Women are the backbone of the American evangelical church. They constitute the majority of its attendees and volunteers. Absent their participation, all churches would shrink in size, and most ministries would dissolve for lack of both interest and involvement.
And yet, many—if not most—American evangelical churches have a stained glass ceiling beyond which women cannot rise in leadership. This is true whether or not the theology of the denomination or local congregation is explicitly complementarian or egalitarian. Women are allowed, by conviction or custom, to go thus far and no farther.
In The Resignation of Eve, Jim Henderson asks American evangelical women how they feel about this. Drawing on interviews with 15 women, he organizes their responses into three categories:
- Some of the women have resigned themselves to their churches’ positions on women;
- others have resigned from their churches because of those churches’ positions on women;
- and, finally, some women have “re-signed”; that is, they’ve reengaged in their churches or in other churches, leading and influencing despite opposition (2).
Henderson describes himself as a “spiritual anthropologist.” That is, he asks people how their spirituality helps them navigate life’s issues. This is a descriptive task rather than a prescriptive one, which can be frustrating for readers who want to know what they should think on the issue of women in the church, not merely what some women in the church actually do think.
Nonetheless, describing what some women in the church actually do think is a very helpful exercise. For one thing, it turns out that not all women think alike. Some of them are supportive of complementarianism, which is the belief that God has assigned men and women complementary gender roles, with men leading and women submitting in church, home, and society. Others are supportive of egalitarianism, which is the belief that God calls and empowers men and women equally to exercise leadership in home, church, and society. For another thing, it indicates that the question of women’s roles in the church has consequences. Another group of women, tired of the debate about gender roles and wounded by the actions of their local congregation, either drop out of church or leave the faith entirely.
Based on how Henderson arranges his material—on a high note, with women who have “re-signed” to lead—and on remarks scattered throughout the book, it is clear that his sympathies lie with the egalitarians. So do mine. But does this mean that The Resignation of Eve can be easily enlisted in the egalitarian side of the literary battle between egalitarians and complementarians?
No, and for several reasons:
First, egalitarian theology is not a guarantee of egalitarian practice. Even churches with strong beliefs in the equal calling and empowerment of men and women do not necessarily recruit, train, and deploy women in equal numbers or at equal levels of authority. Egalitarians, it turns out, need to be mores self-critical about what they actually do.
Second, while Henderson’s sympathies clearly lie with egalitarians, he does not make a sustained biblical argument for his position, nor do any of the women he interviews. I imagine that complementarian readers will note this right away. Rather than simply dismissing the book for its lack of prescriptiveness, however, complementarian readers should listen to how the practice of their theology makes at least some women feel. One story that stuck with me was that of a interviewee from a charismatic church who was disappointed that a 13-year-old boy could offer a prophecy at her church without asking anyone’s permission, but an adult woman had to ask her husband’s. Even within the boundaries of complementarian theology, do these kinds of restrictions on women make sense?
Third, egalitarianism is not first and foremost about roles but about the dignity we recognize in and the respect we extend to other people, whatever their sex. In some ways, roles at home, church, and society are the easiest things to “fix.” The heart? It’s not so easy. What comes through loudest in The Resignation of Eve is the importance of listening to women’s stories, honoring the desires God has given them to make a difference in the world, and then having enough humility not to get in their way.
P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon review page.