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It’s easy to pay lip service to equality, but putting beliefs into practice is another matter.

Along with many friends, I have experience of church contexts where women are supposedly equal and valued, yet curiously invisible unless they’re fulfilling certain roles or of a particular age and stage of life.

Then there are churches where egalitarian theology doesn’t seem to extend to stamping out sexist comments and attitudes.

I’ve certainly noticed this lip service in churches I’ve attended, but I do know that my single friends often find it hits them particularly hard.

I know of women who, as they’ve moved through their 30s and 40s without going down the ‘expected’ route of marriage followed by babies, have felt increasingly isolated and ignored by churches that seem to revolve around married couples with children.

In these churches, it feels like a woman’s route to leadership is through her husband’s position of influence and single women are sometimes treated like a threat rather than individuals who have so much to offer.

These situations leave women feeling excluded for not conforming, or only valued if they fit a particular mold, often worried that objecting or raising an issue will see them pegged as ‘difficult’ or worse.

What so many women really want from the church here is honesty.

I’ve been a participant on a church membership course where it has suddenly, awkwardly, dawned on others in the room the church they’re looking to join doesn’t believe women can be on its leadership team – no one has ever mentioned it to them before.

I’ve asked questions about why women seem curiously invisible on a Sunday and absent from cohorts of young people being trained for leadership and listened with frustration while someone has tried to avoid giving me a straight answer.

Living in the tension of that uncertainty about where you stand is hard and can be incredibly draining – an extra layer of faith-related stress.

In the last two years the #MeToo movement has entered public consciousness – and so, too, has its Christian counterpart #ChurchToo.

As people – primarily women – have opened up about suffering abuse, churches have been rocked by the testimonies of survivors and new conversations about confronting the deep structural inequalities that enabled this abuse to take place.

More than ever, women need to know church leaders will stand against wrongdoing. We’ve seen the reports of how leaders have stayed silent to protect reputations or completely dismissed accusations.

We need to know that, in turn, they will interrogate assumptions they may have held that could lead to damaging attitudes toward women – attitudes that mean abuse can flourish and that people are unwilling to speak out about it.

At the same time as #ChurchToo, we’ve seen many women (and men) begin to talk more publicly about the way church teachings on sex and relationships have negatively affected their lives.

A generation of people raised in churches that promoted a ‘purity culture’ mindset have grown up, navigated relationships and marriages and faced the fact that things they were taught weren’t always healthy or helpful.

This has often meant extreme stereotyping about gender roles in relationships, toxic expectations on young women that placed unnecessary blame and caused deep shame and discomfort with their sexuality, and further anguish if they experienced problems in their relationships and marriages.

Churches must unpack this difficult legacy.

Times may have changed; many have abandoned shame-based teachings and restrictive stereotyping. The heyday of toxic purity culture has passed.

But damaging attitudes persist often couched in “softer” terminology that again can make them harder to spot at first.

It’s wearying and can make it hard to build trust.

I know of several women who no longer attend church, not because they have lost their faith but because of experiences echoing some of those I’ve described above or the pain they’ve felt over the treatment of women in general.

I, too, have found it difficult to find a church to call home. I hope this will change in 2020, but so much more needs to be done to welcome more women in from the margins.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in Issue 2 – 2020 of Mission Catalyst, a publication of BMS World Mission. It is used with permission.

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