Beliefs Opinion Tobin Grant: Corner of Church and State

Most women belong to a religious community that prohibits them from being leaders

This graphic is not offered for republication.
This graphic is not offered for republication.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

This week, the Seventh-Day Adventists voted to continue their prohibition against women being ordained. The vote was for a middle-ground, allowing regional bodies to decide for themselves about ordination. The Seventh-Day Adventists are just one of the many religious bodies who are grappling with the question of women in ministry.

Women, on average, are more religious than men. Yet, two-thirds of religious Americans belong to a community that won’t consider women for leadership positions.

In the graph, I chart out the percent female for American churches, denominations, and religions. Nearly all of them are majority female. The ones that are not are, statistically, evenly split. No group (unless we include atheists, agnostics, and other “nones”) is majority male.

I divide the groups based on whether they generally ordain women as leaders (see note on this below). About half the groups ordain women. Friends (Quakers), Assemblies of God, Methodists, and Disciples of Christ have long had women in leadership. Others began ordaining women in latter half of the 20th Century.

While there are many denominations that ordain women, these denominations include only about a third of religious Americans. Catholics, Southern Baptists (and other baptist associations), most historically black denominations, most evangelical churches, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox Jews, and Muslims do not ordain women.

Note on classifying churches and religious groups on ordination of women

It’s tricky (if not dangerous) to discuss topics such as ordination across religious traditions. Each religious group has its own understanding of leadership, clergy, and ordination. I loosely refer to this as “ordination”, even though some churches refuse to use the term. So, my use of “ordination” is shorthand for a general pattern of allowing women to serve in top leadership roles.

Other caveats:

  • I am relying on general policy positions by groups, not actual practice. Some groups that allow women to be clergy still have relatively few women as pastors or ministers.
  • Some denominational bodies do not dictate to member congregations qualifications for clergy. But I put them in the “does not generally ordain” category if these member churches rarely if ever have women as leaders. Examples include National Baptists and Churches of Christ.
  • Similarly, Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution to prohibit women for serving as pastors or deacons. However, as with all resolutions in the SBC, it is not binding on local congregations.
  • Some groups have “ordain” women, but do not allow them to be in leadership over congregations. Jehovah’s Witnesses ordain all members of the church and do not distinguish between clergy and laity. That said, they have elders who lead congregations; these elders are men.
  • Some groups never have ordained leaders. Friends (Quakers) do not “ordain” ministers; they “record” ministers. A person who is doing ministry is recognized or recorded as being a minister. A minister is viewed as being equal in status to lay persons.
  • Ordination in some groups is used any time a person is given a position in the church. Some groups may ordain women in some capacities (e.g., as deacons/deaconesses, teachers, or missionaries) while excluding them from higher authoritative positions.

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About the author

Tobin Grant

@TobinGrant blogs for Religion News Service at Corner of Church and State, a data-driven conversation on religion and politics. He is a political science professor at Southern Illinois University and associate editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.


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  • Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Steve Hawking, Christopher Hitchens are/were great atheist thinkers.
    And, yes, they all are men. Any problems with that?

  • Polls are a ridiculous way to measure a religion- especially with regard to its deeper symbolisms.
    Our society is confused and descending into chaos where family is concerned, In the Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic Churches,etc. pastors and priests are regarded as the fathers of the community. Of course, we know that feminist besotted people want to do away with any father symbolism. No wonder our culture is a crumbling farce.

  • No one wants to do away with all father symbolism, but why can’t we have mother or other female symbolism as well.

  • One great problem we Catholics have is that our culture does not regard motherhood with the same respect as fatherhood. So we go along with turning women into mini-men to show that we respect women. But what is going on is the destruction of true feminism which is inseparable from respect for motherhood. (Just as true masculinity is inseparable from respect for fatherhood.
    While in the meanwhile we Catholics are ridiculed for our deep love and devotion to Our Blessed Mother —even being called goddess worshipers by some Christian groups who virtually want nothing to do with Mary.

  • The statement about Jehovah’s Witnesses not ordaining women above is not correct. Please reference the link for information on this topic.

    From JW: org:

    Following the model of first-century Christianity, Jehovah’s Witnesses have no clergy-laity division. All baptized members are ordained ministers and share in the preaching and teaching work. Witnesses are organized into congregations of about 100 members. Spiritually mature men in each congregation serve as “older men,” or elders.

  • distorts their view of clergy/laity. They do have a hierarchical system just like the Catholic church (see WT v Richmond cong, Ca). Their hierarchy was shown clearly in one of their more recent watchtower magazines. It is as follows:
    Ministerial Servant = deacon
    Elder = Priest
    Circuit Overseer = bishop (root word for bishop is overseer)
    District Overseer = cardinal
    Governing body member = papal position

  • The samples need to be weighted and compared using a common standard error taking into account the relative sample sizes (are there really more quakers than there are catholics in the US?). We cannot just say “more groups’ scores are above 50% of women-attendance, ergo the survey measured a real difference”. We need a measure of the magnitude of the difference between the average portion of women-members-of-religious-groups-that-prevent-women-from-holding-positions-of-leadership and the average percentage of women that attend a church that allow them to be ordained (solid operationalization of the grouping variables is key here…!). This could help control out a false positive (the survey is reporting nothing but random noise). All we can say with the graph we have here is that there are more unweighted point estimates (scores) of women attendance that are above 50%, but then again there are also a lot of subgroups that represent marginal religions.

  • Many (if not most) women also belong to churches that disapprove of abortion, too. The subtle as a sledgehammer implication of the article’s title is that women should choose not what is right, but that which gives them more license. Thank God there are many women (and men) who don’t think that way.

  • EDIT: Please disregard my question on catholics and quakers, that meant to say marginal groups appeared to have been over-represented in the samples, and hence the need for normalization.

  • Well, at least women in those traditions not open to their leadership are quite free to seek and hold leadership positions in civil organizations and politics, tho not enough are doing so.

  • Women are quite free to leave the church and take their families with them. And they do.

    Could this be a reason why there is an increase in fewer people attending church at all? The disparity between religious life and secular life for women?

  • Interesting graphics and research – thank you. Christian Scientists are completely equal by the way – they elect readers who may be male or female. And the founder is female. Not to be confused with Scientology.