When Religion Hurts: Gender Inequality and Health in Churches
Baptist News Global recently published the results of a study by the American Sociological Association that examined the correlation between structural sexism in Christian churches and women’s negative health. The results merit the attention of the leadership of every church.
This study shows that structural sexism—defined as systematic gender inequality in power and resources—within religious institutions can negatively shape individuals’ physical and emotional health. Specifically, the findings show that “alienating women from even rudimentary forms of institutional power appears to be particularly damaging to physical and emotional health.”
The study judged the level of sexism in a congregation by a point scale demonstrating how many or few leadership opportunities were open to women, including “teaching co-ed classes, preaching at a main worship service, serving on the governing body, and being the head clergyperson/leader.
While previous research found that participation in a church offers health benefits to congregants, this is one of the first studies to test the limitations of this claim. The study states, “Although religious participation is generally associated with positive health outcomes, many religious institutions create and reinforce a high degree of structural sexism, which is harmful for health. Prior research has not reconciled these seemingly conflicting patterns. We find that among religious participants, women who attend sexist religious institutions report significantly worse self-rated health than do those who attend more inclusive congregations. Furthermore, only women who attend inclusive religious institutions exhibit a health advantage relative to non-participants. We observe marginal to no statistically significant effects among men. Our results suggest the health benefits of religious participation do not extend to groups that are systematically excluded from power and status within their religious institutions. Women in particular only experience a health benefit from religious participation when they attend religious institutions that are gender inclusive and allow women to hold meaningful leadership roles within the congregation.”
This study as well as anecdotal evidence makes it increasingly clear that whether accidental, purposeful or subconscious, the patriarchal church structures that seek to control and limit the engagement of women are physically, mentally and emotionally harmful. And, regretfully, I have blindly and unquestionably helped encourage and sustain these structures in my own church leadership career. My eyes were opened to this harmful reality when women in my own family unarguably experienced negative emotional and physical symptoms as a direct result of the control and exclusion perpetrated by church patriarchal structures and sexist attitudes and behaviors.
Regardless of our differences in theology or methodology surely we can agree that these kinds of narratives are not what Jesus intended for his church and must somehow be stopped. Simply put, the health benefits from participation in church activities and the spread of the gospel cannot coexist with a theology or polity that harms, excludes, marginalizes and controls women. At the core of this issue is power. In the coming weeks I will be sharing some thoughts on the various types of power found in institutions, and specifically, the local church.
Posted on September 7, 2021