Why Evangelical Women Question the Church and Their Faith

Katy resident Bethany Dufilho and her husband, Paul, began to have reservations about their church after witnessing Donald Trump’s evangelical support in the 2016 election. [Trump] was playing and the words he was using were contrary to what I had grown up learning about Jesus and the gospel,” says Dufilho, writer for Houston Moms.

It wasn’t until 2018 that the Dufilho family left their local Southern Baptist megachurch, albeit with some hesitation, even telling friends they would likely return. But after about six months away, they decided never to return. “There’s a bigger world out there,” she says. Now she and her family of five attend a small United Methodist church, and Dufilho’s Instagram bio describes her as an “ex-vangelical in suburban Texas.”

“I had a very small box of what a good Christian wife and mother should be.”

Dufilho is one of many evangelical women across the United States who consider themselves ex-evangelicals. These women congregate in Facebook groups, rally around hashtags, and slip into DMs to question the church, their faith, or their God.

Deconstruction, the process of questioning what you believe and why, is happening across America with women in the lead. “It’s reverse engineering,” says Mary Jo Sharp, assistant professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University. “Peel through the layers of commitment and traditions to see what you actually believe and whether you agree with those beliefs.”

DEFINING DECONSTRUCTION


Questioning one’s faith is obviously nothing new, says Beth Allison Barr, associate professor of history at Baylor University. What is new are the methods: the rallying around the term “deconstruction” offers Christians a community that allows them to examine fundamental doctrines such as whether the Bible is without fault or not, whether the world was created in six literal days, and the belief that homosexuality is sinful, all without fear and feeling alone. It’s also causing a lot of people to “go loud” sharing their experiences online, Barr says.

“Evangelicals, especially in conservative evangelicalism, grew up thinking there were aspects of their faith that were essential to the gospel,” Barr says. “You find these people who grew up in these really rigid environments and they find that there is no room for questions. They also find that there is no room for them to think differently.

Some people only deconstruct specific parts of their faith. Others can rip their whole ideology apart. Notably, deconstruction has no set end goal, although some who quarrel with the fundamental tenets of the faith may change churches, denominations, or leave the faith altogether.

“There’s a real moment in history to pause and say, ‘What am I a part of as a woman.'”

Chrissy Stroop, senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches who has written about deconstruction since 2016, says those who don’t understand deconstruction assume it’s an emerging movement that will ultimately push forward a new religious establishment.

“They really struggle to understand that people can come together through a common term that relates to a common background and don’t really care if we land in the same place or not,” Stroop says. “It was made very clear from the start that the only kind of rule is there’s no rule on where you end it.”

For Dufilho, deconstruction means freeing yourself from certainty, and “freeing yourself from others who tell you: ‘This is how you must interpret the Bible; this is how you should express your faith,” she says.

FIND ANSWERS ELSEWHERE

Dufilho says she didn’t want to ask her Southern Baptist pastor questions because of her experience with Billy Graham’s rule: No man should be alone with a woman who isn’t his wife.

“He might think I’m trying to have an affair with him,” she said. But because the Southern Baptist Convention does not allow female pastors, there was no one on staff whom Dufilho felt comfortable asking his questions, she said. Instead, she began her search for answers elsewhere, listening to podcasts, reading blogs and discovering authors such as Rachel Held Evans, considered a key voice for deconstruction.

“I think it’s really important for women to have safe outlets to speak without judgment or misperception,” Dufilho says, “and that just wasn’t there for me.”

Dufilho quickly discovered other women going through deconstruction, mostly through social media. “It helped me not to feel so alone,” she says, “helped me not to feel crazy.” Instagram has become an outlet for deconstruction, with accounts like The New Evangelicals holding the church accountable or Deconstruction Girl, which uses memes to explain why it no longer believes.

“I think it’s really important for women to have safe outlets to speak without judgment or misperception.”

On Twitter, Stroop created the hashtag #emptythepews in 2017, which is still relevant today. Through it, people find community and use it to share why they left evangelism.

“It’s important for us to open up to each other and expose to the public how evangelism harms people,” says Stroop, who now identifies as an agnostic atheist. “And maybe find some solace in relationships with each other.” Stroop lists Professor Barr, anti-racism educator Tori glasshistorian and author of “Jesus and John Wayne” Christine Du Mezand host of the “Parenting Forward” podcast Cindy Wang Brandt as essential voices in the deconstruction movement.

