Thursday, January 5, 2012

Is The Christian Church Driving Women Away?

Rarely do I read a book and feel from page one that the author started with a hypothesis, then worked his statistics and stories to make that hypothesis true. Yet, such seems to be the case with Jim Henderson's newest The Resignation of Eve: What if Adam's Rib is No Longer Willing to be the Church's Backbone?.

Henderson believes women are leaving the church in droves for one reason--inequality, because there is a glass ceiling in leadership which prohibits them from becoming pastors or elders in the church, because women feel they are undervalued and unappreciated.

In the preface, George Barna of the Barna Research Group says, "I don't know if I agree with all of Jim's conclusions..." That's a nice way of saying it. From the Author's Note at the start of the book, Henderson appears to twist statistics to suit his hypothesis, playing on the reader's fear that women--and only women--are leaving the church in droves, so we Christians should change our ways or there will be no one to serve in the future kingdom.

The problem is Henderson conveniently leaves out any statistics about men and their rising absence from the church pew. A quick search of Barna's website shows men and women both leaving the church. Granted, the 18% increase in "unchurched" women is much higher than men's 9% increase; yet, Henderson doesn't even mention males, as if their church attendance/participating is stable when women's are plummeting. He also cites a 2005 Gallup study showing 38% of women are unchurched but fails to mention that same study showed 49% of men were also unchurched.

Again, Henderson cites Steve Smith's "Study Tracks Church Attendance Trends" to bolster his claim that women have shifted away from the church over the past two decades; what he fails to mention is that Smith believes this shift is not caused by a power-struggle between the have's (men) and the have not's (women) but because of increase in women's level of education.

Henderson even commissioned Barna to do quantitative research of women; yet, when Barna's research finds that "few [women] seem frustrated about their opportunities to lead in the church," Henderson dismisses the study, implying that women are really frustrated but just don't know it because they're so culturally brainwashed by the male-driven church...or if they're not frustrated, it's only because they've already disengaged or moved to a more free church.

But Henderson doesn't like statistics. As he says "stories are the new statistics" (11). And so, the bulk of his book is composed of stories of women and their experiences.

In the first few chapters where Henderson chronicles the lives of women who don't feel there is a problem with women not leading in the church, have never really thought about it, or merely live with the inequalities for the sake of their husband/children/church unity. Henderson's disapproval of these women's attitudes literally oozes through the narrative, making him almost too condescending to read. Yet, in the later chapters detailing women who are in positions of church leadership or who have left the church for secular leadership roles of Christ-like service, Henderson actually gushes over them, calling one of the women a "hero" and throwing around words like "intelligence" and "wisdom" to describe them.

Of the two women he describes resigning from the church because of their disillusionment with the hierarchy, one of the women is bipolar; her story is sad but seems to have nothing to do with women being denied leadership more than it screams of Christian lack of understanding of the disease and compassion. The other woman who left the church was in therapy before determining somehow that the church was squashing her self and keeping her from true freedom--not really the leadership equality argument issue either. Neither demonstrates the average woman is leaving the church because of leadership inequality.

Henderson admits that this entire debate boils down to how a person interprets Scripture concerning a woman's role in the church, whether Paul's words were meant to be a literal or cultural recommendation. I've lived several years at the brunt end of one denomination's attempt to make women's opinions no more important than the dust they came from. I'm also currently living in a denomination that does not allow women to be ordained pastors or elders.

Yet, unlike Henderson's self-assured stance, I know only that although the footing around the cross is equal, I'm willing to say "I'm not sure" Christ automatically offers all offices equally to all. And even if He does offer universal freedom for the full equality Henderson desires, I'm concerned about something Henderson just dismisses in his mad thrust for women's equality in the church--women leaders being a stumbling block to men.

Just because we can do something freely in Christ doesn't mean we always should.

Henderson's concludes by looking in the secular world and seeing the same problem he sees in the church--women being denied the highest positions of authority, women being undervalued (underpaid), etc. Yet, of this comparison, he says, "When you see these same patterns in diverse systems, it makes one wonder if what we're dealing with isn't a gender issue at all. Maybe it's more primal than that. Maybe it's a power struggle. Those who have it (men) don't want to give it up to those who lack it (women)" (242).

I say maybe it's neither. Maybe, instead, it's God's design from the garden permeating all creation--secular and spiritual--thousands of years later...even after the feminist movements and legal mandates against gender discrimination.

Although several passages resonate with this overworked / undervalued woman, Henderson's attempt to blame all of women's problems with the church on leadership inequality is so blatantly influenced by his own family's experiences that he fails to note how this bias makes his argument horribly simplistic in that it ignores other societal causes behind the statistics and ignores men's comparable church drop offs.

