When Anne Graham Lotz was a girl, she went on a 14-mile hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains with a friend. Eventually, they found themselves lost in a laurel thicket, unsure of the way home. “Laurel thickets can cover the side of a mountain, and you’re dense in thicket,” Lotz told CT. “You can’t see up, out, either side.” Fortunately, her friend had packed a compass, and with that compass, they were able to set their course for north and find their way out of the laurel thicket. “We got back to the trail that we had lost, and got to where we needed to be,” Lotz said, “and we were fine.”
Lotz compares that experience to how she approaches Bible reading each and every day. “When I get up in the morning and spend time with the Lord, it’s like setting my compass, so that regardless of which way I’m turned during the day, the needle turns north,” Lotz said. “My thoughts, my attention, they’re centered on the Lord.
Women Lead in Scripture Engagement
Lotz’s commitment to daily time in the Word reflects the Bible engagement habits of many American women. The Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study reports that among evangelical Protestants, 66 percent of women read Scripture at least once a week, compared to 58 percent of men. While these Bible-reading habits may involve engaging with Scripture during a church service or midweek Bible study, women also outpace men when it comes to engaging with Scripture outside of church. According to the 2017 Baylor Religion Survey, 36 percent of Christian women spend weekly or daily time alone reading the Bible, compared to 29 percent of Christian men.
The 2020 State of the Bible survey, commissioned by the American Bible Society (ABS) and conducted by Barna, also finds that “women are more Scripture engaged than men.” It reports that more than half of American women (52%) are “Bible friendly,” “Bible engaged,” or “Bible centered,” compared to 47 percent of American men. The researchers used the term “Bible friendly” to describe those who “interact with the Bible consistently” and may consider it “a source of spiritual insight and wisdom.” The term “Bible engaged” described those who “interact with the Bible frequently … transforming their relationship with God and others.” Finally, “Bible centered” described those whose frequent interaction with Scripture transformed not just their relationships but also their choices.
The ABS report also notes that African Americans “are more Scripture engaged than other racial or ethnic groups.” Among black Christians, Pew reports a similar gender difference: 64 percent of black Christian women read the Bible at least once a week, compared to 56 percent of black Christian men.
So why are women leading in the area of Bible engagement? While the studies from Pew and the American Bible Society do not directly address the definitive cause of these findings, other research, bolstered by observations from key female Bible study authors, points toward possible sociological, cultural, and ecclesial reasons.
Differences in Reading Habits
“More women read, for one thing,” said Sandra Glahn, a Dallas Theological Seminary professor and Bible study author, when asked about the elevated rate of Bible engagement among women. “We’ve known that for a long time. There are lots of theories as to why, but more women are buying books of any kind.”
Generally speaking, women and girls do tend to read more than men and boys. According to “Gender Differences in Reading and Writing Achievement” in American Psychologist, females read more than males in almost every developed country. From girlhood, females also read more thoroughly and have greater reading comprehension than males. Although most gender differences in cognitive abilities are considered small, trivial, or statistically insignificant, the difference in reading achievement “exceeds the threshold for non-trivial gender-difference effect sizes.” In simpler terms, the differences in language and reading between men and women are large enough to be significant and meaningful. Habits of frequent and thorough reading that women bring to other texts are likely an influential factor in women’s Scripture engagement.
Although some business experts suggest that flexible work schedules are the future of employment for both men and women, women have long prioritized flexibility in order to balance work and family life. Jackie Hill Perry, author of Gay Girl, Good God and a recent LifeWay Bible study on the Book of Jude, said, “It isn’t that women have more time—but I think women have more time at home.” Whether women are working from home or homeschooling, Perry believes this time at home and flexibility in daily schedule provides some women with more opportunities to dig into the Scriptures.
Jennie Allen, founder of IF:Gathering and author of the book and Bible study Get Out of Your Head, also said women’s leadership in Bible engagement likely has to do with having “margin” during the day. “A lot of women I know did a ‘Mother’s Day Out,’ ” Allen said. “They would take their kids to Bible study, they would go for three hours, and they would [study the Bible].”
Of course, not all women choose or have the option to work from home. Lotz, commenting about women’s commitment to Bible study in earlier eras, said, “One reason was because women seemed to have more at-home time . . . and men were working outside the home. That’s not true anymore, because I guess there’s as many women who work outside the home as men.” Indeed, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that as of 2014, about 6 in 10 women age 16 or older worked outside the home (57%) compared to 43 percent in 1970 and 34 percent in 1950. In 1900, just 6 percent of married women worked outside the home. For women today without significant flexibility or margin in their work schedules, other factors may drive them to prioritize spending time in Bible reading and study.
Limited Leadership and Ministry Opportunities
Christine Caine, founder of the A21 Campaign and Propel Women, posits another reason American women are so highly committed to Bible reading and study: “Is it because there are not opportunities for women to serve widely within a local church context?”
In its Christian Women Today study (2012), the Barna Group referred to women as “the backbone of U.S. Christian churches.” Yet it found that while many women were satisfied with their opportunities for ministry and leadership, a notable portion was not. “About three out of 10 churchgoing women (31%) say they are resigned to low expectations when it comes to church. One fifth feel under-utilized (20%). One sixth say their opportunities at church are limited by their gender (16%). Roughly one out of every eight women feel under-appreciated by their church (13%) and one out of nine believe they are taken for granted (11%).” The Barna report notes that although these numbers may seem low, they amount to millions of women who feel underutilized by their local church.
