“Why are women leaving the church?”
Tons of churchgoers, leaders, and faithful believers asked and echoed this question in recent years. And there are a variety of answers that people will offer up in response. Some pin the blame on hypocrisy and inauthenticity in how “church people” live their lives. Others blame a lack of commitment to social justice issues and meeting community needs. Some point out environments that are unfriendly, judgmental, or even hostile toward people who desperately need the love of Jesus.
All of those are true.
What few seem to recognize is that all of those factors are just the symptoms of a bigger problem. The crisis in our churches is deeply rooted in patriarchy and toxic religious culture.
For many women, the freedom that God created to be the cornerstone of our post-resurrection life as Christians has been swallowed up by legalism, patriarchy, gender bias, and racism which is why why women are leaving the church in higher numbers than ever before.
The resulting religious culture is a hotbed for fear, shame, abuse, and man-made hierarchies that prioritize the protection of the church (and her leaders) over living lives as radical Christ-followers.
The church constantly teaches women what a Christian woman “should” and “should not” look like. Sadly, many of those “shoulds” stand in direct opposition to Bible and the pastors ask “Why are women leaving the Church?” but not looking at the binding and harmful teachings they are sharing.
A few of the most harmful “shoulds” include:
- Women should be quiet and small, NOT take up equal space or speak with bold authority.
- We should always be learning and following, but NOT teaching and leading.
- Women should be responsible for altering their appearance and actions to avoid abuse, NOT expecting culture to raise people who know abuse is wrong.
These ungodly views of women have become so embedded in the culture of the Church that an unhealthy, harmful, toxic culture has emerged.
That’s why women are leaving the church. It isn’t God they hate, it’s the toxic religious culture that seeks to oppress them.
So, what is religious culture that has become toxic and harmful?
It’s an entire system of bias rooted in blaming, shaming, and diminishing. In this type of religious culture, there’s tremendous pressure to maintain the existing power structure and to become (and remain) an insider.
As I have pursued my calling, I have run into this dangerous system too many times to count. Men and women have called me “unbiblical” and “satanic” when my actions didn’t align with their status quo. People dismissed or mansplained away my observations when I questioned why things were done a specific way. My calling and authority have been repeatedly questioned simply because I am a woman….and women and men leading together doesn’t fit into toxic religious culture’s gender-based hierarchy.
Those who promote a gender-based hierarchy present men as the protectors and leaders over women. Then, they manipulate biblical texts to support their position.
Even the church teaches boys to “man up” and become the hyper-masculine ideal. Simultaneously, it teaches girls to “woman down” into submissive shallow reflections of their God-given identities. This is why women are leaving the church.
The fruit of the toxic religious tree…
Toxic religious culture seeks to cultivate and maintain power imbalances. The goal is that those who have power, get to keep it. It teaches oppressed, marginalized, and underrepresented people that God created this uneven power structure for their protection.
This is not just a matter of social or human justice. It is not just a matter of criminality and legality. It is wholly unbiblical. We Christians should be the FIRST to throw ourselves between an oppressor and the oppressed, but our fear, racism, and flawed theology have us becoming more like the oppressor than the Good Samaritans we are called to be.
Don’t get me wrong, I am 100% convinced God wants the church to exist. He has put so much love and intentionality into creating the church (just look at the book of Acts). God even commands us to gather together as believers (Hebrews 10:24-25). I think we need to be a part of it to fully experience God, just not like this. If we wonder why are women leaving the church but not willing to face the truth we’re missing the whole point.
It’s time to throw out the bathwater but keep the baby.
We need to stop throwing our weight around in our communities and pretending we have it all right. We don’t.
Our humanity has infected the church with so much toxic religious culture that people feel safer outside of Christian communities than they do inside them, which is exactly why women are leaving the church.
And that’s a major problem we need to fix.
So how do we fix it?
Healing the church must start with healing our own hearts from the patriarchy, racism, pride, classism, gluttony, privilege, homophobia, and all of the other forms of selfishness that we have introduced to God’s design for the church.
We cannot create healthy faith communities if we aren’t first willing to do our own work to get healthy. To do that we need to go all the way back to pre-fall Genesis and look at God’s perfect design for us.
That’s our blueprint- The pre-fall intimacy with God, the stewardship of the natural resources, and the partnership between man and woman we see in Genesis are God’s original design. So let’s not leave asking the question “Why are women leaving the church?” to others, but ask ourselves.
God is sending out this call to action to every single one of us:
Get back into a garden posture.
Return to constant intimate conversations with God.
Appreciate and be good stewards of our universe’s natural resources.
Get back to an equal partnership between men and women co-leading, with mutual respect for each other and hearts squarely focused on God.
Getting back to who God created us to be is our only hope of creating a church without toxic religious culture. Even though getting there will be backbreaking, exhausting work, it will be worth it for us to worship the one true God in a space where all are truly welcome and valued and loved, otherwise it’ll continue to be the reason why women are leaving the church.
Aren’t those the greatest commandments?
Angela is a Faith Deconstruction Coach and host of The Deconstructing Faith Summit who helps people break free from toxic religious culture & empowers them to recover from #churchhurt. She has led online ministries for a decade, enjoys working with clients 1:1, in groups, and is a dynamic conference speaker. She’s a Lark’s Song Certified Life Coach who reaches thousands of people in 40+ countries each month on Facebook, IG, Twitter, Pinterest, and her blog.
She’s a firstborn, Enneagram 8, Gen Xer who loves to question everything. She holds a BA from Indiana Wesleyan and a Masters in Leadership from Wesley Seminary. Her graduate research project focused on leadership development and opportunities for Gen X women in the US church.
Angela and her unique online ministry are featured in Lyz Lenz’s 2019 book God Land: Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America. She has published articles in Hope for Women and HOPE is Now magazines. She has been featured in The New Republic, Publisher’s Today, and Religion News Service.
Her first book, Deconstructing Your Faith Without Losing Yourself, Will be published by Eerdmans in February 2023.
Angela is also a wife, mom to 5, and a proud resident of Marion, Indiana with her family when they’re not traveling the US in their RV.