In a post dated 2009 the Barna Group notes two trends. First, they note the growing acceptance of female ministers in (mostly) mainline (read liberal) denominations, e.g. the PCUSA, the ECUSA, UMC, UCC, etc. The number of female ministers has grown “substantially” in the last 10 years. Second, they note that the median attendance a typical Protestant weekend service has declined from 108 to 101 during the same period. The report draws no connections between the two but one wonders.The connection between these two facts is not a straight line. I’m not arguing that fewer people are attending because of the rise in the number of female pastors. Indeed, there doubtless many congregations who are thrilled with their female pastors. I would not be surprised to learn that there are female pastors leading growing congregations. That isn’t the point.
Rather, the connection is this: the same factors that gave rise to female pastors in the first place are the same factors that are gradually turning up the heat on the frog in the kettle (which, ironically was the title by a book by Barna way back in 1990). I recognize that there are principled “evangelical feminists,” i.e. those who affirm the inerrancy of Scripture and who genuinely believe that Scripture does not forbid special ecclesiastical office to females. I also suppose, however, that most congregations who have female pastors have no idea that there is a principled, biblical argument against ordaining females to the pastoral (or presbyterial) office. With those objections, and the biblical texts on which they were based, having been swept away churches are now free to operate as they will. The ugly truth is that the refusal by many former cultural conservatives to ordain females to special ecclesiastical was never principled or biblical in the first place. Eventually that refusal became just an embarrassment. Without any basis in biblical revelation opposition to the ordination of females was truly only bigotry.
For a long time the theory of many erstwhile non-confessionalists has been to minimize areas of tension between Christians the prevailing culture. With the rise of the modern feminist movement, this one was easy. For the pietists what matters most is religious experience. Females are just as able to facilitate religious experience as anyone else, so why not? Many non-confessionalists (both liberals and “conservatives”) share an embarrassment over Paul’s apparently misogynistic tendencies. The great quest of much of the modern church has been to become acceptable or “relevant” to the prevailing culture. It has been thus since at least the early 19th century and Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Speeches to the Cultured Despisers of Religion. Liberals did it more quickly and conservatives have done it more slowly but both have done it.
The fundamental problem with such a goal is that the Christian faith cannot be made acceptable to autonomous modern man and remain Christian. The Christian faith was “foolishness” to first century Greco-Roman culture and it remains so in modernity. That’s a good thing. There’s a clear antithesis between the Trinitarian, Christological, Reformation theology of the cross on the one hand and self-assured, man-centered, idolatry of modernity.
Ironically, as the the non-confessional majority, in its quest to become acceptable to modernity, becomes more like the surrounding culture it becomes more irrelevant. The mainline has been bleeding itself to death for decades. The evangelicals are following suit. The consequences may not be entirely evident yet but the signs are there. In Joel Osteen’s presentation of Christianity, Jesus has been shifted from way to personal fulfillment to invisibility. This study by the Barna suggests that the patient is getting weaker by the year. Barna suggests that one possible reason for the drop in the median number of worship attenders is the rise in non-traditional congregations (e.g. house churches). I’m skeptical. That sounds like whistling past the graveyard. I think there is a connection between the drop in attendance to Sunday morning worship and rise in female pastors. The latter is a symbol of the capitulation of the church to cultural pressure and the former is one of its consequences.