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TL;DR

What Biblical justification is there for gender segregation in prayer/small groups? and has there been any study on the affect which this segregation has on the people involved?


In various churches, I often come across gender segregation in one form or another. This is even in fairly progressive churches, eg ones in university areas with large student populations. (I'm talking about the UK here. I know that progressive needs to be taken differently depending on the location. In particular, there is a significant difference between UK and US approaches to church-life.)

Perhaps the most common one of these, and the one I would like to address in this question, is to do with small groups and prayer. At one local church (the largest in the town, which is really a "university-town"), all the student small groups are completely gender segregated. In another, the small groups are mixed gender, but at the end they separate off, male and female praying separately.

I have heard the argument that "sometimes women want to speak about certain things only with another woman". I am not a woman (in any sense), so I cannot speak personally about this. However, it seems unreasonable to make that argument regarding praying in a group of up to 10 people, many of whom you may not know well. Asking to pray individually with a (fellow) woman is a completely different matter.

So my question boils down to the following.

What Biblical justification is there for such gender segregation?

Gender segregation gets a bad rap outside of churches for well-documented reasons. Further, there has been significant studies on the effects that it has on people. Searching, I was unable to find material specific to the situation I describe -- understandably; it's fairly niche.

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    This seems to me to be purely a private matter within specific communities and their own local, private, preferences depending, partly at least, on their specific population. Prayer in scripture is a household matter, then a private gathering matter.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 17 '20 at 22:07
  • Thank you, @Nigel, for your contribution. I must confess, though, that I don't really understand what you're getting at. I'm talking about separating off into groups of, say, eight people, but insisting that all are the same gender; or praying in groups of, say, five people, with the same restriction. These restrictions are placed by the church leadership, to apply to the whole church (or all the groups), not simply what the people in the specific small groups prefer. Would you mind expanding a bit more on your comment? :)
    – user24601
    Feb 17 '20 at 23:44
  • Church attendance is voluntary. If people disagree with their own leadership, they may vote with their feet. Or . . . they can choose to submit to their elders and betters.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 18 '20 at 0:16
  • @NigelJ I'm still fairly new to this stack, and interested in learning more about what questions are appropriate. I agree that the best way to get an answer to this question is to ask the leaders of the given churches. Would you say that the general question "Is there biblical basis for this?" is on topic here?
    – Korosia
    Feb 18 '20 at 9:31
  • @Korosia The tag biblical-basis says "Biblical basis" is the way in which a practice or belief is derived from Scripture. Use this tag to ask how Christians use the Bible to derive a specific belief. This would lead me to believe that such questions are on topic...?
    – user24601
    Feb 18 '20 at 10:28
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I would like to add to @Kerosia's answer, specifically his line

It's also likely that a church's decision to run same-gender groups is based on a number of factors, only one of which is a Biblical argument.

Source: I am a youth group leader in our church and we do segregate for small group and prayer. As we only have youths, @Kerosia's bible verse doesn't about the younger women learning from the older ones doesn't apply here. We have talked about it in leadership meeting and I think our thoughts is what most churches base this practice on:

The goal of small group is to grow closer to God. It is a place where we can share our struggles with sin (besides other things) and pray for them, learn from others on how they live out God's commands and ask questions about God. Ideally, the leader sets and example of this and inspires the youth to open up themselves and participate in this kind of spiritual growth. In order to get others to participate, we have to create an atmosphere where everyone trusts the others. Doing this in gender-mixed groups creates problems to this intimacy.

  1. Crushes. Young people, often in their teenage year, are especially susceptible to this (and good for them). This is strengthened by that fact that they know their parents want them to find someone christian, and this is in most cases the only christian network. If a person has a crush on someone in the group, he certainly is less willing to share his deep struggles, and often even his questions about God, because he doesn't want to say something that could make his crush like him less. Separating the groups according to gender removes this problem. Moreover, someone with a crush has most of his attention focused on this person, rather than paying attention to the discussion.

  2. Gender specific topics. Whether or not you have a crush, most guys don't want to talk about their sexuality/pornography when girls are around. Likewise, girls won't open up about their periods or crushes (I don't actually know what they talk about). Later in life this topics include wife, finances & job related problems for the men, while women focus more on motherhood & relationships. An additional, but a little less important factor is similar interests like sports, cars & machines on the guys side

  3. Missing trust. Furthermore, because of their brain structure, same-sex groups tend to think more alike and therefore to build trust more easily, not just about the gender specific topics, which is a huge factor because trust is essential for people to open up.

While problem 1 gets less important with age, problem 2 gets increasingly important, especially when married, as one often doesn't have much time to spent time with friends other than in smallgroup.

In most churches, this is not a hard rule, but it is applied when they want to facilitate trust and intimacy, for example in prayer. The basis for this is not directly biblical, but is rooted in a biblical worldview which states that the genders are different (See genesis 1) and takes into account these differences when planing the service.

