Why Women Don't Speak Up

With both candidates desperate to claim women's votes, it's time we evaluated where that female voice is in the Church.

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.

God has given us all spiritual gifts and natural abilities to steward—not to do so is to act unfaithfully by burying our talents.

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.

When anyone—men or women—pool their gifts and talents together and put them toward honorable use, good things tend to happen.

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?

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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.

Top Comments

Joh Sn


Joh Sn commented…

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.



Guest commented…

Chris, the letters of Paul were written to address specific problems in a specific population in a specific cultural/historical context. When we take the word of God and apply it to our lives, we are interpreting it. We need to interpret with knowledge of what the passage meant in the original context, an understanding of what principles to use in applying the message to our lives today, and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and Christian community. Often times biblical interpretation is difficult, which is why there can be many different views on certain issues among Christians.

I strongly disagree that the way you are interpreting these passages is the "right way" to read this and that any other understanding must be unbiblical. For example, if you interpret these passages as you have done, then how do you explain the fact that there were many important women leaders in the early church? Or for example, in 1 Corinthians 11, which you quoted from, it also says in v. 5 that women should cover their head when they prophesy. So how can Paul both command women to cover their head while prophesying but also not to speak?

I'm just saying that you should consider the complexity of applying the Bible to our lives today. I disagree with your assumption that people who have a different view than you are giving in to culture rather than following the word of God. What scripture says is always filtered through the lens of interpretation, even a "literal" interpretation of the text is still an interpretation and it is not always a correct interpretation, since not every single thing in the Bible is meant to be taken literally but needs to be interpreted with the genre and original context in mind. This isn't about being "relevant" by compromising our belief in the word of God - it is about striving to interpret scripture correctly by talking about these issues and working to better understand the Bible and how to best apply it to our lives today.



Gerin commented…

Good comment Whitney.

I think it is pretty easy to see the wisdom of God's ordering of marriage. Marriage can't be a democracy because there are only 2 votes and what would happenin a tie? So God tells women "submit to your husband" and he tells husbands "vote the way that is best for your wife". Thisresolves ties so that the marriage can stay united (Friday Night Lights has a good example of this playing out in a marriage).Men will ultimately be held accountable for whether or not they used their God given authority to love their wives.

Chris Callan


Chris Callan commented…

Guest,Thanks for the thoughtful response. I think you make some good points, such as that not all Scripture is cut-and-dry, and requires us as believers to interpret in the context of all of the Bible. That can definitely be tough at times, and certainly leads tod differing opinions ... as we see in our immediate discussion.

Personally, I do not see the passages that I referenced in my original post as needing "interpretation". The instructions there are pretty straightforward. Paul says women are to submit to their husbands, and not to speak in church. These aren't my words, but Paul's as inspired by God.This does not say they are to be required to do this in all arenas of their life, but those specifically mentioned.Was this instruction meant specifically to the women at Corinth, and did not apply to any other women? I don't think so.Paul is not the only one to teach these principles, and Corinth was not the only recipient of them. See 1 Peter 3.Rather, I think it is a teaching that has just fallen by the wayside.If anyone feels differently, please feel free to support it Scripturally.

I firmly believe the Bible is God's Word, that it is divinely inspired, and that He has a purpose for every word in it. I don't think it should be treated as a collection of suggested guidelines, that we can accept or reject as we like. Yes, there are often numerous "takes" on a single passage, often times that are quite different, but I don't think that means God is giving us multiple choices and we pick which one we like.

So often a teaching in Scripture becomes less popular and more inconvenient by cultural standards, and many Christians develop "work arounds" to them. It becomes a very slippery slope. This mentality has saturated Christian circles, and I feel is the cause for many of problems we face today. The sanctity of marriage, for example. So many Christians now treat the commands given on marriageas optional, and not binding. When the going gets rough, so many just bail. It's certainly accepted by society. After all, God wants us all to be happy, right? Of course, but He also wants us to be obedient. Today, divorce rates among Christians now rival that of secular marriages.

This kneading of Scripture is also quite evident in how Christians are dealing with homosexuality today.

Like I said in my initial post, these principles are not main-stream today. I know that, and realize that I'll probably get blasted for my "antiquated, narrow-minded and legalistic" comments.I'm not arrogant enough to think that I have it all right, in all cases. That's why I think it is good for believer to discuss these sort of things, challenge each other, etc. If I can be shown from Scripture, NOT society, that I'm off base on something, then I will examine my belief system and adjust it accordingly.But my goal is to follow and promote the standards that I think God has laid out for us in His Word, regardless of if they win a popularity contest or not.



Gerin commented…

@4397541d635ef36a81fd9efcaddf3e97:disqus, you should not always assume that the most 'literal' reading of Scripture is the most faithful reading, or the reading that honors God the most. It is not honoring to the Scripture or to God (or to anyone else you listen to) to over-simplify their arguments based on one quote.
There were definitely some unusual and powerful cultural abuses in Corinth, so it would be over-simplistic not to recognize that those played in. Romans 16 describes at least 2 women who were in some kind of church leadership, and we know that women serving as deacons was widespread in the early church. That doesn't mean that 1 Cor 11, 14 are invalid... only that you should go the extra mile to understanding thecontext and the principles that were at play in those passages and translate those to today.

Chris Callan


Chris Callan commented…

I think this is right on target Gerin. Ultimately there has to be a leader, or "tie breaker", and Scripture says that is to be the husband. But that comes with a lot of responsibility.

There have been a numerous times in my marriage when my wife and I have disagreed on an issue. Most of the time we discuss it, and can come to a mutual agreement. Case closed.

However, there have been a few times when the difference could not be reconciled. In those cases, my wife defers to me. But now it is my job as husband to make SURE my position is sound. To completely ignore my wife in such cases would be foolish, and a sin. She is a strong, intelligent, Godly woman, and I have to be sure to consider her opinion HEAVILY in the ultimate decision. If I don't, and get it wrong, then I have failed as the leader.

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