Single evangelical women count the cost of staying…
EEvangelical women have long attended church at higher rates than Evangelical men. But today that gap is narrowing, not because more men are coming, but because more women are leaving. These women are increasingly likely to “deconstruct” their faith or identify as “no” – a growing population of religiously disaffiliated people.
Many grew up in strict or more fundamentalist traditions, where tough questions were discouraged, women were undervalued, and faith-based subcultures shaped their resentments in early adulthood. Speaking with a variety of deconstruction-focused spiritual coaches earlier this year, I learned that clients are often former Mormons or women from harsh, patriarchal churches where their voices have been silenced.
Katie Gaddini is the child of a pastor who left evangelicalism years ago, but the fingerprints of her past remain. She began to unravel the reasons for her own unease in the church and the resentment she saw from others while researching her new book, The Struggle to Stay: Why Single Evangelical Women Leave the Church.
A kinship and a disconnection
Gaddini is a sociologist at the Social Research Institute, part of University College London. To prepare for writing her book, she embedded herself in a tight-knit community of single, evangelical women for more than four years, marinating in the culture she once knew so well. As a single woman herself, her study focuses on what she describes as “irreconcilable” differences between faith and feminism, religious patriarchy, and women’s inequality within the church.
These and other factors drive the book’s mission to find out why so many single evangelical women leave. While the beautifully written and arranged book raises valuable questions about the culture of purity, ideal Christian womanhood, and female leadership within the church, Christian readers will recognize a pervasive anti-evangelical bias. Gaddini isn’t shy about it, admitting she has “accumulated years of resentment” against her ancient religious tradition and often lamenting that she still feels drawn to the comforts of the Christian community.
While recounting his research, Gaddini returns to pieces of his past. There was a time, for example, when she was criticized for writing an article on 1 Timothy 2:12 in her conservative, evangelical college. Or the time she was harassed with legitimately chilling death threats for her “feminist” work (later considered “a joke” by a few Christian guys on campus). The straw that broke the camel’s back was when a Christian shamed her for supposedly “tempting” him with sexual pressure, even though he had provoked the encounter.
“The incident,” she wrote of her date with the man, “gave just the push I needed to walk through the door of evangelism and close it firmly behind me. .”
These negative experiences may sound familiar to some evangelical women, especially those who have been groomed to feel responsible for male sexual urges or who have often heard that a woman’s place is in the home. Other examples in the book, like women being overlooked for church leadership or feeling shamed for their celibacy, are certainly valid concerns for Gaddini’s target audience.
Christians, however, may bristle at some of the ways Gaddini characterizes the evangelical women she seems to pity. “Who is the celibate evangelical woman? she asks. “Has she been brainwashed and victimized, as many believe, or is she free?
What follows is a brief analysis of Christian feminist history, where Gaddini recounts the work of Christian feminist Christine de Pizan, a medieval writer considered the first woman in Europe to make a living from writing. Gaddini describes a painting representative of de Pizan’s legacy: “Pizan lectures to the men of the university on how women are made in the image of God. They listen with rapt attention.
It’s an appropriate image from which to begin the book’s deeper dive into how women find their identities, communities, and purpose within the church, sometimes while feeling invisible or privileged. But Gaddini’s accounts often feel like reading about a religious social club rather than about women leading lives committed to advancing the gospel, which is the goal of evangelism.
As a once-single evangelical woman, I felt both a kinship and a disconnect with the women featured in the book. Those profiled identify as evangelical Christians, but there is little depth in their conversations about God or the foundations of their faith. In fact, at the end of the book, two of the women featured basically denounce Christianity. This drastic turn serves to reinforce Gaddini’s claim that there is little hope for evangelicalism, but such a conclusion seemed contrived, even if his subjects’ changes of heart were sincere.
Gaddini describes evangelicalism as a “demanding religion that compels its followers to strive, fully commit, and transform,” often treating it as a distinctly sectarian version of Christianity. In this, she fails to recognize that evangelicalism goes far beyond the privileged white West, where the book’s central characters reside. A beginner on the subject would think that evangelicalism is a declining patriarchal subculture that is rapidly dying out. In reality, evangelical Christianity is a global phenomenon that is growing like wildfire in places like Africa and South America.
The women in the book frequently lament how “exhausting” it is to be an evangelical woman fighting for gender equality in the church. They describe Jesus as “a rebel, a dissenter and a feminist”, someone who was “all about disrupting hierarchies and patterns of oppression”. These progressive, co-opted definitions of Jesus won’t sit well with orthodox readers, who may also find occasional references to homosexuality to be “good” a bit odd.
After one of the major churches featured in the book continues to disappoint the women with its lack of zeal for gender equality, they seem hopeless about the future of their faith. Some leave the church altogether, others strip themselves of their faith, and one of them begins to attend a small church where he can “go in and out” unnoticed. Are these really the only options? They’re not, but the book’s prescriptive analysis was evident from the start. Gaddini had a bone to settle with her old faith, and she didn’t hold back.
Her words toward the end of the book make this clear: “In white evangelicalism, the price of belonging includes embracing traditional femininity, heterosexuality, marriage, and sexual purity. … This includes invisibility and continued marginalization, compounded if you are not white, middle class or straight and if you remain single.
Certainly the evangelical church is hardly without fault, and The struggle to stay contains enough data to make you believe in the reality of what Gaddini calls the “dark side of hope”. But Christians count the cost of following Jesus, and the Bible (not evangelism specifically) calls for forms of obedience like sexual purity. By confusing the biblical commandments with the modern oppression of women, Gaddini weakens her case.
It is true that traditional femininity, skin color or marital status may be key markers in some evangelical communities, but they are not requirements for membership in healthy churches, as the most committed evangelicals. It is worth nothing, too, that Gaddini’s call for celibacy to be valued as much as marriage and for a more welcoming embrace of women in leadership positions in the church is one I share.
Rather than leaving the local churches to which God calls us as disciples, I hope women will recognize how desperately needed they are to ensure that God’s purpose on earth is accomplished through his body.
Ericka Andersen is a freelance journalist living in Indianapolis. His forthcoming book, Reason to come back: why women need the Church and the Church needs womencomes out early next year.