BY RELEVANT LIFE October 30, 2012

A young woman I mentor recently emailed me asking for advice. She was frustrated. She had a class project due and her male study partner wasn’t doing his fair share of the work. When he did contribute, his ideas didn’t serve the project well. However, she refrained from making suggestions and offering solutions or taking the lead in the project, because she believed she needed to submit to his leadership.

This young woman deemed making suggestions and offering solutions as over-stepping her bounds as a woman. Although the two weren’t romantically involved, somewhere along the way, she had picked up the notion that she should defer to males–whether they were husbands or group partners.

When we met in person, I suggested that whatever her view on gender roles, whether egalitarian or complementarian or somewhere in between, she needn’t submit to her study partner. After all, he wasn’t her husband. Instead, she should be a good steward of her intellectual gifts by speaking up and using her God-given wisdom and talents. She and her study partner could cooperate by mutually deferring to one another. To do so isn’t inherently sinful, disrespectful or emasculating.

Nineteen-year-old Julie Zeilinger summed up this tendency well in her Forbes Magazine article, “Why Millenial Women Do Not Want to Lead.”

In the article, she observes: “We addressed laws and policy, but failed to acknowledge or alter the psychological factors that prohibit or encourage women to want to lead and which allow society to embrace female leaders and take them seriously.”

Despite the fact that women have made many strides in society, Zeilinger notes that her friends are still loathe to raise their hands in class or speak up when they find themselves among men. What discourages women and young girls from speaking up? Two culturally inbred pressures Zeilinger cites are the need to be perfect coupled with persistent self-doubt.

Then last March, the New York Times ran a story by Chrystia Freeland called, “Cultural Constraints on Women Leaders.” In this article, Freeland highlights the research of Soo Min Toh and Geoffrey Leonardelli, two professors in the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. These two professors suggest another reason that women are held back in their leadership efforts: “tight” cultures. As Freeland summarizes it:

…women are held back by ‘tight’ cultures and can emerge more easily as leaders in ‘loose’ cultures. ‘Tight’ cultures are ones that have clear, rigid rules about how people should behave and impose tough sanctions on those who color outside the lines…. Loose cultures, by contrast, do not have clear norms and are more tolerant of deviation from the rules. 

But even in otherwise loose cultures, women subjected to “centuries of sexism” exhibit “self-imposed stereotypes.” According to Toh and Leonardelli, this means that women sometimes prefer to defer the leadership role to men in the group, despite possessing the abilities to lead themselves.

If this is the case in broader society, the situation is exacerbated in the church. Some Christian environments are very “tight” cultures.

No doubt there are Christians who vehemently disagree with Zeilinger, Toh, Leonardelli and each other on the extent to which women are permitted to lead in the church and in society. Yet at the least, I hope that Christians can agree that we need to address the psychological factors and bad theologies that pressure Christian women like my young student to categorically submit to men.

Growing up, I attended a little country church. My pastor never once preached a sermon on gender roles. It wasn’t a topic of conversation. It was only when I attended a conservative Christian college that I grappled with a foreign concept: Some of my brothers and sisters believed women should defer, or submit to men—even outside of marriage.

If we are to entertain this idea, we must consider its implications. If women should categorically submit to men, does this mean women are barred from becoming school principals, professors or the President of the United States? What should, then, be the role of women who stand in leadership roles in the academy, nonprofits, government and the business world?

Is it accurate to equate speaking up in mixed company with a refusal to submit to men, and a transgression of God’s will?

I would suggest that such thinking is harmful to the body of Christ and society at large. It’s bad theology and it’s bad practice. God has given us all spiritual gifts and natural abilities to steward—not to do so is to act unfaithfully by burying our talents.

Dr. Russell Moore, of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a school renowned for its complementarian views, agrees. In his view, women are far too submissive to men, out of a misunderstanding of what submission really is. He writes: “In the Bible, it is not that women, generally, are to submit to men, generally. Instead, ‘wives’ are to submit ‘to your own husbands’ (1 Pet. 3:1). Too often in our culture, women and girls are pressured to submit to men, as a category.”

There’s plenty of data from the business world, for example, demonstrating that having women in leadership increases profitability, morale, and overall organizational success. Why not think that comparable results occur in other spheres? When anyone—men or women—pool their gifts and talents together and put them toward honorable use, good things tend to happen.

No matter where any of us land on the complementarian/egalitarian spectrum, we should encourage Christian women and girls to raise their hands, speak up and contribute in meetings, classes, church or any other context where men and women are present. Our lives and our world will be the better for it. That’s being countercultural in a good way—and also being faithful.


3 thoughts on “Why Women Don't Speak Up

  1. The author seems to posses this disturbing notion that in marriage women should submit to men. I’m sorry, but the 1920s are calling and they want their sexism back. Marriage shouldn’t be about submission and power, it should be about mutual partnership and respect. The bible teaches us to love each other and to treat others the way we would like to be treated. If you’re so power thirsty and want people to submit to you, go first and submit to others. Honesty, I’m dissppinted in Relevant for featuring this article. Some churches need to grow up and realize that God doesn’t hate feminism, but that he does hate sexism and racism.

  2. Just like Jarod Marshall said, You have to look through cultural glasses. Why is it that people like you can read about the passages concerning the relationship between a master and a slave with a cultural filter but cant do the same for passages concerning marriage? Why don’t you believe that slavery is justified by the bible? Ill tell you why. You look at those passages with a cultural filter that allows you to understand that when the bible was written slavery was an established and accepted institution, and the writers of the old and new testament were specifically talking to that sort of generation and society. But since (thankfully) slavery is now abolished, we don’t act upon those verses. Don’t get me wrong, verses concerning slavery, though uncomfortable, are enlightening when you look at them IN CONTEXT with the times and society. They are the keys to understanding the nature and personalities of those writes, but they are instructions. This same sort of logic applies to the verses that are considered sexist in today’s measures. You point out the verse about the husband being the “head” of the family and how the wife should submit. Why? Why would the bible say something like that? Well, gaining some cultural knowledge, you would realize that women in that era had no political or legal rights so it would make sense for the husband to protect his wife by being the decision maker. When Peter wrote that verse, the big shocker wasn’t that women should submit, but it was that like you said, “men should love their wives unto death.” Men in that age and cultural looked down upon women as property so this would’ve been a different perspective for them for sure. Now that women have equal political and legal rights as men, they do not need to be protected by the “head” of the house since they are able to do everything the husband is. You and your husband can have whatever dynamic in your relationship you want, but you can’t expect all relationships to have one definite leader and one definite follower like yours. You can’t place the full responsibility on all men to be leaders. Not all men have the skills and the desires to lead and that’s perfectly fine. Some do. Some don’t. The same thing goes for women. You can’t fit life into little perfect boxes saying: all women are like this; all men are like this; whites are like this; blacks are like this, etc. Life is messy and all I’m saying is that it absolutely frustrates me that the same people who have the wisdom to look at verses concerning slavery with a cultural filter, can’t do the same thing with the verses concerning marriage.

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