However, a recent post on Desiring God, a ministry site linked to famed theologian John Piper, cautions women against seeking advice online. Christian author Tilly Dillehay argues in the article that a woman should discuss theology with an older female mentor at church rather than an online community. “Some of Satan’s best works are done by women talking to women, in the floating world of disembodied souls on the internet,” Dillehay says.

“Women talking to each other are dangerous. They’re not wrong about that,” confirms Stroop. “It’s going to challenge their male patriarchal authority if we’re going to be able to talk to each other.”

WHY WOMEN, WHY NOW

Beyond the politicization of faith spurred by the recent election, which Sharp says has done great damage to Christianity, she points to the prevalence of sexual abuse and misconduct in evangelical churches to explain why women specifically challenge question the church establishment.

It’s not just the church where evangelical women endure sexual misconduct. A Christianity Today article published this week reported unchecked sexual harassment at the offices of the evangelical publication. For more than 12 years, the article explains, two male leaders who faced multiple complaints of sexual harassment faced no consequences or investigation. Both men have since left the magazine founded by Billy Graham, with one now registered as a sex offender for trying to pay a minor for sex.

“There’s a real moment in the story to pause and say, ‘What am I a part of as a woman,'” Sharp explains. “I think women want a very strong response from the churches.”

Women may be leading the deconstruction, but Barr isn’t sure the church will notice, as she says evangelicalism has a history of downplaying women’s voices. She hopes the dwindling number of worshipers will force churches to take heed this time.

“Women are often the constants in the family who go to church and bring their children and teach their children,” Barr says. According to the Pew Research Center, evangelical Protestants are made up of 55% women and 45% men. While 59% of women say religion is important in their lives, compared to 47% of men.

Women may be in the majority, but several evangelical denominations use the biblical text to deny women the opportunity to hold leadership positions, believing instead that men and women have different but complementary roles in the church with women in the supporting role.

Complementary theology is closely tied to the teachings of the Apostle Paul, such as 1 Timothy 2, which states, “Let the woman learn quietly in all submission. I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man; rather, she should be silent.

Dufilho remembers trying to achieve this biblical standard of femininity. She has stacks and stacks of prayer journals in which she pleads, “God help me. Forgive me. Help me submit. The prayers ask forgiveness for what Dufilho now calls basic human emotions: anger, sadness, jealousy.

“For a long time, I felt like I didn’t live up to the expectations of being a godly woman. I had a very small box of what a good Christian wife and mother should be,” she says. “I thought that was what God thought I should be.”

“It’s important for us to open up to each other and expose to the public how evangelism hurts people.”

It was only after leaving her Southern Baptist Convention church that Dufilho felt free to explore feminism and challenge scripture. “I didn’t mean to be a hypocrite,” she said. “If I have to go this route, I can no longer stay here in this church.”

When Dufilho’s family began visiting other churches, they were able to listen to the women preach from the pulpit. “I felt so grateful that my kids are growing up, hopefully, with a different perspective,” she says.

Complementarism, argues Barr in his book “The Making of Biblical Womanhood,” is not even biblical and “has damaged all our relationships with God because it has made us think that God is something that God is not All women are different and not all fit the mold that evangelicals say women should be in. This has created a distance between women and God.

WHAT THE FUTURE RESERVES

In a sermon last fall, senior pastor Matt Chandler of The Village Church in Flower Mound outside Dallas disparaged deconstruction, calling it a fad, “kind of a sexy thing to do.” An excerpt from the sermon spread on social media and sparked outrage in the deconstruction community.

“Historically, people have always done this examination of what they believe and why they believe it,” Barr says. “It’s not trendy in the sense that it’s something that’s going to go away because it’s always been there. It’s that social media allows more people to see it.

The end of evangelism, the renunciation of God – some fear that deconstruction will only lead to the abandonment of the faith by Christians. But Barr hopes the move will spark positive change in evangelical churches. “I think what this has done shows the church in very clear language that there is a problem,” she says. “There are more people leaving than we really thought. I think it really opened people’s eyes.

Barry F. Howard