In last month’s hearing defending the U.S. Department of Education’s massively slashed budget, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) she doesn’t think the department’s practice of publicly listing schools that have filed for a religious exemption from the Title IX nondiscrimination law is “a necessary thing, and it’s something I will certainly look into.”
Christian universities are a sizable business in the United States — the National Center for Education Statistics counts nearly 600 Christian colleges and universities nationally. Title IX makes it illegal for schools to discriminate on the basis of sex, but private institutions can apply for an exemption from parts of the law they claim conflict with their religious beliefs. Some Christian schools filed for exemptions from Title IX immediately after it was passed in 1972 because they claimed it conflicted with their religious beliefs, while others simply stopped accepting federal funding in order to avoid forced compliance.
Many more schools filed for exemptions following the Obama administration’s guidance that clarified Title IX protection of transgender students — guidance that has been rolled back under the Trump administration. And while additional schools seek religious exemptions from nondiscrimination laws, particularly on beliefs around LGBTQ individuals, entrenched beliefs at many institutions regarding female leadership persist.
Shortly after starting my freshman year a Christian college in 2011, I realized that female leadership in religious services was almost nonexistent. In the 385 chapels I was required to attend during undergrad, I never saw a woman lead worship, and only rarely did a woman lead prayer or deliver the sermon. This disparity did not represent a lack of female students on campus: The student body of my alma mater is 57 percent female.
I briefly thought about trying to fight this lack of leadership. The closest I came to action was writing an extremely passive-aggressive column blaming the Christian idea of female submission for the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey. It sparked a few angry letters (thanks for writing in Dad!), but no real change.
After graduating, I was curious if other students shared my confusion over the school’s rules, so I did what any fairly recent college graduate would and conducted an informal survey of my former peers. Of 203 recent graduates who responded, only 10 percent said they were aware of any rules that existed regarding female participation in chapel. Most believed there was some policy about giving preferential treatment to men in religious leadership positions (although they could not name the policy), but 78 percent said they did not think these prohibitions should be in place. Only 33 percent said they would fight these policies if they did in fact exist.
In the comments, students offered several theories for why women do not lead religious services on campus. Some claimed the university was only reflecting broader national trends of male-dominated leadership. Others said the conservative religious upbringing of students prevented them from supporting female leadership. One claimed women “self selected” to participate in other activities.
Conflicted beliefs over female leadership is a common theme at Christian universities across the country. Until recently, Oral Roberts University required women to adhere to an earlier curfew time then men (because men might need to drop women off after a date). Cedarville University does not allow female Bible professors to teach male students. Grove City College challenged application of Title IX in a case that made its way to the Supreme Court and eventually stopped accepting federal student aid to avoid having to follow the law.
In a different informal survey, I widened my scope outside my own alma mater. In a poll of students from 11 Christian universities, nearly half of the 27 respondents also thought the university they attended had a policy regarding women in leadership: Students from Grove City College and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary said they believed schools had policies in place prohibiting women from certain leadership roles — and that they personally supported these rules. A representative from Grove City College said they had no such rules, and a representative from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary responded that they “affirm the clear biblical pattern of male leadership in the church and home while also believing that God gifts both men and women for service in the church.”
In the comments, many participants in the survey noted that while they weren’t aware of official policies, there were clearly “implied” and “unspoken, understood rules.” While overt rules may not be the norm on many campuses anymore, the culture remains — and pressure to maintain “traditional gender roles” can come from many places.
Claudia Peterson, who graduated from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 2017, said that at Calvin, gender inequality stemmed from the students, not the institution.
“Calvin make[s] it clear that they welcome and encourage women to participate in leadership within Calvin's community,” Peterson said. “ … I know [women] who believe that the fight for equality is over and we should stop making life hard for … men.”
Lisa Igram, Associate Dean of Spiritual Life at Biola University, a Christian university in La Mirada, Calif., said she actively tries to include women in the eight or nine chapel services she helps put on each week. She said she is unaware of any official policy regarding female leadership the university has proscribed but that many professors teach this kind of theology in the classroom.
In the survey mentioned above, a Biola student echoed this: “There’s an understated tone that women should not have as much power or authority as men,” the student wrote. “Our university has never come out and said that women have lesser roles than men — it’s implied.”
But Igram thinks these differing viewpoints are crucial to the university’s success.
“There are definitely more conservative opinions at the university,” Igram said. “But it’s a liberal arts institution, and so … it’s important for us to expose students so that they themselves can think critically through things. I think that as a university we should be offering different viewpoints. I don’t find it frustrating. I think it’s part of our educational duty.”
Jan Meyer, Dean of Leadership Development and former Director of Spiritual Formation at Abilene Christian University, said a policy that prohibited women from leading worship, reading Scripture, praying, and other leadership duties, was officially done away with three or four years ago.
“As a university, we want to encourage all students to participate in meaningful ways in spiritual formation activities, using the gifts and interests God has given them,” Meyer said. “We’ve used those who have stepped up to lead in chapel. Our a cappella worship leaders may tend to be all or mostly male because that's the practice of the churches that have formed them.”
Abbey Moses, executive president of the ACU Students’ Association for the 2016-2017 year, said she’s concerned the school is striving to look more “liberal” when prospective students are on campus by making sure women are in visible leadership positions: “That’s difficult for me to see as a student,” she said. “There are definitely ways we’re being used.”
Meyer says "hidden policies" do not exist, but that the university is purposefully seeking to promote diversity.
"We are especially aware of the challenges of our more diverse campus when we have a lot of visitors on campus," Meyer said. "We often ask ourselves if the programming, the praise team, and the speaker on a particular day reflects the diversity of our campus community. Some days we can say yes, some days we know we cannot say yes to that question. We continue to ask so that we continue to seek to be able to answer yes."
The complex approach ACU, and many other Christian universities, have taken toward female leadership reflects a struggle to bridge the gap between donors, students, religious traditions, and government money. It’s a struggle that’s far from over. SB 1146, signed into law in California last fall, requires private universities to publicly disclose if they have exemptions from anti-discrimination laws — something that’s recently come to the fore amid LGBTQ debates. Universities, including ACU, are beginning to put measures in place to legally safeguard themselves while maintaining their spiritual values.
When it comes to issues of gender equality on Christian campuses, many point fingers at out-of-date policies, whether explicit or ingrained. But it’s worth noting the many factors at play — from donors, boards of trustees, denominational support, student and parent associations, the federal government, and indeed, interpretations of the biblical text.
One ACU student who asked to remain anonymous reached out to me to express her belief that women should not be included in leadership roles in chapel and her confusion regarding the school’s official policy. When I explained to her that there was no official policy, she referenced a parable Jesus told in the gospels about the impossibility of serving two masters.
“I really hope they have not lost sight of what chapel is about in their attempt to meet various preferences," she said. “You can’t please God and men.”