine which forces him to conclude that the more female bodies there are in a church, the chance is greater that its culture will display a certain “softness.” This conflation is problematic for the aforementioned reasons, but there is also a value judgement implicit here: softness produces passivity, and passivity is anathema to spiritual flourishing (one wonders at the contradiction of denouncing the culture of passivity that women engender, even while standard complimentarian teaching affirms submission as the God-ordained standard of female behaviour). Conversely, boldness, aggression, and hardline theological approaches are associated with masculinity, strength, growth and vitality, and other characteristics deemed necessary to foster a successful church mission and culture. It seems that Murrow and his sympathizers would have their readers believe that if the evangelical church can solve its effeminacy problem, perhaps the larger sociological and historical realities which contributed to the privatization of religion, and the subsequent decline of male church attendance, might be overlooked.
An awareness of church history and the church’s association with the “feminine image”—as Susan Gudorf calls it—is vital and can correct misunderstandings that the contemporary church has become feminized. Historian Hugh McLeod argues that the gender gap has its origins in the 19th century and the rise of economic classes, the decline of community, and the increasingly popular idea that religion was a matter not of obligation but personal decision. Gudorf likewise goes beyond mere demographics and looks to history for an explanation. She traces the beginning of the Catholic Church’s alignment with the feminine to post-medieval history, beginning with the advent of science and Enlightenment values in the 16th and 17th centuries. Gudorf explains that since Hellenistic times, men have always been associated with the rational and the realm of ideas. Conversely, women have been associated with irrationality and carnality; these distinct and separate identities caused them to occupy the public and private spheres respectively. Inheriting these gender divisions, the early medieval church continued this understanding and naturally aligned man—and itself—with the rational and the spiritual. However, with the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, many of the church’s teachings were perceived as irrational. As Gudorf notes, the problem for the church arose from the growing identification in the European mind of scientific method with reason. By the Enlightenment era, science and philosophy were deemed to be the true rational disciplines, while Christianity was thought to represent an outdated and superstitious mode of thinking. Furthermore, this burgeoning secular society gave a prominent and public role to these new disciplines of science and political philosophy; conversely, Christianity was relegated to the realm of the personal. Thus, in an ironic twist, the Catholic Church was perceived to embody two attributes it had traditionally associated with the feminine: as an institution, it was now irrational and private.
Though Gudorf relates these events through a Catholic perspective, pre-Reformation church history is common to both Catholics and Protestants, and even afterwards, both coexisted within the same European, increasingly secular culture. Justo Gonzalez, writing about the history of the church in Protestant America, notes that it too faced opposition from science and secularism. This is especially recognizable in the early 20th century, when a surge of fundamentalism arose to protect traditional Christian positions on certain doctrines. On the gender side of things, George Marsden writes that the rise of commercialism and corporate interests in 19th century America prompted the church to denounce these activities as immoral, and to subsequently align itself—and therefore morality—with women. He writes that the scientific-technological assumption to lessen the importance of personal relationships, and to increase emphases on the impersonal, aided corporate strategies of cost efficiency and maximizing profits. So, increasingly larger areas of male activity were being depersonalized and hence exempted from traditional factors of moral review.
Gudorf observes the same approach taken—the alignment of moral superiority with women in contrast to the immorality of men’s domains—by the Catholic Church. Popes created a stark contrast between the public and private spheres by identifying public enterprises of commerce and politics as evil “jungles.” It continued to align itself with the morality they believed to be indigenous to women, thereby automatically aligning itself with the femininity. Essentially, then, as the church lost its dominant position within society, both in Europe and in America, it began to take on feminine associations because of the new moral ideology it created for itself, as well as the new understandings of irrationality and outmodedness that secular culture imposed on it. This history helps account for the origins of the feminine “image” (to apply Gudorf’s term) of the church. Catholic and Protestant churches often positioned themselves antagonistically with respect to the dominant culture—a culture that was secularizing itself and becoming more associated with men and with the public sphere. Perhaps this antagonism alone was enough to alienate religious men who participated in broader culture.
It must be noted again that even at the cultural/collective level, notions of femininity are fluid and socially constructed, just as they are for individual persons. There is nothing inherently masculine or feminine about the public or the private, morality or rationally, for we all have dealings with these domains during the course of our lives. So, while the Middle Ages considered men to be more spiritual and thus morally superior, the 19th century conversely considered women to be morally and spiritual superior, and this total inversion attests to the arbitrariness of assigning spiritual/non-spiritual attributes to gender. Thus it seems that the feminine perception of the church began to take shape well before women started to outnumber men in evangelical church congregations. Certainly, then, the decline of church growth in modern times is entirely unrelated to a “surplus” of women as Murrow suggests. History shows that movements towards secularization and the various enterprises it spawned (science, commerce, technology) attracted more men in its early days and eventually rendered the church subordinate to these endeavours, thereby leaving it open to being perceived as effeminate.
Murrow’s Why Men Hate Going to Church and other books of evangelicalism’s masculinity movement have won over men and women, pastors and laity alike. Sadly, it has only propagated gender essentialism that relies on superficial understandings of legitimate sociological issues. While a gender gap in the church is undeniable, Murrow’s claims about the reasons for this gap are either questionable or patently false. Murrow’s depiction of a feminized church obscures the reality that declining church attendance is, at the moment, a phenomenon common to both genders, especially among younger generations. It is related to the rise of secularization and the church’s subordinate (and even antagonistic) position vis-a-vis broader culture—not the higher percentages of physical women in congregations. Although Murrow is looking for an immediate and tangible explanation for evangelicalism’s perceived feminization, he winds up construing men as victims of their own church neglect, and blaming women for historical and sociological factors much larger than themselves. In terms of his interpretation of biblical passages, and their supposed support of a machismo masculinity, Murrow is not forthcoming about that fact that he selectively chooses warrior or other stereotypically masculine moments from the biblical text that support his brand of masculinity; biblical ideas of love, kindness and gentleness are ignored, as they’re apparently anathema to spiritual vitality. This is ironic, considering that the most spiritually dynamic period for the church was arguably its inception, which witnessed an explosion of participation in church life by many of Roman society’s minority groups, including slaves and women.
Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day. 2 vols. New York: HarperCollins, 2010. See p. 475.
Gudorf, Susan E. “Renewal or Repatriarchalization? Responses of the Roman Catholic Church to the Feminization of Religion.” Horizons 10 (1983). See p.231-238.
Marsden, George M. Religion and American Culture. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990. See p. 84.
Murrow, Dave. Why Men Hate Going to Church. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011. See especially pp. 15, 18, 24, 62, 70-76, and 56 for the chart included above.
Setran, David P. “Developing the ‘Christian Gentleman’: The Medieval Impulse in Protestant Ministry to Adolescent Boys, 1890-1920.” Religion and American Culture 22 (2010), see p.166.