Masculinity and the Church’s Gender Gap

BY ELIZABETH SEGRAN

Those of us who attend church on a regular basis have noticed a disturbing trend: there is a major gender disparity in the pews. Statistically, within the English speaking world, women consistently outnumber men. For every three women in church, there are only two men.Batson, C.D., P.A. Schoenrade, and W.L. Ventis. The Religious Experience: A Social-psychological Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

This tendency has not escaped the attention of gender studies scholars. Researchers have observed that individuals who display masculine tendencies tend to be less religious. While both women and men can adopt masculine behaviors and outlooks, men are generally socialized to be masculine, while women are socialized to be feminine. As such, scholars observe:

Men participate in religious ritual and worship less often, espouse different religious motivations for their participation, profess less devout beliefs, testify that religious faith is not always germane to their everyday activities, and identify less with “being religious” than do women.Regnerus, Mark. “The Case for Early Marriage.” Christianity Today, Vol 53:8, 2009.

In short, the rituals and practices of spiritual life do not coincide with masculine values.

This is certainly true in the Christian context. Churches emphasize the community over the individual. They encourage members to be emotionally vulnerable and expressive. Churches also urge people to make conservative choices in the present (such as believing in God) to avoid eternal damnation. These notions fly in the face of traditional Western masculinity. Masculinity in our culture encourages men to develop independence, to shun overt displays of emotion and to seek danger. Scholars of gender see men’s irreligiousness as another type of masculine risk-taking behavior.

Worlds away from gender studies departments in universities, church leaders are scratching their heads over what to do about the gender gap in their congregations. Some have suggested masculinizing the church to make it more appealing to men. The Promise Keepers movement, for instance, was built on this very agenda. The organization’s mission statement exposes its desire to represent Christianity in manly, rugged terms: “Promise Keepers’ mission is to ignite and unite men to become warriors who will change their world.”“About Us.” Promise Keepers. 2008. http://www.promisekeepers.org/about. In keeping with this mandate, it emphasizes men’s responsibility to be leaders within the family and society at large. Promise Keepers asserts that men need not fear losing their privileged social position when entering the church community.

Attempting to mold the church according to traditional masculine values is not the solution to the gender crisis. For one thing, many masculine traits run contrary to core biblical values. Indeed, Jesus regularly chose to humiliate himself by choosing postures of subservience and eschewing power. This was evident throughout his ministry. He deliberately avoided the halls of institutional power, preferring the company of the thoroughly disempowered instead (e.g., his birth to a poor peasant girl in a stable in Luke 2, his conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4, the contrast between his encounter with the rich ruler and the little children in Luke 18:15–30). He explicitly encouraged his disciples to abandon the quest for social glory in favor of humility – a lesson he demonstrated dramatically by washing their feet (John 13). The central gospel message involves God sacrificing his own Son for the sake of humanity’s salvation: this is the ultimate rejection of power.

Jesus was also a proponent of community. Although he regularly sought time alone with God, he also deliberately chose to develop close relationships with his friends, family, and disciples. This pattern of communal living is evident throughout the Bible, from the Old Testament narrative in which Israel is instructed to remain set apart as God’s people to the creation of an intimate community of believers in the New Testament church.

Christianity presents a radical critique of hegemonic masculine values. It has always been an uncomfortable message in a world in which individuals seek to achieve social control and dominance. Rather than toning down the tenets of the Christian faith, perhaps it would be better to redefine the boundaries of masculinity to allow it to encompass a degree of vulnerability and intimacy with others. A more revolutionary approach would be to encourage society to abandon this binary system of gendering in the first place. After all, it is completely arbitrary that we associate emotionality with women and independence with men.

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