In evangelical discourse, there are several issues that you can count on to stir up a heated debate. One is the role of women in the life of the church.
Take last year’s spat over Beth Moore speaking at a church on Mother’s Day, which came up again months later with John MacArthur’s viral “go home” line. Or the more recent discussion around author Aimee Byrd and Reformed complementarians’ pushback on social media.
Yet for all the debates around gender and leadership roles, for years researchers have found less of a divide on the topic among the people in the pews. The results of a recent survey once again indicate that most evangelical Protestants are in favor of seeing women take on more prominent positions in the church.
In a survey I fielded along with political scientists Paul Djupe and Hannah Smothers back in March, 8 in 10 self-identified evangelicals said they agree with women teaching Sunday school, leading worship at church services, and preaching during women’s conferences or retreats.
Slightly fewer endorsed women preaching during church services, but 7 in 10 were in favor, according to the research, conducted by a team of political scientists in March 2020.
This new research follows an analysis of 2011 survey data I published last year, which showed that significant majorities of major Christian traditions—including Southern Baptists—would support women as pastors.
Some commentators pushed back saying both that the 2011 data was dated and that the questions weren’t explicit enough about the types of roles for women in the church. The March 2020 survey was designed to allow respondents to indicate what kinds of leadership roles they are comfortable with women taking on.
A strong majority of evangelicals, men and women alike, supported women’s involvement in each of the roles queried, though women were slightly more in favor of each.
The most universally supported role was having women teach Sunday school, with 86.9 percent in favor. The debate over whether women can lead over mixed-gender Sunday school classes has gone on for years in certain evangelical traditions, including Baptist and Presbyterian denominations. It comes up on sites like 9Marks, Reformation21, and Desiring God, often hinging on whether the Sunday school setting is analogous to a church service or not.
Women preaching on Sunday morning got the least support, with 72.8 percent. Even some churches that do not permit women to serve as lead pastors and elders at times allow women to share on Sundays as guest speakers or preachers—making a distinction to between the “special teaching” they believe to be restricted to qualified male leaders and the “general teaching,” which can be presented by any church member, male or female.
What is also surprising is how little this support for women in leadership is impacted by church attendance. A natural assumption is that more frequent attendance at an evangelical church that only permits male pastors is a sign of support for the doctrine of that faith tradition, but that’s not the case. In fact, in each of the four scenarios that were offered in the survey there was no statistical difference in support for women leaders between evangelicals who never attend services and those who indicate that they go to church multiple times a week. Three quarters of the most devout evangelicals believe that women should have a place behind the pulpit.
This finding continues to persist even when theology is taken into account. When the sample is restricted to just those who believe that the Bible is literally true, three-quarters of those who attend services multiple times a week agree with women preaching during weekend services.
However, there is an interesting pattern when age is considered. There is not a clear relationship between older evangelicals and resistance to women preaching. For instance, while 20 percent of evangelicals who are 65 or older disagree with women preaching, that drops to just 10 percent among those between the ages of 55 and 64. Another notable result is that the youngest evangelicals (those between 18 and 35) are just as likely to oppose women preaching as those in the oldest age group.
There has been evidence that support for women in leadership roles has led to some evangelical churches hiring female pastors. Barna Research found that the share of pastors that are women was 9 percent in 2017, up significantly from 3 percent in 1992. But, clearly the vast majority of evangelicals would be comfortable with this number increasing more rapidly.
The findings here are not out of step with results from the Faith Matters Survey from 2011 that found that 65 percent of Southern Baptists are supportive of women being allowed to serve as clergy. And a Barna survey of pastors found significant support among non-mainline traditions. Two-thirds of non-mainline pastors were in favor of women being deacons and nearly 40 percent supported women preaching.
Taken together, these results indicate that evangelical support for women preaching and leading is robust across gender, church attendance, theological position, and age.
Ryan P. Burge is an instructor of political science at Eastern Illinois University. His research appears on the site Religion in Public, and he tweets at @ryanburge.
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