Maybe the Barna statistics are really accurate and the problem isn't that the majority of women feel oppressed by the church. Instead, perhaps the drop in women's involvement in church is because more educated women have become too rational for faith. Or maybe it's that women have become primary or important secondary breadwinners like their spouses so that they don't have time for the church. This book surely doesn't consider these options.

*I am obviously not paid by Tyndale to provide a positive or negative review of its books. I am graciously provided with a complementary copy for review.


  1. Yikes. Thanks for the honest review. I think we can leave this one off of your very gracious "pass along" cycle of books to me :)

  2. Yeah, I was quite disappointed in the book. I thought it would be a constructive look at women being overworked in the church, but it was the same old debate.

  3. Agree with Liza. Thanks for the review. Women's Lib-ers can have the pants. I don't want them. A book on how the fall has affected the breakdown of the roles God intended for both men and women would be nice.

  4. Thanks so much for taking time to read my book. You were very thoughtful.

    1. I wish I could have written a more positive review, Mr. Henderson, because I enjoyed reading the women's case studies and your last book, "Jim and Casper Go to Church." Please know that several passages in the "Resignation of Eve" book, I've highlighted in yellow because they resonated with me--even though I felt the overall text came across as contrived, there were definitely nuggets within your writing that I have been pondering. Blessings to you.

  5. Hi Jennifer, I found your review very interesting.

    I'm sorry that Jim came across as condescending to you in parts of the book. I know him personally and know he likes to ask provocative questions; he also tends to do it with a smile on his face - he's rarely serious for long. My sense from reading those same chapters was that the women he interviewed were ok with the way he asked, based on their responses and because they wouldn't have given him permission to include their interviews otherwise.

    I have to agree with you about the chapter I'm in, that my mental health problems a decade ago most centrally brought about the circumstances that caused me to resign from church altogether.

    However the role of women in conservative Christian churches was something I thought about throughout my years of involvement in church. And when Christianity sort of fell apart and stopped making sense to me, the limitation on womens' roles in those churches was one of the aspects that no longer made sense.

    I understand where you're coming from regarding your own views because - as mentioned in the book - for my first decade or so of being Christian I felt similarly. I trusted my leaders' interpretations of the Bible regarding womens roles. And being submissive to those as I was to be submissive to Christ seemed appropriate.

    I'm impressed that you made it to the end of the book despite your misgivings about it.

  6. I'm impressed that you made it to the end of the book despite your misgivings about it.

    Me too

    Thank you

  7. I appreciated your feedback, Helen, and I agree that the women he interviewed didn't seem to mind at all his questions. I enjoyed all of Mr. Henderson's case studies (as did my husband), and as I mentioned in a comment to him, I did learn several things from his book that I find worthwhile to a Christian; I guess I hoped in the end, he would find some middle ground, which is why I always read to the end.

    One other comment: if I hurt you in any way with my critique of his choice of you for that chapter, then I apologize. I am painfully aware of the toll mental health issues can take on a family; it's devastating. I just thought his chapter would have been stronger had he presented a more dead-on "left the church because of submission issues" candidate vs. your story of leaving over what seemed to be outright rudeness in the church body based on lack of understanding of an illness.

    Mr. Henderson--I have been surprised you came back to this review...or that you read it to begin with. This has spoken loads to me about your heart. I wish you blessings, knowing that even though we disagree here, we agree on what's of utmost importance in serving Christ. Till eternity.

  8. Thanks for your response, Jennifer.

    I wasn't at all offended by your comments about me/my chapter but it was kind of you to apologize just in case.

    Like I mentioned I do agree with you. I think I brought that up with Jim when he first approached me about the book, but he seemed sure he wanted my story in it and to be honest I liked the idea of being included so I shrugged my shoulders and went ahead with it.

  9. Jennifer

    Why wait til eternity when we can talk now. Hey its your "job" to tell the truth as you see it. In many ways Im trying to connect with women like yourself. Thats why I published with Tyndale - so absolutely no offense is taken. Im tired of Christians "breaking up" over simple disagreements and differences - Jesus told us to love one another not agree with one another. If you have time i'd especially love to hear your thoughts about The Chapter that featured my sister in law Kathy who essentially "never thought about this issue" you can email me directly at jimAToffthemapDOTcom if you like or post your comments here and we can dialog with your readers - Thanks for "staying in the room" with me/us