As for the studies describing the effect of gender-segregation, I assume (and could be wrong) that this described the effect of complete segregation (for example girls only school). At least in our church, we encourage attendants to get to know each other all the time (we share worship, input, bible study and have time reserved for people to stay and talk after our official program). Because the gender-segregation is only the exception for the specific activities of praying and deep group discussions, I don't think described the negative effect of the studies would apply.

There is a fair argument to be made that deep group discussions don't need to be segregated because there is no trust required (at least just for the discussion), in practice however they are often related to struggle with sin (trust required) and are followed by prayer. This is why we separate deep discussions (personal) and bible study (less personal).


TL;DR

The reasons for gender-segregation are often not directly biblical based, but come from the psychological differences of the genders and how this affects trust in a group, which can be traced back to a biblical worldview.

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    – agarza
    Sep 8 '21 at 14:43
  • Overall, I think this is a really good answer! Sorry for only just seeing it now :/ -- I have to say, though, it was very rough reading this part: "Later in life this topics include wife, finances & job related problems for the men, while women focus more on motherhood & relationships." Let's shove some more gender-stereotypes down our children's throats, making sure that girls/women are repressed as much as possible, eh? ¬_¬ -- Maybe try supporting girls in careers more, not just pushing them toward motherhood? You wouldn't have written that sentence with "men" and "women" swapped, I expect
    – user24601
    Dec 15 '21 at 10:10
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Why a particular church chooses a particular practice is ultimately a question for that church's leadership, but some Christians refer to Paul's words to Titus when discussing gender groups:

Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children... Titus 2:3-4(NIV®)

and

Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness... Titus 2:6-7 (NIV®)

One interpretation of these verses is that Paul is encouraging Christians of the same gender to spend time with one another. The older women are to "teach" and "urge" the younger women, and the older women are the "encourage" and "set an example" to the younger men.

Many denominations and movements would also hold to the idea that the Apostles' words are directly from God, and therefore go beyond changes in culture. A church like this may come to conclusion that they need to create opportunities for Christians of different ages to spend time together in same-gender groups.

Different churches will come up with different 'solutions' for encouraging this to happen, and one (albeit quite brute-force) approach is to have some part of a weekly Bible Study in same-gender groups. Other churches may choose different approaches, such as informal same-gender activities, or simply allowing it to happen 'naturally' through friendships.

It's also likely that a church's decision to run same-gender groups is based on a number of factors, only one of which is a Biblical argument. For example, it may simply be the personal preferences and experience of members and leaders, some kind of 'social' argument about what people are most comfortable with (which may or may not be correct, of course), or simply a long-standing practice that no-one has really thought about. The exact details and arguments will be different for each church, and possibly even each member of an individual church (I've been at churches with same-gender studies which some members disagreed with, but not so much as to choose to leave).

Because every church will have slightly different practices, it may be difficult to do a systematic study of the effects of this gender separation that is anything more than a collection of personal opinions. I haven't been able to find anything on the subject outside of a few blog posts discussing it, and the few academic-like texts I've found tend to discuss gender separation during services.

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  • Thank you for your answer. However, it doesn't really seem to fully answer the question, or at least not in the way that I desired. For a start, small groups and prayer aren't so much about one person teaching others, but rather group learning/investigation. Further, it's quite a stretch to suggest that those passages say that teaching should be in same-gender groups.
    – user24601
    Feb 18 '20 at 10:37
  • I appreciate that when Paul was writing "times were different", and women and men were separated a lot of the time. (I'm not trying to excuse that!) Such separation isn't practised now. It seems to be just one of the many "pick and choose which things to keep" -- and another way for men, who have traditionally been in control, to keep control.
    – user24601
    Feb 18 '20 at 10:38
  • Thank for these comments, they're useful. You're right its a bit of a jump - I think I must be forgetting some of the nuance I've heard applied to these verses. Let me reflect on it and try to clarify the answer. That said, I'm not certain I see how this is pick and choosing, or a way for men to keep control. Could you clarify how you got to that?
    – Korosia
    Feb 18 '20 at 10:46
  • (a) There is a significant amount of gender segregation in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. Internet searches demonstrate better than I can in a comment; see, eg, this top result. Most of these are not continued to present-day. Some are "picked/chosen" to continue, often nefariously (in my opinion). [cont...]
    – user24601
    Feb 18 '20 at 19:49
  • (b) Traditionally it is men who have had far more control over the world than women. Many churches even forbid women in leadership! No "it's context" comment, just raw "pick+choose verses which keep me in power -- ignore all the female leaders in the Bible". If the groups separate, then all the leaders are in the group of men. This gives a huge power-dynamic: the important people + other people. Groups with power maintain power by surrounding themselves with similar people, to whom they can pass on power.
    – user24601
    Feb 18 '20 at 19:53

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