The limited leadership and ministry opportunities that some women encounter in their congregations can drive them to look for other ways to serve and to exercise their spiritual giftedness. Bible study is one arena where opportunities abound. Caine remarked on the difference between her home country of Australia and the popularity and prevalence of Bible study resources authored by women in America. “In Australia it’s the exact opposite,” Caine said. She believes that if women were given more opportunities to use their spiritual and communication gifts in the local church, it might not “occur to us to write a Bible study unless we’d been to seminary.”
Women Succeed as Prolific Bible Study Authors
In addition to outpacing men in frequency of Bible engagement, women Bible study authors regularly lead or feature in the best-seller lists of Christian publishing houses. LifeWay, for example, lists Bible study authors Beth Moore, Priscilla Shirer, Kelly Minter, Lysa TerKeurst, Jen Wilkin, Angie Smith, and Lisa Harper among their top-selling writers.
Minter, author of LifeWay’s recent Bible study Finding God Faithful: A Study on the Life of Joseph, said the success and visibility of female Bible study authors spurred her own desire to write Bible studies. “It started with Kay Arthur, then Beth Moore and Priscilla Shirer—Bible studies for women really broke into the mainstream. People were traveling to go hear these people speak, going to the store to buy their books, going to Amazon to buy their studies,” Minter said. “I didn’t even know Beth Moore, but Beth Moore taught me how to write Bible studies, and so did Kay Arthur.” Minter noted that even as a middle school student, she was diving into Scripture using Arthur’s Bible studies.
Jennie Allen suggested the popularity of female Bible study authors could be due, in part, to supply and demand. She observed that women may be more likely to use study resources, while men may approach Bible engagement in a different way. Allen said, “When I think of the guys getting together for church, they go for coffee from six to seven [in the morning] and they share life together. They catch up and they hold each other accountable. I think of my husband over the years [and] what he’s been [involved] in; it’s like, ‘Let’s study Romans 8 over the course of a semester with 10 guys.’ They just each take a verse and they talk about it—it’s so different.”
Allen also argues that women who may be primarily taught by men in their local congregations crave the voices and perspectives of female leaders and want those voices in their lives. She observed, “A way was made for women’s Bible study and for women’s equipping—because most Sundays and Wednesday nights were male teachers.”
For some female authors, writing a Bible study was not the driving goal. Kay Arthur, founder of Precept and one of the most prolific Bible study authors and teachers in the world, said, “I never aspired to anything that I am, except to be a woman of God. I’ve never aspired to writing Bible studies. I never aspired to being a speaker. I never dreamed in my life that I would write a book. I never thought about starting a ministry. I simply did what God set before me, one step at a time through his opened doors.”
Regarding women’s higher degrees of Bible engagement, Arthur said, “I can’t tell you why,” but she recounted how her own path to Bible study teaching and authorship arose from a felt need as she was teaching teenagers in Mexico and then in the United States. Arthur cited one of her favorite verses, Psalm 119:102, which reads, “I have not turned aside from Your ordinances, for You Yourself have taught me” (NASB). Arthur says her Bible studies arose out of “a passion for people to discover God’s truth for themselves by learning how to study inductively.”
The Transformative Power of the Word
Like Arthur, many of the best-known women Bible teachers are hesitant to guess why women devote more time to reading Scripture than men. But they know why they are passionate about it: They attest to how committed time in Scripture has changed their own lives and serves as the foundation of their relationship with God.
“I don’t think you can know God as he is apart from the Word,” Lotz said. “You can get glimpses of him, perhaps. You can know about him, see reflections of him—but he has revealed himself accurately through the written Word, the living Word.” She continued, “I don’t want to know God the way some people say he may be, or some people think he is or is not. I want to know him as he is. And if there is a God in the universe, then I want to know the names he calls himself. I want to know how he’s revealed himself. I don’t want to know him secondhand, or through hearsay.”
“Scripture does not return void,” said Denver Seminary faculty member Angie Ward, citing Isaiah 55:11. Ward, the author of I Am A Leader: When Women Discover the Joy of Their Calling, notes the importance of immersing oneself in Scripture to know God deeply rather than merely to acquire knowledge. “Information alone doesn’t equal transformation,” Ward said. “There’s definitely power in Scripture, but it’s in letting it soak into our lives” and experiencing transformation “through that working of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works through Scripture.”
Perry says the Word transformed her life by teaching her who Jesus really is. “Apart from the Scriptures, I wouldn’t have any framework of … who he is, why he’s to be trusted, and how out of that trust how my life should look,” she said. “The Scriptures have provided evidence for faith, reason to believe, fuel for faith—but also a really clear understanding of why I exist, what I’m supposed to be doing in this life. . . . Apart from [the Scriptures], I would still be the same person [I was before I became a Christian].”
Each of the Bible study authors and teachers interviewed for this article is passionate about how the Word of God can transform the lives of those who encounter it. All of them urged every Christian to make it a daily practice to read and study the Word. “Stop calling it a quiet time,” argued Glahn. After all, not all women have the ability or the margin to create an ideal, quiet setting for biblical study and reflection. We need not wait for the perfect time or place; the transformative power of the Word is very near. As Saint Augustine said, all we must do is “Take up and read. Take up and read.”
Halee Gray Scott, PhD, is an author, radio show host, and social researcher whose focus is ministry issues in the 21st century. She is the director of the Young Adult Initiative at Denver Seminary.
This article is part of “Why Women Love the Bible,” CT’s special issue spotlighting women’s voices on the topic of Scripture engagement. You can download a free pdf of the issue or order print copies for yourself at MoreCT.com/special-issue.
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