  10. Hi Jennifer,
    Thanks for sharing your take on the book; I'm always happy to read well-thought reviews, which yours is. I am the other woman whom Jim wrote about leaving the church, and you're right...he didn't make the link between my personal therapy and the issue of inequality in church leadership, but indeed, that was primary in my therapeutic work. As I worked for the church, I increasingly felt like I had to conform to an acceptable image of the "ideal christian woman" rather than being a self, and since I possessed every characteristic of the "born leader," these two things were at odds. i had to leave the church in order to be the leader that I was created to be, sadly...and that's what Jim was trying to convey. I just wanted your readers to know "the rest of the story." :)

  11. Hi Susan--thanks for letting me and my readers know "the rest of the story." Anytime a Christian tries to pigeonhole another Christian into what s/he thinks is "ideal," it's a recipe for disaster. I wonder if we'll ever get to the place (here on earth) where we realize one person's experience in Christ doesn't have to be just like us, that their relationship with Christ doesn't have to look just like ours. I do hope that you won't give up on church entirely and will one day find a place of worship (even if it's just a small "house church" that you lead regularly in your community) so you can be plugged into the corporate body that can support you as well. With too many men taking a step back, we need strong women in our churches now more than ever.

  12. It's encouraging to see Christians discussing their differences of opinions in such a Christ-like manner. VERY encouraging. If I've taken nothing else away from your review, I, too, am so encouraged by the author's response.

  13. Jennifer:

    I am a longtime friend of Jim Henderson, and am currently reading through Resignation of Eve with my wife. Reading this book together has helped us to revisit many of the episodes in our life together, where we felt that her input was not valued by leadership in the evangelical churches in which I sometimes served as an elder or associate pastor.

    Resistance to input, though, was not restricted to females; it was directed towards anybody who pushed back or offered constructive criticism. Interpreting everything negative that happens to us in light of a particular prejudice means we have to assign motives, and rarely are they as clear as in a Hollywood picture.

    I agree that portions of the book can be weak, and I found the chapter where he interviewed his sister-in-law to be a section where I thought his writing was working towards a forgone conclusion. The interview was respectful towards the subject, but he editorialized quite a bit and seemed to be attempting to steer the responses. I can agree with your review here.

    However, I do agree also with his point that we "cherry pick" scriptures to fit a viewpoint that is quite probably formed by our experience. We aren't a blank slate upon which the "pure" scripture is written. We approach it with preconceptions, and that ain't all bad, it's just the way it is. Henderson does not even pretend to interpret the data from an objective viewpoint.

    The conversation that follows your review is a great example of what Henderson appears to me to be trying to accomplish. The tone of this conversation is a great example of what should be happening in the body of Christ. Everybody should get some respect.

  14. Thank you for reviewing the book, and for the quality of the conversation. I would like to reply to a couple of the comments regarding the women in the book as "libbers." I have just finished reading the book and somehow I did not get the impression that any of the women portrayed or interviewed in it are "libbers." I certainly do not align myself with that movement. It grieves me that the power struggles of the world are so prevalent in the church. I did not walk away from the book sensing that any of the women inerviewed are interested in power - only in doing thos things for which they are called, gifted and passionate.
    I have the funny feeling that if we were go chat over cofee or a big pot of hot tea we would have far more in common that we have separating us.

  15. John--thanks for your feedback here. My husband and I have experienced what you're talking about--resistance to either gender's constructive criticism or a new idea. It's hard when we expect the church to not act like the world and it still does. And I agree--although I disagree with how the book was done, I agree that this is a conversation that definitely needs to be taking place--we must work towards unity in Christ if we're going to have any chance at winning our world.

  16. Laura--no, I didn't think any of the women in the book were "libbers," either. You're right that it's not power-hunger--it's the permission to be equal if that means in a role of leadership. I understand that even if I have severe reservations about women leaders being a potential stumbling block to men.

    The women's vignettes were my favorite part of the book, captivating, because they were quite real. I've seen division over lesser topics than this, but if we let that happen, we'll be a house divided. I'm all for that pot of tea. :-)

  17. Thanks for the thoughtful review of my book. I would like to invite you and your readers to our upcoming free - Resignation of Eve Cloud Conference on Feb. 27 @8pm EST – you only need a telephone to join the call and have a chance to participate in a conversation with myself and the women of “Resignation of Eve.” David Kinnaman, President and author of the Barna Group will also be on this call to talk about his latest research on women and the church. – Hope you are able to join us. Thanks, Jim Henderson

  18. The basic reason for the female departure from the church is this: The more secure women feel, the less women will seek out security. Women are increasingly determining their own destinies as where in previous years, female security was tied solely to her father or husband. I haven't been to church for years. When I did go, it chafed. Not only did I not buy into male headship, I found religion to be pointless. But, that's just me.