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.


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.

Anna Vasilchenko


Anna Vasilchenko commented…

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.

Anna Vasilchenko


Anna Vasilchenko commented…

Sarah, see my reply to Whitney.

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